Strong Like Bull
Listen. Can you hear it? It’s coming from the west. Rumbling across the Pacific like a far off thunderstorm. A deep satisfied chuckle that is not maniacal but certainly is smug. It’s coming from the sky-high offices at Honda’s corporate headquarters, and it’s coming from the bowels of the HRC development facilities. But mostly, it’s coming from the ghost of Soichiro Honda, a man who believed that winning races was at least as important as selling products. Honda is winning races again.
Roughly ten years ago superbike racing was dominated by Japanese four cylinder machines. In an effort to stir things up and encourage a small Italian manufacturer to take on the larger Japanese companies, twin cylinder bikes displacing up to 999cc’s were allowed to compete against 750cc four cylinder engines which, cc for cc were more potent than the twins. Ducati jumped into the mix with their 851 and later 996cc machines and proceeded to win eight world superbike championships in ten years. Honda spent years tweaking their four cylinder RC45 but were never able to win races as easily as the Ducatis, and quietly complained that the rules were unfairly biased toward the twins.
Say what you will. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
Unless you’ve been in a coma for the last six months, you know that Honda has released their latest contender for the world superbike title, and guess what? It’s a twin. Honda seems to have “borrowed” from Ducati’s winning formula with its new RC51 superbike. The bikes were immediately competitive and Honda now leads the points race in world superbike.
While the over the counter version of the RC51 pales next to the factory bike, it has enough techno wizardry to keep it on par with the current group of hyperbikes. The most obvious is the bird eating air duct that passes straight through the steering head and frame on its way to the airbox. With the air filters removed you can catch a glimpse of the throttle bodies. There is a small flap controlled by a servomotor in the upper corner of the duct. This works to funnel air into the right places at slow speeds for low rpm throttle response. Doodling around in traffic in first & second you can hear the thing clicking back and forth as you play with the gas. Digital tach and dash, magnesium bits and pieces, ceramic cylinder sleeves, and a braced swing arm are also part of the package.
My first thought about the bike was “Man, what a pig.” I used to ride a 500+ pound TDM and that thing was easier to push around the garage. 430 some pounds is what the spec sheets say. In a world of 380 pound GSXR’s and YZF’s it feels a little odd.
Start it up and the most prominent noise is the whining of the gear driven cams. It sounds like its coming from inside the gas tank and is loud enough to drown out the exhaust sound below 3000 rpm. When you get on it though, hard on the gas or high rpm, the twin song comes out. The odd thing is, it comes belching out the front i ntake rather than out of the rather quiet exhaust. When you compare the sound of a Harley to a Ducati, the Harley sounds like a crazy old man yelling at his dog. Put the Ducati and the Honda twins together and the RC’s sophisticated sound makes the Ducati sound kind of wild and out of control.
First gear is tall and pulling away from a stop can catch you off guard causing you to stall it. On the plus side it is tall enough to be used often in the real world and will engage smoothly even at high speeds. There is a false neutral between 5th and 6th that is just a little too easy to hit. In the bike’s defense, this only seem to happen when you are really clipping along and your attention is focused elsewhere. Under normal circumstances the gearbox is tight, accurate, and really doesn’t deserve all this nit picking.
Just above idle at about 2700 rpm the fuel injection has a small hiccup that only happens when you try to hold the throttle steady in this area. This translates into lurching in first, surging in second, and barely noticeable in third. If you accelerate or decelerate through this area you will notice nothing. Below 4500 rpm there is nothing very exciting happening after second gear and in fifth or sixth the only result is some sick kind of vibration from below. Maybe I’m being a bit harsh because after riding a ZX7 for an hour or so, the RC51 felt immensely tourqey down low. After 5000 the motor comes alive with just a little kick around 8500 before maxing out around 10,000. The general consensus of the leading cycle rags is that 0-60 comes in about 2.8 seconds and a quarter mile in the 10.6 to 11.0 range. Real world horsepower figures as witnessed by MMM’s roving reporters are in the neighborhood of 118 to 123. Pretty impressive when compared to other street going sport twins.
