The Greatest Decision I Ever Had to Make

A story about a gift, four iconic motorcycles, a tough decision, and the bond between father and son

My dad and I have always been great friends. Together we've shared countless long days enjoying the various cars and motorcycles we've collected over our lives. When I reflect on my childhood, the vision that always comes to mind is the two of us rounding the hairpin near Muir Woods on Highway One in the ‘54 XK120, crossed up sideways in a loud screechy drift, giggling like mad. Or me holding on tight as we tackled the legendary Sunday Morning Ride atop his ’73 Honda Dunstall 900, then parking along the shoulder to watch local legends like “Red Fred” drag a knee right around us, popping a massive wheelie upon corner exit. These are the experiences that helped cement in me the passion for cars and motorcycles that he and I continue to share as adults.

Pop and I still get together often for long fast rides through west Marin, be it on two wheels, four wheels, and sometimes even three[i].

1985 Triking

I love his collection of cars and bikes, and though mine’s a bit smaller, he has a real soft spot for my toys as well. We often borrow one another’s cars and bikes, our garages separate but, in a strange sense, almost shared just the same.

None of which, however, could have prepared me for a question he dropped on me one day this past spring. “Riccardo”, he said, “I’m not riding the bikes as much as I used to and I bet you’d enjoy having one. I don’t care which one, as I really like them all. How about you tell me which one you think you’d most enjoy using, and I’ll be happy to give it to you”.

Stunned silence. Did I just hear that right? Did he really just ask me to decide which of his four superb motorcycles I would most like to take home for keeps? My mind raced, fueled by a 90-proof cocktail of shock, ecstasy, humility, and unbridled excitement. I stuttered… I blushed… and after a few moments of trying to get myself back together, I threw my arms around him and thanked him. I thanked him for all kinds of stuff.

As the weight of the moment passed, I began to ponder this hilariously good problem to have. How to decide between four such different motorcycles? Would it be the ‘86 Suzuki GSX-R 1100, the world’s first true superbike[ii], and the very bike that had shuttled me off to Town School every morning of my youth? Or was the hyper-exotic ‘91 Bimota YB8 the only logical choice? Perhaps the achingly beautiful ‘02 MV Agusta F4S could not be denied… unless the rare ‘05 Ducati 749R presented the most compelling argument. How to decide? For days my mind raced to no avail. At last I concluded that only a long term road test would do.

“Pop, what do you think if I borrow each bikes for a few weeks, one at a time, and then make my decision. You can take the Hawk… we’ll just trade for a while.” I realized that my ’88 Honda Hawk NT-650 was no fair fodder for any of the bikes in his stable, but it was the best I had to offer- and in fairness the Hawk is itself a truly epic motorcycle it it’s own right.

Pop quickly responded with a “Sure, that sounds great! When are you coming over?”

Love that guy.

Over the ensuing four months, I borrowed each bike, commuted on it daily for several weeks, squeezed in a couple high speed jaunts through the twisties, then gave it a thorough detail and a fresh tankful of premium, and returned it to Pop’s garage in exchange for the next. I made countless mental notes about how they compare and contrast, all the while reveling in the opportunity to get personally acquainted with each of these unique machines. Of course, the ongoing question I sought to answer was, simply, which would be the best bike, overall, to live with every day? The search for that answer began with the first bike to grace my garage, the MV.

MV Agusta F4S (2002)

Considered by many (including your author) to be the single most beautiful motorcycle of all time, the MV Agusta F4S combines lines only an Italian could pencil paired with a high-strung 750cc radial-valved inline four (in order to qualify for the 750cc Superbike spec of the era). Designed by the legendary Massimo Tamburini (of iconic Ducati 916/996 fame, among many others), the F4S is utter sex on wheels. Stunning from every angle, it is without aesthetic flaw. A sculpture, a masterpiece of industrial design, a breathtaking object of art. The muffler alone, featuring four narrow trumpets arranged in a staggered formation, is the kind of design detail to be found everywhere on the MV that separates this contemporary sport bike from every other, before or since. But can anything so focused on utter sex appeal double as a comfortable and usable machine?

