The trouble with sportbikes

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Don’t get me wrong. I luvs me some sportbike. We all do – “we” being card-carrying moto-journalists. That’s part of the problem. Dig into our closets (scary thought, that) and you’ll find full leathers, not fringed chaps. We like our gloves armored, not fingerless. Helmets tend to be racer replicas, not fiberglass yarmulkes. Most of us are better than average behind a set of handlebars, too, with plenty of track time. That’s a photo of me in younger days shepherding an FZR600 around Laguna Seca at a respectable rate of knots, keeping it well out of the shrubbery.

So what’s the problem?

I know this borders on blasphemy coming from a guy who got paid to critique virtually every motorcycle made in the past 25 years, but the trouble with sportbikes is that they’ve become too farking good. In normal riding situations, today’s frontline sportbikes are so understressed, so overqualified, as to be…well, kinda boring. Under a buck-20 you almost have to go Jackass on the things – set your hair on fire, staple your scrotum to the gas tank – to generate some excitement. I’m reminded of the Dick Mann’s statement that it’s more fun to ride a slow bike fast than it is a fast bike slow.

No doubt that current fast bikes are amazing pieces. Did you see last month’s Bike magazine (UK) where guest-tester Kevin Schwantz noted with some amazement that the 191-mph BMW S1000RR was faster than his 1993 Grand Prix racebike? It’s just that as sportbikes get better, faster and inevitably more single-purpose, they become less and less relevant to an increasing number of riders. They’ve almost transformed into motocross bikes with lights – needing to be trailered to a track day or your favorite Sunday-morning backroad. Ride a Gixxer 1000 down to the corner store for a carton of milk? No thanks, I think I’ll take the car. Take the little lady for two-up tour of California’s Gold Country? Not unless she’s a young, limber Nadia Comaneci who likes washing out her one set of underwear in motel sinks.

When the MV Agusta F4 came out in all its Massimo Tamburini-penned glory, I wanted one badly. Then, during a multi-bike ride, my stint on the MV coincided with a Highway 101 “transfer stage” connecting twisties. Between the jockey riding position and suspension that jackhammered on expansion joints, this was treatment that surely would be outlawed at Guantanamo Bay.

During my last few years at Cycle World getting meaningful results from a sportbike comparison test required renting a racetrack, mounting the same sticky tires to each machine, fitting transponder timers, then sending out blazingly quick and supremely talented riders like Don Canet and Mark Cernicky – all to record laps times that sometimes varied less than 2 seconds between bikes.  Never mind that the average sportbike rider would have a hard time getting within 10 seconds (an eternity on a racetrack) of either’s best laps.

Speaking of the average sportbike guy, I’m concerned that many are trendy short-timers, puny on skill, soaked in testosterone, out of motorcycling for good after one too many brushes with the law…or the meat wagon.

Yet sportbikes still get most of the headlines and the majority of magazine covers. Part of this is the aforementioned performance bias of editors. Part is simple journalism. A new sportbike with all its technological advances, worked on by a company’s best engineers, lavishly photographed and with an inch-thick press kit, is just a better story than a holdover V-Twin cruiser with yet another round of BNG (copywriter shorthand for “bold new graphics”).

Of course, given the sour economy and slow new-bike sales, the Golden Age of the Sportbike may be due for a downshift. Last year’s Aprila RSV4, this year’s stellar Beemer RR and the just-announced Kawasaki ZX-10R may be the last big escalations for a while. Much as bike-makers like flexing their 1000cc repli-racer muscles, return on investment for the usual bi-yearly  cleansheet redesigns is nonexistent. You can’t spend “good will” and “corporate prestige.” Good news is that streetfighter-style standards are here to fill in the void, as are dual-purpose adventure bikes – both types more versatile than sportbikes and way more fun than cruisers.

Long live sportbikes, I say, may they get ever better, even if it’s necessarily in smaller increments. I’d also remind those putting out magazines and websites that there’s more to motorcycling than clip-ons, traction control and 191 mph.

As with The Flying Wallendas, balance is key.

  • pinkyracer

    seriously. My ’09 R1 is a pig below 80mph. My friend Ahna, with a fraction of my riding experience, leaves me in her dust in Malibu on her KTM 690.

