Road V Race - Supersport

Road and race 600 supersport bikes face-off

600cc sportsbikes rock. You know that, I know that, and just about anyone who's not been living in a cave for the last decade knows it too. And if you were fortunate enough to have had a few spare quid this year and chose to head down the 600cc route you would have been in the distinctly pleasant quandary of having to choose from the creamiest 600cc crop we've been treated to in a long time.

The new CBR600 blazed out of the blocks at the tail end of '02 with the sauciest looks Honda have mustered since the RC30 and screaming performance to match, while Kawasaki pulled their collective socks up at bleeding last and delivered to us the rabid new ZX-6. Triumph also came good, finally delivering a 600 capable of running with - and possibly beating - the Japanese class dominants after the false start that was the original TT600 and Yamaha's R6 was breathed on to keep it as fresh and exciting as ever while also taming its wayward front end.

Quite a bunch of bikes I think you'll agree, but how good are they really? I mean how would they fare against their finest racing counterparts? What I'm getting at is how wide is the gulf between the 600s in our showrooms, and the ones tearing up the British Championship week after week?

Reckoning this debate was one of national significance, and one which needed solving as quickly as possible I took it upon myself to assemble the finest British Supersport bikes and their roadgoing counterparts for the mother of all head-to-head tests at a sunny Donington Park.

Honda Racing brought down their all-conquering CBR600RR, the Valmoto crew came along with their drop-dead gorgeous flag-flying Triumph Daytona, MSS Kawasaki provided their green and glorious ZX-6RR, and Virgin Yamaha provided a couple of their well-abused R6 Cup bikes.

Stir a bundle of roadbikes into the mix alongside messrs Harris, Frost, Jones and co and we were all ready to rock and roll so get that cup of tea sorted, send the kids out to play, put your feet up and come with us on a journey into supersport wonderland. This could be a lot of fun...

Valmoto Daytona


Brit built beauty

November 2002 and the covers are about to be lifted from Triumph's new 600 any minute at Birmingham's NEC.

Off they come, and... well, it's very yellow and by all accounts a long way removed from the previous TT600 (cue coughing, spluttering, backfiring on/off throttle noises) but the looks have numbed my excitement.

Riding the beast a couple of months later however proves Triumph has kept the TT's ace card of demon handling and braking, even enhancing both with well improved suspension that removes much of the original bike's harsh ride, while finally giving the bike a class competitive motor with excellent manners. Doesn't entirely change my opinion it looks like a pig in knickers though.

Then, ta-da!, and a Triumph Supersport team emerged out of nowhere, but although the team caught everyone by surprise they were anything but a fly-by-night operation. '02 Junior Superstock champion Craig Jones was to partner previous title holder Jim Moodie on bikes developed and prepped by Jack Valentine and co - guys who know more about building Supersport winners than most people have had time to forget.

Best of all, happening across the bike in Donington's pitlane during pre-season testing it looks horny as hell all pared down and glammed up in team colours. Blimey.

Looking the part or not however, the bike was into its hardest test yet. The British Supersport Championship is not a place that tolerates weakness. Would the Triumph really be able to cut it?

Well, they may not have stood atop the podium yet but with a stash of top ten finishes under their belts things are looking promising for next year.

Come the day of our test and the team turn one of Donington's draughty garages into a raceday garage of Formula One standards as the crew busy themselves readying the bikes.

"The chassis is a blinder," explains Jonesey as he prepares for testing before my session, "but those Hondas are still so fast".

Having torn Donington to pieces in a few laps he pulls in, seemingly happy with the bike and before I know it the yellow peril's being thrust in my direction.

What a motorbike. This bike has me laughing my tits off before we're halfway down Craner Curves on lap one. Its accuracy is amazing, and the grip and feedback I'm getting through the tyres and suspension is mind-boggling. It should by all rights be too much to take in but the bike is so well-balanced and its power so manageable I'm able to slip into an easy rhythm instantly, gently sliding my pace up lap after lap.

This bike made Donington feel twice as wide and half as long as I have ever known it. Twice as wide because of the options the chassis gave me getting in and out of corners, and half as long because each lap was despatched in such a frantic blur of hilarity it was over before I'd registered it had begun.

Magical brakes and endless fork feel meant hard braking and late entry to any turn was effortless, while the chassis meant hitting every apex happened time after time no matter how much I ballsed up my entries. And that motor! A singing, howling piece of perfection. It may be down on the competition, but in isolation and on the gas it is perfect and could not be further removed from the TT600 it succeeds. Thank gawd.

Babbling like an idiot at the end of my session I leapt aboard the roadbike while impressions were fresh in my mind.

Big mistake.

