Motorcycle Of The Year
Redefining the inline experience
There's nothing new under the sun, and indeed, there's nothing new under the fairing of Yamaha's latest YZF-R1. Cadillac introduced the first crossplane crankshaft to automobiles in 1923, and such cranks have motivated everything from Moto Guzzi Grand Prix bikes in the '50s to Valentino Rossi's present-day YZR-M1. You'd never guess as much the first time you ride the '09 R1. The crossplane engine feels, sounds and accelerates so different than any other inline-four that you can scarcely believe it isn't some cutting-edge innovation. If the crossplane crank works this well, why wasn't it adopted years ago?
Who would have guessed the simple act of shifting two crankpins 90 degrees would have such a dramatic effect on engine performance and character? The reconfigured crankshaft and irregular, "long-bang" firing order fractures massive power pulses into smaller chunks that arrive less violently at the rear contact patch. The benefit is felt immediately at the twistgrip, letting you get into the throttle earlier and harder with less likelihood of unpredictable rear-wheel slides-or sky-surfing high-sides. Controlling a liter-bike's overwhelming output has never been easier than on the new R1.
Improved traction management isn't the only upside to the crossplane design. Reduced crank shake and a counter-rotating balance shaft make this the smoothest ride this side of a Honda Gold Wing, and the syncopated exhaust note rivals any Latin twin. The chassis is likewise inspired by Rossi's M1, incorporating a MotoGP-derived bottom-link suspension capable of channeling all that added available traction. Painted, polished and pieced together like a high-end luxury car, the R1 is one of the most finely finished motorcycles of any category this year.
Modern sportbikes are engineered so close to the edge of the performance envelope that we're conditioned to expect incremental changes: a shaved pound here, an added pony there. It's almost unimaginable that any sportbike could surprise us with a novel riding experience that realigns our understanding of what a liter-class sportbike is, and what one can do. The 2009 Yamaha YZF-R1 is exactly that sort of bike-which is why it's our Motorcycle of the Year.
Motorcyclist Of The Year
The real American idol
It's been years since American race fans have had a home-country hero to root for on the World Superbike stage. This is what makes Ben Spies' both-barrels-blazing entry into the 2009 championship so exceptional. As of this writing, only seven rounds into his rookie season, Spies had already broken Doug Polen's 18-year-old record of six consecutive poles and won seven of 14 races, putting him just 53 points behind Noriyuki Haga in the championship chase. To accomplish so much so soon, working with an unfamiliar team on an unproven bike, is remarkable. To dominate on racetracks he had literally never seen before-even challenging circuits like Phillip Island and Monza-is almost unfathomable. In a world where American hegemony is fading, Spies reminds us that we're still capable of greatness.
Spies hails from Texas, like Polen and another former World Superbike Champion, Colin Edwards, and he embodies the same Wild West virtues of strength, purpose and unyielding confidence. These are essential traits for taming a 200-plus-horsepower motorcycle while fighting off 20 of the best riders in the world, all gunning for a podium spot. Spies isn't a trash talker-he's not much of a talker at all, in fact-and you'll never hear him make excuses or cast blame. Even when bad luck strikes-such as when he was punted off-track twice in his first SBK race at Phillip Island; when he crashed while challenging for the win at Valencia and Assen; when he ran out of gas in the final turn at Monza; and when his shift linkage broke at Kyalami-he remains unfazed. He just brushes off his shoulders, puts any upset behind him and, more often than not, exacts revenge by dominating the next race. It's becoming his signature.
Always collected, always classy, gracious off the bike and fiercely competitive anytime the visor is down, Ben Spies, World Superbike racer-and, we hope, 2009 World Superbike Champion-is the best thing to happen to American roadracing in years, which is why he's our Motorcyclist of the Year. Thank you, Ben. In a year full of bad news, you've given us something to cheer about.