Time for a change of scenery

Published: 13 October 2000

MOST of us go touring in summer. But if there’s one time when you should really try something different on your bike, it’s autumn.

This is the time of year when heavy-duty gloves come out of the closet, our weekend blasts are cut short by the early onset of darkness and the sprinkling of frost glistening on the Tarmac in the crisp, early-morning sunshine makes that occasional ride to work a little bit more, er, interesting.

It doesn’t stop us riding, but you can’t help thinking there are better places to be on two wheels than Britain.

However, there is a place not far away with amazing roads, exotic cultures, fairytale scenery – and weather that is usually a bit rosier. It’s called Europe, and it’s just a day’s ride away.

And what better way to get there than on three of the best high-speed tourers the Japanese have ever devised? 180mph in a straight line? No problem. Space for luggage? You’ve got bungee hooks aplenty. Comfort? They’re big and spacious. Fuel capacity? With 20-litre-plus tanks, they should give us a reasonable range.

The bikes are Honda’s Super Blackbird, Suzuki’s Hayabusa and Kawasaki’s ZX-12R. They needed more than a quick trip to Calais, so where could we take them? The Algarve? Nice? Rimini? There was only one honourable way to decide, and that was to close our eyes and stab randomly at a map. So, Switzerland, then. One of the few places in Europe where it’s actually guaranteed to be colder than it is here. Hmm…

But as visions of sun-drenched cruises along the Corniche faded, we started to get excited by the prospect of roads as black as you like snaking through spectacular, snow-capped mountain ranges, cows with bells swinging merrily from their necks, and Alpine maidens with unfeasibly large… pigtails. So, Switzerland it was. For the weekend. Were we mad? Quite possibly.

But before we went anywhere, we had to sort out the logistics. Bikes making this much power eat tyres for breakfast – whether it’s continental or full English – so the machines were sent to RGS Motorsport to have fresh Bridgestone BT010s fitted. They’re recommended for all the bikes here and came top in MCN’s mammoth sports tyre test. Strangely, the front tyres all have different tread patterns depending on what bike they’re fitted to, but they all do the job brilliantly.

After that it was a question of getting some suitable luggage. Even on a whistle-stop, three-day tour we still needed space for waterproofs and a change of clothes, so we kitted each of the bikes out with an Oxford Ultra Sports tankbag and matching tail pack.

All the bikes also got AA Five Star Eurocover, arranged with a single phone call for £29 each. It’s the best way of getting peace of mind on any foreign trip – though we hoped we wouldn’t have to use it.

And last – but certainly not least – we needed some way of getting across the Channel. The Chunnel’s no fun, so we booked a ferry with P&O from Dover to Calais, using the 30 per cent discount available to all MCN readers.

Getting up before many people have gone to bed might not be your idea of fun, but as I met my fellow riders, Dave Hill, Kev Smith and photographer Mark Manning, at the MCN offices for a 4am

get-off, we were all buzzing – and that was before we’d downed a couple of wake-up coffees as thick as Thames sludge.

There’s nothing like strapping luggage on to a bike to really give you a sense of embarking on an adventure. If you’re on two wheels, it’s just you, your bike and whatever you can carry with you.

I opted for the Hayabusa to begin with, but we decided to swop over at most fuel stops.

The Hayabusa’s seat is low, so even with my unfeasibly short inside leg measurement I could get both feet firmly on terra firma. With its low, but wide, screen and slightly sloped clip-on style handlebars, it has the stance and riding position of a quarter-mile dragster. And boy, were we going to suffer for that later.

I pressed the button and the Suzuki’s carbon-effect dash lit up like Blackpool pier, while the rev counter and speedo needles swept briefly across the dials in silent welcome.

My travelling companions started their engines too, and 470bhp of combined power reverberated through the damp night air, the exhausts emitting curling plumes of vapour.

And then, after final checks for passport, tickets and money, we were finally on the road, headlights stabbing the morning gloom. Getting ready had taken us longer than expected and it was 6am before we finally got moving. The normal working world was just getting up while we swept through the night towards Dover – and it felt good. Even the spattering of rain on our visors and the spray from our fellow riders’ wheels wasn’t enough to dampen our enthusiasm.

Travelling down the M11 from Kettering, it wasn’t long before we were surrounded by bleary-eyed commuters, so we were forced to get a squirt on to make our 8.15am sailing. Everything was going swimmingly until we somehow manage to sail past the junction for the M25 and were forced to make a detour through the camera-strewn roads of north London. And we hadn’t even left the country yet.

That wasn’t the only shock. When I glanced at the Hayabusa’s fuel gauge, I had to do a double-take before registering that its needle was yelling " feed me now " in no uncertain terms. The Kwak was also running on fumes, and the Blackbird wasn’t far behind it. We thought the big bikes might be thirsty, but with barely 150 miles showing, it was obvious we would be seeing a lot more petrol stations on our journey to the Swiss Alps.

We missed the ferry, of course, so we had to wait half-an-hour for the next one. We spent the time studying the map. We would have to have our needles against the stop if we were going to make our planned lay-up in Lausanne by nightfall.