As it turns out, yes and no. It’s fuel injection mapping combines with a silky-smooth and balanced power plant to deliver quick starts and no grumbling on cold mornings. On the flip side, it’s high, steeply raked seat sits near-level with the dropped clip-ons, putting enough weight on my wrists that I found myself often shaking them out at stoplights. The mirrors, though beautifully sculpted, succeed only in reminding me of the shape of my elbows. Most frustratingly, the MV has the turning radius of Boeing 747, and approaching full lock results in your fingertips getting smashed between the grips and the fairing. It requires a 7 point turn just to get it out of my garage- an attribute I found exceedingly annoying when running late for work, an admittedly not uncommon circumstance.

But oh… on the open road… oh my. For its shortcomings as a commute bike, the MV is simply divine in its natural element. It pulls sweetly from low revs, slowly at first but so smoothly that you hardly miss its lack of low end torque. As the revs climb, everything changes. At 8K the bike takes on a nasty snarling roar and pulls vigorously and at 10K, just when you think the power band may begin to wane, it explodes forward again with ever more ferocity. Quickly I’d find myself bouncing off the rev limiter, the bike wailing and shrieking and flying, a maniacal scream of valves and pistons and cams spinning furiously in a perfectly choreographed dance repeated 13,900 times a minute. It is like nothing I've ever ridden or heard, an rev-happy monster, a race bike for the street. This is a bike whose engine is so flexible that you can put along at 50 miles an hour in first gear or in sixth gear- without the slightest protest either way. But bang it down a few gears and hammer it, and I’d open the gates of hell! It turns me into a sixteen year old, a hooligan, all passion and no common sense. It is, to my lights, the best engine of them all. It reminds us of just why fuel-injected I-4's have been the staple of the industry for decades- there is simply no equal with respect to flexibility, smooth power delivery, and the unreal rush they can bring at high revs.

And so, the MV Agusta F4S lives up to everything it suggests to be as you stare upon it, your jaw agape. Pointed, focused, an object designed with passion for the sole purpose of inciting the same. Truly a masterpiece, in every sense of the word.

Ducati 749R (2005)

A beast

While the MV Agusta delivers a sublime riding experience combined with surprising tractability, the 749R forsakes any concession to everyday usability in the interest of absolute performance. It is a brutal bike, cranky and temperamental, a bull just subjected to a searing brand. So uncooperative is the Ducati 749R in daily use, I have to wonder if there is something wrong with it… or is it just that wrong a bike?

Perhaps I should not be so surprised, for this is not your ordinary 749, but rather the highly massaged and very limited production “R” variant, one of approximately 200 imported to the US in 2005, featuring a slipper clutch, Öhlins forks, shock and steering damper, racing cams, titanium valves, valve guides, and connecting rods, magnesium head covers, and carbon fiber belt cover.[iii]

The stock 749 and sportier 749S on which it is based have had an interesting history. They are fast and well rounded sport bikes, but upon its 2003 launch, many found the styling to be a real disappointment. It hit the market in the unenviable position as the replacement for Tamburini’s utterly iconic 916/996, the bike that turned sport bike styling on its head and dominated AMA Superbike for the better part of a decade. The 749, designed this time by Pierre Terblanche, sought to represent the more sensible Ducati, featuring a less sadistic seating position, adjustable rake and adjustable seat and peg heights, all intended to make for a more usable though equally thrilling machine. In its defense, it delivered on that promise. And yet, the public found styling cues like the inset stacked headlights and slightly awkward tail section resting above an admittedly ugly muffler to be just too much to reconcile, too far a fall from the flawless styling of the 916/996.

