The Naked Sport Bike: An Ode To Joy

By David Tong

2014 Triumph Street Triple
Triumph Street Triple R. Illustration courtesy of Triumph, USA.

Let me start with a quote from Milan Kundera, taken from "The Unbearable Lightness of Being":

"When we want to give expression to a dramatic situation in our lives, we tend to use metaphors of heaviness. We say that something has become a great burden to us. We either bear the burden or fail and go down with it, we struggle with it, win or lose. And Sabina, what had come over her? Nothing. She had left a man because she felt like leaving him. Had he persecuted her? Had he tried to take revenge on her? No. Her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her lot was not the burden, but the unbearable lightness of being."

I hope that this does not make me into some kind of literary stuffed shirt. I have not yet read Milan's book, although I plan to. Nor does the title of this article purport to show my writing as anything worthy of comparison to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

What, then? This is an epiphany, a Truth about motorcycling that hit me like a thunderclap.

I have long advocated the versatility of the sport touring bike. One with sufficient comfort, power, speed, handling/corner clearance, range and the ability to take its rider, passenger and their personal kit across long distances, whether they be over arrow-straight highways or curvy mountain passes. I admire them for their combination of abilities, but this piece is to dissect my love of the motorcycle as an entity.

To me, this lightness of being is best expressed in what is known today as a naked (no fairing) sport bike. Also as a sport-standard and derogatorily as a "hooligan bike," these offer a rather interesting combination of sustained speed prowess and control, while being minimally equipped with the things that take away from the dynamic and elemental feel of a motorcycle.

Once, long ago, I worked for a man who built 1,025cc street legal versions of what were then termed racing Superbikes. (Where are you now, Harry Maillet?) By not only hot-rodding the engine, fitting higher foot pegs and a somewhat lower handlebar, he created a de-facto class of bike with superior execution and attention to detail. They were prominently featured in a number of articles of the top U.S. motorcycle magazines in the early 1980s, Cycle and Cycle World.

During my very short time as a motorcycle salesman in the early 2000s, I opined to a potential customer looking for a first ride that it was not peer pressure or a desire to join an interesting activity that he should consider, but the feeling that you simply could not live your life without a motorcycle. A rather metaphysical proposition, truth be told, yet I think it holds true for those of us who really love the dynamic nature of a motorcycle that excels in all aspects of motion.

The formula is simple. It must not be faired or carry luggage, except minimally and temporarily. The motor and wheels are exposed. It must have a 1.0 inch to 3.5 inch rising handlebar of conventional tubular design. it must go, stop and corner nearly as well as one of the faired, full bore sport bikes so beloved by over-amped 20 year olds, without the ergonomic comfort compromises that those bikes also embody.

I have owned a number of naked sport bikes over the years. My first motorcycle was a 1979 Yamaha RD400F Daytona Special, then a 1977 BMW R100S and, most recently, a 1995 Ducati M900 Monster.

The more relaxed rider triangle on most naked sport bikes allows the rider to ride for more extended periods of time, which is especially joyfully when on mountainous backroad sojourns. There is no safety concern about dragging foot pegs, brake and shift levers, stands, or even boot edges. They look pretty, for something exciting should be pretty, but mainly it is the feel of the bike that attracts.

When you have a motorcycle weighing well under 500 pounds with between 60 and 90 rear wheel horsepower, a smooth, quick shifting gearbox and linear steering it is a formula for great dynamic joy. A bike that the rider is so in tune with, that it operates as an extension of his or her will, nearly a subconscious act.

I am the last guy in the world to state that I am the end all of motorcycle riding. I have not raced, nor ever really wanted to. I did want to become the best street rider I could be, and for decades I went between the larger sport touring BMWs with which I covered the vast majority of my mileage, as well as the naked sport bike as a mental addendum.

Last year, I had the privilege of riding a 2014 Triumph Street Triple 675R. Typically, I have reservations about so-called middleweight displacement motorcycles, as they usually lack the breadth of low and mid-range torque that makes exiting corners fun. Before I rode the Triumph, I had previous experience on both the Yamaha R6 and the Honda CBR600F4i for mental comparison.

The Triumph hit me like a thunderclap. It was an epiphany that brought home to me the feeling of motorcycling Truth. A bike for which there are no excuses, that it would challenge any sane street rider to become a better rider. No need to adjust one's riding style to compensate for the bike's limitations.

It has power in spades. It has the handling and steering feel, cornering clearance, oh-so-slick gear change (up or down), sexy looks, a decent sized gas tank and binders that feel like catching the third wire when landing on an aircraft carrier.

While I am generally fond of the Hinckley Triumph motorcycles and have several favorites in their various lines, the Street Triple personifies why I love motorcycles. Just a few corners would probably reduce most experienced street riders to joyful babbling. It sure busted a bunch of my prejudices concerning what, or how big, a motorcycle needs to be.

To use an automotive comparison, a Detroit auto executive once said, "I can sell an old man a young man's car, but I cannot sell a young man an old man's car." I am not sure if the same guy also said, "Pretty fenders and horsepower sell every time," but that is what I am talking about here. The competent sports or GT car are the four-wheeled equivalent of a naked sport bike.

Thus, I would like to paraphrase Miss Kundera's book title: "The Incredible Lightness of Being," and how the modern naked sport bike re-opened my jaded eyes and backside to what appealed to me about motorcycles in the very beginning. I can hear the Fourth Movement of Beethoven's Ninth in my head now, on an imaginary ride up Angeles Crest Highway.

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Copyright 2015 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.