Motorcycle-USA tests the mettle of Yamaha’s all-new YZF-R1 during a 529-mile, 26 hour street mission on the way to this year’s Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix MotoGP race.
A Real Sportbike for the Streets?
With sportbikes becoming more oriented for life on the racetrack it’s becoming surprisingly difficult to find a sport motorcycle that you can live with day in and day out on the streets. After rolling over 500 miles across California enroute to this year’s Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix, we’re starting to think the 2009 Yamaha YZF-R1 sportbike might be that ideal street bike – with some simple modifications that is.
So you’re probably thinking, “What’s up with these Motorcycle USA guys?! Didn’t the R1 come in last in this year’s shootout? ” True, we did beat it up in both our street and racetrack Superbike Smackdown VI evaluations earlier this year. In fact, the R1 slotted dead last in both tests. On the street, its biggest problem was the excessive amount of heat emitted off the twin undertail mufflers which made riding borderline painful on warm days.
We addressed the exhaust heat problem by ditching the stock titanium mufflers for a pair of slip-ons from the boys at FMF. We fitted its $999 Apex pipes finished in carbon fiber with titanium end caps. The mufflers are simple to install and can be done at home with only a basic set of metric tools. (For a full in-depth review check out the FMF Apex Exhaust Review.) And what a difference! Not only do the Apex mufflers look way better than stock, the sound that emits out of them is so awesome that just thinking about it as I type gives me goose bumps. The roar is unlike any other motorcycle I’ve heard in my lifetime, sounding like the deep snarl of a fast, high-revving V8. It’s so loud that even wearing ear plugs has little effect on the outright volume inside your helmet.
FMF’s $999 Apex mufflers are our favorite modification to the new R1. Not only do they reduce the level of exhaust heat but they make the bike sound like Rossi’s MotoGP ride!
Anyone planning on logging more than one fuel tank’s worth of time within its seat will quickly learn that the R1’s stocker is literally a sore point. Thus a swap was going to be a prerequisite for our trip. Originally we had opted for another aftermarket seat, as we weren’t that impressed with last year’s Yamaha accessory Comfort Seat. But the Tuning Fork guys assured us they had reworked it for improved performance, its price having increased $50 as well to $239.95. Visually, it looks nearly identical as the seat of old; however, internally it uses a foam core replacing to the previous gel design. Installation is as simple as loosening both bolts under the rear part of the seat and then swapping it out for the new one and reinstalling the bolts.
Lastly, one of the problems that plague almost all new sportbikes is their short windscreens that aren’t effective at diverting wind up and over the rider. So we swapped out the stock one for a Yamaha accessory Raised Bubble Style Windscreen. Like the seat installation it’s a no-brainer. Also new for this year are the accessory luggage made by AXIO. A $189.95 tank and $149.95 tail bag are both offered. Each bag is constructed from a tough plastic polycarbonate material and finished in a faux carbon fiber, which perfectly complements the Yamaha’s new look. The front bag easily attaches to the R1 with its built-in magnetic strips on either side of the bag, while the rear bag affixes to the rear seat with a strap. Now that we’re properly accessorized it was time to hit the road…
Yamaha’s AXIO branded luggage options make sport-touring a definite possibility on the 2009 Yamaha YZF-R1.
Escape from L.A.
Covering 500 miles on a sportbike, in a little more than a day, isn’t for the faint of heart. Although we did a number of modifications to ease the journey, I was still skeptical of how this superbike would perform on an extended trip. From the moment I left the Motorcycle USA offices I could barely restrain my throttle hand as I motored down the road. Blame it on the FMF pipes combined with the guttural growl of the R1’s crossplane engine, but it becomes difficult not to let all 150-odd horses gallop away from every stop light.
One portion of the Laguna trek I dread is escaping from the endless urban sprawl of Southern Cal. But motoring through miles of depressingly straight pavement allows you to shift concentration to some features of the bike that you might otherwise miss. This extended period of freeway droning exposed how balanced the R1’s engine is. There’s barely a hint of vibration from the handlebar, seat or footpegs, regardless of speed. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever ridden a sportbike with an engine that runs this smooth. A byproduct of this smoothness is a clear and undistorted view from the rear view mirrors.
Also of note is how well the R1’s ergonomics fit a rider of my size. When you’re riding, it literally feels like you’re lower half is molded into the bike. Indents on either side of the fuel tank and the flat main frame spars suck your legs into the machine with your feet tucked in tightly below. It’s also neat how you can move the foot pegs around to better tailor the R1’s fit. I settled on the lowest and most forward position (15mm down and 3mm forward) which made things more comfortable for my Spider-Man legs. The Comfort Seat feels thicker and more supportive but as opposed to last year’s model it has a much firmer feel, which reduces pressure points and the need to constantly shift weight around.
