Café Racer vs Sportbike: What’s the difference?


cafe racer vs sportsbike

A question that pops up in my inbox more than most is “What’s the difference between a Cafe Racer and a sportbike?”

The short answer is that a sportbike is a machine bred from the track where as a Cafe Racer is a styling exercise first and performance secondary.

Deciding whether to spend your hard earned money on a Cafe Racer or a sportbike isn’t quite so straightforward though.

I’ve sat down several times with the full intention of writing a post covering the differences and why you would choose one over the other but having already got off the fence very much on the side of the retro motorcycle, being objective has proven difficult.

Step forward Jamie, a life long sportbike rider fast approaching the point all riders eventually arrive at, ‘do I swap top end performance for a more comfortable, stylish ride?’

So, choose your next ride Jamie and choose wisely……


I haven’t always been as wise as I am now, or perhaps that should read “I’ve grown up and got sensible”. My motorcycling life has always been geared toward speed, riding fast, and enjoying the satisfaction of big lean angles, rocket-like acceleration and showing performance cars what performance is all about. (And that’s coming from a performance car engineer).

I’m now knocking on the door of 48, I have around just under forty years of riding bikes under my extended belt, and I wonder … am I an idiot?

I’ve maxed out every single bike I’ve owned, including a modified ZX12R and ZZR1400, I’ve done a few circuits including the legendary Nürburgring, I’ve ridden from the Midlands to the very tip of Cornwall in less time than it takes to have a meal out, and I’ve shown a Ferrari 599 that his aero advantage only really works above 175mph, on a British motorway.

Idiot.

Speed Kills

I dislike the phrase ‘Speed Kills’ with a passion. It’s simply not true, and as some old wag might say, it isn’t the speed, but the sudden stopping. However, inappropriate speed is a problem, and with a modern sportbike, that’s all too easy to make happen. 100mph can be achieved in less time than it takes to read this sentence. 

For the record, I’ve never once been convicted for anything when riding a bike, the only accident I’ve had was travelling at 30mph, and for many of the triple-figure speeds, I was riding with serving, or recently retired police officers; both traffic and bike cops.

So why am I telling you all of this?

A new bike is looming large in my future, and I’m wondering whether I’ve matured enough for a new Thruxton – 95hp and 160+ accessories, or whether a small, lightweight YZF-R6 (115hp and razor-sharp handling) should win my money?

The Café Racer

With old(ish) age comes wisdom, and a certain style. I’m finding the aggressive nature of new sportbikes just that little naff; aero appendages glued on at every spare location, sharp lines, seat ‘padding’ that aggravates the chalfonts, and let’s be honest, when you’re weighing in at 18st, shaving the odd pound or two of weight through carbon fibre bodywork is pretty meaningless.

Perhaps it’s because I was brought up in a British-bike household, maybe it’s just because I’m a 70s kid, but for me, the styling of those early classic British café racers is something that I yearn for. Clean lines, simple engineering, sporty yet not over-the-top styling, even the riding position is pretty relaxed compared to a sporty 600.

It has an eternal style, something that will always look good – they looked great 50 years ago, they’ll look great in another 50 years, and it’s quite possible that future generations will come to revere the Hinckley Thruxton just as we now look back at the Meriden versions. 

But … and it’s a big but … while the overall look of the Thruxton has been modernised, but sympathetically with its predecessor, you can’t really say the same for the performance. Sure, of course the modern version is quicker, handles and stops better than the original, but back in the 60s, if you owned a Thruxton, there was very little that would come past you. Today though, 130mph can be bested by an off-the-shelf hot hatchback.

Maybe I haven’t matured enough yet, for the day that a shopping car pushes me along, is the day that I buy something faster.

The 600

Truth be told, I suspect a modern 600 wouldn’t really do it for me either; it certainly has more performance, but it’s not rocketship fast. Equally, my body is bent & broken – I groan when standing up from the armchair, let out an ‘oooh’ when sitting down, can’t bend my left knee more than 90 degrees (the 30mph accident previously mentioned) and have already had surgery on my hip.

