To Cannes on a Hayabusa, Blackbird & ZX-12R

Wozza, Gus and Tim head from London to Cannes in time for cocktails, so make it as fast as possible please, by Hayabusa, Blackbird and ZX-12R

It's pitch dark and my eyes, already shot from the last flat-out 700 miles and the weekend that preceded them, are straining through the inky blackness of the twisting, winding autoroute ahead to the small red dot that is Gus' tail-light.

It heads upwards then disappears left and out of sight. There must be a corner coming. Concrete barriers lining the three-lane motorway flash by in my peripheral vision while the blazing pool of light from the Busa's headlamp taunts my eyes into its comforting bright arena. But I have to ignore it. Where I need to concentrate is into the deep darkness beyond, scanning for the slightest clue as to where this rollercoaster of a road is going next. At 150mph, life happens quickly.

Then the corner. It's an uphill left which the Hayabusa dives into with a healthy shove and a touch of bodyweight and as I fix my eyes into the far distance to keep the bike on a steady course I wonder what exactly am I doing.

There's no hurry. There's no reason for us to be doing this. We could slow down. Why ride as fast as possible on the fastest bikes in the world, down a blind and curving stretch of motorway, at night? The sensible part of my brain wants my right hand to give up the chase now.

But sensible is only one part of the equation that has brought us to this point. Sensible is not motorbikes with 150-plus horsepower. Sensible is not engines that pull shockingly hard from 130mph, in top gear, as if they've barely got into their stride. Frankly, sensible is not a Hayabusa, or a Blackbird, or a ZX-12R.
Sensible is a nice little car. Sensible is a package holiday on the Costa del Sol with all-you-can eat buffets and a case of San Miguel. Sensible is not this trip, on these bikes. My right hand ignores sensible and as the left gives way to straight, the needle creeps to 155, 160, 165mph. Damn, it feels good.

Then it doesn't. Distraction is the last thing needed at over two-miles-a-minute, but something's up. I realise my right index finger is floating in air where the front brake lever should be. Not looking down, and with my brain refusing to believe the lever has simply vanished, my finger probes empty air. A glance tells me the lever is no more.

My right hand does sensible and shuts the throttle. Fast. Another look and there's definitely no lever. Exhilaration gives way to cold sweat at what could have been. With the Hayabusa's hefty engine braking and adequate back brake I cruise the last 20 miles of our journey into Cannes.

As Cannes centre hoves into view, all we want is our hotel and a beer or three. Sadly we haven't got a clue where our hotel is. Salvation comes in the shape of Tim and his dedicated organisation as he plucks a streetmap of Cannes from his rucksack. "Hmm," he ponders, scowling alternately at the map and the streets around us. "Down here, left, and it's on the right," he announces.

Relieved, we head for the budget delights of the Kyriad hotel, which, thanks to us being the only guests and it being in a state of mid-refurbishment, is a halfway-house between Fawlty Towers and The Shining.
Half an hour later and we're kicking back with a brace of cold beers as the tall tales run hard and fast and we start to come down off the gruelling rush that has been the last 14 hours since leaving our P&O cabin at Le Havre.

Backtrack to this morning and I'd started aboard the Kawasaki. For any of you taller folks out there, this is a bike that makes a lot of sense. It's just like a sportsbike, but ten per cent bigger everywhere, which means for anyone over six foot it's perfect. There's nowhere you get any undue aches or pains no matter how far you're going on the ZX, although it can be a little unwieldy at low speed in town as the weight makes itself felt.

Turn up the wick however, and the Kawasaki sheds pounds dramatically as the needle heads around the dial, and it makes a lot of sense beyond the 100mph mark.

Suspension that can be hard around town becomes plush and well-damped, while that great big fairing means tucking out of the blast is simplicity itself. Those huge mirrors stay clear enough to spot the plod up to 170mph and, even at these daft speeds, tucked into the ZX's bubble you're cocooned in a lovely pocket of still air where all you can hear is the gentle and hypnotic thrumming of that motor beneath you.

