Road Test: CB1300 v ZRX1200R v GSX1400 v XJR1300

Niall, James, Daryll and Jon venture north to celebrate Burns' night, eat Haggis and drink whisky. "They fought like Scotsmen. And won their freedom"

Posted: 24 April 2008
by Niall Mackenzie & Jon Urry

Visordown Motorcycle News

The faint, but distinctive waft of rebellion is in the air. It's 8am, Niall, Daryll and myself are at James Whitham's house and outside looks cold. Very cold. The thought of the 250-mile ride from Huddersfield to Edinburgh on naked bikes is becoming less and less appealing.

Daryll, who managed to single-handedly demolish most of the Whitham's white wine supply the night before, has already had a traumatic start to the day having been woken up from his bed on the sofa by James' pet dog licking his face. Niall has received a piss-taking text message from Virgin Yamaha team boss, and close mate, Rob Mac informing him that it's very cold and snowing outside. Meanwhile, Whitham is claiming he is 'sensitive' and has poor circulation. The TWO van, and more importantly its heater, is starting to look like a tempting prospect.

A quick check of Teletext reveals that the snow isn't actually falling near our route and the temperature is a virtually tropical (for Scotland in January) 7¡ above zero. Excuses are running out, it's time to make a decision. "Sod it, let's just go," reckoned Whitham, trying to appear manly in front of wife and child. Decision made, layers of clothing were added and with the thought of a warming whiskey keeping morale up, we headed off.

So why ride naked bikes to Scotland in January? Well, er, why not? Okay, it isn't the best time of the year but Edinburgh is a great city, and more importantly 25 January is famous Scot Robert Burns' birthday. (If you don't know who Burns is check out Niall's Burns night guide on the right). In a nutshell Burns shagged loads, wrote poetry and liked the odd drink or two. Which in my book makes him a top lad. He has also never been played by Mel Gibson, which is also a bonus. Every year the Scots celebrate the life of Burns by getting pissed, eating haggis and listening to some Burns poetry. A celebration that we at TWO couldn't really pass up, especially as Niall is a genuine Scot and could probably help translate for us.

Why the naked retro bikes? To be truthful after about 80 miles of motorway I was asking myself the same question as my neck bent over backwards and my fingers started to lose all feeling. But retros we had.

The welcome warmth of the first fuel stop and with it a decent English breakfast kept our spirits up. "You reach a level of misery and just stay there," reckoned Niall. "It's not too bad, the ZRX is quite easy to ride and comfortable at around 80mph." James wasn't coping too badly either. "The Honda's good on the motorway too," he said. "It hasn't been as bad a journey as I thought."

I was starting to see why racers are always described as hard men, because I was having a nightmare on the XJR. It has absolutely no wind protection and at anything over 80mph you have to hang on hard and brace yourself. Both my forearms were cramping up and my chin felt like it had been punched from straining to keep my lid down. Daryll was equally unhappy. "The GSX has no protection. The seat is really comfortable and padded but with my tank bag and the lack of fairing I'm struggling," he moaned. To be fair to Suzuki I'm sure most of this problem was Daryll's ridiculous tank bag. Quite what was in there was a mystery, although I suspect copious amounts of hair care products.

Suitably fortified by grease and coffee we hit the road again. Feeling a bit sorry for Daryll I traded the XJR for the GSX, and after a few miles started to feel a bit guilty. The Suzuki is both more comfortable and actually offers slightly more wind protection than the Yamaha. With the GSX you can sit at 90mph without too much strain; on the Yamaha it's a real struggle. The seat is well padded and the whole bike has a general feeling of reassuring largeness.

Passing the 'Welcome to Scotland' sign indicated that we had broken the back of the journey, and another saying 'Edinburgh 80 miles' showed our suffering would shortly be over. Obviously boosted by these signs Whitham, who was leading on the CB1300, started to get his head down, which was a bit of a problem. Having ridden the XJR to the previous fuel stop I noticed it had the worst tank range of the four, with it's gauge showing one bar remaining after just 80 miles. My odometer was reading 85 miles, so I knew that the Yamaha would be low, but unfortunately James rode straight past the next fuel stop. We all followed.

With the GSX's odometer reading 106 miles Daryll, on the XJR, suddenly started to slow, desperately trying to find the reserve tap. I slowed to make sure he was okay while Niall and James disappeared from sight. But sure enough, just two miles up the road Niall was on the hard shoulder as he too tried to locate the ZRX's reserve. James was long gone. A conserving eight-mile dawdle followed before we met up with James at the next service station. "The Honda's fuel light just came on so I pulled in," he said. "Where'd you lot get to?"

Niall didn't even know the Kawasaki had a fuel tap. "I can't remember the last time I rode a bike with a fuel tap. I was just wondering who I was going to get a tow from when I noticed it. The gauge went from half-full to empty in about 20 miles."