Pinning the throttle through first will get the front wheel floating and in second will have it skipping along the pavement. The easiest way I have found to wheelie the thing is to bring the revs up to about 5000 in first, close the throttle and then whack it open almost all the way to the stop. It’s definitely not going to beat a speed triple or a ‘busa in a stoplight to stoplight stunt show.
That is not what the bike is all about though. Let me explain. I’ve said before that I am a very average rider. I try to push a bike just far enough to scare myself a little, which probably isn’t pushing much at all. Every time I get off of the RC51 though, I feel like a hero. On my way home from work, in the middle of the night with no cars to plug up the corners, I ride 35 miles through everything from the smoothest cloverleaves to the crappiest. There is a quick right, left, right flip flop maneuver down near 169 and 494 followed later by that fast bumpy section of 35 near Dinkytown.
Though I haven’t touched the hero blobs yet, on the smooth clovers I’ve escaped with the speedo (which reads 3-4 mph fast) indicating 62 mph. The rear tire also broke loose once, a first for me, but the bike made it feel very undramatic. The back skipped and then caught again, and when it did the bike barely flapped and the handlebars gyrated only once before everything came back in line. The fact that Joe average can get away with stuff like this tells you that the bike is designed well and is doing most of the work.
While flopping it hard from side to side you notice that the RC51 is not a quick steering machine. I was surprised to find that even the Hayabusa we’ve been beating around lately flicks in quicker. Some say that a 190 rear tire is simply for looks and that a 180 is all that any street rider will normally need. However, after only a week on the Honda the tire was worn right over the edge on the right and nearly there on the left, though the front had a mile to go on either side.
The front brakes are strong and though a bit gooshy, are still better than most. By gooshy I mean they can nearly touch the grip with a good squeeze while stopped. While in motion this would have you over the bars doing your best Steve Rapp impression. The rear is typically (maybe intentionally) weak.
As far as comfort there is none. I am 5’8 and a featherweight and still have not gotten used to commuting on the thing. Team Strange or Iron Butt events? You would have about as much success on a Ducati 748 with a sheepskin seat cover. The removable passenger seat is laughable. I’ll quote my wife, “I feel like I’m humping you in the middle of traffic.”
Other interesting notes. Oil filters cost around 27 dollars each and were not available until mid June. Most owners I talked to reused the original one or two times. The plastic on most RCs has begun cracking around some of the fasteners and the fender. Honda has reportedly been replacing it with little hassle, though replacement parts are scarce. If you try stuffing your raincoat under the rear cowl, it will probably pop the lock and send the cover flying like an ejector seat. The air filters fill with bugs fairly quickly. Cleaning them requires removing the rear throttle body. The exhaust and radiators team up to slow roast you, Boston market style.
It’s a love hate relationship. When I ride to work in stop and go traffic, I hate the thing. When I’m alone and flying I love everything about the bike.
by Donny “Crabby” Sheldon
The Honda RC51 is a pretty cool little bike. Unfortunately for any one over 5 foot 6, little is the key word. When I first climbed on the bike I felt tike I was squatting to take a dump in the woods. My elbows and my knees were mere inches from each other. How could I ride this for any length of time? However you do seem to forget the discomfort once you start moving.
This bike has a great feel for the road. It handles corners excellent. It is so light you can flop from side to side with hardly a thought. The sneaky speed could easily get you in to trouble, or out of it. It is a good thing they put the big digital speedo in there, because you have to keep an eye on it at all times. If you do find yourself going too fast, don’t worry. The brakes on this thing came off a Mack truck. When you hit the front brakes you actually hear the pads biting the big rotor. Don’t hit that font one too fast though, you might go sailing over the fairing.
The motor has a funky little whine to it that in my opinion was just put there to cover up the constant flapping of the little gate in the ram air intake. Once you start moving though it sounds like your typical v-twin. Maybe a little quiet though. The dual exhaust with the extreme up sweep angle and the split side-mount radiators do make a hot day hotter, but if you don’t stop you don’t notice.
All things said and done the RC51 has everything you could ask for in a racy package. The only thing they left out was a listing of local chiropractors.