Best and Worst of 2009

Senior Editor Pete Brissette takes a look back at the year that was

With respect to the motorcycle industry, 2009 was a year that remained pretty bleak. A national financial crisis continues to send ripples across seemingly all aspects of the U.S. economy, with the moto biz suffering immensely.

Much of motorcycling here is seen as largely recreational, so like any non-essentials in life during hard times, the fun stuff has got to go, or at least gets dramatically de-prioritized.

And even though we’re essentially a month into 2010, we’re still seeing reminders of how tough last year was for motorcycling in the U.S.:

• The physical remnants of Buell are about to go on the auction block; the very equipment used to manufacture the only mass-produced sportbike of U.S. design will likely be scattered to the four winds.

Nasty, dark storm clouds loomed over Miller Motorsports Park in Utah during the U.S. round of WSBK. Who woulda thunk this image would turn out to be a good representation of the rest of ’09 in the motorcycle industry.

• Although total global sales for Honda were down a palatable 1%, units from Big Red sold in North America plummeted 48% compared to 2008.

• No surprises here, but Harley-Davidson reported a revenue loss of over 40% for the fourth quarter of ’09 when compared to the same quarter in 2008. And annual revenue from last year for The Motor Company is down 23.1% from the year before. Victory hasn’t faired much better.

The mournful expressions on the Buell workers’ faces in this photo say more than words can. So long, old friend.

Where, o’ where will all this end?

• Kawasaki and Suzuki forsook annual dealer meetings. Heck, poor lil’ Suzuki, creator of the GSX-R, a model name universally synonymous with the term sportbike, has thus far announced only the RM-X450Z dirt bike as the only all-new model for 2010. However, during the annual Cycle World International Motorcycle Show in Long Beach, CA Suzuki claimed a 31 billion yen profit over the first six months of 2009, with high hopes for 2010.

• Pro-level roadracing in America is but a shell of its former self, and prospects for 2010 don’t look much better:

• Honda yanked its Superbike effort; Kawasaki is out altogether at the factory level; a skeletal Suzuki team is now handled entirely by Yoshimura, and Yamaha scaled back, too, while its Canadian racing efforts are in the crapper.

Yep, those are just a few of the bummers from ’09.

Nevertheless, there were some bright spots last year and things to look forward to in this new year:

• Despite a less-than-optimistic report from the Motorcycle Industry Council that total bike sales in the U.S. were down nearly 41% last year, BMW claimed the least damage. Reporting a 22% decline in sales, BMW touts that figure as the “the smallest decline among all motorcycle brands.”

• Triumph actually reported sales growth of well over 5% in December last year when compared to Dec., ’08. In a release from Triumph, the company claims the MIC reports that Triumph “has gained market share in the U.S. for the past five years … The sustained growth makes Triumph one of the fastest growing motorcycle manufacturers in country and one of only two marques that never lost market share in that time period.”  Bully!

The unveiling of the new Multistrada 1200 was a bright spot near the end of 2009 and it should be just as exciting in 2010 when we’ll get to ride it!

• Ducati had happy news, too, claiming a boost of 8.5% in the Italian’s stake in the U.S. large-displacement sportbike segment. The Italian bike giant also reported that its “market share grew more than any other OEM that's still in business,” and that it sold more sportbikes in the U.S. than all its European competitors combined.

The Phoenix has risen.

• In addition to way better than average sales from the above three, Ducati unveiled the long-rumored update to the funky Multistrada. The all-new Mulitstrada 1200 is powered by a liquid-cooled 1198-based mill and is full of techy options!

• BMW finally took the cover off its entrant in the inline-Four fray. The S1000RR was in the news a long time before the unveiling of the final iteration of the production unit. By all accounts, the S1000RR has the goods to quickly become the new favorite in the literbike wars!

• Although current times in the motorbike world give reason for a sourpuss, those of you that own a scoot seem happier than ever according to an annual survey conducted by J.D. Power and Associates. The overall owner satisfaction score increased for the seventh consecutive year, and reached its highest level (838 out of 1000 points) in the 12 years of the study.

• Down but certainly not out, Erik “The Phoenix” Buell carries on! Ever the innovator and fighter, Erik has found a way to resurface and nurture his wounded dream: Erik Buell Racing.

• Further reason to celebrate Buell’s new venture was the recent announcement of the sale of two race ready bikes, known as the 1190RR-B, to team The team will campaign the machines in the European Sound of Thunder Series.

Erik Buell’s passion for motorcycles is contagious; his resilience and fortitude make him a stellar example of what perseverance is all about. I hope the motorcycle industry at large follows his lead.

