Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Nine Bikes

People are always asking me questions about some model of motorcycle or another. There must be sign on my forehead. I have ridden quite a few over the past 4 ½ decades and I have to say that hopping on an unfamiliar bike and sampling its personality is on my short list of favorite things. A multi-day group ride with friends often affords the opportunity to try out some other bikes. Such was the case recently as I rode some of Washington’s best roads around Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens with three other guys on four disparate sporting machines.

Some of the people inquiring about bikes are fortunate enough to be shopping for something brand-new, so what about the latest thing on the market? Finding a dealer that will allow test rides on bikes of interest is always a happy occasion and is invaluable in sorting out the differences first-hand rather than relying on magazine articles as our only source of information on the current crop being offered by the manufactures. With Seattle weather in top form in late August I decided to turn a parts run to Ducati Seattle into a bike-testing excursion with a stop at Issaquah’s I-90 Motorsports but I’ll return to that little foray later.

First I need to explain that my Multistrada 1000 was out-of-commission waiting on parts as we prepared to set out on the aforementioned group ride. I could either ride my large, slightly ponderous Concours 1000 or my sweet little corner-loving SV650 on the 900-mile, exceptionally curvaceous route we had planned. Having the option to choose the best bike for any given ride provides a lesson in determining the kind of bikes we ought to own. In this case I felt confident in trading the quiet comfort of a large fairing and windscreen for the spritely maneuverability of a light, naked run-about. If these particular roads don’t warrant it, I can hardly think of any that do.

                                               Suzuki SV650

Highway 25 running through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest is one of my favorite roads and the branching road to Windy Ridge, overlooking Mt. St. Helens is as good as it gets in my book. Straight sections are as scarce as hen’s teeth. The vertical undulations are punctuated by the occasional frost heave or pothole for added interest. Man, I love that kind of road! I eat it like candy – especially when I’m on the right bike. The little SV seemed pretty close to perfect.

My buddies were on a Kawi ZZR 1200, a late-model FZ1 and a Suzuki GSX650F - four-bangers all. Our route from Wenatchee began with Blewett Pass, Highway 821 along the Yakima River, Chinook Pass, Mt. Rainier National Park and on to I-5. Any bike will handle these excellent roads, but a fairly light-weight, somewhat zoomy bike will always appeal to me when the corners tighten up. It’s not necessary to take the corners at anywhere near maximum lean-angle to appreciate these qualities. A bike can transmit its “feel” even when ridden gently. 

                       Kawasaki ZZR1200


                                                              Yamaha FZ1

My DR650 was made for blasting up Forest Service roads but the truth is that I always prefer to be on my EXC 450 in the dirt, no mater how well-graded the road. I guess it’s just the extra measure of control that I like. This translates to pavement for me and steers me toward bikes that allow me to feel the road and respond to it. I prefer not to have too much of a stability buffer smoothing out the road for me, but in talking to people I realize that not everyone feels this way.

On day-2 we rode to Mt. St. Helens on the west-side highway 504. This highway is well engineered with wonderful sweepers that are/would be great fun at high speed. After taking in the spectacle of the mountain I traded bikes with Bob to check out his 2009 FZ1. I hadn’t ridden an FZ for several years and was very impressed with its pleasing blend of comfort, sporting feel and massive power. I told Bob I felt like that motor was some kind of irresistible force in the universe. Some of this impression may have been influenced by a road that begged for power and got it. It seems odd that people don’t talk about the FZ1 much any more; too long on a market full of newcomers perhaps? If the world turned upside down and I was left with an FZ as my only road bike I could make do very well. It seems to offer the scintillating acceleration of Starship Concours 14 but leaves a couple hundred pounds of complexity at the door. The little windscreen is far forward and somewhat vertical but cuts a fair amount of wind blast without the buffeting I hate so much.

I will not ride a bike with a turbulent airstream clubbing my head to death. I never wanted to get off a bike so fast as when on a cruiser with a “classic” plexi windshield that threatened brain-damaging buffeting. Windscreens are an important factor in choosing a bike; too noisy and I would rather go without altogether – until the weather turns cold and nasty anyway.

Now I can say I’ve been to Cougar, Washington. After food and root beer floats we headed for 25 and the curves I had been craving. The SV is really in its element here and I was feeling like a kid turned loose at Disneyland without any supervision. This road runs like a rabbit trail though deep forest. Up, down, left, right, dodge that chuck hole, crest that frost ridge. It just goes on an on in glorious, random imperfection. It becomes the rider’s responsibility to find rhythm in the road and play it like a musical score. The handlebars, suspension and tires are my instrument. This road is jazz.