    If it weren’t for the pricier financing and crappier reliability I would’ve bought an 848 instead of another R1. The R1′s a great (solo) touring bike, though.

    I can’t wait to see what it’s like to ride a Brammo Empulse around town and in the canyons…

  • seanslides

    It’s true. Sportbikes make shitty day to day motorcycles. That said, I can only afford one bike right now, so I ride a GSXR.

    I can strap saddle bags and a tail pack to it, and it gets 45+ mpg putting around the freeway. It’s pretty fast, but I wish the manufactures would give us higher spec suspension, footpegs that aren’t slick, and maybe something grippy on the sides of the tank. There’s no reason I need anymore power, but it’d be nice if I could keep the forks from bottoming when I’m on the brakes, and if my feet didn’t slip off the pegs mid-corner.

  • BuellDoc

    I have worked in the Big Twin world for 23 years but ride sport bikes. I crave carbon fiber instead of lusty chrome 0 to 60 in 2.6 YES! Spend all day on my bike? Only on Track Days!

  • Ben W

    I’ve heard the same sentiment shared from many supersport riders – it’s not fun unless you’re in the triple digits. Some folks are comfortable with that on the road. I’m not, and that’s where I do most of my riding. So, I’ve been riding nakeds/streetfighters/standards for years.

    People frequently ask, “How much horsepower does that have?” as if a peak number tells all. Part of the blame for that falls on human nature, a desire to distill something down to an easy comparison so a victor can be crowned. The rest of the blame lies with an industry that fails to provide detailed information, explanation, and demonstrations. No major manufacturer makes it easy to understand the character or performance of their bikes; precious few even allow anything worth calling a ‘test ride’ to a regular joe.

    I’d like to say I’m somehow above the spec war. The announcement of the CB1000R made me shrug. In nearly every spec, it’s outdone by what’s already on the market. So why would someone want it? Because it says Honda? That’s a nonsense reaction, particularly in a segment of bikes that are supposed to be more about “real world” performance. Yet, there’s a voice saying, “Screw that bike, every other option is better.”

    Numbers and comparisons are not what it’s about for me as a street rider, but it’s not always easy to remember that.

  • Biopsidy

    sportsbikes are just becoming more purpose-built (track-only) and less street/track like they’ve been in years past. As a result, less fun to ride on the street or at slower speeds.

    I recently hopped on a monster 796 (coming from my GSX-R600) and instantly that bike was just “fun” to me. I’m definitely getting a monster in my near future or a Speed Triple if not just for the sake of having insane power.

    Sportbikes nowadays are 100% built for the track whereas before I think it was more like 60% track, 40% street. I hate even taking my 600 out for city cruises. If I’m not flying it’s just no fun, but I have loads of fun on nakeds, standards and dual sports.

  • fodderbox

    Thank you for this, Mr. Edwards. Years ago as youngsters, when my friends and I would pretend on our bicycles, it was as “crotchrockets”. It’s always more fun to the be the fastest, right? Granted, I still love the rush of acceleration, but I don’t know if I need to able to hit 100 mph in 7 seconds, or top out at 170. However, I’ve only been riding a year; maybe my preferences will shift with more experience. But, for now, a sporty standard with a sit-up-and-beg riding position fits the mark for me.

  • Brammofan

    This is why I bought the subscription, HFL. It’s great to read the work of a seasoned motojournalist when he or she no longer has to suck at the teats of the manufacturers or advertisers.

    • Pat

      I agree. David isn’t the only reason but he is a major reason that I subscribed. Keep it coming!

  • Sasha Pave

    I hear ya David, but even before RD400′s were smacking the armco on the hairpin above the Rock Store, you could have made the argument that there’s too much bike for unskilled testosterone.

    But I do agree that there is very little use for 90mph 1st gear ratios and 180php at the rear on the street.

    For much of the sport bike buyer, it all comes down to what moves you “down there.” If it’s covered in painted plastic with a lap-timer, or if it’s covered in mud with Africa maps pre-installed, there’s a seat for every ass.

