The Words Between the Numbers

Sales brochures are full of specs and features, but as we all know, there’s much more to a motorcycle than the spec sheet. One of my favorite automotive journalists, Dave Coleman, who wrote for Sport Compact Car magazine back in the late Nineties, put it best when he said, “That’s why we put words between the numbers.” Something like that anyway, back around 2002. I’m going off of memory, but the idea stuck with me. In a twist of fate, he’s now one of my toughest competitors in the 24 Hours of Lemons races that I compete in when I take a break from motorcycles.

Trigger warnings: I’ll be talking about riding fast on the street. I’ll also be speaking derogatorily about sportbikes. Worst of all, I’ll be using the lowly V-Strom 650 as my reference point.

A recent hoon session on my beloved Mines Road illustrated the Fallacy of Specifications more clearly than I’ve ever experienced. I was riding Suzuki’s revised 2018 GSX-S750. Not quite a fire-breathing literbike, but rather a 100+ rear wheel horsepower middleweight with a screaming 11,000 RPM redline.

Artwork by Mr. Jensen

My rival? A goddamned V-Strom 650. A bone stock DL.

I’ve ridden Mines countless times, probably as many as my rival. I’ve faced him on all my personal bikes, and a few press bikes.

So what am I on about? Real world fast, what makes a bike work for me in the canyons. Why does the SV650 have such a cult following? Why do Triumphs and Harleys and now Indian dominate flat track? What’s with the guys on GSes hauling ass everywhere? Never has the importance of torque and drive been more clearly displayed than the first seven miles of Mines Road.

Here I was, on a spirited ride with a friend perched upon his trusty DL in his standard issue Aerostich. Not the first image to pop into your head when you think “fast canyon carver.”

If you’re familiar with Mines, you know it doesn’t suffer fools well. In the first three turns of this experiment, I found patches of displaced chipseal that let the rear tire of the GSX-S spin up, reminding me I was not on a race course. Still, I was out to put the GSX-S through its paces.

I hadn’t really thought of the DL650 as a rival for… well, anything, but suddenly I found myself eating rocks and dust, in the wake of the two-wheeled equivalent of a Toyota truck.

Hauling ass requires drive. Not just torque, not just horsepower. Drive is a blend of swingarm geometry, chassis stability, torque, gearing, and horsepower. Drive is what wins flat track races. Drive is also what allows a V-Strom 650 to walk away from a GSX-S750 on every single corner exit on a road like Mines. The GSX-S is a “faster” bike, but that’s irrelevant when the ‘Strom has such an uncanny ability to lay down its 44 foot-pounds of torque at 30-40 mph corner exit speeds. Meanwhile, the GSX-S needs to be going 50 mph before the engine is feeling its oats. It needs sweepers.

What about corner speed? Braking? The reality here is that cornering speed on the street is almost universal. Yeah, I can’t carry the same corner speed on a Gold Wing that I can on the GSX-S, but Editor Surj’s GS has never left me wanting for lean angle or corner speed. It’s almost unfair to mention the lowly SV650 in this context.

The fact of the matter is that lack of sight lines, variable road conditions, and my miniscule sense of self-preservation limit my cornering speed as well as most of the company I keep. I’ve been through these turns on so many different bikes, and the actual cornering speeds are so incredibly close that the splits have more to do with my mood that day than the bike I’m riding.

Even my beloved FXR carries about the same pace in these turns. It proved this very concept on a similar ride on Redwood Road, surprising a friend riding a very well sorted XR650R supermoto. Which bike won that round? Too close to call.

Both Redwood and Mines have a cornering speed limit much lower than the capabilities of most motorcycles on the market these days. The same can be said for a large percentage of the roads I ride in the Bay Area and beyond.

Braking is another story. The GXS-S was shod with modern sportbike rubber and equipped with dual 310mm brake rotors squeezed by four-piston, radial-mounted calipers. There’s no doubt that I could out-brake my nemesis. The rub here is that the GSX-S is actually faster than the DL. Remember, that little 750 does make around 112hp. The GSX-S would invariably gain on and catch up to the DL, right at the braking zone, but I was usually carrying about 30 more mph than the DL. I had a lot more speed to shed.

The exit drag race would repeat and I’d watch the DL get smaller for a second or two.

So, what’s a sporty-bike rider to do when faced with this problem? Well, I was able to pass my nemesis on a straightaway that really let the GSX-S flex its far superior muscles. But once passed, the DL just hung around in my mirrors, dogging me.

I started getting more aggressive with my body position, pushing a little deeper into each corner, braking a little later. Each of these things managed to increase my lead, but just by inches. Those inches don’t mean much when in the rearview you still see the gray Aerostich perched atop the ‘Strom,  motoring along effortlessly.

If Gold Wing Rage is real, V-Strom Rage must be some sort of mutated strain, because the way my blood boiled as those dual headlights bobbed along so closely as I wrung the neck of the little I-4 that couldn’t, putting all my body into hustling that bike.

The end of the road gave me a much-needed breather and a moment to reflect on what just happened. I was just dogged to the end by the frumpiest of motorcycles, while riding what would be perceived by many as the right equipment for this road. Never mind that the DL was equipped with a topcase holding the lighter gloves I would need for the ride home now that I had worked up a proper sweat. The ‘Strom was also still nearly full of fuel, its rider not even close to being as exhausted as me.

It’s not the numbers, or the components, or the rider aids. I’m not saying that these things don’t matter, don’t help, but the “secret weapon” is a bike that can exit a corner with the most authority. I love my obnoxious, oil-leaking FXR because it makes its living exiting corners with extreme prejudice.

Sure, inline fours have their place, and there’s a reason Erik Buell couldn’t dominate in WSBK. But while “race on Sunday, sell on Monday” has been a driving philosophy for both the auto and motorcycle industries for decades, the modern sport bike is as useful for rapid street riding as a Ferrari is for towing a trailer.

This story originally appeared in our February 2018 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.

Fish is CityBike’s resident V-Twin apologist, and President and Founder of the CityBike Foundation for the Preservation of Front Tires. This whole thing might just be excuses for getting beat by a ‘Strom. 

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