I was out riding the Rune today on a glorious sunny day here on South Africa’s Garden Route, counting my blessings. South Africa is like biking heaven for someone like me who has spent so many years riding in the rain, sleet, snow and ice of the UK and Ireland, endured some horrendous wet weather in unexpected places like France, Italy and Nevada (really!), and feeling the blood almost boil in my brain in the 47-degree heat of Dubai.
Petrol is cheaper than in the UK (okay, that’s not saying much), the roads are relatively empty and there are vast areas of the country that are sparsely populated, which is how I like it. My V-Strom is too heavy to tackle the countless dirt roads that can quickly turn from dirt to rock, but it’s also a wonderful country for off-road riding. Maybe a lightweight trail bike lies somewhere in my future.
I stopped for a while at Keurboomstrand (above) and watched the surf crash on the deserted sandy beach, and my mind turned to the best bikes I’ve ridden and in some cases owned over the past 49 years. Is there a Top 10 in there somewhere?
I decided that the Rune tops the list, even though I’ve only owned it for six weeks. It just ticks all my boxes, period: looks, power, feel. Second place is tough, though. The Honda CBX 1000 was probably the most thrilling of the bikes I rode in my road-testing days, because it looked awesome for its time and felt and sounded so right. Traffic would pull over on motorways without being flashed because that wide engine and six pipes clearly suggested I was in a hurry – even if I wasn’t.
But then there was also the Laverda Jota 1000 triple that I rode back in the late ‘70s; I can still remember the grin that lit up my face when I picked it up from my friend and fellow journalist Bruce Preston’s house and pressed the starter button. The engine was part guttural roar, part howl, and the bike flew like a scalded cat. I recall one scary day when the throttle cable broke in the middle of nowhere, on greasy English country roads, in torrential rain. I had to wrap the broken inner cable around the gloved fingers of my right hand and engage it very gingerly, while steering with my left hand. It was a fierce, quick-action throttle and it took every ounce of effort to ride that bike about 20 miles to a village where an agricultural workshop kindly soldered a new nipple back on to the cable, and the fun could resume.
And there was the outrageous MV Agusta 850 Boxer, a fully faired exotic bike that cost an unbelievable £4,500 (about $7,000) in the 1970s and did a genuine 140 mph, just like the Jota. Only this was an MV, which was rarer than hens’ teeth back in those days. Resplendent in red, white and blue livery, it looked like a million dollars. Fire it up and the sound was out of this world as air was sucked in through four open bellmouths and pumped out through four chrome baffle-less exhausts.
I remember riding it to collect my wife from work one evening in East London (the UK one – there’s another in South Africa). She worked a few floors up in an old building down a long road in an industrial estate, yet she was waiting for my, all booted and suited, outside – she’d heard the bike from a long, long way off! As with many exotic bikes of that era, however, it wasn’t perfect: the clutch cable snapped about 10 metres into the infamous Blackwall Tunnel in East London. The traffic was stopped in the early morning rush hour, and I was faced with making a U-turn and pushing the MV back out to the tunnel entrance, probably earning my own mention on that morning’s traffic bulletins.
And of course there’s the beautiful Ducati SportClassic 1000, which has graced my garage for the past eight years and remains one of my all-time favourite rides. It looks just right, sounds terrific with its Termignoni two-into-one racing exhaust, and is a sheer joy to ride. I say this despite the fact that it spat me off at 120 km/h a year ago, almost to the day, courtesy of an unexpected and unexplained straight-line tank-slapper. I rebuilt myself and the bike and we’re both as good as new, thankfully. I’ve heard that the bike may have been built down to a price and that the wheels are too heavy for the sporty steering geometry, and that replacing them with lighter after-market wheels helps, as does replacing the front forks and rear suspension, but I’m not the sort of person who splashes the cash so willingly. It’s still an awesome bike.
Right up there with the CBX, the Jota, the MV and the Ducati is the Suzuki TL1000S, which sits alongside the SportClassic in my garage. I’ve owned this 1997 model, in green, since 2005 and I bought it in honour of another I’d owned in Hong Kong for all of 24 hours in 2000. That red TL had put a broad smile on my face and boasted the creamiest, silkiest gearbox I’ve ever sampled, not to mention a fabulous sound from its Yoshimura exhausts, but it was totally impractical for my daily use in the bustling traffic of Hong Kong, and so I traded it for a more practical Yamaha XJ1300 and then traded that a month later for a Honda Valkyrie.
The current green TL’s handling has been tamed by a Maxton rear suspension system and has never given me a scary moment, even though ’97 TLs were notorious for, yes, tank-slappers. But here is a bike that is faster than either a Jota or a ‘70s MV and can beat the acceleration of a CBX. If they are your benchmarks (and they have been mine over the years) then the Suzuki beats them all. If you’re used to riding a Hayabusa or a Yamaha R1 or a Firebird, then all of this will seem rather tame. But it’s exciting to me, always was and always will be. I rode mine at 150 mph (240 km/h) once on a deserted highway in the Middle East and it felt smooth and steady as a rock, although there were consequences: the wind opened the three zippers on the rucksack I was wearing on my back, unbeknown to me at the time, and out flew my chequebook and my passport. Losing your passport is not something you want to do while living in a foreign country, believe me. The only good news was that the £10,000 (about $16,000 back then) I’d just withdrawn from the bank to buy a car was safely tucked inside my leather jacket…
So there are five candidates for second place in my top 10, all of them worthy, all of them hugely desirable, and maybe not-so-coincidentally all of them now enormously valuable or appreciating rapidly. But, in truth, second place doesn’t go to any of them. To find out what bike pips them, albeit narrowly, read part 2 – coming soon.