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Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Response to the blog entry "Taking Shamu to the Track" on hellforleathermagazine.com

About a week ago the motorcycle enthusiast boards which I frequent lit up with links to an "article" posted on hell for leather. The opening statement is quite alarming.... "The VFR1200F is terrifying on a race track. As an owner of a VFR1200F, and someone who has happened to ride one on a race track (a terrifying race track!) and happens to have a bit of motorcycle racing experience, I immediately took exception.

I didn't take exception to the author merely criticizing the Honda; it is certainly deserving of some criticism. It can be called overweight, it can be called underequipped (in terms of high-tech gadgets) and it ought to have a bigger gas tank. Many have called it ugly, and they are entitled to that opinion... though I will emphatically disagree.

  Honda started building a head of steam in the boiler of their hype train over a year before the VFR was released. They promised to revolutionize the motorcycle World and instead just delivered a really excellent motorcycle. So I suppose they over-promised and under-delivered. Mind you a lot of the hype also came from fans of the Honda VFR series, which have a large and loyal following. Many were disappointed when Honda didn't deliver exactly what they were expecting. Forum trolls who make a spectator sport out of Honda-Hating lapped up the controversy. SEE I TOLD YOU SO was a common theme.

No, I didn't take exception to the fact that the author pooped on the VFR. My problem was the way the article was written. It reads as a hack piece. The author rode all of 5 awkward laps and drew some very strong and declarative conclusions about the bike. His opinions and criticisms could be taken at face value if only he had backed them up with some thoughtful analysis but they must be taken with a grain of salt. It seems clear that the conclusions were drawn well before "Shamu" ever turned a wheel. And some of the observations are just flat-out false! Why would a somewhat popular and respected (if a bit "tabloidy") enthusiast site turn out such a piece of shit? I've got a pretty good idea why...

For reasons obvious to anyone who reads this weblog, (all four of you ;)) I followed the launch of the VFR1200 very closely and digested every morsel I could sniff out. With all of the built-up hype generated primarily by Honda UK, the official launch was a big deal. Honda held it at the Sugo circuit in Japan... by all accounts a fast and technical track. Based on the specification of the bike (big, heavy shafty with a touring emphasis) the launch location seemed an odd choice but the reports from respected journalists all over the World read the same. Something along the lines of: "surprisingly capable on the track for such a big bike. Great engine, great handler, awesome brakes." And though the VFR1200F may not have lived up to the impossible expectations created for it, it has been very well-recieved by the moto press World-wide. It's a favourite of the very well-written and highly-respected BIKE magazine in the UK, who have put a lot of miles on new VFRs... 4 features in the last 5 issues if I'm not mistaken. They are downright gushy about it. In the most recent issue, they rode one to the Anglesey circuit in England in a light-hearted comparison with bikes from various genres. They found it to be "a breeze" on track. Quite a contrast from "terrifying".

Why does this article swim so vigorously against the current?

I feel a need to rebut some specific points of the article: (in italics)

I should have known when the Ohlins tech couldn't stop laughing while he was setting up the suspension. "You're not going to like this around here," he said, bouncing the rear end up and down to demonstrate the utter lack of rebound damping despite cranking that adjuster to max

I personally found the VFR to be over-damped. My sentiments are shared by a lot of owners who are posting on the message boards. Here is a simple video illustration to show the rebound damping of my VFR:
With rebound damping turned all the way down: (the squeaking is the front tire rubbing in the Baxley Sport Chock)

With rebound damping turned to maximum:

"First session of the day, second lap out and the pegs go down hard as I turn into the uphill right hander that's turn 10 on Beaverun's North Track. I thought I was still warming the tires before trying to ride it quickly."

With proper body positioning and racing lines, I barely touched the pegs down when I rode at my home track. And while I didn't ride it at anything near a race pace, I easily dragged my knee through a few different turns.

"Recover, point the bike back uphill and wind on full throttle. Rather than rocket down the short straight, Shamu just sort of thrums along, sportsbikes flying past left and right. 172bhp and 95lb/ft of torque aren't enough to coax much get up and go out of the 591lbs (wet) Honda"

You can't be serious. What gear were you in? You're talking about the bike that Tim Carrithers from Motorcyclist ran the quarter mile in 10.23 seconds at 136.8MPH. Only 90 thousands of a second and 5.5mph slower than his time on a freaking Hayabusa. Don Canet from Cycle World did it in 10.33. That ought to count as "get up and go"

"The suspension is too soft. Sure, with a 591lbs curb weight it's extraordinarily heavy, but stiffer suspension or at least a larger capacity for adjustment could make it corner. Instead, it dives, sinks and wobbles around all over the place."

