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"Don't try to be clever with it, that's what the guy on the Gixxer did, he tried to be clever and now it's in a right old state. This one's brand new and immaculate, and we'd like it back in this condition"
I am in the motorcycle shop picking up a hire bike for the weekend. The bike that I had originally booked out, a Suzuki GSX-R1000 K5, is apparently no longer roadworthy, so I've been offered an R1 instead. I'm OK with that. I was hankering after a go on the king of 1000cc sportsbikes, but sometimes you've just gotta go with the flow. In any case didn't Wills just buy an R1? Well, if it's good enough for the second in line to the throne, it's good enough for me. Having just been told there's a £750 damage excess, I'm starting to feel a bit nervous, that I'll do a repeat performance of gixxer boy, and put myself £750 in the red. What have I got myself in for? Is this bike such a handful?
The bike to be mine for the weekend is an immaculate, 06 plate R1 with a few thousand on the clock. As we're going over the controls, alarm etc, the owner fires up the engine, and the bike gurgles into life. I almost can't believe it's in standard trim; the sound from the exhaust is properly loud, even at idle - throaty and raw, an indication of the state of tune of the engine. I climb aboard and get underway becoming familiarised with the controls throttle and brake and mindful of the wise words from the bike shop owner. I take it easy back home.
As I ride back to my house to saddle up with weekend kit, I get a taste of city riding. The riding position is sportier than my '02 CBR600F, but not horrendous. The bars are lower but not too far away and the pegs not too high. It's excellent at low speed manoeuvring and with the exception of the tall first gear and the inevitable clutch slip required at launch, town riding isn't a problem. The radiator on the other hand is; it's a hot July day in Central London and stop-start riding is keeping the engine on the boil, and that's not all. I kill the engine at traffic lights to try and minimise the hairdryer-to-the-crotch effect, but the fan seems to come on regardless of whether the engine is running or not. I think ahead to the open road and the excitement and anticipation of riding a fast bike out of town, and my frustration vanishes. I'm conscious of how little throttle is required to make progress. It just feels effortless, wafting along on a band of torque. Dial in a couple of mill of throttle and the bike surges on. One way of improving your throttle control is buying one of these. You can see why the GP boys can hoist wheelies on demand - they're used to riding the most precise machines in the world, and they have to adjust themselves to suit, and that mean throttle control. You need to be delicate with the twist grip or sharp corners could easily end in tears. On the last part of my journey home I'm toying with a hoodie on a sports scoot. I overtake him to show him the goods, revelling in the throaty exhaust note, crackling and popping on overrun. He filters past me to the front of the queue at the lights. As I've got it, I feel no need to flaunt it, so I let him go. Almost by way of saluting me, he pulls away from the lights, pops a cheeky wheelie and goes on his way. This bike has that effect. Those in the know…..
To really get a handle on a bike like this, getting out of London is a priority. I need to be somewhere where there are lots of roads and fewer people. "South of France? Mmmm. Too far. Wales? That'll do nicely!" Wales has got some fantastic roads, only a couple of hours ride from London. You could almost check the weather forecast in the morning and head off for the day (early mind). A handful of my absolute favourite roads are in South Wales, a stone's throw from Abergavenny.
Friday afternoon, I set off for some fun keeping my fingers crossed for the weather. After a bit of a saunter to the West Country and a night's stop over in Bath to see a friend, by Saturday morning I'm crossing the Severn Bridge. The ride on the motorway is fine, the bike is nice and composed, well capable of blasting past cars in sixth, or for a bit more wallop, drop a cog of the precise gearbox into fifth and wind on the power as the cars disappear behind you. The fairing, despite looking rather feeble, does an adequate job of keeping the wind at bay; the low screen doesn't push the air at your chin, so head buffeting and helmet noise is minimal as your head sits above the turbulence, but anything over 90 is a bit of a chore. Not such a bad thing then, especially on motorways. Speeding on motorways is for idiots. For the rozzers, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. I'll save it for the A-roads.
My first taste of proper Welsh tarmac is the B1257 Chepstow to Usk. It's an entertaining little road but the R1 feels awkward; the extra weight of the 1000cc over my 600 making itself known. It doesn't seem as flickable. Of course this bike can handle windy B roads without a fuss, is just not where it wants to be. After a bit more recalibration of my riding style to the bike, I turn clumsy cornering into something more precise. Mid turn adjustments on the R1 are easy peasy. It will happily go where you point it, not unlike my 600. I decide not to berate myself for being crap, and accept my rubbish riding as down to a lack of time in the saddle. By the end of the weekend we'll have it sorted.
