We have completely free health care in Britain and it is a wonderful thing. Tear your knee apart racing a motorcycle and our National Health Service will fix it for you. I know this to be fact. Okay, you will have been walloped with taxes throughout your working life but, when you’re ill, the NHS is a good thing.
The downside is the amount of health care advice we are now bombarded with. Clearly, and with complete validity, don’t ever go near a cigarette. But further, lose weight, exercise more, exercise less, work harder, work less hard, go to bed earlier, later and so on – endlessly into the far horizon.
The latest health obsession is to walk more. The target is 5000 steps a day – for me about three-and-a-half miles – and so Carol bought me a really trick pedometer – not a carbon fiber and titanium one like the MotoGP riders must have – but a good one all the same.
I’m missing the walking target most days but I thought that it would be easy at the Birmingham Motorcycle Show – Britain’s premier indoor motorcycle event. In the olden days, Birmingham was a two-day job and you needed good hiking shoes if your feet were to survive.
As I left this year’s show, my pedometer showed a mere 1.7 miles – almost nothing. And that’s just how bike manufacturers now view Birmingham.
The problem is that is all the major launches have already taken place at EICMA and Intermot and so now Birmingham has fallen into the second tier of regional shows of which, believe it or not, there are now quite literally hundreds every year throughout Europe.
Still, as the rain lashed down and the thermometer hovered just above zero, the warm, well-lit halls of Britain’s National Exhibition Center looked very welcoming.
Of course, the day got off to the best of best starts because the first bike facing visitors as they walked in was the lust-inducing Ducati 1299 Superleggera. Clearly, the bike is a technical tour de force – and in every way. Of this, more later. But it’s also a philosophical step into the unknown, massacring the double 200 target. The Superleggera produces a claimed 215 horsepower and weighs in at 340 pounds (without fluids), which will give it a top speed in excess of 200 mph. Not so many years ago, this would have been blisteringly good performance for a MotoGP bike. And as a blast from the past, a single cylinder Grand Prix bike from the 1960s, with nothing more than the engine and gearbox, and producing a mere 50 horsepower, turned the scales at only 50 pounds less than this 1285cc, and fully road legal, monster. That is the immensity of Ducati’s engineering excellence.
It’s not only the desperately advanced 116mm x 60.8mm bore and stroke engine, naturally complete with titanium valves, which is so jaw-droppingly impressive. Nor, strangely, is it the all carbon fiber chassis, wheels, swinging arm and fairing. For me, the science-fiction-comes-to-your-garage element of the Superleggera is the electronics.
As standard, as in straight out of the box, the Superleggera comes with a six axis Inertial Management Unit which measures – not in any particular order of importance:
1) Ducati Traction Control.
2) Ducati Slide Control – so that you can hang the back end out at 150 mph as you would most Sundays on the ride out with your pals.
3) Launch control – pretty well essential at any stop light near you.
4) A bi-directional quick shifter.
5) A fully adjustable ABS, which will let you slide the front wheel into corners, Marc Marquez style, without actually locking it.
6) And of course, full data logging so that when you get back home, your wife can download the data from the day’s ride and make the necessary chassis and engine adjustments – just before she sends you down to the store for a packet of nacho chips.
But here’s the philosophical part of the equation. For 101% absolute certain, you will not have the ability to ride the Superleggera even half competently. I know this because no world class rider would ever consider reading a journalist’s opinion on anything – except how good they are, of course – and so if you are looking at the story you won’t have a fraction of the ability necessary to ride this bike. However, even if you did have the ability, there is nowhere you can do anything but burble around in first gear making Lorenzo noises in your head.
Currently the noise limit for track days in Britain is 102 dB and it’s a certainty that, even with the allegedly road legal exhaust, the Superleggera will fail this limit.
Then there is the minor issue of losing your license for any speed over 100 mph on British roads – and that’s about when you change into second gear on a Superleggera. Run much in excess of 130 mph and it’s say-hello-to-the-warder time and a sincere hope that the jail in which you are residing allows ridersdomain.com to be streamed into your cell.
Ironically, and I do smile at this wonderful twist of fate, the only place where you can run a Superleggera is at classic events, such as Bikers’ Classics which sometimes permits track time for exotic Superbikes. In order to let the unsilenced old GP bikes be heard properly, modern machines are allowed to be noisy too.
