Everything you wanted to know about Sport Bikes

But were afraid to ask

Last updated Monday Mar 25, 1996

Which sport bike is the best for you? Read on and maybe you'll have an answer. At least you'll get an introduction to Sport bikes, even if you think my advice is worthless.

(Warning: I am opinionated. You might not agree with all of my assertions. I don't care, and if you send me mail saying your Buell can kick my Goof3's butt I'll just pity you).

Sport bikes are some of the most incredible toys for big kids you'll ever see, and at this point in time (Dec 1995 to be exact) the available choices are becoming more and more intense. Want to see some pictures? Well, anyway, if you aren't familiar with the Sport bike genre you might have no idea what I'm talking about. So why are you even reading this? Because you really want a Sport bike and you want to know which one is the best for you. And I'm going to tell you.

There are really only three things to keep in mind here:
  1. What kind of riding do you do?
  2. What kind of riding are the different bikes more suited for?
  3. Which one do you think looks coolest?

The last is probably the most important unless you are capable of scraping your pegs off at Laguna. If not, Pick how fast you want to go in a straight line, how much handling you want, and consult my handy chart.

First of all if you're going to ride in the street, ride the pace. Be cool. If you're on the track stay out of Reg's way when he give two up rides. Well, enough preaching. Like to go up into the twisties? Lean it over a lot? Just want something to peel your eyelids off with acceleration? Is posing your bag? Want it all? Well, there's something for everyone.

The basic sport bike types are
  1. Sensible 600s.
  2. Race Replica 750s.
  3. Bad Ass liter bikes.
  4. Smaller (250, 400) bikes that handle great but don't have a lot of power.
  5. Gutless bikes usefull only for learning, commuting, or other things to horrible to mention.
  6. Other miscellany which don't exactly fit into the other categories.

Let's discuss these in more detail.

Sensible 600s

For most people who want a Sport bike, stop right here. This is what you want. The 600 class has gotten incredibly fast, and the latest batch can do 90 in second gear, get there faster than you can say "Sorry, Officer (Sir)", handle better than you'll ever need on the street, stop on a dime (and give you nine cents change), and manage enough comfort to get you from France to England without making you wish for a new spine.

These things really are fast and even though the odds of me scraping my pegs off are about as great as the odds of me riding my Macintosh around Willow Springs in a minute and a half, even I can appreciate a sport 600 bike's ability to go around corners. For the average citizen, the forgiving and well balanced handling manners are the best compromise you'll get - especially for the street, where most people are going to be riding them anyway.

Interestingly enough, in most track tests, the stock 600s were faster than a lot of the stock 750s and liter bikes anyway. With the advent of the new Suzuki GSX-R750 for '96 this will likely change (and don't expect to catch a FireBlade around Willow on a 600 unless your name is Miguel Duhamel), but for the best balance of usable power, handling, and overall rideability, 600s are the bikes to have.

The main contenders in the 600 class are from the big four Japanese makers, but just get a Honda 600F3 for overall balance and all around excellance, or the Kawasaki ZX-6R for the fastest, most exciting 600 on the planet. While the Kawasaki is faster on the track, for most street riding the Honda will actually be faster due to it's ability to tolerate the conditions you'll encounter in the real world. For '96 (outside of America at least) Yamaha has the totally new "Thunder Cat", which might challenge the top dogs, and should make the 600 class even more interesting than it is now.

Race replica 750s

If you like twisting your legs up behind you so your boot heels are higher than your shoulders, reaching far enough in front of you to rival most styles of yoga, and owning the most uncompromising street bike you can get, look no further. The race replica 750s have more top end and are more frantic than the 600s, are lighter and have sharper handling than the bigger bikes (well, we'll discuss the CBR900RR and the 916 later), and are the closest thing to all out racing bikes you can buy (save the two stroke 250s).

Most of the '95 750s seemed to have their share of quirks: stumbling off idle, jetting problems at higher revs, suspensions that weren't totally sorted, and an overall proclivity to shout "set me up with aftermarket parts!". While the actual race 750s are faster than the full race 600s, on the street the gap isn't that big (well, we'll see with the '96 Suzuki GSX-R), until you start tweaking the 750s. And even at their best, the 750s will tend to concentrate their power in the top of the powerband, require more concentration to wring out the best handling, and for these reasons are harder to ride than the more user friendly 600s.

Contenders are Suzuki, Kawasaki, Yamaha, and the Ducati 748 (sorry USA, although there might be a lot of frowny faces in Europe due to the tendency for the little Ducks to spill their guts all over the place). Honda has a two 750s (the RC45, and the all rounder VFR750), but the RC45 is around $25,000 and if you were considering buying it you probably wouldn't be wasting your time getting any advice from me. Honda's VFR750 is somewhat of a wild card, more comfortable than even the 600s, and with a whole different set of priorities than the other 750s - see the misc category for more info on it.