Bikes full and Edinburgh approached fast, and with it warmth and food. On the CB1300 I was starting to enjoy the ride. Despite it only actually having a tiny fairing, and that an added-on Honda accessory, it makes a world of difference and means cruising at more than 80mph for any length of time is easy. And according to Daryll, who was on the Kawasaki, it's the same story. The Eddie Lawson rep ZRX comes complete with a dinky nose fairing as standard and, as on the Honda, motorway riding is a possibility rather than, quite literally, a pain in the neck.

A few more short miles and the smell of a Scottish shortbread factory reached our nostrils as we entered the suburbs of Edinburgh. As the TWO HQ was kindly picking up the tab we had booked into the superb Balmoral Hotel, partly because it is a great hotel, partly because it was having a Burns' night celebration and also because it had secure parking. An absolute essential with bikes.

With the bikes secured it was a quick trip to a hire shop to get kilted up (well, when in Rome...) and ready for the celebrations. Well almost ready, there was one slight gap in my knowledge: what's worn under a kilt? According to Niall pants are worn if you are in the company of women, but not if you are going into battle or are only in the company of blokes. Simple. So the moral here is if you see a Scotsman wearing a kilt with his bits dangling out run like hell because he is in a fighting mood.

And running like hell was what I was considering when I saw the traditional piper at the Balmoral's Burns night meal. There's something very intimidating about a huge bloke in a kilt with a moustache the size of a small animal waving a sword around just a few meters away. I had no intention of checking to see if he was in a fighting mood, but the way he attacked the haggis suggested he had left his underwear at home. After some poetry, of which even Niall couldn't understand a word, and a bit of piping we tucked into the haggis, neeps and tatties. Even James, who had never had haggis before, agreed it was actually really good. The rest of the night is best left unreported, I'll let the photos speak for themselves (at least the ones we can print).

The next day it was time to enjoy the bikes. These machines aren't designed for motorway miles, they are for riding through towns, checking your reflection in shop windows and playing on back roads. At these speeds the lack of fairing isn't a problem, and they all have really padded seats and comfortable riding positions. The Suzuki still feels big, though.

"It's a bit like a tank is this," reckoned James about the GSX. "It's big, heavy and doesn't handle very well, especially at low speed. The front feels odd and it's so heavy. I didn't really like riding it in town and on the road it wobbled a bit. The gearbox felt like the ratios were too close as well."

Niall agreed, but didn't mind. "It's just big, but these bikes are," he said. "The engine makes it feel like you expect of a big retro; powerful and strong but better at low speeds and with some character. Not like the Honda. The CB handles the best, has a great engine, easily the smoothest of the lot and it's well-built, but these are meant to look like bikes that didn't handle, did wobble around and were physical to ride. The Honda just feels too perfect. There's no quirkiness. It's a great bike, but where's the soul?"

Whitham concurred. "True. It's got a nice engine, really good build, it's nice on the motorway, most competent in the corners but lacking something. Which is where Kawasaki has got it right. It looks mint. If you're buying a sportsbike you buy the one that wins championships, but with these you want the one that looks the best in shop windows, which is the Kawasaki. The paint scheme is ace, it handles well and Kawasaki has made the effort to make the engine look like an air-cooled one, even though it isn't. I really like the look of it, especially with the braced swingarm. It didn't do anything better than the Honda but I still preferred it."

This is the strange thing about retro-style bikes. It's an odd market that sells on memories and looks. Many of the potential owners make their decisions based on what they remember, who they saw race the original bike or quite simply which one floats their boat looks-wise. Sportsbikes sell on performance, handling and stuff like radial brakes and underseat pipes. This stuff doesn't matter one jot with retros. A sportsbike becomes dated in a year, and a new model comes out every other year. Retros stay the same year after year. In fact, of these four the only one to have changed since it was first launched is the Yamaha, and then the only change is a different paint scheme and the addition of …hlins suspension when the SP model was dropped a couple of years back.

"It's strange," said James. "I've owned a few of them so I know them pretty well, but when I look at it now it seems dated to me. Can a retro bike look dated? It feels the lumpiest of them all, the engine isn't very strong at the top end but it's good low down. It handles okay to a point, which is probably okay given what they're designed for."

Again, Niall agreed. "It's not a bad bike at all," he said, "but I know what you mean. The chassis could be better and the engine stronger but for cruising around I liked it. But I'd still have the Kawasaki or Honda over it."

Having spent the day riding to, in and around Edinburgh, which was the lads' favourite? Well, the Suzuki has got the biggest motor and the most physical presence, and things like that count for a lot in the posing market. It isn't a bad bike but its size counts against it, and the engine feels like it should deliver more - although it's possible to liberate lots more.

There's nothing wrong with the Yamaha. Its handling isn't as good as the Honda or Kawasaki and it feels like it hasn't taken advantage of any modern technology like those two have - and it feels a step behind them because of it. Is this a bad thing? Depends on your kind of riding. Most riders aren't going to be too bothered that it isn't quite as sharp-handling, or the engine isn't as fast, so probably not. It still looks good and continues to sell well.