After putting our feet up for an hour during the short crossing to France, the unlovely town of Calais hove into view and we wasted no time getting as far away from it as possible. But we now had the added worry of rather nasty weather, which was going to plague us over the next three days. We decided on the fastest, most direct route, so it was straight on to the toll roads. Luckily for us, they were almost deserted and, with triple figures showing on our speedos, we blasted through the murky rain towards Reims.

By the time the second fuel stop came along, I had fallen out with the Hayabusa. It felt like someone was sticking a knife blade between my shoulder blades, and my legs were cramped up like a jockey’s. Not only that, but at 100mph, the low screen blasted a steady stream of cold air up inside my helmet. It’s fair to say I wasn’t happy.

So I was more than glad to clamber off the Busa and swop steeds. You want a tip for touring on the Hayabusa? Unless you want neck muscles like a bodybuilder, invest in a raised screen.

With the bikes topped up, I found myself on the

ZX-12R and it immediately felt right. The seat is as low as the Hayabusa’s, but with its higher clip-on-style handlebars and relatively upright riding position, it feels more like a tourer, while a higher screen offers far better wind protection.

I fired it up and acclimatised myself again with the cockpit. Its large speedo and rev counter stare you in the face, and there’s a neat LED display with a segmented fuel and engine temperature gauge, plus a small digital clock and trip meter – essential when you’re counting down the miles to the next stop on a trip like this.

The ZX-12R’s pointy-backed mirrors look odd, but unlike the Honda they actually let you see past your elbows. The only thing spoiling your view when you’re aboard the Kwak is the untidy,

wire-strewn area between the dash and the fairing brackets.

With the bike’s huge, polished titanium end can burbling softly, I took my place in line behind the Hayabusa as we headed south, taking in the sights and smells of the French countryside. One eye was never far away from the fuel gauge – and both were watering due to the wild onions growing in the fields by the side of the road.

The great thing about riding in France is that car drivers actually respect bikes and make a real effort to get out of the way. They’re much more relaxed than back in Blighty – but then, with more space and less congestion, that’s not surprising. As we rode line astern, cars melted from our path and, as the roads were drying out fast, we were starting to make real progress.

It wasn’t long before we all had to fill up again. This was getting a bit tiresome.

After 20 minutes back on the road, I started to notice some strange things going on in front of me. The Hayabusa rider was acting like a drunk monkey, climbing all over the bike, flinging various limbs out into the breeze and standing upright on the footpegs at over 140mph. It wasn’t just me who wasn’t comfortable on the Busa, then.

However short or tall you are, these are the antics you’ll be forced to indulge in on the Suzuki in a desperate bid to keep the blood flowing to your aching extremities.

Sure, if we had given ourselves perhaps another day to do the journey and been able to drop the speed by 20mph or so, the Hayabusa might have been a different animal, but the other two bikes were far more comfortable at this speed. But in some ways, the Hayabusa is a victim of its own success. The hit from the engine is so strong you just can’t resist twisting the throttle.

I was as comfy as a granny in an easy chair on the ZX-12R as we pulled into yet another petrol station, with about five miles of riding time left.

I was loathe to get off my comfortable perch, but it was time for my first stint on the Blackbird. First impressions were favourable – for my backside at least. The soft seat is married with spacious bars and footrest positions, making this the most touring-oriented of the three bikes.

I stabbed the starter and the dash went through the usual self-diagnostic procedure. There’s a large central speedo, with the rev counter to the left and a small engine temp gauge and fuel gauge to the right.

Once again, I found myself looking up the Busa’s tailpipe as the three of us cruised effortlessly at 100mph, the rev counters quivering lazily at just over 5000rpm. Once I had got a few miles under my belt, I found the Blackbird fitted me perfectly. But by now the dull, grey autoroute was starting to give us brain ache, and it wasn’t until we passed Dijon and turned off to head towards Besancon that we perked up.

We were greeted with an adventure playground of undulating, deserted, dry roads, with fast, sweeping, tree-lined bends and rollercoaster crests. Yeeha! Even with the extra weight of luggage, this is what these bikes are built for.

Suddenly re-energised, we started to look on every corner as a chance to brake later and then use the immense power of the bike’s engine to chase the fleeing motorcycle up ahead. With bikes this powerful, there was no need to tap dance on the gears – anything over 5000rpm and you’re immediately catapulted well into triple figures.

I just knew that the others were shouting and whooping inside their helmets as much as I was as I explored every bend, every crest and dip in the snaking ribbon of Tarmac.

But, like most things in life, it was too good to last. The last section of twisty Tarmac between Besancon and Lausanne was soaking wet and negotiated in darkness, so we were forced to keep our fun under control if we weren’t going to make premature use of that roadside recovery.

We were waved through the Swiss border with passports still safely tucked inside our jackets and. With the temperature hovering just above freezing, a hot meal and a toasting hotel room was starting to look more appealing than a night with Claudia Schiffer.

