I’m often asked which motorcycle is my favorite, which is actually impossible to answer without a for-what-purpose addendum. But during a conversation last week, an acquaintance put a different spin on the question by asking: Which motorcycles are most memorable to you?
I appreciated the nuance to the query, as there were no obligations to objectively judging a “best” motorcycle selection, only to which bikes made the most indelible impression on me personally. My mind swam with the possibilities from the nearly 700 different motorcycle models I had ridden during my years on two wheels.
So, as we’re fast approaching the point in the year when we announce Motorcycle.com’s Best Of (MOBO) awards, here’s a list of 10 bikes I’ll never forget listed in chronological order.
It’s said that a person never forgets their first, and that applies to motorcycles as much as first loves of the human kind. I’ll never forget the sensation of thrills and freedom I experienced way back in the ’70s when childhood friends gave me seat time on their Z50s. We were riding in a seemingly boring-looking open field, and yet it seemed like heaven on earth. Nothing I had done in my previous 11 years came close to matching the intense levels of fun and joy I experienced that day. If we want to see the next generation of kids riding motorcycles, we should pool our money and buy a minibike for every elementary school!
The Z50 set a two-wheel hook deeply into my psyche, so it was inevitable I’d somehow get my own dirt bike. My parental units weren’t keen on motorcycles, but I convinced them this was something I was intensely serious about. Dad said he’d pitch in half the cost of a dirt bike if I saved up the other half from my newspaper-delivery earnings. After shopping around dealerships, we eventually settled on a DS80 – a hot rod compared to a Z50, though still quite tame and reasonably low for my 12-year-old legs. Most of what I know about riding motorcycles – including care and maintenance – was learned on that unbreakable Suzook.
While I was still playing in the dirt, a few of my friends during my senior year in high school began dabbling in streetbikes. I could’ve written about the Honda CB400F and Kawi KH400 that were my first forays on street motorcycles, but it’s the Interceptor 500 that wowed me most memorably. A friend let me take his baby ’Ceptor for a spin, and I was blown away by how stimulating and refined it felt under me, especially its sweet and surprisingly torquey V-4 motor. It was the most exotic machine I had the good fortune of sampling and became my jumping-off point into the world of streetbikes.
I had spent a couple of years learning how to thrash every last ounce from my Honda CR125R, so I decided to stick with the two-stroke theme for my first streetbike. Living in Canada back then, we had a choice of 500cc GP replicas: the lighter and more nimble Suzuki RG500 Gamma or Yamaha’s V-4. I couldn’t afford the prices for used Gammas, so I settled for the RZ. I loved how it required a kickstarter to fire it up, and I couldn’t imagine anything cooler than its quartet of stingers pointing backward. With two stingers exotically placed under its seat, my girlfriend’s hair often smelled of Yamalube – a gearhead’s aphrodisiac. It was also my mount for my first trackday and the first time I ever dragged a knee. Someday, somehow, hopefully not just in my dreams, I’ll stuff an RZ500 motor in a modern sportbike chassis to make my life complete.
This was a landmark year in liter-sized sportbikes, and it occurred at my first full-time motojourno job as an Ass. Ed. at Motorcyclist. I had recently returned from the press launch of the majorly tweaked Honda CBR900RR, and it seemed impossible a sportbike could get any better. Then Kawasaki’s redesign of the ZX-9R blew into town and suddenly made Honda’s double-R seem slow. Then, just a few weeks later, Yamaha’s first YZF-R1 debuted, and it instantly made every other sportbike obsolete. It was extremely lithe and nimble, and its motor stood head and shoulders above its competition. It was untouchable on the racetrack, and its torquey motor could loft its front wheel at 80 mph in second gear. Its willingness to wheelie (and mine) also played a small role in my dismissal from that publication.
This bike is memorable mostly for its disappointment. Bimota had an enviable worldwide reputation for building incredible chassis around powerplants developed by other OEMs. But the Vdue was unique for its Bimota-developed V-Twin two-stroke engine that incorporated direct fuel injection to meet exhaust emissions regulations. Given my previous experience on 500cc two-stroke streetbikes, getting a chance to ride the Vdue at the Streets of Willow accompanied by a Bimota engineer seemed like it would be a ride of a lifetime. Sadly, the two-smoker was impossible to tune properly, even with software tuning after each session. The engine’s response was entirely unpredictable and unable to even carry steady throttle requests. The aluminum twin-spar chassis was light, and the bike steered with alacrity my old RZ could only dream of, but the engine was one step above useless and ended up eventually forcing the tiny Italian firm into bankruptcy.
Motorcycle racing had cost me half of an index finger (roadracing) and meaningful ankle flexibility (motocross), but these injuries didn’t end my desire for competition. The press launch for the little NSR was thrilling despite the paltry power on tap, as it forced its rider to push harder and push deeper to explore the outer limits of what was possible with a 50cc roadracer. I knew I wanted more. An extended loan on an NSR press bike gave me nearly two seasons of racing Honda’s little racer breeder. Danger and cost were low, while the grins of racing with future AMA roadracers such as Benny Solis and Bryce Prince were huge. The NSR never failed me, even when doing a brutal endurance race at the huge-for-a-50 Streets of Willow. I wish I had bought that bike from Honda …
The dragstrip was proving to be a comfortable place for me. I had beaten other motojournos at a Yamaha Warrior press event and had often posted quicker times than other magazines when doing performance-testing duties for another magazine. I was fascinated at how really small variations in launching could have a major effect, mostly determined by how smoothly yet quickly the clutch lever is engaged. But none of it prepared me for the absolute silliness of just letting go of the clutch as Harley’s dragstripper was launched down the quarter-mile course. It seemed downright foolish and potentially fatal, but a special clutch and the bike’s wheelie bar kept me from launching moonward. I logged a best uncorrected E.T. of 9.55 seconds, the quickest time of the event.
The ZX-14 is a Jeckyl-and-Hyde character. It’s smooth and relatively docile during street rides, and yet it turns into a hell-for-leather sprint dominator when faced down a dragstrip. Suzuki’s Hayabusa seems to get more ink, but the King Kaw is the kwicker bike down the quarter-mile. I was proud to uphold my dragstrip honor by posting a 9.854 pass in 2008, ripping through the speed traps at 143.75 mph and again besting my esteemed motojourno rivals. Corrected for altitude and temperature, as all magazines do, my run calculated to a 9.60 at 147.63 mph, which is quicker than even million-dollar supercars. In 2012, I logged an uncorrected 9.69 on the upgraded 14R when tested against the Hayabusa and its 9.81 in this shootout. Later that day, I rode a lowered but otherwise stock 14R to a an incredible 9.21-second ET at 151.0 mph. When corrected for temperature and air pressure from our 100-plus-degree day, the E.T. translated to a sensational 8.90-second pass! Roadracing snobs who turn up their noses to dragstrippin’ don’t understand the fun that can be had on a straight line!
Skeptics who initially derided BMW’s attempt to build a superbike had to eat their words after the S1000RR was introduced late in 2009 at Portugal’s awesome Portimao circuit. Although renowned for its sport- and adventure-tourers, the German firm’s engineering might was proudly on display on racetracks across the world. And with its base price less than $14,000, it cost only a bit more than its more pedestrian Japanese rivals. While the platform didn’t break new ground in terms of construction, the S1000RR was ruthlessly effective and boasted horsepower numbers that have yet to be overtaken almost five years later. And then came the stunningly effective HP4 version of BMW’s double-R, which boasted the best active suspension we’ve tested on a sportbike and won our Exotic Superbike Shootout last year.
It will be interesting to see what will be coming down the pipeline next!