Does any of this logic and common-sense matter? Probably not. Ducati are making 500 Superleggeras for the 2017 model year and they have all been sold at $90,000. This price is the bargain of the year for what you get – even if the bike never turns a wheel and becomes an objet d’art next to your fireplace.
Infinitely more practical is the new Ducati Multistrada 950. Again, this is an interesting reflection on current thinking. The 950 produces a mere 113 horsepower, which probably means only 130 mph fully loaded and carrying a passenger. Only? Think of real world riding…
Despite being an entry Multistrada, the 950 has four riding modes – Touring, Sport, Urban and Enduro – traction control and a hugely sophisticated Bosch ABS. It’s a nice looking thing too, except for the horrible matte finish paint job, and if you wanted to do Prudhoe Bay to Tierra del Fuego without any fuss then the 950 would laugh off the trip.
Without wishing to turn this report into a Ducati special, the Scrambler sub-brand is worthy of a mention. Scramblers now account for 30% of British sales and the core bike, with its 803cc air-cooled engine, now has five siblings. There is now a total of six bikes in the Scrambler range, and more are planned for 2017, so the brand is starting to become a truly serious business for Ducati.
The Scramblers work very well and the owners I know are pleased with their bikes. The emphasis now is on broadening the range and this is a real good news-bad news story. The new Desert Sled really hits the mark and is probably the Scrambler I would buy, whereas Ducati’s attempt at a Café Racer, called a Café Racer in case you get confused, is just rubbish – an absolute, utter mess. The only thing that I can think is that some pre-pubescent 12-year-old was allowed to pen something for Ducati and thought that very low ‘bars, no front fender and a silly swinging arm made genuine homage to a real Triton “ton-up” bike: well they don’t!
By contrast, Yamaha have got the XSR900 Abarth edition absolutely dead center of the target. The link with Abarth, a car focused company, came through Yamaha’s MotoGP team association with Fiat – who own Abarth – and the result of the collaboration is excellent.
The heart of the bike is the lovely 847cc, Inline Triple engine from the MT 09 but now it lives in a cosmetically delightful café racer package with carbon fiber fairing, seat unit and mudguard and an Akrapovic titanium exhaust – which really is essential in the “Look at the size of the bling in my bike’s trousers…” stakes.
With 113 horsepower in a package of less than 440 pounds (200kg) this will be a very nice motorcycle. Even at this retro level, the bike has a slipper clutch, traction control and the now mandatory ABS. How did we ever ride without these aids?
Only 695 of the Abarths will be made and there’s no news yet regarding either the price or whether any will be sold in the US.
If the 695 was beautiful, practical and certain to be made then the T7 concept bike was at Birmingham to test customer reaction. There’s no doubt that the 700cc, MT07-derived Parallel Twin will make it into production because Yamaha need a replacement for the iconic Ténéré range, but whether this very angular and aggressive looking offering will be the final iteration is much more open to question. The reported 74 horsepower is a lump of power for a true, serious off-roader and the 36-inch saddle height is also going to be challenging. Maybe electronics, including a ride height which is adjustable on the fly as my Yamaha insider suggested could happen, will cure both issues.
Another bike which was there in metal, but not in production, was Norton’s all new 72-degree, V4 1200. Norton CEO Stuart Garner explained: “We went for 1200cc rather than 1000cc as we feel modern technology enables us to get the performance we want without compromising on weight or handling. And because we are not planning to race this bike, it doesn’t matter if it’s over 1000cc.
“We are targeting 200bhp and that’s very achievable with the capacity and layout that we are using.”
The chassis will be made from aerospace-grade, billet aluminum and the top-of-the-range superbike will boast Öhlins suspension and carbon wheels built by South African firm BST.
Naturally, for a 2017 bike there will be launch control, traction control, anti-wheelie, an auto blipper and adjustable engine braking control. Semi-active suspension is also a possibility.
Rather than mirrors there will be rear-facing cameras that project an image of what’s happening behind on to a full-color, HD screen on the dash.
Speaking to British magazine MCN, Garner said: “It will have the performance of a Ducati Panigale, but be specc’d much higher, the electronics will be cutting edge.”
Which is a seriously bold claim to make against a Superleggera which will be available, for absolutely certain, in a few months’ time and whose performance will also be known and guaranteed.
The base model of the V4 will sell at $35,000 and the top spec version $44,000. It will be interesting to see how things progress.
