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Blades: The Gathering

Published: 01 July 2000

CULT status is usually accorded to things which aren’t actually that popular. Red Dwarf, for example isn’t anywhere near as big as Neighbours. Honda’s FireBlade is a glaring exception to this rule.

Since its launch in 1992, it has been as popular in motorcycling as the Ford Escort has been in cars – a recipe for bland acceptance rather than addicted worship, an outsider to bikes might have thought.

But the things that make the Blade popular are exactly those which have made it worthy of a cult following: Frightening performance, stand-out design and a name that sends shivers. Even Ford’s bestest buddy couldn’t say the same of the Escort.

Now the Cult of Blade has come of age. The tribes of CBR900 owners have gathered for the first time in Britain. The Druids have Stonehenge. Blade owners have Silverstone and the Honda-organised Blade Day.

Here they would be allowed to ride round the Northants racing circuit as fast as they want. Here they could watch practice sessions and chat shows with top Honda racers and take riding tips from Ron Haslam race school instructors. There would be stunt shows by Craig Jones and a host of stock and completely un-stock FireBlades.

This all seemed very tempting – particularly as there was the off-chance I could get a ride on some of the best Blades there.

Something similar to this happened in Sweden a couple of years back – but it wasn’t on this scale and it didn’t attract the big names and corporate backing the UK’s version has.

Honda UK’s Dave Dew dreamed up the idea of celebrating the new year 2000 Blade about six months ago, reasoning that the Blade in general was well overdue a bit of a do.

After all, 15,000 of them have been sold in the UK alone since the bike was launched in 1992 to a gobsmacked and often fearful public. It didn’t exactly create the race replica category – Suzuki’s GSX-R750 is widely credited with that honour in 1985 – but it certainly revolutionised it and put it in the mainstream like the Sex Pistols turned Punk from an underground movement into an international money-spinner.

With claims of 122bhp at the crank and handling unheard of in a bike of 900cc, it was also so light at an original weight of 185kg (407lb) that rivals like Yamaha’s FZR1000 were left floundering. The Blade had arrived.

The results were clear to see at Silverstone. Streams of very satisfied owners rode through the gates on a scorching morning last month. Advance bookings showed upwards of 750 Blades would be invading the circuit. The good weather seemed certain to entice more out. Yet this was all on a Tuesday – and time off work is never easy.

Still they came. And there was one man in particular they sought out to shake by the hand – Tadao Baba. He’s been the project leader on the Blade since its inception.

Baba San was being driven from the airport to the circuit by Honda UK’s Dave Hancock when he decided he needed new gloves and boots to have a blast round Silverstone on one of his creations (yes, he is very fast and not shy about chucking the odd bike up the road in the quest to define their limits).

Stopping at a bike shop en-route, Baba San was instantly recognised. His mug has appeared in MCN from time to time, in articles and notably the Honda ad featuring Baba smoking a fag – another of his passions.

The diminutive, shy and brilliant engineer was swamped by Blade owners on their way to the festival. He signed T-shirts, baseball caps, posters and even FireBlade frames before he could move on.

And when he arrived at Silverstone, he couldn’t believe his eyes. He said: " It makes me very happy to see so many FireBlades in one place. It’s the most I’ve ever seen at one meeting. " And he felt he had to touch every last one.

Hancock explained: " Mr Baba is very hands-on. He’s not happy just looking at, say, a carbon-fibre hugger, he has to feel it, too. " Perhaps your carbon- fibre single seat conversion has just inspired the next generation of Blades...

Some of the specials on show were absolute works of art, representing hundreds of hours of work and thousands of pounds in ready cash. One example was John Cody’s chromed, nitrous Blade streetfighter. He can’t even remember how much cash he’s spent on it since he bought it crash-damaged in 1996 for £3250. That almost certainly means he knows exactly how much, it just hurts to say it out loud.

Like many of these extreme individualists, the only explanation he can offer is that " I just wanted something a bit different. " The nitrous part of the plan isn’t running yet... but the wheels are from a FireStorm (getting round the old 16in front wheel dilemma) and a full race exhaust system by MHP has been fitted. The seat unit and subframe are from a Kawasaki ZX-6R, the tank and lights have been chromed.

Unlike many specials, this one was not built for show. Cody says: " It’s built to be ridden and I’ve had some great laughs on it, but some scary moments, too. The serious steering damper is there to keep the front wheel straightish in the regular event of it leaving the ground.

But real high-speed stuff is a bit of a no-no, thanks to the lack of fairing. It feels brutal and strangely pleasing to ride a big, butch special with the wind doing its best to dump you on the Tarmac. On the circuit at 150mph the wind blast is like popping your head out of a Tornado jet fighter during take-off.

Even with the steering damper on six clicks, the Blade still wants to slap you all over the road at this speed. That’s the magic of customising for you.

It should get even more interesting when the bike’s current 140bhp gets another 50bhp boost from the nitrous.

One man who’s not afraid of dodgy handling is stunt nutter Craig Jones. He’s on duty at the festival on a Honda X11 musclebike and on a stock FireBlade performing his usual unexplainable wheelies, stoppies and parking-the-bike-on-its-numberplate-and-walking-away tricks.

