Like all things odd, the French adopted Motard racing as their own after it was abandoned by our throw-away culture. It caught on throughout Europe, with almost every major manufacturer making these hybrid machines.
In 1988, an intrepid and adventurous Swede named Thomas Gustavsson developed a racing thumper and called it "Husaberg." The company has been building a range of high-performance, competition-oriented motorcycles since. A few years ago, orange giant KTM swallowed the company up and moved production to the KTM plant in Austria, but all the R&D work is still done in Sweden, keeping the bikes unique for their loyal band of followers worldwide.
I was offered the use of two of the 2005 machines by a local Husaberg dealer, a bone-stock FS650 "Force Edition" that is the personal machine of Subterranean Cycle's tire guy Robbie Markowitz and a lightly modified competition-only FS450c that shop owner Pat Eichorn campaigns in the Nor-Cal Super Moto USA racing series. Usually I test motorcycles that belong to the manufacturer or distributor, so I was worried about riding exotic, high-strung racebikes belonging to another enthusiast.
That was my state of mind when I showed up at the shop in San Francisco's edgy Tenderloin neighborhood. Robbie had his FS650 tuned, cleaned and full of gas for me. His is the limited "Force Edition", with a special billet triple clamp, polished fork springs, fork preload adjuster and a chromed connecting rod. Additionally, the plastics and graphics are exclusive to the force edition. Overall it's a stunning visial package, dripping with trick touches, like a lavishly tricked-out AMA Supermoto bike.
For those readers who assume this is just some kind of Swedish KTM, I am here to tell you that as good and serious a bike a KTM may be, this is different. The Husaberg is truly built with competition in mind, despite Robbie's miraculously obtained California license plate and the minimal lighting. The 650 is absurdly light at a *claimed* 250 pounds dry and has few frills. There is no ignition key or fork lock, no helmet hooks or ugly reflectors. The mirror is a folding add-on, and the lights are lightweight enduro items. The switches are small and poorly placed: mere afterthoughts to comply with some far-off DMV.
The 25-pound chrome-moly steel tube frame uses a meaty aluminum swingarm to hold the rear 160-section wheel and Pirelli tire. In front, an exquisite top triple clamp carved with a CNC machine holds huge 48mm fork tubes enclosing polished springs and chromed dampers. The front wheel is bolted to a 310mm wave brake disc, and sitting lemur-like on the end of the fork leg is a four-piston billet caliper, radially mounted and engraved with the Husaberg logo. Like everything on the bike, the caliper looks like expensive jewelry for gearheads.
Visually, the bike is great. It looks light, high tech and purposeful. The curves and proportions of the components keep your eye busy without highlighting any one spot. The black bodywork and billet bling-bling scattered about the bike make it look functional and high-performing while being in-your-face stylish at the same time, like a hip-hop version of George S. Patton.
Instrumentation and controls are minimal and not designed for daily living. The lack of an ignition key or steering head lock requires you to carry around a cable or disc lock, and the switchgear is absurd: the kill switch is a button on the left bar, nothing is marked, and the horn button is located in a spot only convenient to a double-jointed orangutan. The speedometer is OK, with all the warning lights you'd need and good lighting.
Robbie helps me roll the bike outside the cluttered shop and shows me the basics. "Don't get on the gas too hard in first or second", he says, worried I might loop the bike. "It'll wheelie pretty good in third." How much power does this thing make? "After we installed the right jets and removed a block-off plate from the airbox, we saw 58 HP from a Factory Pro dyno." That would show up as something like 62 rear-wheel horses on MO's Dynojet. For perspective, a KLR650 makes 37 HP. Since this bike weighs about 270 pounds wet, I'm beginning to realize Robbie's cautions about first and second gear might not be the hysterical admonitions from the nervous owner of a $9,000 thumper, but sound warnings firmly rooted in experience.
I hoist a leg over and find that the seat isn't too high at less than 35", and it's so narrow I can just about get my feet down on the ground. The motor fires up very easily thanks to the electric start and automatic compression release. There's vibration, but the motor feels smooth and quick-revving as I blip the throttle a bit to help warm it up. Robbie goes inside to change more tires, and I pull in the clutch and slip the smooth six-speed gearbox into first, ready for an afternoon of fun in San Francisco, a 49 square mile Motard playground.
I shouldn't have worried that the Husaberg would be an untameable street monster with its light weight and powerful motor. I am here to tell you that as far as genuine racebikes go, a Supermotard makes the best streetbike by far. Super Moto racing requires a smooth and tractable engine with good throttle response and flexible gearing, as well as suspension that works well on a variety of surfaces. It also needs grippy tires that won't slide too much in the rain and
As Motards go, the Husaberg is one of the better ones I've ridden. Powerful motor combined with light chassis? Roger. Pick a speed between one and 60 mph, and the Husaberg will be going that speed in less than a block. Compliant suspension? You bet: the `Berg's light weight means you will feel everything under the tires, from a discarded Tic-Tac to a certified Bernal Heights pothole, but the wheels stay firmly stuck to the pavement thanks to the race-quality suspension. And stopping is an experience by itself.
