Naked Bikes Rule!

New-School Cool Takes On Old-School Cred. A Sideways Leer At The Naked Class, Circa 2005

By Charles Everitt, Photography by Kevin Wing

In the beginning, all bikes were naked, just like Adam and Eve. And it was good.

And lo, the naked bike begat the touring bike, the cruiser bike, the sportbike and then ... the naked bike.

And then it was all good.

An oversimplification, perhaps, but you get the picture, ironic though it might be that the bike through which motorcycles evolved is now considered a class of its own. The genre has a few distinguishing characteristics of its own, too: attitude and a general sense of naughtiness.

Such traits have made the naked bike class swell at an alarming rate, with new models arriving every year. This year is no exception, with longtime purveyor of attitude and naughtiness Triumph coming back hard with its totally revamped and blazing-fast Speed Triple. Then there's the previously staid, stodgy BMW, which has cut directly to the chase with its 140-bhp, in-your-face K1200R.

We thought it would be interesting to see how these latest two rude boys of motorcycling measured up against another pair of well-established naked nimrods, Yamaha's R1-derived FZ1 and the first production naked bike, Ducati's diabolical Monster, but in top-shelf trim, powered by the firm's previous-generation 996 superbike engine. Bad company, to be sure, each reflecting their countries of origin.

The setup alone would make it virtually impossible to declare one true naked-bike winner. On top of that, though, is that naked bikes are all about the right attitude and state of mind more than anything else-unlike sportbikes, for instance, where the criteria are all the same and all agreed upon. Instead, consider this to be a snapshot sampler of motorcycling's naked bike class circa 2005.

So join us as we take a lively, leering, lip-smacking look at how the ecdysiast all-stars have evolved in one of motorcycling toughest, newest-and oldest-classes.

Yamaha FZ1
Since it hit the beaches here in 2001, Yamaha's muscular FZ1 has been Japan's quintessential naked bike, and as such it set the formula in stone for almost all that followed: Take a first-tier sportbike-in this case the first-generation R1-then dumb it down ... that is, tune it for torque, build a more traditional frame, soften the suspension and take the edge off handling via increased rake, trail and wheelbase. It's been a successful formula for Yamaha, especially because much of the R1 still shone through.

Against the backdrop of newer competitors such as Triumph's Speed Triple and BMW's K1200R, though, the FZ1 has begun to feel a little soft. Indeed, you can tell a lot about this latest FZ1 just by parking your cheeks on the saddle. Right off the bat you know you're on something very different from other naked bikes in this bunch, as your fundament sinks into the soft foam and you note the FZ1's large, longish feel. Then perform the super-sophisticated suspension test, pumping on the fork and bouncing up and down on the saddle. The FZ strokes quickly through a lot of its travel, both ways.

Navigating the ravaged streets of downtown Los Angeles confirms those first impressions: The soft yet supple (and fully adjustable at both ends) suspension soaks up paving irregularities with aplomb, including those that would have you posting like a jockey on the Speed Triple. Urban riding points up a trait often associated with R1s-the lack of extreme low-end punch one associates with literbikes.

Indeed, the FZ1 has the slowest 0-60-mph time of the bunch. Tall gearing in first through fourth and the second-heaviest weight in the group conspire to hobble the bike at lower rpm. So does unremarkable power output below about 8000 rpm; the K1200R simply makes more power everywhere, and the Speed Triple slaughters the FZ1 until the Yamaha hits its top-end rush, peaking at 128.5 bhp at 9750 rpm. "Everyone thinks it's a midrange engine, but it's not," says Executive Editor Carrithers. "Try to go fast on it and it wants to spin past 8000 rpm."

Softish suspension usually means sloppy handling when you're scratching along back roads, but the FZ1 continues to surprise as it always has. The bike does use much of its travel, but in a well-controlled way, even after dialing in substantial amounts of preload and rebound damping plus less compression. Mind, this is no quick-flick machine; the weight, relatively long wheelbase and slow steering geometry ensure it. But the steering is neutral and precise, and the powerful brakes scrub off plenty of speed before you tip it in.

"The more you ride the Yamaha, the better you like it," says Editor Boehm. "The whole package just works. And the suspension feels really well balanced front-to-rear, though the softness means you don't feel remarkably connected to the road."

The biggest complaint voiced by every tester concerned the flat, high-rise handlebar, which made them feel as if they were hanging from a chin-up bar. But a handlebar is fairly easy (and cheap) to change, and the stocker's sit-up-and-beg riding position is far easier to tolerate for long distances than the near-racer-tuck so common today.

In fact, as Carrithers says, "The Yamaha is really comfy-arguably the best for covering ground out on the freeway. It's big and soft and there's plenty of room for a pillion. It's practical enough that you could tour on it. "There's not a whole lot of 'tude there," he continues, mentioning a key naked bike character trait. "Actually, it's sort of an anti-naked bike."