    • R.Sallee

      Serious question: What is the fun of a bike that hits 90+ in first gear? I ride a Ninja 250, I can’t conceive of it. I love ripping to redline…again and again. It boggles my mind there are bikes that, if ridden legally on the streets, will never hit a rev limiter. The hell is the fun in a bike with a 16k rpm redline that never screams past 10k? I hit redline four times getting onto the freeway. It’s awesome.

      • Glenngineer

        I don’t have any desire to own a true sport bike, but I ride my wifes Ninja 250 all the time.

        I gotta ask – what is so fun about hitting the redline? The 250 is fun in its own way, but jesus christ is it slow, and the chassis just sucks ass in an ugly corner. All corners are ugly in MA, for reference.

        I ride a DL1K, a bike some would call tragically slow, others would say its fast enough to be a two wheeled casket. It moves when I twist the throttle, and I bounce it off the redline pretty regularly. What makes it really great is that it doesn’t have to be anywhere close to the redline to haul around on the road.

      • tomwito

        I have an 09 ZX6R I ride it on I-95 in South Florida. Have the power to leave a texting driver behind is something I would not give up. You can’t be doing 80mph on a 250 get away from bad drivers tailgating you doing 90. It doesn’t have to be a sportbike but I think I would feel trapped on something with 30hp.

  • DoctorNine

    Every tool has its place. There are times that I really, really need that three pound sledgehammer. And when I want it, there is no substitute. But more often than not, my well crafted, 22oz forged framing hammer is going to be more than enough for the job.

  • Tim

    ditto Edwards. I own a CBR and love the power but my lowly KLR 650 is way more fun, all in all. sure I wish it had better suspension and a 650 twin but it is cheap, reliable and user friendly.

    • Rob

      You wish it was a Versys? There’s a fix for that!

      • Tim

        I do wish it had the Versys motor but not in a street chassis with cast wheels

  • kat

    i wholeheartedly believe. while i did adore my 916, commuting every day on it was a bit much. i still remember giggling out loud in my helmet the day i got to thrash an RS50 around santa cruz and the surrounding hills/mountains. i look forward to getting a tiny bike that i can just ride the hell out of, and actually enjoy to its potential. whether that ends up being a little supermoto or if i can get one of the scarce tiny sportbikes, that remains to be seen. but i’m going for smaller is better this next time around.

    • kat

      er, not believe, agree. word fail.

  • Ken D

    Great article David, but it has been written every couple of years since the first Blade came out, and still the manufacturers manage to keep producing bikes that are faster and even less exploitable. And every five years or so someone predicts that now, surely, we’ve reached the limit.

    A lot of sports bikes are bought for shallow reasons; for what the bike represents rather than what it does. Given that what it does is the whole point, buying it and not using it feels a dumb, self-defeating exercise.

    I think a lot of guys (it is a guy thing) could admit to themselves that they’ll have more fun on a Street Triple or a supermotard or even a Suzuki Goose, and that no one will think any the less of them for it. Plenty of naked riders have done exactly that. Let’s face it, it’s pretty weird when you think about it.

    (I exempt the handful of people who can fully exploit a modern R1 from any of the above remarks, and I admire the ability of manufacturers to make such weapons at prices regular morons like us can afford. Still…)

  • mugget

    Interesting article. I’m sure that alot of riders have felt the same if they ride sportsbikes daily for commuting and other short trips.

    Like many others I can only afford one bike now, so it’s a GSX-R1000. Sure it gets real warm if you’re sitting in traffic, especially in summer – but I’ve kept on commuting it the last couple of years. I have been thinking of a cooler-running bike, just to mix things up but I do still like the Gixxer, even in the city/suburbs. There is just something about the precise nature of the geometry/controls that you don’t get with anything other than a sportsbike. Also being able to weave it through tight turns is a skill in itself, so I always set off each morning looking to improve in some area of (relatively) slow speed maneuvering.

    But I still think you can make of it what you want. I still tour and do track days – all on the one bike. I think that’s pretty amazing.