I also enjoyed the more upright handlebar position, which alleviates excessive hand and wrist pressure experienced on the previous generation model. Even more noticeable was the effects of the taller windscreen which deflects air up and over your torso rather than directly towards it. You wouldn’t think an accessory that only costs $84.95 would make such a difference but it really does make the trip more pleasant when logging miles. Lastly, the tank bag managed to stay in place and an added plus was that you could lean on it and use it as an extra firm pillow while cruising in a straight line.
With the stock suspension settings and this 180-lb pilot, the R1 delivers a slightly jarring ride on California’s bumpy freeways. So in the name of outright comfort, we backed out preload from the fork and rear shock to make the bike’s suspension more forgiving in the rough stuff. The bike’s stock tool-kit has the right tools for the job, which make changes possible anywhere.
Golden State vs. R1
Although the R1 handles the rigors of the city well, it’s at its best on a zigzagging ribbon of desolate pavement.
As we left Los Angeles behind and headed north through the Ojai Valley the air really started to heat up. Yet, I wasn’t blasted with the same excessive exhaust heat that you would have on the stock R1. While heat still radiates down onto the riders feet it’s a significant improvement over stock.
Upon hitting Wheeler Springs, we began climbing the surrounding mountains inside the Los Padres national forest. Here you’ll find miles upon miles of smooth pavement that winds up, down and around the area’s mountains. The combination of the R1’s sporty chassis and charismatic feel from its engine make ripping down the road an experience few other sportbikes can offer. And it’s not because the R1 accelerates faster or because it handles better in the corner. It is due, in part, to the machine’s unique engine configuration and the intimate connection fostered between it, the throttle and the rider’s right hand.
Peg the gas and the R1 drives forward with restrained aggression. I say restrained because its powerband is so ridiculously smooth I can’t imagine how any motorcyclist can be intimidated by the engine’s manners. Yet it does so with aggression like a pot of boiling water. Tight gear ratios and lower final drive gearing assist the engine in picking up speed fast. A few seconds of wide-open throttle induces the oversized white shift light to super nova within your peripheral vision. Kick the shift lever up and the next gear meshes perfectly and almost feels similar to that of a quickshifter-equipped gearbox, only it’s a tad slower and you’ve got to let off the gas for a split second to make the shift.
After a brief reprieve from summer’s heat we drop back into the inferno that is Taft, California. Again, the new pipes and raised windscreen really helped make this part of the trek much more bearable, even enjoyable, considering that the thermometer at our fuel stop was in the low 100s.
Fuel mileage figures on the R1 are very sensitive to speed and how hard you accelerate compared to other liter-class motorcycles we’ve tested.
Speaking of fuel, earlier in our Streetbike comparison, we achieved an average of 29 MPG aboard the R1, albeit at a pretty fast pace. On the L.A. escape leg of the journey we kept engine speeds low by short shifting and kept top speed under 90 mph, to see if we could muster better fuel economy. The result? An increase to nearly 38 MPG. Of course as soon as we got back to our typical high rpm riding escapades, fuel economy dropped off to around 30 MPG.
It wasn’t long before we were again rolling across wavy asphalt. Instead of fast sweeping mountain bends, it was much tighter first and second gear turns as we rode west toward the ocean and our evening destination of Morro Bay. Here it’s easy to notice just how little engine braking effect there is. As you prepare for the upcoming turn typically you’d expect some degree of engine braking effect, but the R1 is different. It almost feels like it freewheels, with little drag into the corner like you’d expect from a purebred race bike. Although it felt a bit unusual at first, soon you get use to it and it actually adds to the excitement of corner entry.
Despite the R1’s 476-lb fully fuel curb weight, it’s responsive in slow corners. Sure it’s not as agile as the class-leading Honda CBR1000RR, but by no means is it clumsy. An agreeable side effect of its girth is the stability it offers. When you’re aboard the machine, it feels like you’re on a solid piece of metal, similar to the feeling you’d get when riding in a high-dollar car. Better yet it retains this level of steadfastness whether you’re putting around at parking lot speeds or if you’re 160 mph top gear blasting down the highway. In fact throughout the course of the trip, we never once experienced any type of head shake or front-end instability.
Day and Night
With daylight quickly running out, the R1’s bright twin-project head beams throw an intense spread of light even on a dark, deserted highway.
With daylight quickly running out and us nearing the Pacific coast, temperatures started dropping fast. Less than a hundred miles earlier we were baking in the sun and now as the sun crept lower in the horizon the temperature had already dropped down into the low 60s—you got to love California’s extreme climate.
