It’s in front…for now

Published: 01 May 2001

Adam Morrissey: So what sort of challenge is this? Honda GoldWing, the ultimate touring bike, against a Yamaha R1, which until the arrival of Suzuki’s GSX-R1000 was the ultimate sports bike and is not seriously outclassed even now.

At 175kg (385lb) dry, the R1 is a lightweight in anyone’s book, and its agility is combined with a whopping 150bhp output from the 998cc motor. The figures alone run rings around the Wing, which weighs twice as much, has a wheelbase a full foot longer and boasts all the ground clearance of a beached whale. It can’t match the R1 in any test of performance – though it does have a bigger tank, which isn’t a problem given its wardrobe-like aerodynamics.

With a 300-mile loop to complete, I know this isn’t just about sprinting off into the distance, relying on the 170mph-plus the bike is capable of. Police and speed cameras aside, flat-out riding costs petrol and too many stops will seriously damage my overall time. So a steady throttle hand will be needed to make the most of the R1’s slippery aerodynamics and match the car-like fuel load the Wing can carry.

It’s at times like this I wish I’d listened to Mr Dutton, my old physics teacher. I remember loads of stuff about distance travelled, time taken and work done, but I can’t remember if it included fuel stops, pee stops and speed cameras.

A 300-mile journey by R1 isn’t top of most people’s wish lists, at least not when it deliberately includes motorways (yawn), city centres (slow-moving traffic) and the rush-hour (slow-moving traffic on a motorway). But we wanted to see which bike could deal with the real world the best, so these things have to be sampled.

One of the great things about riding any bike is that you don’t have to be going anywhere – it’s enough to be out on the road enjoying yourself. The travelling is an end in itself, not a means to an end. I tried to convince Marc Potter on the Wing that we should go via Oulton Park and include a track day in the test, but sadly he didn’t take the bait. Never mind, there are enough good roads included to keep any sports bike rider happy.

As for the distance itself, I’m not even remotely worried. I know the strings to the Wing’s bow are all-day comfort and great weather protection, but an R1 isn’t that bad either. I was one of the lucky men who rode 3000 miles down to Valencia in MCN’s Spring Supplement. I did that on a Honda SP-1 which, if anything, is more cramped than the R1. To make that trip we averaged a bit over 300 miles a day and, while the weather was good then, even back in England it should be as good three months later in the year. Well, all right, that might be wishful thinking so I’m not taking any chances and I’m going well kitted up.

Essentially it’s the same gear used on the Valencia trip – a one-piece thermal undersuit, full leathers and a waterproof jacket over the top. Add waterproof boots and a lid and you’re almost ready to go. Like most sports bike riders, I prefer to wear proper race-style gloves. They give you good feel which can only help control and they offer all the protection you’re ever going to need – bar one. They don’t tend to be waterproof. So a tank bag with spare winter gloves, a change of visor in case the light gets bad and my mobile phone and wallet are the final pieces in my pre-match preparations. With everything in place and the route map in the clear top of the bag, we line up in the car park and with a growl from the R1 and a sort of muted whoosh from the Wing, we’re away.

This year’s R1 isn’t radically different to what we’ve seen before of the bike. From 2000 to 2001 the biggest alterations are colours so it’s easy to feel at home straight away. Not as at home as Potter looks on the Wing, though. He’s sat in a big armchair with a wide-screen telly in front of him. Or is that the windscreen? I settle down to follow him for a bit since we’re going straight on to the A1 for a short burst to take us on to a more interesting road. It’s an entertaining view.

The tail lights are huge and well spaced either side of the monster top box – it really does feel like you’re behind a car. Except this car scrapes its footpegs – sorry footboards – as we loop around the lead on to the A1. This is where I could make an instant break, but it’s early days yet and there’s no point in wasting gas. So we just ride at a brisk pace which the Wing can clearly hold as well as the R1. Then we turn off, on to the A606, which will take us all the way to Nottingham. And the fun begins. Well, for me it does. Not sure about the wallowing Wing.

The road is a classic twisting, undulating ribbon of Tarmac that is perfect for an R1. The corners are long and fast for the most part, though there are some more " point and squirt " sections. I’m off on my own, with a queue of traffic and a set of double white line bends between the R1 and the Wing. So imagine my surprise when a big burgundy bus pulls alongside me at roadwork traffic lights. Potter grins and pulls away first as I stare in disbelief. It’s going to be harder to shake this bus off than I thought. I get back in front on the twisties and work the throttle a bit to create the gap I need over the Wing.