    • tomwito

      I totally agree, I rode a friends SV650 after riding my 09 ZX6R. Holy Crap! That’s what I yelled when I tried to use only two fingers on the brake. The bike barely even slowed. The suspension was soft, it was slow. I hated it and was so glad I didn’t get one because I was going to. I rode a Harley low rider through the mountains recently and had the same reaction. While I was glad to be riding I wished I was on a sport bike.

  • Noah

    Thanks for the article, I love it. This is exactly why I’m happy bringing my weathered but mechanically perfect ’98 VFR800 to track days. Its not going to be fast, but its entirely predictable and treats me like a friend and not some insane rocket. 95 horsepower is plenty to work with. I want to learn to control the wonky suspension and wrestle its beastly weight. Its my commuter, my camping trip companion, and makeshift bagger. I have seen more attitude at track days that immediately turn into “keep away from that guy and his brand new Ducati he’s about to crash”. For me, riding your own ride is what its all about. David, thanks for reminding me.

  • Ducky

    For many places where maximum speeeds are lower or more enforced (by that I mean 140 km/h or lower), I don’t see why anything larger than a 250cc bike is really needed. They are quite excellent for the highways here in Ontario Canada, and I can easily see them being used for touring (assuming the engine is smooth).

    Really, a modern, inexpensive SV-650 or 400cc bike should be more than most people can really exploit, and even those are getting to the point where you can never really rev to redline in the city, whereas a well-heeled 250cc bike can go through a couple of gears.

    It’s truly a case of more fun caning a small, slower bike through public roads than riding a fast bike through the same.

    • R.Sallee

      I have a fair amount of experience touring a Ninja 250. All-day comfortable seating? Check. 200-mile tank range? Check. Bungee hooks and metal gas tank for tank bag? Check.

      The bike is capable of everything a road can throw at it…but it’s not without challenges. Elevation (5,000+ feet) is a bummer. Freeway is fine but monotonous at 9,000 rpm. Wind blast over 60 mph gets irritating on long freeway hauls. There is no lazy grunt.

      I’ve been from San Francisco to Seattle and back twice now and the only time I really wished I was on another bike was huffing at elevation through Lassen and Crater Lake. On a 500-mile day from Bandon, OR to San Francisco via 101 and Highway 1, I wouldn’t have wanted any other bike.

    • Devin

      Agreed Ducky. I ride in Northern Ontario, and my Ninja 500 is perfect for the roads (I really wanted a 400 but this was years before they improted it). The decent suspension is also handy for all the potholes.

      The only reason I am looking to move on from it is that I want something that accomodates me and my passenger better.

  • Mr.Paynter

    This makes me happy.

    I am 26, I have loved bikes my whole life, I don’t even have a licence for a car,I commute every single day, rain or shine, I can only really afford my one bike, and my new (2 months now) Kawasaki Er6-N could not possibly have been a better choice (and that was bought on a good deal, not that I couldn’t afford more!)

    I lust after everything from Fireblades to that Ural Taiga SE but for what I wanna do right nowon my bike, which is pretty much commute everyday with the odd tour or trip, it hits all the right spots! I also touch 100mph most days if it’s dry on my quiet unpoliced highway blast which is plenty for me!

  • Emmet

    Growing up, I always wanted a sportbike. The thrill of going balls-out fast. I could never afford such a thrill and ended up buying rusted, shitty UJM’s off Craigslist in high school. At first it was a distraction to dive deeper into my motorcycle obsession while arranging the sportbike dream for when I graduate college. Soon enough, that dream faded away as I became more enthused with working on my oldschool rides-I became a vintage enthusiast!

    Then there is the point that EVERYONE wants a sportbike-notably the ones with something to compensate for, those with more money than brains, etc. As sportbikes are a single-purpose riding tool, so too are their followers. They aren’t motorcycle enthusiasts, they just want what they bought-the image of pure speed. I have no sympathy for the crash victims when they ride with a white t-shirt, jeans and skater shoes. I hate to pass judgement because there are many respectable riders, but like the Harley scene, there are a LOT of fakes.

    Finally, why would I want to ride a bike whose limits I would never reach on roads unsuited for it? That’s like riding a fixed gear bicycle off road-not fun.

