Roland Brown is a world class swordsman, entertainer, poet, scientist, boxer, ladies' man and motorcycle journalist. Only one of those is true.
For a company with a history of generating two-wheeled excitement, Honda doesn't half build some boring bikes. Perfect example is the Hornet 900, the lean, mean 'naked FireBlade that we'd all been looking forward to for ages when it was finally launched in 2002. The Hornet looked quite good, even in grey paint. But instead of being a mental naked sportster powered by the latest 150bhp Blade motor, it was a dreary affair whose detuned, 108bhp unit was barely more powerful than the 599cc four from Honda's Hornet 600. I've got photos to show that I rode the big Hornet for a day in October 2001, and even that it managed a wheelie. But the bike was so dull I can't remember much about it.
The launch of Triumph's Bonneville America in autumn 2001 went down in motorcycle journo folklore. Not because of the efficient if rather bland cruiser twin itself, or even due to the drunken excesses that make certain other launches stick in the mind. This well-run and restrained Triumph bash was held near the firm's US base in Peachtree City, Georgia, where we went down to the hotel's breakfast room on the last day, September 11, to find stunned guests crowded round TV screens as the twin towers disaster unfolded. All flights out of the US were cancelled, so we spent the next week riding to bars in nearby Atlanta or lounging around the hotel pool at the expense of Mr Bloor's insurance company.
Having followed Erik Buell's progress since he was hand-building bikes in a shed near Milwaukee, it was a buzz to be at Valencia for the first big Buell launch. Especially as the bike was the XB9R Firebolt: wickedly stylish and innovative with its fuel-carrying aluminium frame, oil in the swingarm, and perimeter front disc. On the tight and twisty track the hotted-up V-twin's 92bhp was plenty, and the Firebolt was agile, well braked and with such a flexible engine that you could go bonkers without getting into trouble. Plans to leave gaps between riders to aid photography were abandoned, with sessions resembling rounds from a one-make race series. Not even remotely professional, but brilliant fun.
When the world's bike press gathered at Vallelunga in southern Italy for the launch of Ducati's 998, rumours were growing stronger this would be the last of the 916 family before a major redesign. At the twisty circuit everyone was full of praise for the 998, which hid Ducati's stonking new-generation, 123bhp Testastretta V-twin engine - until then available only in the exotic 996R - behind bodywork whose shape was eight years old but which, we all agreed, still looked fabulous. But they weren't listening in Bologna, and went ahead with plans to make the 998 the last of the 916 line. A decision they've had five long years to regret, before recapturing something of the timeless, Tamburini look with the 1098.
Aprilia took a surprising four years to develop a naked from the brilliant RSV Mille. But the Tuono, launched in 2002, was worth the wait. First up was a limited edition model, just 200 built, which combined matt-black and carbon-fibre with a gold-anodised frame and swingarm. There was nothing iffy about the performance, though, as the Aprilia proved on the twisty Muraglione Pass in Tuscany. With 130bhp and loads of grunt, plus a light chassis with forged wheels and top-spec Brembos, the wide-barred Tuono hammered into hairpins and thundered out with its front wheel in the air. By the time I reached the Caffe Mokarico at the top of the Pass, it was clear that the Tuono had raised the bar in the naked V-twin class.
There are few places better for holding a launch than Fuerteventura, a Canary Island whose scruffy, volcanic interior is ringed by an amazing road: superbly surfaced, almost traffic free, and normally baked by the sun. I missed the original TDM850 launch there in 1981 but made the trip when Yamaha returned for the 2002-model TDM900. There was very little wrong with the uprated 897cc parallel twin, which was more powerful, lighter and more stylish. It was flexible, quick, and handled well despite long-travel suspension. But perhaps it's a comment on the subtle charms of the Tee-Dee-uM that while the twists and dips of that Fuerteventura coast road are lodged firmly in my memory, the bike itself is a bit of a blur.
My most vivid memory of riding Triumph's naked middleweight four for the first time was of a dog. No, not the bike, fool, the stray Alsatian that leapt out to attack my front wheel on the press launch in Spain. Fortunately the Triumph had good anchors, as it had shown on the Cartagena circuit the day before, and I avoided the mutt with mere millimetres to spare. The Speed Four was a quick and sweet-handling bike that combined Speed Triple style with the TT600's 599cc four-pot engine. But it lacked the Speed Triple's grunt and character, and was nowhere near as successful. Maybe that Alsatian was right all along.
When rain hit Honda's 2002 model Fireblade launch at Estoril the prospects weren't good. This 954cc 'Blade was the most powerful and lightest yet, and unleashing its 150 horses on the notoriously slippery Portuguese circuit promised much splintering of its freshly restyled bodywork. Sure enough, Honda UK racer Karl Harris showed the way by crashing in the first session. But the rain then stopped, the track dried and everyone had a fab time. Best bit was being all-too-briefly caught up in some friendly rivalry as TWO's Niall Mackenzie and his former 500cc grand prix rival Ron Haslam (who was checking out the 'Blade's suitability for his race school) came storming past.
As a VFR fan who'd ridden every model and still owned a red VFR750F, I reckoned I was in a good position to deliver a verdict on the 2002 VFR800 with its sharper styling and new VTEC variable-valve top-end. I missed the launch but loved the VFR when I tested it in this country shortly afterwards, especially the way the VTEC kicked in at six grand added some straight-line stomp although the V4 lump's 108bhp max output was unchanged. The VFR's stiffened frame, larger fuel tank and revamped linked brake system also helped make it the best yet, I reckoned - so I was surprised to find many riders disagreeing and disliking the VTEC system. Perhaps my enthusiasm for the hotted-up Honda was a sign that I was becoming rather bored by my own, ultra-efficient VFR, which I immediately sold shortly afterwards.
Honda took a big gamble when they launched the all-new, 2003-model CBR600RR at Estoril. The Portuguese circuit gets plenty of rain in winter, and when wet it’s more slippery than Jose Mourinho. Sure enough the morning sessions were ruined by rain, but luckily the track dried by lunchtime. Hardly anyone crashed, and almost everyone loved the sleek 115bhp CBR with its RC211V replica styling and mass-centralised chassis. Such were the rave reviews that Honda chose the same track to launch the revamped 600RR two years later. Needless to say it pissed down with rain again. This time the circuit was even more treacherous. The list of pilots seen skating along on their arses ran to double figures and even included the normally immaculate Niall Mackenzie. Honda eventually halted the launch early, after running out of fairings.
Buell got unlucky when they launched the XB9S Lightning near Nice in the normally sunny south of France in October 2002. We’d ridden about 20 miles and just started to take cornering pics when it started to spit with rain. One Brit promptly crashed on the suddenly slick road, rearranging the Lightning’s twin-headlamp look — arguably to good effect. I was enjoying the grunty naked V-twin, despite the weather and its slightly curious handling. But the Lightning proved well named as a storm blew in, forcing us to splash back to base. Fortunately Harley’s PR guys rose to the occasion, and took us to an indoor kart-track. Perhaps the bad weather was part of their plan. After an afternoon spent racing four-wheelers powered by lawnmower engines, the 92bhp Lightning felt improbably quick when we resumed the ride the following day, for some reason on new tyres.
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