At this point, it’s probably worth mentioning that calling these behemoths supermotos is rather stretching things, though some people will do it anyway. Actually, in the main they are about as likely to go off road as the average Range Rover, but now we’re just being pedantic.
There’s a but, though.
Sure, these bikes are good. Very good, even. But they’re also big. You might even say very big. We’re back, in fact, to our Range Rover analogy again. Obviously you’re still only using up a motorbike sized patch of ground, but if you are slightly short of leg then you’re going to struggle. And they’re heavy, too. Not ridiculously so, but a lot of that weight is very high up and when it starts to go…
But more on that later. For now, it’s time to take a look at the latest entrant to enter the arena.
Erik Buell made his name turning heavy, primitive, evil handling Harley Davidson racers into slightly less heavy, mechanically primitive but very fine handling Buell racers. He’s a truly gifted engineer, well able to see alternative ways of doing things that people simply haven’t tried before dismissing outright. And more often than not, they work. His bikes are a fascinating blend of ancient and modern; the prehistoric Harley Davidson motor and gearbox being mounted in a chassis bristling with high-tech innovations. And the results are a revelation. But his real area of expertise is making small, incredibly agile sportsters – either full blown clipons and rearsets jobs or slightly more relaxed but even more bonkers roadsters. And with one frame and overall layout shared between different models, you’d think that a trailie would be out of the question.
You’d be mistaken.
First of all, it’s important to note that last year Buell recognised that some people who were, how shall we say, slightly less svelte than the rest of us, struggled a bit to contort themselves onto a tiny motorbike. And remember that Buells are built in the USA, where people aren’t exactly renowned for being small. Anyway, the long and the short of it was that Buell released a stretched version of the naked Lightning, with a bigger fuel capacity and rather more room from butt to bars. And a stretched bike gives far more scope for making it taller as well without looking like something from the end of an old movie in Panavision ®… And so the Ulysses was born.
So what do we have? Well, in essence, it’s an XB12Ss with longer suspenders and a bit of a styling nod to offroad riding. Same frame, engine, gearbox and airbox arrangement, so the fuel lives in the frame while the airbox is where the tank would normally be. Same sized wheels, same ZTF front brake, same belt drive, more on which in a moment. The swingarm contains the oil reservoir, as usual, while the exhaust runs longitudinally under the engine as with all Buells. The suspension, as well as gaining an extra 45mm movement at the front and 37mm at the back, gets an extremely useful remote preload adjuster as well as significantly different spring rates from the Ulysses’ more tarmac biased siblings. Tyres, of course, are completely different with bespoke Dunlop rubber carrying a very chunky dual purpose tread pattern.
Now I'm a big fan of belt drive as it's clean, quiet and maintenance free, as well as being a spectacularly efficient way of converting noise to forward motion. But they're a little vulnerable on bikes. There have been a fair few cases of belts snapping after they have been damaged by stones. A small stone gets caught between the teeth on the belt and then gets forced into the belt as it reaches the pulley, wedging between the plies and splitting the belt. Not good. Buell have addressed this issue, working with Goodyear, and come up with a belt that simply ejects the stone instead. How? I don't know. But I do know that they routinely run belts on a test rig for the equivalent of 20,000 miles, firing small pebbles into them to try to cause a failure. And none have gone yet.
The engine remains essentially unmodified, though, in common with the other 1200 Buells, there is a new "InterActive" exhaust which is claimed to offer a broader spread of torque and power by using an electric valve inside the system to change the gasflow. Sound familiar? Yes, we thought so too, but hey - if it works then why not?
Styling is, um, different. It’s fair to say that I have yet to see a bike in this class that I would actually call pretty. Or even, to be fair, that I would really feel bad about calling ugly. The Buell continues this trend, with a look that is best described, I’d say, as functional. The off road bias demands a high front mudguard in the now established ostrich beak style. twin headlights (mercifully symmetrical) peer out from behind a set of ‘roo bars while the small top fairing has a snap-on screen which again fits in with the general style of the type. Hand guards are fitted, of course. The seat is wide and plush, with an extremely clever three position rear carrier. If you’re travelling solo, fold the carrier down over the pillion seat to give you a luggage rack that’s much closer to the centre of gravity. If you have a pillion then you can fold the rack so that it stands up to provide a backrest or so that it’s flat behind the seat to secure luggage. Very neat, very effective and utterly usable.
Now one thing I have mentioned before but bears mentioning again. This bike is enormous, at least in height. So if you’ve strapped a big bag on behind you, that’s quite useful to remember before you try to swing your leg over… Just a thought.
So. Enough background, let’s actually get on and ride.
Starting is the familiar Buell ritual – turn the key (by the side of the headlight), wait for the little red light to go off on the panel and thumb the starter. The Ulysses starts easily and settles down to a lumpy but stable tickover. After donning oxygen for the climb up to the saddle, getting settled in is fairly easy. As is usual with a Buell, the controls all fall readily to hand and the instrumentation is uncluttered and straightforward. There is a 12v power outlet on the left of the fairing, should you want to power a GPS or similar, and a vast range of Buell goodies will shortly be launched to facilitate this further. One thing to be aware of, though, is that the clutch lever is a very long reach and is not adjustable. Actually, the strange thing is that the lever is no further from the bars than any other Buell, but the slightly different angle it’s approached from makes it seem like a real stretch. And it isn’t adjustable – an opportunity for an aftermarket part if ever there was one.The gearbox is, if you’ve ever ridden anything with Harley Davidson or Buell written on it, a revelation. If this is your first time then you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about. But yes, this is a Buell with a decent gearshift. It is possible to ride in soft shoes (not recommended) and not get crushed toes. For the first time, it feels as though the lever is attached to a piece of precision assembly rather than just stuck into a box of bits that has had the top bolted down. Clutchless shifts are at last a possibility, as are more prosaic but probably more useful things. Like engaging first without the almighty clunk making everyone stare at you.
Something the Ulysses isn’t short of is power. Slip the clutch a little over-enthusiastically and you’ll be monowheeling before you know it. If you’re so inclined, the new box allows you to snick into second and keep it up there as well. But more importantly, there’s ample grunt to drive out of corners and to rapidly reach a rather naughty comfortable cruising speed.
Talking of breezes, the fairing, while not exactly pretty, does a great job of protecting the rider from the worst of the elements. The screen, while looking pretty much the same as all the others in the class, has a great and extremely neat feature. It comes off. Easily. So it’s a doddle to clean, even with the little aerodynamic nooks and crannies that are de rigeur with bikes like this. The handguards do exactly what you’d expect while the seat, for all its cleverness, is actually very good and comfortable, both solo and two up.
The final frontier, so to speak, is taking a leviathan like this off road. Now I’m going to be doing that rather more later in the year but as a total greenhorn in the offroad department, all I can say is that the Ulysses is very big, rather bulky and a little keen off the clutch to be a truly relaxing experience for a novice. But it handled a few miles of green lanes well enough and proved not to be short of ability when things got wet and sticky. Indeed, the limiting factor was the rider, not the bike, though I suspect that if things got really rough then the underslung exhaust might prove a little vulnerable. I’d have fallen off way before then, though.
So, to sum up. The Buell Ulysses is not the best in its class, but it’s up the with all the others. It has some brilliant features and it is refreshingly different. It also sounds great, it’s as comfortable as a very comfortable thing and it sips fuel like an old lady sips sherry at the vicarage tea party.