The Benelli TNT Café Racer invokes the rebellious spirit of the 1960s British counterculture that gave rise to the first stripped-down racing motorcycles that emphasised speed and handling over comfort, yet forgoes the utilitarian styling.
Sitting on the fence is bound give you splinters. It’s never the most comfortable position, but sometimes it’s nigh on impossible to reach a conclusion. And I’m faced with such a dilemma when pondering the unique styling of Benelli’s TNT Café Racer. Is it bulky and bitty? Or stylishly sophisticated? I just can’t decide. Perhaps it’s both. One thing is quite clear though, this streetfighter is a pure joy to ride, whether you like the looks or not.
Let’s get the styling out of the way. It looks seriously over complicated at first glance. There’s a technical and mechanical appearance to the bike, with its stocky, heavy set shoulders and shimmering Mandarin paintwork. Every where you look, a new curve or angle catches your eye, from the kinked triple exhaust pipes to the tapered rear end. It’s all so obviously, painstakingly intricate.
So I’d expected the ride to be equally fussy. The mere description of the bike, a Café Racer, conjures images of hunching over a naked bike, desperately trying to avoid the windblast and struggling to get comfortable. The Benelli’s as naked as a newborn, with absolutely no wind protection. But despite these warning signs, a little red devil appeared by my shoulder and twisted my right wrist until I eventually succumbed to the inevitable. I chased triple figures of monstrous proportions until my neck muscles stiffened with cramp and my eyes wobbled involuntarily in their sockets. And no, I’m not exaggerating and yes, it was ridiculously huge fun.
A thrilling ride, the TNT Cafe Racer won’t lull you to sleep with such creature comforts as practical wind fairings.
However, when you’re not riding like a loon possessed, the Café Racer is actually a pretty comfortable bike. Despite the bars being low and outstretched, and the fairly long 55.9-inch wheelbase, it feels like a fine fit. No lower back ache and no undue pressure on the wrists. (Although I’m not entirely convinced a day’s commuting through a grey London city would be anywhere near as enjoyable.) However, I rode for two days in the South of France, on toll roads, mountain passes and villages and loved every single minute. The 30.7-inch seat is firm but not wooden, and the riding position feels surprisingly natural, rather like the mirrors. They protrude from either end of the handlebars and at first just seem very, very odd. But in no time at all, they become part of the experience. The steering lock is pitiful though. It shares the same restrictions that you’d expect from a MotoGP bike, or indeed anything that forces feet down, three point turn shuffles. It’s all forgiven the instant you’ve lined up straight and open the throttle though because the engine really is that good.
The Benelli motor has all the characteristics of a torquey triple; low down grunt with a fierce knock out punch and belching raspy baritones. The 1131cc, three-cylinder lump feels as brutal as the bikes looks, to the extent that it’s even a bit snatchy in the low revs. The same can be said of the ‘Adventurous’ Tre K Amazonas, but where the power delivery feels wholly inappropriate on that bike, on the Café Racer it’s less intrusive and almost suits the bike’s aggressive nature. Almost.
And if you do need to tame the beast beneath you, there’s a button designed to reduce the power output below 5000 rpm for safety reasons (it should also increase fuel consumption when cruising in the same rev range). The press blurb would have you believe it’s similar to Suzuki’s Drive Mode Selector switch on the B-King and GSX-R Superbikes, but in reality, that’s simply not the case. Opt for subdued power on the B-King and the bike barely feels regal, do the same on the Benelli and you’d be hard pushed to notice a difference at all – on the bike I rode at least. (It is Italian remember.) But why kill such heady power anyway? The claimed 129 hp feels far too impressive to castrate, even if the option is there.
It takes some coaxing to get the belligerent Benelli into and out of turns, but once there it won’t stray from its path.
The energy the Benelli Cafe Racer emits pours over into the handling. The bike weighs a gnats whisker under 440 lbs, so don’t expect a light brush of the ‘bars to have an instant effect in dropping into corners. But whilst it takes some subtle persuading for the initial tip in, its size becomes a distinct advantage once it is leant over. It holds a line like it’s never going to let go and offers a great deal of confidence, especially from the weighted front end. Of course that means chopping direction requires you to be masterful, but it’s always good to remind yourself who’s really the boss. . .
The Cafe Racer suspension is equally compliant. The 43mm upside down Marzocchi forks are fully adjustable and the rear monoshock offers adjustable preload. But I felt no need to touch the standard suspension settings at all. Even when faced with the most gorgeous downhill, slightly bumpy hairpins with a view that beggars belief, my knee slider dug firmly into the ground and the bike didn’t move an inch. No bouncing from the backside, just a steady, proper grin-factor lean angle. And when hauling on the strong Brembo brakes, the front remains reassuringly calm too. That’s not to say you can’t unruffle the bike, but it’d need a fair amount of provoking.
I on the other hand, could do with some provocation to persuade me off my fence. And after reminiscing about such fun fuelled trip, I’m finally ready to conclude that the TNT Café Racer’s looks are as handsome as the ride after all.