No matter where you are in your riding career, you want more, right? More speed, more skill, more safety and more riding. If you’re into going fast, this article is for you; consider it your guide to getting more out of motorcycling. It’s the sportbike progression.
Riding a motorcycle is a sport. Yeah, you can sorta opt out of it and just cruise around, but because this is not simply a means of transportation but rather a passion, people who participate in it want to get better and use that increased skill to do better things. It might not be a reasonable goal to think you’re working on becoming the next Marc Marquez, but with time and patience, anyone can develop the skills to fully exploit even the fastest bike currently on-sale, the Ducati 1199 Panigale.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on sport riding. Don’t worry, we think dirt bikes and supermotos are awesome too, we’re just addressing one particular aspect of motorcycle riding here: sportbikes.
And, because this is a sport, you’ll need to apply the same process of learning as you would in any other skill. Malcom Smith didn’t walk onto the field for the first time last night and get lucky, he invested a lifetime in learning how to play that good. Riding fast isn’t about what bike you’re able to buy; it’s about how well you ride it. And when it comes to the fastest bikes, learning how to ride them well will take a lifetime. This article will show you how to invest that time wisely.
To play a sport, you need the right equipment. In the case of motorcycles, that’s riding gear. Consider it as fundamental a part of motorcycling as the motorcycle itself and budget accordingly.
To play a sport, you also need to take lessons. There’s a ton of tuition available, starting relatively cheap and going on up to obscenely expensive. Use it, it works. When you find a school you like, go back and go back often.
Riding fast on the road is dangerous. You can do it and you can do it safely, but it takes some unique skills. And you’ll never learn to ride properly if you’re not taking it to the track, don’t fool yourself.
Consider a bike a tool. One which you use to learn stuff on. And, like any tool, there’s a right one for any job, and a wrong one. Start too big and you won’t learn anything, you’ll just scare yourself. As motorcycles go up in performance, the envelope in which they work becomes narrower. Where something like a Kawasaki Ninja 650 is exploitable and useable and at home in environments ranging from city commuting to light track riding, that Panigale only works on a mountain road mostly composed of 3rd and 4th gear corners at temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees, in the dry. Or on a track. And only in the hands of a skilled rider. Use it for anything else and it will just try to throw you off.
Think of a simple 1-10 scale, with 1 being a straight road in the middle of nowhere and no traffic and 10 being a good track on a good day. A good mountain road on an ideal day would be around number 7 or 8. That Ninja 650 will be an ideal tool for the job from numbers 1 to 7. The Panigale only works at 11. No learning occurs at 11, only do or die.
But, bikes are cheap, so it’s relatively easy to just decide you want to do this and put whichever bike is king at this moment on your credit card. Doing so is a mistake. This isn’t a pastime you can buy into, it’s something you have to learn to do. That’s where this progression figures in. Identify where you are in it and what your next step should be, with the ultimate goal of actually deserving and being able to ride that ultimate motorcycle.
Brand new? You need to start small. This isn’t condescending or inappropriate for you because you consider yourself more of a man than everyone else, it’s the first step in learning to ride.
The best way to fast forward your riding skills to “competent” is to buy a cheap beater and learn to flog the life out of it. Whether that’s in a field or around the back roads near your house, it’s how you’ll take all that funny clutch and countersteering stuff from confusion to confident ease. Go get your learner’s permit, take the MSF course, walk away with your license, then buy something small (250cc-ish, less than 400 lbs), with all its paperwork, in running condition, off Cragslist for a grand or less. If you’re embarrassed of it, just hide it in the back of your garage and take it out early on weekend mornings when no one’s going to see you.
We could simply recommend that you buy a new, small bike. And doing so isn’t a bad option. You’ll get something shiny, something reliable and something with low monthly payments and with only a little cash down. But, as a brand new rider, you’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to drop the bike, you’re going to crash it and you’re going to neglect essential maintenance. And, you need to learn a little more about bikes than just riding. A crappy old bike will break down, it will have problems. You will learn how to fix them. Bikes are not complicated machines, you will buy some maintenance books, learn how to find instructions on the Internet, acquire a few specialty tools and, in doing so, you’ll develop a more complete knowledge of how a motorcycle works. That knowledge will inform better riding.
You’ve put in your miles on something small, learned the basics of motorcycle maintenance and you’re ready for a little more. You’d like to expand your riding out of your neighborhood and maybe start commuting, going on day trips or just be able to tag along with your buddies when they go riding on Sundays.
Our current favorite bikes for neophyte riders are Honda’s range of affordable 500s. The CB500F starts at just $5,500, but budding sport riders may want to consider the $6,000 CBR500R. It’s exactly the same bike as the CB, just with a really nice-looking fairing and clip-on handlebars that are a little lower and a little further forward. That change puts you in a more sport-oriented riding position, setting you up perfectly to start learning sport riding techniques.
