The Wild Bunch A potent horsepower cocktail: the baddest sport bikes from around the world, power-hungry riders--and a dash of rain.
By Sue Zesiger

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Anyone rusty on panic?" asked Reg Pridmore, champion motorcycle racer and instructor, as a torrential El Nino rain turned Southern California's Willow Springs Raceway into a water ride. The question was apt: The thought of attempting the dozen or so waterlogged turns astride some of the world's most powerful sport bikes did raise my heart rate--and by the grim looks on the faces of my 16 guests, I wasn't alone. "The most important lesson in the wet is that you have to control your emotions--the pucker factor, I call it--and emotions are reflected in your throttle hand," continued Pridmore, his lilting British accent softening the edge of his message. "Let's take a couple of slow laps just to see how we feel, shall we?"

Swathed in rain gear to cover our leather and Kevlar riding suits, we trudged out to our 16 motorcycles, a global battalion of testosterone: two BMW K 1200 RSs, three Buell (owned by Harley-Davidson) S1 White Lightnings, three Ducati 916s, three Honda FVR800FI Interceptors, two Triumph Thunderbird Sports, and three Yamaha YZF R1s. Fresh-blood red, panic-button yellow, and Day-Glo blue screamed out from the futuristic fairings and body-molded fuel tanks; rain streaked the bad-ass exhaust pipes and wasp-waisted seats. We each silently selected a machine, fired up, then followed Pridmore single file. Completing the 1.8-mile course in first gear wasn't too bad, but I couldn't shake the ugly vision of dumping my Honda in each corner.

I should explain that I had planned this two-day speed feast to celebrate the renaissance of the motorcycle, now an official phenomenon. And I invited this select crowd of power junkies to help me coax the best from these bikes--CEOs and other assorted executives, all with considerable riding experience. Who's more addicted to power, to teetering on the edge, to hard-charging? They had biases: For instance, Colin Harley, a head honcho at Davis Polk & Wardell, owns multiple Harleys (though he's no relation); UBS director Tad Dillon owns a BMW; Donna Karan International Chairman Stephan Weiss races Ducatis. But loyalties to brands and styles of bike fell away when it came time to push the assembled sport cycles to their limits on the track. No one argued for cruisers or grand touring machines to be included, just lithe speed demons--the real bad boys.

We had started our adrenaline retreat the day before, at the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton. I found my bikers drooling in the parking garage over the machinery--half an hour in advance of our agreed-on 8 A.M. departure. Can you say eager?

I chose the sleek, deceptively small Ducati 916; everyone else jumped on his machine of choice. We revved up and took off, our flamboyantly colored leathers fighting with the machines for attention. We looked like a parade of action figures from hell, and more than a few guests at the Ritz seemed (rightfully) scared as we blasted away, all the various exhaust notes blending into one deafening aria.

Fifteen minutes northwest of Pasadena lies an infamous stretch of road curvature called the Angeles Crest Highway, or the Crest, as biker cognoscenti refer to the national-park road. It is one of the country's great motorcycle pilgrimages, although for a dozen or so bikers a year, it turns into a death-wish ride. But the statistics don't scare the hard-core crowd--and even though the rain seemed to follow us, I noticed most of our group putting knees down in the corners.

I found I liked the Ducati's endless low-end torque (a trademark of its V-twin engine) and the crouched position its handlebars coaxed me into, although some of my fellow riders felt it too extreme for comfort on a long trip. But, hey--I was there to practice my lean angle in corners, not tour the lower 48. And lean we all did: Pegs scraping the ground, the horizon of breathtaking peaks turned sideways like a crooked picture.

As we rocketed up and up the winding, mountainous road, the clouds thickened and rain began to fall. We switched bikes (after I dropped the Ducati on its side, thanks to its persnickety spring-loaded kickstand; I wasn't alone in my faux pas, but I won't name names), and I took the Triumph Thunderbird Sport. Its throaty, extra-smooth three-cylinder engine (a counterbalancing rod stifles vibration) had decent power, but the more classic upright riding position felt awkward in curves. I held on, and watched as some fellow outlaws did wheelies in my rear-view mirror. One offender later told me, "The Yamaha has so much power, I kept doing wheelies without meaning to!" Uh-huh.