It felt slow-steering, woolly-handling, underbraked and very short on grip by comparison. Valmoto may have only worked up their racebike subtly, but the differences are enormous. Let's just hope they find that extra power for next season...

Race Spec

  • Motor:
    Custom-made close-ratio gearbox, enormous head work (porting and cam reprofiling), but the crank and pistons are standard. Fuel mapping gets a boost from a Dynojet Power Commander. Exhaust developed by Micron
  • Chassis:
    K-tech fork internals (£1000), Penske rear shock (£600)
  • Brakes:
    Stock discs and calipers with Carbon Lorraine C43 pads and Goodridge hoses

A Racer's View - Craig Jones

" The racebike's awesome fun to ride and its strongpoint has to be the handling - right up there with the best on the grid. It's been hard work developing the bike but what we really need now is more power. With that, next year could be really good. The roadbike's a lot softer, and feels dead slow, but as it's down about 30bhp then that's no surprise. It still has the same character as the racebike, but a more comfortable set up"

MSS Kawasaki ZX-6RR


Scream if you wanna go faster

I'm plastered across the MSS ZX-6RR's tank heading beneath the Dunlop Bridge for the first time and if it weren't for the windblast trying to remove my head from my shoulders should I lift my chin and my helmet strap clamping my jaw shut my mouth would be wide open in disbelief.

Sixteen thousand rpm. Sixteen-blumming-thousand-rpm. That's what this bike revs to. And it feels like mechanical suicide. Pinning the throttle to the redline seems about as good an idea as scaling the fence into London Zoo's lion enclosure and poking the King of the Jungle in the eye with a stick. Surely it'll all end in tears. Surely no engine, not even one as well built and tuned as this can stomach that kind of punishment. At 15,500 I already feel like I'm doing terminal damage.

But I'm not - rider Frosty is using every one of those 16,000rpms lap after lap in his bid to harry those pesky Hondas (as Jonesey did, he says they've got the legs on everyone), and despite everything my brain tells me about motors, his bike is not throwing rods or exploding crankcases every five minutes.

The feeling from the driving seat is plain old screamingly intense and not just because of that motor either.

Leap aboard and straight away you know this ain't the roadbike. That may be fairly extreme in its riding position but you can at least move, and a trip abroad wouldn't be out of the question. This is helped in no small part by some of the most controlled and compliant stock suspenders around, but despite the roadbike's track edge it remains a friendly and docile bike when asked to be.

The racebike stands at the opposite end of the spectrum. It is hard, high, and comfort doesn't really exist, and that was just pulling out of the pitlane to start my session.

Having somehow folded myself to fit the 6RR's tortuous riding stance life didn't get any easier. Where the roadbike cossets you every inch of the way and makes brisk laps easy at unknown circuits the racer does anything but.

Below 8000rpm it stutters, hesitates and lurches if you're anywhere other than wide open with the throttle, and should you make a hash of a turn and need to come off the gas mid-corner before opening up again you'll get a kick in the pants as the power surges back in viciously and reminds you in short shrift just how badly you're riding.

Handling too makes no sense if you're pussying about as I was to start with. It's hard to get turned, and the set up feels planklike giving little feedback to help you out either. Add in the fact that should you be less than smooth the bike starts headshaking thanks to its reduced wheelbase (courtesy of chassis adjustments made to cope with the Cadwell round the team had just come from) and this is not a user-friendly piece of kit.

Get into the Kawasaki's mean and nasty groove however and it starts to reveal a whole new side. Keep the throttle pinned as long as possible while banging through the box (race shift, natch), brake hard and late before throwing the bike as violently on its side as you dare and get that gas back on quick and a shockingly fast bike begins to appear before your eyes. This bike is brutal, but it's also effective as Frosty's regular top ten finishes have shown.

Going back out on the roadbike wasn't quite the leap back in time it had been with the Daytona either. Fair play the bike felt way slower and an awful lot softer, but its extra 36ccs and airbox howl meant even after the racer it still felt exciting and although handling was nowhere near as accurate, it still went where it was asked and gave you the feedback to push hard when you felt like it. It was also far more forgiving of anything less than perfect riding at the same time. The roadbike's no racebike, but it's the closest of all the ones here.

Race Spec

  • Motor:
    Kawasaki race kit cams and close-ratio gearbox, MSS-ported head, one-piece valves for extra strength, and £2000's-worth of fuel injection for added adjustability
  • Chassis:
    25mm Öhlins internals inside standard fork outers, then revalved by K-tech. Rear shock Öhlins again, also revalved by K-tech after extensive testing
  • Brakes:
    Standard calipers, pads and discs with Goodridge hoses

A Racer's View - Rob Frost

"The racebike is so much fun to ride. I love the way it screams, and handling is it's ace card - I'm right at home on it. Hopefully the new motor on next year's bike will give us that final competitive edge on power we've been missing this season. The roadbike did feel a lot tamer than my racer and I wouldn't fancy racing it, then again I wouldn't fancy riding the race bike on the road - way too harsh. In a perfect world I'd have one of each!"

