Modern motorcycle design is experiencing an explosion in electronic rider aids. Are these adding to our experience of two wheels, or taking something away that will never be returned?
There’s something wonderfully gratifying about riding a full-fat, 1000cc sportsbike. Plenty of people will tell you that they are a handful, and too much really for the Queen’s highway, and they would be right. But the same can be said of any high performance car or bike. That doesn’t make them any less exhilarating to ride. If you like the feeling of power, and you have a few years’ riding experience under your belt, then a litre sports bike will thrill like no other. Responsive, with deliciously tactile controls, you can feel everything going on on the road beneath.
But modern superstock bikes like the R1, Panigale, ZX10r and S1000RR are pushing the amount of power and handling that it is possible to deploy in a road going motorcycle, and in pushing the envelope beyond the comfortable detente, they have adopted clever electronics to make these machines rideable by us mere mortals. But do the computers make them any better, or do these nanny electronics packages put something between the bike rider the way that modern Dual Clutch Gearboxes rob the driver the involvement of a good old fashioned manual gearbox?
The Beating Heart of the Beast
What makes litre bikes so enthralling is their engines. They are, even in 15 year old guise, astonishing powerplants. 1000cc engines which rev to 14,000 rpm, and produce around 150+bhp. They pull smoothly and strongly from low down, and when you get them spinning, you experience what I can only imagine it feels like to be launched off an aircraft carrier. Any faster and the bike would rotate over backwards. Manufacturers have adopted increasingly clever ways to extract more and more power from their motors’ cubic centimetres of swept volume; variable length inlets, dual fuel injectors, more aggressive cams, and more and more over square engine designs to raise the rev ceiling and generate more power. Meanwhile, the inside of the engines have gotten lighter, stronger and friction minimised as far as possible.
As motorcycle design has become more and more aggressive, and front steering head angles decreased for sharper handling, sportsbikes were fitted with steering dampers to prevent riders experiencing a ‘tankslapper’; the moment when the front bars shake violently from side to side, normally leading to loss of control of the bike. A tankslapper is symptomatic of aggressive steering head design, hard unyielding suspension and a bumpy road surface input to the front wheel. Many argue that if such bikes had been designed ‘properly’ in the first place, that no such damper would be required, and that it was being used to cover up an inherently unstable design. There was a growing sense that things had been pushed further than their natural equilibrium, and engineering (and electronics) is being used to cover up the cracks.
The Quest for more Power
In the world of production class motorcycle racing, power is king, especially at places like the Isle of Man. Manufacturers who fail to push on up get left behind, as Honda have experienced with their CBR1000RR Fireblade, the current model of which is essentially the same bike released in 2008 with a few minor changes and a new front end. It couldn’t keep up with the competition in superstock form at the Isle of Man. But good design shines through, and the Fireblade still managed to bring home the bacon, when the engine was given the World Superbike Tuning treatment, as John McGuinness demonstrated at this year’s Senior TT. Describing his venerable bike as an ‘old girl’, an old girl with which he is extremely comfortable, but an old girl that won a senior TT. No small feat.
So power has climbed, and electronic aids have been introduced to tame these bikes. I am certainly no Luddite, but I suspect that one day people will look to the last of the great “unsullied” bikes, the GSX-R1000, 2008 CBR1000RR (pre ABS), Yamaha R1 (pre 2012 traction control). Once safety systems get introduced, they do make the power more accessible, but we lose a little bit of something in the process. No more wheelies, no more stoppies and no more rolling burnouts, the Combined ABS will see to that! Whereas before you knew that when you twisted the throttle, you were the master of your own destiny, now there’s a computer to make sure you don’t fuck it up. It’s the nanny state manifest in motorcycle form, trying to save us from ourselves.
Since the introduction of ABS and airbags to cars, I’m sure the number of road deaths has reduced, but those same people have had to go and find other ways to exit this mortal coil. Dying is dying, whether you go straight on at a corner and exit through a hedge, choke on a large piece of superb fillet steak, whether you need to have tubes up your nose in hospital when cancer takes your vital organs, or just die in your sleep without any fuss.
“I felt like a boy who’d been given a gun”
I’ve always maintained that a large spike located in the middle of the steering wheel would be far more effective at improving driving standards than a soft cushioning airbag; this is the main reason there are relatively few motorcycle accidents given the relative risks involved. Self preservation is a powerful motivator. People are going to crash, but when they crash with safety systems onboard they have handed over power of control to the computers, and spurred on by a false sense of security, they are usually travelling at a faster speed when they do.
What are the Limits?
What I do think motorcycle training should involve is a means of assessing available grip, or allowing riders to experience the limits of grip without the expensive, painful effect of crashing. And in this regard, safety systems such as ABS, traction and slide control and the like can demonstrate quite how capable modern motorcycles and modern rubber are at propelling us bikers forward at a rate of knots.
I remember the first time I rode a 1000cc sportsbike. I hired a 2004 R1 and went to Wales for the weekend on my own to ride. I felt like a boy who’d been given a gun. Power was mine, and mine to use as I determined. Overtaking 10 cars in a flash felt naughty, I felt like I was operating in a different dimension, like a fly mocking the human’s attempt to swot it, I was gone before they even knew I was there. Leaning the bike over was another revelation. I’d heard individuals talk of knee-down on the road and wondered how on earth they could comfortably lean a motorcycle over that far. With the help of a standard R1 on BT014 tyres, I now understood.
Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner have spoken about how much of the fun of racing in MotoGP has been taken away by modern electronics; that they have levelled the playing field. As someone from the ‘old school’ of viscious two-stroke powerbands, where rider skill was everything, Rossi understands that you can’t fake pure talent, but you can learn to trust a bike, and ride around its electronics packages. But as we’ve seen from recent injuries, it doesn’t make crashing any less frequent, or the effects any less serious. If you push it, it’s gonna get you.