  • jonathan

    While I ride almost daily, tour, and canyon strafe when I can get away, all on the same Triumph Tiger it’s not a sport bike. I sometimes ride it like one, which leaves me wanting more sport, less practical. It is a true compromise…one made to normal sized wallet and a mostly full garage of other stuff. The real question for me is why can’t manufacturers make a similarly practical bike (motor, ergos, range) with the world class suspension and brakes of a pure track bred sport bike?

  • noone1569

    This is one of the main reasons I went with an XB12R as opposed to another R6 racerreplica. Sure it’s got tons of torque and is pretty damned fast, but it is actually fun to ride on the street. I can rip it to redline once or twice before I hit the speed limit and can ride it damn near 90 – 100 % in the twisties.

    That being said, I do love the innovation and excitement that being the biggest baddest racerreplica has. Without that, bikes would have never excelled to the point where street fighters and nakeds are fun to ride on the street.

    Also, articles like this are one of the reasons I dropped the measely 25 bones on the HFL subscription. Thanks!

  • Mark D

    The crazy thing is that FZR up top would be sensible sport-standard commuting bike now!

    I like choices, and I think bikes like the S1000rr and 1198 are absolutely amazing bikes, but I’d also like to think I’m honest enough with myself that pure, track-bred liter bikes have some serious shortcomings when it comes to the type of riding I do (commuting, city-riding, long-weekend road trips).

    It actually looks like Honda understands that; I’m lusting over their new (to the US, at least) CBR600f, and prepared to do damage to my wallet and credit!

  • Peter88

    Virtually all these comments, and the article itself hit the nail on the head. I’m 50 and started riding 8 years ago. I bought a 1994 cb1000: 98HP. I put 45K on that bike and it was fun. But I had to have a liter bike. Bought a 2004 cbr1000rr. I ride almost every day. I’ve got 45K on that bike. I love the acceleration but I miss the cb1000. I’m looking at an xr1200x: 92HP, lots of aftermarket stuff, belt drive and hydraulic valves. What more do I need!

  • Kevin

    Never really been attracted to sport bikes, probably because I use my bike in a fairly utilitarian fashion (daily commuting, errand running, etc). My Honda 599 does those duties flawlessly. For my weekend trips, it does get a bit cramped after a few hours on the road, but the economics of the situation, don’t justify a second bike just for weekend touring.

  • Peter

    I guess that’s why I like scooters and small-bore bikes. There’s something fantastic about wringing every ounce of what little performance there is out of a motor. Rip it to redline again and again because you HAVE to. Best part is, you can ride ‘em at 10/10ths all the time, enjoy the thrill, and still rarely get a ticket.

  • dan

    To each his own. Personally the sportbikes are too much for my skill level. I commute on city streets and suburban highways with a 250 Vespa, a 150 Vespa, a 1975 BMW R75/6 and an Aprilia Mana 850. Of course the Vespas top out but you can wring out the 250 to 80 mph. I personally am not into triple digits.

  • Alex

    I just subscribed few weeks ago – love HFL, so far. I totally agree with the fact that riding slow bikes fast is most fun. I ride 1997 Ninja ZX6R and it’s really great, I enjoy “hunting” for parts/accessories and taking it out of town for spirited rides. I wouldn’t say that my ZX6R is track built, I think I agree with the 60/40 assessment of another member.
    Recently, though, I picked up 04 BMW R1100S Boxer Prep, which, I have to say is awesome, again, because it’s a Sports Tourer. Totally different dynamics then Ninja, yet still needs a good pilot to get the most out of it, even on the streets.
    Whats true for sport bikes, is true for sports cars – Cadi with 400 horses? Nurburg Ring record? Who cares? Some of us still enjoy the hell out of driving Mazdaspeed every day. I hope people continue to buy fast cars and sports bikes as engineers push the boundaries of possible…in the mean time, I’ll settle for “fun” over prestige factor and so will most of us.

  • Uncle

    I commute on a ’92 Yamaha XJ600S. Easy to maintain, easy to ride, and comfortable. It’s not powerful or flashy by any stretch of the imagination… but it’s perfect for puttering back and forth to work. Best part? I paid $1600 for it, in excellent condition. If you have a balls-out sportbike and don’t like sitting in traffic on it, why not have your cake and eat it too?

