Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Motorcycle types: The Sportbike

In past posts, we've gone over standard motorcycles and cruisers. Now it's time to go over another common type, the sport bike. Sometimes you'll hear these called crotch rockets, but be careful what sort of riders you use that particular term around. Some sport bike riders will tell you that a crotch rocket is something you'd find at an adult bookstore instead of a Kawasaki dealership.

First, I'll need to define what separates a sport bike from a standard. The line isn't always obvious. Compare a Yamaha FZ6 to its close relative, the YZF-R6. The two look pretty similar, especially to a non-rider. So what's the difference?

The definition I'll use is that a sport bike is a performance oriented bike with a full fairing. That is, it has plastic or fiberglass bodywork to streamline it, and this bodywork extends from above the handlebars to below the engine. Standards like the FZ6 may have a bit of a fairing around the handlebars, but it doesn't cover the whole bike.

Now, you can divide sport bikes into two groups - race replica bikes and more street oriented ones that I'll call sport standards. A race replica bike is the roadgoing version of a bike built for track use, designed for setting the fastest lap times around a race track. The designer will sacrifice almost anything else - comfort, practicality, beginner friendliness - for a second off the lap times. Sport standards are more like a standard bike, just with extra streamlining.

Race replicas are not the easiest thing to learn on. They're usually the sort of bike that, to use a phrase I've heard often enough and long ago enough to forget who said it, will immediately do exactly what you accidentally tell it to. As a 600 cc race replica bike will often have more than 100 hp, you can accidentally tell it to do a lot. There are people who have learned to ride on these bikes, and there are also countless examples of race replica bikes sitting in used bike dealerships with less than 1,000 miles on the clock because the owner realized they had bought too much bike for them. These are the sort of bikes wise riders work their way up to by first learning on other bike.

Race replica bikes have a very leaned forward position. This makes it easy to tuck behind the windshield. Some riders put a bag on the tank and put something soft in it that they can lay flat on top of to make their race replica bikes more comfortabe. That would probably work well if you kept your rain gear in the tank bag. I would probably get in trouble if I tried that; I have a tank bag myself and find it just too handy a thing for hauling around a stash of banannas.

Sport standards are a good choice for that learning bike. They have their controls placed right where they'd naturally feel like they belong, they are meant to be ridden on the street, and the 500 cc and under class can make excellent first bikes. Like standards, a sport standard can do a surprising number of things well. They are at their best on twisty roads, but you can also take a sport standard on long trips, commute on one, or even ride one on gravel and graded dirt roads. The biggest disadvantage that a smaller sport bike will have over a similar standard or cruiser is that if you drop it, there's more bodywork to fix.

We've mentioned a couple of times that there are two typical red flags to warn a first time rider a bike is the wrong choice - a bike that is too powerful or too heavy. There's a couple different rules of thumb about too heavy for a first bike - some say 500 lbs, some say three times your body weight, or another rule of thumb is just don't pick one that will give you any trouble if it falls over. No matter which of these rules you pick, few sport bikes are too heavy. But they can easily be too powerful. Don't go over 50 hp if you're a beginning rider, at least not by more than a couple ponies. Learning to ride is a lot harder if you are also learning to control a machine that's twice as fast as anything you have ever driven.

Both Philip and I have sport bikes, so we will be posting reviews of them soon. And later, we're going to get into a couple other categories of bikes. Yes, there is more in the motorcycle world than cruisers and sport bikes.