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All hail the superbike!

Congratulations to Carlos Checa, winner of Round 9 of this year’s Superbike World Championship held yesterday at Silverstone Circuit, a relatively short ride north from our base here in Oxford.

If you are not a motorcyclist and you have never been to a race meeting, then the excitement and adrenaline generated by the spectacle may be lost on you. How does one convey the attraction of perching oneself, protected only by leathers and crash helmet, on a machine that sends crazy amounts of power through the tenuous hold of a tiny patch of rubber on the tarmac? And then how do you explain paying good money to watch others doing it? I’d say the answer is simple: to those who have done it there are few experiences more exciting and fulfilling than that of riding a motorcycle towards the limit of its abilities on a track.

Get your motor running

Here at Oxford Dictionaries Online we define superbike as ‘a high-performance motorcycle’, and our Oxford English Dictionary colleagues list it as ‘a motor cycle with a nominal capacity of 750cc or more’. As is so often the case, behind the lexicographer’s efficient use of words lies a rich history. Today’s superbikes such as those racing at Silverstone are so called because rather than being one-off race machines, they are racing versions of road bikes that anyone with a bit of spare cash can buy and ride on the roads. But the earliest superbikes were so called because they were a new type of motorcycle that performed like none that had gone before. The OED has its earliest citation of the word from 1970, and it is informally held to have been first used in 1969 to describe Honda’s CB750. Even then there was nothing new about high-performance motorcycles or even motorcycles with 750cc engines; what made these machines special was that they combined those attributes with unbeatable light weight and handling, and above all with reliability. Previous high-performance bikes had required their owners to spend a lot of time in the workshop if they expected to unleash that performance. From those beginnings the endless competition between the large manufacturers has seen the superbike evolve into today’s machines with their cutting-edge engineering and finely sculpted fairings that deliver astounding performance affordable by many. You might see their attraction if you compare a superbike with a supercar; both offer similar performance yet the latter is likely only be found in the garage of a millionaire, while most enthusiasts could realistically own a superbike.

Easy rider

It would be unfair to characterize motorcyclists as caring only for these high-performance machines and disregarding anything which falls below their capabilities. Indeed, most of us probably yearned for one when we were on our learner mopeds, and I’m sure we would have all popped a few wheelies on a superbike given the chance. But just as all car drivers don’t always settle on a sports car, neither does every motorcyclist prefer the fastest machines. For a start, they demand a cramped riding position that can be extremely uncomfortable. Several hours of maintaining that posture on the motorway is enough to make you yearn for the laid-back riding position of an American-style cruiser or a chopper, even if they are a bit hopeless in the corners. And then there are passengers to consider. Superbike designers often pay scant attention to pillion space – and only a fool would attach a sidecar or panniers to one – so for someone like me whose wife is a regular passenger, their appeal is significantly diminished. Instead I ride a large touring bike styled like a trail bike.

Whether you envy the brightly coloured superbike riders who zip along or wish that they would take up a different pastime, the language of motorbikes has much to explore. Perhaps you have a hankering for hogs or a soft spot for scramblers? Maybe you have a thing for trail bikes or get a kick out of kick starts? Just make sure you keep both hands on the handlebars and don’t let go of that twist-grip

Explore the language of motorcycles, from chopper to wheelie


Image from Robvonk at en.wikipedia [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.