Monday, September 27, 2010

The Trickle Down Myth: Part 1

The BMW S1000R is the most powerful production liter bike that there is. It carries 180 horsepower at the rear wheel, which is more than 20 horsepower more than its closest competitor. It is even faster than production “hyperbikes,” the Suzuki Hayabusa and the Kawasaki ZX-14. In consideration of such figures, it would seem that the BMW would not be a good bike for a beginner. The common opinion is that beginners find it difficult to control motorcycles of such power. It is easier for the bike to break traction or otherwise go out of control in the hands of a neophyte. In addition, riding a liter bike requires a great deal of restraint and many beginners don’t know where that line lies until they have crossed it and high-sided themselves into oblivion. Or at least a nearby tree. There is also the related possibility that a 1000 can stunt the growth of a new rider. Since the bike cannot really be pushed to its limits on the road, the rider never has an occasion to discover them and is forever imprisoned by a nebulous boundary beyond which lies mastery or ruin. Or something. 

So the BMW should be last on any beginner’s list. And yet, for very good reasons, it is a bike that a mildly responsible beginner should strongly consider. 

To begin with, the machine has different engine maps that can be applied on the fly. This means, essentially, that it is not one bike but five. There is a map for all riding conditions, from a rainy highway to a dry race track on race tires. This means that a rider can explore the limits of one power mode before graduating to another. The crosslpane R1 has this to a degree, providing three power modes that restrict the opening of the throttle bodies in relation to the throttle position. I thought this feature was pretty neat. This is what Nick Sanders had to say about it:

"‘B’ mode provides a lazy slow gathering of speed whilst standard for me is below par for a bike of this class. ‘A’ mode pushes your eyes to the back of your head while your testicles disappear to God knows where. As you approach the speed of light, the colour spectrum alters, the bike starts to shorten and there is true fear in your stomach as you meet yourself on the way back from a place you haven’t yet reached.” 

So, that testicle-retracting mode, which is the bike’s full potential, is tucked away until you can get the skills to press the button and unleash it. This is how it goes for the R1 but especially for the BMW and it is a good thing. 

But the really good thing about the BMW is the traction control. 

Kieth Code’s famous California Superbike school recently switched to the BMWs from 600cc motorcycles. Despite the increase in power, the amount of accidents in school decreased by more than half. This stat is so serious that BMW claims on their own damn website that the S1000 is “safer” than other sport motorcycles. They actually use the word “safe” and apply it to a bike that can go 200mph with almost no adjustment from stock. The maddening thing is that they may be right to use the “S” word. 

It the right power mode, you can be leaned over in the apex of a corner and crack the throttle to full bloody stop. Instead of crashing and dying a horrible death with many broken bones, the bike will gradually build power and unleash its beast only when you have stood the bike up and reached a proper contact patch. For this reason a british magazine that tested the BMW in the wet found it to be ten seconds faster than the next fastest liter bike. Seriously. Ten seconds. Oh, and the bike has anti-lock brakes as well. Even the panic brakers of the world can come to a stop without throwing themselves over the bars. 

The point is clear by now: the BMW is awesome and its awesomeness comes down to its rider aids. But here is another point about the Bimer: The bike itself may demonstrate the vacuity of the claim that racing is necessary for the development of street legal sport bikes. In other words, the notion of trickle down tech is more myth than truth. I don’t think this is a claim that will be uncritically accepted, so check my argument in the next post. 

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