Suzuki Power Free E1

Kawasaki ZX-9R E1/E2 (2000 – 2001)

Kawasaki ZX-9R thrashed around the 37-mile course by the very men who would have raced them there this year. by Warren Pole.

I couldn’t believe it. I know the TT course is a ludicrously quick place to ride a motorcycle, and that those who race it flat-out on the fastest bikes known to man all have balls the size of watermelons.

But the ZX-9R’s speedo in front of my eyes was reading 145mph. The roads around me were – although fairly traffic-free, well-surfaced and open enough for some real madness – still lined with walls and grass banks on one side and large drops into, well, nothing really on the other side. Yet the trio of racers ahead of me had vanished into the twisty distance, making me and the ZX-9R look like we were standing very, very still indeed.

All that was left to indicate they’d ever been there at all as I screamed my way across the Mountain section in their wake were a selection of tell-tale black lines, arcing out of 130mph-plus sweepers. Of course, laying darkies, on road tyres, on road bikes, on the blinking road, it’s the most natural thing in the world. We all do it.

Err, pardon?

It was madness and an awe-inspiring demonstration of the casual skill and intimate understanding of the TT course these guys all possess in bucketloads. Truly humbling and a very obvious demonstration of why they are professional racers, paid large sums of money to race on the island every year, and the rest of us aren’t.

But away from the blatant insanity of flat-out riding on the TT course, there is a point to this little anecdote, because as my mind did backflips over what was going on in front of me, I was also very relieved to be on the ZX-9R.

It’s comfortable for starters, so despite my mind working overtime, my body was relaxed. There’s no cramping into an extreme arse-up, head-down, wrist-crippling crouch on the Kawasaki, it’s more of a gentle flop into a forward-canted, plushly-padded tuck. Ready to attack, but alternatively ready to spend a few hours cruising some fast, sweeping A-roads and taking in the scenery. Not that the scenery was actually on my mind at this point you understand.

Well, not beyond the worry of becoming a part of it, anyway.

On top of this, the Kawasaki is still bloody fast, posting the second-highest top speed after the GSX-R1000 down Bruntingthorpe test strip’s two-mile runway a couple of days later, and that speed is very accessible.

Thanks to the carbs the ZX-9R is still using and the fact that this is one engine that simply loves to be revved, winding the throttle on holds no sudden surprises – just a building head of drive that hauls you from one turn to the next. And in the manic fast stuff we were caning through across the Mountain, the top end was the place to be – the ZX-9R has a nice plateau of killer drive from 9,000rpm all the way to the redline.

Ah, there really is nothing to beat properly screwing a 130bhp motorcycle on the open road. Bliss.

Gearbox is pretty good, so dancing through the ratios to keep the motor singing like a canary isn’t a problem. The only time the ZX-9R’s gearbox can be a drag is at the track, where you can’t grab gears as quickly as you’d always like thanks to the amount of travel at the lever – you need a positive foot for fast changes. On the road where – even at high speed – changes are less frantic, the ZX-9R box was one of the nicest to use here.

Then of course there’s the handling. The Kawasaki’s suspension has been historically panned by all and sundry for being too soft and unsophisticated for hard track use, and rightly so – because it is. But on the road it’s another story.

The added softness makes the bike more comfortable, and at the same time it’s more stable at road-going speeds. Where the GSX-R1000 has a damper to keep it in check, none of the other bikes do. Of these three, the big Kawasaki is the only bike that manages very fast road work without ever threatening to kick off into a big-time tankslapper.

It’s got user-friendly written all over it – one of the reasons why you see so many of them on the road.

And helpfully enough for the situation I found myself in (trying to follow a bunch of lunatics across the fastest road I’d never seen before in my life), the ZX-9R turns well. Not super-quick or super-responsive, but it’s planted and leans as far as you dare, simple as that. It doesn’t dive into corners with the speed of the others here, just responds exactly to what you ask of it.

No more, no less, and is surprisingly accurate in the way it tracks a line once committed into a turn. And should you totally mess up and find yourself heading into a corner 20mph too hot, the brakes are as reassuringly unfazed as the handling, pumping back an ever-increasing wall of stopping power the harder you haul on the lever. Not as sharp as the Blade’s or R1’s, but plenty good enough, and better than the GSX-R’s.

All this makes for a fast, and unflustered road package.

Some might say the ZX-9R is past it. Too heavy, too big, too slow, nah, forget it mate, and buy a nice new GSX-R1000, they’ll say. But to be honest, while that might ring true for trackdays and racing, for a bike to live with every day, that’ll take in a spot of fast touring down to the South of France, hack the Sunday blast with your mates, scratch with the best of them and still show 180mph on the speedo when you need it to, the ZX-9R suddenly makes a lot of sense.

Add to all this the fact it’s easier to insure than the rest of this pack, and cheaper to buy too if you shop around, and the supposed old has-been of the hypersports class suddenly becomes very attractive.

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Particularly when you’ve watched Jim Hodson ride the ZX-9R around the TT circuit. I didn’t think it was possible to stop a roadbike that quickly on public roads, and then fire it out of corners with the rear tyre sliding out sideways. But it is.

ZX-9R TT Opinion:

Jim Hodson

The Kawasaki felt just like it did when I raced it here last year, apart from the suspension being too soft. Still handled alright though – you could hold it flat-out over the bumps and it’d plough on through where some of the others would slap about. It still turned in sweetly though – good balance to the chassis.

Biggest problem up-front was it felt like there was no compression damping, so braking hard into corners the front dived right down then came back real slow.

But the motor’s dead strong for a 900, especially the top end. Only the GSX-R felt faster. But boy, was it faster! This was the first time I’d ridden a GSX-R1000 properly, and it’s unbelievable. The torque is just monstrous.

Hauling out of corners it’s almost irrelevant what gear you’re in – it just pulls like a train. It felt about 50bhp up on everything else here. I know it’s not, it’s just a new generation of bike.

But it’s not perfect. To me, the front end felt odd after being used to the ZX-9R so long. Maybe that steering damper was doing it. The GSX-R would still have been the TT winner this year had we been racing.

Its torque just meant that, especially over the bumpier sections of the course, you could ride the midrange to help keep it stable without losing any time, rather than having to scream the top end and risk more flightiness up front.

If it came to splashing my own cash on a roadbike, I’d go for the Kawasaki. In fact, I already have, bought one last year and no, it wasn’t a present from Kawasaki. Jim Hodson

Jim’s suspension settings for the ZX-9R

Rear: Plus two clicks of rebound over stock, and that’s it

Suzuki Power Free E1
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