MARC POTTER: Nothing looks more ridiculous than the new GoldWing lording it over the minuscule R1. Its top box alone is as big as the R1’s engine and the thing looks as if it’s twice as long. But can the Wing beat an R1, not down a drag strip or around a track, but on a big ride?

The closer we get to actually doing it the more doubt started setting in. I made sure to baggsy the Wing when it got here, at first convinced I stood a chance. But why choose the Wing for what was essentially a race – leave at the same time, take in the 300-mile route and the first person back wins? Because they’re genuinely quick bikes and this new 1800cc version (up from 1500cc) should be even quicker. Also, this is an endurance race, not just a quick blast 50 miles away.

We don’t have many rules, apart from: Don’t break 30s and 40s, and we both have to stop to make notes on how we were feeling on the hour, every hour. How long those notes took depended how fast your wrist could move pen to paper, so to speak.

The Wing is the answer. Definitely, absolutely. I keep trying to convince myself, though smug git Morrissey reckons he’s on to a winner.

I’ve done a bit of racing in my time and the racer is still in me, so it’s hard to opt for the old man’s bike – all 363kg (799lb) of it. And that’s when it’s dry, let alone when it’s fully-fuelled and got my steadily-increasing weight on board. But this is a race over distance in a variety of scenarios. I can forgo the R1’s power and handling for long-term comfort and a bigger fuel range, which is where I’m going to make all my time. I’m ready to sit back, tune in and feel the girth while Adam perches himself on top of the R1 and winces as the fuel light comes on time after time.

My gran could sit on the generously padded seat all day and the laid-back riding position wouldn’t hurt her back, either. She’d probably need a comfort stop before the bike has drunk its 25-litre (5.5-gallon) fuel capacity, though, but I won’t – I’ll keep going long after Morrissey has used up the R1’s measly fuel supply.

The R1’s main advantage is top speed. It’s geared to do a touch over 170mph, so it’s hardly taxing itself at motorway speeds. But then we’re not just on motorways. The route from Peterborough up across to Melton Mowbray, taking in Buxton, the Cat and Fiddle run, Macclesfield, back to Derby and down the M1 and A14 back to Peterborough should give both bikes their chance to shine. Only time will tell if the burgundy and chrome showpiece will break the winner’s tape first.

We’re fuelled up and kitted up, me in standard issue GoldWing Gore-Tex ride-through-anything two-piece, Morrissey in race leathers and a jacket over the top. He’ll be suffering at the roadside later, especially given the amount of coffee he’s been drinking in preparation.

Other things that will make the difference? My weak will when it comes to cigarette breaks and my self-control – or lack of it – with the throttle. I know from the old Wing I took on a weekend trip to Paris a few years back that getting happy with the throttle means those six cylinders can cause a world oil crisis.

The radio’s tuned in and we’re ready to go. I lead the procession and get an early shock when the ground clearance runs out at the first roundabout. I’d forgotten how low these things were. I pull over, engage neutral and use the first of my gadgets. The electronic pre-load adjuster whirrs and I set it at one of my two suspension memories. Push a button and instantly more ground clearance. Bingo.

We head out in the early-morning traffic on to the A1 north and I half expect Morrissey to show me his horsepower and try to get an early lead. I know I would if the roles were reversed. I want him to, because it would fit the tortoise-and-hare scenario I’m banking on, but he sits behind me seemingly getting an aerodynamic tow from the Wing. I’m pushing the air apart and he’s in a bubble of still air and saving fuel.

At the risk of crashing, I try to find which one of the Wing’s 40-odd buttons is responsible for the cruise control and I eventually set it to 90mph. After a few miles I turn off on to the A606 and the road starts to get interesting. " Go on, go past me now, show me what you’re made of, " I silently goad Morrissey.

But he doesn’t. He just sits there as I lumber around corners trying to preserve the shiny new footrests as much as possible. The Wing doesn’t really handle, but it does do corners if you show it you’re in charge and take the perfect line and entry speed. If you get into a corner too fast you have to try to save it on the brakes and hope for the best. But it’s a definite improvement on the old bike.