That brake. That incredible front brake. I never thought a motorcycle could have too much braking power, but riding a Husaberg has changed that notion. Some things look good but don't work so well, like Paris Hilton. But the forged billet aluminum, German-made FTE radial-mount caliper looks like a million bucks
and is just unbelievably powerful. One-finger stoppies are no longer a dream, even if you have never actually dreamed of doing a one-fingered stoppie. With about the same trigger pull you'd need to fire a shotgun, the Husaberg will lift its back wheel in a split-second. The brakes stop you now, no waiting, two shows a night and three on Fridays. Tip your waitresses, please.PAGE 2A few dozen laps of the bumpy, twisty road around Twin Peaks revealed a machine with great handling characteristics, as should be expected from a competition bike. The weight distribution and steering geometry felt just right to me, and the longish wheelbase kept it from feeling too twitchy at higher speeds. The frame and suspension is stiff enough to let the rider carry as much speed as he likes over bumpy, fast turns, with the wide bar ensuring mind-warping turning speeds.
Cruising on the freeway in afternoon traffic puts the Husaberg outside its optimal environment. There's no wind protection, and the upright seating position exacerbates this. The motor starts to send strong vibrations to an ass already
The next Monday we loaded up Pat's big truck and drove 90 miles out to Stockton, CA, home of the the largest bike I had ridden there to date was the 72cc Derbi I used to race. Would a 450 be too much for me?
Just like riding the 650 on the street, I shouldn't have worried. Pat's 450 is essentially the 650 with no lights and a smaller bore. Rolling out onto the track for the first time in a year, I was relieved to discover a machine with not much more weight than my Derbi 70, with a powerful yet more controllable engine. I was slower than everybody else practicing at first, but then as I got more comfortable with the big thumper motor and fantastic Maxxis Supermoto tires Pat uses, I sped up, even passing a few other riders.
On a tight and twisty racetrack, a lightweight powerful bike like the FS450 is a ticket to all-day fun. The motor feels as strong as the 650's, and the chassis delivers confidence and feedback that only a custom-built race weapon like this could. I could lean the bike as far as I wanted with no scraping of footpegs or weird flexing feelings from the frame. Faster and faster I would attack the familiar apexes, only to discover I was using a fraction of the bike's capability. All day long I was just using third gear, powering out of corners like I was on some kind of demented scooter.
Stockton provides great spectating opportunities right in front of the bleachers, where a long front straight ends at a 120 degree right hand turn best taken at under 20 mph. On a raceday, this results in three or more bikes drag-racing each other off of the last turn onto the straightaway, accelerating to 70 mph and braking at the last minute in a cloud of rubber smoke, fighting for position into the sharp right turn. The Husaberg takes up this challenge with aplomb, the great throttle response letting you get on the gas early, a buttery gearbox allowing you to go as fast as you dare, and those amazing brakes to smoke the tires and slide you into place in front of your competition.
Robbie was also present with his bike, and I took the 650 out to see if it had any advantage over the 450. The extra motor is unnecessary on such a tight course, but the 650 felt only a fraction less nimble and light than the 450 and was every bit as enjoyable.
Trackdays are fun, but how's this bike everyday? Well, the bad news about getting 60 HP from a 650 thumper is that you're looking at a very high-strung race motor. The Husaberg seems to be very reliable, but it has a rigorous maintenance schedule, requiring fresh motor oil every 300 miles and plenty of supervision otherwise. It's a bike for racers and serious enthusiasts; the low production numbers and high admission price will ensure that.
$9,000 plus for a thumper seems like a lot, but this bike actually represents a good value. If you don't believe me, calculate the cost of making a Motard racer out of a CRF450. You'll need wheels, tires, gearing, suspension work and brakes to start. After you spend well over $10,000 including the cost of the CRF, you still won't have a bike with the pedigree -- or performance -- of the Husaberg or another high-performance street motard. And an R6 will go faster in a straight line, but you won't beat one of these on a twisty, bumpy road on it, unless you're skilled enough and crazy enough to carry the kinds of corner speeds a 250-pound dirtbike is capable of on your porcine 400-pound sportbike.
We motorcyclists are always searching for the perfect bike: a motorcycle that is fun around town, comfortable on the open road, great on twisty roads, and suitable for trackday fun. A big Motard like the Husaberg isn't that. It's too uncomfortable for long distances, too maintenance-intensive for daily use and has about as much civility as Dick Cheney on coke. But as a supplement to our daily rides, a big Motard could handle the cross-town trips, 50-mile Sunday excursions and occasional trackdays with great competence and fun. It's surprising to me there isn't more demand for a bike like this, with it's amazing performance, easy handling and acuity at extra-legal activities like wheelies, stoppies and long, greasy slides.
So a Motard isn't the Holy Grail of motorcycles, but it can be a fun and practical supplement to your stable. And if you want one of the fastest and best-handling around -- the MV Agusta of Motards -- a Husaberg deserves a closer look.