The bikes that made the end of the last cen­tury the zenith for sports­bike riders

Prac­ti­cal Sports­bikes sci­en­tists have mea­sured it and it’s a fact: 1998 was the sin­gle best year to be a mo­tor­cy­clist since mo­tor­cy­cling was in­vented. Ladies and gen­tle­men, we present the ev­i­dence...

Practical Sportsbikes (UK) - - Contents - Words: Si­mon Har­g­reaves Pic­tures: Bauer Archive

We didn’t need to read the tea leaves to see it com­ing. Even be­fore the pil­grim­age to Birm­ing­ham’s bike show at the NEC in Novem­ber 1997 we were an­tic­i­pat­ing more stun­ning new bikes in one cal­en­dar year than ever be­fore, thanks to an un­usu­ally large num­ber of teas­ing ‘spy’ shots in mag­a­zines. It’s not hard to re­mem­ber just how thrilling 20 years ago was.

By the time THEYZF-R1 was re­vealed at the Mi­lan Show in Oc­to­ber 1997 com­plete with dry ice, a laser dis­play and Scott Rus­sell dressed un­com­fort­ably like a space­man, the full spec was re­vealed and in­cluded de­tails of a rad­i­cally com­pact en­gine de­sign mak­ing a claimed 150bhp in a pack­age weigh­ing 177kg. Fi­nally, here was AYZF that could end six years of ’Blade dom­i­nance.

We could guess what 150bhp would feel like be­causeyamaha claimed 145bhp for the Thun­der­ace.and we knew what 177kg felt like be­cause that was what a Kawasaki ZXR400 weighed. But the match was truly mag­i­cal.

“It was the bike to have,” says Ps-reader Ian Mcclel­land. “I went to the lo­cal dealer for a test ride and they had a used one al­ready in, two months old, with 650 miles on the clock.turns out the guy took it back be­cause it was too much for him. So I took the dealer’s demo bike out and got 300 yards be­fore I went back and said, ‘Where do I sign?’ It was that good.”

It later turned out the R1 had been on the draw­ing board ofyamaha’s en­gi­neer­ing ge­nius Ku­ni­hiko Miwa since late 1994 – which, as it hap­pens, is also the same year anaprilia en­gi­neer called Mar­i­ano Fio­ra­vanzo was wrap­ping his brain around a 60-de­greev-twin ri­val to Du­cati’s 916. Un­like the R1, Fio­ra­vanzo’s de­sign was an­nounced in 1996 but pro­duc­tion de­lays meant it fi­nally popped up in test­ing pho­tos in Au­gust 1997, and was fully re­vealed at Mi­lan along­side the show-steal­ingyamaha. The pol­ished ally frame looked like it came from an RS250, and the bright red Brembo calipers nicked off Post­man Pat.

Butyamaha weren’t only about the R1 in 1998 – al­most as im­por­tant to them was the FZS600 Fazer. It pre­saged a new gen­er­a­tion of mid­dleweight road­sters that weren’t, for want of a bet­ter word, crap. Over at Fl­itwick Mo­tor­cy­cles in Bed­ford­shire, a young sales­man called Ja­son Fuller ap­pre­ci­ated its charm: “I was there when the R1 came out, but while I was run­ning-in the shop demo Fazer 600 I thought, ‘I gotta have one of these.’ I sold that bike to a big chap, but he got it home and dropped it on his drive­way; his mum rang and said, ‘Come and take it back.’ So sud­denly I had a de­liv­ery mileage, dam­aged Fazer 600 at a price I could af­ford!

“I re­mem­ber do­ing ev­ery­thing on that bike. Nowa­days you have so many com­mit­ments you can’t get away, but back then the Fazer did it all. what it of­fered in terms of rid­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, for the money, was in­cred­i­ble. My mates were on Thun­der­cats and CBR600S and I turned up on some­thing that looked like it might have had a shop­ping bas­ket on the front – but it popped wheel­ies bet­ter than they did, and it han­dled too.”

Mean­while on the green side a C1 model of the ZX-9R promised to undo the heavy­weight mud­dle of the ZX-9R B and ri­val the R1 with a stripped-down, toned-up, 183kg, 140bhp spec of its own.along­side it sat a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion ZX-6RG, bring­ing the chas­sis tweaks, weight loss and power de­liv­ery re­fine­ments a cou­ple of years’ devel­op­ment over the orig­i­nal al­ways does.