I've not experienced any diving, sinking or wobbling. In fact, the VFR's standard suspension setting is way too stiff. That sentiment has been expressed almost universally from owners posting on enthusiast boards. When I brought mine to the track, my friend and instructor (an expert racer who owns and operates an established local racing school) rode it and said the same thing. I've dialed back my front and rear rebound damping to make the ride more bearable.
"It's got zero ground clearance. Even after decking out the pegs hard and repeatedly, there was at least 1cm of unused rubber on each side of the rear tire. "
Zero clearance huh? Wow that does sound terrifying. I rode my VFR right to the edge of the front and rear tires (no chicken strips left) and had no real trouble with the pegs.
I wedged a piece of cardboard under the tire and folded it up to the footpeg to illustrate the clearance. Now granted, the suspension and tire will be compressed in a hard corner, reducing this angle... but does this look like "zero" clearance?
"The controls are unpredictable. The fueling is seriously bad, like early Honda fuel-injection bad. It surges when you don't expect it to and the twist grip just doesn't have a linear relationship to engine power."
I'll partially agree here. The relationship from twist grip to engine power is definitely not linear in first or second gear, where the torque seems to be heavily mitigated. I liken it to a crude form of passive traction control and it bothers me. But the fueling is excellent. I've experienced no surging or stumbling or any of it. Very very smooth, even compared to my 2007 CBR600RR racebike. The controls are unpredictable? Horseshit. They are very easy to use and forgiving.
The brakes, too, are snatchy, something that's not helped by the linked arrangement.
The brakes, while being extremely powerful, are child's play to use. Still, if you truly found them "snatchy" as a subjective observation, your remark about the linked arrangement is completely unfounded. The linked arrangement is very mild and only linked from back to front. The rear brake pedal provides about 15% braking power on the front and the brake lever has zero effect on the rear brake. You have to stomp on the brake pedal to really notice any linking effect. I don't know how you ride at the track, but stomping on the back brake is generally something I avoid.
The ergonomics are poor. The wide seat, low pegs and huge tank make it hard to hang off in a conventional manner and, once you are off the side, the slippery seat makes it hard to stay in one spot.
Again a declarative strong opinion with not much to back it up. The riding position (bar to seat to peg) is virtually identical to that of previous generation VFRs which were widely considered to offer a perfect compromise between sport and comfort. The seat is wide at the back for good support, but very narrow at the front where it meets the tank which makes it easy for short guys like me to stand flat-footed. Hanging off does feel a bit awkward with the saddle-like contour of the back of the seat (which keeps the rider firmly in place during hard accelleration) but this is not the type of bike you're meant to hang off of.
It kind of looks like a rival for the BMW K1300S, but that bike would run circles around Shamu in a corner and feels notably quicker.
Except it isn't, and it doesn't. (see Motorcyclist, Cycle World, motorcycle.com, motorcycleusa.com, BIKE mag and Motorrad mag which in comparisons found the VFR to be nearly as quick in a straight line but way faster through curves)
Maybe track-riding whippersnappers like us are the wrong audience for the VFR. Maybe it's really for old guys that want to look like they're going fast, when really they're just cruising around on a Lay-Z-Boy; who want to feel fast when really they're five under. They can keep it.
I am a track-riding whippersnapper, and maybe I'm not the target audience, but grab whatever bike you want and meet me at any twisty road  in North America. I'll bring my VFR1200 and we'll see who is trying to look like they're going fast. Oh and I plan on keeping it a long time.
So why would a somewhat popular and respected (if a bit "tabloidy") enthusiast site turn out such a piece of shit? Seems obvious. The VFR1200 is a controversial machine which, while it has been almost universally praised by testers and owners, has been polarizing among discussion groups in the moto web community. This article is the equivalent of a radio shock-jock or Fox News commenter arguing a hardline position on a topic they're completely ignorant about. It takes a contrarian position on a controversial topic to get attention and it shouldn't be taken seriously... but I'll bet it's driven a hell of a lot of relevant traffic to one dark pissy corner of the World Wide Web. And here I am, wasting my time writing a rebuttal, stirring up the coals.
Hell for Leather posted a follow-up piece (of shit) which featured a road "test" of the VFR and a lot of backpedaling to respond to the comments on the first article. It's past my bedtime and I don't feel like addressing every point but there was one smoking gun statement that fully and completely implicates this article as a crock:
First gear is too tall. You need to use it up to about 25/30mph and you're slipping the clutch up to about 15mph.
Now you're just making shit up. The VFR1200 is geared too damned short! At 60mph it is bouncing off the rev limiter in first. My 04 CBR1000RR would do 95.
I made a few crude little videos to drive the point home... Speedometer is in Kms.
Here I am taking off from a start UPHILL simply by letting the clutch out slowly:
(you'll need to turn up your volume here)
Here I am taking off in 2nd gear with barely a twitch of throttle or clutch slip:
Now I'm just being cheeky:
I bet she'd pull 4th too but I didn't try. First does not need to be used up to 30mph. At 30mph in first it's wailing at 5500rpm. And I was able to fully release the clutch by about 10mph in THIRD!
If there's anyone out there who's interested in the VFR1200 but is sitting on the fence... go out now and test ride one. You'll probably like it. If you don't, well, draw your own conclusions but don't let this bad joke of an article have any bearing on your decision.


