I could be wrong, but I feel like the demise of the sportbike has been greatly exaggerated. That or I’m confusing the demise of the sportbike with the demise of myself? We’re junkies loose in the pharmacy with all kinds of motorcycles here at MO, but every year – or at least every couple of years – when it’s time for the big Superbike Comparison!, well, all of us get even more amped-up than usual.
Sales of “Traditional” bikes are up again this spring about the same amount that sales of sportbikes are down, a thing we’re partially responsible for here at MO as we tout nakeds and ADVs, scramblers and scooters… But please don’t take that to mean the manufacturers should ever take away our gnarly, fuel-gargling, tire-wrinkling (yet Euro4-compliant!) Superbikes. No, please, not that! Fine, we’ll sacrifice the 600s and 750s, just keep the large-caliber stuff coming.
I think the manufacturers keep making them faster and more expensive because deep down the people in charge are like us: junkies. Just as Harley-Davidson has always sold by far the lion’s share of over-900cc motorcycles in the U.S., there’s always been a much smaller but equally dedicated core group of international Superbike nuts. Does racing make any sense for the factories that engage in it, i.e., nearly all of the big fish except Triumph? From a purely bean-counting standpoint, it probably does not. And yet here we all are in our Rossi hats and vintage HRC t-shirts, panting in front of the big screen TV for the Catalunya MotoGP. If you have to ask, you’ll never understand.
For us, the motorcycle is by definition a high-performance machine, and the open-class sportbike is the epitome of high performance. Now that both my parents have been deceased for some time, I require a larger dose of danger every year, as the only one left to frighten is myself. It’s what Casey Stoner says in this Mat Oxley article about why so many F1 fans are now MotoGP ones: “Fear is part of what gives you the adrenaline rush, it’s part of why we love to do what we do, because it gets your heart racing, it gets your blood pumping,” he said. “It’s that slight bit of fear that keeps you interested.”
The chance to ride these things every year or two is also a big compensation for leading the monastic and impecunious life of the itinerant motojournalist. Not only does that core group of enthusiasts keep these bikes alive at the big factories; it also assigns the best, freshest brains to try to outdo the competition. Keeping up with their thinking requires us old dogs to learn new tricks, which I’m convinced is a major component of keeping old dogs tricky.
The last time I was at a riding school must’ve been 10 years ago, when we were getting all our downshifting done before turning, then trail braking into the corner. This year at Auto Club Speedway, I was chit-chatting with Kawasaki’s Joey Lombardo, who’d been chit-chatting previously with former AMA roadracing champ Jason Pridmore about how the latest auto-shifters now allow us to shift (down, at least, with the lever unflipped) whenever the heck we feel like it, even mid-corner, and how lean-sensitive ABS has made trail-braking (which sounds suddenly kind of dainty) really just plain old braking hard all the way into the apex. Well, lean-sensitive ABS and really amazing tires make it possible.
I’ve been meaning to write a column about how tire warmers should just be banned, but since we had all seven Superbikes hooked up to them at Auto Club last week, what the heck: About session three on day one, I finally remembered to just blast off without taking it easy for a lap to let the tires warm up. I think I’d always depended on that out lap to let my brain get warm, too, but there’s no time for that in the modern world. (That could be another column; WFO on a cold brain.)
You still don’t have to have tire warmers if you’re just doing track days, of course, but you might as well not enter an actual race without them. And that’s true now as well of other technology like the quickshifter. On the road, I’m just as happy to blip the throttle a tad and downshift for myself, but at Fontucky there’s at least one place where that automatic smooth downshifter makes perfect sense. Since you can brake hard leaned way over now, you might want one more downshift just before the apex, and now you can have one without upsetting the chassis in the least: The Aprilia RSV4 was easiest for me to do that on, and the CBR Honda right behind it… the BMW is good, too, but the German bike insists you have the throttle all the way closed. Which is so typically German. (I always have the gas cracked a little, and usually dragging the rear brake, to combat the dread lurch when getting back into the gas.) Anyway, the other less-optioned-out base model bikes in the test suffered a bit by not having a quickshifter. Wait! I will speak no more about the upcoming track portion of the Superbike Schlongfest, since we haven’t posted it quite yet…
Upshifting, well, it’s not exactly the same as the seamless gearbox that MotoGP gets, but the quickshifter-equipped bikes let you just keep the throttle pinned, that is, if you had the courage to pin it in the first place. With a couple of these bikes knocking on the 180-horsepower door, you sort of feel like there’s plenty of accel at part throttle; are we sure we want all of it just now?
Yes, yes we do! We’ve got traction control! Turn 2 feels like you could get off and walk, since you just came off the banking doing 170, but turn 3 is a paved Sacramento Mile, a big left where you just feed the bike gears starting from second like stoking a steam locomotive, and you’re turning left long enough to have time to climb off the side of the bike like Marquez even if you move over there at sloth pace. Years ago on a literbike, turn 3 was sphincter-clenchville. On these bikes with TC, it is moto-nirvana, feeling the rear tire slip and grip in a way that used to require real expertise. Now all you have to do is roll the gas on, though smoothly is probably still important. These bikes teach you how much traction a motorcycle has. Now that my brain is coming up to temperature, I catch and pass the fat man on the Ducati who’d been blasting past me all morning Ahahhahaaaa…
Hah! It’s such a rush you don’t want to let go of the gas pedal, which takes us full circle to appreciating once again the miracle of lean-sensitive ABS (try to remember which bikes have it and which one you’re on) and the ability to downshift at full lean (on the bikes with up-and-down quickshifters), as turn 4 is in your face quicker than it was the previous lap. Toward the end of day two, instead of two downshifts before turn 4, it’s one before Turn 4 and one more downshift halfway round it (thank you, Joey); that gets these bikes lifting the front wheel down that next little straight (and you can’t go over backwards thanks to wheelie control) wooohoooo, who knew I was so damn good?
Well, of course I’m not and never was: It’s the bike(s). Just about everybody in the fast group passed me, and though we decided we wouldn’t be able to use lap times for the big shootout (because a few sessions were spoiled due to crashes and an oil spill), I did learn from BMW rep (and WERA fast guy) Steven Weir, that my fastest lap on the Beemer was about 14 seconds off an actual competitive one. A lifetime, really, but I swear if I had two more days I would find those 14 seconds somewhere!
Also I can quit whenever I want to. You begin to understand why serious racers will rob and steal to support their habit. That’s the effect these motorcycles have on the psyche, and why we’re hooked on them like no others. They’re the green light at the end of the pier; we’re Gatsby but less dead. It eluded us this time, but no matter, tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . And then one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Hey, I like the past. But open-class sportbikes just keep getting better. At my age, they may be the best part of the future. They’re incredibly exhilarating, the most intense fun you can have on two wheels and, no, you are not too old. These things will take years off your life. I got your adventure-bike right here.