Colditz

It's every officer's duty to escape. So our four battle-weary soldiers slipped the confines of Blighty for the freedom of Germany's autobahns to stretch the legs of four very fast bikes

Posted: 1 November 2005
by Jon Urry

TWO Magazine Feature



My understanding of German is shaky to say the least. I can remember a few words from my GCSE years - bustenhalter, for example, is a bra, and I think rathaus is a town hall - but even I understood that a police car with blue flashing lights, an officer pointing towards the side of the road and the words 'anschlag bitte' scrolling across an LED display in the rear window was probably a request for us to pull over. Wozza, on the other hand, interpreted it in a different way. So as a BMW K1200S, Suzuki Hayabusa and Kawasaki ZX-12R obediently followed the cop car into a lay-by, a blue Honda Blackbird continued down the road on its merry way.

This moment of police interference wasn't wholly unexpected. For the last 200 miles the four bikes had formed a 150-180mph slip-streaming snake winding its way east, the kind of activity that would launch a squadron of police helicopters and an armada of pursuit cars in the UK. But this is Germany."A car driver reported that you overtook him on the inside," said the crew-cutted policeman in perfect English, standing with his hands on his hips. "In Germany zis is not allowed. And why did your friend not stop?"

It's amazing. We had overtaken cars at 190mph, and yet the thing that upset a dozy driver enough to get him on the phone to the feds was a harmless undertake. Even after that, one of the bikes involved subsequently doing a runner only caused mild confusion, not a Smokey and the Bandit-style pursuit."You have to pay a fine. How much money do you have?" asked the cop. After much fumbling we raked together 45 Euros, which he took, before letting us on our way.

That's the great thing about Germany. For a country apparently so uptight it has some very relaxed views on speeding. On the motorways the general rule is that if there's a limit shown then stick to it rigidly, especially in road works. Other than that, have a ball. Just don't undertake anyone.Which is as good an excuse as any to visit the place, especially if you have one of the aforementioned hyperbike missiles at your disposal. Which we did. One of each, in fact. If you have a bike capable of more than 180mph, you're going to want to let rip on it at least once. But where to head?

For us the choice was simple, because hidden in our midst we had a mole. Well, to be truthful, more of a bore than a mole. Despite the reputation of cheery, fun-loving northerner he hides behind, James Whitham has a darker side kept from public view. Whitham is a history bore, with a disturbing interest in German World War II sites. "You've got to visit Colditz," he enthused while everyone tried to look interested in something else. "It's mint, there's a museum about all the escapes and everything." Fair enough then, tail packs very firmly bungeed on and we were off.Bizarrely enough for somewhere with a reputation for being so inescapably remote, it is virtually one road from Calais to Colditz - a navigational fact any escaping allied prisoners would have found extremely useful. Rolling off our P&O battle cruiser at Calais we simply hopped on the E40 and followed it through Belgium to Chemnitz, about 30 miles from Colditz. Simple, especially for bikes such as these that eat motorway miles, even in the pouring rain.

Oh yes. Despite England basking in glorious sunshine, from the moment we set foot in Europe the heavens opened. Not that it was much of a problem though, for while the weather was at best the wet side of damp, our hyperbikes would happily cruise at a steady 120mph, rock solid and refusing to be upset by a spot of bad weather. A few miles in and Daryll was already really impressed by the BMW. "The engine feels revvy but it's strong," he said, "and it's so comfortable. Heated grips should be standard on all bikes, even sports bikes. Brilliant. But I'm not so impressed with my waterproofs - the arms have split open."

That's the problem with high-speed hyperbike touring: the constant flap of wind wrecks thin waterproofs, as both Wozza and Daryll found to their cost. At 150mph it isn't long before you find yourself wearing a pair of waterproof sleeves as the body of the suit separates itself before flying into the face of the poor unfortunate following behind.Considering the grim conditions, a 600-mile motorway jaunt might sound like the recipe for a nightmare journey, but it turned out to be anything but. From a practical point of view, the beauty of these bikes is that because the manufacturers aren't in a year-on-year lighter/sharper/faster battle (as with 600s and 1000s) they're free to make them - shock, horror! - bigger, heavier and therefore comfier than focused sports bikes. As Daryll found, the BMW is superbly accommodating with a well-padded seat, as is the Blackbird. The Hayabusa and ZX-12R split opinions, however.

