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But these bikes aren't designed for amateurs. The handling, acceleration and braking performance of the typical sport bike is engineered to win races. That requires ultra-sensitive brakes and throttle, two things with which new riders are anything but graceful. Winning races boosts a brand's popularity and translates to sales. Add a license, mirrors and make a few other changes, and the same bike that competes in world-class events is street-legal and on sale for less than $10,000. With a high-interest loan -- which is more than affordable for the average 20-year-old looking for wheels -- the bike is out of the dealership and onto the street in no time. If a Ferrari cost ten grand, wouldn't you drive one?
"These bikes are made for racetrack use," spokesman Glenn Hansen says of Suzuki's GSXR line. "We have the image of being the bike to own," he says, noting that Suzuki has dominated races in recent years. Hansen says they're perfectly fine for street use, so long as the rider obeys traffic laws and wears the proper safety equipment. Clifton Burdette, director of the Texas DPS Motorcycle Safety Unit, agrees. "To blame it on sport bikes is almost an unfair thing," he says. "Sport bikes are extremely well designed. They handle very well. They have excellent stopping power. They just have to be used [properly]."
But proper use doesn't always come naturally for young riders. While the greatest number of deaths occurs among older riders who often aren't wearing helmets, those accidents usually involve alcohol or cars invading a motorcycle's space, Burdette says. With sport bikes it's different. Accidents and deaths are nearly always the result of a rider's loss of control, either at high speeds or in turns.
It was a warm summer night in July when 23-year-old Eric Arredondo decided to take out his brand-new Kawasaki Ninja 636 -- a perfect night for riding. Arredondo had purchased the bike three weeks earlier from a dealership in Corpus Christi, where he lived. Newspaper accounts said he'd been so impressed by the riders he'd watched go up and down Saratoga Boulevard that he decided he needed a bike too. He and two pals were flying at more than 100 miles per hour up South Padre Island Boulevard when he had his accident.
Going into a turn, Arredondo realized he was starting to lose control and made an amateur mistake: He tapped on the brakes. A more experienced rider would have known to push the bike into the turn, even accelerating to regain control. Instead, Arredondo lost it and pulled a high-side, going airborne off his Ninja. His body struck a light pole in the center of the highway, and he was instantly decapitated. His lower torso landed in the westbound lanes, while his head kept flying, finally rolling to a stop on the eastbound side of traffic. His blue bike also came skidding to a stop. It still had on the temporary paper plate.
"A lot of people don't realize that not only had a dramatic effect on the family but on the emergency responders who had to see body parts in the roadway," says Corpus Christi Police Captain Robert MacDonald. Not used to seeing carnage fit for Baghdad on their highways, many of the witnesses were traumatized, he says. Arredondo's death was only the latest in a string of fatal accidents. From December 2004 to this summer, Corpus Christi had eight deaths, all involving sport bikes.
After this gruesome accident, city officials decided they'd had enough. Police have since been compiling a database of riders involved in traffic stops or accidents, noting their license numbers and the makes and models of their bikes. They also encourage motorists to report dangerous bikers. When they get reports, they contact the riders and let them know that the police know who they are. "Sometimes it works," MacDonald says. MacDonald believes it's only a handful of riders causing the problems, which began in about 2002.
These riders haven't exactly been stand-up citizens, either. In one accident, witnesses saw a group of six riders going 90 miles per hour through a turn. When one of them lost control and crashed, the other riders took off. Not one returned to the scene of the accident. "They goad us into chasing them," MacDonald says. "We don't want our officers engaging in pursuits of motorcyclists, because they almost always end in death. To chase a motorcycle at 120 miles per hour for a traffic violation creates substantial risk to the public." Riders have figured out that if they create havoc and endanger lives, the chase will get called.
Houston rider Greg, who asked that only his first name be used, remembers the night he outran a cop. He and a friend were cruising along the beltway and he got stuck behind her because he had to go through a toll -- well, actually around a toll bar, but he still had to slow down. To catch up, he got in the left lane up on the northwest side near Tanner Road and sped up to about 130. After passing two cars, he saw a cop. "I think I almost pooped myself," he says. He popped out of his rider position and slowed down a bit as the cop's lights came on. "I knew I was going to jail. Man, you can't go that fast," he says. So he tucked back down and twisted the throttle on his Honda CBR 600 F3, easily losing the cop. "It would have been pretty impossible to catch me, unless he had a helicopter," says Greg. "I had a helmet, but man, I was being dumb. I had a tank top on."