I read somebody’s theory a while ago about why we never hear from distant planets: About the time we learn to broadcast into space, we also learn to build nuclear weapons. So by the time we’d hear from Tralfamadore, 200,000 light years away, it’s already toast and so will we be.
But that’s Progress, and there’s no stopping it. How come we got along fine for most of the history of roadracing motorcycles, racing ones no bigger than 500cc – but now we need twice that displacement to be entertained? The archives are filled with happy black and white images of characters over the moon after winning the 175cc Italian Championship, etc. That’s Carlo Ubbiali in the lead photo, nine-time champ on 125s and 250s, who we’re told never had a serious crash in his 12-year career.
Giacomo Agostini and Mike Hailwood built their legends riding four-stroke machines no larger than 500cc for the most part, and they had some of their grandest battles on four-cylinder 250 four-strokes that probably didn’t make much more power than a current CB500F (though they did make a lot more racket). If anything, given better metallurgy and electronics and all that, you’d think we’d need half the displacement to have modern fun, not twice as much.
The slope began to slip when Yamaha and Suzuki came up with their 500cc two-strokes in the early ’70s, after two-strokes had already begun undermining the status quo in the smaller classes. Goodnight, MV Agusta and Ago. Good morning, Barry Sheene, Kenny Roberts, Freddie Spencer and the new world racing order. The rest of the world got some very cool (and now highly collectible) RZV and RGV race replicas out of the deal; the best we could do in the Land of the Free was the Yamaha RZ350. As Trump would tweet, “sad.”
By 2002, when it was time to phase four-strokes back in – “diesels” the cool racer kids called them – it seemed fair to let them have nearly twice the cc of the two-strokes: 990cc. And that also lined up nicely with all the national series, which by then had worked their way up from 750 Fours and 1000cc Twins, to 1000cc Fours and 1200cc Twins. Why not? We Boomers were at our peak testosterone production years, and sportbikes were all the rage. More horsepower!
The first real modern literbike must’ve been the ’98 Yamaha R1, which was rated at 150 horsepower by Yamaha, around 135 or so at the rear wheel. By then we’d already grown fond of writing stuff like, “the only time you’ll be able to use all that power is at a race track,” and now it was true. Finally we arrive at today, where there’s too much power to even really use at a race track, unless the track is maybe the Bonneville Salt Flats. Now bikes like the BMW S1000RR are almost unrideable by the average stiff, unless he’s careful to dial up the traction control before he gives the throttle a solid whack.
I’m as big a fan as the next guy when it comes to TC, especially off-road, but when you need it on pavement, well, wouldn’t it make just as much sense to build a bike with a bit, oh dare I even say it! Less horsepower? (Of course, GSX-R750s and R6s already exist for discriminating sporty riders, but they get way less OEM attention than the literbikes.) Don’t the computer programmers already have enough control over our lives? How far off are we from having to call customer service in India to adjust our rebound damping? Will we be able to bring a class action suit against Bosch if enough people highside their new GSX-R1000s?
Don’t even get me started about motocross bikes. I’m pretty sure Supercross is a fan favorite for the same reason going to the Colosseum was in ancient Rome. Yo, Euripides, let’s go watch those monster four-strokes throw Christians to the whoops section!
Too much horsepower really takes the fun out of it. Instead of Barry Sheene and James Hunt smoking tabs and partying with Twiggy and the Queen Mum, now everybody’s home-schooling, eating healthy and training constantly in a futile effort just to be able to hang on for a whole moto. I read where Hailwood and his pals would sometimes have a little taste of the bubbly before the race back in the day. Now that’s civilized. Wouldn’t everybody be happier with less horsepower and less physical training? A little more time to smell the roses? When I got here, we liked motorcycles because they were kind of the antithesis of athleticism.
It’s not just a cliche, it really is fun to ride a slower bike fast. I always liked Ducati’s mini-Superbikes better on the street, like the 748, 749 and now the 959, for the simple fact that their shorter gearing means you get to wind them up a lot more often and enjoy that sound: On the full-size 1299 Panigale, any time the tachometer moves past about 8000 rpm, you’re felony speeding. The fact that the 959 is now the small Panigale tells us all we need to know. That first 851 was fast! The 888 was a monster!
But birds gotta fly, fish have to swim, engineers have to engine. There’s no turning back from progress. Luckily, natural selection is an ongoing process too. Last time I heard, sales of those top-of-the-line superbikes aren’t near as hot as they once were, as Boomers move into all kinds of other segments including adventure bikes and nakeds. The big nakeds really are where it’s at lately for most of us at MO. Things like Aprilia Tuonos and KTM Super Dukes offer all the performance you could ever use – even if some of them only make a measly 125-135 horsepower – along with comfort and civility.
Still, the thing that was revolutionary about a lot of milestone motorcycles was their lack of weight. It was true of the original GSX-R, the CBR900RR Honda, the original R1, and lack of mass was the reason the Norton Manx, a big Single, was still able to beat much more powerful multi-cylinder motorcycles long after it shouldn’t have been able to. I wonder if, instead of a new VFR1000RR, what the world really needs now is a 375-pound VFR750RR? Not that Honda is interested in building either one; they’re smart that way.
We’re in the grip of a powerful addiction, people, a horsepower one! The ever-larger doses they’ve been feeding us have turned us into drooling zombies, and we’re about to hit rock bottom. I guess my point here is, if you’re on the fence about any motorcycle, worried that your potential choice might be underpowered if it’s not packing more than 100 horses, stop worrying. I seem to have the most mototainment on bikes that make about 50 or 60 (same as a 500cc Norton Manx); things like Yamaha FZ-07s and Triumph Street Twins are tons of fun. The MV Agusta Three that Agostini rode to seven 500cc championships made 78 horses at 12,000 rpm.
Now if you’ll excuse me I think I’ll rewind the Argentine MotoGP and watch Marquez and Lorenzo throw it in the weeds again. I can’t get enough! Go Rossi, 38 years young! He learned to ride before traction control, you know.