Finally, as we approach the best bit of this road he goes past with a sporting nod, gets a clear run past the cars in front and clears off. I wince my way round the bends and forceably try to overtake when I’m sure I can get past while staying in overdrive – otherwise known as plain top gear. I figure that just gently winding on the throttle to overtake will save me valuable litres later on. 4000rpm through the gears should do it and that’s where it makes its peak torque. Fast enough to win, yet not too many revs to risk wasting fuel.

We head through Melton Mowbray, where they make the pork pies, then onwards to Nottingham. After a bit of luck with traffic lights, I find myself behind him. But with Nottingham comes rush-hour traffic. R1 riders can cut the traffic, GoldWing riders sit there and slowly fry in their winter garb, unable to get any wind on to my body to cool down. Still, it could be worse. I could be on an R1 rapidly losing circulation in my limbs.

MORRISSEY: After an hour in the saddle we’re looping round Nottingham. That’s " we " as in the R1 and me. There’s a lot of traffic, but as far back as I can see the Wing isn’t part of the scenery and I haven’t seen Potter since he suddenly materialised behind me in a traffic queue half-an-hour earlier. Part of our agreement is to stop each hour to make notes and I duly pull over. I’m halfway done when a cheating Wing goes by. Hey! You have to stop! And to be fair he does. I wave as I go past, into ever-worsening traffic hell.

The R1 is slim and nimble so I know I’m building up an ever bigger lead. I’ve never said this before, but bring on more traffic! The M1 just does me favours with three lanes of backed-up, nearly static tin boxes. By the time I turn off to head towards Chesterfield I know the lead is building into something unassailable.

The end of the second hour can’t come soon enough. The need for the loo has become urgent and the bike needs gas almost as badly. The motorway riding was good for fuel economy, but sprinting between corners on the A-roads has taken a toll and swinging the bike from side to side reveals only the quietest of splashes in the tank.

I have to slow down to conserve fuel, which is a shame because it’s interfering with enjoying some fantastic roads. The R1 is totally at home, though neither it nor I have ever been here before. " Here " is the Peak District National Park and the roads are well-surfaced, dry and interesting. It’s mainly tight stuff and I’m squirting from second and third-gear exits to fourth and back down again. I know this isn’t fuel-efficient riding, but what the hell is the point of riding an R1 bolt-upright and enjoying the scenery? If you wanted to do that you’d… well, you’d ride a Wing.

I’m still breaking the limit, though, and as my eyes scan for a petrol station I spot a speed trap thanks to the officer kneeling next to the car he has just pulled over. Thank God for that. And then I spot heaven. It has a flushing toilet, food and petrol. This is going to be a lengthy stop.

POTTER: He’s there. Yes, he’s in a petrol station already. Where’s the horn? That’s it, a couple of klaxons just to let him know I’ve got him. But within minutes he’s back alongside again and shouting about a compulsory note-taking stop. Oh,all right then, I’ll stop.

In a quick stop that would be the envy of the GoldWing endurance team, should it exist, the ABS is deciding if it should cut in or not, the sidestand’s down and the top box is open. A few words scribbled down, slam the boot and get back on. I pull behind him at a set of traffic lights. But as I head out of the battle of the Titans (me versus trucks) towards the M1 he’s through the traffic and nowhere to be seen.

Scarily, the fuel gauge is already on half. I just hope it’s one of those that likes to improvise on the top half and be more realistic on the bottom half.

With Nottingham broken, I’m confident about being able to sit at a higher cruising speed than the R1, but the traffic’s busy, so my dreams are shattered. So I crank up the tunes and decide to tune in the presets on the RDS radio for something for every mood.

At junction 29 we whip off to Chesterfield. So far my sieve of a brain has remembered the directions, but now I’m confused. And I’ve locked my directions away in the right-hand glovebox, which means I ride past Chesterfield’s twisted steeple in the wrong direction. I turn back, pull over and unlock the glovebox and find the way I’m going. Valuable minutes and miles have been lost, but at least I’m on the right track. But it doesn’t matter because as soon as I’m out of Chesterfield the road turns into a ripper. It’s not exactly GoldWing territory, but it is inspiring. It whips across the moors with peat fields to the left and right and it’s dry. It’s a while since I’ve been up this way and I’ve forgotten just how great it is to ride. You have to learn to make fast progress rather than attack the road like I’m sure Morrissey is at this point, if I knew where he was.