But assuming I could zip-tie my hands and feet to the appropriate bits, what would I find?

I was recently a guest of Ferrari at the Silverstone circuit, an opportunity to drive one of their cars around the circuit at speed, and I suspect that the experience is akin to riding a sporty 600 – pin sharp. You just need to think about where you’re placing it, and it’s there; the lightest of touches is needed to make it change direction, the brakes haul you up from speed without fuss or drama, and the power was enough to be entertaining without being a drain.

With that said, I would imagine the flip side of that would be that it feels a bit twitchy on a long ride, the front end feeling light with anything more than a Twix strapped to the back, and a seat that feels more uncomfortable than a church pew while confessing your sins.

Triumph Bonneville Thruxton

Triumph Thruxton R – Timeless styling and bags of torque

Retro is cool; there’s a whole world of retro happening wherever we go, from transport through to gaming systems and clothing, and many of the manufacturers are jumping on that particular bandwagon to maximise revenue, Triumph are no different.

Except, for me, the whole Triumph thing doesn’t seem like a cheap marketing ploy (although the fact that their marketing lists ‘160+ accessories’ high-up on the spec sheet tells me otherwise) – I like to think that they’re simply manufacturing updated versions of their older models, so I don’t feel like some sort of ‘hipster’ for considering buying one.

Quite often, and I’m sure I’m not alone, I like to spend my idle time thinking about my dream garage; my number one all-time dream bike is the Metisse Desert Racer, and somewhere within my top ten would be an original Thruxton. Only … with an original, comes the headache of maintenance, reliability, never just being able to jump on it at a moment’s notice, and not being able to use it for anything more than a short, sunny blast.

Of course, with a Hinckley Thruxton, none of those arguments are relevant, or truthful. I love the style of both the original and the Hinckley version (although it would have to be the Thruxton R), and they seem to offer everything that now interests me – something with a little comfort, modern engineering for reliability, relaxed handling, twin-shock rear end … it seems to genuinely be a classic Thruxton that’s useable every day.

If Triumph made a 150hp version, they’d have my money tomorrow. As it is, it would have to be second bike for the right mood, and therein lies the problem. Just so we’re clear … I wouldn’t want the Thruxton to feel like the early TL1000s; all balls and no brains, but 95hp just doesn’t work for me.

Yamaha YZF-R6

Yamaha R6 – MotoGP bred technology and a top speed of 160mph

Success on Sunday = Sales on Monday.

For a while now, Yamaha have been doing their best to mop-up whatever scraps Marquez happens to leave on the table, but it hasn’t always been so, and they haven’t lost the capability to put together a decently-fast road bike; the R6 is not exactly a slouch.

Flick through Yamaha’s webpage for the R6, and you’re in no doubt as to what they’re all about … “6-position traction control, quick shifter, adjustable engine power, pure race bred DNA, adjustable intake, 8% increase in aerodynamic efficiency …”

This is purely aimed at the Supersport market, and with three Supersport titles under their collective belt, you’d have to say that they aren’t doing too badly. But again, it all gets back to how much relevance there is for a portly chap, sitting astride something that’s been shaved of weight to within an inch of its life?

Don’t get me wrong, I can clearly remember the very first time I purchased something sporty – a ZX9R. Sitting inside the seat / tank, very little suspension sag, my weight pushed forward to my wrists … it was a magical feeling, knowing that I truly had something sporty underneath me, and yet today, that feeling is less important. Maybe it’s an age thing? Maybe it’s about ‘been there, done that’.

Form over Function

So the Yamaha has more power, and is lighter – Yamaha list a wet weight of 190Kg for the R6, Triumph list a dry weight of 206Kg for the Thruxton, that’s like carrying an extra leg or microwave oven if you wish, or some simple maths gives us a deficit of around a further 10hp (with the extra weight), so the R6 should feel as though it has around a 30hp advantage over the Thruxton. That’s significant.

