As we established beyond any shadow of a doubt the last time around, the cafe racer may be cool right now but they're not very useful. Which is why we decided that it was time to go do some useful work and ride, ahem, better motorcycles.
After much discussion, we all - that's road test editor Halley Prabhakar, compulsive bike cleaner Rishaad Mody, resident Kung Pao Panda, Alan D'cruz and grizzled veteran me - decided that we needed to ride something realistic. This discussion was endless. But when I bought home Ferine, my new Triumph Street Triple, it was settled, we were going to ride sport nakeds. And we would finish running in the Triumph in the process so we were really going to make this whole thing very useful indeed.
Riding with friends on fast, carefree bikes. Does it get any better?
But seriously, why sport nakeds? Why do we have so many on sale in India now? What makes them so popular globally? The answer is actually pretty simple.
The naked bike is the simplest form of the motorcycle which is perhaps why they are most accurately called standard motorcycles. The Hero Splendor, in effect, is the basic naked motorcycle. But back in the multi-coloured 80s, when people fell off their gaudy sportsbikes they quickly realised that motorcycle fairings and credit cards didn't see eye to eye. Break one or lose the other and you've got to replace plastic. But while a new credit card is a phone call or two away, a broken motorcycle fairing can easily break a credit card.
Sport nakeds allow a thrilling pace and the upright but sporty ergos and terrific real-world manners make long rides laughably easy
So some genius decided that s/he simply couldn't be bothered to get new plastics. Clean up some wiring (which is messy inside a fairing because you cannot see it), put in a taller handlebar and you've got a sporty naked bike, aka a streetfighter.
As more people fell off and stayed off their plastics, the naked sportsbike became a thing. Sort of like the Cafe Racer, come to think of it. Manufacturers began to create motorcycles that did precisely what the post-crash lashed-together streetfighters did without the mess, the zip-ties and mucking about.
Miguel Angel Galuzzi and the 1993 Ducati Monster are regarded as the first serious production sport naked designer and motorcycle, respectively and the Monster remains to this day a very popular motorcycle. One that's set to go on sale very shortly in India, once again.
That's the origin. But why are they so popular? Well sportsbikes take their role as performance tools so seriously that they rapidly (get it?) alienate many riders. Riders who like the idea of going 90 per cent fast but don't want a 100 per cent of the wrist pain, backache and silly ergonomics. A bar-seat-peg setup that Batman finally took to its natural conclusion with the improbable thing from the Dark Knight Rises. Ride that, er, bike enough and no one rises, not even Bruce Wayne Too Much Pain.
Oh god, did I really just make a Batman joke?
Anyway, so we intended to get ourselves all the current sport nakeds. From the Kawasaki ER-6n to the Aprilia Tuono. But you see then we did the logistics and realised that unless we could clone Ajay Devgn 62 times we wouldn't have enough riders.
Alan, our largest tester rode the Z1000, the largest bike here while Shumi, our slimmest tester, ahem, rode the Street Triple, the smallest bike in this company
So we stuck to the four that were easy to get. My Street Triple, Kawasaki's lovely Z800, the barking mad Z1000 and all the way from Italy, the Benelli 899 TNT. Of these, the Benelli needs a special mention because this is the first time anyone's ridden the India-spec 899 and even this one isn't fully final in spec.
Without further ado, we headed out. On the cafe racers we'd worried about our bags and what have you. On a sport naked, the very flexibility of the platform means you don't have to do these things. You put the key in the ignition slot, gear up and you're ready for anything except for motocross and swimming lessons.
The Kawasaki Z800 - just look at that price - is the most civilised form of the sport naked here. Its quiet inline four wakes up almost before you touch the start button. And it settles into the quietest hum of all of these bikes. It's a gentleman, this bike. It goes well and very fastly but it does everything with impeccable, restrained behaviour. You catch yourself wishing it was a little more boisterous, a little more of a character, really. But as sport nakeds go, it's deeply impressive. This is the bike that will commute and travel without any trouble at all.
Its bigger brother, though, is diametrically opposed to it. It takes the mantle of sport nakeds being versatile and flexible and breaks into razor sharp shards and wants to stab you with them. Completely stock, the Z1000 looks like a gang member. It's probably just committed three murders because the morning coffee wasn't quite right. The design is stunning in its ferocity and appeal. No one looks at the Z1000 without having a little arrhythmia.
Trouble is when you ride it, the arrhythmia continues. Because Kawasaki has almost criminally undergeared the beast. What that means is all manner of, er, bad behaviour. It's the Joker. It wants to be in trouble. So open the gas without a care and you'll toast the rear wheel or toast the world with your front wheel. In any gear, at any time, the Z1000 is able to go over the edge of traction like a practised base jumper. It's deeply thrilling and involving to ride and there's a near-constant smile on your face at how rude the motorcycle is.
But give it time. An hour on the highway and the smile'll come right off. Because the same undergearing makes the Z1000 unnecessarily hard work out on the open road. You'll wonder, repeatedly, why a motorcycle with an engine so large requires so many revs in top gear to hold highway speeds. And once that door is ajar, you'll notice the hard ride quality - the Z800's a marshmallow in comparison - and the lustre starts to fade.
But the two Kawasakis book-end the spectrum we have here. One is the nicest of this lot in comportment and nature. The other is the naughtiest thing since Dennis.
