One of the most popular classes of sports bike in the world today is the ‘litre bike’ – bikes with a capacity of around 1,000cc. Sales statistics back this up. You see them out on the road all the time – the ubiquitous Yamaha R1, the GSX-R1000, the ZX/10R, Honda’s Fireblade and the new king, BMW’s S1000RR. Yet it’s arguable that nobody needs one of these bikes.
Today’s 500cc commuter bikes deliver the sort of performance our biking grandparents dreamed about. Today’s 600cc inline four sports bikes all make well over 100 rear wheel horsepower. I can remember back when bikers used to get excited about 100 horses being made by any bike of any capacity! 750’s? You’re looking at 130-ish. And the litre bikes are all making between 160 and 190 horsepower – not claimed horsepower, but real, measured ponies at the rear wheel. That’s the power that race machines in the World Superbike series were making not so many years ago. It’s all a bit mad.
Back when I was a mere yoof, I mistakenly thought I was buying into the litre bike dream when I purchased a mint Ducati 900SS. It was fun for awhile, but I probably should have researched the relative shortcomings of two-valve, air-cooled twins as compared to four-valve, liquid cooled inline four cylinder engines before I laid my money down. The Ducati sounded awesome and had oodles of torque, but the fact was that in performance terms, the engine design was already about 15 years off the pace when the bike was released. Pedestrian 600’s (which I told myself had no character and no heritage) hosed the Ducati mercilessly. Owning a ‘thoroughbred’ is all very well, but being regularly shut down in a straight line by everything this side of a postie bike gets pretty tedious after awhile.
So the Ducati was sold and I upgraded to a Kawasaki ZX/9R. No, not the disastrously tubby early model, but the lighter, nimbler second-generation bike. Rated at around 130 horsepower, there really wasn’t much other than perhaps the early Yamaha R1 that was quicker at the time, and only by a whisker at ‘do not pass go, go straight to jail’ speeds. My brother owned a FireBlade at the time, and we had the time of our lives scaring ourselves witless. To paraphrase a magazine shootout of that era between the Blade and the ZX/9, ‘both bikes have the ability to reach forward, tear out the horizon, scrunch it into a little ball and toss it back over your shoulder in a matter of seconds.’
I loved that ZX/9. But I loved my new baby daughter, too. And seeing as the bike was worth several times as much as the family car I owned at the time, I gritted my teeth and put it upon myself to sell the bike, buy a decent car for the family and trade down to a slightly less mental bike. It must, in fact, have been a lot less mental, because I can’t for the life of me remember what it was anymore.
I have owned some great bikes since that time, but none have been litre bikes. Nonetheless, I have always made it my business to ride every litre bike I can possibly sling a leg over, borrowing mates’ bikes and taking cheeky demo rides at dealers. Standout bikes include KTM’s 990 SuperDuke, Kawasaki’s ZX/10R and, needless to say, BMW’s S1000RR.
The Super Duke will wheelie if you so much as fart, and ride along on the back wheel until you get a nosebleed. The ZX10 is just an angry bike that wants to break the sound barrier and hurt you on the way there. The BMW makes you feel smug and invincible until you glance down at the speedo and see the sort of numbers that used to frighten you back in High School maths. All of this is unnecessary, irresponsible, and inexcusable. And of course utterly intoxicating.
Nobody needs a litre bike. So let’s look at need versus want.
I have nothing against cars. But cars often take a lot of needs and dress them up to try to give them some ‘want’ value. Look at car ads on TV. Practicality and economy combined with all the performance of a salted slug, dressed up with go-faster stripes and a spoiler. Sheep in wolves’ clothing.
But if that’s all a bit of a laugh, TV ads for performance bikes really make me giggle. They’re like a Tarantino movie with all the swearing and violence edited out, leaving…nothing much at all. Let’s face it, outside the biking community, 190 horses and a top whack near 300 kilometres an hour are always going to look a wee bit irresponsible. But it didn’t stop me laughing out loud when I saw a TV ad for Suzuki’s Hayabusa recently that mentioned nothing at all of performance (arguably the bike’s number one selling point) but instead waffled along with something as bland as ‘an undeniable presence on the road.’ Wow.
Of course it’s just as well. I get the feeling that if the mainstream media ever got tired of recycling the same bullshit stories about neighbours at war, youth gone mad and rogue tradies, they could have a field day with litre bikes – and possibly sports bikes in general. Look at the hoon value in it!
So while selling points for cars include cup holders, air bags, free Bluetooth connectivity and roadside assist, give me zero practicality, no luggage space and ridiculous power any time. I love the fact that in the world of bikes, the bite still matches the bark. It’s not that I have a public road where I can legally unleash a fraction of this performance, or even the talent to use it if I did. It’s the satisfaction of simply knowing that I can still have it if I want it. Without trying too hard to borrow nobility for my cause, it’s the same sort of thinking that led George Mallory, when asked why he felt compelled to conquer Everest, to reply simply “Because its there.” That’s not a statement based on practicality, that’s just pure desire.
And that’s another wonderful fact about motorcycling and motorcyclists. We don’t have to make any sense. To people who don’t ride, we’ve never made any sense, so why not take the senselessness as far as we can while it’s still an option?
I’m not advocating irresponsibility. If you want to own a performance bike and really enjoy what it has to offer, book some advanced riding courses and take it to the track. In my experience if you do this you’ll not only appreciate your bike more, you’ll be far less tempted to do anything naughty when you ride on the road.
But don’t leave it too late. We’re living in something of a golden age right now. In the not too distant future you can bet that there’ll be a slow night on A Current Affair and thereafter the fun police will start doing all they can to take our amazing toys away. Why, after all, would we need our impractical, overpowered two-wheeled monsters when we can all get by just as well with a lovely little electric hybrid hatchback?
Now is the time to drink deep at the well. To celebrate the impractical, the excessive and the unnecessary. Nothing else makes sense.
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