Talking of the motor, for 2004 there's a new fuel injection system with dual throttle valves and a smarter ECU. It may sound dull, but it translates into smoother and more urgent stomp throughout the rev range, making the Kawasaki a less frantic ride than its slightly top-endy first incarnation.

All told, on the boil and in these conditions, the Kawasaki manages to combine the brutality of the Hayabusa with the smooth civility of the Honda to give you what is perhaps the defining hyperbike experience on offer today.

Put the other two bikes in the same flat-stick, head-on-the-tank scenario and they fare differently. For the Hayabusa, that engine still rules the show. It lacks the sophistication in delivery that the Honda and Kawasaki have and feels rough in comparison at any revs, but boy does it punch. Right the way from tickover to the redline (if you ever get there that is), this baby drives harder than a French scrum facing an England try line as those 1300ccs pump out the Suzuki's number one weapon - torque - by the bucketload.

On the move, the Suzuki feels like an unstoppable force, and the way the bike leaps forward from silly speeds in top gear in a bid for the biggest numbers on the clock is enough to make it worth owning one at least once in your life.

Sadly, you'll probably not want to keep it too long unless you're a strange shape. See, from the waist up the Hayabusa is gloriously roomy (although the long stretch to the bars may put shorter riders off), but from the waist down it's pure sportsbike cramp with a seat-to-peg distance better suited to a 125GP bike than a hypersports mile-muncher. For an orang-utan, the Busa is quite possibly an ergonomically perfect motorcycle, but it's a bit of a ball-ache for the rest of us.

Another anomaly in the Hayabusa's high-speed makeup is the screen. The standard one is rubbish. Not only does it obscure your view of the clocks, but it's so low that ducking out of the windblast is almost impossible, no matter how small you are. It's a 200mph motorcycle with 100mph screen. Fortunately, our Hayabusa's previous owner had seen fit to bestow a double-bubble upon it. This simple modification made all the difference, sliding the Suzuki into top slot where wind protection was concerned.

And while the ZX and Busa are busy grabbing all the attention for their outrageous performance, the Honda quietly gets on with the job in hand and quite possibly outdoes the other two - depending on your point of view - despite having less power and fewer cubes.

It does lack the sheer visceral excitement of the ZX-12, which feels as if it's constantly straining at the leash and demanding to go faster, and nor can it match the Hayabusa's phenomenal stomp, but it's still incredibly fast. Its speed is masked slightly by the super-clean power delivery and comparative lack of midrange over the other two which gives it a revvier feel on the boil, but I challenge you to find a space large enough to ever need more than the Blackbird has to offer.

It doesn't quite have the spacious feel of the ZX-12, but it's not far off and although the ZX-12 has better wind protection, the Blackbird still has enough to make long and (very) fast journeys quite bearable without you needing to take a trip to the aftermarket screen shop.

One area the Blackbird happily edges the others out in is stopping. This seems to be an area fairly poorly catered for on all of these bikes, with none of them packing especially impressive anchors which is rather odd given you can't buy faster bikes anywhere (in terms of top speed anyway).

Of a strangely marginal bunch, the Honda takes top honours every time with brakes that can be relied upon to do the job without fuss or drama and with a decent amount of control every time. The linked brakes aren't to everyone's taste, but are easy to get used to, and do allow safe gentle scrubbing of speed mid-corner should you overdo it.

The Suzuki's brakes are pretty duff to be honest, feeling wooden and needing a hefty hand to really get them working while the Kawasaki's are a mixed bag. They're the flashest set-up here with their radial mounts and once warmed up they're fine, stuffing the big ZX onto its nose well enough, but they're really rather average when cold.

Part of the problem was in the front end. The ZX's forks have always come stiff on standard settings and this one was no different with hard braking fast locking the forks out. They weren't bottoming out, but were plain old too stiff. A little judicious twiddling found compression damping on max. Five clicks out and it was much better, and with a little more rebound for more control, the ZX's front was as good
as it was going to get.