Pete’s happy memories from ’09

Indeed last year seemed a season rife with bad moto news. But taking inspiration from Mr. Buell, in the spirit of gratitude and in an effort to maintain a good attitude, I took a cursory look across last year to find some highlights in my own moto experiences.

After separating the wheat from the chaff of ‘09, here’s a brief look at some of the things I recall with fondness.

U.S. debut of the BMW S1000RR during WSBK at MMP

Utah weather on race day during the only U.S. stop on the WSBK circuit was ominous and foreboding, as if it were a sign of things to come for the BMW squad campaigning the S1000RR.

BMW’s results during the U.S. round of WSBK last year weren't great, however, Troy Corser finished in 13th place overall for the year, with Xaus 17th overall. Not bad for a first year effort on an unproven bike.

Despite early practice laps that were within a hair of 2008’s winning time, Troy Corser and Ruben Xaus placed 15th and 21st respectively in Race 1, with Xaus coming in 16th in Race 2 and Corser in 17th.

Although we couldn’t celebrate a win with our host, BMWNA, I appreciated the opportunity to finally see, hear and feel the S1000RR. Furthermore, I was pleasantly surprised by the mostly positive feedback the proletariat gave to the new German-made Big Four literbike killer. Despite its funny face, they liked it! Especially when they heard pricing would be similar to Japanese liter machines.

BMW is expected to start shipping the more than 600 pre-ordered S1000RRs this week, but until you get to ride yours you can read about Kevin Duke’s time aboard the new Beemer as he slung it around the spectacular Autodromo circuit in Portimao, Portugal late last year.

Launch of 2009 Triumph models in New Orleans

A fun new/old bike in an old but fun city.

This selection combined a couple of firsts for me: riding a modern Bonnie and a trip to the Big Easy.

I was eager to see the home of Mardi Gras in the U.S. and witness firsthand New Orleans’, and surrounding areas, recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

Our evaluation ride of the 2009 Triumphs took us along the Gulf Coast as well as inland through bayou area. Although much of the damage isn’t as obvious these days, there are still harsh reminders, like stilts without homes (many homes are built on stilts, or pilings, in this region) and in-ground hot tubs filled with murky water.

During a bayou tour we saw an entire home that had been sucked off its foundation and deposited far out into the waterway where it remains to this day; a stark reminder of the fragility and temporariness of life.

Our hotel was spitting distance from the French Quarter so we also played tourist in New Orleans.

Ultimately I wasn’t impressed with Café du Monde – a lil’ grimier than I expected – but the beignets that friends always bragged about were lip-smackin’ tasty. I so liked the clumps of deep fried dough covered in an avalanche of powered sugar that I’ve attempted – with little success – to replicate them at home.

Bourbon Street struck me more as a long walkway into the world’s biggest strip joint rather than a microcosm of a party town known for occasional bare-breasted tomfoolery. In other words, it seemed a bit skeezy.

However, I did come away with a generally good impression of N.O., as I enjoyed the festive atmosphere in most places, the number of bars and the good food. I only wish I’d more time there. Thanks to Triumph North America for this most excellent journey.

Riding the Aprilia RSV4 Factory

Bottom line: This bike is f---in’ awesome!

This one’s pretty simple. Aprilia’s V-4 powered superbike is about as near to sportbike perfection as I’ve yet experienced, at least in recent memory.

Its engine configuration affords an overall narrow, lightweight bike, and placement of most of the fuel under the rider means a small-ish faux fuel tank and a low center of gravity. The result is ferocious liter-class power in an ultra-responsive supersport-size chassis. Factor in flawless fueling and you’ve got a 150-rwhp motorcycle that makes going fast almost effortless.

Include the up-spec goodies found on the Factory model and the RSV4 is the kind of bike that makes grown men holler when they see it. (Really, some guy shouted with excitement when we pulled into Buttonwillow Raceway for the first part of our annual liter test.)

Its somewhat compact ergos won’t be ideal for every rider in street settings, but then neither are the lion’s share of repli-racer machines truly comfortable for the environment in which most will be used: the street.

We don’t yet know how the Priller will stand up to the S1000RR, but it’s sure to be a spectacular competition when we finally get them together in the coming months. Of course, this is me guessing we might favor the BMW over its Japanese competitors.

Time will tell…

The RSV4 Factory edged out some pretty tough competition from Ducati and KTM in the first test of our 2010 Literbike Shootout. But will it have enough to be the ultimate champ when it faces off against the winner of BMW vs. Japan in the next phase our liter test?

Testing Honda’s all-new C-ABS…in the rain!

Talk is cheap; especially when claims made can’t necessarily be tested.

Well shiver me timbers if on the test day for Honda’s all-new Combined-ABS (as found on the CBR600RR and 1000RR) it didn’t rain cats and dogs at Honda’s secret testing facility in the Mojave Desert! What could be better?

