Observations From A Stack Of Old Cycle World Magazines

Re-acknowledging timeless ideas.

FN-1 on white background
Honda FN-1.Honda

Now that the weather is improving in New York and I've disinterred my Ducatis, I've taken a turn around the house to collect the winter's accumulation of old Cycle World and Motorcyclist issues from side tables and toilet tanks (nothing like a good early '00s supersport shootout to help move the bowels, I always say).

I inherited my stockpile from my dad, so it's fairly comprehensive of the '90s and '00s, a moto-mag-rich period in our home that coincided with my brother's and my achieving a maturity level where we could relate to John Burns and enough self-awareness to recognize we'd probably never really understand half of what Kevin Cameron talks about.

Flipping through the musty pages is a memory-jostling look at the cult of motorcycling. You don’t read them for new information, but to see something you already know in a new way. Old race reports, bike comparos, and the timeless musings of Peter Egan et al. show us what we got right, where we went wrong, and that progress, for all its promise, hasn’t really gotten us any closer to any prescribed destination.

Stack of Cycle World magazines
Winter reading.Seth Richards

This year, my Ducati 996 S turns 20 years old. And next to a new Panigale V4 S, it’s still as captivating as ever. To the one who loves it, a good motorcycle can never be obsolete because it’s more than a piece of technology. In the same way, I found there’s nothing irrelevant about a 20-year-old review of a new motorcycle. Ideas—manifested in the words of the journalists, on the drawing boards of the designers, and in the rolling cycle itself—refuse to capitulate to time’s fickle assignment of value.

Here are a few of my small observations after a winter of old bike mag toilet reading.

Pierre Terblanche Was A Genius
Ducati 999
The Ducati 999: ahead of its time.Ducati

There’s probably never been as much ink spilled over a motorcycle’s appearance as over the Ducati 999’s. Following up Massimo Tamburini’s 916/996/998 masterpiece was an unenviable task. But rather than update and refine the design that redefined Ducati, chief designer Pierre Terblanche went in an entirely different direction. And he was crucified for it. Sales slumped even though the 999 was a better motorcycle in a lot of ways than its predecessor.

After only three years of production of the 999, the 1098 debuted with all the signature 916 traits, as though a backpedaling apology to Ducatisti.

Out of its iconic predecessor’s shadow, it’s clear the 999 rewrote the rules of what a sportbike could look like—even though no one else has followed suit; sportbikes still largely follow the same tried-and-true design cues. With time, the 999 is showing itself to be profoundly beautiful and ahead of its time. Terblanche is a genius. The 18-year-old me would be appalled to hear those words come out of my mouth, but I was wrong back then. We all were. I even think Terblanche’s Multistrada looks good in the flesh.

The Honda VFR750F Was King For More Than A Day
Honda VFR750F on white background
Pre-FI, pre-VTEC, pre/post-Interceptor-labeled VFR.Honda

The current Honda Interceptor is a fine motorcycle by all accounts, but it simply isn’t the undisputed “enthusiast’s machine” it once was. In the October 1996 issue, the VFR won the Best 750cc Streetbike category for a record seventh consecutive time. CW reported: “The vaunted VFR has one feature not found in any other US sport machine: a splendid four-cylinder Vee-motor with gear-driven cams, a seamless powerband and a soul-stirring exhaust note that is heaven-sent.”

My dad’s sixth-gen VFR (the RC36-2) was the first streetbike I ever rode (“Are you sure you’re okay with me taking out the Veefer, Dad? Going from my Kawasaki KX100, it sure is a displacement leap. And those fairings look expensive…”). It remains one of the most refined motorcycles I’ve ever ridden. It’s funny: “Best 750cc Streetbike” isn’t a category that even exists today. Maybe that’s the problem right there.

The Yamaha TRX850 Is Rad

Based on its TDM850, the Yamaha TRX850 is a parallel-twin sportbike in the vein of the era’s Ducati 900SS: not as focused as a race-rep and not as practical as a sport-tourer. Like the 900SS CR, the TRX has a trellis frame (but with cast aluminum swingarm pivots like current-day MV Agustas) and semi-nude, boxy bodywork that’s totally nostalgia-inducing yet completely refreshing.

The TRX was developed for the Japanese market and never came to US shores, which seems a shame. It was also the first production motorcycle to feature a 270-degree crank. Which makes one think: What if Yamaha grabbed the motor from the MT-07 and put it in a similar half-faired sporting package? Maybe it would, ahem, take less time to come to showrooms than the Ténéré 700.

A Slew Of Forgotten Concept Bikes Are Still Awesome
FN-1
Honda FN-1.Honda

It's always a grand tragedy for the motorcyclist who falls in love with a prototype that never gets built. Honda was on a heartbreaking tear in the '90s with some concept bikes that still excite. The Super Mono 644 is one such piece of unfulfilled desire. With the air-cooled single out of the XR650L; an under-engine-mounted shock; and glorious, period-correct half-faired bodywork, the little thumper would have been awesome. It looked to be close to production too.

The Honda FN-1, on the other hand, never appeared close to production-ready, what with its frameless design, single-sided rear and front suspension, and GPS tracking tech. However, its longitudinally mounted 1,500cc V-4 represented some outside-of-the-box thinking that, if married to a more realistic chassis, could have been an intriguing package. Never happened. However, echoes of the FN-1's bodywork can be seen in Honda's current Neo-Sports Café lineup. I guess that's consolation.

Moto Guzzi Sportbikes Are Missed

In CW’s July ’93 comparison between the Ducati 888 and Moto Guzzi Daytona 1000, we declared, “the Guzzi probably won’t ever win a world roadracing championship, but there is no more charismatic motorcycle on the market today.” The Daytona featured developments pioneered by Dr. John Wittner and racer Doug Brauneck, who won the 1987 AMA Pro-Twins championship on a heavily modified Le Mans.

The contemporary Moto Guzzi lineup is noticeably bereft of any motorcycle that could be considered sporting, which is too bad considering the Mandello del Lario marque’s deep racing heritage. Italian sporting charisma is one of the great traditions of motorcycling and we wish Italy’s oldest purveyor of it would bring it back.

ADVs Had Some Explaining To Do
KTM-950-Adventure
KTM 950 Adventure.Cycle World archives

The popularity of ADVs in 2019 means manufacturers are continuously expanding their offerings to account for every formula of dirt/road/tour-worthiness. But in 2003, when Mark Hoyer test rode the brand-new Ducati Multistrada in Sardinia, and off-road ace Jimmy Lewis hopped aboard the KTM 950 Adventure, the ADV category was still relatively left field—the popularity of the GS notwithstanding. Both testers had to explicitly answer the question: “What are these things?”

So Lewis describes the KTM as a “multi-purpose bike” to distinguish it from dual-sports, streetbikes, and adventure-tourers. And Hoyer describes his test mule as a “multi-street” bike, designed by Ducati for the rough and snaking tarmac of the Futa Pass. The 950 Adventure and the Multistrada bookended the adventure-bike niche, just as their modern counterparts do today. Only now, we don’t have to ask, “What are these things?”

By the way, if you don't have a basement full of old _Cycle World_s, check out Cycle World Cover to Cover which gives you online access to every issue ever published (for as little as $3.33/month!).