The world of motorcycling is one rich in extravagance and excess. For many, although far from all, it's an arena of 'mine's bigger than yours' one-upmanship, and we live richer, more varied biking lives for it.
Excess and extremes take on many forms - as many as the designers, engineers and marketing men can think of. Some excesses shape whole motorcycles and are the reason for them being brought into existence. Others are blatant, in-your-face cries for attention. And then there are the more subtle ones.
Arbitrarily, and for no other reason than we thought it a good idea, we chose four quite different examples of motorcycling excess - the most powerful engine, the largest capacity engine, Britain's current best-seller and the most extreme road- legal race bike you can buy - and spent two weeks living our lives with them.
Triumph Rocket III
Special excess: 2.3-litre engine
Lived with: Niall Mackenzie
Until I took delivery of the Triumph Rocket III, never before had any motorcycle come close to taking up a whole parking bay in my garage. I reckon if someone broke in not expecting to encounter this beast they would take fright and run a mile. It's a monster, it's a behemoth but it's also beautiful. And the surprises for me don't end there.
Aside from being transported from pit garage to motorhome, in the 21 years I've been with the struggle-and-strife she has never once showed the slightest interest in joining me for a pillion blast of any description. 'Give me a backie up the drive,' 'take me for a ride in the country,' 'I want get on the back of that bike and feel the wind in my hair,' were three phrases I couldn't believe I was hearing. And all because she had finally discovered the 320kg, 2300cc giant of her dreams - the 'Ruccola Tre', as she now calls it. She's smitten and I love it! Women's minds have always been a mystery to me so I guess this latest revelation should have been no surprise. However, this has also proved to me if you wait long enough there will be a motorcycle out there for absolutely everyone.
If you're sad like me and like cleaning bikes then you'll love the Rocket. From the hefty wheels upwards, the large areas of paintwork and chrome will bring hours of pleasure for those who like to polish - even the little nooks and crannies around the engine are easily accessible. And then there's that enormous tank, the surface area of which must measure at least an acre.
From most angles I find the Rocket's looks very appealing, it's only the rear view that I'm not sure about. While that mental 240-section 16-inch tyre is very impressive, the low-slung seat and mudguard doesn't quite do it for me. The pillion footpegs are also a bit suspect, looking very much like chromed versions of those fitted to my 1981 Yamaha 350LC. On the other hand I particularly like the shiny tacho, speedo and headlights nestled up front. 'Huge', of course, is the theme throughout and two other features that stand out for me are the radiator and rear disc, which without doubt came straight from the latest Scania. Talking of brakes, the front discs and calipers look small and out of proportion but still do a fine job of bringing this great machine to a standstill.
When you first set off, the wide bars and double width-contoured tank almost give the impression you might be riding two bikes welded together side-by-side. Its size and weight may sound intimidating but there's no need to worry. I was pleasantly surprised to find this is a very user-friendly bike. The low seat height and centre of gravity mean wherever you venture you don't have to be the Incredible Hulk to enjoy riding a Rocket.
Whether you are negotiating mini islands or avoiding pedestrians in town, low speed maneuvering is a doddle, mainly due to an excellent throttle connection. The superb feel for the engine allows you to corner and steer with confidence in the trickiest of traffic. If you don't believe me I can show you a video of my 13-year-old riding it round the garden with me on the pillion. A bit irresponsible maybe, but it underlines just how easy the daddy of cruisers is to master. The comfortable, laid back riding position complements the Rocket's lazy steering geometry making sweeping A roads a joy.
Parking requires some planning, though, as I discovered after stopping on a slight downhill incline against a kerb. Pulling it back uphill is clearly not an option, so either have a permanent pillion or be prepared for embarrassment when you enlist the help of a stranger to get you out of a parking pickle.
No such worries with forward motion however as this gigantic triple will launch you to 100mph before you can say Eddie Stobart then stay there all day long. The powerful motor has a more refined feel than, say, a big Harley but I was disappointed with the five-speed transmission and its clunky gear changes. Rightly or wrongly I was expecting slick shifting like on the Harley V-Rod. That said we are talking here about a bike built to cruise Route 66, not for scooting around town delivering pepperoni pizzas.
Park a sports bike at your local supermarket and no one will give it a second glance. Pull up on a Rocket and you'll have a mix of pensioners, kids and housewives gawping in amazement. More proof of the presence this bike has - with the added benefit of a constant flow of new friends and no more Johnny-no-mates.