For me, one of the most delightful bikes at the show was the Kawasaki Versys-X 300. This gorgeous little bike looks just like a real AT motorcycle – which it is. Power is provided by Kawasaki’s 296cc parallel-twin from the Ninja / Z300 family but now packaged in a proper AT chassis which will deal with commuting and Sunday riding, as well as mild dirt expeditions. There’s a 19-inch rim wearing a 100/90 IRC ‘Trail Winner’ and a 130/80 17 rear so it looks like a real dirt bike. ABS and a slipper clutch come as standard and the fit and finish of the bike is exemplary.
A high windscreen and plush seat point to this being a bike on which you could cover a lot of miles having fun and in comfort.
There are also a ton of accessories for the X 300 so you can either urbanize it or go down the full-on AT route with center stand, luggage pack et al.
In short, it’s an outstanding little bike. However, the reaction of the Kawasaki staffer I spoke to was fascinating. “Yes, it’s okay but it’s not very fast and the saddle’s high.”
It’s a shame that even Kawasaki staff view the “X” like this because the bike is the perfect portal in to motorcycling for a lot of newcomers.
At the other end of the scale was the Triumph Tiger Explorer super AT. The factory showed just how much bling you could get on this bike – and, believe me, it’s a lot! So, now you go out for a recreational ride with your mates on a bike which looks like Batman’s AT motorcycle and presumably Triumph will sell you a kit to make your man bits grow bigger too. I don’t understand it at all – but there again I rode the length of Europe with one small rucksack and a paper map – and had a great time.
There’s no doubt that Triumph do understand their customers and the latest iterations of the Bonneville family show this perfectly with the Bobber and Scrambler. I’m not a fan of Bobbers, but this is only because the custom bike bit of my brain is missing. Maybe the aggressive racing genes killed this off when I was a baby biker?
Triumph’s Scrambler is really neat and I could see myself owning one of these. At the first launch of the Bonneville range, Triumph said that they were aiming for 25% of all sales coming from Bonneville derivatives. That figure may now be on the modest side because the company is currently developing a Street Fighter version of the Thruxton R with the name Speedtwin. If you add a range of modern styled bikes to the retro classics that’s one heck of a portfolio of machines. They’re all good too, with superb finish and excellent mechanical execution of each concept. Certainly, Triumph is the lead factory in this segment of the market place.
Chasing them hard is BMW, another old factory with a lot of tradition. I spent a fascinating half hour with Christian Pingitzer who is the Head of Sales and Marketing Strategy Heritage and Customizing at BMW Motorrad.
In many ways Christian defines the current modern classic/retro/custom market. For a start, he has built – at his own cost and in his own time – an R50 bobber. Christian is at pains to point out that he styled the bike and a friend actually did the mechanical work but nonetheless he was intimately involved with the bike’s creation.
He’s young, hip – with fashionable jeans and a shirt three sizes too big – and the absolute epitome of customers for BMW’s heritage bikes. He likes them too, and understands the attraction of these motorcycles.
“These bikes are very pure – machines which appeal to your heart. They are modern in terms of being safe with ABS and they are as reliable as any other bike we make but they have a purity which you can’t have with a bike which is loaded with electronics.
“These machines reward the skill of the rider and it’s this skill, not the electronics, which is the key thing.
“The bikes are easy to customize too and we are developing a great range of accessories. The problem has been going from a very low production, where we could work with suppliers who weren’t used to making thousands of parts, to the current way of thinking where we want to produce maybe 8000 heritage bikes a year. It has been the challenge of scaling up which has put us behind schedule.
“We’ve got to do this and still keep the bikes pure and with a classic look and feel. This is why we now have an engineering team which is specializing just in heritage machines rather than shifting from modern to heritage all the time.
“For sure, the heritage bikes are going to be commercially important for us in the future – always a minority of the machines we produce but still very important.”
However, the star of the whole show – the winged and haloed fairy at the top of the Christmas tree – was on the Suzuki stand. The fine chaps at Hamamatsu made a fake, very fake, sort of Viñales MotoGP bike and bolted it to a huge steel plate so that children like me could see what it was like to ride at 64 degrees of lean. I can report that, even static, it is incredible – absolutely mind blowing. What it is like to ride at this sort of angle with an engine running, let alone racing, must be 25 steps beyond incredible. Thank you Suzuki!