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EBR 1190RX: The return of the great American superbike

In the world of American motorcycles, tradition usually trumps technology. Erik Buell has been pushing the two-wheeled envelope for decades, and EBR looks set to bring us into the future.

The author on the 1190RX at Indianapolis Raceway Drew Ruiz/EBR

Erik Buell stands at the end of an assembly line in East Troy, Wis. A pair of mirrored safety glasses hides his eyes. With blue jeans, a black shirt and close-cropped gray hair, you'd never know he owns the place.

We're standing in a nondescript gray building outside of Milwaukee, about 45 miles from Harley-Davidson headquarters. That company builds low, wide, chrome and loud motorcycles by the thousands.

Here, on Buell Drive, they're building bikes, too. But these are different. They're tall, skinny, brightly colored. These bikes use modern designs and cutting-edge tech in the pursuit of modern performance, not maximum nostalgia. Built by hand, just 10 bikes roll out each day.

The assembly line is tiny by industry standards, starting with raw engine components -- pistons, cranks, valves -- that gradually come together to form a complete motor. Then the line cuts 90 degrees to the right, where workers bolt more components directly onto the 1,190cc V-twin engine. Exhaust, airbox, swingarm, suspension and subframe -- all wrap around a core lump that gradually takes shape as a motorcycle.

Finally, with the bike's wheels in place, the team lifts it off the line and deposits it on an elevated rolling road, a set of drums that allow a motorcycle to be ridden at speed without going anywhere.

Erik Buell watches a just-born 1190RX take a spin on the rolling road. Tim Stevens/CNET

"It's actually really hard to ride on those things," Buell says, as a technician straddles the freshly built machine and stabs at the starter. This has happened thousands of times before, but still Buell can't suppress a smile as the latest bike bearing his name takes its first run.

In the world of motorcycling, the name "Buell" is often associated with innovative engineering and creative design. In business,it's clearly aligned with thickheaded perseverance and dogged determination.

Buell intially dropped out of college to play music. "That didn't go so well," he admits, so he got a permanent gig as a motorcycle mechanic, embracing a passion for bikes he'd developed in his youth. He went back to school, took night classes and earned an engineering degree in 1979. But he spent what little free time he had left racing sportbikes, approaching the sport's upper echelons despite a limited budget.

The twisty road to EBR

Erik Buell in his road racing days. EBR

After graduation, offers came in -- comfortable engineering jobs at comfortable companies working on industrial components and machinery. But the jobs didn't hold much appeal for Buell.

Passionate about sportbikes, he was tempted by jobs with the US divisions of Japanese makers like Honda and Yamaha. After all, these companies did (and still do) build some of the best racing bikes. But after learning that he'd be doing little more than rubber-stamping Japanese designs for rides on American streets, Buell kept looking.

He landed at an unlikely place: Harley-Davidson. "I was a road racer...I never rode Harleys. I had one when I was 16 and realized it didn't handle. I lived in Western Pennsylvania, where the roads are all wide. I realized, 'This is horrible.'"

Yet at H-D, Buell had the opportunity to do real motorcycle engineering. As a junior test engineer, he immediately started making major contributions to Harley-Davidson designs.

Five years later, the allure of racing proved too strong. Buell filed his resignation. H-D countered, offering him the role of chief engineer. He turned it down.

Buell set up Buell Motor Co. and began building racing bikes. His first was the RW750. RW stood for Road Warrior, and he designed it specifically to compete within the American Motorcyclist Association, the largest US sanctioning body for two-wheeled pursuits. It was fast and far more affordable than the competition. The company was off to a great start. It wouldn't last long.

Built for AMA's Formula One class, the RW750 was neither street legal nor eligible for any other racing class. Plus, the AMA production-based Superbike class was gaining popularity, and Formula One was fading.

"The year I offered it for sale, they shut down the Formula One bikes -- nothing but superbikes," Buell lamented. "All bikes had to be street legal."

Erik Buell with the first RR1000. Dave Gess

Harley-Davidson immediately offered to hire him back. Buell declined, but he did accept some help. "I built this thing with a Harley engine, I got a bunch of patents on it, and that was the first RR1000," Buell recalls. "It had some really cool innovations to make a really light, good-handling bike -- the silk purse from a sow's ear."

The H-D motor necessitated a key innovation. The big, rumbling lump produced good power but shook too much to be bolted to a race chassis. Buell created mounts that let the motor vibrate vertically while being rigidly mounted horizontally, stiffening the frame without shaking off the rider.

Buell had to sell 50 bikes to meet AMA regulations. H-D helped again, putting the bikes in some of its dealerships. Meanwhile, Buell kept refining his design, creating versions with bigger motors and more speed.

"The business just kept going and going, and growing, and after 10 years, in '93, Harley came to me: 'We know you're still small, but you keep growing and your bikes are getting a great reputation. We think we'd like to have a sportbike division.'" Harley bought 49 percent of Buell's company, and then in 2003 acquired it completely. Six years later, Buell would be out of business again.