I also have that nagging feeling that the Yamaha could live its life with the tacho needle firmly buried in the red without even a hiccup, but with the Triumph, there’d be a few grumbles along the way. But that really could be looking at it through the eyes of an engineer, and one who grew up with classic British bikes at that. I’d be very happy to be proved wrong though.

But maybe I’ve missed the point entirely? The Thruxton isn’t designed to do that, and if that’s what I’m looking for, then a Supersport is the way forward. That’s all well and good, but even that point misses the … point; I’d forever be fearful of maxing it out and riding it hard. How many times will it allow me to do that before I caused a problem? Should I only ever do it very infrequently? Or would giving it a blast each time I ride it be OK?

I’d never have the confidence in the bike to ride it however I wanted to.

For & Against

I’d originally intended on creating a list – ‘For & Against’ and jotting down points that could be used to highlight some of the factors and features of both bikes, but while they may work for me, they could be the exact opposite for someone else, I suppose a lot depends largely on your age; a young gun is more likely going to want the rock hard seat, twitchy handling and ultimate performance of the YZF, whereas someone with a bit more built-in comfort, million-mile knee joints and tinnitus would prefer the Thruxton.

Yamaha YZF-R6

The small Yam comes with a large spec list, all designed to give you the race-bred feel and inspiration. They mention things like YCC-T (Yamaha Chip Controlled Throttle) and YCC-I (Yamaha Chip Controlled Intake), aggressive face with dual LED position lights, sculpted aluminium fuel tank to cut down on weight and allow for greater body movement, R1 style front forks (43mm) but tuned specifically for the Six … ten years ago, this would have been a race bike for the road.

I love that technology is being used to make it better – things like the QuickShift system for example, but I do wonder just how relevant that all is to a bike that’s being used on the road? Sure, if you’re a trackday junkie, having a quickshifter fitted might shave a few tenths from a lap, but you’re hardly likely to spend nearly £12,000 on a brand-new bike for that.

Triumph Bonneville Thruxton R

The difference between the standard Thruxton, and the R is around £1,400 in financial terms, which makes it around £600 more expensive than the YZF, that’s close enough for me to consider it as the same price.

It’s down on outright horsepower compared to the R6, but it’s torquey – the little Yam makes 61.7Nm (45.5 ft-lb in old money), whereas the R makes a whopping 112Nm (82.6 ft-lb), getting on for double the Yamaha, and that does make a difference on the road.

There are a few unnecessary accoutrements (for me), things like the switchable traction control system, and the three different riding modes – road, rain and sport, but Triumph have really thought about the rest of it – 43mm upside down BPF (Big Piston Forks) front forks, the Ohlins twin-shock rear, and of course, the aluminium rimmed, spoked wheels – huge love for them.

You Pays Your Money …

Having spent around five days just swirling this argument around in my head, I’ve discounted the Yamaha as a complete no-go; too small, too uncomfortable and too middle-of-the-road ish. By that, I mean if I wanted a razor sharp sportbike, I’d buy one with some proper horsepower, not just donkey power.

As for the Thruxton, I love the style of it, the fact that I could ride it and feel comfortable, that even with my creaking knees and bent bits I’d fit with relative ease. Sure, it leaves a little to be desired in ultimate performance, but as I read back through those first few lines, I really have come to the conclusion that I’ve been a little reckless, and that prison speeds don’t really have their place in the UK.

My decision has to be … I’m off to Germany. 

Please support by sharing

Jamie

Automotive professional for over thirty years, whether that’s working with 5hp Fizzy’s, 400hp drag bikes or building F1 and IndyCar engines. My first bike was a Suzuki AP50, my last a slightly modified ZZR1400. Semi-professional pie eater.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Content

Do you have a passion for motorcycles? We are hiring writers - Click here to learn more
+ +