While both James and myself thought the Hayabusa was really comfortable, lanky-legged, whippet-thin Wozza had issues, finding the pegs too high and the stretch to the bars too long. "To fit it properly you'd need to be Clyde the orang-utan from Any Which Way But Loose," he reckoned.But while he struggled with the Suzuki Wozza found the ZX-12R really comfortable. Conversely, compact racer-sized James and six-foot something me found it too much of a stretch to the bars. And although the screen is bigger on the ZX-12R, the Busa's actually seemed to be more effective, although stupidly its top lip manages to completely obscure the speedo from the 80mph to 130mph mark. It is worth mentioning that all four of these bikes have excellent mirrors, not that you look in them all that much at 180mph - although that's probably what the owner of the flat-out BMW M6 had told his mate in the passenger seat just before we sailed past him, speedos showing 190+mph.

So 600 miles at an average speed of around 120mph - shouldn't take more than five or six hours, right? Not a chance. Unfortunately the problem with a high average speed is a high average mpg figure and limited fuel range. The stuff is just sucked through, especially on the Kawasaki. Holding between 120 and 140mph resulted in a fairly crap 90 miles before reserve. The Hayabusa managed a far better 115 miles before the fuel light blinked on, while the Blackbird managed a respectable 140 to reserve. Out in front was the K1200, hitting just over the 145 mark before counting down the miles left in the tank. Another brilliant feature, taking the guess work out of fuel stops. The BMW was growing on us all.

It took about nine hours to make it to our destination at Chemnitz. A fair amount of time in the saddle, but none of us felt the strain. Eyes hurt and brains ached from being on a constant lookout for cars pulling into your lane, but our bodies were surprisingly refreshed. Another real bonus with hyper touring is that the constant wind pressure actually helps support your body, taking the strain from your wrists. But a beer never goes amiss, so we toasted fallen friends and retired to quarters.Fortune favours the brave and the next day we were finally blessed with some decent weather as we headed to the former prison fortress of Schloss Colditz. Located in, unsurprisingly, Colditz village, our route to the castle from Chemnitx was a lovely twisty road through rural Germany that went on for about 30 miles. Ample opportunity to test the handling of the bikes, but not before we very nearly had a major disaster.

Cruising through some road works at 50mph or so James, riding the BMW, hit a rock the size of a grapefruit with enough force to dent both wheel rims and instantly deflate the front tyre. How he stayed on is a miracle, but a large part of this fortune has to be due to the BMW's suspension."I'm convinced that on any of the other bikes I'd have been off," said a hugely relieved James. "I had the electronic suspension set on 'soft', and it must have taken most of the impact. I was already impressed with it, but even more so now."On the twisty roads and motorways the BMW's electronic suspension (an optional extra for £525) is excellent. Are riding alone or with a pillion? Simply select 'one' or 'two' on the display. How are you riding? Select either 'comfort', 'normal' or 'sport' mode. You can even adjust it while you're on the move. As Wozza said, "it dumbs down suspension to a level we can all understand. Simply brilliant, and it really works."

Also worth mentioning is the BMW roadside assistance. Okay, our amazing fortune saw us break a German bike in Germany within five miles of a huge BMW dealer and just 300 miles from the BMW factory, but still, one call and 20 minutes later a very, very nice man arrived and the bike was fixed, with two new wheels, the next day. Amazing. And with typical German efficiency we even managed to borrow an identical K1200S (except for the colour) from the dealer for the photos, which explains the colour-changing Beemer.Anyway, dramas over, and back to the twisty roads. Despite their size, the hyperbikes are surprisingly good in the corners, and especially so the Hayabusa. "It's definitely the most nimble," reckoned James. Wozza plumped for the Blackbird. "Any road, any speed the Blackbird is the bike you want. The injection is a bit snatchy from closed to open throttle but if you aren't sure what the road ahead does and you want to go fast, the Blackbird has it." Despite having huge amounts of power the Honda's chassis and smooth engine delivers it in such a friendly fashion that there is no intimidation factor with the Blackbird, it just clicks with the rider. But things weren't well with the ZX-12R. More specifically, there was something wrong with the rear end.