At the Brickyard

The EBR 1190RX on the famous yard of bricks. Drew Ruiz/EBR

It's one of those unpredictably rainy days in Indianapolis. Skies are clearing, but the pavement around me is still hours away from drying. It's an awful, awful lot of asphalt, a 2.5-mile-long, 50-foot-wide oval ribbon of the stuff with a twisty road course cutting through the middle. When the Nascar boys and girls run around in circles here, there's a track dryer available, a truck that creates 500 mph winds to disperse the standing water.

Today, there are only a dozen or so people at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and instead of 50 massive stock cars with droning V8s, there's just a handful of sportbikes -- albeit with droning V-twins.

Those engines are built in Wisconsin, but not by H-D. The bikes aren't Buell's, either -- at least, they don't say "Buell" on the tank. They are, however, very much a product of the man himself. The logo on the tank simply says "EBR," and the bike is the 2014 1190RX. The $18,995 superbike, built by hand in the US, is the culmination of Buell's decades of expertise. Its 185 horsepower makes it the fastest street bike he's ever produced.

But this bike isn't just about power or handling -- or even about speed. It's about enjoyable riding on the street, on the track. The comprehensive electronics package, highlighted by a full-color LCD, can take credit for a large part of the ride experience. The panel's flexible display is appropriate whether you're timing laps or just cruising.

The display, and the three glove-friendly buttons to the left, let you speedily toggle through multiple traction control modes. Traction control on a bike is not particularly novel, but having 21 settings definitely is.

Evolving engineering

The EBR assembly line in Wisconsin. Tim Stevens/CNET

Harley-Davidson was initially a warm and welcoming parent, giving Buell the freedom to build and sell his bikes how hewanted, where he wanted. Buell preferred selling through dealerships that knew and understood the sportbike buyer, a shopper who is culturally, stylistically, and financially distinctive from the average member of H.O.G. -- the Harley Owners Group.

Vaughn Beals, H-D chairman and the man responsible for the initial Buell investment, understood that difference. When he left in 1998, everything changed; Buell felt pressure to convert sportbike riders to H.O.G.

The business tension increased, but Buell continued to design radical signature features, many appearing in the 2002 debutof his XB series of motorcycles. Buell's final creation under Harley-Davidson would be the 1125R, powered by a custom 1,125cc V-twin built not in Wisconsin, but in Austria by Rotax. Buell had wanted his own water-cooled engine for decades, and he finally got it -- right before the bottom fell out of the market in 2008.

Buell recalls the situation, the only time during our conversations that he begins to sound glum. "Their stock went from $75 a share to $12." H-D stock bottomed out at $8.33 on March 6. Seven months later, Harley-Davidson shut down Buell Motorcycle. An H-D representative says shuttering the Buell brand was simply to "focus more clearly and solely on the Harley-Davidson brand."

Just one month after Buell Motorcycle closed, Erik Buell Racing was born. Little more than a race team and a small company converting 1125R bikes into full-on race machines, it was enough to get by. At the 2011 running of the Daytona 200, where EBR was competing, Erik Buell met an executive from Hero MotoCorp.

Hero, an Indian company, is the largest producer of motorcycles in the world. Harley-Davidson sold 260,000 bikes last year. Hero sold twice that many last June.

Despite huge sales, Hero had a problem. The company existed exclusively to produce motorcycles designed by Honda. With EBR, Hero had a new source for designs.

In July of 2013, Hero acquired 49 percent of Erik Buell Racing, inspiring memories of the Harley-Davidson deal 20 years earlier. Buell insists it's a different situation -- and certainly a very different valuation. H-Dmade a $500,000 investment to get its stake of Buell. Hero paid close to $25 million.

American ingenuity

Hero now owns a large stake in EBR. Tim Stevens/CNET

EBR is now producing the 1190RX that I rode at Indy and the 1190SX, a more street-friendly version with higher bars and lower pegs.

The RX is earning rave reviews worldwide, beating out pricier, more exotic competition from Germany, Italy and Japan.

Meanwhile, many EBR engineers are focused on revising Hero's existing low-cost bikes and introducing new ones, both on- and off-road models that, Hero hopes, will be good enough for the US market.

EBR is also working on crazy concepts, such as a series-hybrid scooter that would use an onboard generator to charge its battery.

Today, Buell says, his company is free to try new things like these in a way it never could previously. The international partnership is bearing fruit.

"America's coolest part is not about history. Our thing is about making history. It's about being pioneering and creative, and very diverse," Buell says. "I don't want to celebrate 1946; I want to celebrate 2014."

Those brakes, that fuel tank: Must be a Buell

A stack of front wheels with their distinctive rim-mounted brakes. Tim Stevens/CNET

One of the most noticeable trademarks of an Erik Buell sportbike is its front wheels.

Modern motorcycles use disc brakes, just like cars, and sportbikes typically have two small discs on the front wheel, one on each side mounted close to the center.

Buell's bikes instead feature a single, large brake disc out at the edge. Moving the disc out means the wheels can use thinner spokes, and the larger size means greater stopping power from the single disc. Both factors reduce weight; less weight means faster speed.

