IF we’re all absolutely honest with ourselves, we’ve all watched a British superbike race and thought: " I could do that with the right bike and a bit of practice. "
Chances are you’ve probably strung together a few neat corners on your favourite road on a fine sunny afternoon and smugly thought " nobody could have got round there quicker than that. "
Well, I hate to be the one to shatter your illusions, but you’re wrong. How do I know? Because I’ve just spent the day riding Suzuki’s new GSX-R750 in the company of a certain Mr Walker. That’s Chris Walker, the man who is set to do unbelievable things on a full race version of this very bike in this year’s British series.
From schoolboy motocrosser to occasional GPand WSBhero, Walker has wowed spectators the world over with his oh-so-ragged-seat-of-his-pants style. And that’s why he’s the darling of British race fans. Nobody tries harder than Walker. He simply doesn’t know any other way to ride other than flat-out and crossed-up.
But that’s on a race track, where a super-smooth surface, acres of run-off, air fences and a distinct lack of vehicles makes it the safest place in the world to behave like this.
When they enter our domain, the road, most racers take it easier than a granny in a disabled buggie. But not this guy. If you’re already a Walker fan because of his do-or-die antics on a track, prepare to admire him even more – because he rides exactly like that on the road, too.
In over three years at MCN I’ve followed (albeit briefly, before getting left behind) some pretty fast riders. But nothing prepared me for this. Or the obscenely early start.
I was meeting him at his Nottinghamshire home, where I’d rendezvous with our photographer and the Honda SP-1 I’d ride for the day. But before Icould do that Ihad to get the Suzuki to Walker. It was 5.50am on a still dark and very cold March morning. A day out riding, be it with Murray Walker or Chris Walker, was the last thing on my mind... until Iopened the garage door and turned the key in a sparkling new GSX-R.
Let’s face it, if a gleaming new superbike with a reputation for being a bit of a nutter doesn’t fire you up in the morning, you’ve got to give up. And I’m not ready to give up.
The GSX-R and me came to life in unison (except the bike’s emissions sounded a lot healthier than mine). Most modern machines suffer from crippling noise laws, making an aftermarket pipe the first purchase for their buyers.
But GSX-R owners may not have to fork out that extra few hundred quid. After giving the slim throttle a few blips, Iwas surprised how good it sounds, even if my neighbours weren’t.
I’d read MCN’s first test on the 2000-spec Suzuki like everybody else, but since I don’t spend much time lapping Misano I was keen to find out just how good it is on the road. And the first thing to strike me was the weight and overall dimensions of the bike. It feels light, compact and extremely manoeuvrable compared to the old version, and my first few miles through town were a doddle. But when you’ve just thrown your leg over a 139bhp motorcycle your interest in town riding isn’t at its strongest. Back roads here we come...
A hefty twist of the right hand was a better wake-up call than dancing naked under Niagara Falls. The Suzuki may not have the greatest pulling power at low revs, but spin it up to 8000rpm and you’d better hang on. A quick glance in the mirrors – which are big enough to show widescreen movies on – shows the world and its troubles disappearing from your perspective at an alarming rate. And boy does it feel good. But they say pleasure is off-set by pain, and that theory struck home at the next set of lights. You see, I’d just overtaken a truck rather quickly and wasn’t surprised when the driver started beeping his horn at me as he stopped. I turned round expecting to have the bird flipped at me for being a little too throttle-happy (well, you can’t blame me), but Iwas surprised to see the driver gesticulating at my rucksack. Whether he was genuinely trying to help or was ’avin a larf at my predicament I’ll never know, but in my sleepy-eyed desperation to get going I’d forgotten to zip up my rucksack, which just happened to contain all those items I needed to bring you this feature.
My dictaphone, tapes, batteries, notebook, pens, clear visor, race gloves etc had parted company with my luggage, and Ihad no choice but to turn back and search a one-mile straight. If I didn’t, you might not be reading this. Walker would have to wait.
I found most of my kit, but lost a lot of time, and then Irealised the pleasure side of the situation – Iwas late, so now Ihad a legitimate excuse to push that little bit harder, your Honour. And that’s when the gorgeous blue and white powerhouse performs best. Be gentle on the throttle and the GSX-R will treat you with the contempt you deserve. Dial in generous quantities of power and you will be rewarded. There’s no question this bike likes, no needs, to be revved, and that’s about the only thing that may catch you out.
Whereas something like an R1 will pull strongly anywhere in the rev range, you need to keep the Suzuki in the powerband to get out of trouble. Try sitting behind a car in third at 50mph and then open up to speed past and it won’t happen. Get used to knocking it down a gear before you plan any action.
The Suzuki passed its next test with flying colours though. If you’re a smoker, then a kick-ass bike should leave you gagging for a ciggy after a high-speed A-road thrash. A well-placed roadside cafe provided the venue and reminded me of another biking mystery: Why does everyone you talk to at greasy spoon eateries used to own a Triumph Bonneville? If as many people had bought Bonnies that claim to, Triumph would never have gone down the pipes. The fat trucker who accosted me proved he’d never been on a bike in his life as he said, without the slightest hint of sarcasm in his voice: " Nice leathers, bet they keep you warm and dry. "
Er... In fact, I was freezing and had rapidly lost my initial enthusiasm, but all that changed when I met the man himself. He may be the subject of paparazzi-style pandemonium when he’s wandering around Brands or Donington, but at home, Walker is just a bloke who loves bikes.
