The Sportbike Progression: Everyman’s Path To Panigale

Honda CBR600RR
Honda CBR600RR

The Fast Guy
Are you honestly getting every last iota of performance out of that Street Triple? Have you been on track several times, completed at least one advanced riding school and are you keeping up with all the fast guys on group rides? Are you ready to go even faster? Then it’s time to step up to a supersport 600.

R6, GSX-R, CBR, ZX-6R, Daytona; it doesn’t matter, they’re all pretty much the same. Go sit on a bunch at a bike show and buy the one that fits you best, comes with the finance deals that suit your budget or is painted in your favorite variety of tribal fairy dragon. Because worldwide sportbike sales are in the toilet right now, development in this class has come to a halt. The R6 you buy new today is mechanically identical to every other one made since 2006, so buying used can be a smart decision, saving you a ton of money and probably netting you upgrades like frame sliders and a tall screen too.

These are the sharpest handling motorcycles on the market. Versus larger capacity machines, they come with nice, narrow rear tires that speed steering, short wheelbases and sharp geometry. Plus, they’re just incredibly, mind alteringly fast. Like supercar fast and you can pick one up on eBay for $4,000.

This is where you’re going to take your solid basis in riding skill and hone it into something razor sharp. You should already know and be using advanced skills like trail braking at this point; a supersport 600 is designed to work best when ridden very hard. That means that, at this point, the performance envelope is now going to grow very narrow. You can still use a 600 to commute or run errands, but it’s no longer an ideal tool for that and it will start getting in the way of mundane tasks. Very sharp brakes are just the thing for repeated high-speed braking on a track, but they cause you to come off if you apply them without care. Short, sharp chassis also tend towards instability, meaning you need to take care over changing surfaces and, combined with big horsepower, become wary of the throttle.

Upgrades like Stomp Grip, altered ergonomics, tall windscreens and upgraded suspension work best and you likely should get braided brake lines on the bike ASAP. Loud exhausts are for posers; you’ll get more performance by changing the sprocket sizes than you will with any basic motor tune.

Let’s be honest, most riders never get to the point where they’re as fast as a 600. If you want to get there and beyond, you need to start investing real time and effort. Track days, track schools and even club racing should be considered necessary steps along the way.

Ducati 899 Panigale
Ducati 899 Panigale

My First Superbike
Ready for more power? Realize that it comes at a cost: to your finances, your handling and otherwise.

We’d recommend starting in the world of big power by jumping on a second-tier superbike. Something like a Ducati 899 Panigale is imminently more exploitable than its 1,200cc big brother, while still delivering huge horsepower thrills. Of the Japanese bikes, we’d go for a 2012 or newer Honda CBR1000RR. Its 180 bhp is delivered in a friendly manner and its suspension quality delivers better feel and control than anything this side of the Panigale S.

Used, we’d look at standout superbikes from the last decade like the 2005-06 Suzuki GSX-R1000, the current model GSX-R750 or the old, V-twin Aprilia RSV1000R or Factory.

Any of those choices places the emphasis on making its vast performance accessible, while still managing an outright pace that would have made GP bikes blush just 10 or 15 years ago.

Don’t worry if you don’t find your lap times or pace to be beyond where you were on the 600. If you’re riding that fast while successfully managing the power, then you’re doing well. Instruction on your bike, on the track is now the best way for you to address specific issues in your riding and take the whole package to the next level.

Ducati 1199 Panigale R
Ducati 1199 Panigale R

The Big Boys
You’ve put in enough miles on an entry-level superbike to match its MSRP in tire costs and man, that marketing really is effective. Sure you want more than 190 bhp? Well, here you go.

The fastest bike out right now is the Ducati 1199 Panigale R. It costs $30,000 and, unless you’re racing it, you’ll do just as well with the $24,995 Panigale S. Same suspension, just without the adjustable swingarm pivot and some fancy motor internals. Alternatives would be the BMW S1000RR or HP4 or, if you want to go Italian while being a little less obvious, the Aprilia RSV4 R or Factory.