The all new '96 Suzuki looks to be the most exciting of the 750s, but if race replicas are your thing, ride them all and pick the one you like the best. Another point of interest - the Ducati 748, being a twin, competes on the race track against the 600s, and the Ducati 916 (also see liter bikes) races against the four cylinder 750s. On the street, though, the 748 will run in a straight line with the other 750s, and likewise with the 916 for it's size. Both of these bikes cost far more than their competition as well.

Liter bikes

Actually, this class of bike really has two extremes, ranging from the roughly 900cc Honda Fireblade to the Triumph Daytona 1200. I should really have two categories but I lumped them all into one so live with it. I'll discuss the smaller ones first, then the midsize monsters, and finally the big dogs.

The Honda 900RR and the Ducati 916 are the smallest of the liter bikes, but they still get up and go without any problems. In fact, the Honda scarcely weighs more than a 600, but with another 25 horsepower and loads more torque, it is downright scary. Fortunately it has the goods to handle great as well, although there is considerable controversy over its handling manners. The British hooligan mags seem to love it, blaming poor rider inputs for the complaints of a twitchy front end. The American mags all hate the 16 inch front wheel and the way it handles, typically getting around the track more slowly on the Fireblade than on the American fave, the ZX-9. Interestingly, the aforementioned British mags hate the ZX-9's handling, although many of the naysayers have said they like the ZX-9 much better with a set of Metzeler race compound tires replacing the stock Battlax rubber.

The Ducati 916 comes in a number of flavors, the SP being the fastest, apparantly being a match for nearly any other stocker in a straight line, and devouring the competition in corners. The Ducati is fuel injected and a two cylinder, so it is a much different bike in terms of power delivery than the others. It is also tiny (although not as light as the Honda). The Fireblade is rumored to have been designed as a 750, but they managed to fit a 900 engine into it. Both the Ducati and the Honda have a more radical riding position than the rest of the big bikes, being set up like the race 750s with the clip ons under the triple clamp, and generally being designed for speed, not comfort.

Moving up in size and weight finds the Kawasaki ZX-9, the Triumph Daytona 900 (three cylinders!), the Suzuki RF900, and the Yamaha FZR1000 (to be replaced in '96 with the YZF1000, which at roughly 450 lbs, a new low drag fairing, and a rumored 145 horsepower might be the bike to beat - at least in Europe as America doesn't get it yet). These bikes fall in the middle between the smaller Blade and the big monsters like the ZX-11, and are all still at home in the twisties, although none of them handle like the smaller bikes.

The Kawasaki ZX-9 and the Suzuki RF900 are two relatively comfortable sport tourers. The ZX-9 is a brutally powerful bike weighing about 70 lbs more than the Fireblade but just as fast. It's a beautiful bike, with nearly the rush of a ZX-11 and the ability to turn corners like a smaller bike. It is big, though, and can be a real handfull, especially in the company of smaller, more maneuverable bikes. The Suzuki 900 is somewhat of an all rounder which many find to be a very good compromise between touring civility and powerful sportbike shenanigans.

The Yamaha FZR1000 is a great bike, smaller than pictures and it's weight would suggest, with a great engine. Many times people have been surprised by how fast it can get around a track, and if the new YZF1000 (Thunder Ace) is everything it claims to be, that just might make it the best of the lot. The Triumph is well, big, solid, has lots of character and midrange, but is generally considered to be much more of a handfull than the others in the handling department. There seem to be many flavors of the big Triumphs (Speed Triple, Daytona, various variants of the 900 and 1200), and they are beautiful. Although you won't win World Superbike on one, they are definitely something to consider if you're after the big iron.

The big dogs are the Suzuki GSX1100, the Kawasaki ZX11, Honda's CBR1000 and the Triumph Daytona 1200. All of these have more torque than the bullet train (maybe I'm exagerating just a little), and are the most powerful bikes you can buy. This comes at the price of handling, as these bikes are really optimized for the long haul and serious hooliganism in a straight line. Actually, the Honda is not as radical or fast as the other three, has a whacky linked braking system, and is more optimized for behaving yourself. Somehow, as with all Honda's, though, it manages to be greater than the sum of its parts, and is definitely worth considering when looking at this class of bike.

The Suzuki 1100 is probably the closest thing to the smaller liter bikes, and although I point out that these big bikes don't handle like the rest of the bikes I've been discussing, I witnessed someone get around Sears Point (a very technical track just North of San Fransisco) on a ZX11 and he wasn't having any problems. Just don't get one as your first bike to learn on! To grok these bikes in their fullness, note that the ZX11 will do an honest 175 mph on the radar gun, and get through the quarter mile in roughly 10.5 seconds at 130 mph (professional rider on board - kids don't try this at home). That, kiddies, is fast.

Smaller bikes

There are really two totally different categories here: two stroke 250s and four stroke 400s. Both are characterized by lightness, incredible handling, and a general lack of punch in the power department. With a lot of work you can make them close to as fast as the 600s, at the expense of streetability and powerband (you want top end power, it will cost you midrange, just like all the other bikes, only more so since you have less to work with). And it will cost you some coin and reliability to do, so you're better off enjoying them for what they are good at, and that is going arounc corners. Since neither the 250s or 400s are imported to America, it takes some creativity to get them here, but you can do it. Two strokes burn oil and are much more fussy than the 400s. You could actually make a 400 your daily driver, but you'd be much better off with a 600 for that. Get one of these little guys to race on the track or really get down on your cornering skills in the twisties.

