The 100 bikes to ride before you die, brought to you by the guys at MCN's sister title, Performance Bikes.
It stunned the senses...
In the 1990s the FireBlade was the sportsbike to have. Fast, agile and good-looking, it trumped Yamaha’s underpowered 1996 Thunderace (a quick-fix amalgamation of an FZR1000 engine and a YZF750 frame), and with regular updates had seen off Suzuki’s GSX-R750 and 1100, and Kawasaki’s ZX-6Rs, 7Rs and 9Rs. Then it all changed.
By the first few months of ’98, my longing for the new R1 had even overtaken my lusting for a girlfriend. Here was the sexiest-looking bike the world had ever seen, and the road tests were saying it had performance to match. I was already hooked.
In August ’98 my Thunderace-throttling brother and I went on a holiday to Ireland where we were joined by a few others, including a girl riding a brand new red and white R1. She wouldn’t let me have a go but eventually caved in to my sweet-talking, charm-the-birds-from-the-trees brother. He took it up a quiet B-road and I went after him on my VFR. I caught up when he stopped ashen-faced in a lay-by. ‘I don’t know about that,’ he said. ‘Lets have a go then,’ I begged.
I remember thinking afterwards how the exhaust note was a rather quiet rasp, giving no indication of the bike’s brutal potential. My first ever opening of an R1 throttle resulted in a near full-flip. The power was immense compared to what I was used to and the short first gear meant wheelies took no effort. From this point in history, production bike throttles commanded more respect – you couldn’t just nail them in first any more.
Yamaha had made something gorgeous in every way and I loved it. I was Mick Doohan for 15 minutes. We took it back before we crashed it, but the seed had been planted. Over the last 10 years I’ve owned three. They’re simple to work on and unflawed, requiring just a steering damper on fast bumpy stuff.
Back then, the R1’s brakes were severe, but 10 years and radial-everything later they lack a little power. But everything else is still up there. The way the original R1 goes, the way it handles and how its looks make me feel as I walk towards it make this bike special. And R1s of this vintage accelerate off the bottom-end in a way that has been legislated out of current litre bikes.
I’m still smitten. If you don’t feel involved in what you ride, try one of these – the ferocious carb-fed power delivery makes concentration on lines and grip especially important.
They’re not for the faint-hearted or born-again; they feel purposeful in your hands. And the looks? I’m still drooling.