Many great things have already been written about the Rocket III, with even a few fellow journos claiming it is one of the best bikes ever built. I don't believe big is always best but I'm making an exception with the Rocket III. It may not be the prettiest machine to come from the Leicestershire factory but it has an abundance of character in the looks and riding department.
Best of all it converted my wife to the joys of biking, so that has to be a result in my book!
Special excess: a claimed 197bhp
Lived with: Tim Dickson
Saturday 15 July, 2006. 11.15am. Put leathers on, open garage, wheel out ZZR1400. Head down the M40 into London, ride through the centre of town and out the other side to London City Airport. 12.30pm, arrive at LCA and sit around for a bit.
2pm, increase front preload. 2.15, set unofficial London Land Speed Record of 183.4mph. Back off preload, ride home again.
Such is the versatility of Kawasaki's ZZR1400 that it can lunge from easy-to-ride ultra-urban commuter to imperious standard setting rocketship without batting an eyelid. And it does this via all-rounder, scratcher, tourer and effortless two-up transporter.
Waking up in the knowledge your daily workhorse is the most powerful production bike on the market comes with a certain air of smug arrogance. You know, you just know, that any other vehicle you come across on your way to work is toast, it's an irritant, in the way, it's dog shit on your shoe. Move aside, dopey, I've got the fastest thing on the road. What do you know? And all this for less than nine grand.
And blow me down but they do get out of the way. There's something about the ZZR's reflected front profile that melts drivers of other vehicles into submission. I ride a hectic stretch of M40, M25 and M3 each day and I've never had so many cars make so much effort to get out of my way so quickly as on the ZZR1400. Its squat, almost shark-like nose and stubby, recessed laser eyes smirk with superiority. It's a good feeling.
How much power? Kawasaki claim 197bhp; we measured 171bhp at the rear wheel and 103lb.ft of torque. That's a lot. Except the ZZR is a bike of paradoxes. The way power is delivered is disappointing, at least at first. Low down the ZZR lacks urge - Kawasaki says to make the bike less intimidating, which is topsy-turvy madness; a 175bhp bike should be intimidating - and it doesn't take off until 6000rpm. But boy does it take off. The acceleration is almost overwhelming, for both mind and motorcycle. The ZZR's massive power, and the rush with which it arrives, isn't so well integrated as part of the whole in the same way it is on, say, a Fireblade or GSX-R1000. Their power, while less at peak and with less torque to back it up, is punchier, more instant and accessible. Instead the ZZR's post-6000rpm grunt arrives in one huge surge of mayhem.
But I found myself forced to do the inconceivable on the ZZR: pottering home on the motorway, traffic slowed to 50mph or so. I was in top, and as the cars sped up again I had to change down two gears to get any drive. That's ridiculous. In top gear 6000rpm is 110mph. That's where you need to be to start driving. But the motor still amazes. The ZZR will nip up to 160 without clearing its throat, then cruise at 125mph while returning over 40mpg, according to the onboard computer. The tank holds 22 litres, and a 160-mile range, plus reserve, is the norm. Including top speed testing, London riding and motorway commuting the ZZR averaged 36mpg. Over 50mpg is easily achieved. Remarkable.
But that 1352cc inline four belches out heat making riding through town on hot summer days uncomfortable. The clutch is a little grabby (well, ours was after record-setting abuse... ) and the gearbox clunky, especially engaging first, and the change up to second. On the whole though the ZZR's weight distribution, low speed poise and light steering make it remarkably easy to ride through town. Only the enormous sticky-out mirrors hinder real filtering progress, but at least they give a proper rear view.
Of course there's more to the ZZR1400 than motorways and filtering. It handles and stops too. As standard though it's soft. The forks bottom too easily (hence the added preload to cope with on-the-limit braking from flat-out) and there's too much weight transfer under hard acceleration. The ZZR's acceleration is barking, and the suspension needs fiddling with to better deal with its demands. Too low at the back for my liking, the standard toolkit appears not to come with a C-spanner, which is annoying. A bike so adept at taking passengers needs suspension that's easily adjusted should one fancy a trip on the back. Threaded preload adjuster rings may look marginally tricker, but a step-position adjuster is far quicker and easier to use. Bikes with this much performance need to be easily adjustable to cope with it under all conditions. The ZZR isn't.
As it is though, more of everything front and rear reaped rewards. Not as flickable as a focused sports tool, the ZZR can nonetheless cut some mustard in the turns. All that weight requires a touch more caution setting up and turning in, but it's stable and yet responsive with pretty good feedback. A gentle scrape from the footrests at big-ish lean is enough to know things probably shouldn't be pushed too much further, though.