Honda Racing CBR600RR


The Guv'nor

So this was it. The bike that has already taken the Supersport crown. The bike Karl Harris has propelled to six wins and three  seconds this season. The bike everyone else on the grid wants. And for the next few laps at least, it's all mine.

To say my expectations were high was an understatement. If the Daytona could be so precise and the Kawasaki so manic, the CBR had to be the perfect combination of the two, mating race-winning handling with the all-important power that makes these bikes the envy of the paddock, not just here but over in the World series where youthful Aussie hotshot Chris Vermeulen is spending most of his time at the front of the pack on a similar bike and looks well set for the title.

These were the daydreaming thoughts in my head before climbing aboard Karl's bike, but as soon as I'd drifted around Redgate after leaving the pits on my first lap they'd been replaced with a mild panic because I could barely ride the thing.

The MSS ZX-6RR may have been radical in its riding position but this was something else. I could hardly move my legs, they were that crunched up, and for the first two laps I had to leave the bike in third most of the time because gearchanging was nigh on impossible.

My clumsy lurches about the bike as I tried to settle into some kind of rhythm weren't appreciated by its fickle thoroughbred chassis either. A fact not helped by the fact Karl likes his bike set up hard. Very hard, meaning my every jerking movement was amplified tenfold leaving the bike uncomfortably protesting at my inaccuracy. To be honest, I wasn't enjoying myself too much at this point and would gladly have swapped the racer for the roadbike and its easygoing manners.

But as I relaxed and somehow managed to move around more fluidly from my contortionist's perch we started to get on a little better and the bike's rock solid handling began to show its head.

At no point in our time together did the bike feel anything other than utterly composed and unshakeable but this sensation came more out of an innate faith the bike gave rather than being based on chassis feedback it was giving, because to put it frankly, I wasn't getting any.

See, the set-up was so much harder than anything I've ridden before that trying to work out what was really going on with the tyres was almost impossible. I'm sure it would be a different matter at Karl's pace, but all I could tell was that it worked.

Which as it happened was Karl's take on the matter. I'd asked him before I went out what the bike was like on full race pace and how he rode it to get the best from it to which I received a characteristically blunt, "dunno really, just ride it as hard as I can".

It was a similar story with the motor. This lump may be inspiring envy and awe in the competition, but to ride there's still that Honda air of blandness about it. There's stacks of go on tap, and it comes at you with more fluidity and control than either the Kawasaki or Triumph can manage, but the excitement isn't quite there and on its own this bike doesn't feel especially fast.

The racing CBR may be the package to beat this year and the series title holder to boot but as a pure riding experience, for all its very obvious competence, it's less than scintillating and either the Kawasaki or Triumph will put a bigger grin on your face. Unless you're battling for the championship that is...

Back in the pits and ever-so-slightly disappointed I was in need of a tonic (no gin) and so took the roadbike for comparison.

Now this put matters into clearer focus.

Why? Because although being glad I could actually ride it without needing an advanced yoga course beforehand, the once wonderful roadbike now felt soft, short on power and kinda flat and sluggardly really.

That racebike's one serious piece of kit, but I'm buggered if I can tell you exactly why.

Race Spec

  • Motor:
    Reprofiled cams and a lot of head work, standard valves and pistons. Motec fuel injection system allows infinite adjustment anywhere in the rev range, Akrapovic exhaust is an over the counter item
  • Chassis:
    WP cartridge kit inside standard forks, WP race shock developed for the team
  • Brakes:
    Standard calipers, but WSS discs with Nissin race kit pads and hoses. Rear disc ground for lightness

A Racer's View - Karl Harris

"The racebike's the complete supersport package. The handling's been superb ever since I first tested the bike and since then it's been a case of a few clicks here and there at each new circuit. The power's great too - it's everything I need. The road bike was scary though. Scary they make things this good for the road that is. Unbelievable - anyone who needs a 1000 for road riding needs their head examining"

Virgin R6 Cup Bike


Young, dumb, and full of...