Riding big fast bikes means a lot of gassing up. Economy tends to hover in the low 20s until you're in a group of fast riders on an empty road. Then it plummets to the 16-17s
The Benelli, in contrast, is the odd one out. It sort of likes things done different. So it mounts radiators on the sides, has that very distinct sense of style and since we last rode it, has gained a rather overt (and not very fetching) grab rail at the back too. It also sounds very different.
It clatters to life with a most unbecoming rattle and it's not an evocative or impressive sound. It's the sound of a machine. The sort that's usually in a warehouse far away from residential areas. Then you ride it. There's a fair bit of poke in that motor though you can clearly feel that the power has come down from the Italian bike we rode the last time out. In fact, that's why OVERDRIVE has not tested any of the Benellis - they weren't in the India spec. As Rishaad noted, that sound at idle is quite something. You'll come to a halt at the lights and everyone, including the visually disabled will turn towards you. Then you'll spot the frowns and have to needlessly rev the bike as proof that it's running just great.
The Benelli is the other three-cylinder motorcycle here and it stands out. By its unique noise, its unique looks and its native Italian-ness. . .
But the chassis can dance. Like the Italian 899 I rode earlier, it knows all the steps. Throw it into a corner and it lands on its feet like a cat. Its reflexes are excellent and it feels wide-awake, taut and ready for fun and games. When you start riding it, you also realise that the clatter doesn't reach you in the saddle. What you hear is this lovely roaring intake that is a rather likeable soundtrack.
You also do feel its age, unfortunately. The design dates from a time when underseat silencers were considered a good idea. So that exhaust slowly cooks the rear seat and I'd be careful about touching that grab rail after a long ride. Yes, Rishaad, I did spot your hasty retreat. But as Halley said, maybe that's a good thing because it means you're more likely to have your pillion wear gloves too which makes them safer, right?
But just look at it. It looks rather good, no? I absolutely love that split tail lamp as well as that bulging front end. Secret fact? I've always liked the way the TNT looks. Time's changed my feelings on that, not a bit. I do think a simpler seat would look classier maybe, but that's it.
The other bike with a famously nice intake snarl, of course, is the Triumph. Hit about 6,000rpm - this is a completely stock 79PS motorcycle - and there it is. A sonorous, urgent snarl (no other word describes it more accurately) as the Triple surges forward. Mody, who also knows what steering wheels do, said, the Triple reminds of the F-Type. F, eh? With the exhaust on quiet mode, the F has a smooth whirr. And then the roar arrives. Just like the Trumpet evidently. Lest he sound like an idiot (his words), there's nothing common in the actual tone, inflection and type of noise.
In this company, you do miss the outright power, though. When Mody took his foot out of his mouth and opened the throttle on the Z800, he basically shot away from me on the Striple. We were both at about 100kmph in third gear if memory serves. And then a moment later, he was ahead and I was a glowing dot in his mirrors.
But before you blame the Triple, remember that I'm on the Triumph. All 84kg of me. Mody cleans his bikes so much, he weighs a little more than a six-foot tall jar of air. Because otherwise the difference shouldn't be so much - the Triumph is the weakest bike here in power but also the lightest by some margin. Once again, Mody Man's on the math. He notes that only the full power Street Triple with its lighter weight could stand a chance against the Z800 in a straight line. Our 'detuned' version simply doesn't make enough power to overcome the Ninja 300's worth of power deficit. That's how you talk to a new bike owner on day one of riding. Very nicely done. Meet me outside after the issue comes out, Rishaad.
After a day out in the (very) hot sun, we were heading home when the moral of the story jumped out and grabbed me. You see the route we charted - like the last time - wasn't perfect. There were broken roads, patchy fixes, corners and straights. And we never really slowed for any of this. The beauty of the sport naked is that it was created by riders to take on the harsh reality of the real world. And the manufacturers have slowly refined the idea over time.
Today it's polished like an Antwerp diamond. All four handle our roads terrifically well at slow and fast speeds. None of them are as happy to bash into a pothole as, say, an Impulse or an Inazuma to be sure. But none of them eject you from the saddles. A sportsbike with less suspension travel and far more damping would. They all have relatively more squishy seats rather than a piece of thin rubber. They're real. And that's why they're so popular and there are so many on sale in India right now.
You should also think of them as platforms sort of like a half-built lego set. Because they sit halfway, roughly, between an upright naked motorcycle and full-on sportsbikes, sport nakeds also make excellent platforms for personal expression.
You can easily clip-on and rearset your way to a sportbike without the fairing. Or bar riser and highway peg it out and turn it into a fast commuter and uber-tourer. They're real and flexible.
I think the only thing wrong with all of them, really, is wind protection. Which they all lack. The Street Triple is a neck machine from a gym after a long day in the saddle and it has the worst wind protection as stock. The Z800 is the better by a small margin. The Z1000's super cool headlight fairing and the Benelli's insect head both break through wind well enough so that you could ride them without an aftermarket screen over long distances at speed but a screen of some sort would improve both.
But that is really it. When we turned the bikes around and pointed them towards our respective homes, we realised that we were all so comfortable that we were thinking of other things when we stopped rather than the bikes we were on. I wanted the new flyscreen for my Triumph to arrive post haste. Rishaad was mulling how he would clean the Z800 when he got home. Halley was pondering the Lodgy or whatever he was going to be testing next. And Alan was neck deep in a pile of fresh, hot parathas.
That's the thing about these bikes. Even if Alan grew to three times his size in the course of a meal - that's a joke, it doesn't actually happen - he would still be able to ride home. His sport naked would remain a useful, realistic and very fast motorcycle. He could still get his jollies from it. Because fat men are jolly and there shouldn't be any compromise on that.