The throttle is nice and smooth, progressive power wherever you want it with no surprises. The engine is a bit like a big 600cc engine, with a bit more beef all the way through; it needs to be revved though to really get at the power, but for most of the time on the road keeping it under 10k revs the bike behaves impeccably. If you do fancy experiencing the 150 brake horses on tap (at the rear wheel) as I did pulling out from a junction with a line of cars in front and a clear road ahead, you'll be blown away by the performance. As I pulled out to overtake I held the throttle in first and second to the redline of 13.5k (my 600 redlines at 14!), experiencing what I can only describe as warp factor 9 as the word went blurry as my eyes struggled to process the information, the front end was significantly light and the front wheel was skipping over the imperfections in the road as the stock damper kept everything quietly controlled from behind the fairing.
The R1 suspension is supple, soaking up the majority of the bumps as well as my softly sprung CBR, and leaning the bike over into corners is a very confidence inspiring. I wouldn't recommend this bike to a new rider, but someone with a few years and 20 thousand miles in the saddle probably wouldn't struggle. Whilst cornering on a roundabout after filling with fuel, I decided to crank it over as far as I felt comfortable. The bike still felt totally composed despite having gone beyond my comfort zone, and the hero blobs weren't even touching down. I think it's fair to say the bike is far more capable than I am, by a long long way, and unless I take it on a track, I won't be getting either my knee or the footpegs on the deck.
After a brief stop in Abergavenny, I carry on to the exciting roads I spoke of earlier, fast sweeping well surfaced A roads where this bike absolutely rules. The road from Abergavenny to Builth Wells is good but the road from Builth Wells to Llandovery is just awesome; fast constant radius bends opening up into nice long straights and very few cars to deal with. This is what riding motorcycles is all about. The sun is shining, the roads are dry and the R1 and I are in absolute heaven. I'm smiling broadly to myself, whilst taking a corner I glance down a the digital speedo', "how fast?" I came here last year on my CBR and I swear I'm taking these corners some 15mph faster. It's not me that's improved either, well not that much. The R1 feels just so composed that it's easy to do; the bike just seems to go exactly where you look. The R1 is seriously flattering my riding ability, I can pick my line exactly, and the bike just goes there. I can now see why Nick Sanders chose one of these for his world record circumnavigation. This bike is seriously fast way of getting form A to B.
Roll off the throttle slightly, enter the bend as deep as I dare, look for the exit, flick the bike on its side, gently crack on the throttle to stabilise the bike and gradually feed in the power. Presto! Another corner dispatched. I don't feel the need to get greedy with the throttle and the bike duly behaves itself (I'm not sure I could be so restrained on a litre twin mind). The BT014 tyres are excellent, though the rear is almost finished, it's still putting up a good performance. The limiting factor to how fast I travel is not the machine, it's how fast I'm prepared to travel around corners, not knowing what's on the other side, (police, farmers, cyclists, sheep). I have a healthy respect for my life and in this respect choose to ride alone to keep my ego at bay, and my speeds just about respectable. I can see why the born against can get themselves into trouble. Attitude is the key, and a bad one can turn a cuddly R1s from a comfy sports tourer into (as Lynn Faulds Wood might say) "a potential deathtrap".
The brakes on this bike are excellent, although at first I was a bit disappointed by their lack of feel. It wasn't until I looked at the speedo' numbers tumbling that I understood their effectiveness. The bike pulls up rapidly under brakes, but it just doesn't feel very urgent, just quietly gets on with the process of scrubbing off speed. I think the soft forks go some way to keeping the feeling a bit remote. 90 to 30 takes a couple of seconds, and very little fuss, two fingers are all that's required. It's just easy, almost too easy, which gets me thinking about using such a potent tool on the road.
This bike has been designed to go fast; it handles, accelerates and brakes phenomenally well, but riding it on UK roads, even Welsh ones, only just scratches the surface of its ability. All aspects of the R1 are refined and polished so that as a package it is an astonishingly quick bike, but because it does it so easily, it's not as much fun as you had hoped. If you want a bike that will get from A to B as quickly as possible and with the minimal fuss, then a 1000cc sports bike is what you want. But it's probably not the most exciting way of doing it. I reckon I'd have more fun on an SV650S. The R1 is so well engineered that the sensation of speed is lessened. 50 feels more like 30, 100 more like 70. Riding around town, it's easy to be enthusiastic with first gear (apparently this bike will do a ton in first), and find you're doing 50 in the blink of an eye. Riding this bike on UK roads almost feels a bit unfair. It's like introducing a car to a nation that still has horse drawn vehicles; it's just in another league. If you buy one of these, you absolutely have to take it on a track to get your money's worth, and get the desire to speed out of your system. Then you can ride nice and sedately on the road (yeah right!)