Jones seemed the obvious choice to have a little " test ride " on Cody’s streetfighter. After assuring the nervous owner his pride and joy would be all right (and that takes some doing when you’ve just seen what Jones does to bikes for a living), Jones blasted up an infield section of the track on the back wheel of the custom Blade and brought it down half a mile away in a puff of blue smoke.

Cody tried his best to look nonchalant. I swear I could hear desperate, whispered prayers...

After a little more tyre wear from Jones, Cody is reunited with his bike - in one piece.

Among the rarer Blades on show is the Evo Blade. The limited-edition and much tricked-up version of the 1998 Blade came with an £18,500 price tag which is why you didn’t see one on your last rideout.

They were built to celebrate Jim Moodie’s historic 1998 TT win on a Blade in the production class – it was Honda’s 100th TT victory. The men behind it – Russell Savory of RS Performance and former GP and TT racer Mick Grant – are both at the Blade Day as part of the Sanyo Honda team.

The Evo was an important bike for the ego of every Blade owner. It was built at a time when the R1 had arrived to kick sand in the face of CBR900 owners. The Evo kicked back. It was more than a match for the Yamaha – and, sadly, for its price, as well.

One of the few who did invest big-time was Paul Johns. He already had an R1. They were becoming more common and he wanted something rarer. He says: " I also live just down the road from Russell Savory so if anything goes wrong... "

The Evo takes the standard Blade’s excellent handling and power to a new level. Every ounce of it oozes race bike. From the titanium downpipes and Micron carbon race can to the funky air intakes over the tank and the trick Ohlins suspension and light Dymag wheels. Yes, it was never destined to be cheap. But it produces 30bhp more than a standard 1998 Blade, which means we’re talking about 160bhp at the crank. Woof!

Just looking at an Evo is enough to raise the pulse of every Blade rider. The chance to ride one had me positively drooling.

The roar of the Micron pipe and rattling of the Keihin flat-slide carbs are the first indication that this bike will be a bit special – and it’s all uphill from there. The engine mods, including gas-flowed head, new cams and bigger carbs, make the bike’s acceleration time-warping. Once you’ve got the front end back down and try out the bike’s brilliant handling you soon find out what a difference 5kg (11lb) makes. In 1998, most Blades weighed 180kg (396lb). This one is 175kg (385lb) – the same as a 2000 R1.

It’s easy to chuck around and the steering is light and quick. The 17-inch front makes the bike more stable than standard. Honda took the hint for 2000 by using a 17-inch front on its updated Blade and cutting weight even more (to 170kg – 374lb).

The Ohlins forks and shock not only look the dog’s on the Evo, they allow for enough adjustment to keep a WSB team happy for weeks. If you can’t find a setting to suit you, you’ve got a balance problem. The Brembo brakes and master cylinder offer much more feel than the standard bikes’ kit.

If you dare thrash almost £18,500-worth of motorcycle, it starts feeling like value for money. The speedo needle flicks round the clock at a loony rate and the only problem you’ll have is finding places long enough and legal enough to sample the Evo’s 180mph-plus potential.

If you want one... well, this very bike is for sale. Poor old Paul Johns is being forced to sell it because he’s buying a house. Call him on 0836-686292 and make him a sensible offer.

The Evo Blade is essentially a race replica but what about the real thing? There were lots of racing Blades at the festival and most were being ridden in anger alongside a host of other Honda race machinery in the race practice sessions. These were officially held to entertain the crowds, but it surely can’t have done Honda riders any harm to get in a few laps at Silverstone just days before the weekend’s British championship meeting at the same venue.

Sean Emmett was clocking up laps on his SP-1, Ron Haslam was setting up his Blade for the Superstock class and John McGuinness was working on his RS250. Even little Leon Haslam was clocking up laps on his RS125.

SP-1 rider James Toseland said: " I’d never been to Silverstone, so this was a great chance for me to learn the circuit. I went out on a stock Blade to learn the course and there was just one continual stream of FireBlades all round the circuit. It was amazing. "

Toseland – who rides a Vimto SP-1 in the British superbike championship – rode a Vimto Blade for the day. It is the same one which finished second in this year’s Production TT in the hands of Richard Quayle. The bike has now been sold to a cousin of team boss Paul Bird, who intended to use it on the road. The Blade Day has lured it to the track.

Production TT rules mean you can’t do an awful lot to change a bike but certain mods are allowed. A WP shock, a Micron end can, a Dynojet power commander (to tweak the fuel injection) and an Ohlins steering damper were all fitted to cope with the demands of the Island.

Apart from the race bodywork, the rest of the bike is stock. You can tell it’s been set up for the Isle of Man though. The suspension is relatively soft to cope. Handling counts for a lot at the TT and the shock and damper help smooth things out and keep the rider in the seat for at least some of the time.

But because no engine work been done (it hasn’t even been blueprinted, which the rules do allow), the TT Blade feels pretty much like the stock bike. So it is testimony to how good the latest stock Blade is that it’s capable of finishing so high in a TT in the hands of a TT novice.

