A1 south, Stamford to Calais, Monday morning 6.45am and getting out of bed’s easy when a continent, not an office, awaits. Slinging the last of my gear on the back seat and locking the house for the last time for three weeks, the August sun’s already warm on my back. That settles it; the leather trousers and riding boots go in the panniers. On a dedicated tourer the living is easy. You have options.
Over the last six months the GTR’s been a workhorse, little more. Tasked with getting into and out of central London each day, and commuting between Lincolnshire and the capital weekly, it has performed both tasks admirably, but after more than 6000 miles in six months I didn’t feel like I’d really gotten under the 1400’s skin, or really used it as intended. For while you can appreciate its comfort and easy power anywhere, its chassis – something Kawasaki claim sets the 1400 apart from on-paper rivals like the Pan European and Yamaha FJR1300 – needs real roads to shine. Rob reckons he’s got just the place, so we’re off.
I’ve toured Europe on some pretty inappropriate machinery, from Fireblades to GSX-R600s, and there’s a certain smugness to rolling off a P&O crossing to Calais aboard a purpose-built touring machine – already the GTR’s breeding the kind of smugness born of having the perfect tool for a job. Fate has conspired to keep me in France for a whole fortnight; a week with the rest of the team and a second at a mate’s wedding near Cahors. Few machines could swallow the necessary clothes but the Kawasaki does so easily courtesy of panniers and a top box.
On the hot, bright autoroutes of northern France life is easy. I lead our unlikely trio, towing Ian on the Harley-Davidson XR1200 and Barry on the Bonneville down past Arras to Reims and Troyes. We hold a steady 85mph, limited by the non-existent wind protection of the Harley and the Triumph. The GTR wants to do 120mph. Poor range on the other two forces fuel stops the safe side of 100 miles. The GTR wants to lope along at 120mph. There’s nothing to do but check the handwritten directions I’ve tucked into the tank-top cubbyhole (which also makes péage payments a breeze), take in the widescreen views of northern France’s big skies and run through my best man speech ad infinitum – are we there yet? The mercury’s into the thirties by the time we make Grenoble, the gateway to the Alps and the waypoint marking the end of our motorway purgatory. Now we ride the N85, the Route Napoleon, a road I finally rode for the first time last summer. If I’m being honest every day since has just felt like waiting.
The weather’s perfect, if a little too warm, the Alpes Maritimes sweltering under a high sun and a meaty, 34° heat. On second acquaintance the N85 remains awe-inspiring. It’s a greater writer than I who can do its majesty justice but suffice to say it’s an almost flawless riding road; long (180 miles from Grenoble to Grasse), perfectly surfaced and blessed with hundreds of corners of every conceivable type, from walking pace madness under arches of millennia-old stone to wide-open, third-gear 180s you take with the bike on its side, the throttle on its stop and your heart in your mouth. I’m in heaven.
“How the hell do you know how tight they are?” We stop up for water and Ian on the Harley is
struggling with the N85’s endless challenges, its blind turns and their apparent unpredictably. It’s not that he’s especially slow or unsafe, more that he knows he’s not making the most of every corner – after all, none of us ride a motorcycle to trickle around at some lowest common denominator of a pace. Barry offers some sound advice on looking through the corners, braking in a straight line deep into them and balancing the conflicting needs to hang wide for better visibility and stay tight to avoid oncoming traffic. Ian nods, wipes the sweat from his eyes and pulls his helmet back on. By tomorrow we’ll be struggling to keep up with him and the flying XR, the industrial thunder of its full Termignoni system overlaid with the occasional scratching of pegs on hot tarmac.
Part of Ian’s problem is the Harley’s geometry, which is alien to him as a sportsbike rider. By contrast, on a virgin pair of Dunlop Roadsmarts, the GTR feels fantastic. Loaded like a packhorse the ride quality is fantastic, its sharp edges softened off by the improved ratio of sprung to unsprung mass. Other than that you’d never know you had the best part of a month strapped to the back. Far from feeling unwieldy, the 1400 relishes the endless challenge, happy at last to have something to get its teeth into.