Say what you will about the stock 749, but the 749R is a stunning motorcycle. Finished in a deep blood red with red trellis frame and gorgeous black forged Marchesini wheels, flashing top shelf Öhlins suspension bits and magnesium valve covers, the 749R looks the business. From the seated position, its over-sized white-faced tachometer is centered squarely above the drilled triple-clamps, only further heightening the intended purpose of this machine. Hit the starter once and it turns over, slowly, until the twin fires suddenly to life. So slowly does the starter motor go about its business that one can only assume a nearly dead battery… but nope, that’s just the way it is. Snick the shifter into first- a surprisingly long throw, slowly release the clutch, and… yuk. If it doesn't stall as soon as the clutch plates engage, it makes a horrible sound protesting any slippage you may apply. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The dry clutch, a hydraulic slipper clutch unique to the “R”, is so utterly uncooperative that one can only wonder, can it really be this miserable a clutch, or is there something horribly mis-adjusted with this particular example? The truth is, I just don’t know.

What I do know is that only the deftest application of clutch release, which involves carefully approaching the exact moment of friction, waiting for a few seconds of gentle creep, and then again slowly releasing from there, with absolutely no additional throttle input, may result in a successful departure. OK, I suppose, if you don’t ever have to get going in a hurry… but a true misery when trying to get the jump on the two Muni buses you've squeezed yourself between at the red light. Release too quickly and you’ll stall, the buses angrily whizzing by mere inches from each mirror as the starter motor lazily spins. Try to make up for it with just a touch of throttle, and the sound produced by the dry-clutch makes the screech of a fax machine sound like Puccini- and with none of the desired effect. Oh, and don’t ever, ever stop on an incline. It won’t work out. You will never get the bike going on a hill. I promise.

Of course, that’s not the only concession to practicality. The Ducati also loves to stall, even without the request of the demon slipper clutch. It stalls often and without warning or reason, though only at low revs. Nothing about this bike would suggest that it was ever intended to be ridden at less than 6,000 RPM- it’s the de facto “R” disclaimer.

But here’s the good news- and it’s good enough to make the bike intoxicating. Once underway, nothing in the stable can match the Duc for pure explosive power and unbridled machismo. The 62 lb-ft of torque generated by the 90 degree twin puts all the other bikes to shame At low revs or high, the ability of the 749R to increase its speed right now is staggering. Running it up to red line through all the gears… it is just fabulous. The sound of the twin is magnificent- no four-banger can ever touch that raw, pounding soundtrack. With its fairly long wheelbase, the Duc is rock solid and stable- the perfect bike for a series of long fast sweepers. It’s less flick-able than the MV, but once your line is set, you feel you can feed in the throttle hard and early as the rear Pirelli spins madly, launching onto the ensuing straight as though shot from a cannon. I had an epic ride on the bike a few years ago through long fast twisties in the Sierras, and it was an experience I will never forget. In its element, if only in its element, this bike is untouchable.

So, despite it’s utter uselessness in daily traffic, the Ducati 749R is a bike that sticks with you. It’s the UFC fighter of the group- an incredible and violent machine capable of obliterating the competition through a mix of coursing testosterone and unilateral focus, making no pretense of friendliness or cooperation, but rather driven solely by the will to prevail, whether it be in the cage or on the open road.

Suzuki GSX-R 1100 (1986)


Simply put, this is the bike that started it all. This is the Thomas Edison of sportbikes, a bike so inconceivable prior to its conception that its place in history can never be questioned.

Never before this bike was introduced had any major manufacturer designed a true race bike for the street. The GSX-R had it all- a big, silky, four valve twin-cam inline four, a light and rigid aluminum frame, adjustable sport suspension with rear mono shock, big powerful brakes… and a screaming paint job just to nail home the point. For its time, this thing was just radical. Nothing came anywhere close to it- it was simply The Man.

Almost 30 years on, this bike still looks fast- and it is. It’s 1,052cc’s of displacement result in a still impressive 120 horsepower, it’s brakes are more than up to the task, and the handling, though a bit ponderous relative to its great-grandchildren, is nevertheless responsive and confidence inspiring.

Starting the GSX-R begins with a firm pull of its choke lever, which slides directly out of the row of four carbs nestled under the tank. It starts quickly, and under choke zips immediately into a frenetic and unsettling high idle. It’s a sound I remember vividly from my youth- each morning it’s the sound I’d hear as Pop pulled it out of the garage just before I’d slam closed the garage door (an important part of our morning ritual), hop on the back, and take off for school.