The ZZR1400 packs a neat range of ability into an impressive package. Not perfect, and with a few rough edges, but it's big and imposing like a proper fast bike should be. While the sub-6000rpm deficiency of power is inexcusable, on the whole the ZZR rocks. The trick to managing all that power is knowing when not to use it. Which of course is nearly all the time. 171bhp doesn't get you round corners any quicker, it just gets you to the next one sooner than you're ready for. But if you're cautious and respectful enough the ZZR's power is usable and massively entertaining. Add to that everything else it does so well and excess never seemed so appealing.
Friday 28 July, 2006. Take ZZR1400 back to Kawasaki. "Er, can I maybe keep it just a bit longer..?"
Special excess: the UK's best-seller
Lived with: John Hogan
It's the Friday before Brands Hatch World Superbikes and the guys in Suzuki GB's workshop are talking me through all the things I'm supposed to know before I can take away their shiny new GSX-R750. Except all I can hear is a Bart Simpson-style 'blah, blah, blah' - I am transfixed by the 750 and just want to be on my way. Lecture over, I sling the sun over my shoulder and head off to see what all the fuss is about.
With 1486 of the K6 GSX-R750 sold in the UK so far this year, it's currently Britain's best-selling motorcycle bar none. Worldwide, 670,000 people have bought GSX-R750s since the 1985 launch, but I was five years old at the time and can't really remember it. I can remember the first time the 750 had an effect on my life though. When I was at school I used to do a bit of boxing, one of the coaches at my club had a GSX-R750M. To get a go on it I had to agree to go weight training with him, involving a 30-mile round trip on the back of the GSX-R. I never really liked the weightlifting, but I was addicted to going pillion on that bike three times a week.
The GSX-R750 is the bike of the moment. If you took your money into a Suzuki dealer today and asked for one, the nice man would gladly take your cash, then tell you to come back in three months. The changes that Suzuki made to the 750 for 2006 - new chassis, new motor, less weight, more power, sharper looks - have no real impact on me as, being relatively new to this game, I haven't ridden last year's. I have however spent lots of time on this year's GSX-R600 and it becomes apparent straight-away that physically the two are identical. Weight wise there's only a two-kilo difference, which is a counter balance weight on the crankshaft. Not something your average Joe will pick up on.
Power wise the 750 is 25bhp up on the 600. This is noticeable immediately. You have be ruthless with the 600 to get the most out of it; on the 750 though things are a lot less manic - unless you want them to be, in which case things happen very, very quickly. There is proper useable torque that makes 50mph top gear overtakes a doddle, without having to worry about down shifting. The gear ratios are perfect. First will show an indicated 87mph, use the other five and you can add almost 100mph to that figure. If you really want the motor to excite just crack the throttle at 50mph in second, which is just under 6000rpm. The front doesn't lift, it just charges forward and spins round to the redline. There is a noticeable change in pitch and power delivery at 8000rpm, which sounds great, but you'll be constantly wary of breaking every speed limit our country has to offer.
The brakes are fantastic. One finger was always enough to brush speed off for a corner, or completely stop. The suspension, unsurprisingly, is also superb, the transition from braking to the forks settling before entering corners is seamless. The GSX-R feels so composed when you turn in, and it holds a line perfectly.
I was cornering more quickly on the Suzuki than on any other road bike I have ridden, without ever feeling like the bike was waiting to do something nasty. The GSX-R750 may have earned itself a bad boy image over the years, but this seems misplaced now. There are no secrets or surprises; it just complies with your input and gets on with it.
But ride the 750 and you can't help but notice how many other GSX-Rs you're sharing the road with. You definitely don't feel like an individual. Go to Box Hill, or Matlock Bath, or Brands Hatch and you'll blend in, not stand out. It's the best selling bike in the UK this year so you're going to see lots of them, and 600s and 1000s too. Some people are buying them purely to fit in and look the part, some people are buying them because of the heritage that the GSX-R750 has. Then there are people who, having considered all the options, see it as the perfect blend of weight, power and price. These sell because they're damn good bikes. I could see myself fitting into one of the last two, but if buying a good thing because it's good is a bad thing, why does everyone have an iPod or a Nokia phone?
The 750, this 750, offers the perfect blend of power and performance, seamlessly bridging the gap between 600 and 1000. I'd have a GSX-R750 over the 600 or 1000. James Whitham would have a GSX-R750 over the 600 or 1000. We've asked the question before - why don't more manufacturers make 750s? It's a tough act to follow. It may be common as muck, but the GSX-R750 is one of the purest forms of motorcycling ever created.
