Kawasaki Extreme Sports - SP-2, ZX-10R, GSX-R1000

Get three mates riding three of the most extreme sportsbikes ever built, plot a devilish route through some of the best roads in the UK

We set out to have the best riding experience it's possible to have in one day for under £300.

Just recently, we've had several conversations with manufacturers whereby the user-friendliness of a 1,000cc sportsbike was deemed paramount to successful sales. User friendly, a 1,000cc sportsbike - are you joking? Surely the whole point of these things is that they should be intimidating, arm-ripping and aggressive, not compromised to pander to the kind of rider who likes the idea of riding something fast and scary, but doesn't actually posses the skill-set nor patience to learn how to do it. Excuse us for being old-fashioned, but if you're not man enough to ride one of these bikes properly after buying one, go get a scooter instead.

Then there is the ever-tightening net regarding emissions and noise laws. Now Visordown has no problem with saving the planet, it's a splendid and marvellous thing to save and action needs to be taken, but the facts are there for everyone to see: many of the latest sports tools are heavier, uglier and in some cases even slower than their preceding brethren. With catalysers choking the exhausts and people with decibel-readers demanding less noise than ever before, manufacturers are pulling their hair out trying to make their bikes evolve and look appealing at the same time. And some are clearly struggling.

But it wasn't always like this. Just a few years ago you could buy hairy-chested sports bikes that weren't bunged up nor compromised for Like To Appear To Ride Fast But Can't man. They had lightweight titanium exhausts, uncomfortable ride positions, trigger-switch throttle responses and razor-sharp handling that would terrify any rider who dithered about and didn't make the bike do exactly what he wanted. In other words: proper sportsbikes. And the pick of the crop were these three below, the 2005 GSX-R1000K5, Kawasaki's 2004 ZX-10R and Honda's sublime VTR1000 SP-2 from 2002.

And the best news is that you can buy examples of these three bikes for easily under £6,000 today.

Red-blooded motos such as these need open roads and light traffic, somewhere where you can pin the throttle through the gears, gorge yourself on the tidal wave of acceleration and not spend the following four weeks being raped in prison. So we started on the westernmost point of Wales, St Davids in Pembrokeshire, and headed inland cutting a bullet path past the Brecon Beacons, through Builth Wells, scaring the bejeezus out of several sheep and often ourselves as we headed eastwards with the setting sun on our backs.

To make sure our blood pressures nudged 12 on the Richter scale that day we stopped to indulge in other extreme sports along the way to show what could be achieved in just 14 hours with a little planning and some good weather. We wanted to organise the ultimate day out and try other sports that reflected the single-mindedness of our rides, so we surfed in the clear sea off Whitesands in Wales, skydived from 13,000 feet over Swindon, and finally snowboarded 200 metres of real snow at the Xscape snowpark in Milton Keynes. If you're looking to spend a day out on your sportsbike getting loaded on adrenalin with your best riding buddies, follow this lead.




PRICE: £5,899  POWER: 126BHP  WEIGHT: 194KG YEAR: 2002  MILEAGE: 18,765

The surf wasn't particularly big, but the beach was stunning and just to be in the sea again for an hour was enough. Three cutbacks and two feeble slashes later the surfing was over and we swapped wetsuits for leathers. Unbeknown to me the lads kindly Velcro'd the complimentary word 'JIZGOBLER' on the back of my Berick racesuit and we took off. Or rather would have done had the SP-2's battery not been completely flat. Ever tried bump-starting a high-compression v-twin in full leathers?

After 200 miles on the GSX-R the Honda SP-2 felt raw and uncomfortable, but through a pair of booming race-cans it sounded fantastic and the basic display and lack of unnecessary plastic had me pretending I was a racer from another era. Crouched over the front end with Sodom and Gomorrah blasting out from the back, the SP-2 is a bike that responds only to maximum effort. To ride it at 5/10ths is pointless and unrewarding. We'd blitzed the M4 westbound the night before to get into Wales in a hurry (and even the M4 becomes fun and sinuous at 1,000cc superbike speeds after Cardiff) and the exhaust note and seemingly solid suspension meant that fast motorway blasting was enjoyable. I was seriously looking forward to seeing what the ageing Honda could do on the Welsh A-roads for our blast the next day.

