A year on two wheels: The best motorcycles of 2017
The sport of motorcycling – at least as we understand it in the West – feels like it's on shaky ground as 2017 comes to an end. Sales figures in the United States peaked in 2006 (716,268) and took a huge hit with 2008's financial crisis, which saw them plummet to less than half that figure. As the stock markets have recovered, bike sales have stayed absolutely stagnant, with only 371,403 units sold in 2016. Worse still, it seems that motorcycling is being propped up by an aging demographic, with precious few youngsters entering the mix.
Blame too many avocado toasties or the risk-averse mentality of millennials. Blame massive wealth inequality, a flaccid job market and choking levels of student debt. Blame the hipster fashion of buying cheap, old bikes and tarting them up. Blame what you like; the numbers aren't looking great.
Which is a pity, because in so many ways, the bikes themselves have never been better. Like a finely tuned orchestra playing to an emptying hall, the motorcycle industry has continued to outdo itself in the last 12 months, injecting ever more beauty, brains, passion and brawn into a bumper crop of bikes that have moved the game forward. Here's what moved us in 2017.
The superbike class reached unholy levels of performance many, many years ago, and numbers have simply kept rising – 205-odd horsepower is the pay to play number in 2017, if your flagship isn't making that, nobody's looking twice at it when you park it at the bike spot. That's ludicrous; a decade ago, you'd only entrust that kind of power to the greatest riders in the world.
But the superbikes of 2017 are superbly manageable. With ever-escalating levels of inertially-sensitive rider aid technology, they can be genuinely friendly if you ask them to be. We had a transcendent experience on this year's ultra high-tech BMW S1000RR, and were blown away by its active suspension, refinement, rideability and sheer velocity.
We also loved Suzuki's rebooted GSX-R1000, which gave us a serious case of white line fever and proved you don't have to fork over ridiculous amounts of money or buy into all the top-end electronics to experience the rush of a 200-horse superbike.
But the one that really tickled our proverbials this year was the new Big Duke. Ducati managed to re-build the mighty Panigale around an entirely new V4 engine platform without ruining the extraordinary good looks that made it the star of a thousand rap videos that couldn't budget for a Lambo.
The Ducati Panigale V4's 1103cc motor pounds out a wild 226 horses if you fit the titanium exhaust, it carries the very best of Bosch, Brembo and electronic Ohlins (if you stump for the S model), and it gets us excited like nothing else. Bravissimo.
Not a whole lot happened in the super-naked class this year, and that didn't matter one bit, because the two bikes that tower above this hooligan class are still two of the greatest motorcycles ever made. Many a tooth has been gnashed trying to work out which of these babies to buy, and I honestly don't know if there's a wrong answer. In no particular order, I give you:
The KTM 1290 Super Duke R...
...and the Aprilia Tuono V4.
2017 may be remembered as the year the Adventure class got real with itself. Plenty of people are still buying giant 1200cc, 550-lb (250 kg) monster adventure tourers, but plenty more have worked out just how good, and how strong, you have to be to do anything approaching serious off-road riding on one of those behemoths. The vast majority of riders are not that good, not that strong, and not that interested in getting stuck underneath one in the bush.
So this year we've seen a bunch of small-capacity ADV bikes popping up, like the plucky, low-tech Royal Enfield Himalayan and the Kawasaki X-Versys 300, offering a decent compromise between off-road and touring chops. But you're beating these things up a bit to sit them on highways for hours at a time, so our ears pricked up at something bigger.
The KTM 790 Adventure R is, at this stage, just a concept – albeit one that seems very close to production. But boy does it look like a good thing. Using the 105-horse motor from the brand new Duke 790, plus a full set of electronics, it has the chance to offer a terrific blend of road and dirt touring ability. The Duke 790 comes in at 169 kg (372 lb) dry, and if the 790 Adventure can stick around this kind of figure, it'll be significantly lighter than Triumph's Tiger 800 or BMW's F800GS. And that's the direction this class feels like it needs to move in.
As long as we're talking about the Duke 790, let's take a look at the middleweight naked class. That used to mean streetbikes built around 600cc sportsbike engines, like the Bandits and Hornets of yore, but since the super naked class has got so damn crazy, you can now legitimately call something like Yamaha's MT-09 a middleweight.
That feisty Yamaha triple got a tasty upgrade for 2017 that largely addressed the main issues we had with it: crap suspension and snatchy throttle. That makes it one helluva bike, especially for the money. And with 10 more horses and a pretty similar weight to the new Duke 790, it's still the bike to beat.
But we think it might have been beaten, by a new British bike that's flipped the old formula on its head. Where middleweight nakeds used to be derived from race bikes, this street-focused hoon machine is now going to become the engine platform for Moto2. We're talking, of course, of the Triumph Street Triple 765 RS.
Weighing in at just 166 kg (366 lb) dry, it pips the KTM on weight. Blasting out 123 horses, it's significantly up on the Yamaha, although it does lose out on low-end grunt. Put it next to the Yamaha, though, and it stands apart as a much more nicely designed object, with a better riding position and a terrific digital dash to build your rider-to-bike relationship around.
Small Capacity/Learner Machines
A special mention here has to go to Honda's iconic Super Cub, which might not be the world's most exciting motorcycle, but has genuinely changed the world. Honda is about to release a new 50cc and 110cc Super Cub to the Japanese market to celebrate 100 million units sold. 100 million! That's more than twice as many Corollas as Toyota has sold since 1966, and a staggering achievement.
