Supermotard is big in Europe, and perhaps the biggest race is the Guidon d'Or. Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson, Stephane Chambon and Jean Michel Bayle have all won the prestigious event.
Serious 'motarders employ 17-inch wheels with street tires or cut slicks, and lowered suspension-check out that huge front brake. There's more to be gained on the pavement than lost in the dirt with this setup.
We used this Yamaha WR400 in our exploratory Supermotard foray; the only modification was a tire swap to Dunlop Trailmax tires, and slightly taller gearing.
Supermotard can trace its roots back to The Superbikers television show of the early 1980s. Ted Boody (above) and Eddie Lawson (left) demonstrate.
Some basic modifications to the WR made life much easier on pavement. While the standard front disc was surprisingly effective, this oversized wave rotor from Am-Pro Racing (800/845-4141) was more powerful and consistent. Dunlop Trailmax tires are surprisingly sticky on pavement. Yamaha's GYTR makes a ton of go-fast goodies for the F series 'crossers, including this gorgeous titanium/carbon exhaust which really uncorked the bike's top end. (GYTR parts, for both streetbikes and dirt bikes, are available through Yamaha dealers, or at www.yamaha-motor.com.)
Yes, they bite. This project came to an abrupt end when the associate editor highsided at Willow's kart track, sprained his back and rung his bell. Ooh, that smarts!
The editor aboard the lowered YZ with 17-inch wheels. As well as having more traction, this bike was much more controllable when things got out of hand.
Yamaha Grand Prix rider Carlos Checa uses his YZ426 Supermotard machine to keep sharp for 500GP racing. "You would be surprised how many things I practice on the YZ426F that can be directly associated to my riding style at GPs."
The right way. Don Canet, who organizes the SuperTT series we competed in, demonstrates the hacker style of backing it into corners.
Supermotard's popularity has generated a class of street/dirt derivatives like this KTM Duke II. Not much can keep pace with the ultimate hooligan bikes on a tight, gnarly road. Roost on!
If you're in the typical age group of sport riders, you'll remember the made-for-TV show The Superbikers from the early 1980s. Here's a brief recap: Take the top riders from the major flattrack, roadrace and motocross series, and pit them against each other on a mixed pavement/dirt course for a winner-take-all showdown. It's a recipe for, well...what was a great series but for some reason just never caught on at the time.
After a decade of dormancy, The Superbikers returned in the form of Supermotard or Supermoto. Surfacing in France as the Guidon d'Or (the Golden Cup), the concept was the same: Riders from a variety of disciplines compete on a partially paved, partially dirt course. And just as the bike of choice in The Superbikers was a lowered, wide-tired motocross bike, current Supermotard machinery typically consists of big-bore, four-stroke motocrossers, suitably modified. The Superbikers/Supermotard comeback has spawned a number of series, whether it's serious multi-race championships like Don Canet's SuperTT series or the Thursday night rumbles in the parking lot behind the local Target. They all have one thing in common though-dirt bikes ridden on pavement or a dirt/pavement mix.
Canet's series is split into several classes, with the machinery divided into three basic groups: Premier (unlimited displacement and modifications), Middleweight (under 400cc with unlimited mods) and Sportsman (stock-sized wheels, stock brake calipers and full suspension travel required). Typical in the Premier class are big Huskies, KTMs and the odd Honda CR500 and VOR-all with wide, 17-inch wheels and their suspensions lowered. Yamaha's YZ400F is popular in the Middleweight class (wide-tired also) and the Sportsman class attracts a mixed bag of motocross equipment with dual-purpose tires fitted.
A hint dropped to our friendly Yamaha PR representative and a WR400F loaner appeared, which is eligible for a number of classes depending on modifications. Dual-purpose or dirttrack tires are the norm for the Sportsman class because they have enough tread to get at least something resembling grip in dirt sections, without disintegrating on pavement. We spooned on a set of Dunlop Trailmax dual-sport buns (800/548-4714, www.dunlopmotorcycle.com), and while the back rim was off, a three-teeth-smaller rear sprocket was scrounged from the MX shop and fitted. Standard gearing is woefully short for paved straights of any length, and for longer tracks we also fitted a front sprocket one tooth larger than stock. A stroll through the pits reveals serious competitors have bark busters (guards that protect a rider's hands) mounted: Are there trees on course? No, but they're necessary as the racing is um...close.