As if all this were not enough to saturate my brain with endorphins and excite moto-bliss, we finally came to National Forest Road 99. This road exists only to take you out to a spectacular viewpoint above Spirit Lake on the north-east side of St. Helens. Thirty miles of luscious curves, most of them in the blast zone of the eruption - the thick forest knocked to the ground leaving an open landscape with expansive views.
My SV is 11 years old and other bikes have surely eclipsed its bang-for-the-buck athleticism, even with its Race Tech guts in the forks. I have ridden the Hypermotard and I know it would be an absolute hoot on 99. Another bike that comes to mind for roads like this is Triumph’s Street Triple. There’s no need for more power here. I need to ride that bike.

                                                     Suzuki GSX650F

After 99 it was on to Carson in the Columbia Gorge via the Wind River Rd. Young Jason trades with me and I am sampling the GSX with its friendly ergonomics and its controls all falling comfortably into hand and foot. I feel the added weight but also the stability and smoothness that make this a perfect ride for a newcomer with the verve to keep up with the veterans on such demanding roads. Now that the roads have straightened out a bit I’m thinking that I would be quite happy to ride this comfy sporter the rest of the way home. The full fairing and bubble screen are welcome after two days on the bare naked twin.

After running up the Klickitat and lunch in Goldendale I switch off with Doug for the ride up Satus Pass. I’ve ridden the ZZR before but not for a while. Affectionately known as Jestson, this silver bullet is the model of high-speed civility; muscular but never brutish. Bar risers and AirHawk seat cushion make for a very nice place to enjoy the scenery and the effortless, no-drama rush of acceleration when passing cars. Doug thinks he would like a shiny new Concours but I see most of what he really needs right here. The Connie has that big electric windshield and hard bags but there is something to be said for a bike that is paid for and never even murmurs when whipped.

Back in Wenatchee, only a few days pass before thoughts of warm, clear days on the west side of the mountains beg the question of possible test rides on bikes not sold ‘round here. A stop at the Issaquah Triumph shop yields a chance to sample the Sprint GT. This bike has done very well in sport-touring shootouts. With a wheelbase 3 inches longer than the old ST, it seems they now have less of a GT and more of an ST, but what do I know about marketing. Ergonomics are moderately sporty, with only a little forward lean. Not much more than what Peter Egan once called the “Alert Airedale” riding position. Steering is light enough but the dominate impression is one of stability. I don’t have opportunity to really rail in corners but they say it does so very accurately. The famed 1050 triple fails to make a big impression after riding the FZ and ZZR but it would easily do any job that needs doing out on the road.

                                                              Triumph Sprint GT

Next up is the Speed Triple as the Street Triple 675 is sold out at this shop. I’m not complaining. I’ve always wanted to ride this naked bruiser. Now the same 1050 motor comes into its own in this 53lb-lighter chassis. This bike is exciting and wants to stand up on its back wheel. Where the GT is not a slicer and dicer, this one is. The stock muffler is noticeably more vociferous here and I get that gritty, three-banger growl under hard throttle that we read about so much. There’s not much bike in front of the handlebars and there is a feeling of being shot out of a cannon headfirst when the three butterflies open all the way. A fun bike for sure.

                                                          Triumph Speed Triple

After rounding up my parts at the Ducati shop, I ask if I could demo the new Multistrada 1200. The bike they give me is the S model with computer-controlled everything, including Ohlins’ magic, electronically-variable suspension. The seat seems slightly lower than my tall Multi, which is welcome. The instrument panel is amazing. I feel like I’ve climbed into the latest “glass-cockpit” biz jet. The salesman orients me on the menu of settings and sends me out in “urban” mode – only 100HP to play with while I get acclimated in traffic. Keeping one eye on Aurora Avenue traffic I toggle the handlebar switch and after a few fumbles get into “sport” mode. Now we’re talkin’ 150 bright red ponies on tap. Being unable to get the revs into the upper registers where they live, the real difference with sport mode on this ride is in the instant, snap-olla throttle response. This thing this is seriously powerful and it wants to jump forward like it was hit from behind by a Camry. I knew it would have big midrange but the bottom end is tearing my grey matter to shreds. How can it have so much torque everywhere and still have the top-end that I know must be waiting there on the right side of the glass tach? The bike feels light and the front wheel lighter. As I blast through traffic that Big Ducati Sound is my companion. This is MOTOR. It now seems that none of the other bikes I’ve been riding had MOTOR. Not like this. What a strange mixture of ferociousness and comfort. Comfort? Yes. I’m pretty sure that is comfort I feel underneath all the rage. I say to myself, “A hooligan bike you can tour on.” I’ve always said my Multi, with its Corbin horse saddle, is the most comfortable bike I have ridden. The 1200’s stock seat might not be quite as good but these bars are a bit higher and feel perfect in my hands. In the traffic I cant’ get up much speed but the smallish windscreen is quiet so far. It is closer to the rider’s head than normal and I suspect the air has little time to tumble and turbulate. I realize this bike could do it all. I want this bike.

