What is a liter bike? There are thousands of bike models to ponder, but liter motorcycles are a special case. Experts and professionals have warned against using them – the reasons, for many people, are still a mystery.
This article intends to clear up confusion for you by addressing all relevant questions regarding these vehicles.
What is a liter bike?
A liter bike is a motorcycle with an engine that has a liter of displacement, or approximately 1,000 cc. 1,000cc. is equal to 1,000 milliliters, which is the equivalent of 1.0 liters. Hence the name ‘liter bike’. Liter bikes are derived from racing, and they are all about reaching ludicrous speeds. They are purpose-built track weapons that you can also use on the street.
Let’s take the Yamaha YZF R-1 as an example. While it isn’t “exactly” 1,000 cc. of displacement it is pretty close at 998 cc. of displacement. The R1 is considered a proper liter bike. This super sports bike is equipped with a monstrous 4-stroke 4-cylinder DOHC engine with 998 cc. of displacement and is a beast in every sense of the word. A scary proposition for any rider.
Brief history of the liter bike
Liter-displacing engines date back to the earliest days of motorcycling. For example, the first American 90-degree V-twin was the 1,000 cc 1908 Marsh-Metz. Brough Superior’s famed SS100 was 998 cc, as was the legendary Vincent Black Shadow. So what attracted manufacturers to the liter?
Though engines come in all shapes and sizes, a liter’s worth of displacement is not hard to fit into a full-size motorcycle silhouette for most multi-cylinder designs. Plus, 1,000 is a nice round number that just sounds good.
Despite their important role in motorcycle history, Brough Superiors and Vincents aren’t what most people think of as literbikes. The modern understanding of the word came later, when manufacturers started extracting more power from displacement. Much more power.
Not surprisingly, displacement wasn’t holding performance back. Engines just needed to be more efficient. As time went on, motorcycle engines got better at turning “bang” into “go.”
To manage the new power, big bikes needed uprated everything: brakes, frames, suspensions, and even comfort for long rides (not that they always got components that were totally up to the task). Eventually, high-spec components became synonymous with large, powerful motorcycles.
By the 1970s and 1980s, performance motorcycles with big engines needed aerodynamic help to reach their potential. For example, Suzuki’s first literbike, the GS1000, came in a few different flavors. The GS1000S wore sporty controls and bodywork, and the GS1000R XR69 was a full-on race bike.
These machines say “literbike” to my eyes more than the cushy GS1000L factory-custom cruiser, even though all three are derived from the same basic engine. Generally, the closer a large motorcycle is to the bleeding edge of performance, the more likely someone will call it a literbike.
Through the 1990s, fast production bikes continued to wear bodywork or fairings (commonly seen on literbikes today). Race replicas like the Yamaha FZR-1000 and the Kawasaki ZX-10 were fast, light, and handled like nothing before.
Naked versions of these sports models grew in popularity as well, offering similar performance without the fragile plastics and cramped seating position. Even today, large naked bikes with sporty roots are often called literbikes.
In the early 2000s, rule changes to World Superbike (WSBK) and MotoGP brought renewed interest in liter-class race bikes. Street riders wanted in on the action, making bikes like Yamaha’s already revolutionary YZF-R1 into sales success stories.
What’s a liter bike today?
Besides having about a liter of displacement, there’s no hard and fast definition for a literbike. However, some generally accepted conventions apply when talking about one. Literbike can always apply to a modern 1,000 cc sport bike. If it’s within 100 cc of 1,000, you’re in the clear.
Another easy test: If it races in World Superbike, it’s safe to call it a literbike (with the exception of the 1,198 cc Ducati, which definitely causes some debate). Literbikes tend to be sport- or performance-oriented, so you wouldn’t call a new Gold Wing a literbike even though it’s packing an 1,800 cc engine.
Same goes for cruisers, classic tourers, or large ADV bikes like the Africa Twin. In other words, you won’t see them in a “Literbike Shootout” article.
Still confused? That’s normal. Everyone’s definition is a little different. If the bike in question is concerningly fast, something like 1,000 cc, and packs an aggressive power-to-weight ratio relative to its peers, I’d say you’re looking at a literbike.
Liter bikes are the fastest machines on the road
Yes, you read that right. With the possible exception of the Bugatti Veyron or the new Chiron, liter bikes like the Yamaha R1, Suzuki GSX-R, and BMW S 1000 RR are the fastest machines on the road and destroy any car, bike or other form of transportation you care to name.
They do this because liter bikes have extremely powerful engines that can rev to stratospheric RPM that are coupled with a very lightweight body that gives them ludicrous power-to-weight ratios.
But speed isn’t everything. Power is nothing without control, and liter bikes are among the most demanding motorcycles to ride on the street and on the track. There’s a reason we don’t recommend any big motorcycles if you’re a beginner and control is the main reason.
These are bikes that pop wheelies at 100mph simply from a little prod of the throttle. Inexperienced riders should look elsewhere (we’re really serious).
Liter bikes are also equipped with racing tires that offer tons of grip on a dry track, but the same can’t be said if you’re traversing in the rain, or if you encounter an oil slick in the middle of the highway. Want to scare yourself to death, try riding a liter bike in the rain, it is a life-changing experience.
You think professionals ride liter bikes all the time?