The hot suspension setup for Sportsman is as follows: Take all the air out of the front fork (to lower the front end) by tying it down and bleeding it; at both ends dial-in almost all the rebound damping and take out most of the compression damping. Weird and simple, but effective. Armed as such, we were set for a couple of SuperTT events and a day at the local kart track.
Put simply, the big WR is awesome to ride on pavement. Grip from the Trailmaxes is surprisingly good, but even 'motard novices will be slithering around after a handful of laps. First thing to notice is these bikes are quite tall and tippy compared to sportbikes, but after a few corners the sensation fades. Big, wide handlebars make it easy to muscle the thing around, and your inside foot naturally gravitates off the peg to skim across the ground-just in case. Tire-spinning exits are next, and their ease depends on how much grip is available. At Bakersfield's Mesa Marin Raceway in California, the Supermotard track includes portions of the oval's infield, covered in sealer. Slides out of every corner are the norm, and you quickly realize that they are required to Keep Up with the Joneses. Back to Willow Springs' kart track and regular pavement, slides on corner exits are a bit less predictable, and near high-sides inevitably result.
Getting 'er sideways on the entrance to the corners is a bit more difficult, and best practiced on pavement with less traction to start. The stock MX front brake on the WR proved up to the task, but would lose its bite and predictability after a few laps. Still, there's enough power to lock the wheel, and enough feel to confidently trail-brake into turns in traditional roadrace fashion. However, bikes like the four-stroke Yamaha practically force you to "back 'er in" using heavy engine braking, especially the first few times you overshoot a corner and madly stab the shift lever. It's all quite natural, really-well, some people can make it look that way anyway. Word from the top riders is that they bang all the required downshifts early, then use the clutch to modulate engine braking and hence the angle of the "hack," as it's known. Um...yeah. We'll stick to a combination of engine braking, pavement sealer and rear brake for now. And even at that, it takes a deft touch to back it in with any consistency and make time.
Push hard on the Sportsman bike, and the dual-purpose tires become a bit unpredictable at full lean-with stock rims our bike felt as if the tire's contact patch became smaller with greater lean angles. If we had more time with the bike, we would have tried to lower it a tad more (if just for comfort's sake), but that would be difficult while keeping within the rule requiring stock suspension travel.
We had a chance to sample a lowered YZ426F equipped with wide 17-inch wheels, grippy DOT-race tires and a four-piston caliper working a huge Braking U.S.A. (800/272-5342, www.brakingusa.com) front disc. The smaller wheels lower the bike substantially, helping it feel more planted and stable. With more traction than the Sportsman-class WR, the 426 was easier to ride and more controllable once sliding. Surprisingly, at the events we attended it appeared there were Sportsman bikes holding their own in the Premier class.
When you get on the dirt is when things get a little hairy-for those of us with a pavement background, anyway. Generally, the top riders will sacrifice traction in the dirt to maximize their pavement setup, and run street tires or cut slicks at most events. Our Sportsman WR fared well on the one dirt section at Mesa Marin, tracking straight over the single jump, but less impressively in the traction department (even with the dual-purpose tires).
The whole 'motard concept is contradictory-first you don a mix of roadrace and MX gear, then hop on your 'crosser fit with street tires...it takes off from there. The riding style ends up being a mix of aggression and finesse; violence and dance. As a training tool, it's hard to beat. You'll learn how to control a slide pretty quickly if you want to be competitive and not end up in the weeds. And the action is fast 'n furious, as the tight tracks don't give you time to relax and catch your breath-a real roadrace track will feel wide open and slow afterward.
But we found the best part of the Supermotard experience to be the fun per dollar. You need only a used motocross bike and some dual-purpose buns to start. The license and entry-fees for the STARRS races are reasonable. Heck, you can even enter a real roadrace with a Supermotard bike and do half-decently-especially if it rains! More information on Don Canet's SuperTT series is available online at www.supertt.com.