It is a steep hill. The kind that has a small 4-cylinder car back to 2nd-gear and struggling to maintain 50 kph. It's the start of a back-road mountain pass, and goes straight and very steep for about 1km before getting narrow and winding. There's a sharp corner at the bottom too, so you can't get a run at it. So even a family 6-cylinder will be back a gear and working hard to get up to reasonable speed. On a half-decent bike it's no trouble. Mostly when I've gone up there I've toddled up at about 80kph in 4th or 5th. (There is also a speed-limit, you see!). One day, when riding the Yamaha XJ600 Seca, and with no other cars around, I thought I'd see just how well it would handle it in a higher gear. I took the corner at the bottom quite leisurely then wound it up, snicked into top and was soon cruising up quite easily at 110kph. That sort of power is impressive! And in fact I can't recall ever finding a road that the XJ wouldn't take easily in top gear, provided the speed (and thereby revs) wasn't restricted by corners or speed-limits.
Now, when I said that sort of power is impressive, I meant in an over-all general sense, not specifically in a bike sense. Because in the over-all scheme of two-wheeled things, the XJ600 certainly wasn't a powerful bike. But when you look at power in absolute terms, and especially when related to cars, that sort of power is impressive! And that's the thing about bikes; any half-decent bike is actually very powerful! And that effortless power is one of the things I love about bikes!
Performance figures aren't often given in road-tests, but I have a "Two Wheels" road-test of the first XJ600 I owned (which was actually slightly more powerful than the Seca) that listed a 0-100kph time of 4.7seconds. Now, just compare that to cars. That's well into Ferrari and turbo-Porsche territory! And that was a bike that boasted about 50kw. A Yamaha R1 has something around 130kw. So how quick would that be to 100kph? No-one would know; because you'd have to have one of those long wheelie-things out the back like the drag-bikes do to stop the thing from flipping over backwards! And that's the main reason performance figures are mostly not given; because the performance isn't measurable! Now it goes without saying that in any situation the R1 would just run away laughing from the old XJ! So let's put that into perspective. Take a machine with the performance of a Ferrari, and then take another machine that would run away from it like it was standing still. That's performance! That's power! But is it useable? Is it too much power?
I remember being in the local Yamaha dealer's workshop one day and the mechanic, who I knew fairly well, was working on an R1. "Nice bike!" I ventured. "Yeah", he replied, "but it's too powerful; you just can't use it! Around town, as soon as you crack the throttle open a bit, in any gear, you're up on the back wheel!" Okay, so an R1 isn't supposed to be a town-bike; but even out on the open road and the highway you can't possibly use the power that the bike has available! Not without killing yourself or ending up in gaol anyway! That sort of power can really only be fully used on a race-track by a highly skilled race-crafted rider.
Okay, so that sort of full-on sports-bike is an extreme in terms of power perhaps. But as I said before, any half-decent road-bike today is, in absolute terms, very powerful. So how much power is enough? How much power is too much?
A mate of mine, who has owned everything from a step-through to big-bore high-performance bikes, has a theory. He's become a big fan of mid-size bikes. He reckons a mid-size bike has all the performance you need. And it's also cheaper to buy, cheaper to run, cheaper to insure etc, than a high-performance bike. Of mid-size bikes he says, "I can cruise all day anywhere up-hill and down-dale at the speed-limit, and easily out-accelerate the other traffic. They're big enough to be comfortable to tour on, but light enough to easily wheel around in the shed. Why would you want anything bigger?" He's got a point. Go back to what I wrote above about my XJ600 Seca. Add in the fact that it cruises effortlessly at 120kph, has brisk acceleration (by standards of traffic around it) at touring speeds, and you've got to ask, do you actually need any more power than that? Well, in practical terms, no, you don't! But we all (or most of us anyway!) want more power don't we!
Now let me deviate just a bit and look at this from an historical point. I'm old enough to remember the years when a 650cc bike was a big bike! Remember the Triumph 650s and BSA 650s etc? They were the high-performance bikes of their day. (Okay, there were bigger bikes back then too of course, but these were the general run of high-performance bikes). So what was once a "big bike" has now become a "mid-size" or even "small" bike! Blame it on the Japanese. And the Honda 750 to be precise. That bike changed the perspective of motorcycles and their power and capacity. Soon 750s became 900s, and 900s grew to 1,000s and 1200s. Power and big engines became a huge draw-card! The engine you see in the photo on the left above is a good example. It's a Honda CBX 1000; an across-the-frame 6-cylinder from the 1970s. It was Honda's way of saying to almost every other bike, "That's not a motor, this is a motor!" If you're old enough to remember when these first came out you might recall they were a sensation! (And you might also recall a famous photo of Two Wheels columnist Kel Wearne getting one air-borne over a railway-crossing!). It was a visual thing mainly. There were faster bikes around, but this just looked huge! And other manufacturers have followed suite. Triumph took the same approach when it plonked a 2200cc motor into it's Rocket. But how useable are these sort of things? The answer, in practical terms, is probably "Not very!"