True enough. And as we mentioned up front, a proper naked bike has to have emotional content that stems from a particular attitude and state of mind. Stock, the FZ1 is big, soft, fast and polite-only one of those is a trait normally associated with a streetfighter-style naked bike.

But the operative word here is stock. By remaining virtually unchanged since its introduction, the Yamaha has the lowest price here, $6650 less than the BMW. That kind of cash can buy a valve kit for the fork, a quality rear shock, a pipe and jet kit, a handlebar, sticky tires and some extremely nice riding gear.

In short, Yamaha's FZ1 has performance and value in near-equal numbers. In which case you can supply any remaining requisite attitude all on your own.

Ducati Monster S4R
No other production naked bike has a pedigree that can touch that of Ducati's iconic Monster. Il Mostro leapt from the pen of designer Miguelangel Galluzzi as the combination of Ducati's signature steel-tube trellis frame from its 851/888 Superbikes and the air-/oil-cooled 904cc Pompone V-twin from Ducati's supersport range. The result hit the halls of the Cologne Messe at the 1992 motor show with an impact still felt today. In a single stroke Ducati legitimized the naked bike concept, and it was only a matter of time before others followed.

One of those others was Ducati's own hot-rod S4R in '01, which took the concept a step farther by utilizing the liquid-cooled 996cc V-twin previously seen in the firm's Superbikes. Now in its fifth year and relatively unchanged, can the Monster S4R still take on all comers?

Climb onto the deeply scooped saddle (but not as radically so as the Triumph Speed Triple's) and check out your office. Ducatis have long had a high bling-factor, and it's especially evident in the S4R. In a way Harley-Davidson owners could understand, the S4R Monster puts many of its mechanical bits on display, like jewelry. The Brembo front brake and clutch hardware with their separate master cylinders and fluid reservoirs have a rich gold hue, as do the TiN-coated sliders of the 43mm fully adjustable Showa fork. The desmoquattro engine, previously content to hide behind slippery fairing panels on the Superbike, looks busy as its various surfaces vie for your attention. Some find the overall effect sublime; others ... well, Carrithers said the S4R "looked like it had crashed into the plumbing department at Home Depot."

Get rolling and right off you notice the stiff clutch pull and the shortage of steering lock-incongruous given a naked bike's comparative emphasis on urban riding. Still, those are longtime quibbles about Ducati's Monsters, easily fixed via the aftermarket (a common solution to Ducati shortcomings in general). The handlebar is a problem, however; the aluminum Magura bar is peculiarly shaped due to sweep restrictions placed on it by the fuel tank, and the reach to it is quite long. Swapping it for a different bend means going taller, something many Monster owners don't want.

Otherwise, the S4R comports itself nicely in the city. Throttle response is crisp and immediate, while the bike's low weight (459 pounds wet, the lightest in this crowd) and relatively short gearing make the Monster feel aggressive and punchy. "Short gearing?" you say. "Not possible." Well, it is; overall gearing in the first three ratios is significantly lower than any of these stablemates. The top three, though, are typically Ducati-tall. Very soft springs and damping yield a ride quality that's predictably plush.

Get past the city limits, however, and the Monster quickly begins to suffer at the hands of its latest competitors. That storming 996cc desmodromic V-twin might have been able to strap it on the inline-fours back in the day, but not anymore. In pure acceleration, the S4R can barely hold a ZX-6R at bay, let alone outperform it. In this company the Ducati falls behind a bit. Its light weight and rather short first three gears can't make up for the tall upper gears and a general shortage of horsepower at almost any rpm. Which was perfectly OK for the staff wrists, as they complained about the Brembo brakes' nonlinear response. Squeeze the lever and you get decent stopping power. Squeeze harder, though, and you get more than you bargained for.

When the roads get twisty, the S4R feels somewhat out of its depth. With the stock suspension settings the Monster rides nose-high, especially with a 200-pound pilot on board, which doesn't help the oddly tail-heavy weight distribution. Adding preload doesn't help much; the rear spring is simply too soft. And the long reach to the handlebar just makes matters worse. The rider feels off-balance, as if he's been dragged forward across a pool table by his shirt collar. Even after setting up the bike to Ducati's suggested specs-raise the fork tubes in the triple clamps 5mm, increase rear spring preload to eliminate static sag and bump compression and rebound damping at both ends-neither end offered crisp control or feel. In handling and acceleration, the Monster S4R seems a generation behind its latest competitors.

No one enjoys pointing out an engaging old friend has been left behind by the times, but there it is. True, the Monster S4R enjoys the esteem of being the original, and arguably the highest-profile naked bike in motorcycling. And as with most Ducatis it makes a fine kit-bike to fettle with thousands of dollars of aftermarket goodies, though that's pretty hard to swallow given the $13,495 asking price.

