Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Trickle Down Myth: Part 2


...I should say at the outset that mine are the words of a layman and are wedded mainly to theory. It is more than possible that my reasons will crumble not under rational criticism but hard facts. So if you have those facts, bring ‘em.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Riders in the Storm: Prologue


The impatient machinations of modern life can still be brought to a halt by a storm. Cars, airplanes and trains may persevere through a minor squall. People may don rain coats and wield umbrellas through nigh horizontal rain fall. But this movement is not indomitable. The sky can make an offering to the earth that will wring the patience out of even the most peaceful traveller. In such a tempest, air traffic controllers clock out and go home. Police stop their patrols and those caught out and exposed seek shelter in any place that can provide it. For all human beings, at some time, need shelter from a storm.

Those who were attentive took the first drops of rain and the crooked wind for the harbingers that they were and pulled into the last tavern for miles. The highway was well travelled but this was the bare stretch, a straight road reaching from the desert to the plains. At one end, darkness. At the other, the dim dying light of the sun and dark clouds that already were emptying themselves in the distance. A hostile horizon. 

The roadhouse was also an inn and its last vacancy had been filled when the emergency broadcast system sent out its warnings on televisions and car stereos. Shortly after that, the road went silent and the disparate voices of those who travelled it now crowded the ears of an unprepared bartender. Others sat at tables with their eyes turned to the tv for news of the weather. Three men had resigned themselves to their confinement and sat defeated in a poorly lit booth in the corner along the wall. Upon their table sat bottles of beer, some motorcycle helmets and cell phones that had lost their signals miles ago.

The murmur of the bar was brought to silence for a moment by a thunderclap that shook the earth. The windows lit up as it sounded and the drizzle of drops atop the vaulted roof became a pounding. Children clutched their parents and lovers interlocked fingers. In the corner, the riders sighed and one of them spoke out.

“Who’s got a good story?”

The man with the black helmet said that yes, he might have a tale and when the second round came he began to tell it. 

Continued...

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. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

Dialectics, Racing, Traction Control



Suppose we have a crop of immortal riders with similar levels of skill. They start out at the dawn of racing and will be present for the development of motorcycles from here on out. They take part in a motorcycle racing series that serves as a forum for the testing of parts and concepts to be used on street legal bikes for the public. The series is also, of course a profitable entertainment franchise. The riders have no fear and are able to uncover the limits of their bikes and the tires upon which they ride. Thus, they are all de facto development riders. 

The initial limit beyond which one cannot go is the race rubber and its ability to stick rider and bike to the racetrack. If the tire cannot handle the load, if it breaks traction long before the bike exhausts its power, then the development of the machine cannot really go much further than adapting to the characteristics of the tire in order to get around the track as fast as possible. 

But the tires improve, since they too are developed by racing. This is the first step in our moto dialectic. The tire moves past the currently ability of the bike, so that now that bike and rider can push out the limits at which they were currently riding. Perhaps the first emphasis in bike development will be speed. Then maybe the next quest will be exploiting traction, finding a way to get around the corner. The riders themselves will change their styles of riding as their bikes are replaced by different bikes. Light will dawn over the whole in a co-evolution of bike, rider and race. 

Eventually, the laws of physics and the limits of track length will impose a new limit on the machine. The top speed of the bike will no longer be at issue, since the longest front straight is only so long before it is time to brake for the turn. Emphasis may return to torque, but once again the bike will break traction, having been brought to the limits of its tires by the gangsters of racing. Then cats are gonna start high-siding. It won’t be too pretty. 

Advances in tech will eventually make possible certain rider aids. It is at this point that the emphasis on power will relax and more effort will be made to control it. It is the birth of traction control, among other things.

As traction control is refined, there are fewer violent crashes in racing and the bikes that are sold on the streets become safer in the hands of the ham-fisted and the skillful alike. But it comes at a price.

The rider aids level down the styles and abilities of the riders themselves. They no longer have the space to ride the machines according to their different skills. No more making the bike slide on corner exits. No more wheelies down the front straight at Laguna Seca just because it is fun. The machines now have so much power they must be restrained for the sake of rider safety. Then something really bad happens.

