A Day With Josh Hayes and His Graves Yamaha YZF-R1 | Thor’s Hammer

By Zack Courts, Photography by Brian J. Nelson

This is going to be fun. A fresh set of slicks, a beautiful racetrack, and a bright sunny day to sample the most capable superbike on the Continent. That’s what I kept telling myself, anyway, because riding motorcycles is supposed to be fun. It’s about feeling the wind flow past you, carving through corners, and experiencing the hum of the engine. We’ve all enjoyed those days on a motorcycle. It’s what keeps us coming back. Then why did everyone I tell about my opportunity to ride Josh Hayes’ championship-winning Yamaha YZF-R1 chuckle and raise an eyebrow? I told myself they were crazy, and tried not to remind myself how nervous I should be to ride a bike with such an impressive racing pedigree.

At first sight, the R1 was not terribly inviting. It sat stoically in the Graves pit on a workbench, facing away from me, with tire warmers on. One mechanic buttoned on the bellypan while another warmed the engine up with quick revs. The sound is extremely menacing, each blip of the throttle ending with a flurry of cracks and pops as though the unburned gas is backfiring from fear alone. Picture Hannibal Lector clearing his throat as someone unbuckles his straightjacket.

Shod with fresh Dunlop slicks hot from the warmers and still barking its crossplane threats, the bike taunted me. I swung my 6-foot-2 frame over the grumbling monster and was met with my first surprise: I could barely get both feet flat on the ground. The seat is narrow but incredibly tall, the combined result of a stiff shock and a lot of ride height. Last time I was on a bike this tall it had knobbies and a kick-starter.

Fortunately, I didn’t have much time to think about the Yamaha’s pedigree or worry about crashing an undoubtedly six-figure motorcycle. My initial impressions blurred into a few laps of euphoria and panic. The bike rocketed out of every corner while the chassis and brakes jointly laughed at my attempts to use them. Every time I touched the brake lever it seemed like I was instantly going too slow and had to accelerate to get to the apex, and when I thought I was slicing swiftly through a corner my knee was still inches from the ground.

In my first session I wheelied accidentally countless times while only opening the throttle fully on the front straightaway and briefly in the back of the circuit in fourth gear. Hayes, on the other hand, was wide open 10 times a lap according to the bike’s data logging system. I had serious work to do. Amid the roller-coaster of emotions—joy and terror careening back and forth—I began forming some questions in the hopes of wrapping my head around this overwhelming machine.

For one thing, why is there such tremendous grip from the rear tire? A stock literbike, even with race rubber, squats noticeably before digging in and eventually spinning the rear tire under power. The Graves R1 planted itself mid-corner and, no matter how much power I fed through the rear contact patch, stayed pitched forward, ready to attack. When it felt like the rear contact patch should break loose under power the bike simply dug in harder and fired toward the next corner. No drama, no pumping up and down from the shock, just pure acceleration. Sure, some credit goes to the huge 195/65-17 Dunlop slick mounted astern, but there’s more.

Rick Hobbs, Hayes’ crew chief, explained to me later, “This bike has quite a bit of swingarm angle, with the pivot pointed down to the axle, so we end up with a lot of mechanical grip.” In other words, when power is applied and the rear suspension squats (albeit minimally), the swingarm pushes the wheel back as it pivots and helps the tire dig into the pavement. With the relatively stiff shock and high ride height, the bike feels too rigid to work properly. But, let me tell you, work properly it does.

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