    • Mark D

      Scooters are fun commuters, too. Those 100cc Zumas are a hoot.

      • Uncle

        Agreed. My previous commuter was a kymco people 250… drove that thing into the ground. Paid under 2000 for that one too. Perhaps someday I’ll be trolling the classifieds, find a well used Mana 850, and have the best (worst?) of both worlds going back and forth to the office.

  • David Edwards

    Mark D’s comments about the FZR600 in the lead photo having sensible ergonomics hit home. Some years back I owned a factory 1984-85 Honda Interceptor AMA Superbike, one that had placed highly in the Daytona 200. It actually had tubular handlebars and a seating position more like a streetfighter’s.

  • Case

    Late to this, but whatever.

    I had the exact same conversation about no-compromise sportbikes less than a week ago. I talking about my CBR1kRR, and how it’s not a bike you want to take down to the grocery or run errands on. Sure you CAN do it, but I promise you don’t want to (at least not where I live); it does not reward the casual rider. And this is the literbike that is supposed to be the most comfortable, easiest to ride.

    I LOVE my motorcycle, but the superbikes make no rational sense. Yet they are the flagship products, get lots of ink, lots of attention. They’re sexy. Aggressive. And mostly useless on city streets.

    My next motorcycle will be sporty, but it will also be sturdy and more comfortable than my current bike.

  • Charlie

    Great piece. It’s so tiresome to hear about the bike wars. It’s about the whole riding experience. I had a blast on my first bike -an Aprilia RS50. Granted…I had the 75cc hop up kit…but I enjoyed being in 3rd gear after 100ft.

  • Darrell

    Not since Honda’s F4/F4i has there been an everyday sport bike.

  • sanjuro

    Here’s an alternative perspective: Y’all pussies.

    If I wanted to exercise common sense, I would be jumping into a Prius or Volvo and sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on my commute home.

    It might be fun to discuss what your second (or third) bike might be, but I want a motorcycle that is badass. I might not be able to run hot laps, but I am able to utilize and appreciate most of its abilities.

  • Chris

    I couldn’t agree more with David. The whole sportbike scene seems to be getting increasingly irrelevant in our congested world. If a print magazine has a sportbike on its cover, I don’t buy it.

    The difference between 150bhp and 180bhp is academic 99% of the time. And 99% of the time, 100bhp is more than adequate.

    Of course, there are those who will say they buy the bikes for the 1% of the time they can use all the power without endangering the lives of other road users. But I’d rather have a bike I can enjoy 99% of the time.

    Deep down, I suspect the appeal of sportbikes has little to do with the bikes themselves. And more to do with a strange mix of leather fetish and trainspotter-ish mechanical geekery. Maybe with a side order of ADD thrown in.

  • pabatco

    Great story, but it’s not just sportbikes that are so good. Take a look at MX bikes, who can ride one of those to their full potential? It is a OEM problem, they need to cut back on their offerings and get back to fun. What happened to the CB750 mind set, just a great all around bike that anyone could ride without being classified as a Sport, Touring, Supersport etc. rider. Don’t get me wrong, I like sportbikes and what the have brought to the industry in techno stuff alone is amazing, but do we need all the different versions that they come in? How about just some grass root motorcycles again!!!

  • Patrick

    I have to say that I’m on both sides of the fence on this one. Wringing every last rev out of a small bike (125 2-stroke anyone?) is great, but so is twisting the throttle on the freeway in 6th gear and pulling away from a teenage ricer who’s bouncing off the rev limiter. My first real bike, a CBR600F2, was everything a perfect bike should have been to me. It was easy to ride, great mileage, manageable power (100bhp) and always reliable. I never came close to riding it at 10/10ths, yet, I was never really excited to get on it.

    I bought a rotax powered Aprilia last month and I can tell you that it still gives me a shit eating grin every time I start it up. I don’t even come close to approaching that bike’s limits, but I don’t care. It makes me want to run trivial errands, or take the bike to work on a rainy day. It gives me a big rubbery one, and that’s what matters in the end.

    Tl;dr – There is more to enjoying a bike, and riding in general, than redlining the motor.