  1. Great post! Yea i disagreed with about 99% of what he posted. The only thing i did agree on is the odd fueling/throttle response.

  2. Great write up. I have not had the opportunity to ride the bike yet, but it's clear to me that the author has an agenda and like yourself I believe it to be the polorization and traffic generation that is the factor.

  3. ...or the test bike was beat and had a fueling glitch like the author stated.
    A very long tour report from Australia also found a too-soft suspension bottoming the center stand.
    You are an owner, and for all I know, you could be wearing rose colored glasses. I will have to go try it for myself, and draw my own conclusions ;-)
    Good rebuttal though. Just out of curiosity, what do you weigh?

  4. Rose colored glasses... yeah a bit. My impressions can't be taken as a completely objective review, but I'm willing to debate HFL on factual points.

    Bias or not, why can I start the bike in third without much effort while HFL thinks it's geared too tall and the clutch needs to be slipped up to 30mph?

    Yes definitely go try it for yourself. It's a great bike.

    I weigh 175lbs.

  5. BTW if you go back and read my posts, you'll find that I've been doing a lot of complaining about some issues that I have with the bike. Long reach to the bars, numb throttle hand, and most annoying: TBW power restriction at low speeds.

    I'm still in love with my bike, but I'm not completely blind to its faults.

  6. Cool. Obviously no bike is perfect, but this one seems to fit you well. It's great when a bike just feels right. Enjoy!

  7. Wow, way to throw some insults around. It’s hard not having your purchasing decision validated, isn’t it?

    I think you’ve chosen to take some of my remarks out of context and embellish others, but hey, everyone interprets things a bit differently.

    The review isn’t written with any bias other than my love for awesome motorcycles and my sad disappointment in finding that this VFR isn’t one of them. We get our traffic from being first with breaking news and by providing a younger audience with the kind of content they want to read, not by reviewing motorcycles. A little review like this one (what is it, 6 months after the bike went on sale?) and a few links from enthusiast forums don’t generate much in the way of new eyeballs, I just wanted to report my experience with the bike since, as you point out, it was so different than what’s been reported elsewhere.

    I can’t attest to the suspension on your bike, as demonstrated in your video, but the one we rode (a carefully prepared press bike) had almost no rebound or compression damping at either end, even with the adjusters maxed out. I double checked the Ohlins tech’s settings and they were all pretty much just a hair off max. On the road I had the rear preload set to one click off max when I was solo, on full max when I had a passenger. I’d have played with the settings more if it seemed they’d have mad much of a difference, but the bike was such a terrible mess it wasn’t like a click here or there was going to change things much.

    It’s a bit embarrassing, but please don’t take the shots in that article as relative of the way we rode the bike. We were using the track’s photographer who apparently decided to snap away during the first lap out (my first time at Beaver), then put his camera away. Like you, I’m a relatively experienced track rider and I had my torso way off the center and was on line the first time the pegs went down and every time after that.

    As for power? Yeah, I’m a bit jaded, been riding a new MV F4 and the RSV4 a bunch this summer. But, it’s still expect the VFR to be capable of keeping up with something like an R6 on a straight, admittedly part of the problem was being unable to start accelerating as early or carrying equivalent speed through the corner. After a commenter asked, I worked out the power-to-weight ratios, a supersport 600 has a slight advantage over the VFR.

    You seem to be making a big deal out of the first gear comment. That was while two-up. As a bike designed to frequently carry a passenger, I’d expect the VFR to be able to do so easily at low speeds, don’t you? The thing is rock solid with two big guys on it, but the fueling combined with the lack of low-down power and the choice of gearing makes it a little scary while splitting through tight traffic. The throttle surges and snaps at a constant 10-15mph in first gear.