I have to say though, that big (and I mean "big", not "huge"!) powerful bikes do have certain genuine advantages and attractions. I like the greater comfort of bigger bikes. And I like the performance the larger engine-size brings too. I've never driven a Ferrari, but it's nice occasionally to twist the throttle and experience the kind of acceleration that would leave one behind!
When I said "bigger bikes" just then, I was referring to things like sports-tourers. But I do admire bikes like the R1, and similar sports-bikes. I'd never own one (full-on sports-bikes aren't for old blokes with crook backs and more "sensible" riding styles!), but I admire them for what they are. I admire them for their technical achievements in performance, handling and braking. And I've got nothing against people who buy them; provided they use them responsibly. You see, there is a sense in which having "too much" power doesn't have to be a problem; you don't have to use it!
A friend of mine has a Subaru WRX STi. He says it is totally impractical, but it's fun to own. It's his "toy", and he occasionally takes it out to a race-track where he can use at least some of it's potential. But he doesn't use it for his daily transport. As he says, it is totally impractical for that. (He has a couple of other cars for daily use). And it's the same with high-powered bikes. So if we think in terms of something for every-day use, how far do you go with this power thing? Well, I reckon that, taken to extremes, power reaches a point where it crosses the line of what is practical and useable. And the advantages start to become disadvantages.
There is also the fact that very powerful bikes can be "slower", in a real-world sense, than those with less power. When I bought the DT175, I was actually fairly keen on buying a DT250. But the salesman talked me into the DT175 because he reckoned that, being lighter and more nimble, it was a better thing off-road (especially in tight conditions) than the 250. And he was probably right. Then there is the aspect that the more power you have, the more skill that is required to handle it. To ride a sports-bike quickly you have to have a very well-educated and sensitive right-hand! Bikes with lesser power are easier to handle, and for most riders, can actually be quicker point-to-point than a powerful sportster. Sure, put Valentino Rossi on an R1 and then send him over the same route on say, an FZ1 (same engine but with less power), and he'd be quicker on the R1. Put me on the same two bikes over the same route and I'd be quicker on the FZ1; because the power is more manageable. And it'd be the same for many riders. And the other aspect is that I would arrive at the end feeling a lot more relaxed and comfortable after the FZ1 ride than I would after the R1 ride.
The manufacturers (well at least some of them) realise the practical limitations of how powerful bikes should be, even if we consumers don't. When Honda released it's 2006 model Fireblade, marketing services manager Rhys Griffiths said, "Motorcycles will sell on their stats to some degree, but manufacturers won't make them as powerful as they can. Race Superbikes are putting out well over 200bhp at the rear wheel. Honda could do that with the Fireblade, but it's building in longevity and rideability that is the key". Now I've already suggested that bikes like the Fireblade have "too much" power for practical every-day use, but the point he makes about absolute power versus longevity and rideability is still a good one.
So we come back to the question I asked earlier, how much power is enough? How much power is too much? Well, there's no definitive answer is there! The mate I mentioned who was extolling the virtues of mid-size bikes was riding a Suzuki GS500 when he made those comments. And at the time of writing this, I still own the XJ600. But even the bike magazines, when road-testing bikes like the GS500 or other mid-size bikes of around the 30kw - 50kw mark, often give surprisingly good reviews. As for me, there are many occasions (like the one I mentioned at the beginning) when I'm on the XJ600 and thinking, "Yeah, this is all the power I need!" And at other times I'm thinking, "Yeah, a bit more power would be good fun!" So the desire to enjoy greater performance (plus the extra comfort of bigger bikes) has attracted me to certain larger, more powerful, bikes. But I didn't (and wouldn't) buy something like a Yamaha R1 or a Triumph Rocket. Because by any reasonable standard for the everyday rider (whether the rider is an old bloke or not!) in everyday conditions that is too much! It's too much because it isn't useable.
Okay, so how can we sum this up? A mid-size bike like the GS500, is "enough", and a full-on sports-bike like the R1 is "too much"; is that what I'm saying? Well, I didn't want to put in such exact terms, but yeah, that's one way of putting it I suppose. As to what might be a good practical and enjoyable choice for you and your personal style of riding, well that's probably at some variable point anywhere between the two!
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