Here’s the details behind this image: 100mph in nearly an inch of standing water (as well as a deluge of rain), hammer the front brake as hard as possible, stay upright all the way ‘til the end. Wow.

Despite swearing off riding in the rain after years of working wet winters as a motorcycle courier, evaluating an anti-lock system during a downpour couldn’t have proved a more ideal scenario.

The other two perfectly timed instances of riding in the rain were when I tested Dunlop’s Roadsmart tire, and more recently Pirelli’s Angel ST tire.

Both brands make claims of excellent handling in the wet, but what are the odds (at least in SoCal) we’d get rain on the one day we had to sample the tires? Amazingly, it rained during each tire launch. (I’m not likin’ my odds these days when it comes to tire evals!)

Not only did the sky open up during the CBR C-ABS test, someone also came up with the bright idea of compounding matters by purposely flooding the skid pad!

Reading our review of Honda’s advanced and excellent new anti-lock system you’ll learn that it might as well have been bone dry when it came time to stop.

Riding Suzuki’s TU250X

If I didn’t like attempting wheelies so often, I might’ve voted Suzuki’s TU250X as Bike of the Year in our Best Of 2009 – Motorcycles of the Year awards instead of the Triumph Street Triple R.

IMO, the shear joy of the simplicity of riding when aboard this UJM throwback makes the TU deserving of such an honor.

The 2009 Suzuki TU250X: Bringing simple fun back to motorcycling. The TU was one of the most enjoyable bikes I’d ridden all year.

Its seat height is welcoming of virtually all inseams; the open and upright ergos are relaxing and confidence inspiring for the new rider; there’s ample power from the 249cc Single; it handles well despite a fairly basic suspension package; it’s a fuel miser; the rare-for-the-class fuel-injection is spot-on; it looks great; and last year it retailed for a modest $3799. Best of all, the TU250X is pure riding fun!

Well done, Suzuki.


Riding the new K1300 scoots in California’s Central Coast wine country

A fast new Beemer + California wine country = An awesome time.

I’ve been weekend tripping in California’s south central coast for a number of years now. I’ve become a wino, joining wine clubs of three wineries in the Los Olivos area. Heck, I like it so much I even got married on the beach in Santa Barbara.

Lush rolling hillsides, vineyards and pastures coalesce to create one of the most serene settings I’ve ever experienced. Also, it doesn’t hurt that the wine is great. Go a little further north to the tiny town of Nipomo and you can get the biggest and best steak, for what’ll I bet is hundreds of miles around, at Jocko’s Steak House.

Bringing it all together are some wonderfully contorted roads.

Although rugged and less-than-smooth at times, serpentine two-laners like Figueroa Mountain Road, Foxen Canyon Road and Zaca Station Road carry you through the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys. As a helpful bonus, all of it is only short hop from the 101 Fwy.

It only took my first trip or so to the Central Coast before I started thinking, “Hey, for the right bike, this’d make a great place for a new model launch!”

Alas, after a few years I realized the notion of a press launch here probably wouldn’t materialize. Then…Bam! along came BMW’s introduction of the 2009 K1300S and K1300GT in the spring.

Riding the K1300GT, winner of our 2009 Sport Touring Shootout, was the perfect way for me to enjoy California’s Central Coast region.

Our base of operations was the luxurious Four Seasons Resort, The Biltmore, in tony Santa Barbara. For two wonderful days my humble dream of enjoying Central Coast wine country on two wheels was finally realized. Danke schön, BMW!

Launch of the Ducati Hypermotard 796 at Ducati Headquarters in Bologna

The above daydream-come-true was pretty special to me; however, a trip to Ducati’s headquarters in Bologna, Italy, for the world press launch of the Hypermotard 796 marks an all-time high in my humble moto career.

As enjoyable as the 796 is, I was even more captivated by the postcard-quality countryside just outside of the Bologna area, where the narrow, twisting roads easily rival those I’m more familiar with in the Golden State.

Riding a fun new Ducati in Ducati’s own backyard? Could I have asked for more?

The espresso, pizzas and pastas were like nothing I’ve ever had before; the nightlife seemed to last forever if you wanted it to; the architecture and old world feel were dizzying. And I was stunned by how well everyone drives: Even the women and girls aboard 125cc scooters drive more aggressively and with superior skill than most men on large-displacement motorcycles here in the U.S.

I’ve been blessed with opportunities to do some pretty cool stuff involving two wheels, but as this was my first trip to Ducati, it takes the cake for 2009.

Here’s to hoping for an even better 2010!

The crowning achievement for my year in motorcycles.

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