There's a stretch of autoroute south of Clermont Ferrand that is the perfect tonic to the preceding several hundred miles of motorway monotony - if riding four of the world's finest litre bikes can ever be considered monotonous.
There's a stretch of autoroute south of Clermont Ferrand that is the perfect tonic to the preceding several hundred miles of motorway monotony - if riding four of the world's finest litre bikes can ever be considered monotonous. As the A75 runs south alongside the meandering river Allier just north of Issoire, it snakes left and right in a succession of fast, 140mph kneedown fast, right-left-rights.
Riding the luggaged-up Repsol-rep Fireblade I'm first into them, warning the traffic ahead that we're coming through, and the ever-obliging, bike-mad French motorists part like the Red Sea as we sweep, Moses-like, through turn after turn of high speed sportsbike nirvana. Having been on the road for five hours since we got off the ferry in Le Havre at 8am with just four hours fitful sleep to our name, it's the perfect wake-up call.
And that's not even the best bit. Later on there's an even better set of uphill twists and turns, then the jaw-dropping new viaduct - the world's highest, or longest, or most expensive, or something - near Millau, and the even twistier downhill section of A75 south of Le Caylar. And blow me, this is just the motorways.
And why are we here? Well, 'why not?' is as good an answer as any, but this time we are heading south to Barcelona for the pre-season MotoGP test at Barcelona. We needed an excuse to ride this year's headline-grabber, the new GSX-R1000, up against the Fireblade, ZX-10R and R1, and that seemed to fit the bill. An overnight P&O ferry from Portsmouth to Le Havre, a hard day's riding to Barcelona, chill out for a day, a day at the circuit then a day's ride back to the overnight ferry and home. But on sports 1000s? Doesn't that sound like too much hard work? No way. Bring it on.
It just takes a bit of discipline. The maximum mileage you can cover in a day is largely determined by fuel stops. It's all very well nailing it at 150mph but stopping every 35 minutes kills your average speed, and the more bikes you have with you the longer it takes to refuel. Each extra rider means more time spent refuelling, chatting, smoking, eating, drinking and going for a wee. It all adds up, and every additional person can knock 30 to 40 miles off your day's total.
With reserve lights coming on around the 105-mile mark, our hastily configured routine went like this: cruise at 115-120mph for 95 miles, then knock the speed off to conserve fuel until signs told us how far it was to the services. Close by - say 10km - and we'd pin it; 35km or more and we'd take it easy. Worked every time, except when the R1 ran dry at 127 miles and coasted the final 200 yards to the pumps, then (nearly) again with all four bikes running on fumes late on Sunday night an hour short of Le Havre. The BP station in Louviers saved our bacon.
The limited tank range highlights a personal bugbear of mine. Why do sports bikes have inverted forks? Because racers have them. Radial brakes? Because racers have them. Multi-adjustable suspension, super-sharp chassis and massively powerful engines? You get the idea. Right, Rossi has a 22-litre fuel tank.
I want one of those too, not the 17 litres or so we get. BSB racers have 24-litres - that'd be even better. Sod weight, if you don't want to lug 24 litres of fuel around don't put 24 litres in, but if you had the choice it'd make trips like this a damn sight easier. Rob and Jon didn't agree. Colin did. I was growing to like him.Fuel range aside, it's surprising how well these bikes lent themselves to country-munching all-day riding.
They even take a fair bit of luggage. The baby-eating ZX-10R has a metal tank for magnetic bags and loads of bungee hooks for tailpacks, while the GSX-R has a metal tank, although no rear bungee hooks, and integrated indicators mean you have to get a bit Heath Robinson strapping on a tailpack. Both bikes have enough underseat storage for a decent-sized lock, chain and Lion Bar.
The R1 has just enough metal tank to stick a tankbag to, while the underseat exhaust means tailpacks need careful fitting to avoid melted bungees, and there's room for nowt under the seat. The Blade fared least well; its plastic tank cover meant no magnetic bags (although Baglux do a fitting kit, and even one in Repsol-matching colours), while the underseat pipe again means no storage and careful tailpack fitting. All four bikes take at least half a roll of duct tape to prevent scratched bodywork.
But to tankbag or not to tankbag? Now that is a question. "They're bloody rubbish," surmised Rob. Urry, obviously an experienced tourer ("to save weight he left his razor at home and wore shirts with holes in them," noted Colin), hates tankbags with a passion and avoided riding a bike with one fitted at all costs. "I never want to tour with one again," whined Jon. "If you need more storage you're either vain or have an obsessive cleanliness disorder. Smelling and touring go hand-in-hand."
I prefer to ride with a tankbag than without on long journeys, provided it's not too big - the Oxford Humpbacks were spot-on for resting my chest and keeping toll tickets in, but it depends on the bike and rider. Admittedly both the ZX-10R and R1 were literally pains in the neck with tankbags because their screens are so low.
"I nearly chucked the thing in a field," said Colin, after an hour-long 120mph-plus stint on the ZX-10R. "It didn't have anything of mine in it anyway." Lovely bloke, Colin.
Anyway, surely these things can't be comfortable over distance? Actually not that bad. Okay, at low speed there's too much weight on your wrists and none are as cosseting as a Pan European or R1200RT, but I know which I'd rather have with me on the roads at journey's end. And with fuel stops every hour or so it's never long before you can stretch arms and legs.
The R1 and Blade have the lowest pegs; the GSX-R and Blade the tallest screens. The R1's wide seat was the most comfortable (but Rob thought it too hard), the ZX-10R's a close second, although angled more steeply forward. The Honda's seat must have been about okay as it drew no comment, while the GSX-R's was too narrow unless you slid far back onto the wide bit at the rear.
Other points? The Fireblade and R1 have the best mirrors, the GSX-R's are about okay, the ZX-10R's barely that. The Suzuki's clocks were easily the best, topped off with a gear position indicator - "a stroke of genius," thought Jon, and more useful than you might think with a slipper clutch and relatively conventional gear ratios.
Blimey, that covered a lot of ground. Which is funny because, along with counting the tenths of miles click by, going from sixth to second on the autoroute without losing any speed and noticing that the ZX-10R's indicator idiot light almost matches its paintwork, it's precisely little details like those that you find yourself pondering when you're covering a lot of ground.
And cover ground we did. "I used to say to people that there's no point in buying a 1000 because a modern 600 is enough for the road," said Colin. "But I was talking rubbish. The French roads are so empty and the distances so great that 1000cc and 150bhp is just about right." Exactly.
You could argue that all that power is a pointless extravagance, but it's certainly nice to have. My parents live in a four-bedroom house. They don't need to, but it's nice to have. My wife's got a laptop with more processing capability than NASA. She doesn't need it, but it's nice to have. And these bikes have more horsepower than most of us could ever hope to make use of. We don't need it, but it's nice to have... It also makes all four bikes incredibly flexible and easy to ride. Leap-frogging lorries on the route nationals heading south from Le Havre, it's easy for the four of us to keep in convoy and not get split up. As long as the lead rider isn't actually trying to get away (ie, as long as it's not Rob), it's a piece of piss for the following three to keep together.
Become a fan of Visordown
Follow us on twitter
Other Immediate Media Sites
Our eCommerce Platform
© Immediate Media Company Ltd 2012. This website is owned and published by Immediate Media Company Limited. www.immediatemedia.co.uk