The power delivery is smooth and linear, and the bike builds speed quickly. It’s faster than it feels, because it’s never explosive, it never tries to throw you off the back. And yet, with all that displacement, there is always plenty of power, and at any RPM.

The Suzuki features a natural, upright seating position (by today’s standards), with a fairly long reach to the bars and a low, soft seat requiring a tight bend of the knees to reach the high mount pegs. Nevertheless, the GSX-R is immediately comfortable- cushy even. The suspension is very soft producing notable oscillations under acceleration and braking, but it soaks up all the major bumps and potholes littered throughout the streets of San Francisco. It’s stock exhaust keeps the bike quiet under any load, the mirrors are big and effective, and the turning radius is adequate for carving through stopped vehicles in the City.

Funny, really, the bike that was once the most sporting and aggressive ever conceived now seems more comfy cruiser than sport bike, an interesting perspective on just how maniacal we've become for ever faster and more compromised sport bikes.

Almost 30 years on, the GSX-R is a classic collector bike today, and one whose historical significance is matched only by icons like Honda’s CB750, the Norton Commando, and the Vincent Black Shadow. At the corner of Kearny and Sutter the other day, a guy stuck his head out and yelled to me, “Hey man, that needs to be in a museum, man! That bike needs to be in a museum!!!” I couldn't totally tell if he was paying me a compliment or chewing me out- or both- but he understood exactly how great a bike it really is, and I appreciated that. Because it is just that- a truly iconic classic, and now in the sunset of its reign, a proud and gentle giant, sweet and comfy, practical and beautiful… without question the most well-rounded machine in the stable. And still plenty damned fast.

Bimota YB8 (1991)

Each of these bikes is something special, but let’s be honest: the Bimota YB8 is in an entirely different league.

Bimota was formed in 1973 in Rimini, Italy by Valerio Bianchi, Giuseppe Morri, and the great Massino Tamburini (thus “Bi-Mo-Ta”)- yes, the same Taburini who designed the MV. The history of the company reads like a great drama, a mix of impossible successes (five victories in the inaugural 1988 world superbike championship) and cataclysmic failures (the V-Due debacle- their first {and last} attempt to build their own engine). Over its history, in which the company has gone bust and been resurrected again and again, Bimota has been committed to designing and building, by hand and in impossibly low numbers, the most exotic and stunning sportbikes in the world, with a maniacal attention to detail and design.

The 1991 YB8 is no exception. It is an absolute show stopper- an utterly stunning machine. I mean, just look at it. Unlike most contemporary motorcycles, the Bimota gets increasingly beautiful the closer you examine it. Each individual component, be in the rear sets, the tach face, the frame… the more closely it is studied, the more stunning it becomes. To look is not enough- it begs to be touched. The complexity of design and quality of machining is simply superb. The paint job is as brilliant and imaginative as it is masterful in its final execution. One could spend hours just staring at this motorcycle, without ever even firing it up.

But that would be a mistake. Because the Bimota is an absolute blast.

Power comes from the 1,002cc Yamaha Exup mill featured in the FZR-1000 of the period, producing a formidable 149HP The engine fires immediately with the assist of a choke, activated by a masterfully machined little toggle (emblazoned, of course, with Bimota logo, which finds itself into every possible nook-and-cranny on the bike) cleverly integrated right into the center of the triple clamp. This epitomizes the Bimota ethos- an incredibly thoughtful and clever detail, designed and machined as if for a museum, even if only for the simple purpose of engaging the choke.

The Yamaha power plant produces the typical sound of Japanese four-pots of the era. It’s a scratchy sound, the result of thousands of tiny explosions, valves opening and closing with such rapidity that the net result is a muffled noise with out any particular beat or tempo. With a pronounced “clunk” and a lurch, 1st is engaged and the clutch released- happily without any of the protest offered by the 749R. Relative to the GSX-R, its relative contemporary in this collection, the Bimota is incredibly rigid. It’s like riding on a chunk of billet aluminum. However once underway one quickly forgets how unforgiving the suspension is- it’s something you come accustomed to more easily that you’d expect. The Bimota pulls smoothly and easily through the lower revs, shifts crisply, and tracks easily over real-world road conditions. As the road opens and I spin the throttle, and the YB8 accelerates hard, with strong mid-range punch and no fall-off in power up to red line. It’s quite similar, not surprisingly, to the Suzuki’s mill, though notably punchier throughout the rev range despite the slightly smaller displacement. It feels a lot smaller and lighter than the Suzuki, and notably faster still.