I decided that while the GSX-R was very fast, handled well and there were moments when it had me gasping in disbelief at its sheer power, it was also soulless and I just wasn't having the same experience that I had been on the SP-2. The Suzuki felt like an incredibly fast scooter and just didn't excite me in any way, shape or form. So when Urry enquired if I wouldn't mind swapping back to the Honda (he hated the thing being a child of the inline-four generation) I couldn't get off the Suzuki quick enough. Big, sweeping A-roads made sense again and even when the office camera made a bid for freedom and headed straight for me at three figures, the nimbleness of the Honda's front end allowed me to flick it out of the way of said projectile. Make no mistake, for all its lardy weight (and there's plenty of it - 194kgs is nearly 30kg more than the inline fours) the SP-2 has by far the most radical steering of all these bikes. Don't forget that this bike was built purely as a homologation special to allow Colin Edwards to win the WSB championship in 2000.

After the featherweight fours you're very aware of the weight of the SP-2, but somehow it never impedes the ride. The brakes have to work hard to stop all that mass, and sadly too many miles of doing just this had left them overheated at some point and warped. There's so much engine-braking from those huge pistons that for smooth point-to-point stuff you only need gentle strokes of the lever to scrub off speed, and once into a corner the SP-2 felt responsive and alive where the GSX-R especially felt to me like a soggy old sponge. It was easy to tell why, bouncing on the forks at a standstill they were virtually solid on the Honda and the reassurance of the steering damper fitted was good to have.

Sadly, it looked like it had been fitted by Vlad the Impaler after a night on the piss, and the wear and tear around the top yoke of the RC51 (factory race code) made it look very second-hand indeed.
We arrived in Swindon pumped up from the ride, then jumped out of aeroplanes which made us even giddier still. Some day this was turning into. The rush was incredible, but never in my life have I been so happy to feel my feet back on the ground. Doing daft speeds on an obscenely powerful motorbike had suddenly been made to look tame by a bunch of mad people dressed in boiler suits wearing silly plastic helmets. By this stage an unspoken agreement had settled between us and I sat gratefully back on my SP-2, gave it a handful on the gravel to impress the parachutists and nearly fell off. The Jizgobler was back in business.

We pushed north towards Milton Keynes. Riding in a shadowy world that operates above the law, the three bikes blasted north-east up the A420 towards Oxford. You've got to keep three eyes peeled for cameras in this part of the world and it's a very different kind of riding to the open Welsh roads. Up the gearbox (lovely positive box on the Honda), get on the throttle (quite snatchy but what the hell), watch for cars, missed that one - hard on the brakes! And so on. Pootling through villages and getting on the gas when national speed limits apply, there's something instinctive about tucking in behind the bubble on the SP-2 and when you do it all makes sense. I'd copped a dose of food poisoning from some dodgy mushrooms in Wales, and the sight of the snow-white Honda blazing past with the rider hurling vomit from his helmet must have been horrid for everyone. I hereby apologise to any drivers who may have witnessed my behaviour.




PRICE: £6,199 POWER: 156BHP WEIGHT: 167KG YEAR: 2004 MILEAGE: 15,233

Extreme sports come and go, but jumping out of an aeroplane 2.5 miles up in the sky with nothing more than a ripcord and 20 square-feet of fabric to save your life is as wild as it gets. If your main doesn't open, pull your reserve. If that doesn't open, you die. It's as simple as that and there is something about the purity of skydiving that, like the original ZX-10R, makes it intoxicating and terrifying in equal measures.

Kawasaki were playing catch-up when they unleashed the 10R on the world in November 2003. The other manufacturers were having their own three-way battle, and Kawasaki had been left on the sidelines to watch with their hopelessly out-gunned ZX-9R. In itself the 9R was a great bike (and is now the used-bike bargain of the decade) but against the fuel-injected, race-framed animals of the time it was out of its depth and sat on showroom floors like a fat, ugly kid. With the 10R, that all changed in an instant. The new Kawasaki was incredibly light, impossibly small and came with an explosive engine that made grown men smile gleefully with joy.

But it also made little boys cry like girls, and the ZX-10R was branded too fast and too wayward for the road. Some people had tank-slappers (boohoo, they cried), others found the savage power delivery and the constant wheelies too much of a handful, so they all went rushing off and bought FireBlades instead so they could engage in their carpark fantasies of riding fast in safety and comfort. Bless.
The fact is that the original ZX-10R is an absolute classic, guaranteed future cult status, and was probably the last truly rampant superbike to come out of Japan. Just one ride on this bike today makes you realise how fresh and uncompromised it was, with racetrack suspension, vertical steering angles and a too-stiff frame. Kawasaki's engineers made no concessions to road niceties, the ZX-10R walks the walk and if you don't too then forget it.

