Seventy-three degrees on a climate-twisted February night in Ohio. On the way out of the burger place I noticed that the light down the street was green so I rolled the throttle lightly in second, relaxing the twist just long enough to kick into third. And again, twist relax kick. And again. It was the work of just a few seconds, never spinning the Kawasaki past five point nothing on your RPM dial, ladies and gentlemen. I rolled through the light. To my left, there was a policeman. He looked startled. Reflexively, I checked the speedometer, which read just a needle’s width beneath the 100 mark. More than double the speed limit, in a suburb where they don’t tolerate that sort of behavior. In my left mirror, I saw him jump-start through the intersection and line up behind me a thousand feet back.
So there was nothing left to do but twist it the rest of the way. Cue the old hyperspace effect. I am forty-six years old, suburban and harmless, battered and broken. But I am also this: gone.
I have now been a ZX-14R owner for a year and a half, although I was a ZX-14R dreamer prior to that. The odometer reads 1,207. Not because I don’t want to ride the bike, mind you. It’s just that this isn’t the kind of motorcycle you ride every day. I don’t take it out in the rain if I can help it, because it’s difficult to clean. I don’t ride it anywhere where it won’t be under some sort of surveillance, because these things are stolen just about as often as Acura Integras. Last but not least, I don’t ride it anywhere that I think it is at risk of getting bumped or damaged.
None of those rules apply to my CB1100, which racks up mileage at the rate of 5,000-plus a year. Truth be told, if I could only own one bike it would have to be the CB or something like it, because the CB is usable. It has plenty of torque, it doesn’t attract the attention of the police or the thieves, it runs like a top from 20 degrees to 110 degrees, it returns 47 miles per gallon.
I am glad that I can have more than one bike. The ZX-14R is a terrible (in the old sense of the word) joy to ride. After more than a decade spent driving every variety of exotic car in every variety of exotic location, I no longer worry too much about them. Even the thousand-horsepower hybrid hypercars seem close to tame. But the big green Kwacker continues to fascinate and frighten me. I don’t roll full throttle in second gear unless I’m awake, alert, and pointed at a quarter-mile of empty space. I don’t roll full throttle in first unless I am crouched and huddled in preparation for the inevitable moment where the front wheel lifts and the handlebars wag lightly back and forth.
Sure, I can quote the numbers just like any other motorcycle magazine racer. Cycle World got through the 1/4 mile at 9.47 sec and 152.83 mph. The LaFerrari is a couple lengths behind at the quarter; the Veyron is a blob in the mirror. Forget the Demon, it’s not close. But the numbers don’t tell the story. I’ve driven a LaFerrari and I’ve driven the Hellcats and I’ve driven the McLaren 720S which is similarly quick. All of them have the sense of tremendous power applied to move nontrivial weight, although the 720S suffers least from that. And there’s always a moment while the pinwheel at the front of the intake path spins up.
The ZX-14R ain’t having any of that shit, man. It accelerates at any time, in any gear, ignorant of inertia, with merciless ferocity. In a 40-120 roll I’m not sure what could even come close. My old pal Tinman used to run an FC RX-7 with an ex-NASCAR V8 between the frame rails; he called it “the literbike killer”. This Kawasaki would leave it for dead, the same way it leaves the literbikes for dead. The new V4 Ducati might give it a run for the money, and it might not. Even if the Duc can match it stock for stock, everybody knows that you can get the Kawasaki into the eights for a few grand. A few years ago, a fellow ran a mildly tuned example to a two-way 205.1 average on the salt flats.
My greatest fear isn’t that I’ll hit something; it’s that one of my hands will slip off the handlebars during max acceleration. If it’s the right hand, I’ll drop the nose and crash the thing; if it’s the left then I’ll probably just fall off backwards. Nothing like that has happened yet. It’s probably just ridiculous paranoia on my part. Yet there was one weekend morning where I accidentally let the front wheel pop too high and I found myself scuttling to keep from doing a reverse half-gainer onto the pavement at triple digits. There’s also the troubling fact that unlike a car, you can’t just hit the brakes nice and hard if somebody pulls out in front of you while you’re filing your flight plan. The front wheel has to have some weight on it before the bike will slow down at all. They say that in that situation you stomp the rear brake then squeeze the right-side lever as soon as your face bounces off the fuel tank. The ZX-14R does have ABS.
I would like to get a little better at riding the bike, but I don’t want to become tiresomely proficient the way I am behind the wheel of, say, a modern Corvette. I’d like to retain some of the mystery, some of the intimidation factor. It makes things fun.
When Hunter rode the Ducati 900SS, he waxed famously lyrical about the speed and power:
I never got to sixth gear, and I didn’t get deep into fifth. This is a shameful admission for a full-bore Cafe Racer, but let me tell you something, old sport: This motorcycle is simply too goddamn fast to ride at speed in any kind of normal road traffic unless you’re ready to go straight down the centerline with your nuts on fire and a silent scream in your throat…
A fool couldn’t ride the Vincent Black Shadow more than once, but a fool can ride a Ducati 900 many times, and it will always be a bloodcurdling kind of fun. That is the Curse of Speed which has plagued me all my life. I am a slave to it. On my tombstone they will carve, “IT NEVER GOT FAST ENOUGH FOR ME.”
Hunter’s Ducati put down about 73 horses at the rear wheel. The average ZX-14R built before the 2016 model year* will ring the bell for 208.1. Not quite three times the power. I wonder if Mr. Thompson would have revised his tombstone quote after running one into the 186mph limiter from a dead start. Which is not something I’ve done. I’ve briefly seen the high side of 160 on it. But then I think about my son growing up without the kind of sage advice I give him. You know. Stuff along the lines of “Men age like wine; women age like milk.” I’d hate to deprive the boy of that wisdom just because I wanted to tempt fate. So forget the Sausage Creature. The ZX-14R is a rolling meat grinder, civilized to some degree with ABS and a singularly lackadaisical traction control system but nonetheless ready to instantly render your skull into a pulped mess behind your mirrored visor.
Ah, but there are moments that sell it, moments where the smile on my face is genuine and not a rictus of panicked closing-speed concern. On the way home from work I was on a four-lane road going up a hill with traffic in a sort of staggered mess ahead — and in a flash I saw the way through, the sendero luminoso that would put me ahead of the whole thing. I was lugging in third at about 30mph. Didn’t bother to shift. Just twist. Left, right, roll briefly towards the 100 mark then clip the brake and dip back, then left and right again. I’d covered a linear half-mile of moving cars in just seconds.
The traffic light ahead flickered into a three-second yellow. By this point I was at 6000rpm in third so I cranked it the rest of the way. Cue the hyperspace effect, again.
Ya get out on your own
Take all that you own
Forget about your home
And then you’re
Just fuckin’ gone
* In 2016 Kawasaki crippled the bike, dropping power to 189 RWHP via some intake and computer trickery. The reason? Without those changes, it would have outpaced the new supercharged H2 — at sixty percent of the price. When Danger Girl found me a ZX-14R, she made sure to find a new 2015. God bless her, for this reason and many others.