Firebolts, Lightnings and an XB-RR: Buells in Bakersfield

2007 Buell Model Line-up Press Launch

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After spending much of the day riding the stock Buells on the racetrack, it's my turn to experience the XB-RR firsthand. The bike's been warmed up by a morning underneath maniac racer Steve Crevier and numerous journalists, yet it's running strong as it sits idling, waiting for me. The seat is higher than stock, but everything else feels just like an XB12R; the footpegs and bars are in the standard positions. I just have to get used to the GP shift pattern; it's distracting as I have only infrequently ridden a bike so equipped. The bike accelerates briskly out of the pit lane, but the power isn't unmanageable or even particularly strong; just sharp and linear, pulling from ridiculously low RPMs all the way to over 8,000.

Can you say "free-flowing"?

"It's just a faster, lighter XB12 like you've been riding all day", I try to convince myself. I know I have to make a good showing of it; I don't want to be the guy everybody passed while riding the XB-RR.

That said, I snick the much-improved gearbox (it uses straight-cut and surface-treated gears) up into fourth and screw it on entering the long, sweeping turn on the west end of the race course. The tach needle swings past 6,000 and the bike lunges forward, the compliant, yet controlled Ohlins suspension making molehills out of the mountainous bumps on that part of the track.

Erik Buell sometimes rides in the tail section to take notes.

The illusion of being on a very fast streetbike comes to a halt when I slow for the Lost Hills elevation change, a sharp right hander that crests a blind rise (where I almost purchased some GSXR 1000 bodywork during our Open Superbike test). As the bike's massive engine braking abruptly slows the bike, heat wells up under the big Lucifer's Hammer-style fairing and starts to cook my right hand, practically burning it. It's good incentive to keep on the gas, so I slide my right hand as far to the end of the grip as I can and keep going. The bike's rigid chassis, quick steering and incredible stability are quite impressive. It feels a lot like the stock XB12R until you give it a handful of brakes and almost get launched over the bars; the brake is incredibly strong for a single disc, single-caliper system.

Erik could have gone with conventional brakes for the racer and nobody would have said anything, but he wanted to prove the efficacy of the ZTL design. I am here to tell you it works. In fact, everything on the bike worked well in my rigorous two and a half-lap testing cycle. Is it reliable? Buell brought out two XB-RRs for the track day, but only one would be available to ride, with the second on hand as a spare. After Crevier rode all morning, and 16 or so journalists rode it three and a half laps apiece, the bike was still running as fast (and hot) as it was when Steve Crevier blew past me like I was going backwards during the first session. The B-bike never left the garage.

Were it not for the unfamiliarity with the reversed shifting and massive heat coming from under the fairing, it would have been like riding a very well set-up privateer racebike, and that is Erik's goal. Even back in the early 80's, Erik wanted to build a bike a privateer could be competitive on without having a budget like the Pentagon's. He doesn't want to conquer the world with a factory Buell race time, rather, he's just "looking for a real show of competence." Considering this will be competing against 600cc Supersports, Ducati 749s, and SV650s, it seems to be well-suited for its intended mission.

"If the sportbike-riding public begins to see Buells frequently winning in real races, with real riders on local tracks, the Buell's message of real-world functionality and fun will be hard to deny."

This seat is lower than last year's and just as comfy.

How well do all these features work on the track? Are they enough to overcome the lack of power from the air-cooled V-twin and produce a memorable experience? Who the hell cares; I'm at one of the best tracks in California looking at 20 different motorcycles I can ride to my heart's content. I decide to get it over with and see how the Ulysses is on the track. I'm expecting it to feel big, heavy and wallowy through high-speed turns.

Compared to the rest of the line-up, I'm right, but the bike is still fun. It has light steering, good brakes, and it holds its line well in a turn. It demands more respect than the other Buells; the softer, longer-travel suspension moves around a lot if you try to snap it into turns like a TZ250, and the pegs drag distressingly early, but if you ride at a comfortable, yet brisk pace, it finds a rhythm that is very fun and satisfying. You'll still get passed a lot, though.

However, if you just view trackdays as an occasional means of building your skills rather than a way to subjugate the other primates in your social group with a ritual show of athletic dominance, the Ulysses is beyond OK; it's a fine choice for a track bike, a choice made even better when you pack your cooler and leathers onto it at the end of the day and ride it home two-up.

If you do want to show up the other monkeys, swing down from your tree onto a Firebolt. With high pegs and a compact seating position, the XB12R suddenly makes perfect sense, setting your body up to lever the bike into high-speed turns and drag knees and elbows. The light front wheel and roadracer steering geometry allow the stubby bars to steer the bike effortlessly, and the motor has enough torque to minimize what is still a pretty crude-feeling gearbox. Clutchless upshifting requires more coordination than a Japanese design, and the 6,800 RPM power peak requires more shifting than a torquey motor like this should. Still, the rigid chassis and very good suspension (I forgot completely that none of these bikes, not even the XB-RR, have a suspension linkage) allow this bike to do incredible things in the right hands.