It's tiny, ridiculously small. You sit right over that snub front end, and the drone from the enormous ram-air intake directly beneath you is music to the ears. Kawasaki have always done ram-air properly, something the others have only just caught up with in the last couple of years. The instrument binnacle is simple and, apart from the speedo, largely useless. You can never see the digital rev-counter (although you don't really need to) while the orange fuel light comes on at the 100 mile mark and means you have another 25 miles before you're pushing. But it's the look of the old 10R I love the most, it's so simple: minimal green bodywork, enormous black frame and swingarm, some spindly-looking wheels and that's your lot. It looks great from any angle - especially from behind where the exhaust can points almost straight up, and makes you feel savage before you even ride it.

After a morning of moderate surf off the stunningly beautiful Whitesands beach, we changed back into our leathers and headed east on the A40 towards Carmarthen. The ZX-10R was bloody on fire. All three of us were, I honestly don't think anyone could help it, a combined power figure of over  460bhp destroying the mile-long straights with appalling velocity. We weren't looking for police cars, we were looking upwards for police helicopters, but thankfully none ever appeared and the Kawasaki sat at the front of the pack pulling a glorious three-figure speed mile after mile and it was rock-steady. No tank-slapping, no scares, just 100% pure adrenaline.

At Llanedi we picked up the A483 and took off northwards, the road surface fresh and ridiculously grippy and the Kawasaki just dug in and went for it. Here you had to be more sensitive to the bike's loading and position in the road, you couldn't hamfist it like you could with the GSX-R1000. Brake hard in a straight line, get your speed right, pitch it in, fire it out - the power as the motor hits 8,000rpm is shocking and the ZX-10R rips out of corners. By the end of the test the power alone had mullered the rear tyre. Unfortunately the brakes were less impressive, prone to overheating and going back to the bars - it was always the way with the first 10Rs. Some did and some didn't, just hope you get a good one.

The A483 wheels eastwards and so do we, it's relentless by now and the fuel stops (they are frequent) are a glad respite from the anarchy.  Jon Urry is riding the K5 GSX-R, an American import model with Power Commander and K&N airfilter, ludicrously quick and smooth off the bottom and all the way to the top. However his packing isn't as effective as his throttle hand and at 140mph the office Canon camera decides to make a bid for freedom. Incredibly, apart from a cracked LCD screen it's still operable.

Over the top of Brecon, down into Gloucester and down the A417 past Cirencester towards our lunchtime date with an aeroplane and parachutes, we keep swapping bikes but it's the ZX-10R I end up hogging. The Honda SP-2 is a wonderful bike, laden with V-twin character, racetrack heritage and stunning looks, but the front discs are warped and it's definitely seen the worst side of at least two

British winters. It's silly, but I can't help but feel that the front wheel spindle will come out at 160mph. It just looks too used. The Suzuki has an engine to die for and blitzes the Kawasaki in terms of lowdown velocity and grunt, but fast as it is it's the very fact that you have to howl the 10R to get the most out of it that's appealing. Get lazy? Get off.


Suzuki GSX-R1000


YEAR: 2005 PRICE: £6,799 POWER: 164BHP WEIGHT: 166KG MILEAGE: 6,500

It's somehow fitting that Suzuki released the best-ever model of GSX-R exactly 20 years after the first 750 version rolled off the production line. The angular K5 is typically outspoken, with controversial looks, great paintwork, excellent handling and an unbelievable engine. This bike encapsulates the very essence of GSX-R ownership and the litre bike experience. There's nothing unmanageable about the K5 at legal speeds, but get it wound-up and it's a snarling metallic animal of raw power and aggression.

Setting out from Wales towards Milton Keynes (what a contrast) for our 290 mile triathlon the GSX-R got on with the job with ruthless efficiency. Its tank range of 130 miles murdered the ZX-10R and SP-2 while the ride position remained comfortable. It had me grinning every time John or Barry started stretching some life back into their aching limbs. Odd as it may sound the GSX-R1000 is a great motorway tourer, as long as you like to do your touring on your own, that is. All your other friends will be miles behind. But once you get off the motorway the bike comes alive.