Niall and James were taken by the Kawasaki's looks, and that alone sold it to both of them. It doesn't do anything better than the Honda; in fact the Honda handles better and has a stronger engine, and as a bike to use day-to-day it's a better machine. But that misses the point. These bikes are designed to stir an inner emotion. And the Kawasaki does just that, reviving fond memories of Eddie Lawson muscling his Z1000 superbike round Daytona. (Niall: "Do you think that in 20 years we'll be able to buy retro replicas of the bikes we raced in BSB?" James: "Nah, I doubt it.")

And it's Whitham who gets the last word: "Stick a blindfold on and you'd have the Honda. It's a better bike as a piece of metal. But take the blindfold off and you'll pick the Kawasaki instead."

NIALL: A-DRESS TO THE NATION

Robert or Rabbie Burns was born on 25 January 1759. In his 36 years on this planet he wrote more than 560 songs and poems for all to enjoy. When he wasn't writing, legend has it that he probably had his way with about the same amount of women, so it was no wonder he died happy and long before his 40th birthday.

To celebrate his fantastic achievements us Scots like to celebrate on or around the famous Bard's birthday every year. The evening always consists of a meal (haggis, tatties and neeps), much drinking of Scotch whisky and the recital of the great man's works. It can take the form of a civilised formal gathering for scholars or it can be just a congregation of drunkards and louts. Can you guess which way our evening turned out..?

After your starter is eaten and a few whiskies consumed the haggis is 'piped' in (musically, not via a tube). After the wee beastie has been addressed some recitals take place. Rabbie is most famous for penning 'Auld Lang Syne' but my favourite is 'Address to a Mouse'. The first verse goes, 'Wee skeekit cow'rin tim'rous beastie, O what a panic's in thy breastie, Thou need na start awa sae hasty, Wi bickering brattle, I wud be laith to rin an chase thee, Wi' mud'ring pattle'.

Tear in your eye or what? What do you mean 'no'? Ah well, it's a Scottish thing. The best bit is that, unlike going on Concorde or climbing the Twin Towers, experiencing a Burns Supper is something you can still do before you die. I did it this year with three Englishmen kitted out in full Highland Dress. They loved it. I know you would too.

HUNTING THE HAGGIS

1. First locate one of the wee beasties. Try under rocks or in heather. They can often be attracted using a 'whump, whump' sound, the haggis mating call. Do not make this sound while bent over. Haggis are small but mate very aggressively. Haggis copulation may last for several hours, and will even contniue long after the animal is killed.

2. Once located capture the animal. As haggis (or haggi in plural form) have their right legs shorter than their left (to allow them to run around mountainsides faster in a clockwise direction), they are easily caught. The best method is to chase them the wrong way around the mountain (anti-clockwise), so they quickly lose their balance and fall over.

3. Once captured stun the haggis by piping. A bagpipe is best as the terrible droning not only stuns the animal but also kills it in a humane way. Well, if the sound from a bagpipe can be described as humane that is. If you don't have a bagpipe at hand Burns poetry has a similar effect.

4. Now boil the haggis with some neeps (sweed or turnip) and tatties (potatoes). During cooking the haggis may let off a screaming sound like a lobster. With lobsters this is just steam escaping, but with a haggis it is the sound if its dying agony. Don't feel guilty, the little bastard would do the same to you given half a chance.

5. Once cooked, the haggis turns a deep reddish tartan colour. Simply cut open and enjoy. A 10-year-old single malt whisky is recommended to go with it as the spirit's medicinal taste helps disguise the off-Marmite flavour of cooked haggis.

SPECS - HONDA
TYPE - STREETBIKE
PRODUCTION DATE - 2005
PRICE NEW - £6649
ENGINE CAPACITY - 1284cc
POWER - 113.5bhp@7500rpm
TORQUE - 86.8lb.ft@5800rpm
WEIGHT - 224kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 790mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 25L
TOP SPEED - 142.8mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - N/A

SPECS - KAWASAKI
TYPE - STREETBIKE
PRODUCTION DATE - 2005
PRICE NEW - £6745
ENGINE CAPACITY - 1164cc
POWER - 120.2bhp@8400rpm
TORQUE - 83.9lb.ft@6800rpm
WEIGHT - 223kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 790mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 20L
TOP SPEED - 150.8mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - N/A

SPECS - SUZUKI
TYPE - STREETBIKE
PRODUCTION DATE - 2005
PRICE NEW - £6349
ENGINE CAPACITY - 1402cc
POWER - 104.4bhp@6700rpm
TORQUE - 93.3lb.ft@5100rpm
WEIGHT - 228kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 775mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 22L
TOP SPEED - 145mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - N/A

SPECS - YAMAHA
TYPE - STREETBIKE
PRODUCTION DATE - 2005
PRICE NEW - £6499
ENGINE CAPACITY - 1251cc
POWER - 107.2bhp@7700rpm
TORQUE - 77.4lb.ft@6600rpm
WEIGHT - 224kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 775mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 21L
TOP SPEED - 137.5mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - N/A


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