WHEN JON TOLD me there was something waiting for me downstairs, I thought it'd be a box of boring stuff. Instead I found a Honda CBR600RR. I hugged Jon (eek!), got my gear on and took my new toy for a spin.
I haven't been so excited about a bike since the first time I robbed a bank to buy my first ever brand new motorcycle - a Suzuki GSX-R600 in 1997. I love 600s; they're the perfect compromise between power and lightweight handling and you dominate the bike rather than being at the mercy of a monster litre engine. But although I love riding 600s, they've always lacked one vital ingredient - sexiness. Until the RR came along.
This bike is so beautiful with its Pro-Link swingarm, underseat exhaust and mean looks that I could stare at it for hours. Except I've got some riding to get on with.
I'd ridden a 2004 CBR600RR at the Honda Ron Haslam Race School and I found the fuel injection slightly jerky as you crack the throttle open. Several CBR600RR owners - including former magazine road tester and racer Ian Cobby - agree with me. It's caused by a small blip of over-rich mixture: unlike other manufacturers, Honda hasn't adopted Suzuki's dual butterfly system that eliminates the problem by controlling the speed of the airflow at low revs, much like a CV carb. And filtering through London traffic on the 2005 model it was still noticeable. But it's still my favourite 600!
That weekend I rode to Wiltshire, opening the throttle from the off - I don't believe in gentle running in with modern engines. I worked out a brilliant route through the twisties of Hungerford, Marlborough and Devizes. Except the minute I'd get on the throttle, bikers coming in the opposite direction would signal to me to slow down and sure enough, the cops would be ready to pounce from the bushes with their speed guns. I soon came across a couple of litre sportsbikes so I sneakily tagged along behind them. It's safer to ride in a group because if anyone gets done it's the leader! This let me open up the CBR and it felt amazing. Power comes in strong everywhere, unlike the early 600s that had nothing below 10,000rpm.
The gearbox is smoother than a Hollywood wax and the bike flicks effortlessly into corners and feels dead planted. It gives you so much confidence you feel invincible, and I'm not sure my licence would survive the road... So next stop is a three-day track day at Spain's Guadix with Track Sense. I've been on their trips before so I know their organisation is spot-on. I'll let you know how the CBR gets on.
Meanwhile, I've been making mental notes on future tweaks. I'll tidy up the styling with a seat cowl (no pillions allowed!), aftermarket exhaust and tail tidy. I may fit a Power Commander to find out if any fuelling improvements can be made, and gear it down. I'll have a fiddle with suspension as quality units transform handling. But most of my efforts will focus on slashing the 196kg wet weight: that's already a full 9kg lighter than the CBR600RR I weighed last year. Roll on summer!
TWO HUNDRED MILES on the clock and it was time to introduce my Honda CBR600RR to a racetrack. For great weather (24¡ sunshine) and a crack (the hotel bar serves cold Peroni), I spent a long weekend at the Spanish test track Guadix with Track Sense (www.tracksense.co.uk). I had a blast.
The CBR is my perfect motorcycle - agile and powerful without constantly threatening a highside. But, like every motorcycle fresh out of the crate, I found areas that need honing. I remembered last year's RR feeling planted everywhere, but the 2005 model has more radical geometry so although it turns in quicker, the front end feels more flighty. I got quite a tankslapper powering onto Guadix's very bumpy straight, and I'm now considering a steering damper.
Guadix's first-gear hairpins showed up the jerky fuel injection when
cracking the throttle open from shut. Former BSB racer Ian Cobby, who uses a CBR600RR for (brilliant!) instructing at Track Sense's events, told me to feather the clutch as I opened the throttle to smooth delivery. This really helps. He also suggested adjusting the suspension as the bike bounced under braking. Being no set-up expert, I gave Cobby the go ahead and he increased front and rear damping to better control the springs. The new settings (see right) work for me, but I'm barely nine stone.
Cobby also let me try his CBR that he'd downgeared with a 15-tooth front sprocket, and riding it made me realise how overgeared mine is (16t front, 42t rear). The downgeared CBR flew out of corners and, although I was working the gearbox harder, I was making better use of the engine. I've now ordered a Renthal Final Drive Kit from B&C Express, (01522) 791369, with a 15t front and 43t rear.
It's remarkably easy to get the CBR's pegs down and the hero blobs were freaking me out, so they went. I don't like fitting rearsets as they usually spoil the riding position for me, but I may reconsider. However, one area that doesn't need touching is brakes; the CBR's radial calipers give awesome stopping power and feel. As a road rider I'd always completed my braking before turning-in to avoid locking the front, but Cobby encouraged me to trail the brakes to the apex on track. This lets you stay on the gas for longer and go into corners hotter. As you brake all the weight is over the front anyway so there's loads of traction, and keeping the lever gently squeezed as I turned in I could really feel what the front tyre was doing against the tarmac. A revelation.
Back home, I've fitted a Micron end can (it has the shape of the standard can; the round ones spoil the styling) with removable baffle to keep it quiet when necessary - although when I (grudgingly) lent my CBR to Shippey for a Castle Coombe track day, it failed their noise test with the standard silencer! Apparently it made 107dB out of the crate. Shame (smirk).
IT'S ALL VERY well deviating from the manufacturers' prescribed course and modifying your bike, but expect some compromises. In the CBR's case, we're talking gearing.
Up to now the CBR has spent most of its life on track, which is nice work if you can get it. Standard gearing is 16-tooth front and 42 rear, but that had been lowered to 15/43 - quite a drop. It would be fine on track (although not on all), and actually makes the CBR really punchy around town, but on the open road it's more like riding an 80cc motocrosser. It also means the tall first gear, useful in slow corners on standard gearing, is now redundant for all but pulling away. Yes, there's tons of thrust with the mid-range artificially boosted, but cruising along with motorway commuter traffic has the motor screaming its tits off just to keep up.
With the gearbox driving the speedo, that's now wrong too. By how much? Take the original final drive ratio - 42/16, or 2.625 - and divide it by the new one - 43/15 or 2.867 - and you get 0.9157 (ish). Multiply the indicated speed by this number and you've got your actual speed. That means an indicated 100mph is really 91.5mph, 70 is 64mph, 30 just 27.5mph and so on.
And of course that means the wrong is mileage being racked up . My journey to and from work is nearly three miles longer on the CBR than anything else. Economy is screwed too; with the engine spinning faster to do the same speeds as before it uses more fuel - cruise at a real 90mph and the CBR will use as much gas as it would at 100mph on standard gearing. If you use the trip meter to work out mpg you could be fooled into thinking it's the same as before, but that's only because the CBR's miles are now a different length to mine. The punch-line? Fun though lowered gearing can be, to suit my needs it's going back to standard.
The other legacy of the Honda's summer on track was its tyres. Metzeler's Racetecs and Pirelli Supercorsas give outstanding grip on track but, despite their road legality, don't get used anywhere near their full potential on the road; if you can cook a set of Racetecs on the public highway you're probably in the wrong job - give some BSB team managers a shout, they might be interested.
Meantime, with the autumn damp and chill replacing summer's dry warmth, the CBR's Supercorsas were swapped for a set of Pirelli Diablos, a favourite of mine for all-round road use. They suit the CBR perfectly.