The 250s to have are the Suzuki RGV (with a new Japan only model for 96), and the Aprilia RS. Both are beautiful bikes, with all their power (relatively speaking) way up in the powerband. If you're going to get a 250 two stroke get one of these.

For the 400s, Honda makes three, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Suzuki all make at least one, and I have no idea which one to buy.

Miscellaneous bikes

There are a few bikes that don't fit into any of these categories, so I'll mention them here.

Single cylinder 600s. A number of manufacturers make single cylinder 600 bikes. These don't have as much power as the 4 bylinder 600s, and don't rev very high (imagine once cylinder with four times the capacity of each cylinder in a Honda CBR600), but have loads of character, are extremely light (around 350 lbs, 60 lbs lighter than the standard 600s) and reportedly handle incredibly well. Bimota makes one (good luck getting it), Yamaha have one on sale in Europe and Japan, and Honda is reportedly working on one.

Ducati 900 and Yamaha TRX850. Ducati makes another 900 class bike, but this one is much different than the 916. Less powerful and heavier, it is nonetheless a beautiful bike which can more than hold its own with a competant rider aboard. And it is considerably less money than a 916 while still being one of the most beautiful bikes you can buy. Yamaha, realizing the allure of this formula, has a very similar bike this year (at least in Europe, apparantly we Americans are only going to buy cruisers this year from Yamaha). Ducati also makes a 900 Monster which is an unfaired like designed for rowdy fun and city riding, apparantly this is a great bike as well although I haven't any idea what it's like to ride one.

Honda VFR750. Considered by many people to be the best all around bike you can buy, the VFR750 has the comfort of the bigger liter bikes (without quite as much weight), an incredible and unique V-4 engine, and a trick, monostay read wheel. Available in the same red color that helps make Ducati bikes so desirable, it can get up and go yet will stun you with it's ability to soak up miles or handle a daily commute. It even has a clock. All of the instructors at the Pridmore CLASS safety school are riding them on the track and smoking everybody, and besides being such gorgeous bikes they work so well everybody should have one.

Buell. Torquey. Unique. Hideous (sorry, warned you I'm opinionated). A Harley 1200 engine in a Sportbike frame with styling that begs to be different. I can't even describe them and since they are a new contender on the Sportbike scene, you'll just have to see one and ride one if you really want to know about them.

BMW. Solid, sensible, fun, big, stable, torquey, reasonable. Fast and good enough handling to smoke the average 600 rider when piloted by a real ace, but the same rider on a sportier bike will get around the track and likely the twisties faster than they will on a BMW. There are a number of different types of BMW bikes, but I'm primarily talking about the liter sized sport models. They are very nice bikes, outside the mainstream Japanese mold, and as you could guess its a matter of personal taste whether or not you'll go for one of these over the other bikes I've mentioned.

In summary, the 600s are more than you'll ever need for the street, are lighter and have more most reasonable riding positions than the 750s. The 750s are for the hard core, with the bars underneath the triple clamp for a more radical ride, and requiring more ability and work to get the best out of them. The liter bikes kick the most butt in a straight line, with the Fireblade and the 916 as small and light as the 600s, bikes like the ZX-11 massive, comfortable, and more powerful than a locomotive. The purpose built 400s and two stroke 250s will give you the most fun in the twisties, although they aren't as much fun in a straight line and you don't want to ride them for much distance, especially on the highway. And don't forget the wildcards, the others in this category all having their advantages as well.

One manufacturer I didn't mention much is Bimota. They are an Italian company who makes all manner of beautiful sport bikes using engines from other manufacturers and their own frames. These bikes are about twice the price of all the rest, but for that you get exclusivity, and lightness and a few more horsepower. If you're lucky you'll get fuel injection too. They make everything from 600s to 1100s, and to give you an idea of what they're about, they have a bike with the Suzuki 1100 engine that weighs about 400 lbs. You do the math! They keep threatening to make a 500 two stroke for the street with their own engine, but that's not for certain yet.

And which of these bikes is the fastest? That depends on where you are, and most importantly, who's riding.

Want to know more?

Motorcycle Online is a great online magazine that scoops everybody with the latest news and tells it like it is. I am not affiliated with them in any way and they're probably counting their lucky stars for that.

For motorcycle links here are some starting points. If this goes away tell me and I'll mail you lots 'o links and update this.

I also recommend reading the British Bike Magazines "Fast Bikes" and "Superbike", as well as the American magazine "Sport Rider".

If you ride, definitely check out Reg Pridmore's excellant CLASS school, you owe it to yourself to do this at least once if you ride a fast bike on the street. It's one the best experiences I've ever had on my bike (twice, actually) and well worth it both for the lessons learned and the fun factor of riding around on a track.

Take the Motorcycle Safety Class too, especially if you're just getting started riding.