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The Sensation of Speed – An Analysis of Our Obsession With Liter-class Sportbikes

For a long time, I’ve been asking myself what it is about the current generation of liter-class sportbikes that has so captured the minds (and buying dollars) of today’s riders. I ask myself this question every time a friend or colleague tells me he has bought or is planning to buy a new 1000, and every time I have to choose between riding a 600 and a literbike, and find myself climbing aboard the 1000.

We all know the easy answers. Many journalists believe that the buying public is captivated by raw numbers, regardless of a bike’s rideability or livability. Personally, I’d like to give the motorcycling community as a whole a little more credit than that, but certainly some riders may buy a 1000 for this reason. For others, the easier availability of torque in the lower range of the tachometer’s sweep may be a draw – but if they truly bought a bike for the purpose of lower-end (and thus, lower-pace) rideability, why did they buy a four-cylinder sportbike in the first place? Far better to choose a torquey V-Twin like the RC51, or better yet, a more “everyday” friendly bike like Suzuki’s V-Strom (in either its 650 or 1000 incarnation).

The truth is, to find the real draw of the modern 1000cc sportbike requires one to search the more primal backwaters of their psyche. Although I’m not a psychologist, the behavior of a large percentage of the American population leads me to suspect that in the same way that humans are driven to eat, sleep, and procreate, they have a primal need to accelerate!

Even the most jaded journalist, one who has ridden hundreds of the latest and greatest machines, sometimes in exotic locales, can still feel the pure rush of endorphins that comes from extreme accelerative forces. Ripping through the upper reaches of the RPM range in second gear on any modern 1000, then clicking up to third to do it all over again (of course I never do this on public roads) is a feeling unmatched by any sensation I have yet encountered. Well, I wouldn’t say it’s incomparable, but the comparison isn’t one that should be elaborated on in polite company.

True, the lighter, more maneuverable middleweights are better aligned to the skill level of the average street rider – on any given day in the canyons or at the track, the vast majority of us would be better off aboard a modern supersport bike rather than a liter-class machine. Still, the acceleration of the big fours is like a drug to us – and like any addiction, it can lead to disasterous consequences, ranging from the mild dissaproval of family and friends (common to most motorcycle riders), to the sportbiker’s equivalent of an overdose (a highside).

Today’s 1000s are edging into the realm of single-digit quarter mile times, a rarified strata that even 5 years ago was reserved for professional drag racers (and well-funded amateurs). Even this belies the true accelerative capacity of these bikes – first and second gear require care to prevent landing on your backside as the bike flips over backwards, but once you’ve got them moving the acceleration is likely equal to that of any dragster capable of a 9.0 second quarter mile time. Indeed, many drag racers have shown that a stock-motored 1000, lowered slightly and with a longer swingarm to reduce the tendency to wheelie over backwards, can cover the quarter mile in the low 9-second range.

Although I doubt many of our readers are dedicated drag racers – indeed, I suspect most of you are street riders who attend the occasional track day, and would likely choose road racing over drag if asked where your interests lie – this acceleration has an undeniable appeal. It is certain that the modern 1000cc sportbike brings the consumer the most ferocious acceleration available “over the counter” anywhere in the world. The only greater rush would be to drive an 8-second or faster dragster, or maybe to catch a ride in a modern military fighter jet – in fact, if any of our readers can offer me a chance at said ride-along, or the opportunity to get behind the wheel of a single-digit drag machine, well, my email address is at the top of this article! As to my qualifications, well, I’m a journalist, we can do everything!

Seriously though, I feel strongly that the “drive to accelerate” that I’ve described above is a strong factor in the current popularity of liter-class four-cylinder sportbikes. They certainly aren’t the logical choice – not unless you possess riding skills far beyond those of mere mortals, in order to safely utilize these bikes to the limit of their available performance on the street. What I do know is that everyone I know who has experienced the power of these bikes, while unable to describe how it felt, knows that they want more. Certainly a situation that the Japanese manufacturers won’t complain about!