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The sum is greater than its parts

Published: 01 September 2000

IT was just like gazing at the stars. The more I looked, the more I saw. Except this wasn’t the sky. This was a very special Honda SP-1. And instead of seeing planets, I was gawping at a machine which was light years away from any SP-1 I’ve ever ridden.

The bike arrived before a spec sheet, so I didn’t known what to expect. I had an idea it would be good, as it was coming from Harris Performance – a firm synonymous with racing and the one which runs a works SP-1 in this year’s British superbike championship. But how good?

It took me about a nanosecond to realise when I opened the back of the van to be confronted with that gaping ram-air duct and a one-off Harris paintscheme. As I wheeled it down the ramp my eyes fixed on some of the special parts. First, the Harris carbon-fibre exhausts. Then AP six-pot brakes with fully-floating discs. Marchesini wheels. Ohlins suspension. ShifTec quickshifter. Carbon bodywork… Every time I thought I’d seen it all I would discover something new to ogle.

More than £8300 has been lavished on this particular Honda, and it shows. Virtually anything that can be changed has been changed, and it all adds up to create the best-looking SP-1 this side of a certain Mr Edwards’ pit garage.

But bikes aren’t just for looking at, and Harris hasn’t made all these mods just to impress visitors at forthcoming bike shows. There’s only one thing to do when the sun is shining, the Tarmac is warming and you have a bike like this for the day. You don’t need reminding what it is.

I’d spent the night before mentally preparing a suitable, well-known route and cleaning the flies off my visor and scrubbing down my leathers. I’d done the former so I could stretch the bike’s legs on corners I knew well. The latter... well, I’d have felt guilty wearing mucky gear on such a gleaming machine.

Lifting my leg a little higher than normal to allow for the single seat hump – made from carbon-fibre of course – I slide my butt into the sparsely padded race-style seat. Reaching for the bars instantly tells me this ain’t going to be like any SP-1 I’ve ridden before. The fully adjustable, gold anodised clip-ons are set even lower than the standard bike, which tends to put your weight over the front anyway.

Placing my feet on the pegs, my knees cracking as I do so, confirms I’m in for a cramped ride. The intricate rearsets look mint, but in conjunction with the clip-ons and my six-foot frame, they make me feel like a basketball player on a monkey bike.

Thankfully, my attention is drawn away from the discomfort when I turn the key and watch the familiar jet fighter-style digital display checking itself out. The digital speedo flashes up 190mph, enticing me to do naughty things. Not today pal, and not on public roads.

Whip in the clutch, thumb the starter and the bike keeps cutting out… doh! Where’s the choke? It takes me a few seconds to remember the SP-1 has its choke Harley-style down by the side of the frame. With the bike on idle, the low, threatening rumble of the Harris’ exhaust system gives me goosebumps at the thought of what it must sound like up in the higher echelons of the rev range.

The engine temperature creeps up aided by the blazing ambient temperature and it’s time to move off. The first few miles on any unfamiliar bike are always very steady, and today’s no exception. It’s just that the temptation to cane this bike is greater than usual. But as I apply the slightest pressure to the gearlever, ready to change up, it jumps up into second gear as if by magic before I’ve even reached for the clutch – the quickshifter! Fantastic. With all the other goodies to ogle on this bike I’d forgotten all about it. Now for some fun.

I’d never tried a quickshifter before so I was well up for having a go and I was amazed at how smoothly it worked. Forget the clutch and throttle, all you need is the slightest push on the lever and you’re in another gear. The only weird thing is teaching yourself not to shut the throttle a little to allow the gears to mesh. Once you’ve done that you can keep the revs constant and just nudge up the box. It’s such a novelty that I keep stomping back down the gears (using the clutch) just so I can blast back up through them again, relishing the noise from the cans.

Even with earplugs in, the sound emanating from the pipes is awesome. The last time I heard a twin sound this good was at Brands Hatch in August. It’s still ringing in my ears as I write this a week later.

Once I’ve got used to my new toy it’s time to up the pace. As soon as I do I remember the SP-1 can be a bit flighty on these bumpy roads and that brings the Harris damper to mind. I pull over and check how many settings it offers. Er... I think the 20 will be enough. I set it at 10 clicks for starters and as soon as I accelerate over some cat’s eyes and rough Tarmac, I’m satisfied the bike’s going to be stable. One less thing to worry about then – I’m not particularly keen on tankslappers. Especially on a bike of which there’s just one in the country.

As I pick up the pace and try to tuck in behind the tiny screen – which is almost useless for someone of my height – I realise something’s touching the heels of my boots. A quick glance reveals it’s the high-level pipes. The rearsets have pushed my size tens back too far, so I’m forced to adopt a bizarre new riding style to keep my heels out of the way.

I approach a roundabout and decide to scrub the shiny new Bridgestone BT010 tyres in. But I struggle to lean my weight off, thanks to the rearsets again. Persistence pays off and I finally find a way of moving without standing on the wrong things or getting my feet trapped between pegs and levers. It’s still not ideal, but it’s acceptable.

Once I’ve got myself settled, I can start to appreciate the WSB-spec Ohlins suspension front and rear, which replaces the standard Showa set-up. Billiard-smooth race tracks are poles apart from Britain’s roads, but the set-up has so much adjustment available that it will give you a smooth, steady ride anywhere. A remote adjuster on the shock makes alterations a doddle, but I think you’d need to be a race team mechanic – with a stack of telemetry data on hand – to really get the most from both pieces of kit.

Decent quality Ohlins kit improves the handling on pretty much any, bike but it’s especially effective on this SP-1 because it’s backed up by so many other aftermarket goodies. The lightweight Marchesini wheels reduce unsprung weight, which means the suspension doesn’t have to work as hard as it would on a stock bike. That in turn means the tyres aren’t put through so much stress, either.

