Downhill Pinned: Kawasaki Ninja 300 Project Part III

December 4, 2015
By Courtney Olive

In the last Ninja 300 Project installment we established that the little Ninja is a city mouse that can scurry with the best of them. But out of town in the curvy countryside it’ll surely be literbike bait, right? To find out I took it on a five-day group ride covering 1850 miles. The route wound in and out of almost every canyon, car-less corner and curvy mountain pass that northeast Oregon, southeast Washington, and northern Idaho have to offer. The company of bikes on the group ride featured sportbikes and standards ranging from GSX-R750s to Street Triples, FZ1s to VFR800s; each packing about three-times the horsepower of my 300.

Keeping up with the three-timers required a few things: five-digit RPMs at all times, forethought and commitment. The goal of the latter two being to maintain the first one at all costs. It also required shifting, lots of shifting. If you’re the sort of person who secretly listens to old records of 1960’s Isle of Man 50cc races just to hear them downshift through their 10-, 12-, and 14-speed transmissions, then turn up the hi-fi and read on.

Downhill Pinned Part III

Day One

The ride began in Portland, Oregon, with the Sang Froid Riding Club’s (SFRC) annual Goldrush Ride. For more on this part of the adventure, see Byron Wilson’s account aboard his own Ninja 300. As Wilson proved, a Ninja 300 can be a “tourer” with just the addition of a backpack and a bungee net. I went for a little more luxury with mine, but not much. I added beat-up, old universal-fit saddlebags.

Once free of Portland and into the high desert, the desolate roads begin. The first is a wide open straight with a 180-degree line of sight that stretches for at least five miles ahead. It’s a Bonneville-esque (Bonneville Salt Flats, that is) setting that demands a test of top speed. Besides, I had a new sprocket and engine tuning to evaluate, didn’t I?

Downshift to fourth to achieve requisite five-digit RPMs. Pin throttle. Commence test.

The Ninja accelerated quite acceptably to 90, even 100 mph. It reminded me of something in the realm of a Honda Hawk 650 or Kawasaki GPz550 (please tell me some of you remember those bikes?), both of which have a few more ponies on tap than the 300, but they’re heavier so the power-to-weight is similar. Shifting into fifth and climbing steadily above 100 mph, the Ninja fought the weave effect from the soft saddlebags’ aerodynamic interference. Still pinned, into sixth, and the weave subsided at 110. But so did noticeable “acceleration.” Or, at least, the way that term is typically thought of today. The Ninja continued to gain speed but, at this point, each mile an hour became a count of “one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, 111!, three-Mississippi, four-Mississippi, 112!” and so on.

Let’s pause. I hope you’re as impressed as I am that a 300cc bike (with windsock saddlebags) will do 112 mph. But wait, there’s more!

Five-Mississippi, six-Mississippi, 113!, seven-Mississippi, eeeeeiiiiiiight-Missssssiiiiiiisssiiiiiiipi, 114! Redline is only a few Mississippis away. The Ninja is absolutely clawing its way to every mile an hour: 115, 116, 117. And then, at 118, redline. Ok, status check (yes, there’s plenty of time for me to think through a status check). Stay pinned, or no? The bike is still pulling, so, of course!

Downhill Pinned Part III
Outside our accommodations in Enterprise, Oregon.

The digital speedo flickers back and forth from 118 to 119, back to 118, then finally makes up its mind that we’ve achieved 119. By now my chin, elbows, and knees have ball-peened their own little indents into the tank. Still pinned. Stilllll pinned! Aaaaaaaaand 120!!! Really?! Yep, I stare at the speedo to be sure. And then BAPA-BAP-BAP! Like lights coming on at the Junior High dance, the rev limiter kicks in and the party’s over.

But what a ride. 120 mph out of a 300cc machine. Admittedly the indicated reading was probably optimistic (by about 5-6 mph, if roadside radar booths are to be believed). But still, pretty impressive, especially with those billboard saddlebags.

Clearly the previous engine upgrades got it there. All of the top speed test was performed between 10,000 rpms and the 13,000 redline, the bike pulling steadily all the way. You’ll recall this is the rpm range where the Arrow, BMC, and Power Commander tuning yielded that extra 4 hp. If not for those changes, the party would’ve ended much sooner. The revised gearing also played a big role.

Top speed test complete, we pull into a small town and I treat the Ninja to a well-deserved tank of premium. Gas stops are an especially enjoyable part of the Ninja 300 experience. With a group of very experienced riders like the ones on this ride, there are a lot of comments and questions about the bike. Many boil down to: “Why on earth would an experienced rider want to bother with a little bike like that?” Part of the answer is at the pump, where the 300’s gas bill is half everyone else’s. Rumors start to circulate that the bike runs on uranium, requiring no more than an annual refueling.

Well, not quite. With the modifications and tuning the gas mileage has suffered, but it’s still a respectable 43 mpg on this stretch. That’s especially impressive considering a majority of the miles were spent WFO at 11- to 12-grand. Miserly gas mileage is one thing, but the answer to the “why on earth?” question becomes more compelling as the ride continues.

The next stretch of the ride consists of rolling hills and high-speed sweepers. My strategy on the sweepers is to downshift to fifth, or fourth (no braking needed), tip-in, and pin it. The 300 has old-fashioned traction control; it’s called low horsepower.

