by Gary Charpentier
What IS it about sportbikes? I can ride on any other motorcycle, on public roads, and be reasonably happy operating within the confines of the law. But put a modern “crotch rocket” under me, add caffeine, and voila; Instant Outlaw!
These hyperactive, high-horsepower motors attached to the stickiest rubber available, and clothed in sleek, aerodynamic fiberglass just beg to be flogged! It is their sole purpose in life! Ride them any other way and you risk ridicule and scorn, not to mention chiropractor bills.
They are not built for sightseeing, or just cruising along while your mind gathers wool. They are focused razor-sharp on disposing with many miles of twisty pavement in the shortest time possible. Built for the racetrack, they are really out of their element on city streets, and the rural roads will never challenge them if ridden at the legal limit. It is only when every stoplight is treated as a starting grid, every car as a mobile chicane, and every corner as the last one before the checkered flag that they come into their element on the road. Only when ridden in an illegal manner do they come alive. Oh why must you tempt me so? I am only human after all; my evil mind and quick throttle hand will be the death of me yet!
How does the spell take hold? I believe it happens as soon as I climb aboard. My legs are folded back underneath me, and my arms must reach forward for those low-down clip-on handlebars. This puts my face immediately in front of that glaring, challenging speedometer. We are nose to nose, in confrontation before I even thumb the starter. Once I push that button, all hope is lost.
I unleash the violence of 92 octane combusted under high compression, and sent howling out of finely tuned exhausts. This is no symphony here, but a speed-metal thrash of cam chains and valve lash. I can imagine all those little pieces gnashing around in there, separated from mayhem by a thin film of oil, trying their best to fly apart in explosive ecstasy. Twist the grip, and the growl rises to a feral scream…it’s time to GO!
The challenge comes from the machine itself, of course, but also from the road and the other traffic. It takes a fair amount of wind to keep my upper body weight off my wrists, so some speed is called for there. Then, when another bike or worse, a car, begins to grow in my rearview mirror, the grip is twisted again to keep them at a distance. I don’t know why, but I find it excruciatingly painful to be passed by anything while riding a sportbike. It feels too much like defeat.
A curve appears ahead, and the checklist begins: weight on the outside peg, throttle gently opened, focusing on the farthest piece of the road visible ahead, and lean, lean, lean into it, kneepuck lightly grazing the pavement as the apex is reached and hard on the throttle as the straight appears before us. By this point I am so far above the legal speed limit that, if caught, I would probably go directly to jail. I passed GO a ways back there, remember? A quick check of the mirrors, and then I can back off a tad. Whew! Heart rate is welded to the tachometer needle!
So I reach a destination, be it a cafe, or a gathering of friends, whatever. It takes a while for my mind to slow and synchronize with the body-at-rest. The rush of the wind still roars in my ears, the scenery just passed still whirls in my head. My hands, feet and ass are still a-tingle with high frequency vibrations. I acknowledge people vaguely, automatically, but I have still not fully arrived. After awhile, I can carry on a normal conversation, although the topic inevitably revolves around acquiring, riding, and caring for motorcycles. Time goes by very slowly while I am thus engaged. I keep glancing back at the bike, longing to be back on the road…and back on the edge. A sportbike is an addiction, in every sense of the word.
This is Cafe Racing at the close of the millennium. The ton is insignificant on machines that can nearly double it. Ton-and-a-half, or 150 mph, brings us closer to the thrill those classic bikers found at 100. The fact that we are breaking the law is only one piece of the overall rush. We are risking life and limb in the pursuit of increased velocity, but why? What makes it okay to risk everything just to go faster? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that when it all comes together, when I find that rhythm on a perfect stretch of pavement and the bike is running hard and hot beneath me; when every synapse is in tune with the wail of the engine and I can feel the micro-pebble surface of the road through the handlebars, THAT is as close to Heaven as I have ever been! It is also just a twitch away from Hell–I’ve been there too.
These days with a child on the way, I take my sportbikes in small doses, preferably on a racetrack. I have a stable of motorbikes, from vintage standard to modern enduro, that fill most of my motorcycling needs. But once in awhile I get that irresistible urge, originating somewhere south of my beltline, to dance with the devil; to straddle oblivion. I prepare myself by reading from the sacred book of Code, Keith Code that is, and meditating on the wisdom of His words. Then I don a suit of leather armor, and a helm of high-tech plastics, and prepare myself to joust once again with physics and temptation. I have been extremely lucky to survive long enough to call myself “experienced”. Today I will let that experience temper my enthusiasm, just a little bit. Maybe just enough…