If you’re shopping for an older, used bike, then the Suzuki SV650 is the ubiquitously recommended one to go for. It’s a little faster than the 500s, but that performance remains accessible and non-intimidating. Again, look for the faired “S” model for its slightly more sport-oriented riding position. With it, you’ll be better able to work towards sport body position.
Whatever you get, ride it as much as possible. Take it to work instead of the car. Ride to the grocery store. Take the fun way home. Plan an epic summer road trip. Do your first track day. And, as you gain those experiences, learn what does and doesn’t work for you. Maybe you want a little sharper brakes, in which case you can fit braided lines and EBC HH pads. Maybe you want better acceleration, so you fit a smaller front sprocket. Maybe you want more ground clearance and fit rearsets. Maybe you want firmer suspension and replace the fork internals. Whatever it is you do, learn a little more every time you do it.
The First Big Bike
Gotten to the point where you can flog that CBR500R absolutely as fast as it will go? Are you dragging knee and peg and hitting the rev limiter in every gear? Is the limitation on group rides really the bike and not you? Be honest with yourself and move up only when you’re truly ready. Again, the goal here is to advance your skill level as quickly and effectively as possible, not to impress your friends with how much bike your credit card can take.
Next up, you’re going to want something with more power and more handling, but you still want something with a wide performance envelope, not something that’s going to try and spit you off when you make mistakes.
We’d suggest looking at a mid-capacity sport naked. Something like the Yamaha FZ-09 and Triumph Street Triple. These are bikes that can do absolutely anything and do it very fast, but remain practical for all-round duties like commuting because their relatively upright riding positions are comfortable.
Used, the Street Triple in any of its iterations makes an excellent buy. Other, similar bikes do too. Don’t be tempted by a larger motor at this point, it will only get in the way of your riding progress.
Because they’re “slower” (once you’ve reached this point, speed is 100% a function of skill), speed-related components like the brakes are free to be a little less specific than they are on the next tier, supersport 600s. Less ultimate stopping power is made up for by more user friendliness. The same applies to power delivery, ergonomics and all that stuff too. More capability on paper is not more capability in the real world if your skill level is not yet at a place to take advantage of it and, again, a wider performance envelope is, by definition, better more of the time.
This is actually a good point in your riding to be at. Spend some time here, again taking in a variety of challenges and modifying your bike to expand its and your capability and you’ll end up being faster than the vast majority of motorcycle riders.
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The Fast Guy
Are you honestly getting every last iota of performance out of that Street Triple? Have you been on track several times, completed at least one advanced riding school and are you keeping up with all the fast guys on group rides? Are you ready to go even faster? Then it’s time to step up to a supersport 600.
R6, GSX-R, CBR, ZX-6R, Daytona; it doesn’t matter, they’re all pretty much the same. Go sit on a bunch at a bike show and buy the one that fits you best, comes with the finance deals that suit your budget or is painted in your favorite variety of tribal fairy dragon. Because worldwide sportbike sales are in the toilet right now, development in this class has come to a halt. The R6 you buy new today is mechanically identical to every other one made since 2006, so buying used can be a smart decision, saving you a ton of money and probably netting you upgrades like frame sliders and a tall screen too.
These are the sharpest handling motorcycles on the market. Versus larger capacity machines, they come with nice, narrow rear tires that speed steering, short wheelbases and sharp geometry. Plus, they’re just incredibly, mind alteringly fast. Like supercar fast and you can pick one up on eBay for $4,000.
This is where you’re going to take your solid basis in riding skill and hone it into something razor sharp. You should already know and be using advanced skills like trail braking at this point; a supersport 600 is designed to work best when ridden very hard. That means that, at this point, the performance envelope is now going to grow very narrow. You can still use a 600 to commute or run errands, but it’s no longer an ideal tool for that and it will start getting in the way of mundane tasks. Very sharp brakes are just the thing for repeated high-speed braking on a track, but they cause you to come off if you apply them without care. Short, sharp chassis also tend towards instability, meaning you need to take care over changing surfaces and, combined with big horsepower, become wary of the throttle.
Upgrades like Stomp Grip, altered ergonomics, tall windscreens and upgraded suspension work best and you likely should get braided brake lines on the bike ASAP. Loud exhausts are for posers; you’ll get more performance by changing the sprocket sizes than you will with any basic motor tune.
Let’s be honest, most riders never get to the point where they’re as fast as a 600. If you want to get there and beyond, you need to start investing real time and effort. Track days, track schools and even club racing should be considered necessary steps along the way.
My First Superbike
Ready for more power? Realize that it comes at a cost: to your finances, your handling and otherwise.
We’d recommend starting in the world of big power by jumping on a second-tier superbike. Something like a Ducati 899 Panigale is imminently more exploitable than its 1,200cc big brother, while still delivering huge horsepower thrills. Of the Japanese bikes, we’d go for a 2012 or newer Honda CBR1000RR. Its 180 bhp is delivered in a friendly manner and its suspension quality delivers better feel and control than anything this side of the Panigale S.
