First Ride: Ben Spies' World Superbike-winning Yamaha YZF-R1

Hot laps in Portugal on Yamaha’s crossplane crankshaft title-winner.

Ben Spies' World Superbike-winning Yamaha YZF-R1 - First Ride

Ben Spies' World Superbike-winning Yamaha YZF-R1 - First Ride

I enjoyed watching three-time AMA Superbike Champion Ben Spies clinch the 2009 World Superbike title in his rookie season, but the real reason that I traveled halfway around the world to the Autodromo do Algarve in Portimão, Portugal, was to ride what is arguably the world's best Superbike: Spies' factory Yamaha YZF-R1.

Standing in Spies' pit, I couldn't take my eyes off his blue, black and white R1. The Italian-milk-backed bike is beautiful, with carbon-fiber bodywork, Brembo Monobloc brakes and Öhlins suspension among its alluring attributes. After the gas tank was topped off with fuel and the back-of-the-seat cap reinstalled, I climbed aboard. Spies is much taller than I am, but the riding position nevertheless felt comfortable. I was also pleased to discover that the clutch lever had a bit of travel, something that was missing from the other Superbikes I rode the same day.

Ben Spies' World Superbike-winning Yamaha YZF-R1 was well-protected in Portugal.As I chugged down pit lane, the engine sounded like it was broken, with a lot of rattling near my ankles—turns out, it was just exhaust back pressure reverberating through the large mid-pipe routed right behind the rearsets. I changed gears and rolled open the throttle to begin my first lap around the 2.9-mile, 15-turn circuit. Escalating engine revs were accompanied by a marvelous sound from the Akrapovic muffler.

Magneti Marelli electronics common to many front-running Superbikes allow wide-open shift action that, in this particular case, was remarkably positive. Corner exits were never slowed by electronic interruptions that might upset the chassis. Maybe my 30-plus laps around the circuit helped me to push my limits on this bike—and have a lot of fun while doing it—but the edge of control was more recognizable than on, say, Ruben Xaus' factory BMW S1000RR. I rode as hard as I could in hopes of gaining a glimpse of any advantages Spies might have enjoyed from his world-conquering ride.

From my perspective, Spies' R1 wasn't the fastest machine down Algarve's long front straightaway, but its crossplane-crankshaft engine had more torque than I ever imagined could be derived from an inline-Four. The new firing order let me open the throttle earlier and carry low wheelies off a couple of corners. Compared with the Yamaha of Noriyuki Haga that I rode last year in Portugal, Spies' R1 felt less front-end biased; using his long arms and legs, he was able to transfer more weight over the front of the R1 than could Haga with his more abbreviated structure. So, with more weight focused over the rear of the bike, Spies' bike felt light and lively up front. That, combined with light steering-damper resistance, allowed the Yamaha to shake its head under hard acceleration, reminding me to keep a loose grip on the bars and plenty of weight over the front tire. Feedback while braking was amazing, and I could make aggressive steering inputs with pinpoint accuracy.

A stock Yamaha YZF-R1 isn't my favorite 1000cc racer-replica, but on this day at the Autodromo do Algarve, Spies' Superbike was the best bike in the world.

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