Thursday, September 16, 2010

The R1 Theory

In consideration of the last season of moto racing and my own time on the streets, I have come to some thoughts concerning the latest Yamaha R1 and the nature of a rider's connection to a bike. Bear with me.

At the end of the 2009 WSBK season Tom Sykes had finished his time with Yamaha and was preparing for a season of general goodness with Kawasaki. When he spoke of the move, he opined that the conventional firing order of the Kawasaki would better fit his riding style. When Leon Camier came off his BSB R1 and mounted the WSBK Aprilia, he spoke of the difficulty of learning a new bike. He said that some of the things he did on the R1 were just wrong on the RSV4.

The racer perspective on the differences between the R1 and other bikes reflects the discourse about the liter bike in biking publications and online forums. In a Japanese liter bike shootout, the testers at voted the R1 down to last place. Meanwhile, MCN named it Bike of the Year. Racers and street riders the world over debated whether an inline four with an uneven firing order could in fact do what the substantial Yamaha marketing campaign suggested: improve the riders feeling of connection to the rear wheel. If racing was proof, we had only to look at the ridiculous sweep off the crossplane crank in 2009. BSB. MotoGP. WSBK. The 24 Hours of LeMans. If there was any blood connection between those race bikes and their street legal cousin, it was in the engine, right? 

The debate raged on. People bought the bike and loved it. Others bought it, were repulsed and sold it as soon as they could. I almost bought a black one, though it wasn’t the color I preferred, because some guy was offering it up for thousands below market price. He hated it that much. 

There is no doubt that the R1 is a polarizing machine and it raises questions about the phenomenology of riding. Specifically, it highlights the myriad ways that people relate to sport bikes. I have thrown my leg over bikes that just felt wrong to me. Yet others put a smirk on my face. Very often, I can explain my judgment. But not all the time. Sometimes its just a feeling that others cannot duplicate. I just enjoy this more or I think I could go faster on this. It comes down to skill, attitude, experience and the nameless quality that we know when we feel it. 

Your body is a good listener. If you develop its potential, it will tell you all sorts of things. It will also put you in touch with the machine. And while many bikes are identical, no body on this world has a direct match. Not even your twin. 

Does it follow that we all listen differently? Is it simply the case that somewhere out there is a bike that is waiting for us, a machine to which we are attuned though we don’t even know its status? Hell, it might not even need to have the suspension adjusted. 

But no man can ride all bikes. And many of us are loyal to our brands, afraid to branch out even when it is clear that another bike could be the status. What would the Green Ninja be if he rode a Honda? Nothing recognizable to me, I know that. 

So, it is possible that we are locked away from the machine that is waiting for us to ride it to the finish line. While others are forced upon bikes that might not be their status at all. Tom Sykes finished 5th at the Nurburgring this season. Less often is the racing line a snake with a green tail.  Meanwhile, James Toseland journeyed from his world champion crown in WSBK to a lukewarm reception on the M1 in MotoGP. An M1 with a crossplane crank. 

Could it be that Toseland simply needs a different kind of bike to bring up the pace in WSBK? Is there a bike for which we are destined that we will never ride? Perhaps.

There are, of course, several problems with my claims.  A racer who moves to a new racebike encounters something that is seriously different from the street version. Any number of factors could explain a rider’s performance, not least of which his or her talent. The fact that one bike is a twin and another has a funny firing order might not be the defining factor. 

Also, just to show the general lopsidedness of some comparisons,  the stark difference between American and British reviews of the R1 could be down to the fact that the emission regulations in the U.S. are different, and to compensate Yamaha baffled the America spec version out of 6 or so horsepower when contrasted with the UK spec machine. That could make a difference on a flying lap.

There are a lot of bikes out there, a lot of engine configurations, wheelbases, rakes and trails. Since I can’t ride them all, nor do I want to, I might be blind to my destiny. But there is one thing that I know for sure. I can go pretty fast on top of a crossplaned R1. I wonder if I will ever own one again.


After I put up this post, the homies weighed in. The Orange Ninja agrees that there are mad factors to consider when we survey a rider’s skills on a bike. But despite the many subtle and drastic differences between bikes, what matters most is the rider's ability to adapt. It is adaptability that creates a champion. Being able to ride around a problem or develop a feel or change your style to suit the needs of the bike and the road or track. This adaptability is born from desire and ambition, says the Ninja. It’s born from the power of the will.

The Black Yamaha, however, has no concern for his ability to adapt to another machine. When considering his R6, he says quite simply: If there is a better bike, I don’t want to ride it.

Also, it was revealed today that Toseland, who will not be retained by Yamaha for next season, is in talks with BMW and Ten Kate Honda. Toseland’s manager, Robert Burnett, says that Toseland will probably perform much better on an inline four with a regular firing order. I think Burnett might be right about that. But I suppose it all depends on whether the former world champion can adapt. 

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