Used, we’d look at standout superbikes from the last decade like the 2005-06 Suzuki GSX-R1000, the current model GSX-R750 or the old, V-twin Aprilia RSV1000R or Factory.
Any of those choices places the emphasis on making its vast performance accessible, while still managing an outright pace that would have made GP bikes blush just 10 or 15 years ago.
Don’t worry if you don’t find your lap times or pace to be beyond where you were on the 600. If you’re riding that fast while successfully managing the power, then you’re doing well. Instruction on your bike, on the track is now the best way for you to address specific issues in your riding and take the whole package to the next level.
The Big Boys
You’ve put in enough miles on an entry-level superbike to match its MSRP in tire costs and man, that marketing really is effective. Sure you want more than 190 bhp? Well, here you go.
The fastest bike out right now is the Ducati 1199 Panigale R. It costs $30,000 and, unless you’re racing it, you’ll do just as well with the $24,995 Panigale S. Same suspension, just without the adjustable swingarm pivot and some fancy motor internals. Alternatives would be the BMW S1000RR or HP4 or, if you want to go Italian while being a little less obvious, the Aprilia RSV4 R or Factory.
Combined with the big horsepower, what you need to control it is suspension, tires and electronics. It’s the suspension quality that separates the RSV4 R and Factory, Panigale and Panigale S and S1000RR and HP4. If you buy one of the models without the good stuff, be prepared to upgrade. Doing so can, in some cases, actually be cheaper than simply buying the more expensive model, but typically comes without some whizz bang techno feature like variable-length intakes or semi-active suspension. You don’t actually need that stuff unless, again, you’re a racer who knows what they do and really feels they’re necessary to whatever it is they’re building.
Now that you’re an expert rider, you’ll be able to do much more with these bikes than just scare yourself with them on Sundays. That also means you can take advantage of the used market, in which less smart riders do exactly that, then sell the bikes before they even reach their first service. Shopping for those deals (particularly for models a generation behind in feature iteration) is a good way to save a few grand, which can then be used to fund track days and tires.
If you’ve genuinely reached this level of riding and are really using one of these bikes, then you’re likely doing so mostly on the track. Going track-only with the bike is a good way to save yourself some money by eliminating the insurance cost and removing some of the more easily-damaged, but expensive-to-replace components like the fairing and exhaust and replacing them with track-specific items. Make no mistake though, at this point this is an exceptionally expensive hobby, you’d be better off burning fist fulls of hundred dollar bills. Many “normal” people are able to operate at this level, but in so-doing they commit to a motorcycle-centric life; all their money goes here.
The Seasoned Expert
Sick of burning through a set of tires a month on a bike with more capability than you’re able to access on the road? Or, scared yourself a little with the chances you’ve been taking and really need to make sure you’re around to see little Johnny and Susie grow up? After moving all the way up to a seriously fast superbike, many skilled riders find themselves actually wanting a little less. That’s not to say they can’t ride with the best, simply that they find the enjoyment in motorcycling is not necessarily defined by horsepower.
If you see an old guy passing you in ancient leathers aboard an Aprilia RS250 or immaculate ‘80s superbike, that’s a guy who’s been at the highest level of riding and decided to back off a little bit.
Buying new, the best bike for the seasoned expert is going to be the Triumph Daytona 675R. On it, a jewel-like three-cylinder motor is matched by the nicest suspension fitted to any stock motorcycle. It’s fast enough to satisfy anyone, but makes itself uniquely desirable through its handling, which is probably the best of any motorcycle currently on sale. Other good choices will likely be the upcoming Honda CBR1000RR SP or even the KTM RC390.
All three of those bikes attempt to do away with the things that limit motorcycle performance, while giving you the greatest possible tools to facilitate fast riding through sharp chassis and suspension that delivers extraordinary feel and control. But none of the three attempts to maximize power simply to win a bench race. They could have been purpose-made for riders that have been there, done that and want something…less. One day, you might too.
Where Are You?
This progression has been purpose-made to advance your riding skills and give you a lifetime of riding enjoyment, on sportbikes. If you’re not starting from scratch how do you find which tier you’re at, push reset on your riding career and start riding faster? Well, be honest with yourself. For most riders I see, it’s going to be The Neophyte level. Ask yourself if you could really get the absolute most out of a CBR500R. Could you use one to pass slower riders on faster bikes? Can you drag peg and knee in confidence? Do you know how not to drag either? If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” then going back to that level and re-pursuing riding for the purposes of skill is the best way to make yourself a faster rider.
Most other people would actually be most satisfied with that last category of bikes; they work across varied skill levels thanks to their general amazingness. Getting better on one of those will, like all the other categories just be a function of trying to. Do track days, read the books, maybe enter an affordable racing class like 650 twins.
Alternatively, consider a different discipline of riding. Dirt bikes, supermotos et al involve lower speeds, but closer-to-the-limits riding and will, by virtue of all the sliding, make you a better rider on anything.
What level are you at and where would you like to be?