Combined with the big horsepower, what you need to control it is suspension, tires and electronics. It’s the suspension quality that separates the RSV4 R and Factory, Panigale and Panigale S and S1000RR and HP4. If you buy one of the models without the good stuff, be prepared to upgrade. Doing so can, in some cases, actually be cheaper than simply buying the more expensive model, but typically comes without some whizz bang techno feature like variable-length intakes or semi-active suspension. You don’t actually need that stuff unless, again, you’re a racer who knows what they do and really feels they’re necessary to whatever it is they’re building.

Now that you’re an expert rider, you’ll be able to do much more with these bikes than just scare yourself with them on Sundays. That also means you can take advantage of the used market, in which less smart riders do exactly that, then sell the bikes before they even reach their first service. Shopping for those deals (particularly for models a generation behind in feature iteration) is a good way to save a few grand, which can then be used to fund track days and tires.

If you’ve genuinely reached this level of riding and are really using one of these bikes, then you’re likely doing so mostly on the track. Going track-only with the bike is a good way to save yourself some money by eliminating the insurance cost and removing some of the more easily-damaged, but expensive-to-replace components like the fairing and exhaust and replacing them with track-specific items. Make no mistake though, at this point this is an exceptionally expensive hobby, you’d be better off burning fist fulls of hundred dollar bills. Many “normal” people are able to operate at this level, but in so-doing they commit to a motorcycle-centric life; all their money goes here.

KTM RC390
KTM RC390

The Seasoned Expert
Sick of burning through a set of tires a month on a bike with more capability than you’re able to access on the road? Or, scared yourself a little with the chances you’ve been taking and really need to make sure you’re around to see little Johnny and Susie grow up? After moving all the way up to a seriously fast superbike, many skilled riders find themselves actually wanting a little less. That’s not to say they can’t ride with the best, simply that they find the enjoyment in motorcycling is not necessarily defined by horsepower.

If you see an old guy passing you in ancient leathers aboard an Aprilia RS250 or immaculate ‘80s superbike, that’s a guy who’s been at the highest level of riding and decided to back off a little bit.

Buying new, the best bike for the seasoned expert is going to be the Triumph Daytona 675R. On it, a jewel-like three-cylinder motor is matched by the nicest suspension fitted to any stock motorcycle. It’s fast enough to satisfy anyone, but makes itself uniquely desirable through its handling, which is probably the best of any motorcycle currently on sale. Other good choices will likely be the upcoming Honda CBR1000RR SP or even the KTM RC390.

All three of those bikes attempt to do away with the things that limit motorcycle performance, while giving you the greatest possible tools to facilitate fast riding through sharp chassis and suspension that delivers extraordinary feel and control. But none of the three attempts to maximize power simply to win a bench race. They could have been purpose-made for riders that have been there, done that and want something…less. One day, you might too.

Where Are You?
This progression has been purpose-made to advance your riding skills and give you a lifetime of riding enjoyment, on sportbikes. If you’re not starting from scratch how do you find which tier you’re at, push reset on your riding career and start riding faster? Well, be honest with yourself. For most riders I see, it’s going to be The Neophyte level. Ask yourself if you could really get the absolute most out of a CBR500R. Could you use one to pass slower riders on faster bikes? Can you drag peg and knee in confidence? Do you know how not to drag either? If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” then going back to that level and re-pursuing riding for the purposes of skill is the best way to make yourself a faster rider.

Most other people would actually be most satisfied with that last category of bikes; they work across varied skill levels thanks to their general amazingness. Getting better on one of those will, like all the other categories just be a function of trying to. Do track days, read the books, maybe enter an affordable racing class like 650 twins.

Alternatively, consider a different discipline of riding. Dirt bikes, supermotos et al involve lower speeds, but closer-to-the-limits riding and will, by virtue of all the sliding, make you a better rider on anything.

What level are you at and where would you like to be?

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