He’s waiting for me in his leathers, though not the ones you’ll see flashing past at this year’s races. " I’m not going to give the cops the advantage of seeing my name plastered all over my back, " said the man who has nine points on his licence. Tut, tut.
The Suzuki’s motor hasn’t stopped pinging before Walker takes the keys and fires it up. The idea is that he leads on the 750, I follow on the 1000cc SP-1 and the photographer brings up the rear in a van. But the best laid plans etc, etc. It’s obvious as we round the first corner that it’s never going to work, as Walker stands the GSX-R on its back wheel and leaves me for dust. Even if Icould match his speed Idoubt I’d keep up with him for long, because indicators seem to be an alien concept to him. He doesn’t have them on his race bike, so he doesn’t bother with them on the road bike. Simple. It was only the need to fill the bikes up at the first petrol station we spotted that brought us back into contact. This was going to be a hell of a ride.
He’s only ridden it for five minutes, but Walker is already raving about the Suzuki. OK, you’d expect him to say that, seeing as he’s paid by the factory, but I give him the benefit of the doubt because he’s straight-talking about everything else and you just don’t get the impression that he would bullshit you.
" It has a lot more character in its looks than most Japanese bikes and it feels even dinkier than my race bike, " he says. That’s because his superbike is based on the 1999 GSX-R750, which has a totally different frame and engine. One up for us road riding boys, then.
As we leave the petrol station Inotice the odd pedestrian gawping as we pass. Even though he’s not in his Suzuki leathers it’s obvious people recognise Walker, probably by his lid, and despite riding one of the most hyped road bikes of the year, I don’t merit a second glance.
This is about the last time I stay in touch with my riding " companion " because the turning for the first of the back roads we are to ride is looming. And that’s where I realise just how good he really is.
Walker hasn’t even lifted the bike up after making the turn and he’s nailing it, forcing the back end to kick out so much I’m sure he’s going to highsid. Iwas thinking about insurance bills and my excuses back at the office when he straightens it up and, with a puff of smoke as the rear tyre gains traction, fires off into the distance. That’s when I remembered this is Chris Walker, and he does this for a living. All the same I look back at our man in the van and tap the side of my helmet. He’s doubled up at the wheel, giggling.
My next eye-opener happens at the next corner. Sure, I’ve heard of racing lines, but they’re for a race track as far as I’m aware. I mean, I’m not talking about taking a wide entry into a corner, clipping the white line at the apex and getting on the power steadily on the exit. I’m talking about a guy who rides in the gutter, chucking up leaves and all sorts of crap on the way in, straddles the white line at the apex and disappears into the distance before I can even wonder when he’s about to put the power down. Awesome. If you wanted any proof that the GSX-R is up there with the best in the handling stakes, you’ve got it. Even Walker’s impressed. " It’s so flickable and planted through corners, I can’t wait to try the race bike based on this, " he says as I pull up next to him in a lay-by. " It never gets flighty, but I think this is partly down to the steering damper which comes as standard. "
It’s also down to the fact that Suzuki shortened the engine and frame and lengthened the swingarm for better stability. And it was guys like Walker who helped develop the bike on the track, so it should be bloody good. I’d love to be able to tell you how Walker took every corner, but I simply couldn’t get close enough to watch him until he slowed down, waited for me then took off again like a scalded cat. What I did see, though, was the most amazing demonstration of road riding skills I’ve ever witnessed. I got the impression that if Walker could be bothered entering the Isle of Man TT he’d walk it. No pun intended.
The clock was ticking as Iwas aware that we hadn’t even started taking photos yet. So was snapper Mark Manning, who was constantly asking me to make my companion slow down. I thought he should try telling Walker to cool it.
Eventually, though, he had vented all his pent-up aggression after a winter without racing, and he was happy to pose for pics.
Again, the plan is simple. Walker will lead around a fairly tight right-hander and all I have to do is follow. Walker even says he’ll take it steady so I can keep up. No problem.
We line up, Walker lifts the front end, plants it just in time for the corner and is round it and gone before I make my entry. Doh!
Manning tells me to keep closer. Yeah, right! We try four times and on each occasion I can’t believe how he can slam a bike with relatively cold tyres straight on to its side without a care in the world. But the most humbling fact is that he never looks out of control. He’s not a hooligan, just an exceptionally skilled rider who’s been at it since he was four years old.
We have to settle for a picture and move on, but after several trips around the same bend Walker is even more impressed. He says: " It takes a very special bike to impress me because I’m fortunate enough to get to ride some of the best machines on the planet. But this is one of the best I’ve ever ridden. "
In case you think he’s just talking corporate claptrap, I’ll remind you he still thinks his Ducati 851 is the best road bike he’s ever had, albeit for character rather than performance.