The K5's inline-four motor is right up there in the Top 10 of the best engines ever. Not only is it beautifully made (race tuners love working with this engine) but it's fantastic to ride. This bike was a US-import and came with a K&N airfilter and, I suspect, a Power Commander already fitted, and pulled relentlessly from as little as 3,000rpm. It was liquid-smooth and didn't matter what gear you were in, the K5 just hauled all the way to the redline without a dip or stutter in the powercurve. Absolutely intoxicating and by far the easiest bike of the trio to extract speed out of, in fact almost too easy. I consider myself to be  a relatively law-abiding rider and delight in the cleanish state of my licence, but the GSX-R was just asking for trouble at every opportunity and, like joining a convincing chum on his crack pipe, I got stuck in. When a bike makes 150mph feel like 90mph, you know you're onto a good thing.

All the while the K5 is making the most glorious howl out of its oddly-shaped titanium exhaust system. Compared to the muted wuffle of the latest bikes  it sounds like this Suzuki comes fitted with an aftermarket system. Through the Welsh roads, past Brecon and east-south-east towards Gloucester the GSX-R was ripping up the valleys. It's amazing how much part of the riding experience comes from the sounds the bike makes underneath you, and the Suzuki was making all the right noises. John was raving about the raw brutishness of the ZX-10R's motor while Barry loved the emotion of the SP-2's V-twin, but they sounded like crooning old women. If you want to go fast - I mean really fast - on the K5 then just open the throttle, no mincing about, no fuss. Once you're bored of riding merely fast and fancy going supersonic, get the rev-counter up the range. Past 8,000rpm there's the motorcycling equivalent of the double sonic boom as the GSX-R ups its game even further.

At this stage there's no question that the SP-2 and 10R are working harder to maintain the same speed. Maybe it's just me, but I like to have balance in a bike, and while the Kawasaki is certainly more front-end focused than the Suzuki and sharper to steer, the Suzuki is so much easier to ride fast that you do so more of the time. Given the choice of any of these three bikes down an unfamiliar Welsh road I'd take the Suzuki every time simply because it won't get out of shape like the Kawasaki, and is so much more exciting than the lazy SP-2. The Honda was never left behind, but chasing a 10R-mounted John on the SP-2 I found myself using the throttle like a switch, banging it fully open mid-corner and wishing for more power. You simply wouldn't do this on a GSX-R, not unless you either have enormous bollocks or a Charles Bronson-style death wish.

The Suzuki feels so much more sorted than the rest. It won't shake its head nor do anything untoward to try and catch you out regardless of how fast you're going, it's all very neutral. I hate to say it, but a fairly inexperienced rider could hop on a K5 without being scared by all that power. Try that on the Kawasaki and you would be looking for a pair of Sidi's sticking out of the nearest ditch.

You know what? Maybe I'm just not as extreme as the other two. The GSX-R offers all the extremities of a manic engine, amazing chassis and reasonable brakes with a comfortable riding position, gear (wheelie) indicator and wonderfully easy ride. Adrenaline, but in a nice way.



Breathing Out: Verdict

We nuked 300 miles and seven counties of great riding on three of the best motorbikes ever made, took in some stunning scenery along the way and had time to push our adrenaline levels to their limits with some of the silliest sports ever invented. Try planning something similar over a weekend with some friends if you fancy the ultimate riding experience anytime soon. The seas will actually get warmer later into the year, while the skydive boys are hoping for better weather in September. Of course, you can go snowboarding at the Xscape snowpark any day of the year, rain or shine.

For a rounded helping of madness, you're never going to match the 2004 Kawasaki ZX-10R. It's a proper rider's motorcycle, the sort of bike that has no time for beginners. None of us had a single tankslapper and there was evidence of work on the suspension with a sticker on the fork-leg. A GPR steering damper looked factory-fitted on the top yoke and added to the quality look. Minimalist and sexy, the Ninja was always a thrill to ride, only the brakes and stupid range letting it down.

The GSX-R1000K5 comes in a roaring second simply for that incredible engine. It's always hard to gauge absolute speed on public roads because even when you're right on it you're only riding at 7/10ths, but if there was a prize for being able to use more power, more of the time the Suzuki takes it. The suspension gives the bike a slightly dead feel, but it's exactly that which allows you to get on the gas so hard. The looks are to die for - Suzuki nailed it with this version of the 1,000.

The cheapest bike on the test and with the most miles, the SP-2's extra two years of age had dulled its character. The engine was exciting and very engaging to ride, but the warped brakes and slight tattyness of the bike made it less appealing. In the tuck and with that digital tacho charging towards 9,000rpm, the sensation of speed is still second to none and will thrill experienced riders. But age had been harsh to this VTR and the once mighty Honda wings had been slightly clipped.