"I've checked tyre pressures and suspension, but the rear is all over the place," said James. Usually 12Rs are great for hustling down twisty roads but there was definitely something not right with this one. What it was we never found out, but it certainly handled the worst simply because the rear wasn't planted to the road, which isn't good for confidence when you have 162bhp at your right hand's disposal!Colditz visited, the next day it was time for us to make our own escape, so we hit the autobahns again. After a day on sub-100mph twisty roads the power of these machines hits you really hard; their motors are unbelievably strong.

When it comes to big power the Busa rules the roost - it really is a monster of an engine. From 3000rpm to the redline there's no let-up in power, just constant, linear drive. "That engine is staggering," said James. "It's like a big electric motor that never slows down. Just wind it on and watch the speedo needle shoot round."The Kawasaki is similar, with a rougher edge. Where the Suzuki surges forward the Kawasaki snarls and barks with a growl from the airbox and vibes through the bars. It isn't as civilised as the Suzuki, and nowhere near as plush as the silky Honda, but it certainly has character. As does the BMW."This is the only BMW I would ever consider owning," confessed Daryll. "I've never really liked them, but this is a proper bike. It's the best bike here."

Is Daryll is getting older? The little fella is greying at the temples but he still has a few miles left in the tank. No, the BMW genuinely is an excellent machine. BMW has taken the silliness of big power, big speed bikes and made a stunningly civilised machine with brilliantly well thought-out extras. The electronic suspension is excellent, the shaft drive means there's no chain to lube, the ride is super smooth and comfortable and the engine strong. But it lacks something. "It's a great bike," interjects James. "But I don't want too many things taken away from me with rider aids. I want to be able to make a mistake, otherwise it gets boring - and bikes are supposed to be anything but. It won't let you do anything it doesn't want you to do, which to many isn't a bad thing I suppose. Also the brakes are crap - they're strong, but I hate the all-or-nothing servo. But the heated grips are excellent, the suspension top and the motor really good."

After initially tipping the BMW for top spot himself, Wozza changed his mind and went all Honda on us. "The BMW just feels like everything reacts about two tenths of a second behind when you want it," he said. "It's a bit clunky with the gearbox and throttle not quite connected, and the screen isn't good enough for me. But the Honda does everything; huge tank range, comfortable and great handling. If you drop below 150mph you have to drop a gear to catch up with the others, but come on, that's not much to complain about."But James chimed in with more support for the Honda. "It's comfortable, the gearbox is slick and the engine's smooth," he said. "The snatchy throttle response isn't good, but it's still excellent overall. Having said that the Suzuki has really won me over. The Hayabusa's engine is stunning, the handling is the most nimble and, despite it looking like a cheap trainer, I like it because it's different. The only problem is at the start of the test it felt mint; 1500 miles later it's rattling its ring off. The Honda, BMW and Kawasaki feel exactly the same, the Suzuki feels knackered. But I'd still have one, I love it."And the Kawasaki? Well our ZX-12R was let down by it being a bit of a bad egg. The motor is stunning, high speed handling good and build quality excellent, but it simply didn't feel secure in corners. On top of that the gearbox is super-stiff, it vibrates and the tank range is unforgivable.

The winner? For Daryll it was the BMW, but James, Wozza and myself all went for the Honda. It's close, but the Blackbird does it all - and it does it cheaper, too. Second place is tied with the Hayabusa and K1200S."I love the Hayabusa because it does everything," said James, "but the Blackbird ticks all the boxes for me. The BMW is a lot better than I thought, and for many would be the best bike, but I'd still have the Honda"

Wozza agreed: "The Honda is the easiest in all situations and almost as exciting as the Hayabusa. The BMW was a real surprise. So for me it's Honda, then the Suzuki and BMW tied for second and bringing up the rear the Kawasaki." And I agree. The Honda does it all, no fuss, no drama. The Hayabusa is for the thrill seekers, while the BMW is for the practical-minded who still want some fun, but in a more controlled fashion.

Thank you gentlemen, you are dismissed.


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