This year's sportbike crop emphasizes--with an exclamation point--the extraordinary capabilities available to today's sport rider. When you step back and think about the performance we have available--at stunningly affordable prices--it just makes you shake your head in wonder. If anyone tries to tell you about how great things were back in some distant past, tell 'em they're full of it. Today, right now, is the golden age of motorcycling.
Most things in life aren't free, though, and neither is this brilliance we've been given. Much of the superlative capability displayed by today's bikes comes standing on the shoulders of a new design paradigm--increased specialization.
Years ago bikes were far less focused. A road bike (save the rare chopper or full-dress tourer) was expected to do pretty much everything: get you to work during the week, be suitably cool-looking while cruising the local hangouts on soft summer evenings, provide a capable touring platform to get you out to the beach on your vacation and, of course, pull yeoman sportbike duty on the weekends. Some of them even got tagged with number plates come race weekends, since that was about the only way to get on a racetrack--track days having yet to become widely available.
In contrast, look at the universe of motorcycles available today and you'll see a very different landscape. Most bikes are purpose-built and can be dropped neatly into one of several classes: cruiser, full-dress tourer, sport-tourer or sportbike. Sure, there are some niche models out there--adventure-tourers and standards that attempt to straddle multiple categories--but for the most part the bikes available today have become quite specific in their design.
In most respects this has been a benefit, allowing engineers to design models tailored to a specific market segment without the compromises that inevitably resulted back when they were required to build do-everything bikes. Nowhere is this more evident than in today's sportbikes--which often have capabilities that are a mere whisper from the top-flight race machinery of just a few years back.
The downside is that those very same attributes that make a bike so focused and capable in one area often detract from others. Most modern motorcycles aren't terribly versatile. Which isn't to say you can't take your R1 on that cross-country tour you've been planning, or choose your Gold Wing for your next track day. Only that those might not be the best choices.
The answer--one usually far more obvious to us than to our significant others--is to own more than one bike.
Owning different kinds of motorcycles instantly cuts across the problems posed by the lack of versatility in today's specialized machinery. Want something to carve up the canyons on the weekends? No problem. One of today's superlative sportbikes is just what you need. Feel like crisscrossing the country on the interstate? No worries. There's a touring rig out there built just for that. Want a bike with some sporting character that also affords a bit of comfort and carrying capacity? No sweat. A sport-tourer or one of the new standards is just the ticket. Whatever riding category you prefer, there's something out there to meet the need.
Doing that, though--owning more than one kind of bike--brings yet another issue to the fore: the need to constantly reacclimate when you switch from one to another. First, there are the ergonomics to adapt to, often vastly different between bike classes. Second, there are the differences in weight and suspension compliance, again often very different. And lastly, there are the differences in handling and general response. Given all those differences, stepping off one motorcycle and onto another type of machine can feel as strange as going from two wheels to four.
My current rides are a BMW K1200RS and a Suzuki GSX-R1000. Both are reasonable examples of what pass as current state-of-the-art motorcycles in the sport-touring and sportbike worlds. Both do a great job in their respective roles. Like people, they each have their own personalities; their own individual strengths and weaknesses. But what I find interesting and challenging is the experience of constantly switching between bikes of widely differing character. And both of mine, at least, are tilted toward the sporting end of the spectrum. Toss a full-boat touring rig or a heavyweight cruiser into the mix and there'd really be some changes going on.
When I go riding there usually isn't a whole lot of rhyme or reason as to why I choose the BMW versus the Suzuki. Sometimes I clearly want the deadly serious sportbike capabilities that the Gixxer provides. And sometimes I want the longer legs and greater comfort of the BMW--and it'll obviously get the nod for an overnight trip or when weather issues intrude, just as the Gixxer is the obvious choice for track days. But most times, there's no difference. A typical weekend will have me riding one on Saturday and the other on Sunday. I ride both on the very same roads, with exactly the same entrance and exit speeds, using the same lines, at precisely the same pace. On the street the limiting factors are not to be found in either bike, in other words. What is different is how the two bikes feel--and the need to accommodate to that difference every time I switch between them.