Honda’s fourth-gen Fire­blade looked unim­pres­sive com­pared to the R1 and ZX-9R on pa­per, but it was the light­est and most pow­er­ful 900RR yet – and added to the Cbr60-0f-based CB600 Hor­net and the fuel-in­jected, Rc45-in­flu­enced­vfr800fi, it sug­gested Honda could be play­ing the smart 1998 new bike card.

Cer­tainly PS reader Ian Bigg thought so. Now 55, in 1998 he was a fire­man in his

“I TOOK THE DEALER’S DEMO BIKE OUT AND GOT 300 YARDS BE­FORE I WENT BACK AND SAID, ‘WHERE DO I SIGN?’ IT WAS THAT GOOD”

mid-30s with a brand newvfr800fi. But he didn’t ex­actly buy it: “I’d had AVFR750 for about three weeks; I parked it up in Padding­ton where I was see­ing a young lady, we went to a restau­rant, I saw the bike ev­ery time I looked up, and then it wasn’t there.” Ian thus proved bike theft was as alive and kick­ing 20 years ago as it is now. “The in­sur­ance com­pany said they’d re­place it with a new one but, by then, that meant the VFR800. Ini­tially I wanted another 750; but it turned out the 800 was amaz­ing.”

So why was 1998 so good? “There was a revo­lu­tion in­stead of an evo­lu­tion,” says Ian. “It seemed that in 1998 bikes just worked ex­actly as they should – there was no more com­pro­mis­ing. Bikes seemed to take a quan­tum leap for­ward; ev­ery­thing gelled.”

Un­less, per­haps, you were Suzuki. For 1998 the al­ready seis­mic SRAD 750 went to fuel in­jec­tion and was still turn­ing heads: Ed El­liott was in his mid-20s in 1998 and bought an in­jected 750 SRAD over his 1996

’Blade. “A mate had the 1996W-T on carbs, and when it went to fuel in­jec­tion I just fan­cied one.the ’90s were just fan­tas­tic and by 1998 there was so much go­ing on.the bikes were in­di­vid­ual; a lot of mod­ern stuff is quite samey.”

But when it came to Ha­ma­mat­suv-twins, 1998 wasn’t quite as set­tled: the ram­pant TL1000S got a beam frame, sports­bike win­dow dress­ing and an up­graded mo­tor turn­ing it into the dis­tinc­tive 197kg, 130bhp TL1000R. PS reader Mervwar­rilow, a sprightly young man in his 30s in 1998, bought Suzuki’s ill-fated race rep: “I had a 916 when it first came out, then I got a Fire­blade, had it Dyno­jet­ted, a can, etc... then I part-exed it for ATL1000R – and it was the worst bike I ever had. It was pants. Soul­less, slow, slug­gish han­dling, it just was not the barmy TL1000S with a fair­ing. I swapped it for another 916.”

And Du­cati weren’t snooz­ing ei­ther; a new 900SS with fuel in­jec­tion turned up, but the big news was the 916 SPS – a horny race-ho­molo­ga­tion 916, bored out to 996cc wear­ing Öh­lins at the back and fancy Showas at the front, and mak­ing a claimed (and un­likely) 135bhp.at £18,400, hardly any­one bought one – but, as ever at Du­cati, there was a sub-plot: the 996cc mo­tor meant Carl Fog­a­rty could use it to fight for the 1998World Su­per­bike ti­tle.

It’s easy to as­sume 1998 was such a great year be­cause it was all about the hard­ware. But there were plenty of other fac­tors that co­a­lesced to form a per­fect storm of mo­tor­cy­cling per­fec­tion.

Cul­tur­ally 1997’s gen­eral elec­tion swept away the post-war es­tab­lish­ment and ush­ered in a fresh, youth­ful vi­tal­ity. Cre­atively, our mu­sic and art scene rev­elled in the brash, proud con­fi­dence of Brit­pop and pick­led sharks. Many of us felt rich enough to buy the bikes that mat­tered.