I remember dipping the YB8 into the first fast corner, the on-ramp onto 101 South, and noticing how solid and confidence inspiring the chassis is. Part of this is no doubt due to the rock hard suspension settings, which negate any pitch or squish, but also no doubt to the light and rigid aluminum frame. I immediately felt comfortable on this bike. It is precise and predictable, with excellent directional stability.

I was somewhat shocked. I had ridden the bike enough in the past to know that the suspension would have my teeth chattering and that the park-bench of a seat would have me saddle sore in a matter of miles. Fine for the Sunday morning ride, and a fair price for exotica. But as a daily commute bike? A fish out of water. And yet, for days on end, we made the commute together, the Bimota and me, and to my amazement I found it to be surprisingly suitable to the task at hand! Not comfortable per se, but not miserable either. It features an impressive turning radius, smooth and effortless power, the mirrors are wide and effective… hot damn, this is a great bike!

Of course, being both hand-made and Italian, we certainly had our little issues together. On two occasions the bike simply died on me, once most unpleasantly in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge at rush hour on Labor Day weekend- relegating me to “that guy” status, and frankly it’s going to take me a while to get over that one. On both occasions, the solution was a shot of starter fluid into the intake manifold, miraculously curing the issue. Like a nice snort of whisky for a happy drunk- one big boost of starter fluid once in a while to augment a daily diet of petrol, just to keep everyone cheery.

But despite the reliability issues (which have since been resolved -Ed.), the Bimota YB8 proved itself to be, quite simply, a wonderful sport bike, independent of its exclusivity and drop dead gorgeous outfit. It’s fast, confidence inspiring, and reasonably comfortable. But best of all was just to see it every day, to walk up to it in the garage, and to stare at it, to drop down onto a knee and inspect again the intricate machining of its frame. It’s so outrageous, so beautiful, so incredibly good at being what it’s trying to be, that there is no denying its position in the pecking order of Pop’s collection. Without any question, this is the crown jewel. This is the girlfriend you bring to the class reunion. Stunning and fun loving, with a strong and sexy Italian accent, the one to make all the bullies croon in disbelief. But is it also the one you’d want to marry?

As I finished my final detail job, topped it off with premium, and rolled it back into Pop’s garage, I knew my grand experiment had come to an end. It was time to pick up the Hawk, which frankly I missed madly, and bring her back home. I would take a week or so to ponder my options, to weigh the thousands of little points and observations I had amassed over my long-term, four bike road test. But at last the answer to this comically first-world problem emerged- and it now sits in my garage, right next to the Hawk.

It’s the Suzuki.

The fact is that the GSX-R 1100 is the best all around sport bike in the stable. It’s fast, comfortable, beautiful. The mirrors work and I can get out of my garage in an easy three-point turn. It’s got good range, an effective windscreen, and enough turning radius to navigate through stopped cars at the light. Is it the best track bike? Of course not- that would likely go to the 749R. The most exotic? Clearly not- the Bimota wears that crown. Is it the weapon of choice for a fast ride through west Marin? No, that is the domain of the MV Agusta.

The Suzuki GSX-R is not necessarily the best at anything, and yet it’s the best bike all around for me. It’s an honor to ride this bike, to share it with the public. It’s the one that started it all… and not just for the sport bike class, but also for me, about 30 years ago. The very bike that shuttled me off to school each day will no doubt shuttle Tyler and Brody, my sons, off to school just the same way. I think that’s pretty cool, and I know my dad will too. And maybe that’s the best reason of all.

Thanks Pop!

[i] My 1985 Triking Three-Wheeler

[ii] With the exception, arguably, of the Honda VFR-750 Interceptor


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