Stepping off the K-RS and onto the Gixxer, the first thing you notice is the position--the far more severe ergonomics. And as soon as it's rolling you quickly notice the suspension--firm to the point of feeling harsh. Your first thought is that this is an uncomfortable bike to ride. But you also notice how light and airy it all feels. And after only a handful of miles the bike's overriding character begins to emerge: a feeling of power, aggression and quick responsiveness. There's a directness to this bike, a feeling of focus, of everything happening the instant you command it. There's a sense of everything being part of a unified package. Soon, the suspension that at first seemed harsh suddenly has a compliant, lithesome feel. You notice how well it tracks over the road, and there's a delight in the feedback you get from the tires and suspension. You suddenly realize that the overall sensory input seems more intense. The Gixxer is nothing if not a vibrant communicator.
The next day, climbing on the K-RS, the first thing you notice--just as on the Gixxer--is the position. Like most sporting motorcycles, the BMW has a forward-leaning crouch, but far less than on the Suzuki. So much less, in fact, that in comparison you actually feel like you're almost sitting upright. There's an immediate sense of spaciousness compared to the Suzuki. And that roominess gets reinforced as soon as you start rolling--the softer suspension combined with the much more relaxed ergos impart a sense of luxurious accommodation. Your first thought is a happy one--you could ride this bike forever.
As you bend into the first corner, however, that smile fades. The suspension suddenly feels not just soft but wandering and roly-poly. The precise, joyful tracking of the Suzuki has been replaced by a feeling of being disconnected and distant. And as the twisty stuff gets tighter and tighter you realize how big and heavy this motorcycle really is. It feels large, unwieldy and only barely competent. Had you never ridden the K-RS before you surely would instantly dismiss it as having no sporting character at all. You'd probably think, "Get me off this thing."
But you have been on it before--and you know better. You know what this bike can do. And sure enough, like a dull blade whetted on a stone, growing sharper and more impertinent with every draw, until what once was dull and slow-witted has transformed itself once again into a weapon one might confidently wield in anger, the K-RS slowly begins to reassert its character with each passing mile. Soon enough, you're smiling once again--and the BMW is kicking ass.
The next ride, back on the Gixxer, the process starts all over again. Just like putting down a bowie knife and picking up a straight razor.
And that's how it is for those of us blessed with more than one bike--constantly having to readjust to the day's ride. It's not a big deal. The reacclimatization period is usually pretty brief, especially when going from anything else to a sportbike, whose sharp focus typically prompts a very rapid adjustment, but it's nevertheless something that must be dealt with.
The crux of the matter lies mainly in the differences in speed at which each bike responds. Starting at the sportbike end of the spectrum, things happen instantly. There's a direct, laserlike feeling of connectedness between you and the bike: You think it, and it's done. As you move to other kinds of bikes, though, those with more weight, softer suspension and longer wheelbases, that feeling of responsiveness degrades. It simply takes more time between initiating a movement and having it take effect. As one of my riding buddies recently quipped, "You have to dial ahead."
That's the piece we need to adjust to. We have to remap our own nervous-system responses to those of the bike we're on. The more widely divergent our bike choices are, or if we spend lengthy periods of time on one before swapping to another, the longer it'll take. But once that's done, once those neural pathways are again in sync with our chosen platform, we're good to go. That's when a bike comes alive again. That's when you can rail.
As you might expect, that's not the end of the story. For many riders, those who only own one bike, none of this is an issue.
Ever hear the old Western adage, "Beware the man with one gun"? The inference there, the second part, is, "Because he probably knows how to use it."
Whether we're talking about a century-old single-action Colt Peacemaker or the just-introduced Kawasaki ZX-10R, our ability to get the most out of a tool is largely dependent upon our dedication to it. Having only one of anything--something that gets used all the time with no distractions from other, similar tools--allows us to gain a familiarity with it that is sometimes almost spooky. Riders who own only one bike often develop a nuanced, uncanny understanding of their machine that sets them apart from their buddies who have multiple platforms. They come to know, at an intimate, unconscious level, exactly what their bike will do. There's no need for any kind of acclimatization-- these guys are attuned to their bike's specific characteristics the moment they swing a leg over the seat.
Which is to say that at the end of the day you're in good shape regardless of which side of the fence you're on--whether you own one bike or many. For sure, there's a distinct pleasure in having a multibike stable, in being able to choose exactly the right kind of platform for a given ride. But there's also an equal delight in knowing the one bike you do own like an old glove.
And what I said at the beginning, that thing about not wanting to take your R1 on a cross-country tour? To hell with it. Take it anyway. You'll have a great time.
Enjoy today. It's the golden age.-SR