First impressions count, and by the end of the day, I had trouble finding someone who wanted to ride the Buell back to the hotel. Its rough-vibrating two-stroke Harley engine is wrapped by a lean body that provides little in the way of comfort. "It's a groundbreaking design, but the fit and finish are terrible," said Mark Jenkinson, the photographer and an occasional bike racer. Others found the BMW excessively smooth and well equipped yet top-heavy. Only gentlemanly courtesy prevented fights from breaking out over who got to ride the Yamaha. "It's a death machine!" Bear Stearns managing director Elmer Shannon commented eagerly.

Most sane (read dull) people believe that motorcyclists were born with a different chromosomal makeup that propels them toward rebellious, death-defying behavior. As a rider since age 17, I can tell you that the truth lies elsewhere: Anyone who mounts a two-wheel stallion discovers an adolescent freedom, an age-be-damned pleasure that is unparalleled in the four-wheel realm. And these days more and more people are making that discovery. U.S. sales have climbed steadily over the past six years; new-unit sales are up 20% first-quarter 1998 over first-quarter 1997, and sport-bike sales specifically are up 16.3% for the same period. That means that a heck of a lot of guys (yes, unfortunately, most women are still missing out on the fun) are figuring out that a motorcycle provides the fastest route from midlife crisis to thrill satiation.

Of course, you can't get those ya-yas out in a downpour, as we discovered on day two during our morning of low-speed tiptoeing through Willow Spring's endless puddles. But the god of adrenaline finally smiled on us. The sun came out at lunchtime, and a track-drying wind kicked in.

Suddenly my huddled, damp executive masses reawakened. Within an hour, all riders were buzzing around the course at breakneck speeds--some reaching 100 miles per hour on the short straightaway. Reg Pridmore and I stood trackside for a moment, watching. "I still see some tense arms out there," he commented. "If you grip the bars tight, you'll transfer all that tension through your body and back into the handlebars again. You have to do this"--he flapped his arms chicken-style--"to remind yourself to stay loose."

I tried Reg's trick, and it worked pretty well. But the best learning experience came from his son, Jason, a 750 Supersport champion. "You want to take a lap or two?" he asked me. "Just brace your hands against the tank so you don't slam into me in the corners." Without another clue, off we screamed on the monster four-cylinder Honda Interceptor.

Berrrrr! Berrrrr! Berrrrrr! Jason's upshifts were so smooth and so fast I peeked over his shoulder at the tachometer to make sure he was really shifting--while fighting to keep my head upright against the wind's force. He blasted up the straightaway at 110 mph, and then--the cool part--leaned the bike over to an angle I can only call life-threatening while rounding the first corner. Despite the horizontalness, the noise, and the g forces, Jason's dance through the track's tight corners was the most peaceful experience I've ever had on a bike. I felt like a human gyroscope--no matter how far we leaned, momentum pulled us effortlessly through. Just before turn four, Jason yelled, "Hey, pick some flowers!" At the turn's apex I spied the daisies; we swooped so low I reached out and plucked them. After a dozen laps, I ceded my seat to the next lucky rider--and turned faster times myself, knowing finally what it should feel like.

By the end of the day men and machines were spent. One Triumph was badly scraped in a pit lane incident, a Ducati was backfiring, and several side directional lights were broken. No matter. The feedback flowed in, and there was something of a group consensus: The Buell is a rough beast whose positive attributes emerged on the track--it smoothed out at higher speeds. "I was as fast on it as on any other bike," said Tennessee entrepreneur James Lattimore. The BMW is a showcase of comfort, and many were impressed by how manageable it was on the track. "It was surprisingly easy to handle--I'd take it home," said Bill Magaziner, president of Magaziner Financial. The Honda was a favorite, both for its power and for its versatility and comfort. "You sit so well on the Honda," said Ed Friedrichs, president of Gensler & Associates. The Triumph charmed some with its evenhandedness. "It was the smoothest thing out there," said Craig Jackson, president of the Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction. The Ducati caused most riders a bit of discomfort, but its track performance was "excellent," said former Saab head Bob Sinclair. And the Yamaha YZF R1? Some found its 150 horsepower too much, while others declared it nirvana. "It was like cheating--it was that good," said 500 Group President Paolo Tiramani (a.k.a. wheelie king).

As for me, while I was seduced by the Yamaha's power, the Ducati's looks, and the BMW's refinements, I'd have to take the Honda--it's too good at providing thrills and comfort in any situation.

Back on the bus, an exhausted Colin Harley summed it up nicely: "I've had the time of my life." Hey, talk like that will get you invited back next year.