Even seasoned riders should think twice about buying a liter bike. Did you know that Moto GP riders are actually prohibited from riding a liter bike outside the track? Professional Moto GP riders have contracts that forbid them from using liter bikes outside the racetrack.
And since liter bikes are all about speed and horsepower, they have reached a point where they are absolutely impossible to control, especially if you are a newbie rider.
This is the reason why modern liter bikes are equipped with the latest technology such as traction control, semi-active suspension, launch control, and wheelie control. These were developed to help the rider make the most of the motorcycle’s performance.
With a liter bike, many riders are saying that the electronics are doing most of the driving, and not the rider itself. Motorcycles should be fun to ride, but if the electronic aids are doing most of the actual riding (i.e. controlling the bike), where’s the fun in that?
There is only one reason why you should buy a liter bike: speed.
Ergonomics, long distance comfort, and safety are all compromised in a liter bike, since most riders don’t have the ability to tame such a powerful machine.
But liter bikes exist because of one reason: they are absolutely awesome!
Make no mistake, though. If you love racing your motorcycle on the track, then a liter bike is your best bet.
But if all you want is a sports bike for the street, you can’t go wrong with 500 cc. or 600 cc. of displacement. Motorcycles with smaller displacement engines have enough power to make you scream like a little girl, and you really can’t use all that power on public roads anyway.
Liter bikes are indeed magnificent, and for some people, this is all the reason they need to buy one.
But there are a lot of reasons why you should think twice about buying a liter bike.
Why a liter bike is not exactly a good idea?
Liter bikes get stolen, and we mean a lot
Who likes to carry a disc lock and a heavy chain all the time? Not to mention the hassle of securing your bike to a heavy and immovable object each and every time you park the bike.
It’s no secret that liter bikes get stolen in broad daylight, even if your bike is parked in a locked garage or luxury apartment. Would you believe that thieves will go as far as waiting for you at a stoplight just to steal your precious ride?
Liter bikes are not exactly faster or better than a 600 cc
Bike in the real world. Yes, liter bikes are capable of reaching speeds up to 200 mph or more, but when was the last time you reached upwards of 100 mph on your bike? In order to fully exploit the capabilities of your liter bike, you either need a wide, open, and straight road with no traffic, or you need to bring it to the track.
We’re not saying that liter bikes aren’t fun to drive, but we would rather ride something that we can have fun on normal roads or highways.
The running cost is insanely expensive.
Liter bikes that can reach 200 mph are equipped with high-performance tires that cost at least $250 to $300 per set, and you need to replace these tires once every 2,000 miles or so.
You also need to replace the chains and sprockets for every tire change, and the suspension will need to be rebuilt once the valves have been adjusted. Insurance premiums on liter bikes are also ridiculously expensive.
Many people have the means to buy a liter bike, but not everyone understands the maintenance costs associated in owning one.
Liter bikes are extremely uncomfortable.
These racing motorcycles have small screens, wafer-thin seats, and high pegs that are not designed for people above 5 feet. Yes, you can ride a liter bike but it doesn’t mean that you’ll be pampered to the hilt.
Riding a liter bike for more than 30 minutes will give you numb hands, lower back pain, and back spasms. This is fine if you’re 22 years old, but it’s not good if you are older than 22.
Riding a liter bike is like having a bullseye painted on your face (and back) all the tim
Riding around town in a noisy and flashy liter bike will do wonders for your ego, but the police will have their eye and speed cameras pointed at you at all times. If you like to maintain a low profile, then buying a liter bike is not exactly a brilliant idea.
Beginners should avoid riding liter bikes
The burst of acceleration from a liter bike is second to none. You only need a small flex of your wrist to wring out all that horsepower and torque from the engine.
Liter bikes are so insanely fast, that it literally boggles the mind. This is the reason why beginners or newbies should avoid riding or buying liter bikes, especially if this is your first motorcycle.
Why? With a powerful liter bike, all your attention will be focused on controlling the darn thing, rather than actually riding it.
You will be constantly fighting to control the bike, and we’re not even talking about taking a tight corner at speed.
If you’re a beginner, you should consider buying a smaller or less powerful motorcycle. This will give you the chance to hone your riding skills without increasing the risk of crashing into other cars, motorcyclists, or pedestrians on the side of the road.
Liter bikes are not for everyone, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate them one bit. In fact, we love the sound of a liter bike revving to 12,000 RPM, and we also love the way they look even when they’re parked and standing still. Liter bikes are designed for serious enthusiasts in the same way that the a Ferrari 488 is designed for advanced drivers.
How fast can a liter bike go?
Liter bikes are capable of reaching speeds up to 200 mph or more, but when was the last time you reached upwards of 100 mph on your bike? In order to fully exploit the capabilities of your liter bike, you either need a wide, open, and straight road with no traffic, or you need to bring it to the track.
Can a cruiser be a liter bike?
Literbikes tend to be sport- or performance-oriented, so you wouldn’t call a new Gold Wing a literbike even though it’s packing an 1,800 cc engine. Same goes for cruisers, classic tourers, or large ADV bikes like the Africa Twin. In other words, you won’t see them in a “Literbike Shootout” article.
Are liter bikes good?
The top bikes in the liter class though tend to be legal WSB race bikes sold for homologation purposes. They don’t come into their own until the needle hits 9,000 rpm. In experienced hands they can be great on the open roads and are obviously the ideal track day bike but for general riding they’re overkill.
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