At a roundabout, for some reason I think Macclesfield is towards Manchester, so I head that way. But at Chapel-en-le-Frith I realise I’ve taken the wrong turn again so I carefully attempt a U-turn, push the button for reverse, engage first again and take my anger out on the Wing, the rev limiter answering for my mistake.

Back on track again it starts to rain a few miles before Buxton, but even though I’ve got summer gloves on I’m not getting wet, I can still hear the radio and I’m still boiling up in too much kit. The only problem is that I can’t see properly through the screen. A £16,000 motorcycle should have an electric screen or a windscreen wiper so you can actually see through it. But then I guess that would really be a car.

MORRISSEY: Only when I get out of the seat do I realise how tired I’m getting. It’s 110 miles into the trip so I’ve only done a third of my way and my arse is getting square. I thought I’d escaped it with the twisty roads and lots of hanging off, but the firm suspension and seat still take a toll. The suspension also has another effect which I’m beginning to think won’t be getting to Potter on the softly-sprung Wing. It increases the need to pee. Every bump, every pothole sends shockwaves directly to your bladder, especially when you’re hunched almost double trying to maximise your aerodynamics.

First things first, and I answer the call of nature at a caff, all the time keeping an ear open for the familiar sound of the Wing. Part of me says he can’t make this gap up too quickly. Part of me fears he just might. But the twisty roads and his lack of ground clearance must have held him back. I take the time for a pie and drink while the R1 gets finest unleaded and still no Wing. It’s been 15 minutes and while he will have had to make notes, too, he probably hasn’t stopped this long. Time to press on. A few stretches make the aching bits feel better and I climb back on.

As soon as my bum hits the seat I know it’s going to be a long journey home, but with the Cat & Fiddle pass immediately ahead the discomfort disappears and the adrenalin kicks in. The first part of the road is in an appalling state – rough enough to make you wonder why the police have to bother targeting it. No-one in their right mind would speed here.

But after the Cat & Fiddle Inn it gets a lot better. The problem is, it’s raining and the road doesn’t seem to be very grippy in the wet. It’s still good fun, but the tyres are barely worn in – they were brand new when we left – and every downchange into a corner has the back end threatening to come round on me. This is one of the problems with riding an R1 – you feel you have to " give it some " all the time. I catch up with a guy on a Fazer 600 and though sitting behind would probably have been the sensible option, I feel like I have to overtake even though he’s probably a local and knows the road. Luckily he doesn’t want to make a fight of it and the R1 is off and clear.

If you’ve been to the Isle of Man, this road will take you back there – it could easily be somewhere on the Mountain. And it’s just as exposed. I don’t know what the temperature has dropped to, but it’s cold enough to make me glad I brought extra gloves. The R1 fairing leaves your hands out in the breeze and though I don’t want to stop before I have to, I’m beginning to make this into a bigger and bigger excuse in my mind. As well as cold pinkies, there are dark clouds which combine with the overhanging trees on long stretches of the road after Macclesfield to make me want to slip on a clear visor.

POTTER: The rain starts to clear as I leave Buxton and head out on to the Cat & Fiddle. An old GSX-R750 is dawdling along the first part, which is lined with potholes. I give him a shock by overtaking and as I round a tight left there’s a copper a mile away with a tripod. But somehow on the Wing you feel almost copper-like and licensed to speed. But I’m not that brave so I roll off and smile politely with my visor up.

As the surface gets better it’s Wing vs bus as I pluck up courage to squirt around the outside before the next switchback. It’s damp in places, which sometimes makes it a case of grimace and hope. With the bus dealt with, the road opens out and the Cat & Fiddle pub goes past. I’m tempted to pop in for a quick one, but I’m in endurance race mode and must catch him.

Just after Macclesfield the fuel light comes on, but I want to get every last mile out of this tank on the off-chance I’ve passed him but not seen him. Eventually, though, I have to fill up and make the compulsory notes.

The road out of Macclesfield towards Leek is a 50mph limit for mile after mile and it’s full of cameras. Easy does it. It’s a shame because at full chat the road would be a belter, but at this point I haven’t seen the Yamaha since Nottingham a good three hours ago and my licence is more important than catching the R1.

Plus, when you don’t have to focus on going a bit quicker than Wings are designed to, they’re a nice place to spend some time. There are so many gadgets it’s easy to forget you’re on a high-speed, two-wheeled missile.