The second distinguishing design innovation is the fuel tank -- or, more specifically, the lack of one. The spot ahead of the rider where the tank usually sits is just the air box, an empty chamber containing the air intake. Big V-twin engines, of the sort used by all Buell bikes after 2002, need big air boxes for maximum power.

So where to put the fuel? Inspiration came from Buell's racing days, which he recounts with no lack of zeal. The Daytona 200 is a legendary motorcycle race. It's a 200-mile endurance event.

"You start with a full tank of gas and a flag goes off and about 70 miles in you have to stop and get gas. Back then you had gigantic fuel rigs, and you He called in some favors with friends, building a refueling rig from an Iron City Brewing Company keg and parts that were borrowed from an airport.

"We had this 4-inch-diameter red hose that they used to refuel airplanes and this quick-fill connector, and we're thinking, 'This is awesome; we'll be able to fuel so fast!' We actually could fill the tank in 4 seconds."

Buell pauses to deliver the sort of enthusiastic laugh only an engineer can give when talking about excessive rates of fuel flow. "So I come flying into the pits, right? I've been riding on the ragged edge. I come into the pits, and I just sit there, and they slap me on the back, and I go!"

Buell pauses to make a loud engine noise, twisting an imaginary throttle. "I throw it into the first turn, and I say, 'Whoa!'" He mimics a bike falling way sideways. That 42 pounds of fuel, "it really screwed up handling. But that went in the back of my mind, because as I was thinking about this airbox going there, I thought, 'This isn't bad, this is awesome!' "

So the hollow frame that cradles the engine, which in most bikes is filled with nothing but factory air, became the fuel tank. This removed the need for a separate tank, gave room for a big air box, and lowered the heavy fuel to improve handling. These tricks were deployed in the XB 12 years ago, and they're used again today on the 1190RX.

My white-knuckle Indy ride on the EBR 1190RX

Cruising down the front straight at Indianapolis. Drew Ruiz/EBR

A tire that's spinning has less grip than one that isn't. When you're accelerating, if a wheel starts to spin because of lack of grip, traction control reduces power. That's relatively easy in a car, if only because cars have inherent stability. A tire spinning for a moment or two before the TC system reacts is not the end of the world. You'll still have two or three other tires keeping the whole contraption from falling over.

Things are far trickier on a bike, where only one wheel receives power from the engine. Should that wheel spin unexpectedly, the bike could slide out in a corner and drop the rider on his side. That's called a low-side, and it's no fun, but it's better than a high-side. This happens when the bike slides and then regains grip, launching the rider high into the air. A traction control system that reacts too slowly could create this very situation.

The author on the Indianapolis infield. Drew Ruiz/EBR

Traction control is a simple idea, in theory.

There's more. Few, if any, production cars have enough power to lift the front wheels off the ground. The EBR 1190RX, meanwhile, will point its nose to the sky as high as you like. That's fun if you know what you're doing, terrifying if you don't. A traction control system, then, needs to be a wheelie control system, too.

I'm not ashamed to admit that when looking at the TC options from 0 to 20, I punched up TC 20 for my first session at the Indianapolis Speedway. It was an unfamiliar bike at a wet track I'd never ridden before -- a twisty one, 16 corners that, sadly, see little use throughout the year. That means "green" pavement, dirty stuff that hasn't been given a regular scrubbing by sticky racing tires. Rain and a fresh coating of tree pollen didn't help my confidence.

My concern was unnecessary. The 1190RX is incredibly easy to ride, thanks in part to high foot pegs set to give clearance when leaned over, but not so much that your knees are up by your ears. Similarly, low grips get you out of the wind without stretching you over the tank. You can quickly get comfortable, which means you can quickly get focused. Focused means fast.

Fast I would go. By day's end, I'd be hitting 160 down the long front straight. Yet, lap after lap, track temperatures getting higher and fuel getting lower, the machine always braked predictively, turned cleanly, and accelerated smoothly off to the next bend.

An electric future?

Erik Buell in the EBR factory in East Troy, WI. Tim Stevens/CNET

Buell gets particularly animated when talking about electric motorcycles. He has serious concerns with products on the market today from companies like Brammo and Zero, and with Harley-Davidson's Project Livewire concept .

"I think it's a very simple task to build an electric bike, but what's being built is not rational. I think that's the key. I think that's the thing that attracts people. They think 'My god, I don't have to build an exhaust, I don't have to do a transmission. Wow, I can build a bike right away! I just have to buy a motor and some batteries and put a couple wheels on it and I've got a bike!' But there's no engineering there. What are you trying to build? A bike with the power of a middle-weight that's $30,000 and goes 53 miles? C'mon."

Erik Buell has his own ideas for how an electric bike should look and perform, but he's not ready to share those with the world. Not quite yet. When he does, expect something different.

Update: This article was originally published in the November 2014 CNET Magazine. Soon after its online publication I was informed of the sad news that EBR has entered receivership. My regards to Erik Buell and all the employees of EBR.