Onto handling, and throwing all three bikes at a massively varied selection of French twisties as we got lost in the mountains around Cannes for a couple of days threw up three very different motorcycles.
The Hayabusa was a heavy handful, quite frankly. Admittedly with the patchily wet roads and low temperatures (it was snowing at one point) any bike would have faced a workout, but the Hayabusa made the hardest work of the challenging conditions.

By today's standards it just feels too long, too low at the back and too clumsy. You don't expect supersport levels of handling and feedback from bikes like these, and in its defence the Hayabusa is manageable, but you often had to ride it on trust to keep the other two in sight at times, rather than getting the feedback to tell you it was in fact going to grip as you did on the other two.

The Kawasaki steered more quickly and accurately than the Suzuki, but still demanded a strong and decisive hand to get it going exactly where you wanted, thanks to its top-heavy weight distribution brought about by the use of that spine/monocoque frame.

Once into a corner it could happily be kept on a tight line, and gave enough feedback to let you make the most of the Dunlop D208 tyres, but it wasn't too forgiving of rider error and changing line mid-corner, although possible, wasn't the ZX's strength. It cossets more than the Hayabusa and is the most sportsbike-like machine here, but it still demands a committed rider to bring the best out of it.

So what of the Blackbird? It was the favourite of this bunch at low speeds, doing the best job of carrying its bulk and through the tightest mountain back roads it was far and away the most manageable here.

As the pace wound up, the Blackbird turned faster than the other two and without the top-heavy feeling of the ZX or the muscle required on the Suzuki, but also gave as much feedback and confidence as the Kawasaki once into a corner. The suspension still has a slightly budget feel to it and is somewhat crude in its action compared to full sportsbike kit, but then it's made as a compromise, and on that basis works very well indeed.

It could be ridden as hard and confidently as the ZX when needed, but where the Honda scored, as we were to really find out on the return leg of our journey, was in being the best bike to be on when the distances were longer. The Honda is a bike that works just as well whatever situation you put it in, and that is what makes a winner on a trip like this.

So with a couple of days hard mountain scratching racked up, we felt we deserved a break. Cocktails, it was decided, would be the order of the day and where better to get them than the finest cocktail bar in Cannes?

For the record, this happens to be in the Hotel Martinez, the swankiest hotel on Cannes' über-fashionable seafront. Home to the stars come Film Festival time, now it would be lucky enough to be graced with our presence, although I somehow doubted the management would be using this as a future selling point for the place.

A couple of pleasant hours later, we were back in our own half-rebuilt hotel readying ourselves for the final 800 mile head-down hoolie back to the ferry the following evening.

Speed and efficiency would be the order of the day. There was to be no running out of fuel (best watch it on the ZX-12 then - the smaller tank means stopping at least every 120 miles at a good pace), there would be no stopping for coffee and porn at every service station (Gus would need watching), and there was to be no getting lost (best I didn't go at the front).

Switching bikes with every tank of fuel meant we would all in turn relish the Honda's easy mile-munching, arrive at stops with numb knees and unable to walk properly after riding the Hayabusa, and we would all suffer the nightmare that was the ZX-12.

This, I hasten to add, was nothing to do with the bike, and everything to do with Gus's huge tankbag. The ZX was the only bike it would go on and it helpfully conspired to occupy all the space behind the screen (including half the seat) leaving our heads hopelessly exposed to the windblast.

Rolling onto our boat we staggered to our cabin red-eyed and knackered before hauling ourselves to the bar for one last nightcap. As the tops were popped off a trio of chilly

Stellas, I reflected on the trip. Bits had been tough (like the snow through the Masif central), bits had been horrible (like the freezing fog outside Paris), but the highlights had been immense from the ridiculous night-time thrash on the way down and the even more ridiculous opulence of the Martinez hotel. Through it all though, the real stars had been the bikes. Fantastically overblown and ridiculously fast, they are all an experience not to be missed.