No, the reason he’s so impressed with the GSX-R is because he’s a fan of 600s. " They’re the ideal compromise between comfort, speed and lightness, " he says. " This bike feels and acts just the same, but it has the bonus of far more power. "
Walker also says it shouldn’t be a problem hauling the Suzuki down from its claimed top speed of 169mph. The four-pot Tokicos feel a little stiff, but do their job well.
It sometimes looks as if he’s forgotten he’s on the road as he accelerates up to cars, slams on the anchors to stop within inches of the bumper and then darts out just like he would if he was slipstreaming a rival. He’s as hot on the brakes behind dopey drivers as he is on the throttle with dozy bike journalists.
Only once, in 11 years, have Walker’s reflexes failed him on the road, when a car slammed into the side of him as he crossed a junction. He says: " I was knocked out and woke up next to a garden shed with a broken leg back in 1992. Funnily enough, it was on a GSX-R750! "
Walker has had road bikes since he was 16. Suzuki GSX-R400s, Kawasaki ZXR750s and GPZ500s, Ducati 851s. You name it, he’s probably owned it. And that’s what makes him stand out from most racers who wouldn’t ride on the road. He says: " I’m a road rider through and through. I’d love to ride with my mates more often at weekends, but I’m always away racing. If I retired tomorrow I’d be back on the roads every weekend. "
His appetite for speed was kicked off by his dad when he sat his three-year-old son on the fuel tank, instructed him to hang on to the bars and gave the little nipper his first taste of a 100mph run! And it’s not just road bikes that Walker has mastered – he’s a mean motocrosser, too, a passion which he likes to indulge with another fair rider – Jamie Whitham. One particular off-roading story stands out in his mind. He said: " We were riding on a patch of land known locally as the desert and even though it’s private no-one usually bothers us. We were up there once and saw two coppers on DR350s heading straight for us, so we got ready to leg it. But they got stuck in some mud and we felt sorry for them. I asked Whit if he thought we should help them and he said sod ’em, so we just kept riding.
" Eventually, though, the coppers were totally swamped, so we went to help, and as soon as we’d pulled them out they nicked us! We had the last laugh though – I gave my name as Jeremy McGrath and Whit said he was Ian Simpson. Sorry lads. "
It’s that sort of devil-may-care attitude that makes Walker stand out from the duller stars of bikesport and makes him a favourite with the fans.
I ask if he gets bothered by people approaching him all the time, but he insists no-one knows who he is away from the circuit because he makes his living wearing a helmet.
Not two minutes later a bloke comes into the pub and strolls straight up to Walker saying: " Chris, shake my hand. " Walker being Walker, he chats with the bloke and in five minutes they’re talking like best mates. That’s the kind of bloke he is – just like one of your mates.
As we wrap up the day’s lesson on how to go outrageously quick on a motorcycle, I feel very privileged to have followed (at a distance) someone like Walker on the road.
People say you should never meet your heroes because they’ll never live up to your expectations. Rubbish. I know who I’ll be supporting this year.
SO CHRIS, WHAT DO YOU RIDE AWAY FROM THE TRACK?
CHRIS Walker has owned loads of bikes in his 23-year riding career, but his current choice of steed will surprise you.
It’s not a Cadbury’s Boost YZF750 or the Kawasaki ZX-7RR he raced last year. It’s not even a Suzuki Hayabusa presented by his latest employers as a perk. In fact, it’s not even a modern bike – it’s a BSA A65 Lightning Clubman.
Walker bought the 650cc twin a year ago for one reason – to stay out of trouble with the law.
He said: " I just can’t help doing 170mph and I’ve already got nine points on my licence, so I had to buy a bike that couldn’t get me into trouble. I have a problem behaving myself - both on and off the bike. "
But even now he’s not completely immune from the long arm of the law, as he can still squeeze 110mph out of the 1965 machine on the back roads he uses for training. And he reckons there’s more to come, saying: " I haven’t taken it to its limit yet, but I have this need to discover how fast every bike I ride can go. "
The other reason he bought the BSA was because he likes to spend time away from the pressures of racing in his garage tinkering with the classic. He is a mechanic by trade, and even though he spends his working life surrounded by spanners he finds working on the BSA a relaxing diversion.
The Lightning’s looks were also an important factor in his choice. You might not think someone who makes his living in flash Spidi leathers and Arai helmets would have a secret fetish for the old ’60s Ace Cafe look, but that’s exactly what Walker was after. He said: " I wanted a British bike and it had to look like it was from the old white scarf and Wurlitzer juke box era. "
The only thing Walker was worried about was that all his sports bike-riding mates would laugh at his purchase. But he was surprised at their reaction, saying: " They all laughed when I told them on the phone, but when they saw it they had to agree it looked cool. "
He’s so smitten with
his new baby that he’s planning to start a collection of classic bikes. Top of the wish-list is a 500cc Manx Norton and a 750cc MV Agusta.
So if you see what you think is an old dodderer plodding around the East Midlands on a BSA, don’t try and blow him away.