The races get boring. 

It is at this point that racing can no longer meet the goals that it sets for itself. It is split between being a field of development and being an entertaining capitalist venture. This development presents a kind of unhappy consciousness for those involved. For the development of the racebike is itself the foundation for the capitalist venture of selling street bikes. But if the races are not exciting, people will lose interest in motorcycles, or at the very least the fanbase will not grow. So there must be development and racing must be exciting. 

The next evolution of riding, then, will be administrative. The governing bodies of racing will legislate new requirements aimed at making racing exciting. They will struggle to satisfy the now disparate goals of racing and the requirements they set at the beginning of this stage will be unwelcome by many. Probably rightfully so. 

If rider aids like traction control are in fact cut, the development of the bike will continue mainly in the direction of getting traction in corners, stability and braking power. The configuration of the engine will also be a subject of great interest since it may provide a better feeling of connection between rider and wheel. 

Perhaps the governing body will limit not the amount of engines that a team can have or any particular mechanical or developmental element, but rather put a restriction on the money spent on development in total. Maybe the amount of money will be no more than the most limited team can spend. They may also restrict track testing in which only the top teams participate in order to limit the obvious advantages of this practice. We may also see ideas and practices from the past resurface. Multiple brands of tires, perhaps. Less practice time.

If the problem of boredom is not remedied, the powers of racing will shift focus to racer personalities and personal conflicts. Motorcycle racing will then become like Nascar and all will be lost. 

I am uncertain about the future of MotoGP. It is full of the best riders in the world and is the most boring Motorcycle racing class that there is. I watch Moto2 after GP because I know Moto2 will be a crunkfest and I want to end my race-watching on a high note. 

If a solution isn’t found, the return of 1000cc machines to MotoGP in 2012 won’t be the return of much excitement.  The talent of Spies, Rossi and the bunch will be wasted. That is a dialectical turn that we all want to avoid.

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 Motorcycle.com 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.

Redux:

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. 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Question

The other day on the phone with the homies I asked a question that had been on my mind for some reason. I don’t know how or why I came up with it, but Hume is skeptical about causes and I don’t see why I should feel any different. It goes like this: Suppose that you got on your bike and headed out for a proper ride. You ride out to the stop sign that marks the beginning of your journey, pop it into neutral, and prepare yourself for the flex. Then a crack in space time opens and out of it rides a cat on a bike that looks just like yours. He is wearing your gear and everything. Yeah. This cat is the future you. He pulls up alongside you, looks down the road on which you are about to travel and says, “you down to ride?” Okay, so the question is, do you ride with this cat? Do you follow yourself into the Sunday ride?

The first man to answer was the CBR. He was like, hell naw. I ain’t going. The future me will be a better rider and I would be motivated to keep up. So I would crash. We were like, you don’t think the future you would wait up for you? And he replied, no, the future me will not be interested in showing the present me any mercy on the road. He’s not gonna wait around for shit, that cat is just gonna ride. Haha.

The next man was the R1 Fiend. He said that ultimately, he would be inclined to not go on that ride. But he knows that he would be plagued by ruminations on what the ride would have been like. So he figured that he would go on the ride, and whatever happened, he could get a sense of how good a motorcyclist he had become.

The Green Ninja reasoned thusly: The return of himself, moto-clad, from the future to the start of a ride could be a sign of only one thing- that the future him was there to teach him something, to show him something important. He said that if such an event were to really happen, he would gaze into the visor of the future him and say “I thought you’d never get here.” The future him wouldn’t even have to ask for the ride. The Green Ninjas would ride out on an implicit understanding about the significance of the ride ahead.

To this trio of compelling answers I finally added my own. I would go on this ride. But ultimately, it would be no different from any ride that I ever go on. Because out on the streets, it is always me vs. me. I am the rider that I am trying to best. Mine are the skills that must be honed. This is the bike that leans but should never fall. The only difference on this day is that the ghost of my best ride would be visible as opposed to in my head.

And so the conversation ended and the homies returned to their styles.

I think that maybe this question reveals something about how we feel about ourselves. Perhaps one day I will be able to interpret my answer.