MORRISSEY: The deciding factor a lot of the time is the cold – because it brings on the need to pee yet again. When you’re warm you sweat, so your bladder doesn’t fill so fast. In the cold the opposite happens and I’m paying for that, even with all the layers I’ve got on. Finally, just into the town of Waterhouses, I find the place I need – a big car park with toilet facilities. The relief is tremendous, especially as I’ve managed to time it just right again with the hourly note-taking session. I’m a bit over halfway through the total journey and I really want to be off the bike for a while. Gloves and lid are off and I take a walk around the car park to stretch my legs. The notes are put down full length rather than the shorthand I was using to save time earlier. While I’m walking around, a burgundy Wing goes cruising by, music blaring. I can’t believe it’s him, but I know the crash helmet is his. He doesn’t seem to have seen me, though.

Though I don’t want to be beaten, getting kitted back up takes a good few minutes and the long comfort stretch is making it tougher to get back in the saddle. I add a thin balaclava under the lid to combat the cold. It feels like five minutes have passed before I’m finally back on the A52 to hunt Potter down.

What makes it harder is the number of Gatsos on the road, though there surely aren’t as many as there are warning signs – it looks like they’re trying to use up the European sign mountain on this one road.

I’m so intent on following the signs towards Ashbourne I actually drive into the place when I should be by-passing it altogether. Then Derby comes and goes and it’s dual-carriageway and motorway. This time there’s no traffic, so unless I’m going to indulge in some blatant speeding I won’t make any ground on the Wing – it is, after all capable of 130mph itself.

Long stretches of M1 still don’t bring it into view. Meanwhile, enough miles have gone under the R1’s tyres to make another fuel stop necessary.

POTTER: The A52 turns in to a fast dual-carriageway and I finally throw in the towel at about 200 miles. A cigarette is needed. I pitch up and get my smokes out and park in the exit road of a service station. About halfway through working out that no, I definitely don’t have any aches or pains, I hear the hissing wind of a bike. A red R1 with a distinctive helmet flies past in the outside lane but doesn’t acknowledge me. He hasn’t seen me. I’m gobsmacked, as I thought he was in front. Later it turns out I’d overtaken him while he was filling up a fair way back. I chuck my lid on and do it up as I pull on to the dual-carriageway. But I can’t use too much petrol so I stick to a slightly illegal speed, not to be disclosed.

The empty dual-carriageway means I’m on the M1 in minutes. I roll off and set the cruise control to 80mph.

MORRISSEY: At Leicester Forest East the petrol station is well back, but you can see the road. And I spy a new-style Wing go by. Not near enough to know for sure, but there aren’t many on the road yet… Somewhere I must have overtaken him, which is annoying as I thought I’d been playing catch-up for miles. Now there’s only motorway and open A-roads back to the office and I can’t see a safe way of making ground.

POTTER: Just past Leicester Forest East it’s note-taking time and I pull in past the petrol station for a fast exit. There, with his lid off, is Morrissey. Ha, he’s filling up. I ride past, park up, do the notepad thing and get back on the road. I can do this now.

I engage cruise and hoon down the motorway, discovering you can’t set the cruise control past 100mph. The feeling of elation is awesome – there’s no way he can catch me now! Yet if he was up for it I’d go and do it all again. I feel totally fresh, comfortable and dry and I smell victory.

The M1 south becomes the A14 and the A605 to Peterborough. The fuel gauge is on its way to the red. But the only way he could get me now is by doing 170mph down the A14.

I can’t get through the heavy traffic as well as a " normal " bike, but I have a good go. The finish is in sight.

MORRISSEY: Sure enough, back in Peterborough the Wing is already in the car park and Potter is finishing a cigarette. Hanging my head in shame I utter: " How long? " A minute or a day, it doesn’t matter to me. But he’s grinning as he replies: " Ages, mate! "

POTTER: That’s it. The Wing wins conclusively. I’m now strangely attracted to the Wing and what it does best. I spark up a celebratory smoke as the cooling bike tinks. Just as I finish, the R1 pulls in and I take a bow. I can see Morrissey scowling behind his visor. Ten minutes over a five-and-a-half hour ride is enough to prove that, yes, the Wing is able to beat an R1 A-to-B, at least over a reasonable distance. And if you went farther, it could do it by even more. They’re both great bikes, but the Wing? It’s a bike and a half.