In time-honoured Kawasaki style the front end’s superb, with the control to let you use the mighty brakes hard, the give to smother bumps and that oh-so-important feel green machines seem to boast as a matter of course. And all the time there’s the engine, a gem of an atom bomb combining the kid glove responses you need to hold the bike steady around walking pace hairpins with an awesome slug of thrust capable of stealing whole seconds on Barry and the rampaging Bonneville out of every uphill turn.
On the downhill run into Castellane the GTR’s power advantage counts for little and, with each hairpin, I hear the Arrow-equipped Triumph getting closer, mad Tavner hanging off like Elias and reeling me in. The riding’s awesome, spirited and laugh-out-loud brilliant, and the surreally perfect day hits a new high when we round a final hairpin to find a shack of a café with an immaculate F599 Fiorano Ferrari parked outside, its fabulously expensive ceramic discs ticking in the low Mediterranean sun. We pull over, take pictures, slowly shake our heads at the view and talk about re-riding the last 40 miles. If only we had the time.
The others turned north days ago, their leashes set taut by partners, commitments and a week away. I’ve been at large since, riding some truly great roads (if you’re ever down this way, Rob’s DN7 from Frejus to Mandelieu alone is worth the pilgrimage, as is the Sospel road over the Col de Braus and the D562 from Fayence to Draguignan) swimming in cool, pristine rivers and stopping in perfect little French towns for coffee, fresh fruit and delicious carpaccio de boeuf with lemon juice, capers and black pepper.
The quality of the riding peaks on Saturday with the Cornice des Cevennes. It starts slowly, winding through too many villages as I head east from Ales, but it soon reveals its true colours, the low speed limits and pedestrian crossings giving way to endless climbing turns through the cool, wooded hillsides. The air’s warm and fresh, the sky an impossible shade of blue and cloudless and the traffic lights are easily despatched. Once again the GTR and I settle into a hypnotic rhythm, heeling into turns without conscious thought, balancing risk and reward just so in shorts and a jacket.
The road goes on and on, flipping between intense ascents and more open, well-sighted going over weirdly desolate plateaux of ochre grass and gnarled trees. I’m pressing on but the heat keeps the pace sensible – this is less about scraping sliders on tarmac and more about scraping away the layers of routine and responsibility to find again the child-like sense of wonder at the world that lies beneath, to feel so intoxicated simply by being alive you feel your eyes prick with happiness. Need to do that right now? Without the hassle of trying to bungee a week onto the back of a GSX-R, or the responsibility and pressure that come with a bike bred for racing? Then buy a Kawasaki GTR1400.
What I love
- Monstrous, mile-eating engine
- Sweet chassis (providing the tyres are fresh – very sensitive to squared-off rubber)
- Hassle-free living; big tank, comfy, hard luggage…
What I’d change
- Not exactly sexy – the Bonneville and the Harley got the St Tropez attention
- Transmission lacks refinement
- No heated grips, heated seat, GPS or cruise control. But really, who cares?
For: Massively capable for distance work, super-smooth, powerful engine and handling belies its size
Against: Heavy and awkward in town, poor finish on some cycle parts and blows red-hot air onto rider’s legs
2009 Kawasaki GTR1400 Specifications
Top speed: 153.57mph
Engine: 1352cc, 16-valves, liquid-cooled in-line four
Bore & stroke: 84mm x 61mm
Compression ratio: 10.7:1
Power: 130.99bhp at 9,500rpm
Torque: 87.90lb/ft at 7,500rpm
Front suspension: 43mm inverted forks
Adjustment: Preload, compression, rebound
Rear suspension: Monoshock
Adjustment: Preload, compression, rebound
Front brakes: Four-piston calipers, 310mm discs
Rear brake: twin-piston caliper, 270mm disc
Wet weight: 308kg
Seat height: 815
Fuel capacity: 22 litres
Colour options: Blue, grey