WHEN THE EUROPEAN borders come down, one of the biggest plus points for the
British biker is that machines currently available on the Continent but not here
will suddenly come within reach. Among the tastiest of this year's forbidden
fruit is the Gilera RC600, which never came even close to being imported by
Heron — but which in 1993 could be yours for little more than its price in
French francs and the cost of a ticket through the Chunnel.
The RC600 is the latest version of the Milan firm's tough-as-teak
single-cylinder trail bike. Gilera thumpers have been around on the Continent
for several years, and this bike's predecessor won the Silhouette class for
proddie-based bikes in last year's Paris-Dakar Rally. Now the RC has been
restyled — by no less an artist than Gilera's ex-Bimota design chief Fedcrico
Martini — and refined to make a more rider-friendly roadster.
The engine remains a 558cc liquid-cooled single, its four valves operated by
twin camshafts turned by a toothed belt. Instead the flat plastic flanks of the
new petrol-tank cover hide the area in which many changes have been made: the
cylinder head. New cams and valves, as well as pistons, airbox and exhaust,
combine to lift claimed power output from 48 to 53bhp at 75()0rpm, which
compares well with the efforts of Japanese rivals such as Honda's 46bhp
Dominator and Suzuki's new 45bhp DR650RS.
The frame is steel, with conventional forks at the front, Gilera's Power
Drive rising-rate monoshock at the rear, and a single disc at each end. Steering
geometry has been steepened slightly and the forks are now 43mm jobs from
Kayaba, who supplied this year's Gilera factory desert-race bikes, in place of
the 40mm Marzocchis used before. Like Ducati with the new 900SS, Gilera have
abandoned Italian suspension parts for Japanese.
Rear shock is a Bogc unit with its mounts strengthened (another Paris-Dakar
tip) and linkages subtly repositioned. Seat height is reduced from 920mm to a
much more reasonable 890mm but the RC is still tall and lean, and still sounds
mean and rorty through the silencer exiting below the scat on the right.
The nose-fairing gives protection only to the instruments — which now include a tacho in place of the old
model's clock — so wind pressure is taken by the rider's bod as the Gilera
accelerates away, stonking can keep the front wheel near the ground. At ultra-low revs the engine's a
bit rough but smooths at 2500, and by 3500rpm there's enough grunt to lift the front wheel effortlessly.
Come five thou the Gilera lengthens its stride, revving through the 7300rpm
rcdlinc in the lower gears if you let it. A balancer-shaft keeps vibes to
typical big-single levels at the six-grand, 75mph cruising speed that the bike
felt capable of retaining all day (although the rider would benefit from some
more protection). Flat-out, with my head behind the clocks, the RC hammered up
to bang-on an indicated ton, with a little more to come given a long enough
Not that an RC600 pilot has to slow too much for the corners. Despite
steepish geometry the RC never felt close to producing a wobble even in bumpy
bends, and on the straight could be held flat-out with none of the weave with
which so many big trail bikes are cursed.
Suspension at both ends was ace despite the long travel, with the
non-adjustable Kayabas justifying Gilera's lack of patriotism. The forks dived a
little in response to a hard grab at the front disc, but generally gave a
refreshingly taut feel on tarmac. The wide bars and quick steering meant the RC
could be flicked around with even more ease than its 3101b dry weight suggests.
On rough, gravel-strewn country roads the RC was great fun, and proved ideal
for nipping through the traffic. Even on the open road it was happy, floating
along with enough comfort to suggest that, although the wind-blast and the buzz
through seat and footrests would become annoying after a time, you could happily
keep riding until the disappointingly small 2.7-gallon gas tank ran dry.
Ironically, the only time the Gilera was not at home was when I headed into a
muddy field to give its off-road prowess a brief test. Here it was soon
floundering because the Dunlop Trailmax tyres, which had been fine on the road,
filled their shallow tread with mud and failed to grip.
Because of it, the bike's potential could only be hinted at, and you would
have to fit a pair of enduro boots to do the RC justice off-road. But the
Gilera's competitive pedigree and obvious quality suggest it should still do the
business, and with its extra comfort and poise the RC600 has taken a step
towards becoming as handy on the street as it is in the desert.
In Italy it costs about £3850, a couple of hundred quid more than the Dominator but £2500 less than Cagiva's 900 Elefant. Never mind buying one
in France. Throw in the cost of a one-way flight to Milan plus a few-dozen
tankfuls of petrol, and post-'92 you could have a high old time bringing a new
RC600 back across the Alps for not much more than four grand all-in. Perhaps
this united Europe lark isn't such a bad thing after all. □