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Swordsmanship. 10/31/2006

The UJM, or Universal Japanese Motorcycle, has been with us for close on to 40 years now. With the introduction of the CB750 in 1969, Honda introduced what the British motorcycle manufacturers should have done then, but never did. The CB750’s engine configuration, an in-line 4 cylinder, with overhead camshafts, became the de-facto engine configuration for large capacity motorcycles produced in Japan. All of the big 4 manufacturers in Japan had their interpretation of the superbike, and this reached a rather silly zenith with Kawasaki’s Z1300, and Honda’s CBX 1100, with their 6 in-line cylinder configurations. Although smooth and powerful, these bikes were heavy, and as wide as the side of a barn. Kawasaki developed their 6 cylinder engine, water cooled it, and put it into their Voyager series touring bikes as a 1200. Honda retired the CBX in favour of their 2 four cylinder engines, the VF in a V-4 arrangement, and the CB inline 4 cylinders. There was Honda’s GL series, but that’s another story for another time.

However, there was one manufacturer who put all the rest of the Japanese motorcycle factories in the shadow. The GS and GSX series bikes from Suzuki were the fastest, most powerful, most reliable engines of their time. In the late 70s and early 80s, Suzukis were the superbike to have. Helped along by the success of Barry Sheene and Marco Luchinelli, every schoolboy wanted a Suzuki GS, and later, the GSX.

Aircooled, with dual overhead cams in the GS series, and later with 16 valves in the GSX, the Suzuki big bikes would do 140 m.p.h in standard form without breaking a sweat. They became, very quickly, the preferred engine of drag racers, who loved their bullet proof reliability, and ability to taking tuning abuse. And Suzuki, perhaps realising that their engine was deserving of something a little special, had a chat one day with a certain Herr Muth.

Hans Muth was a designer, and Suzuki had asked him to design a package for their biggest, most powerful engine to date, the GSX1100. He went away, and in 1980, unveiled the Suzuki GSX1100SX Katana in Köln. It was the first time that a design house had designed a complete motorcycle, along the lines of Pinifarina designing for Ferrari, and Bertone for Lamborghini. Interest in this motorcycle, to put it very mildly, was strong. So strong, in fact, that Suzuki had to make it a production motorcycle, or risk being lynched by the motorcycling public.

The swoopy, streamlined styling was ahead of its time. Literally. The next time the public saw a motorcycle as flowing as this would be the Honda CBR600 (known in United States as the Hurricane) in 1986. The Katana was perhaps the best interpretation of the unfaired superbike. The edgy styling, meant to represent the samurai sword, caught everyone’s imagination. I know it caught mine.

The first time I saw a Katana in the flesh was in 1982. I stood there, a little gob smacked by this bike. It was intimidating. It looked huge. To me, it represented power, and force. I wanted one. I looked at my GS550E, which was my first motorcycle, sitting next to Katana, and she suddenly looked dull and dowdy. It was like being with Minnie Mouse, and having Jessica Rabbit suddenly walk in. “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”

And the Katana looked bad. Bad as in good. Bad as in you knew this bike would eat children and small animals for breakfast. Bad as in this bike would crush anything standing in its path. And you controlled everything with your right wrist.

I never realised my dream of owning a Katana. I had many rides on them, one of them a very highly tuned dragster. By today’s standards of superbike performance, the Katana is very much old school. In the 80s, the Katana was high tech. Today’s riders would look at the Katana and laugh. But it is only today, after years of more of the same thing from all the factories, that are bikes starting to look intimidating again. I never did give up my quest to own a Katana. A proper one. The GSX1100S. Not the 750, or 650. Not even the flip up light GSX750S, of which Oz_Guy owns a couple of examples (one of which is ear marked for me, should the time and opportunity present itself).

So I had to content myself with one of these.

Tamiya produced this kit, in 1:6th scale. With chromed plastic parts, working suspension and rubber tyres. And lots of tiny screws and other fiddly bits. Don’t get me wrong, over the years I saw a couple of Katanas up for sale. One of them, probably the best example I had seen to date, was owned by an internet mate, Azi. He offered it to me, but sadly, I had to decline, because importing the bike into this country would have been more trouble than it was worth. I saw a couple locally, but they were in sad shape, and their owners were asking too much money.

