Behind Bars - The Last Real Sportbike

Up to Speed

By Jack Lewis, Photography by Riles & Nelson

"There's a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth." -Maya Angelou

When I was short, my dad owned the fastest car in the world. He would hop in the vintage 1917 Model T Touring, advance the timing and engage a series of levers, concentrating like a zeppelin pilot in a crosswind. When we putted off on our tall tires, the wind blew through us like destiny.

Once on the Columbia River Highway a hotshot pulled alongside us in his new, red Caddy convertible. My fighter-pilot dad looked down at him and bellowed, "Wanna race?" Disarmed, the guy smiled and waved us on ahead. I knew it was because we had the fastest car.

Less wise at 18, I wasn't too impressed with mom's new boyfriend-and even less so after I saw his bike. The weak-kneed old crock had a tractor seat, sand-cast cases and heads that peered out from their puny-bore cylinders like shy kittens. When he stepped on the foot starter, it commenced a rhythmic little cough, like a Thames River launch shuttling petticoats and picnic baskets.

I knew for a fact that my shaggy, dented Yamaha RD400 would flat bury that old thing. I ran Dunlop K81 TT100s, the most badass street rubber you could buy...

Thirty years on, with at least one bike that's closer akin to his lovely black BMW R75/2 than to my beloved two-smoke ratfighter, I incline more toward Ken Kesey's view: "To hell with facts! We need stories!"

If your motorcycle has no stories to tell, it's not much of a bike. Doesn't really matter how fast your "sportbike" is if you can't put up competitive stories-per-mile numbers.

Sportbikes aren't sport bikes anymore. You've most likely never seen, let alone ridden, a proper sport bike. No, your race-rep doesn't count, even if four out of five shoot-outs prefer it for dominating adversaries, attracting the opposite sex and reducing cavities.

When "sports cars" came to this country from Britain, they were a revelation to the oversprung, overpowered American market. Fun, affordable and more than a little bit impractical, they had a Palinesque relationship to weary facts and a strong association with pure, frolicsome fantasy. Any car that encourages you to wear goggles and stringback gloves is a high-quality dream-feeder. Corvette jockeys regularly stomped Triumph Spitfires and Austin Healey Sprites into the cold patch at racetracks, and wondered why the sporty car pilots wouldn't stop giggling.

Aircraft are similar. Speed is irrelevant to sport aviation because, as Daedulus knew, flying low and slow is where the action is. Wicked-fast, hugely sophisticated and cosmically expensive, Learjets are also boring as a bus. Or a 'Busa.

What fun is a bike that's so far beyond your capabilities (yeah, I'm lookin' at you) that you'll never tap its potential on real roads? Where's the fierce joy in hopping-up a bike that's so carefully developed you'll probably end up degrading its performance?

This summer, I was graced with the opportunity to ride next year's Harley-Davidsons. Now, I'm not a Harley guy. Turns out, though, Harley makes one hell of a sport bike. Getting "lost" from the group let me skip out on the afternoon photo session and spend a glorious 40 minutes or so tear-assing through bent forest roads with a pretty blonde wheeling a bright-red Mustang in hot pursuit.

Mustangs aren't the fastest cars out there, and the XR1200X isn't a real fast bike, but they both slide sweetly. They tell you stories. They feed your dreams. Like a good book, I wanted that road to wind on much farther than it did. It was a lovely fantasy of snarling speed, punctuated by occasional moments of grace ... and barely any fear.

Imperfect though it may be, the lanky XR talked to me like a Stearman's stick. It made me use technique over horsepower, engage body mechanics instead of depending on highly optimized chassis dynamics. The bike and I, we made each other sweat. The girl and I, we riffed harder on the laws of physics than we bent the rules of the road.

By the time we burst out of those sun-dappled curves feeding one-lane bridges between disordered ranks of salmonberries and coastal pine, my riding boots were evenly beveled and that fine girl wore a high flush in her cheeks that had shag-all to do with sunburn. You can't have much more sport than that and still be welcomed home.

That's the kind of dance I can appreciate. That's the sport I love.

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