Life on the road was OK too. Most Gat­sos faced for­wards and we had a pretty good mind map of where they all were.and if we got pulled the chances were that star­ing at our boots and mut­ter­ing apolo­gies would get us a tick­ing-off in­stead of three points. Vfr800-own­ing Ian Bigg re­mem­bers it well: “You could go M25,A3, down to Box­hill at warp­speed know­ing damn well you weren’t go­ing to get nicked by a speed cam­era.and you could get away with stuff.

“GO AT WARP­SPEED KNOW­ING YOU WEREN’T GO­ING TO GET NICKED BY A SPEED CAM­ERA. YOU COULD GET AWAY WITH STUFF”

To­day you don’t even know till you get home and there’s a brown en­ve­lope you can’t ar­gue with.”

There was less traf­fic back then too. “If you went out on a Sun­day, you didn’t see that many cars and cer­tainly on coun­try roads you could crack on,” says 750 Srad-rid­ing Ed El­liott. “Nowa­days you’re just over­tak­ing all the time.”

Stats show traf­fic den­sity has in­creased nearly 20 per cent in the last 20 years – with a stag­ger­ing 71 per cent in­crease in vans. Ru­rala road and B roads have both seen a 25 per cent in­crease in traf­fic (in­ter­est­ingly, so has the num­ber of miles trav­elled by bike, up 21 per cent. On a grue­some note, for ref­er­ence, 468 bik­ers lost their lives in 1998 com­pared to 365 in 2015).

In 1998 new bikes were rel­a­tively af­ford­able; the 1997 boom in par­al­lel im­ports – when a few en­ter­pris­ing deal­ers re­alised there was noth­ing to stop them im­port­ing new bikes di­rectly from Europe and un­der-cut­ting of­fi­cial UK dealer prices thanks to a favourable ex­change rate – even­tu­ally, and painfully, forced the UK bike in­dus­try to re-align it­self and keep the price of new bikes rel­a­tively de­pressed.and a lot were be­ing sold: Suzuki punted over 1000 SRAD 750s, while Honda’s CBR600 was do­ing al­most 3000 bikes a year.the Fire­blade and ZX-6R sold over 2000 units each – even­tri­umph were sell­ing over 1000 T595 Day­tonas. By to­day’s stan­dards it was a heady time; the only bike shift­ing in the thou­sands ev­ery year in the UK cur­rently is BMW’S R1200GS.

The good news back then con­tin­ued: not only were bikes more af­ford­able; our time was more af­ford­able too – in 1998 the av­er­age new bike buyer was in their mid-20s to mid-30s.we were in the prime of bik­ing life fi­nan­cially, with no fam­ily to sup­port be­yond the part­ner we’d shacked-up with in a rented flat, and no re­quire­ment on our time or re­spon­si­bil­ity other than turn­ing up to work on time at least par­tially dressed. Lawns didn’t need to be mowed, kids shipped around, shop­ping done – all we had to do af­ter fin­ish­ing work ev­ery evening was go ride our bikes.tim Ste­wart: “I was 24, my bike was my only trans­port; I’d ride it to work, ride it home, then go straight out and ride another cou­ple of hun­dred miles with my mates. Nowa­days I don’t get a free evening, let alone a free week­end.”

And when you con­sider that more than 200,000 peo­ple turned up at the doors of the NEC for the 1998 bike show, to wel­come the 1999Yama­hayzf-r6, Suzuki’s Hayabusa and SV650, and Honda’s SP-1, it was (and still is) the high­est UK bike show at­ten­dance.the burg­ers, it has to be said, were still ’98-spec me­chan­i­cal­lyre­cov­ered eye­brow and sphinc­ter. Maybe that’s the fi­nal proof we need: 1998 was by that yard­stick, mea­sur­ably, the best bik­ing year ever (but don’t tell any­one it was the sixth wettest year since 1910).

An oven-ready Scott Rus­sell clearly lov­ing ev­ery minute of the R1 launch panto

Don’t for­get just how de­cent a bike the top value Fazer was too

Yamaha have a reg­u­lar habit of drop­ping bombshells on bike buy­ers

It’s Tom rid­ing a Fowlers. He’s well into it. Just look

The least suc­ces­ful Du­cati ri­val of all time

Many tried to ace the Duke – all met with fail­ure

The late John Robin­son uses sci­ence to prove what a hound the TL1000R is

Iall well and good in a wind tun­nel, not so hot on the road Inailed to the floor (as if any­one’s go­ing to nick it)

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