Besides, we've long heard rumors of an all-new high-performance and more aggressive-looking Monster, one with a newer, even tricker chassis along with a real-deal 999 Testastretta engine with its own pedigree of World Superbike championships. Just like the original, such a Monster would again give its competitors a new target.

BMW K1200RTesting multiple bikes at once is practically guaranteed to yield conflicting opinions. But even within this extraordinarily diverse universe of motorcycles, BMW's newly minted K1200R generated more opinions than any other motorcycle. For example, every single tester said, "The K1200R is just a blast to ride!" "I'd never imagine this from BMW!" And Barry Burke, our resident wrist who's scarily at home on Suzuki's fire-breathing '05 GSX-R1000, said, "This is the first BMW I'd seriously consider owning."

The reason behind such a love fest between people who can barely agree on where to eat lunch? Well, there are about 140-141.1, to be exact, the number of peak horsepower the K's inline-four bats out at 10,250 rpm. That makes the K1200R the most powerful stock production BMW motorcycle ever seen, and it gives the bike undeniable performance and presence. It also means the K-bike dusts the other three motorcycles here in every meaningful measure of speed, from the quarter-mile to top-gear roll-ons.

But the rest of the motorcycle isn't just a life-support system for a crackerjack engine, nosiree. BMW loaded the K1200R with every techno-trick in the firm's arsenal: There's the Fior/Hossack-style Duolever front end that separates braking and suspension forces for reduced front-end dive when braking on corner-entry; servo-assisted EVO brakes with optional ABS; and optional electronically adjustable ESA suspension. In certain ways the K1200R makes other motorcycles seem stone-ax primitive.

Some of that technology, however, led to another unanimous opinion. The BMW is the least intuitive bike here when you first get on it. It just takes some getting used to. That's true of many BMWs, and it's especially so with the K1200R. At first, almost every control input feels distinctly artificial. Throttle response from the fuel-injection system is precise and linear about 99 percent of the time. For that other 1 percent it's impossible to smoothly crack the throttle from fully closed, so you invariably get slightly more thrust than you wanted when exiting a turn. Likewise, the response from the EVO brakes isn't entirely linear, which is disconcerting until you gain enough confidence to really hammer them. Lastly, our test bike's steering damper suffered from overly aggressive damping, so slow-speed steering was a series of slightly incorrect inputs followed by correction after correction. BMW even changed the steering damper on our test bike, but the problem remained. A K1200S we rode at the same time didn't evidence this shortcoming.

Most of those peculiarities could be overcome with increased saddle time, though it's worth mentioning other more conventional motorcycles don't display such quirks. Still, the K1200R makes the learning experience worthwhile. As Burke said, "Once you get used to it, you can go so quickly and smoothly on the BMW." In tighter corners, you can use the engine's remarkable flexibility to make haste more easily than with the other three. "Just leave it in one gear and ride it like a tractor," opined Carrithers.

Tighter turns, though, also highlighted the additional effort it took to steer the BMW compared with the others. That's hardly surprising; the K1200R has a 62.2-inch wheelbase-6 inches longer than the Speed Triple's-with steering geometry among the slowest here, along with the highest wet weight. Such things make for outstanding stability, but they also guarantee the bike simply cannot be as nimble as smaller, lighter competitors.

One high-tech touch that's definitely an advantage is the optional ESA; just push a button to choose from nine different rear spring and damper settings. Both the Comfort and Normal damper positions, with rear preload set for a solo rider, served up a creamy smooth ride over pockmarked pavement for average-weight riders (165 to 170 pounds); for faster stuff you can just punch the button on the left handlebar to dial in the Sport damper position on the fly. Fast-guy Burke did notice some patter from the front end in rippled corners-an excess of high-speed compression damping-and would have liked more feel from the front end, but he was largely alone in that sentiment.

There was one last point on which every tester did agree. And that is the K1200R, while a magnificent, sophisticated piece of technology and engineering, astoundingly quick and with all-around capabilities almost equal to the Yamaha's, still isn't the nonpareil naked bike. It's just a little bit too big and heavy, too practical and yet too quirky to provide the necessary big-time Looney Tunes experience on two wheels one expects from a true naked bike.

Triumph Speed Triple
Rather than attempt to sustain the suspense (besides, you looked ahead, didn't you, you weasels?), we'll just tell you: Triumph's new-for-'05 Speed Triple is the best naked bike your money can buy.

It earns such accolades for reasons that go like a dart to the heart of what a naked bike is-and what it isn't. For instance, naked bikes are not motorcycling behemoths, such as large-bore tourers, nor are they slow or even particularly practical. They are, however, agile, quick and a five-alarm hooligan hoot to ride.

