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Are sports bikes becoming extinct?

What looks the part may not necessarily be the part
What looks the part may not necessarily be the part
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Wednesday, 06, Aug 2014 01:53

by Dan Cartwright

Our resident bike aficionado, Dan Cartwright, shares his experience to discuss whether bikers have lost their bottle or if it's just a case of them getting slower

Having grown up in the 80s and 90s one thing's for certain: all of the dream bikes from my childhood were sports bikes; Ninja's GSXR 750s, Fireblades and, of course, the 916 which remained unobtainable even in those dreams. For me, these bikes were the pinnacle of desirability, the definition of cool - and the route for any owner to receive more female attention than they could wave a stick at.

Now a bit older - and balder - I find myself in a position where I could possibly afford to buy and insure a decent sports bike, but I don't. Why? Well, like many modern bikers, I find myself attracted by all sorts of different and interesting bikes; buying a modern sports bike to use on the road feels like buying a pit-bull to keep the kids company - not fit for purpose.

Many bikers nowadays are making similar choices. Whilst at the turn of the century the biggest selling big bike in the UK was a Fireblade, for the past few years it has been the two different versions of the GS1200. Manufacturers have responded and most new bikes coming out are big trailers, tourers, as well as smaller capacity bikes, but not sports bikes. The last new Fireblade was released in 2009 and the last R1 in 2008. I'm interested in asking the question why? Surely us, the average biker Joes aren't just getting softer or losing our passion for speed? Or worse still, losing sight of the ultimate biker's goal for decades: to just go faster?

Well, at first glance the answer is yes; as a group we're not in the majority and going out to buy the fastest top speed bike available. That said, the little boy inside me wants to argue this point, to stand up for all bikers who still think they're cool and fast, but don't rock around on superbikes. So here's my argument, as weak as it may be...

Point 1

Biking technology has evolved incredibly over the last 20 years - much, much more than you'd expect. This means that even modern non-sports bikes pack a lot more punch than you might think. To put this in perspective I've compared a modern Big Trailie with the hyper sports bike at the heyday of sports bikes. Having recently tested a KTM 1190 Adventure, I was blown away with the power, stopping and turning, so I decided to compare the 1190 with the iconic and beautiful Ducati 998. And now it's time to get out my calculator out to highlight a few things that are surprising. The 1190 produces 150bhp and weighs 212kg, whereas the 2002 Ducati 998 produces 123bhp and weighs 195kg. This means the 1190 has 0.71bhp for each and every kg of weight. The 998 has 0.63, meaning the Adventure has 12 per cent better power-to-weight ratio. On top of that lets look at the running gear and kit.

Ducati 998 KTM 1190
Front Brakes Brembo 4 piston 2 x Brembo radially mounted four-piston brake calipers
Rear Breaks Brembo 2 piston Brembo fixed mounted two-piston brake calipers
Front suspension Ohlins Upside down fork 43 mm Fully adjustable upside down 48mm WP forks
Rear suspension Ohlins Fully adjustable WP Fully Adjustable
Clutch system Dry multiplate with hydraulic control PASCT anti-hopping clutch/ hydraulically operated
ABS Bosch 9ME Combined-ABS
Anti Wheelie Yes
Traction control Motorcycle traction control
Pre set suspension and traction 3 settings that alter power, traction and suspension

Now let's look at what this kit and electric carry means. On the face of it, there's no denying that kit is heavy and reduces top speed. However, even in the world of MotoGP, monobloc brakes make you stop quicker, anti-wheelie systems let you set off faster, traction control helps with stability into and through corners meaning you can turn corners faster and gives you more confidence to try carrying that extra speed. Add to this engine configuration and fuelling and the Adventure produces its maximum torque of 92ft-lb and has a relatively linear power delivery. The 998, by comparison, produces its maximum torque at 8500rpm, has a less linear torque delivery - it only really starts producing anywhere near max torque above 6,000rpm.

What does all this mean? The 1190 Adventure will go faster round a track than 2002 Ducati 998? Well, no. The gearing on the 998 gives you 20mph more top speed (170 versus the 1190's 150mph). The short wheel base of the 998 means it will turn faster, but what it really means is that in the hands of the every day rider - the average biker Joe - the Adventure will probably be faster on a road than the 998. I have seen this personally with the surprised look on sports riders' faces when you fly up behind them on an Adventure, brake later into a corner and, relying on the electronics to carry more corner speed, leave them dead on a corner exit. well, until they come and fly past you on a straight.

Point 2

Any race mechanic or race team manager will tell you the biggest limiting factor for speed for any biker is the nut between the handle bars, meaning you or me, the rider. Think of it like this: if you swapped bikes with the Valentinos of this world and took them out on track, do you think you'd win? If you do, you're either delusional, Mark Marquez, or your bike is supporting some flashy L-plates. In reality, on just about any bike, Valentino will put you firmly in your place. Professional racers are just fast and that's that. At the Barcelona GP this year, MotoGP pole was 1:40.9, Moto2 was 1:46.5 and Moto3 was 1:50.2, so this gives you an indication of just how fast racers are, regardless of power and top speed.

Bringing this back to the average Joe biker, the point is that power isn't always directly related to how fast someone can or does ride a motorbike. Sometimes it can be counterproductive.

When I sat my bike test I sat it with a friend. The friend passed his test first time and for me it took a couple of goes. My friend lives in the city and has a few quid knocking about - I didn't and still don't. Within a week of passing his test, my friend had gone out and bought a shiny red sports bike, I had hired an ER5 and retook my test the following weekend.

We decided to go for a ride of about 50 miles and I took my girlfriend at the time on the back of the ER5. My friend was so slow on his sports bike that we arrived about 15 minutes ahead of him. Now, this doesn't mean I was better or faster on a bike than him, but it does mean he wasn't ready for the power and was actually too afraid to ride how he should have.

To finish up, modern bikes can be fast without being sports bikes and, with the road being a limiting factor, the gap to sports bikes has been narrowed.

Modern sports bikes have too much power (I never thought I'd make that point) to use on the road, and you'd probably even have trouble handling one on a track unless very skilled. This power can be counterproductive to the 'all the gear and no idea' crew, meaning my not buying a sports bike. The average rider can be as fast as - if not faster - the sports bike rider. It's not that we've gone soft or lost our desire to go faster, but we've matured and realised that evolution can't keep up with technology and we're just choosing the right tool to help us go fast, just not the biggest tool.

So remember, when it looks slow it's normally fast - how many times have you heard that in racing?

Comments - What do you think?

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