As the Motor Cycle Show opens, reveals Roland Brown, there's never been a better time to sit on a bike.

The Motor Cycle Show, opening at the NEC in Birmingham today, will be notable for an unprecedented array of new sportsters - all streamlined, powerful and good for more than 150mph.

On paper, the pick of the crop is Yamaha's YZF1000 R1, a four- cylinder rocketship whose vital statistics - power output a fearsome 150bhp, weight just 177kg - suggest that it's ready to end the Honda FireBlade's six-year reign as superbike king. The 998cc, 20-valve R1 combines its class- leading figures with distinctive and aggressive styling, and has already generated a flurry of orders since being unveiled in Milan six weeks ago.

Honda has tweaked the mighty FireBlade to meet the challenge, increasing its 918cc engine's output slightly to 128bhp, reducing its weight slightly and making numerous detail changes. It may not be enough. The Honda also faces an attack from Kawasaki, whose latest ZX-9R looks similar to this year's model but is all new. Its 899cc, 16-valve engine produces 145bhp, and its chassis is dramatically lightened. With the trio of four-cylinder rivals all priced at around pounds 9,500 the stage is set for an epic fight.

Suzuki's TL1000R promises similarly outrageous performance from a different format, as it's powered not by a four but by a tuned, 135bhp version of the 996cc V-twin from the current TL1000S. The new bike is more conventional, with a full fairing and twin-spar aluminium frame, but retains the S model's unusual rotary rear damper unit.

The best Japanese sports-tourer in recent years has been Honda's VFR750F, whose comprehensive redesign for 1998 incorporates a larger, 781cc V4 engine that has led to the bike being renamed simply the VFR. The new version is slightly sportier, with more power (108bhp maximum), a new frame with sharper steering geometry, and a revised version of Honda's Dual CBS linked brake system.

Italian superbikes will also be among the Show stars. Aprilia's RSV Mille, the long-awaited 998cc V-twin sportster from the Venice firm that has had much Grand Prix success in recent seasons, will be on display. Its fuel-injected motor's narrow 60-degree angle allows a short wheelbase, which should mean superb handling, given the RSV's light weight, twin- spar aluminium frame and top-class suspension.

Ducati's 916 is unchanged apart from the option of yellow paintwork, but the Bologna firm has a new version of its lower-tech, less expensive 900SS. Sleeker bodywork, fuel-injection, uprated suspension and racier steering geometry give the long-running air/oilcooled V-twin sportster a new lease of life.

Ducati's other new model is a basic, black-finished V-twin roadster called the Monster Dark, priced at pounds 5,000 and aimed at attracting new riders to the marque. The Japanese have some neat new middleweights too. Yamaha has a new 95bhp budget sportster called the FZS600 Fazer, Kawasaki has revamped its fiery four-cylinder ZX-6R, and Suzuki's racy GSX-R600 has also been tweaked. Honda has two new middleweights: the stylish naked 600 Hornet, powered by a detuned CBR600F engine, and the Deauville, a 650cc V-twin commuter.

Honda also has a new retro custom, the VT1100C3 Shadow, but more eyes will be on BMW's striking and innovative R1200C cruiser, making its first appearance at the NEC. Triumph's Thunderbird Sport offers nostalgia with performance, combining Sixties styling and an 82bhp three-cylinder engine. And Harley-Davidson introduces two "budget" V-twins. The XL53C Custom 53, based on the 883cc Sportster, at pounds 5,000. And the basic, black FXSTB Night Train is the least expensive 1,340cc Harley at pounds 11,000.

The scooter craze is also reflected in a host of new models, including Gilera's sporty 125 and 180cc Runner and Honda's FES125 Pantheon.

l The Motor Cycle Show, National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham, 8 to 16 November, 10am-6pm. Admission: adults pounds 12, under-16s and seniors pounds 5, under-10s free when accompanied by an adult.

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