By simple logic, a proper naked bike must be fairly small and compact to be appropriately agile. Small physical size invariably implies light weight as well, both for nimble handling and optimum acceleration. Essentially it's a formula for sportbike dynamics, but without the seemingly requisite ergonomics that can make such motorcycles painful to ride for some.

It just so happens Hinckley's latest version of the Speed Triple fills that bill with tantalizing ease. To begin with, for a literbike it's marvelously lightweight and compact. At 490 pounds wet, only the Monster is lighter in this bunch. With its 56.2-inch wheelbase the Triumph is the shortest by 0.5 inch compared with the Monster S4R, 0.9 inch less than the FZ1 and a whopping 6 inches shorter than the BMW. Combine its light weight and short wheelbase with the most radical steering geometry of the four and you've got a motorcycle that turns like a rabbit in Reeboks.

Of course, well-thought-out suspension rates contribute to the Hinckley hooligan's handling prowess as well. Riders of average build will find them just right, perhaps surprising a hapless sportbike pilot who's not on his game. The Triple does exhibit some initial harshness over sharp paving irregularities, but for most riders that's a welcome trade-off for how well it works when you're crowding your luck. Fast guy Burke says "the suspension is just a little soft; you have to be riding really hard to notice it. But it's stable, steers well and holds a line well through corners. Great brakes."

"Man, it just works great," says Boehm. "You can get on it and immediately go fast. The engine makes great power everywhere; it never hits hard anywhere, it's just always flexible." True enough; if only the overall gearing wasn't so ridiculously tall, the Speed Triple could have posted better acceleration numbers. It's certainly got the power where you'd want it: down low and in the middle. In the lower three-quarters of its rev range, the Hinckley Triple humiliates the FZ1, and what it does to the Monster is nigh on to criminal; it even clouts the big-horse Beemer up to 4250 rpm.

Carrithers concludes, "This is pretty close to being the perfect street motor." The way the Speed Triple sweeps from apex to apex in this great, growling rush would make you a believer, too. Only the occasional off-idle hiccup on corner exits blots the Triumph's back-road rsum. The engine's also surprisingly cold-blooded for a modern fuel-injected powerplant.

Head back to the city after a day of playing on your favorite corners and you'll see the Triumph is just as capable, for many of the same reasons. Small, light and agile, it makes short work of traffic as you exercise the torque-rich bottom and midrange. For most the ergos are just right, too, though some testers found the seat too scooped out, limiting them to a single position. Taller riders felt they had to keep pushing themselves away from the nicely shaped handlebar.

Is there nothing, then, at which the Speed Triple can't excel? Yep, there's one: extended freeway travel. Our test bike had a nasty high-frequency/low-amplitude vibration from 4500 rpm (70 mph in sixth gear) to 6000 rpm that put some testers' hands to sleep in less than 30 minutes. For another type of motorcycle that shortcoming might be cripplingly limiting, but for the Speed Triple it's just annoying. Practicality, after all, isn't something the Speed Triple needs to address.

What the Triumph does need to do, however, it does brilliantly. When it comes to the hot buttons a naked bike is supposed to press, the Speed Triple nails them time after time. It triple-distills the essence of motorcycling into something pure and crystal clear, leaving behind a precipitate of the unnecessary or the distracting. And yet it doesn't take itself too seriously; where motorcycles such as Suzuki's GSX-R1000 or Kawasaki's ZX-10 are serious as a heart attack, the Speed Triple is playful.

In short, the Speed Triple gives you virtually everything you want from motorcycling, and almost nothing you don't need.

Off The Record
Mitch Boehm

We just love these things. Can ya tell? Not just these four strippers, but the entire naked bike class. With some OEs now giving us 100-proof sportbikes shorn of plastic and fitted with livable ergos, we're delirious-though it is ironic the best ones are coming from Europe and not Asia. I mean, can you imagine an R1 or ZX-10R done like this? Boggles the mind. My fave is the Ducati. I know ... the other bikes are all better functionally and two of them are far better values. But the look of the S4R and the sound it makes at eight grand it just too delicious to ignore. A bit of suspension tuning, some motor work ... it wouldn't take much.

Tim Carrithers
When it comes to money, and most things usually do, the FZ1 undercuts everything else here with plenty left for new handlebars and sticky tires. But what if I actually rationalize blowing $15K on a motorcycle? That leaves the BMW.

Styling evokes the Heckler & Koch MP5K submachine gun-not all bad in L.A. Steering isn't exactly intuitive, but give the Duolever a chance and one 80-mph sweeper will change your mind. The naked K generates more confidence in fast corners than anything but the Monorail at Disneyland. It also pulls harder and offers a significantly greater selection of available destinations.

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By Charles Everitt
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