When the weather gets chilly like this you’ll value the heat radiating from the engine and pipes, which have a pleasant warming on your derriere and legs. Also of note is how powerful the R1’s projector-style head beams are. With the high beam engaged, the headlights cut through desolate night air and gave a superior spread of light allowing us to confidently navigate this dark and frequently untraveled stretch of highway. Instrumentation back lighting is also pleasing without it being too bright and causing any glare of the windscreen.
After arriving at our hotel without incident, removing the luggage off the bike was as simple as pulling the front bag from the fuel tank and removing the rear seat. The tank bag measures 18 inches long and 15 inches at its widest, offering enough capacity for my notebook computer and a change of clothes with some room to spare. Although the rear bag is considerably smaller, it I could still wedge some a pair of shorts and my toiletries as well as a 16-ounce water bottle. Surprisingly, even after a full 12-hour day of riding, my body, especially my back and posterior wasn’t anywhere close as sore as I remember from last year.
We were back on our motorcycles early the next morning. And again, while I could feel the effects of yesterday’s endurance ride, my body wasn’t screaming in protest and I was still up for more. It was cool and overcast as we left Morro Bay and headed north-northeast through the outskirts of Paso Robles. Again, the heat kicked off the engine and exhaust made riding through the morning’s chill more comfortable.
The air quickly started to warm up as the marine layer subsided and we had reached Paso Robles wine country. After slicing our way through some of California’s most picturesque backroads we made our way past Lake Naciemento and toward Fort Hunter-Liggett military base, the gateway to one of my favorite stretches of tarmac, Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. (Ed. Note: when you enter the base, make sure you have your driver’s license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance or you may be denied access.)
Civilian traffic through the base is few and far between, so it wasn’t that much of a surprise that the roar expelled from the FMF pipes would draw attention. Unfortunately, the person’s attention it caught was that stereotypical heavy-set, mustache-equipped Military Policeman. As soon as he heard us he pulled up behind making sure we didn’t exceed the base’s conservative 35 mph speed limit. In fact the guy followed us the entire way through the base eventually giving up as we exited the base’s jurisdiction signaling shred time.
The R1’s Drive Mode throttle control feature makes riding on limited traction surfaces much easier, safer and of course more fun.
If you’re looking for fast, smooth, not to mention a debris free surface, than this road is not for you. However if you like riding off-road, you’ll feel surprisingly at home on this zigzagging stretch of rural mountain path. Between its tight 20 mph switchbacks some sporadically sprinkled with gravel, this is the ultimate playground for those on and off-road riding street bike enthusiasts.
Riding on a dirty road surface demands judicious use of the throttle to avoid sliding out. And it’s where we appreciated the R1’s new Drive Mode feature. By enabling B-mode via the right handlebar mounted button, the engine becomes less responsive when you yank on the throttle. This makes the bike much easier to control when applying the gas on traction-limited surfaces. Sure, we’d catch some loose gravel tire spin here and there but overall the motorcycle was much easier to control and in the end it gave us more confidence to ride aggressively.
Due to the narrow tight nature of the road you’re never using anything but first gear. Yet, you’re always on either the throttle or the brakes when you’re really going for it, putting a demand on the brake system. And while the R1’s rear brake is perfect at helping you gets the rear end of the bike sliding during corner entry its front set-up lacks that same intimate stopping sensation that you’d expect from a modern liter-class sportbike. By no means are the brakes ineffective at slowing you down but they could definitely be improved on.
As mentioned before, the R1 hides its mass well and doesn’t take much effort to get to turn from side-to-side. We also really liked the way its slipper clutch works and how it completely eliminates any rear wheel hop or instability issues during aggressive corner entry.
After baking in 100-plus degree heat inland, we finally reach the cool breeze of the Pacific Ocean. Another 70 miles and we’d be at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
The cool ocean air is a welcome relief as the road terminates and drops you onto Highway 1. Follow it north through the rugged natural beauty of Big Sur and into Monterey. From there jump onto Highway 68 east and in a few miles you run right into Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway, site of this year’s Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix.
Twenty six hours, 17 gallons of fuel, and 529 miles later we had made it to Laguna Seca intact without incident. Despite our initial street impression earlier this year, our modified R1 performed flawlessly. It delivered us with speed, style and comfort—all fundamentals of a great touring machine. Perhaps even more impressive was just how entertaining the R1 it is to ride. Whether we were carving through the canyons, blasting down a straightaway or just cruising through traffic, Yamaha’s superbike does it all well. In fact there wasn’t a moment I was bored or wished I was riding another bike. As I previously stated in the 2009 Superbike Smackdown VI Street comparison, if my cash was on the line, of the five newest liter-class sportbikes, I’d take the Yamaha. And after spending more time with it, our tweaked machine reiterates why it’s the sportbike I choose to ride on the street.