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Sport Bike Backlash
Who's a hypocrite now!

by Dave Preston

Sport bikes have always been a tad controversial, and even a discussion of the definition can become heated. The origin of the term can be debated, but for brevity, let’s go back to late-fifties England and the rise of the "café racer."

As you probably already know, the café racer craze began with young men (primarily) creating bikes modified for speed and handling (what there was of it) for the purpose of "racing" from café to café. One favorite stunt was to put a coin in the jukebox and attempt to ride to a selected spot and back before the record ended. I realize that some readers may have to do vocabulary research into the meaning of such archaic terms as "jukebox" and "record."

Given English weather and roads, the results were often messy. One interesting sidebar was the creation of "hot rods" used by the police when their standard gray porridge police "saloons" (wonderful British term for a sedan) proved inept at keeping up with the "ton up boys," so-termed for having a bike that could "do the ton," or 100mph. The police began using the Daimler Dart, a fiberglass sports car with "interesting" styling powered by a potent small V8, and various hotted-up Fords.

Increased police pressure, the inevitable carnage, and the rise of the swinging 60s eventually killed the café racer fad, but then the style became popular in this country, more often on Japanese bikes. The addition of "clip on" handlebars, bikini-, half-, and full- fairings, and perhaps some engine and exhaust alterations from mild to wild made your American café racer. You should have seen my Yamaha 250 with the race fairing! You laugh – as you should. A more sophisticated variant was known as the "Gentleman’s Express," after an article in "Cycle" magazine that nudged a Honda 550 4 in the direction of a Café Racer while retaining function and comfort. One of my favorite books, Café Racers, was published in 1972, and I spent many fond hours poring over the possibilities – still do.

Over the next thirty years street bike performance began to curve ever upward, with exponential progress fueled by articles in the mainstream enthusiast magazines that urged more and more and more. Lurid pictures of wheelies and burnouts and all sorts of impractical riding maneuvers sold tons of magazines, and had their effect on new model sales.

Eventually it got to be a little silly. The Kawasaki ZX9R, for example, came in last in virtually every sport bike comparison test, based on the numbers. It was heavier and wider, and lacked the "cutting edge" technology of its peers. And yet, in every test, the testers begrudgingly admitted it was the most comfortable, by far, and the best bike to ride on the street. The differences were always measured on a racetrack, and very few sport bikes in those days found a track day. As a sport bike to be ridden on the street, the ZX9R was a terrific bike, and still is today.

Things began to stretch the limits of reason with the advent of the Suzuki Hayabusa and Kawasaki ZX12R. Magazines hyped them months before they existed for their potential as "200 mph motorcycles," and then turned around once the machines were on the road and reported the "scoop" that they would not quite reach that speed. Of course, there are few roads in the world where any machine can actually attain 200mph with hope of either stopping or slowing sufficiently for whatever disaster lies at the end of the straight being used – but no matter. This created "issue" sold thousands of copies of various magazines for about eight months.

The arrival of the Suzuki 1000 GSXR a couple of years later brought less weight, better handling, and almost as much outright power. The GSXR, followed by the R1, ZX10R, CBR 1000 RR, and others, have pretty much ended a fifty-year long quest for more and more… of everything. All of these have capabilities that can never be used on the street, and in fact never reached by the vast majority of the people who ride them, including me and (almost) everyone I’ve ever ridden with.

Comparison tests of modern sportbikes still tend to rely on track testing, and now the hairs are really splitting – the "winner" is usually declared over a spread of four bikes with as little as 2 seconds in overall lap times being the end result.

Who are the testers? Most large circulation magazines have "journalists" on staff that are thinly (good pun!) disguised racers. With the mass of a whippet and usually short, their 145 pounds and small stature assist them in racing activities, but skew their ability to test bikes as they are ridden on the street by people who are often taller and almost always heavier – sometimes substantially so.

Here’s a challenge for you. Let’s say Publisher Mehren selects me and adds a dozen Sound Rider readers at random and we all go to Pacific Raceways to spend a day on the track testing the modern hyper sport bikes from Japan, England, Germany, and Italy. What do you suppose will be the total of the lap time differences among this baker’s dozen "testers"? Most likely the total, using a wide array of "real" riders, will not be two or three seconds, but ten to twenty seconds, per lap, and almost none of the difference will be attributable to the bikes. If we make it a rainy day, the differences will be more pronounced.

And yet, every week I hear some customer say, "Well – the magazines all say that the "HGKZ" is faster than the "ZYCB99." Yes, they do. How does that apply to you and me? As far as most magazine tests of sport bikes now go, the results have very little application for anyone in the "real" world. All of the hyper-bikes, and in fact almost any modern sport bike over 600cc, share some common and mostly positive characteristics. They are well made, expertly designed, reliable, and carry much more potential for speed than all but a few experts can use.

With a modern sportbike, we have reached that promised land where "buy the one you thinks looks the best," is not only possible but may be the best advice, and what boring road tests that would make!

But, lo, now what do I read? The same magazines that fueled the hype for more and more hyper performance bikes for years are now beginning to print columns and make editorial insinuations that the open class sport bikes are "too much," and that anyone with any sense would not own one.

Hello? What did you say? The same people who’ve been promoting wretched excess for decades for the purpose of more thrills, and more sales, now opine that the current offerings are… excessive?

Ironic, but hard to argue in some ways. Experienced racers and track day people seem united in the thought that the fastest vehicle ever made for use on public roads from Point A to Point B is a sport bike – of 600 – 750cc. If you’re a rider who feels you can use 100% of the performance of your modern 1000cc sport bike on the street, then you are:

A. Sadly misguided
B. Missing out on a very lucrative career as a professional racer God

Not only are major magazines guilty of hypocrisy, they also miss the point. These bikes are not produced with the intent that they will be ridden in full-attack mode at all times – but they could be.

As a part of this comes a niche market of bikes that are marketed almost entirely as track day tools. You can ride them to work, and people do, but their intent is focused with laser-intensity on the track – surely the new Yamaha R6 and the Triumph 675 Daytona are examples. This is also occurring in the car world, at vastly elevated prices. Nobody buys a Lotus Elise as a practical car, to say nothing of the Corvette Z06, the Viper, and all manner of exotic cars.

At the end of the day, modern sport bikes are less about what they can do than what they represent. They bring you technology and performance at or above the level of a Ferrari Enzo, at a literal fraction of the cost. Incomparable levels of handling and braking, and … beauty. They are worth owning just for the pleasure of having one in your garage.

Is $10,000 - $20,000 a reasonable price to pay for a "toy" whose primary function is to make you feel good? Sure! Look around at the competition. A boat? A Porsche? A vacation home? A therapist? A modern sport bike is cheap by comparison, and offers tremendous return on your investment.

Even with the development of technologies that allow you, yes you Mr. Punter, to own and ride on the street or track a bike that would be a world beater just a few years ago, there is little question that the greatest advance in modern sport bikes is not to be found in the engine, brakes or suspension. It is simply that you can park in your garage – at an affordable cost – an "exotic" that offers amazing usability and a level of reliability that beggars belief – advances we all take for granted. Modern sport bikes, especially the hyperbikes, can tear up any paved surface, but they can also be ridden at slow speeds without a problem, they will start and stop every day, and go thousands of miles without any needs other than soap and water. They can even be used for touring, and you’ll see a few hundred of them doing just that romping down to Stevenson for Sportbike Northwest IV in August.

Modern sport bikes are astonishing products, and still high on anyone’s "Gottahaveit" list, even people like me who should know better.

That is, if they’re not being written about by hypocritical journalists with magazines to sell.

Source: Sound Rider
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