It all adds up to create the best aspect of this very special package – the ride quality. Its stability is brilliant no matter how much you ask of the 133bhp, 999cc motor. And that makes me wonder whether more riders would benefit from adding handling-enhancing parts instead of searching for more power all the time. I certainly feel that I could ride a bike like this faster on real roads than I could a tuned-to-the-max superbike.

Ah, real roads. That’s where this bike belongs, and that’s where I’m heading. Local roads in fact, where I know the exact location of every braking marker, every manhole cover, every piece of overbanding, every field entrance...pretty much everything you worry about on an unfamiliar route.

But even in these familiar surroundings I find myself leaning over further than I would normally dare thanks to the confidence and feedback I get from the suspension. Getting on the power earlier and harder is also far easier because the damper means I’m not worrying about tankslappers.

Of course, fantastic handling means nothing without fantastic brakes, and that’s where the six-pot AP calipers and floating discs come in. Honda’s standard brakes are not exactly shoddy, but get the APs up to working temperature and you’ll feel your front tyre burrowing a trench in the Tarmac in best cartoon tradition. This is serious stopping power.

The engine is pretty much stock, but pretty much stock on an SP-1 equals pretty damn good. The power surges strongly to the indicated 10,000rpm red line in every gear, while pulling out of roundabouts and hammering up the box emphasises the low-down grunt advantage twins have over fours. And there’s so much torque that you’ll probably find yourself changing gear much less than normal – unless you’re playing with the quickshifter!

Changing up from a dead start at the lights has never felt so smooth, and there’s no drop off in the revs at all. It may be of limited use on the road (though it does save a fraction of a second on those " should I, shouldn’t I " overtaking moves), but I don’t think you could find a better topic of conversation at the pub if you rode in on a trike. Naked. With your pants on your head. In fact, passing riders are looking at me as if I’m doing just that, such is the aura of the Honda.

You don’t need to be an anorak to realise this is something special. People on Fazers and ER-5s looked back as I pass them, while other superbike riders give me that respecting nod which says so much.

It’s not hard to see why people are impressed, because the bike is finished in exactly the same paintscheme as those SP-1s ridden by Sean Emmett and Shane Byrne in the British series. The spray job is first class, and finished off with decals of the team’s sponsors and logos. It’s about 17 billion times more interesting than Honda’s one and only red/black option (in the UK at least).

And the cosmetic touches don’t stop with a paintjob. The bike has a polished swingarm so shiny you could look in it to shave, and a neat little light between the two headlights in the ram-air intake which you can flick on when you come upon those " slow " R1 riders.

The frame is also sprayed black like the U.S.-spec bikes, and it has carbon-fibre frame protectors. Why? Why not? And to add that extra racing touch there’s two rather large mushrooms sticking out of the sides of the bike to prevent excessive damage in a low-speed slide. A comforting thought.

I’m only annoyed the non-riding public don’t have the same knowledge about what’s stock and what’s trick on a bike. I want everyone to know what I’m riding because in a few hours it’ll be taken off me, garaged and then delivered back to its creators. It’s barbaric really. I mean can you imagine doctors taking a newborn baby from its mother after just one day and never giving it back?

But then, maybe I’m over-reacting. I mean it’s just a motorcycle, right?

GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR

This is the only Harris SP-1 in existence, but the firm is prepared to build more for anyone who has £8359 to spare. You simply drop your stock bike off at the firm’s Hertford HQ and then, four weeks later, pick up an exact replica of the machine we rode.

The price includes a £500 labour charge, but doesn’t take into account the cost of being without a bike for a month. Alternatively, all the parts can be bought individually. Here’s what costs what:

•ShifTec quickshifter: £221

•Harris adjustable footrest kit: £289

•Harris exhaust system: £640

•Harris carbon race seat: £210

•Harris carbon racing fairing: £440

•Double bubble tinted screen: £47

•Harris steering damper with fitting kit: £249

•Ohlins forks: £1477

•Harris adjustable offset yokes: £546

•Ohlins rear shock: £578

•Harris carbon frame protectors: £72

•Harris frame mushrooms: £76

•Harris carbon front mudguard: £112

•AP Racing six-pot calipers: £323

•AP Racing floating discs: £712

•Braided steel hoses: £84

•AP racing adjustable front brake master cylinder: £317

•Harris rear caliper and caliper plate: £222

•Harris carbon hugger: £112

•Marchesini wheels: £1120

•Harris alloy oil filler cap: £12

•Labour: £500

TOTAL: £8359

HARRIS HONDA VTR SP-1 £18,358

Availability: Harris Performance Products Ltd 01992-532500

Colours: Green/white/red

SPECIFICATION

Engine: Liquid-cooled, 999cc (100mm x 63.6mm) 8v dohc, four-stroke, 90° V-twin. Fuel injection, 6 gears

Chassis: Aluminium twin-spar

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

Rear suspension: Ohlins single shock with rising-rate linkage, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping and ride height

Tyres: Bridgestone BT010; 120/70 x 17 front, 190/50 x 17 rear

Brakes: AP Racing; 2 x 320 front discs with 6-piston calipers, 220mm rear disc with 2-piston caliper

PERFORMANCE

Power (claimed): 133bhp

Torque (claimed): 76ftlb

Weight/power to weight ratio: 185kg (407lb), 0.70bhp/kg

Top speed (claimed): 175mph

Geometry (Rake/trail/wheelbase): 24.3°, 9.5cm, 140.9cm

Average mpg/tank capacity/range: 30mpg, 18 litres, 120 miles

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