On part of my journey north of Dolgellau, the heavens opened (hey, this is Wales!) and I was forced to don my waterproof boil in the bag oversuit, which I'm glad I took. The riding experience wasn't nearly as worrying as I thought it might be. Coaxing the bike through wet unfamiliar turns was not a problem, the fuel injection has no hiccups or snatchiness. The bike did seem to be more reluctant to turn into corners in the wet, this might just be down to feedback that I was getting from the R1 that I wouldn't normally get from my bike, but at all times the bike was composed and manageable. I wouldn't buy the R1 as a commuter bike for all weather riding, but it could be used as one, and ridden in the rain without a great deal of worry. Just be sensible with your right hand and give the bike the respect it deserves braking and accelerating and you'll be fine.
On the practicality side, the mirrors are good, better than my CBR6, although they are useless at speed at the engine vibrations and wind speed increase and their picture quickly becomes a blur. The underseat storage isn't great as you might expect from a bike with underseat exhausts, but there's enough room to fit a small Abus City chain and an alarm under there. The seat is comfy ad roomy. I did 300 odd miles a day without much fuss. By the end of day three on the motorway blast back to 'the smoke' my arse was objecting, but I think that was down to the inactivity of the ride more than anything else. For A-road use with a bit of movement around the bike to keep the blood flowing, the seat is fine. I would almost say the seat is more comfy than my CBR - possibly because there's more weight bias on the hands and wrists, and so less through the bum. In any case I found the ergonomics very good for my 6ft and 13st bulk. The clocks are good, with a digital speedo', two trips, either engine or ambient air temperature, and a clock, and at night the whole lot is lit up with a gorgeous blue hue, which adds a classy look to the bike.
The other thing that is so important for bikes like this is how they make you feel. In this regard the R1 ticks all the boxes. It looks stunning in the flesh. Mine was a very understated metallic grey. I think the R1 looks great from all angles. I felt wonderful turning up at bike meets, a youngish 28 year old on an '06 plate R1, riding solo. Statement? You betcha! It goes something like this: "I come here to ride my bike, and I'm not f***ing around." It's no word of a lie either.
There's something great about riding around on such a potent machine. You know you've got the performance there if you need it, and as a result you rarely feel the need to. When was the last time you heard James Bond bragging? He knows he's got it. So does the R1 owner. I am barely scratching the surface of the ability of this motorcycle, and I'm aware of that fact. Riding the R1 is tantamount to rewriting the rules of the road and its performance is Premier Division, compared to the vast majority of other road users who are firmly stuck in the Vauxhall Conference (no offence GM). I did had a brief tussle with a BMW M3, but even he couldn't match the overtaking agility of the featherlight R1's power to weight ratio. The average hatchback is just blown into the weeds. Speaking of which, a number of times whilst overtaking (and as it's so easy to do you'll be taking everyone every which way you can), it struck me just how the R1 must appear to the occupants of the cars being left behind in its wake. Apart from probably being scared silly by the raucous exhaust note which came out of nowhere, the speed with which the R1 accelerates must look almost obscene and totally reckless to the sedate pace of the average family in their Ford Mundane 2.0. This bike could give bikers a bad name.
By the end of the weekend and just under 1000 miles later, I think I had reached a nice relaxed place with the R1. It loves fast flowing A-roads where it will corner at high speed with complete composure. Once I got used to the steering which was very light, the bike changed direction with ease. All in all I found the R1 extremely easy to live with and I would definitely recommend you test ride one if you're in the market for an open class sportsbike. It will do anything asked of it with ease, but if you live in town, and like to ride in summer, give it a miss. This is a cheetah that needs open space to run around. I was amazed at how easy it was to get on with (and remember, I ride the all rounder CBR600F). It's really just a big pussycat in the right hands. In the wrong hands it's an absolute beast.
So crunch time. Would I buy one? Yes. I'd love to. The looks, the power, the sound, the agility and especially the comfort are all massive plus points. Would I actually buy one in my present situation? Probably not. Why not? Well, first of all I live in London. Second, I have no garage, and third I need a good night's sleep in order to function. This bike is eminently desirable to thieves and as such will cost a small fortune to insure. If it does get nicked, I'll struggle to get insured in the future. As far as London is concerned, it's not the bike for the city, possibly something like the KTM 950SM, or similar would be better in the traffic and for quick overtakes. The instant grunt of a V-twin is a better bet. In reality I'm likely to keep my 33,500 mile CBR6 for another year and spend the money on improving my riding skills, tyres, petrol and where the fun's at 'track days'. As an experience, I'm pleased I did it. I know that low and mid range grunt is far more important to me than top end power. But in the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson
I hold it true, whate'er befall; I feel it, when I sorrow most; 'Tis better to have loved and lost Than never to have loved at all.