Riding the XB9R is like making love in the back seat of a Volkswagen; fun, but cramped.

"Unique and fun enough to be captivating year after year."

Still, I'm more comfortable on the Lightning series, and a session with the City X feels like lunch with an old friend. It has all the chassis rigidity and feedback of the bigger bikes, but feels lighter and more nimble thanks to the higher-revving motor. It's just an extra 700 RPM, but it somehow feels easier to ride, and you don't miss the extra 13 horses, since you're carrying so much corner speed. The lower pegs and higher bars on the Lightnings make racetrack riding a much more comfortable affair, and I only ground the pegs in a few spots, although the faster riders noticed it much more. The lack of wind protection would be serious on a faster track like Willow Springs, but even at 110 MPH I didn't mind the windblast and even welcomed its cooling effects.

The Lightning Long and Lightning cg produced some surprises for me. The cg-lowered one inch in the seat and .75 inches in the suspension-had that same light, manic feel that the City X had, while the Long actually felt heavy-steering and bland. However, the cg had a very pronounced scoop in the seat that made it hard to tuck in on the bike on straightaways and sweeping turns; I had to perch my butt on the passenger pad. Anyone taller than 5'5"-and there's a few of you out there, I think-might feel cramped on this bike, although you can just get a taller seat for it. If you're starting to think that the XB model line has produced a lot of choices, you're right. The two different chassis setups and two different motors can be mixed and matched to suit all kinds of riders; I heard few complaints, even though the assembled journalists were sized from 6'7" and 340 pounds to itty bitty guys like me, and every level of expertise was there as well, from weekend Harley enthusiast to National Roadracing champs.

With pricing from $8,895 to $11,495 (the same as last year) Buell is in the moderate price range. For such a carefully-planned, low-volume product line, it seems cheap. I could be very happy riding a Buell for a while, even if there is nothing really new to report for 2007. Erik's motorcycles are unique and fun enough to be captivating year after year.

Keeping Your Cool

We've already established that Bakersfield in July is a very bad place. However, Buttonwillow Raceway is an excellent place any month, as it is a racetrack and you have a motorcycle. Still, riding a motorcycle in the heat is exhausting and as your brain and body start to overheat, dangerous. How to keep cool to maximize your time on track and minimize your time panting in the shade?

Hydrate! You should be drinking constantly when it's extremely hot. If you feel at all thirsty and your urine isn't close to clear (or at least the color of Budweiser), you are already dehydrated. Just like cold weather or rain, hot-weather riding is OK if you dress and prepare for it. If you're riding on the street, you can carry a Camelback or similar hydration system to sip from frequently. Avoid caffeinated drinks like soda, coffee or iced tea. Gatorade and similar products are OK, but you should be drinking more water than sports drinks.

Know the signs of heat stroke and heat exhaustion so you know when to come off the track or stop riding. Signs can include: impaired judgment (signing up for a track day or vintage racing doesn't count). nausea and fatigue cold, clammy skin and shortness of breath hot, dry skin (this is very serious) cramping (unless it's just your time of month) Wear vented exterior clothing with a wicking layer underneath to keep your skin cool and dry.

Damp clothing against the skin, if it isn't being ventilated, can get uncomfortable. I see riders with unvented black leathers in the mornings on hot track days, but they seem to be gone by mid-afternoon. The Buell people gave us "Neck Coolie" devices to help us stay cool. These are bandannas filled with an ultra-absorbent polymer powder that soaks up a huge amount of water and stays damp for a long time. Having the evaporative cooling effect on your neck (where it can cool the blood flowing to your brain and back to your heart, in case there are some MOrons out there with both a brain and a heart) makes the ambient temperature noticeably cooler. I "forgot" to give it back and will wear it until the powder leaches away, which happens eventually. Fortunately they are available for about $6, or if you are as cheap as Pete, you can make your own. Moisture-wicking underwear made of polyester or other synthetic fibers can make riding in hot weather a cooler and drier experience. Buell sells a branded wicking T, but many manufacturers sell T-shirts, underwear and socks that aren't $40.

The moisture-wicking stuff is great not only because it helps to keep you cool (and warm in cold weather, if worn under an insulating layer), but also because you can rinse it out quickly in a sink and it will dry much faster than cotton. That way you can pack three or four sets of underwear for a week or two, saving room in your luggage for gadgets, pornography, beef jerky, single-malt Scotch or Beanie Babies.


Gabe's Apparel:

Helmet: Shoei X-11 Porto Replica
Vented Jacket: Shift Airborne Jacket
Gloves: Shift Stealth Hybrid Gloves (red) and Shift SR-1 Gloves (blue)
Boots: Sidi Vertigo Corsa Air
Leathers: Helimot J-92 Custom Suit

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