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Top 10 sports bikes of the 1990s

The most important metal from one of motorcycling's most important decades

THERE are two ways of looking at the wave of nostalgia for 1990s sports bikes. On the one hand, it’s great: the bikes were interesting, they were awesome to ride but still not too perfect for the average bloke to get his head round, and now they’re cheap as (until the bandwagon really picks up speed). In fact the only people who aren’t loving the 1990s revival are those who missed it first time round, and for whom new, modern bikes are still where it’s at. Which is fine. Someone has to buy them.

For the rest of us skint, forty-something, kids-growing-up, got some spare cash, think I’ll buy me a rat-arsed GSX-R750 off the ‘Bay and fettle it in the garage-ers, here are the bikes that make up some kind of top ten in a decade in which there wasn’t a bad sports bike (apart from Bimotas).

1) Honda FireBlade

Predictable but true. You’ve read all the guff about the Blade a zillion times before (and I’ve written it a zillion times so enough already). So here’s a thought: whatever Honda’s road-legal V4 MotoGP replica ends up like, it won’t be as radical as the first FireBlade was. And does anyone really want an RC213V on the road anyway? Are we still impressed by all that? Hands up who wishes they’d rather start re-building the original FireBlade? Or something like the CB1100R "concept" bike they showed at Paris in 2007?

Anyway, right now the most impressive thing about the first Blade is its inspiration came not from the muddy conformity of out-of-focus groups or marketing and accounting idiots, but from engineers and artists creating bikes in response to a passion, not a market demand. Only when the Japanese factories understand that and re-engage their passions will they start building bikes we care about again.

2) Ducati 916

To be perfectly honest they’re not my cup of tea and I’d much rather have a 999. I’m perfectly prepared to hold my hands up and submit to ignorance, stupidity, a total lack of taste – and I respect, totally and without reservation, anyone’s right to love the whole 916 range and care for them and ride them way faster than I can. I get the whole romantic Italian thing, I get the history, I get the Foggy stuff, the racing, the passion, the Bolognese sauce. I even get the 916 is up there with the Blade as the most important bike of the 1990s. As a dispassionate observer and commentator, I get all that stuff and I empathise with people who do. I still think they’re a bit overrated though. And sometimes you have to piss on them to put the fire out when the reg/rect goes tits up.

3) Honda VFR400/RVF400

(With nods to Honda CBR400RR, Yamaha FZR400RR and Kawasaki ZXR400)

Remember the 1990’s invasion of cheap, refurbished, discarded baby sportsbikes from Japan, otherwise known as Grey Imports? Imagine how unbearably cute a modern GSX-R400 would be, or a ZX-4R, a crossplane R4, a baby Blade... or even a BMW S400RR. Now that’s a bunch of sportsbikes I’d be interested in. Especially if they cost around £3000 tops, used. The biggest problem would be deciding which to buy.

This was the dilemma facing riders in the mid-'90s. Who could resist the charms of the little blighters? All were gorgeous, but the Honda V4s were the ones to have. The older, softer VFR400R NC30 and later, sharper RVF400R are built from the same DNA as the RC30 and RC45. They share the same sliver of Soichiro Honda’s soul, as well as the same gear-driven cams, same intestinal gurgle at low revs, same gnawing wail at high revs, and the same utterly enthralling attention to detail and build quality. Never mind that a few were painted lovelies, shipped via Thailand for a dubious repaint. They were exotica for the masses, and the masses were duly grateful.

4) Kawasaki KR-1/KR-1S

In the early '90s, two-stroke sports bikes were bought mostly by under-25s because they were kindred spirits: fussy, temperamental, unreliable and could go from sullen to hysterical for no apparent reason.

Today, Suzuki’s RGV250 has become the totem stroker of all this late adolescent angst, despite being less bonkers than the KR-1 and KR-1S and less exotic than Honda’s NSR250 and Yamaha’s TZRs. God knows why – it’s not as much fun as the Kawasaki (although probably slightly more reliable). The Kawasaki feels like a proper motorbike, not like a free McDonald’s toy. It’s faster. It’s more substantial (externally at least). And, for my money, it’s way better looking.

And the KR-1S isn’t bought by wannabe 1990s fashionistas; it’s bought by genuine enthusiasts who love them because, like the bikes, they’re still two strokes short of a sensible Otto cycle. And that’s cool.

5) Triumph T595 Daytona

The only top ten list Triumph’s new ‘sports bike’ would’ve made in 1997 would’ve been a list of top ten three-cylinder bikes painted lightning yellow. And even then it’d be, like, at number 10.

But the T595 was an argument Triumph couldn’t win – seven years from a standing start and we expected what? Something better, or even close to, a FireBlade? Get real.

And, apart from being – at best – really rather pleasant, it was the first Triumph to break away from the initial, laborious, agricultural modular design. It showed they meant business, had ambition and gave a shit. Distracted by the trinkets under our noses, we didn’t know it – but this was the take-off point for an extraordinary British manufacturing success story; something that would culminate in world class bikes like the Daytona 675 and the Street Triple. And who knows what to come? As the company who’ve gone from a two-wheeled nil pwun in 1990 to Midas motorcycle manufacturer in 2013, anything is possible in the next few years. And the T595 was where it began.

