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Video: Riding the 2011 MSS Kawasaki ZX-10 Superbike racer

Thu, 10 Mar 2011

A long time ago a man – some would say living legend – taught me how to ride a speedway bike. In Scandinavian tinged English he told me that the heart of riding a speedway bike was the relationship between my heart and the centre nut of the top yoke.

Like a primitive cave dweller, he beat his heart with his fist while he explained this theory whilst his other hand gripped the top yoke. ‘When you want more grip on the rear you move your heart away. When you want less you move your heart closer. ‘ he said, with an air of mystic menace.

This, in essence is how you ride an 80bhp, methanol burning motorcycle with no brakes. On shale. Elbow to elbow with three other lunatics. You ride with your heart both emotionally and physically.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that riding the 2011 MSS Kawasaki ZX10 Superbike racer is anything like the above but there is something very raw, very direct and indefinably connected with the psyche that’s going on here. You also spend a lot of your time on board with your face pressed against the clocks to keep the front wheel drilled into the ground. You need your legs as much as your upper body to wrestle this feller round the undulating Portimao circuit.

In this very early season shake-down test session at Portimao we watched the two riders Gary Mason and Stuart Easton chasing the virtual comfort blanket that riders call ‘feel’. Using mimed  descriptions that involve indecipherable hand and arm gestures, these riders mould what starts as a stock road bike into something that becomes almost an extension of their own body, like aluminium and carbon fibre exo-skelteons. They have to be immersed and utterly comfortable within the components of their machine before they can begin to even attempt the super-human feats they’re paid to do every weekend in summer. Watch the on-board lap with Gary Mason (if you haven't already) and imagine how that feels if you were sat on the back.

It’s a head game. Nine tenths deep psychology, one tenth metal.

This metal – Gary Mason’s metal – started life as a 2011 ZX-10 Kawasaki just a few weeks ago. With the addition of Ken Summerton’s finest K-Tech inverted forks and gas rear shock (the team prefer this set-up to Ohlins), lightweight Magtan mag wheels and Brembo brakes, the bike takes on a whole different feel. It’s rock solid, communicating every tarmac imperfection, every ripple, every bump back to the rider in a viciously communicated jolt to the senses. That is your lasting first impression. Even the bump at the end of pitlane (that I’d hardly noticed on a selection of street bikes) pummelled my jewels into the back of the tank cover. And that was only the first fifty yards.

There are many more things to be aware of in the first fifty yards, too. Like a gear lever that works the wrong way round with first at the top. No back brake lever (it’s thumb operated on the left hand bar) and a clutch that is only to be used to set off from a  standstill. Clutchless upshifts are not new to me. Clutchless downshifts with an automatic throttle blipper are. With only the track time for a couple of laps, it’s a lot to take in when the weight of responsibility is already upon your shoulders.

I had the pre-season privilege of riding Gary Mason’s bike. It's got a bog-stock stock motor (the full-house race motors are still waiting for the conrods to arrive) but with the full Marelli Marvel engine management system that also governs anti-wheelie systems, launch control and traction control. A titanium Arrow pipe improves the soundtrack.

So with the circuit’s red light already on (the track closed two minutes previously) I was sent on my way with a gentle push from team technician Lamby on a pair of tyres that hadn’t been fitted with warmers and an unspoken, message not to bring this priceless bike back in the back of a recovery truck. No pressure, there, then. Little did I know...

I needn’t have worried, too much. A combination of near perfect fuelling (well, for the time being anyway) and steering so sharp you could cut yourself on it, I was on my way on a gentle out-lap.

Conscious of the tyre temp, I spent the lap shortshifting and just getting a feel for the unbelievable steering. I nearly hit the rumble strip apex of turn two with my wheel, it tipped in so fast. By turn three I was ready for the speed at which it’ll flick from left to right, from upright to full lean. It’s savage steering if all you’re used to is road bikes. Bang. Bang. It’s almost as if there’s no engine in it, it flicks so quickly.

Power is immense everywhere, obviously. Even though the motor is stock, drive from low-down, mid-range and at the top (blimey) is Herculean but, thankfully, really, really controllable. The communication between the supersticky throttle grip and the throttle-body butterflies is telepathic. Small throttle openings give a soft, progressive uptake in power making getting out of slow turns (on cold tyres) super-easy.

I was just beginning to get some heat into my tyres and starting to work out lines and gear shift points when my fun ended. Entering turn ten, a left hand up-hill hairpin, the motor cut out like I’d just flicked the kill switch. The team had been chasing an intermittent misfire in the last hour of the day and my silent engine looked like the problem had reappeared. I was gutted but bearing in mind my bellypan was now full of race fuel (ruptured fuel fitting) it was probably a good idea that fate had steeped in and halted my progress. It only dawned on me later that if I'd crashed on the spilt fuel the bike would have been well and truly toasted thus removing all evidence that the ensuing fiery disaster hadn't been my fault. Phew.

My entry back down pitlane in the back of the circuit’s wrecker trailer may not have been very dignified but at least the bike was still in one piece and I’d managed to establish the cause of the misfire for the team.

Gary Mason and Stuart Easton are very lucky. If the 2011 ZX-10 MSS Superbike  feels this strong with a stock engine I think MSS may just be in for the season they richly deserve…

Carousel pics courtesy of Jon Urry and the Bombay Brasserie take away menu 

Footage shot on a Drift HD170 - available from

By mark forsyth

See also: Schoolboy Heroes , Old boys up front and where are the new 600 Gixers?, Steam Punk Bike.