Special excess: race bike on the road
Lived with: Jon Urry
I've been riding the Aprilia for less than 20 yards, in fact I haven't even made it out of the office car park, and I've already got into trouble. A lady is waggling her finger and shouting something about a speed limit. I choose to ignore her rants. How could I possibly be speeding? Can't she see I'm pulling a stoppie?
There is absolutely nothing sensible about the Aprilia SXV5.5, and there's no sensible way of riding it. You get some bikes that claim to be race-reps, modern 600s for example. Yes, they look like race bikes, but the truth of the matter is that they are only shadows of their race track brethren. The SXV isn't a shadow, it's a full frontal assault.
This Aprilia is the closest thing to a fully road legal race bike that you can buy. Take off the mirrors, lights and number plate, stick on a race can (£900 from your local dealer) and hit the track. That's all there is to it. Okay, top teams will do a bit with the engine, but not a hell of a lot. This little 549cc V-twin already rips out 75bhp in road trim.
I've been gagging to have a go on this bike since I first saw it at the end of last year. It's beautiful in a way only a race bike can be. Purposeful, aggressive and hard. But as a quote I once heard goes, "no matter how beautiful she is, someone, somewhere, is sick of putting up with her shit."
And with the SXV you do get some shit. It's a proper race engine, so you just have to accept that it's going to need regular maintenance. That's a given. But new pistons and shims every 60 hours of riding time? That's quite steep. To be fair to Aprilia this is a race-use guideline; road use puts far less strain on an engine and there are rumours of a bike that has done 5000 miles without being rebuilt.
And then there's the actual ride. Where most bikes have a bit of fake carbon fibre here and there, the SXV has a carbon seat. Well, that's what it looks and feels like to me. It's not actually carbon but it's probably the most uncomfortable bit of semi-foam 'padding' I have ever sat on. And did I mention the vibrations? Get the SXV over 65mph and the buzzing from the bars makes both your arms go dead. And the fuel range? Just 46 miles until reserve limits most rides to within striking distance of the nearest garage. Am I putting you off? Don't be.
Okay, there's no way anyone is going to use this as a day-to-day bike. But as a second machine, ready to unleash on the world when the time is right? Now we're talking.
Throw a leg over the SXV and you'll be amazed at how narrow it is. There really is nothing to it. Pull it upright and there's a clatter as the sidestand flicks up. Ah, the return of the good old 'suicide stand'. Racers don't need sidestands, so the SXV's is only there as a half-hearted concession.
Hit the starter, the Aprilia barks into life. Then stalls almost immediately after. Another prod and it's back into life. You have to be gentle at first, this engine wants to be warm before it'll respond. It only takes a few seconds, so enjoy the harsh 'rap, rap, rap' of the twin as you gently blip some heat into it.
This is also a good time to laugh at the response from the digital display, which operates about half a second behind events. Select neutral, pause, and the green light comes on. Rev the motor, pause, and watch the rev counter climb up the left hand side of the display, hook a 90-degree turn and carry on across the top. One of the strangest tachos I've ever seen.
But these are just quirks that only serve to endear the SXV to its owner, the start of a love affair that only riding it seals. Provided you are in the mood. The Aprilia isn't a friendly bike, it's all or nothing with this new top dog bad boy.
Anything other than a small throttle input in first gear results in the front viscously rising. Second gear allows some forward momentum, but the front still wants to go light, and it isn't until third that you can open the throttle 100 per cent in confidence. And all the time the exhaust is barking away with a fantastically rough note encouraging you to go faster. Which you inevitably do, until the vibrations get so bad you have to back off.
But its not just the acceleration that's extreme on the Aprilia, stopping is too. The single wavy front brake disc and radial caliper feels like it belongs on a track. It does. Amazing power, huge amounts of feel and all for virtually no lever movement. Probably the strongest and most compliant brake set up I've ever used, and perfect for huge rolling stoppies. Almost made for them, in fact, as the angry lady in the car park will confirm.
LIVING WITH EXCESS - PIPE DREAM OR POSSIBILITY?