Paul Harrison, or Harry as he prefers to be known, is the busiest man in the BSB paddock. Why? Because he has 20 race bikes to look after every weekend. He's the chief mechanic for Yamaha's R6 Cup, you know, that one-make series that replaced Junior Superstock (or 'Junior Suicide' as it was better known in the paddock thanks to the do-or-die antics of its young and hungry riders). The series where no-one over 23 is allowed in, where all the riders are on the same R6s, and the series where the winner bags a full factory superbike ride for next year in Rob Mac's Virgin team on a new R1.

20 fast kids, on identical bikes, road tyres, and all chasing the biggest prize in British racing - this is the series that's promised the most carnage all season. And Harry's where the buck stops if that carnage hits.

"Rob Mac called me at the beginning of the season asking if I fancied the job," he explained, "I didn't think about it much, it just sounded like fun. But when that first race came around, my heart was in my mouth".

And what about now we're nearing the end of the season?

"It's not been too bad on the crashing side of things really. We had a bit of a messy one in the wet at Knockhill, but otherwise it's not been much worse than any other class," Harry says with a notable hint of relief in his voice.

The R6 Cup was a bold move in a bid to stir up young riders, and although the series has its knockers who say the riders aren't learning anything about slick tyres (they're all on control Dunlop D207RR road rubber), gearing (no sprocket changes are allowed) or bike set up (road suspension means limited adjustment in racing terms), it is still giving 20 young hopefuls a shot at glory, a spell in the limelight, and a taste of British Championship life, for £15,000 plus your VAT.

That's a lot of wedge, but still cheap compared to paying your way through a full season at this level on anything else out there.

The most impressive thing though has been the racing. Identical bikes has meant very close competition, stacks of dicing and overtaking, all done with lap times not so far off British Supersport ones either. And all on little more than standard road bikes.

Having watched this lot unfold over this season I had to try one out myself to see how standard these bikes really were. Surely there was more to it than a race can, steering damper, rearsets and a stripdown job.

Maybe, but close inspection of the bike revealed no more, no matter how much I peered, prodded and poked.

My bike for the afternoon belonged to Peter 'Pesky' Ward, currently second in the championship, and doing pretty darned well despite an injury a couple of years ago that nearly ended in the amputation of one of his legs. Ouch.

Having just got off the stock R6, Pesky's bike felt taller, harder and narrower, but that was down to the rear seat unit and a lack of padding. The race shift (one down, five up) changed things slightly, as did the harder suspension settings but otherwise it was pure R6. Screaming, peaky motor, razor, frisky chassis and all topped off with sharp brakes and naff-all comfort.

Compared to the supersport bikes this fella's on the slow side, and less than sublime in its handling but as a trackday tool it would be perfect. And I tell you what, stick any of those R6 Cup boys on a trackday and they'd wipe the smile off a lot of far bigger bikes' faces. Just shows how good standard kit is these days eh?

Race Spec

  • Motor:
    Stock R6, with nowt fancier than an Akrapovic race can for a bit more poke, better noise and - most importantly - ground clearance. Even the gearing stays the same
  • Chassis:
    As standard as the day it left Japan, except  well firmed up and with a Sprint steering damper to calm flighty fronts at tracks like Oulton
  • Brakes:
    Just as you find 'em in the showroom. Hasn't stopped some demon outbraking though

A Racer's View - Peter Ward

"The R6 Cup bikes are really well prepped, but after riding the road bike mine does feel a lot different. Even though we run standard suspension the race bike feels way harder. The road bike was strange - the normal gearbox threw me, but it still felt good and power was pretty much the same. It sounded slower, but I was changing gear about where I would have done on the race bike so I reckon there wasn't much in it"



So there you have it, the latest batch of road 600s may be absolutely stunning, but against their racing bretheren they all come out a little limp-wristed and mushy.

But don't get all dejected just yet because none of these racebikes are vastly modified, and all are running exactly the same frames, swingarms, fork outers and engine casings as the roadbikes.

Where they start to pull ahead is in the engine room where endless days and nights of porting, polishing, blueprinting and dyno set-up, not to mention hundreds of man hours remapping fuel injection systems push power past the 120bhp mark at the back wheel. You can feel the difference straight away on any of the racebikes, but not one is as rideable as the roadbike it began life as. And talking of life, you won't be seeing more than 1000 miles between rebuilds on the racers either.

Braking mods in all cases were very limited thanks to modern standard systems being so good these days, but money-no-object bespoke fork internals and race rubber all mean you can use more of the brakes, more of the time on the racers.

And the winner?

Well in pure riding terms it has to be the Valmoto Daytona, simply one of the best handling bikes it has ever been my privilege to ride with more than enough poke for most. Second place goes to the Kawasaki for the sheer intensity of the experience it provided, with the Honda coming in third. It's the tool to beat on the track when the flag drops, but on a trackday you'd want the Triumph every time.