First Ride: Buell 1125R

When you think about racing, you don't think about Buell. So can a manufacturer who's used to building bikes around Harley engines build a decent sportsbike?

Buell 1125R Stand-up wheelie

When Buell first started on the 1125R project four years before its launch in 2007, no-one could have predicted this was a card they had up their sleeve. At the time of conception, the Ducati 999 was the v-twin to be seen on, so Buell set their sights on the 999 as the bike to beat. A tall task, but when you break it down, there's nothing to say it can't be done.

But let's face it, you're not going to get anywhere near a Ducati with a Harley-Davidson engine, so Buell introduced what I believe is their most radical step in years, the new powerplant; a 1125cc 72degree v-twin developed by Rotax. The bike has been dynoed at 130bhp, so on power at least, the Ducati is within grasp.

On the road, the motor feels strong, it's torquey low-down but feels somewhat restricted - a bit like that dream you have where you try and punch someone in your sleep - the revs don't pick up as quickly as you want them to when you pick up the throttle.

So when you crack it open from low revs, the acceleration is progressive not fast, responsive but not instant. But right at the top of the rev range it's a different story, it feels like the faster you get it spinning, the faster it wants to spin and when you get it above 6000rpm, it unleashes an addictive extra dose of grunt. It'll pick up the front in second right at the top of the revs, rather than right at the bottom as you might expect from a twin. And this characteristic alone makes the bike exciting.

It's an engine with multiple personalities, if you're not in precisely the right gear it labours and chuggs along, get it spinning and feed in gears at exactly the right moment and it's brutally fast.

Something I look for in a sportsbike is good brakes. When I first took the new ZX-10R for a spin back in 2004, while other riders were commenting on how scary the engine was, I was worried about how scary the brakes felt. I enjoy the feeling of not being 100% in control of the engine, but I hate not feeling in control of the brakes.

Buell have taken a different approach to stopping by using a 375mm single rim-mounted disc with 8-pot brakes. Yes, 8. The feel is incredible, one-finger braking a sinch, it genuinely makes braking fun and after hopping off this and onto other sportsbikes, it makes you wonder why the rather unconventional braking setup isn't commonplace on all bikes. Great brakes, coupled with wides bars mean you get superb feedback and it leaves you oozing braking confidence.

Chassis feel is different for all sorts of riders on all bikes. You either get on, like it and feel confident or you don't. The Buell has a chassis that reminds me of my beloved Suzuki TL1000s which is a bit like saying your mate's new girlfriend reminds you of Lorraine Kelly. Not a good start.

We all know the TL1000s didn't get the best reviews when it came down to handling because of its rotary rear damper, but besides the failed technology, the main weakess in the TLs was the fact that the front and rear suspension always felt like they were working against each other.

There's no doubt the Buell can handle and on the road it does feel sharp, not as sharp as a 999 but with an acceptable compromise between racetrack agility and real-road responsiveness but there are times when you don't feel like the front and rear suspension are connected to the same bike.

On slightly bumpy back roads or during bouts of fierce acceleration the Buell suddenly breaks into a fit of flapping bars with no prior warning. This episode starts as a fast wobble and never quite breaks out into a full-on tank-slapper but it's unnerving when you're trying to make progress down a country lane and you end up having to ride around the problem, shifting up and keeping the engine revs low appears to keep the 1125R in a calmer state of mind.

And that for me is the Buell's only major flaw, it's not apparant in everyday riding and you'll only get one or two instances of it on a fast Sunday ride but it's the unpredictable nature that gives me a feeling that a chassis problem was never quite resolved. Sure it's exciting, in the same way it's exciting riding a rollercoaster until you see the person infront of you about to throw up.

I lived with the 1125R for two weeks and in that time I covered all sorts of riding, from city commuting, to motorways and back-lane scratching. It's easy to live with day to day but you'll need a strong left hand for that heavy clutch, you might not love the looks but that fairing makes 95mph motorway cruising a doddle and if you want exclusivity, that you're guaranteed.

So did Buell beat their benchmark Ducati 999? On the road, I'd say they have. It's just a shame for the Buell team that Ducati have given us the 1098...