Triumph Rocket III
"The Rocket III is a very clever motorcycle. It's clever because, despite that huge engine and massive proportions, most riders would be capable of enjoying it day-to-day. The weight only becomes a problem when you attempt to reverse uphill, otherwise the low centre of gravity means normal riding is pretty straightforward. Living with the Rocket is a special experience. Although it's just another lump of metal with a wheel at each end, it oozes personality. I also had a strange chrome-cleaning urge before every excursion - voices from above told me to clean, so I obeyed. Providing I could keep on top of the polishing, I could happily use the Rocket III all year round. Cross-country blasts and nipping round town come easy, but you have to be careful weaving through traffic. Pillions also love it, which for once is fine, because with the maddest engine in production you won't feel the slightest difference in performance. And my farmer mate Willie reckons if I fit a knobbly rear tyre he'll give me a job ploughing in the spring." Niall Mackenzie
"Yes, without a doubt I could live with a ZZR1400. It's practical, fun, usable, and great two-up and over distance. And very, very fast. Irritatingly it's not quite good enough as standard, and I'd feel compelled to spend money on it to make it better. I'd want to fill out the bottom end torque deficit and a better rear shock is needed, especially for two-up work. That lot would add up. But if I did own one of these, I think one of two things would happen. Either the novelty of all that horsepower would wear off after a while and the ZZR would be left to be used as entertaining, expensive to run everyday transport. Which begs the question, of course, if you're not using all that power, why have it in the first place? (Because it's nice to know it's there, that's why.) Either that, or there's a danger of taking 175bhp for granted and using too much of it, too often, which would end up in a massive ban, a prison sentence, or a huge crash. Or all three." Tim Dickson
"I love this bike. If I had the money I'd buy one today (but pick it up in November). But there's the insurance issue. A quick check showed that the average age of 2006-model GSX-R750 riders is 42. They also had a 74-year-old on the books, and a 19-year-old. Not me though. I'm 26, married, no points on my licence and with a few years' no claims, but because I live in London and don't own a garage they wouldn't quote me. The paranoia of bike theft and constant checking it was still outside became unbearable in the short time I had this GSX-R, and it wasn't even mine. Someone, somewhere may offer me cover, but the premium I would have to pay would strangle me harder than the wife would. Running costs would be quite high: a couple of hundred quid twice a year for tyres, and a service here and there would soon mount up. Fuel figures showed an average of 38mpg, which doesn't sound bad. This equates to around 106 miles to reserve, so I would spend a fair amount of time at the pumps. I hate to say it, but no, I couldn't live with a Suzuki GSX-R 750. But it's not my fault." John Hogan
"Could I live with this most extreme race-bike-on-the-road on a day-to-day basis? No, not as my only transport. The 46-mile tank range would drive me insane, after just one week I think I've done irreparable damage to my arse and there's no way I could avoid police attention. That 60-hour service interval would pass way too quickly and, me being me, I wouldn't be bothered to get it serviced either due to laziness or poverty, which would result in a lunched engine and a huge bill. But I'd love to have an SXV in my garage for those days when I just want to cut loose. As supermotos go this is easily the best I've ridden (excluding the KTM 950SM). It's raw and feels like exactly what it is: a race bike with lights. The V-twin engine is an amazing bit of engineering, it looks stunning and the quality of components is so high. Yes, it's extreme, but this is the real deal - a race bike for the road with no punches pulled." Jon Urry
SPECS - APRILIA
TYPE - SUPERMOTO
PRODUCTION DATE - 2006
PRICE NEW - £6250
ENGINE CAPACITY - 549cc
POWER - 64.8bhp@10,100rpm
TORQUE - 34.7lb.ft@9200rpm
WEIGHT - 138kg (WET)
SEAT HEIGHT - 918mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 7.8L
TOP SPEED - 109.7mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - N/A46miles
SPECS - KAWASAKI
TYPE - SPORTS TOURER
PRODUCTION DATE - 2006
PRICE NEW - £8995
ENGINE CAPACITY - 1352cc
POWER - 171.1bhp@9600rpm
TORQUE - 103.4lb.ft@7800rpm
WEIGHT - 215kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 800mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 22L
TOP SPEED - 183.4mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - 160miles
SPECS - SUZUKI
TYPE - SUPERSPORTS
PRODUCTION DATE - 2006
PRICE NEW - £7799
ENGINE CAPACITY - 749cc
POWER - 133.2bhp@11,500
TORQUE - 66.5lb.ft@8700rpm
WEIGHT - 163kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 810mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 16.5L
TOP SPEED - 154.4mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - 105miles
SPECS - TRIUMPH
TYPE - CRUISER
PRODUCTION DATE - 2006
PRICE NEW - £11,999
ENGINE CAPACITY - 2294cc
POWER - 112.2bhp@5200rpm
TORQUE - 135.3lb.ft@3000rpm
WEIGHT - 320kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 740mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 26L
TOP SPEED - 129.1mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - 112miles