    In the article where I talk about riding the VFR on the road, the one you think is too shitty to address, I ask what the VFR has that justifies its cost. Well? It’s slower than a 600, uncomfortable, doesn’t handle like a sportsbike, doesn’t work well as a tourer and doesn’t have any toys or any luggage. The CBR600RR does literally everything better (including carrying passengers) for half the price. What justifies the $16k?

  8. Wesley!

    I'm surprised you turned up here! Thanks for visiting.

    I wanted to respond sooner but I spent all day yesterday riding motorcycles. I took my wife out for a quick ride to a little town in the mountains for lunch and ice cream. At the restaurant we putted around the parking lot looking for a spot. Full-lock u-turn, feet up, at idle, no clutch, no throttle, no problem. My wife weighs 120, not 175 like your life partner Grant, but the VFR was well suited to the task.

    Either you truly believe that the CBR600RR is a good 2-up tourer (I owned a 2007 BTW... my racebike) or you are baiting me. In either case, I'd be wasting my time arguing something so blatantly ludicrous.

    My videos were a bit crude but my point was made, no? Why does my bone-stock VFR seem to have different suspension and gearing than your test unit? Maybe yours was sabotaged! Or maybe you were just having some fun writing an outrageous piece on a controversial bike.

    So I guess we're done here.

    This discussion was about responding to your disingenuous article and has nothing to do with the perceived value of the VFR1200, but I'll bite on your last lure because I actually agree with you.

    The savvy technology, (motor, chassis, drivetrain) exquisite build quality, awesome performance, clever features (built-in pannier mounts for one) and exclusivity (each dealer was only alotted 1 or 2 units) ALMOST make the VFR1200F worth the admittedly steep asking price. It should have come with adjustable compression damping and state-of-the-art traction control... then it would have been a great value.

    I paid large money for mine because I wanted the first one and I recognize the penalty for being an early adopter. I might have still bought it for 2 grand more. Hell I just spent another 2 grand outfitting it with luggage. Once they release the VFR1200T and rumored VFR1200 "GS" Varadero replacement then maybe they'll drop the price or throw in more features. Mine is paid for, I love it and I'll probably keep it for 10+ years so I don't give a shit. And a self-righteous prick like me doesn't seek validation for any of my decisions. ;)

    I like your site and I visit it regularly. You mentioned that bike reviews aren't really your thing. Keep it that way... stick with news, rumors and racer gossip and preserve some dignity.

    1. Good job debunking his myths!

      I think I read that article not long after I acquired my "shamu". Guess what, I left my friend on zx6r on the straight acceleration by a lot. I don't know what engine he had on his test unit, but am guessing not vfr1200's!

      That article is just pure baseless opinionated nonsense.
      You did pretty good job proving him wrong.

      I love my "shamu".

  9. i weigh about 220 and have to drive in Vermont on destroyed pavement. cracks, bumps, potholes, rises and dips in corners, washboards, etc. I've taken the VFR up and over Mad river gap. I would wager the VFR would challenge any race suspension superbike in my home territory. my personal abilities are novice, but my instinct to buy one, looking at of all motorcycles available, told me with NO test rides, that the vfr1200 was the perfect bike for ME> i found it for $10k with 700 miles on it. much cheaper then k1300 with 20,000 miles, and without all the self righteousness. beyond its handling, power and looks, its a Honda and i trust it. it will still look and be relevant 10 years from now.

  10. I've had a VFR1200F for two years now and the only major drawback I can recognise from the article was the throttle response in first and second gear which I find irritating in the extreme. Otherwise a fantastic bike. I can keep up with my friends on trad sports bikes with ease through the twisty narrow roads of North Wales.

  11. Just had a test ride today on a 2010 model, was able to pull away in 2nd and 3rd with little slippage of the clutch no problem. Nicest smoothest best handling and fastest thing I have ever been on so I'm buying a new one tomorrow!

  12. Waking The Dead, I know, but I've had both a CBR600RR and a VFR1200F and yes, the CBR is a truly wonderful bike that can do pretty much EVERYTHING that I want a bike to do, but alas, I'm not a young, single racer anymore. I'm now a middle-aged married guy who has a wife that wants to go on adventures with me, so I have to find a bike that satisfies my desire for accelleration and top speed, whilst providing us both with 400-miles a day comfort and lots of luggage space.

    I had MINOR MINOR issues with low-speed fuelling (only ever noticed it riding two-up), but that's been true of most lean-mix modern bikes. A PCV cured that lil issue!

    I've owned 46 bikes and know full well that nothing is perfect, but the VFR1200F (Manual) is probably the best ALL-ROUND bike I've ever owned in 40yrs of riding!