Even through the darkness, we could make out the icy summits of the majestic Alps in the distance as we rolled into Lausanne. We checked into the first hotel we could find and the next bit went something like this. Unload bikes. Eat. A quick beer. Bed. The next day we were aiming for the heady heights of the Alps – hairpin bends, cool mountain air and spectacular views. It was going to be fun.

Or maybe not. At 6am, we were woken by the sound of rain and gingerly peered out of the hotel window to be confronted by a vision of hell – torrential rain slamming into huge puddles. We slowly gathered for breakfast and watched the falling rain. We knew there was going to be no getting away from it so we packed our bags miserably and prepared to leave at midday. Then, a miracle. It stopped raining. Immediately more upbeat, we checked the maps and headed up-country towards the ski resort of Gstaad.

Even before we had started climbing, the scenery was awe-inspiring. The sun glinted off the blue-green surface of Lake Geneva, which was towered over by massive cliffs zig-zagging up to the neck-craning peaks far above us.

We filled the tanks to the brim and hit the slopes. This was first-gear stuff, as twisty, dry roads angled inexorably upwards to an ear-popping 1100 metres. The higher we climbed, the clearer the skies became, and the scenery started to look like a theme park version of Switzerland, with picture-postcard chalets and decorated barns on every mountain meadow. And yes, we could hear cowbells tinkling in the distance as we pulled over to fill our lungs with huge gulps of cold, fresh mountain air.

The serene scene soon dissipated when we arrived at the resort restaurant and a huge St Bernard’s dog took a strange fancy to me. It bounded up when I got off the bike and wouldn’t let me go until it had spent 10 minutes snuffling and sniffing around me. It then cornered me in the restaurant and proceeded to drool all over me. When we left – me polishing dog dribble off my visor with my elbow – it turned nasty and sent me packing with a barrage of angry barking. Of course, everyone else thought it was hilarious.

Our next stop was Bern, the Swiss capital, which we reached via a series of switchback roads. Every hairpin made us feel as if were were about to leap into nothingness.

Bern presents a picturesque scene of cobbled streets and vintage clocks, but we didn’t really have time to enjoy it. We’d made it to the Alps and felt a warm glow of achievement at having accomplished our mission. Now it was time to get some kip before the long ride back to Calais.

Even with our schoolboy German, we could tell from the TV weather report the next day that the journey was going to be nasty. That’s nasty as in torrential rain and 90mph winds.

And so it proved. We picked a route through the gales and spray towards Basel and then on to Mulhouse, sticking to the main roads. To make matters worse, the mist had come down low, but we couldn’t stop.

We pushed on, towards Nancy and then the long autoroute blast on toward Reims. Again, the Hayabusa was torturing its rider on every stint, while the ZX-12R and Blackbird cossetted theirs as much as the atrocious conditions would allow. At least the many petrol stops gave the Busa rider a chance to stretch his legs.

We arrived in Calais to find the ferries had been delayed by the gales. We sought shelter, leaving our bikes parked up with the rain ricocheting off them. They were dirty, their drive chains were stretched and they were covered in flies, but they were still in one piece. And they had 2000 miles more on their clocks than they did just three days ago.

We looked just as crap as the bikes. We were tired and we wanted to get home. But it had been an adventure. And that was something we couldn’t have got during a weekend riding at home. We hadn’t found any sunshine, but we had a whole heap of stories to tell. And at the end of the day, that’s what riding is all about.

KAWASAKI ZX-12R

Specification

Engine: Liquid-cooled, 1199cc (83mm x 55.4mm) 16v dohc four-stroke in-line four. Fuel injection. 6 gears

Chassis: Aluminium monocoque with detachable aluminium rear subframe

Front suspension: 43mm inverted forks, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Rear suspension: Single shock with rising-rate linkage, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Tyres: Bridgestone BT011F; 120/70 x 17 front, BT010R: 200/50 x 17 rear

Brakes: Tokico; 2 x 320mm front discs with 6-piston calipers, 230mm rear disc with 2-piston caliper

SUZUKI GSX1300R HAYABUSA

Specification

Engine: Liquid-cooled, 1298cc (81mm x 63mm) 16v dohc four-stroke in-line four. Fuel injection. 6 gears

Chassis: Aluminium twin-spar

Front suspension: 43mm inverted forks, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Rear suspension: Single shock with rising rate linkage, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Tyres: Bridgestone BT56J; 120/70 x 17 front, 190/50 x 17 rear

Brakes: Tokico; 2 x 320mm front discs with 6-piston calipers, 240mm rear disc with 2-piston caliper

HONDA CBR1100XX SUPER BLACKBIRD

Specification

Engine: Liquid-cooled, 1137cc (79mm x 58mm) 16v dohc four-stroke in-line four. Fuel injection. 6 gears

Chassis: Aluminium twin-spar

Front suspension: 43mm inverted forks, no adjustments

Rear suspension: Single shock with rising-rate linkage, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Tyres: Bridgestone BT57; 120/70 x 17 front, 180/55 x 17 rear

Brakes: Nissin; 2 x 310mm front discs with 3-piston calipers, 256mm rear disc with 3-piston caliper and Honda’s Combined Braking System