So I just kept waiting, thinking that I would never get the chance to own of these dreams of my teenage years.

Until today. A conversation with Oz_Guy, based on some comments in this blog, plus other chats that we have had over the months, has resulted in my making some definite plans. Which will come to fruition by 2008 in Sydney, Australia. If it all works, then I will be finally, perhaps, at long last, be happy and at peace with my inner self.

Thanks Oz_Guy, you bitch. I’ll see you in Tokyo next year.

Soaring. 10/30/2006

Sitting high in the sky, in my tower, I have a rather commanding view of the north-west side of the city.  I usually have my back to the window, doing my usual thing in front of the laptop screen.  You know, pretending to work, surfing for porn, chatting.  The usual.

And this flash of golden brown caught my eye.

A sea eagle.  I apologise for the quality of the pic.  Double glazed tinted windows plays havoc with focus and exposure.  Plus grabbing the cam, and trying not to bang the lens up against the glass.

I was told by the HoC that there is a nesting pair, up on the spire of the building where we work.  Incredible, the way nature finds a way to survive in the midst of all this concrete and pollution.  I’ll be keeping an eye out for these birds in the future, and will try to get a picture capturing their grace and majesty.

Mack on Mac.

Yesterday night, I received an invite for a buddy’s open house. Since I attended last year, I thought I’d make the repeat performance this year, to see if there was a change in the menu.

Which there certainly was. Because this bottle wasn’t there last year.

A very heady, very smooth, very nice 18 year old single malt. To say I enjoyed it would have been putting it mildly.

I don’t remember much about the food. I know Paula Bear was there, as were Suanie and Penny. And my good-for-nothing, knows-everything, pain-in-the-arse brother, and the king of cool and suave himself. Lots of good conversation flowed around the table. Of course, when I say conversation, I actually mean that insults and piss taking were going on, lubricated by copious amounts of alcohol. Along with the declaration of the Independant Republic of Bangsar, fuelled with the promise of several raw eggs, and pints of Guiness.

And before ending this short filler post, I leave you with a picture of the night’s obligatory camwhore.

I love… 10/28/2006

…the smell of bacon in the morning.  Smells like…a myocardial infarction.

Sorry, there are no pictures of the food, because I was too damned busy eating.

Some things…

are just too beautiful for words…

But I’ll try anyway.

The machine that you see above has been described by me as “sex on wheels”. This was in reply to a journalist interviewing me for a lifestyle magazine article. She asked me why I happen to like bikes. I don’t know if you could consider my specific relationship with motorcycles a “lifestyle”. More like an all-consuming, and bloody expensive, passion. I mean, that would be like asking Michelangelo Buanarotti if he liked to paint. And before everyone starts flooding my comments box, yes, I am aware of the fact that Michelangelo preferred sculpting to painting. Just think about the metaphor a moment.

Getting back to the matter at hand. I once promised the readers of Hunting the Snark that I would relate the story of how the Silver Lady pictured above came to be in my possession. The Silver Lady, which is what I named my particular example, was the first of what was to become a series of limited edition motorcycles by Ducati. The legend has it that Ayrton Senna, who was, in my opinion, the greatest Formula One driver there ever was, visited the factory in Bologna one day in 1994. He saw the first of the production 916 Stradas rolling off the assembly line, which were based on the Massimo Tamburini prototype shown in late 1993. He then asked the factory to make one for him, with some go faster goodies which were destined for the then un-released SP (Serie Produczione) race version. Well, one fateful afternoon a few weeks later in San Marino, meant that Ayrton Senna would never take delivery of his special 916.

That’s the legend.

The actual result of Ayrton Senna’s factory visit was that a run of 300 machines would be produced, to be named “Ducati 916 Senna”’s. Not very imaginative, but a portion of the proceeds of the sale would be directed to the Senna Foundation, which he set up to help the needy children in Brazil. The 916 Sennas, as they came to be known, featured carbon fiber everywhere, with a special paint scheme. Along with some other bits and bobs, and a little brass plate on the triple clamp which gave the production number.

