#294 The Great Sportbike War

For a decade, the majors worked feverishly to produce faster, lighter sportbikes. That high-flying era is gone, but the legacy is still with us.

You were there. You know what happened. From the late 1990s to 2008 (give or take) there was a war in the sportbike industry like none had ever seen. For the better part of a decade the big factories worked feverishly to produce the fastest, lightest, most aggressive sport motorcycles the world has ever known. Like clockwork, the CBRs, GSX-Rs, YZRs, and Ninjas were tweaked or completely done over to begin the new model year. Mods to the supersports and litre-bikes couldn’t come fast enough. The pace was wild, reckless, beautiful, and terrible. Last year’s 125-hp model was old news—a hopeless relic cast into the fire sale to make room for this year’s even more powerful version. Who can remember now what the original 1998 R1 even looked like? Though it was the most astounding machine ever, the next edition was still more breathtaking and desirable. The same is true of the GSX-R1000 or the CBR600F2 and on and on.
And so, here we are now, with the embers of that white-hot era cooling and the fevers sated. Now, there’s a more logical progression of tech over horsepower, circuitry over metallurgy. Smaller engines with technically more sophisticated features have emerged for the consumer market. GPS, traction control, and variable mode selection have taken the place of mad quests for power-to-weight gains—the Holy Grail of that fevered decade was the elusive 1:1 horsepower-to-weight ratio.
Was it all for nothing? What legacy did that high, wonderful decade leave? Well, think of all those once-great new bikes that were spurned like summer lovers when the new best-one-ever came along. They were then, and they still are now, pretty damn amazing motorcycles. Many of which can now be had for a song on the used market.
All this crossed my mind recently when two friends—one living on PEI, the other in Calgary—both contacted me in the same week to share some news. Frank Simon out there on the east coast was happy to report he’d just purchased a year 2000 Triumph 955i.
Meanwhile, Corey Kruchkowski had scoured his local Alberta market for a good used sportbike with “flavour” and turned up a year 2000 Honda RC-51.
The 955i and the RC-51: does anyone remember those from 13 years ago?
The 145-hp 955i Daytona was then hailed as the beginning of something very big and important for Triumph, even if it was a few years behind the Japanese litre bikes—a “few years behind” being like the kiss of death for competition-oriented sportbikes, but it was still an exceptional motorcycle that led to many other terrific sport models from the reborn factory.
The RC51 was a world-beater. Literally. With a big 999cc V-Twin and a distinct booming exhaust note, it was the platform that won Colin Edwards the 2000 World Superbike championship.
Targeted against Ducati’s 999S, the RC51 cleaned up here in Canada, and in the AMA national series, until it was finally replaced with the CBR1000RR. The new best-one-ever had come along.
Both my guys are ecstatic about their new (to them) bikes. They’re thrilled with the bargains they struck, but more than that, they’re pleased with the intangible “character” of these now nearly forgotten motorcycles. Frank broke it down for my benefit with a quick report after the initial evening rides. Says Frank of the 955i Daytona:

The Pros are these John: Strong low and midrange. Good upper end thrust. Stable handling. Very solid “feel.” Quiet yet still has that mechanical engine clatter I like. Very smooth running, and acceleration. Strong linear brakes, rear a bit touchy, front great big biters.
The Cons are that it’s maybe a bit quiet with the aftermarket faux carbon can. It’s heavier than my CBR919RR. Steering lock minimal, seat a bit tall for me.
Slowish steering but, as I said, very stable. Out for my first ride in the ‘hood this evening. A few photo stops and comments a couple of times from passers-by. Stunning looking I’m told.

Corey was equally anxious to report his first outings. Says Corey of the RC51:

First of all, the bike is simply beautiful. People have been coming up to me all weekend and remarking on it. It actually has a certain utilitarian beauty, exuding the hallmarks of engineering over aesthetics. It looks mean and it looks fast—it looks like a race bike. By 2013 standards it is a bit dated in appearance, but it has a timeless set of lines and graphics that speak volumes about its capabilities. It also sounds beautiful, it BOOMS rather than whines.
Secondly, the bike is of a superior build quality. I have owned many Honda products, all of which are good —but this is truly a step above. It reminds me of a car a friend once owned—an Acura NSX. Like the NSX, my theory is that the RVT1000R was built to prove a point rather than make money, and it really shows. The transmission is silky smooth and firmly places each gear; the throttle response is linear; in every way the bike feels brand new, and with 20,000 km on the clock that speaks volumes. Online sources purport that the bike I have has the identical engine as the actual race-spec. All Honda did was rev-limit the engine for the sake of consumer longevity (so in theory by raising the rev limiter the full 185 hp may be experienced?). Heck, even the suspension is incredibly settled, it handles frost heaves and uneven pavement in a way that doesn’t quite seem possible for a sportbike like this. It literally “sticks.” What is most frightening about it? The smoothness probably. It revs to redline so cleanly it is scary, and the redline comes quick, even in higher gears.

The boys got me thinking. While both are very experienced motorcyclists with unique and specific tastes, and possessed of the necessary tech skills to deal with older (possibly cranky) bikes, could it be that they are at the edge of a new trend toward revisiting older sportbikes? Is this going someplace in a general way—like retro Bell helmets—or is it mere coincidence that two guys from two different parts of the country simultaneously “rescued” year 2000 models from their obscurity?
I turned to an expert for his opinion, CB’s own Track Editor Oliver Jervis.
Says Oliver of my “trend” theory:

“I don’t know if it is a trend per se, but I think more and more people are realizing the true value of late model sportbikes. Sure a model that is a few years old might not have that extra five hp, or trick electronics like TC.  BUT, I’d venture to say that even a RC51 is FARRRR more bike than any street rider could/should handle. And once a rider (male, or female) conceptualizes this, the opportunities seem endless: RC51s, Ducati 999s, R1s, GSXRs (the 2005 GSX-R1000 is still one of my favourites). All class leading, phenomenal machines. Honestly, anyone with any level of riding integrity would find hard to fault.

Okay then. Maybe we’re not seeing a new trend emerge. But one thing is still very true. The decade of the great sportbike wars was a memorable one that paved the way for the technical wonders now on the new bike market, and left a memory of a remarkable time when speed was everything.
The legacy? A very decent used bike buy somewhere on a Craigslist or at a dealer near you. Insist on character.