There is simply no chance of breaking loose the rear. With that knowledge in mind, you get on the gas much sooner in corners. The 300 rewards this with a strong and steady increase of speed through the corner. Apex after apex, I find myself crawling up the tailpipe of a literbike in front of me. The same on corner entry. The 300 is so light and confidence inspiring that I’m able to reel-in bike after bike braking into a corner. Between corners there’s no furious acceleration, so setting up for the next turn is less hectic. No coming in hot, widening of the eyes, tightening of the shoulders, or clenching of the butt. There’s plenty of time to think, to process the speed, to link the corners seamlessly. This is not slow riding. It’s steady riding.

Naturally, the Pirelli Rosso II tires play a big role in carrying corner speed. They stick seamlessly to every asphalt surface from billiard-ball smooth to 60-grit sandpaper. Though scrubbing the tires well to their edges and pushing hard, I never once feel a slip or a twitch.

On the next stretch of road, the 300 really comes into its own. The road runs 40 miles alongside a river, with the accompanying endless series of tight curves. Mostly flat, sometimes a little downhill. The kind of road where horsepower is of no help, just find your gear and roll on and off. The beauty of riding the 300 is you get to do this at five-digit rpm.

Zipping along the river road I start to remember how nice it is to have the full range of throttle available in a corner. On a big bike I’d be gingerly cracking the throttle open, maybe 1/8 to 1/4 turn at most. Like trying to focus a microscope with nothing but the coarse adjustment knob. On the 300 I’m rolling all the way through the throttle, dialing it in and out to suit changing conditions.

Adding to the fun, every transition off-to-on throttle at these stratospheric engine speeds elicits a highly satisfying “whoooPOP!” from the Arrow. The exhaust note of the 300 is yet another reason to keep it at 11-grand and above. Any lower rpm and the bike emits that tell-tale droning buzz of a small Twin, sort of like the Red Barron’s biplane. Not bad, but certainly not the hair-raising shriek that Inline Fours have conditioned us to appreciate. However, from 11K-to-redline the Arrow belts out a yowl that lets you know it means business. It’s that “on the pipe” sound at its finest. It’s clear the engine is happy to be in this range because on flat stretches I can roll off the throttle just a smidge but the bike continues to accelerate, pulled forward on a symphonic cacophony of pressure waves and optimum output.

Downhill Pinned Part III

Atop the Old Spiral Highway, overlooking Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Washington.

Day Two and Three

By the second and third days of the tour, I begin to formulate some impressions of the Ninja’s comfort. This is another area where the bike belies its small size. I’m 6’1” and have rarely been more comfortable on a bike. The stock pegs provide an amazing amount of room to stretch out for such a small bike, and the narrow tank is a dream compared to the girthy ones that typically sit atop Inline Four machines.

We pass from Oregon, into Washington, then Idaho. We encounter roads with names like Rattle Snake Grade and The Old Spiral Highway. Rarely have stretches of pavement been more aptly named. By the end of day three, I’ve done so many hours of flick left, right, left, right, left that I’m wishing I had one of those fighter-pilot gyro indicators with a horizon line to help me remember which way is up. Yet the Ninja couldn’t have made it easier; just a breath of pressure on the bars and it goes. In fact, it is so light and willing to turn that I have to train myself a bit to keep from apexing too early. It’s not an unsettling dive, more of an eager “C’mon road, is that all you’ve got?!”

Day Four

Downhill Pinned Part III
Downtown Kooskia, Idaho.

We awake in the city park in the center of downtown Kooskia, Idaho (pronounced “Coos-key”). Kooskia is the sort of place where the barmaid reminds you of your sweet aunt and the bar menu consists of whatever she has the fixins for that night; where the local fishing guide hops off his bar stool to walk you to the park at well after midnight and even helps carry your camping gear; where the park’s picnic tables are just perfect for sleeping on top of; and where fabled Lolo Pass Road starts right outside town.

We devote day four to journeying up Lolo, touching Montana, then returning. Lolo follows the Clearwater River, then the Lochsa River with seemingly endless sweepers. The throttle stop on the 300 makes a perfect cruise control. Although its calibration may have been a bit off, at least according to a Sheriff who stops us late in the day. In friendly conversation, the officer reveals that he’s a rider too and proudly mentions his Titan cruiser. This provides a natural opening for me to bring up the Ninja’s diminutive displacement. Suddenly, the Ninja goes from menacing “crotch rocket” to friendly little runabout, and escapes with just a warning. The “why on earth” question I’d been asked earlier in the ride just got answered again.

Day Five

On the final morning of the ride we find ourselves camped alongside the Salmon River near Riggins, Idaho, well over 500 miles from home in Portland. After a map chat at breakfast, we agree it would only do the trip justice to skip all freeways and continue running exclusively on dizzyingly-windy roads. By now I had that complete oneness with the bike that sometimes comes only after years on a machine. Covering the miles and carrying the speed comes almost effortlessly; that “in the zone” feeling that Jorge Lorenzo must get when he walks away with a race gapping the field like he’s not even trying. Of course, I am to Jorge as the 300 is to a GP bike. But the point is the rider/bike bond was there and a 500-plus-mile day on spaghetti-squiggle roads was imminently doable.

By the end of the tour I begin to sort out what I like so much about the 300. It demands an intimate connection between rider, bike and road. Without an omnipotent throttle, you have two primary tools: gears and planning. Sure, this can be tiring. At the end of each day I was mentally drained from the constant calculation of “where’s the next uphill?”…“which gear?”…“can I get through this corner without hitting the rev limiter—oops!—nope, there it is”…“do I have the power to pass, do I have the power to pass?” followed closely with “if I pass this guy are there enough curves ahead to make it stick?” But this is highly engaging and satisfying riding. It’s hard to deny the fun of piloting a bike to its full potential. The 300 is a fine tool in today’s world of blunt instruments; it takes concentration to use it effectively.

Next time: Race Tech suspension!

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