                                                        Ducati Multistrada 1200

One bike I had hoped to ride was the new Ninja 1000 - this year’s recipient of Motorcyclist Magazine’s Motorcycle of the Year award. Doug and I later made a trip out to Legend to check it out. It’s always nice to take out a couple of bikes with a friend so you can switch off and compare notes out on the road. Sitting next to the Ninja was a new Suzuki GSX1250FA, which replaces the Bandit 1250 and offers a full fairing. Having ridden the Bandit we thought we knew what to expect from the new Suzuki but it seemed like a good pairing for a test ride. I rode out on the 1250 and Doug on the Ninja. The Suzi's handling was much the same as I remembered the Bandit, utterly composed and confident. Not a particularly “acrobatic” sport bike but more of a gentleman’s high-speed express. Just a bit heavy but exuding reassuring stability and a fair amount of comfort – what I would call a classic GT (Gran Turismo) motorcycle.

Swapping with Doug for the trip back to town, my first impression of the Ninja was that it lacked the arm-stretching thrust of the 1250. Being a smaller, lighter, sporting tool, I thought I would prefer the Ninja and I did. Comparing notes with Doug after the ride we found that both of us had felt a heaviness in the steering at low speed when we first set off on the Ninja, but that the feeling had quickly faded. This is odd because Doug’s overall impression was that of a “twitchy” bike, not quite to his liking, while I found it nimble, responsive and fun to ride. Our strongly differing experience goes to show how important a test ride can be before purchasing a motorcycle.

                                                    Suzuki GSX1250FA

The Kawi's small, oddly-shaped windscreen tilts to 3 positions; I liked the middle one. Motorcycle windshields are tricky. Building one that will deflect the full force of wind at highway speed is no problem but making one that does not produce annoying roar and buffeting turbulence is a challenge. Sometimes a small screen that mainly takes pressure of the torso is better than a big, poorly designed shield. The best allow the rider to look just over the top edge while cutting the noise to a minimum and turbulence to nil. Screens this big just don’t fit well, aesthetically or aerodynamically, with super-high-speed sportbikes. The Ninja’s small screen, mounted close to rider’s head, produces only a little more roar than a clean air stream while allowing an upright seating position sans undue pressure on the chest.

                                                             Kawasaki Ninja 1000

I’ve had the pleasure of sampling many motorcycles, including numerous Ducatis, Aprilias, Beemers and a souped-up Busa. Of all the bikes I have ever ridden there is one here that stands out in my mind as most desirable. It is the new Multistrada 1200. It’s not the styling that pulls me in but the combination of sound, feel, responsiveness, comfort, versatility and mind-bending, usable power. My test ride was short and not on the kind of roads I would hope for, but it is surprising how much you can learn about a bike in only a few minutes. The mysteries that remain might require a few long road trips to uncover. For now, I know enough to nurture a hope that a Multi 1200 could be in my future.

1 comment:

jetson said...

Excellent and entertaining review of the nine bikes. Nice commentary of the Washington trip as well. It is my opinion that highway 99 or the road to windy ridge is the best motorcycle road in the state of Washington and the "Destination Highways" Book almost agrees with me as the rate it the #2 road. I am the Doug, owner of the ZZR1200, that Ted mentions in the blog.

I was able to ride some of the nine bikes and will add some comments. The sv650 is quite a bike. I guess that is why they have sold so many over the years. The sv has a lot of pep but lacks that limitless top end that I am used to with the ZZR. But really how often do we really need that limitless top end? I rode the sv on a straight portion of highway so did not test it in its element but did feel lite and flickable. The FZ1 has plenty of power but seemed a bit short on torque below 500 rpm. This bike had handlebar risers that made a blot upright riding position that was upright for me. I' sure I would like the standard bars better. Still a great and fun bike.

I thought I would fall in love with the Ninja 1000 but didn't. I found the throttle harder to control. I didnt feel confident on the bike> A very fast bike but I could not ride it fast in the twisties because it Did not feel right to me. When I switched with Ted to the Suzuki 1250 I was back home. What a smooth powerful stable confidence inspiring bike. I could ride this bike much faster in the twisties as it fit my riding style better. Young Jason's gsx650 is really the same bike as the 1250 but with 60% of the power and 35 less pounds. A great bike for a beginner and a lot of fun for an experienced rider.