The most noticeable difference is the race bodywork which allows you to tuck in much better than behind the normal bike’s small screen. It also makes you feel like a pukka racer.

Talking of pukka racers, a surprise attendant at the festival was Jim Moodie. Moodie and Honda parted ways during the TT after the Scot refused to ride a specially-built FireBlade in the Senior event. Insiders say the bike hadn’t been developed enough and therefore wasn’t quick enough to make a serious challenge. Moodie felt that would mean he would have to put himself at more risk to get in contention. And that was a risk too far. The resulting row lost Moodie his Honda 600 ride in the British Supersport championship.

Relations with Honda’s top brass appeared strained to say the least. But Moodie did have a chat with Tadao Baba and Dave Hancock without coming to blows... Moodie claims he was just at the event to help his mate Phillip McCallen on the Motorcycle City stand. McCallen was on hand to promote his new biography Supermac and to offer set-up and tuning advice to Blade owners.

If McCallen’s choice of assistant was not exactly diplomatic, the blunder he followed it up with took a biscuit of a different kind. The beautiful mint Blade with underseat pipes and sensational bodywork he had brought along to demonstrate would be going nowhere. He had forgotten the key.

At least while it was static it could be admired as an example of the cosmetic mods available at City’s Performance Centre. But McCallen had planned a few laps to run it in.

Memories of the time he forgot to come in for fuel at the TT and lost a sure-fire win came flooding back.

The day and the desire to get on the track overcame such niceties as keys. " I really feel the need to get a few laps in so I guess I’ll have to borrow someone else’s bike, " he said. And with that he wandered off among the lines upon lines of FireBlades, the smell of chips and hot dogs, the carnival rides, music and merchandise stalls.

It wasn’t just Honda owners who’d turned up. For the £12 entry fee, Blade owners were all entitled to a 15-minute track session, but one cheeky Yamaha R1 owner chanced it and tried to sneak on. He was politely turned away. Nice try.

But the vast majority of the bikes were Blades and final estimates put the number of them at Silverstone at 1000. They showed all the modifications unfettered imagination can come up with. Race rep paintjobs, rearsets, shocks, pipes, wheels, seat units, full race bodywork, chrome, nitrous, you name it someone had done it. I wondered how much money had been lavished here.

Money’s tight for race teams and we’re asked by team boss Steve Harris not to drop his racing Blade as his rider, Rhys Boyd, needs it for Sunday. Riding anyone’s race bike is nerve-wracking. They’re not easily replaced and dumping one puts you in the verruca league of popularity.

The Harris Blade isn’t lavished with one-off factory parts because it’s raced in the British Superstock series, where mods are limited. But it’s set up very differently to the Vimto TT Blade. Because it’s been prepared for short circuit racing on super-smooth tracks, the Harris Blade has a much stiffer suspension set-up and feels more rigid than the Vimto pure roads bike. The forks are standard but have Ohlins springs and reworked dampers and the rear Ohlins shock has been re-valved.

The result is a bike which can be flicked hard from corner to corner without a worry about getting out of shape. The bumps of a road would upset it severely, though. The brake calipers are standard but DP pads have been fitted to cope better with the higher temperatures and harder braking used on a track. There are also braided hoses to give more feel. All the road gear has been dumped from the bike – such as clocks, indicators, mirrors and number plates.

Gearing is changed from circuit to circuit but this Blade can be made good for 185mph if the need arises. The engine has been blueprinted to get rid of tiny manufacturing flaws and that’s usually worth a few bhp.

Again, like the Vimto Blade, the engine must remain standard to meet production racing rules, but the bike feels faster because it’s lighter and LOOKS like a racer. It’s amazing how deceptive it can be riding a race bike because the barely-padded seat unit, full bodywork, tall screen and radical riding position just make you think you’re going faster. The sparseness of the bike feels good – it’s stripped for action, lithe and bang on its fighting weight.

Custom Blades, Evo Blades and racing Blades all stemmed from the one and only original - the one and only standard road-going Honda FireBlade. And for the year 2000 it got a complete re-design.

The 2000 model is easily the best mass-production Blade ever made. It’s a brilliant all-round package which maintains the tradition of sharp handling and power which made the original bike the legend that it is with that little bit more user-friendliness than an R1 can muster. And there are a lot of people who like that.

The only shared components with the old Blade are the indicators and switchgear. So this is no minor update. Riding it after the specials and the race bikes you feel the additional low down grunt the new exhaust provides (it has a valve a bit like Yamaha’s EXUP to offer more pull at low revs).

There’s a noticeable quickening of pace at 5000rpm and the power feeds in hard and strong all the way to the 12,200rpm limit. That’s good for a top speed of around 170mph in sixth.

The four-piston Brembos are strong enough to chuck you over the bars if you don’t brake progressively. The 17-inch front wheel aids stability and helps make it a bike that can be ridden by the masses at a swift pace without the need for a Doohan masterclass before you leave the showroom.

The Blade started life as a machine for the very bravest riders only. It continues with much of the original mystique intact but in a package more accessible to more riders.

It’s why they come together in praise of the Blade and why another Blade Day seems on the cards for next year, and the year after that...