What's Honda up to in the learner segment in more recent times? Well, weird and slightly offensive ideas like the Riding Assist-E – a motorcycle designed to self-balance at slow speeds so learners don't topple over quite as often. Kudos for welcoming a wider range of people into the fold, I guess, but at some point, if you're going to be a motorcyclist, you'll need to drink a cup of concrete and harden up.
In real-world sales terms, the biggest news of the year was probably Kawasaki's decision to upgrade the venerable Ninja 300 – a perennial learner favourite – into a Ninja 400 for 2018, a great move that should see a good, reliable bike get better. The children are our future.
Italian company Benelli has been enjoying a carefully-paced resurgence since moving its manufacturing base to China, and the brand jumped in on the tail end of the minibike craze with its own version of the Grom. The Benelli TnT125, which outpaces the Honda and Kawasaki minibikes on the spec sheet, looks cooler and undercuts them on price, too.
But our favourite low-capacity ride of the year was a bit of a surprise in the BMW G310R. The first low-capacity Beemer in donkey's years, as well as BMW's first experiment in offshore manufacturing, the G310R impressed us with its grunt, approachability and handling. It doesn't feel small or underpowered with a big galoot like me on board, either, but the biggest surprise was the price tag, which will make it a very competitive machine.
Not a huge amount of big news in electrics this year. It seems while everyone's convinced of the outrageous performance potential, none of the big boys think it's time to make a serious play just yet.
There was mild updates to the (already excellent) Zero Motorcycles range. Italian company Energica announced it will be supplying base bikes for a new electric racing class that will compete at certain meets on the MotoGP calendar. KTM added 50 percent more range to its Freeride E-XC enduro bike, although it still only packs 3.9-kWh of juice. And Alta Motors gave us a look at a flat-track styled electric streetbike built on its compelling Redshift EnduroCross racer.
Confederate Motorcycles tossed in its monstrous combustion v-twins and politically sensitive branding, changed its name to Curtiss Motor Company, teamed up with Zero and announced it's making something called the Hercules, which will use not one, but two of Zero's best motors. So that'll be fun.
West Australian company Top EV Racing announced that it's got the Top Fuel drag class and a ton of drag strip and land speed records in its sights, as it builds a terrifying 5,000-horsepower electric dragster that should see its first action in 2018. That's one to watch.
But the street machine to beat is still the Lightning LS-218R, which quietly added nearly 100 extra horsepower to the ludicrously overpowered beast of a thing I rode a couple of years ago. Still in boutique levels of production, and still costing mid-range sportscar money, the Lightning bike is now making somewhere around 300 electric horsepower, and while the salt conditions at Bonneville didn't allow the team to better its land speed record this year, there's no doubt it's good for well over the 218 mph (351 km/h) record that the bike is currently named for.
We're not heavily into the touring scene, but a few things did go ping on our radars. We thoroughly enjoyed the comfort, comprehensive fitout and touring competency of the BMW K1600GT when we rode it in January, but we were surprised just how hard this thing could party on a twisty road. Truly a terrific bike.
But we just can't go past Kawasaki's Ninja H2 SX. When we first rode the supercharged H2, we remarked that this engine was so smooth and clean in the low revs that it'd make a terrific tourer. Absolutely psychopathic up the top of the rev range, mind you, but that's hardly the point. Kawasaki redesigned the H2 motor for more efficiency, retaining the ludicrous 210-horsepower top end, and stuck some bags and an extra seat on it. That vibration you're feeling is the trembling of a thousand pillions who will be forced to experience this thing from the back seat.
Hottie of the Year
In my mind, there's no competition. Indian knocked it out of the park with its Scout FTR1200 Custom flat tracker. I won't listen to any other submissions. I don't care. Fight me.
Honourable mention goes to the Typhoon, by Old Empire Motorcycles in the UK.
Weirdo of the Year
While French company Furion worked on an electric/rotary hybrid motorcycle that pricked our ears up, there's really no arguing who's going to be responsible for the most scratched heads this year.
Yamaha has been toying with tilting three- and four-wheelers for 10 years now, and it's finally decided to turn one of its bizarre concepts into a road bike. The Yamaha Niken 3-wheeler picks up where the Piaggio MP3 left off, but is really the first sports-focused tilting three-wheeler to go to any sort of volume production. Featuring the terrific, torquey three-cylinder motor of the MT-09, the Niken will offer surreal levels of front end grip, as well as looking like something out of a sci-fi movie. We can't wait to ride one.
In the Record Books
We found three new world records particularly impressive this year. Firstly, a team of Indian stuntmen managed to fit no less than 58 people onto a single, moving Royal Enfield motorcycle in a feat that would impress even the average Vietnamese commuter.
Secondly, long distance master Carl Reese absolutely obliterated the 24-hour long distance record by nearly 100 miles (161 km), despite running out of tires with more than an hour to go. Reese circled the Continental proving ground in Texas for a mind-numbing 2,119 miles (3,410 km) in just under 23 hours, which was more than enough to get him another world record. But he reckons if he had a bigger tire budget (he "maxed out all the credit cards on this one") he might have a shot at 2,800 miles (4,506 km) in 24 hours. Madman.
But the record that really captured our imagination this year was Japanese "Wheelie King" Masaru Abe's 500-km (311-mi) wheelie on a 125cc scooter. The feat itself is incredible, breaking the former world record by nearly 200 km (124 mi) and refuelling on the back wheel. But it's all the more amazing given that he started to experience lower back pain at hour two, and managed to continue until hour 13. He could barely stand or hold the scoot up when he finally put the front wheel down. A heroic achievement.
So there's our highly subjective, wildly non-comprehensive overview of motorcycling in 2017. I'm sure we missed a bunch of exciting stuff, so help fill our list out in the comments section below. And here's hoping for an awesome 2018 on two wheels!