Now, if you don’t ride motorcycles, there is something you have to understand about the 916. They are expensive. They are fragile. They aren’t particularly fast, compared to the equivalent Japanese machinery. They aren’t all that light. What they are, is lightning quick, and with handling no one in the world can hold a candle to. No one. Not even Agusta. Not Aprilia. No one. Ducatis are a level above everyone else when it comes to motorcycle handling. And they do it with components available to every other manufacturer. How do they do it? It’s a very special kind of magic. 916s are very physical bikes, and reward rider input in positive ways. This is not the bike for the faint of heart, or if your idea of riding is a cruise and avoiding attention from the boys in blue. Everything about this bike screams “Look at me!”

So, in 1995, Ducati released the Senna for sale, worldwide. Every country was allocated a specific quantity, with the lion’s share going to the United States and Europe. More Europe, because the number of Americans at the time who appreciated Ducatis were few, and I think I know most of them. This country was allocated 2 units. A further 4 units came in later, according to the then local distributor, when an agent in another country did not take up his allocation.

Which wasn’t all that surprising. Ducati was asking you to pay another US$3000, over and above the then US$20K plus price of the standard 916 Biposto. And both bikes used the same engine. Which meant you were really paying the money for a special paint scheme, and some carbon fiber bits, with no obvious performance advantage. Plus other bikes didn’t need to have the engine torn apart every 6000 kilometers to have the timing belts changed. That is not a typo, you read it right. Although the factory said every 12,000, or thereabouts, some owners found out the hard way that the early 916 timing belts were not the most reliable of things. Amongst a litany of other reliability issues.

So this particualr example came to be bought by someone I happen to know.  This person is not known locally for his sympathy with motorcycles, being somewhat of a wheelie merchant.  And Silver Lady was definitely set up for wheelies.  Which is how I bought her from the second owner, who had bought her from the afore mentioned wheelie merchant.  The second owner happened to be a friend, and colleague who worked in a different division, for a different company, under the same main contractor.

The company he worked for had decided not to renew his contract, and he called me one day, asking if I could do him a favour by helping him sell the 916 Senna, while he returned to Spain to sort some things out.  I shrugged my shoulders, and said O.K.  I went over to his place to pick her up,  She was tired and dusty.  She was, at the time, a litte over 7 years old, and she was still wearing her original rubber.  The mileage on the clock wasn’t even over 10,000 kilometers.  I scratched my head at this.  A bike this old should have shown at least 3 times this figure.

I rode her home.  I cleaned her up.  I took her to the shop to get some fresh rubber put on, and the engine serviced.  I spoke to some of the guys in the shop, since 916s were an unknown quantity to me at the time.  I took her out for a ride in the mountains the next day, to put in some canyon strafing time, and see what she was like, before putting an advert in the papers.

When I got home, after a morning’s hard run in the mountians, I texted my friend in Spain, telling him that the Silver Lady was sold.

Girl Friday. 10/27/2006

Wearing rubber. 10/26/2006

Many times, I get asked by people about the tyres on the bikes I ride. It’s a little hard to miss them, especially on a modern superbike. Rear tyres on a superbikes are usually of 180 cross section, and with the minimalist rear fender that is the style these days, they are a prominent feature in the bike’s image. Unless you ride a 916, in which case, the recommended fitment is a 190 section rear tyre.

Oftentimes, I get asked what the tyres for the bike cost. I guess everyone has an idea of how expensive performance motorcycle tyres are. But very few non-riders are prepared for a pair of tyres for a modern bike being able to buy 3 sets of tyres for their standard 4 door saloon car. I often get a “you’re crazy” comment.

But, I’d like to point something out. A modern sportsbike tyre is a performance item. Like a titanium free flow exhaust, or a set of cams, or a re-mapped ECU chip. The amount of engineering and design that goes into a tyre these days, be it for a car or motorcycle, is incredible. Through a mixture of engineering design and chemistry, a modern tyre is expected to, and does, provide a comfortable ride, grip like crazy, wet or dry, and be puncture resistant under some severe conditions of use.

So my usual reply is that, when you look at a superbike’s pair of tyres, try and compare like for like. And since the equivalent to a superbike from the car world is usually a supercar along the lines of a Ferrari, Porsche or Lamborghini, I usually ask them to go price up a set of tyres for a supercar. At which point, bike tyres begin to look cheap by comparison.

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