6) Honda RC45

Funnily enough for all their undying love, unswerving loyalty and utter devotion to Siochiro’s favourite engine – the four-stroke V4 – Honda haven’t won many world titles with it. Casey Stoner’s 2011 Honda RC212V was the last, but you have to go back to John Kocinski on the 1997 Castrol RC45 in World Superbike for the last before that. And, in between times, Honda have won with a V-twin, an inline four and a V5.

Point is the RC45 spent most of the 1990s as a racing also-ran, beating its magnesium heads against Ducati’s V-twin engine capacity advantage. Foggy couldn’t take the title on it and Aaron Slight was pipped at the post three times in a row (once, ironically, by Kocinski’s RC45).

Anyway, sometimes you have to come second to realise winning is all that matters. The RC45 had plenty experience of coming second, which is why Honda built the SP-1 V-twin instead and gave it to Colin Edwards.

On the road, the RC45 had none of the RC30’s grace, style or demeanour. It was heavier, more complex and cost over £18,000. That was then and will always be too much money.

So, mediocre race bike, ‘not as good as an RC30’ and over-priced. And the best bike, ever. Sorry, it’s in.

7) Suzuki TL1000S

When the 1000cc V-twin TL was announced, the UK Ducati importer was so sceptical of its claimed 120bhp he promised to donate £30,000 to charity if the TL would do it. Of course it did, and one can also only guess at whether the Ducati importer followed through on his deal.

Either way, combine its random over-damped rear shock (from variable build quality) with an over-enthusiastic tightening of the chain (say, at a first service, because the swingarm tensioned the chain as the axle nut was tightened), and you had a bike with the potential to burst into a catastrophic tank slapper under normal riding conditions. If you didn’t have one of those issues, you had instead an explosive, high-powered wheelie machine that was a hoot to ride, and you wondered what all the fuss was about.

And boy, can it wheelie. Single fuel injector per cylinder dumps gallons of fuel into the big cylinders, short throw throttle, low gearing and not much weight anywhere, let alone over the front end. The perfect 1990s hooligan bike. Damn thing wheelies in third gear at 70mph coming onto motorways.

Suzuki tamed later TLs with electronics and a steering damper, and painted them dull blue and green instead of lipstick red or sparkly black as if embarrassed. Shame. If development had carried on, the TL would be finding a place as a top ten bike of the 00s as well as the 90s.

The TL1000S is not to be confused with the TL1000R, which is unlikely seeing as one is gorgeous and the other looks like whale giving birth to a duck.

8) Kawasaki ZXR750 J1 and 2, and L1, 2 and 3

Bookended by the H model ZXRs (from the late 80s and not all that, truth be told – too stiff, bit boxy to look at, basically a GPX750 with a bra and knickers on) and the later ZX-7R (fugly, lardy etc), the best ZXRs are the ones in the middle. Especially the J models – originally came in plain blue and burgundy red, which were damn cool and better than they sound. The J model still had the H’s hoover ducts but smoother, racier styling. The late, great technical bike journalist John Robinson had a TTS-tuned 805cc big-bore ZXR750 J1, and it remains one of the raunchiest, noisiest, scariest, most fun bikes I’ve ever ridden.

The L model ZXRs junked the hoover tubes in favour of a proper ram-air duct, but were still pretty tough-looking bikes. I remember describing the feeling of riding one as like reaching forward and gripping the front wheel axle in your hands, your arms acting as the forks. It’s that plugged in, that intense. Great bike. They should make them like that now.

9) Aprilia RSV Mille

Priller who? Small bore Italian company builds Rotax-powered single-cylinder trail bikes and RGV250-powered race rep two-strokes. Then, in the mid-'90s, there’s some noise about building a big V-twin sportsbike. Then nothing happens for a few years.

Eventually, in late 1998, a bike appears called an RSV Mille. It’s no Ducati to look at – not until the 999 anyway – but most sensible people would agree the Mille is a nicer bike to ride, which is a good reason to prefer it on the road if not in the garage (at least Ducati had better spares back-up; there are still a few people who’ve been waiting since 1998 for Mille parts). Big pulsating power, flat torque curve, civilised power delivery and a nice, compact V-angle for familiar steering characteristics if you just got off an inline four. Only the bloody indicator button below the horn is annoying – so annoying it only took Honda ten years to copy it on the VFR1200.

10) Yamaha R1

Oh go on then. Honda’s Blade had most of the 90s to itself; it took until 1998 for anyone to get close and, although Kawasaki’s ZX-9R was good, Yamaha’s R1 was magnificently better. I remember being a bit scared the first time I rode it, because its reputation (and spec numbers) looked pretty scary. Lol. Can you imagine now, bricking it over a mere 140bhp?

Anyway, what a bike. Did all that really, really fast acceleration stuff, and pulled wheelies and looked awesome. And you knew you were riding something a bit special and other riders would look at you and think, ‘Cor, blimey, he’s fucking cool and I want to be him.’ Not like today, when you buy a new S1000RR HP4 or Panigale and most people look at you and think, ‘Lose some weight, mate.

Such is life. I’m off to meddle with my 1996 VFR750. Did I mention I had one of those?

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