Head Shake – Future Shock…

…and forks…and brakes…and…

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With the advent of the programmable ECU, the Mikuni jet and needle futures markets on the Nikkei exchange tumbled, thus triggering what came to be known as the Great Float Bowl Recession. Mechanics everywhere celebrated.

“There is nothing permanent except change” —Heraclitus, pre-Socratic Greek Philosopher and renowned curmudgeon

Heraclitus was best known in his day for advancing the notion that the only constant is change, and equally well known for his grumpy, cantankerous attitude about almost everything else, why, we don’t know; maybe he had issues with, “change.” It’s currently seven degrees outside, it’s January, and I’m reading about yet another innovation coming down the pike in advanced motorcycle technology that promises to improve all of our lives. The depths of winter seem to be the time of year to unveil what the next big thing is in motorcycling; change is in the freezing air, it’s that time of year when I find Heraclitus a sympathetic character.

It started with the early hickory and iron “safety bicycles”, into which someone felt compelled to stuff a steam engine, presto-chango we have a “moto-cycle.” Time passed of course, and it has evolved into this:

Old School Motorcycle Suspension

Newton’s Third Law of Motorcycle Forks (pre-active suspension era): A suspension at rest tends to stay at rest. Screw with Newton you are screwing with the laws of physics.

According to various UK sources, Isle of Man (IoM) electronics rule changes purportedly will prevent eight-time TT winner Ian Hutchinson from competing in the 2014 IoM. This is an explicit admission that that bike is not competitive without the custom aftermarket electronic control unit (ECU) the team wants to run. Put another way, the same chassis, the same peak horsepower and torque figures on a dyno, and that accomplished racer CANNOT be competitive without THAT specific black box because if the rider cannot relinquish throttle control duties to that aftermarket ECU rather than the stock Yamaha’s, he simply won’t be as fast. Relinquish control. This begs the question, “Who is doing the riding here?”

“The kit systems from other manufacturers already contain strategies for rider aids, traction control, and anti-wheelie for example, whereas the Yamaha’s isn’t that advanced, so we would be at a distinct disadvantage, especially when it comes to putting in consistent 131mph laps where a full electronics package is necessary.” —Milwaukee Yamaha team owner Shaun Muir

“What does the IoM rule book and some pre-Socratic guy have to do with me?” you might wonder, well, a lot actually. If you read Kevin Duke’s recent article on evolving technology, “Best New Motorcycle Technology of 2013,” you saw a good explanation of the changes that have already occurred, and innovations likely coming our way, most notably active suspension, in the near future. These innovations are going to be available, if they aren’t already, on the bikes you buy. Currently, traction control that had been reserved for big bore sport bikes has trickled down to the 600 class with the 2013 Kawasaki ZX-6R getting a three-level big-brain gription system. An optional ABS system is available on the Honda CBR250R – a tiny 250cc bike – the better to keep the insurance adjuster away.

Advanced electronics are becoming ubiquitous. And by and large this is a good thing, you want an unfair advantage on the street, any edge you can get is good. But there is a tradeoff, and I just want to recognize that before our sidestands are automatically deployed when we come to a stop and shut off the motor.

X-Box motorcycle games aren’t becoming more motorcycle-like, motorcycles are becoming more X-Box like.

Fly by wire technology in aircraft has changed the pilot’s role in the equation. The final arbiter of what is possible in flight is not the pilot anymore, it is the black box, and now we bear witness to the same sort of innovations increasingly arriving in the two wheeled world. Muir as much as admitted this when he stated a black box contains “strategies for rider aids.” A box now has strategies – ride-by-wire in all its glory. Will wonders never cease.

What was deft throttle control is now to be supervised by traction control, anti-wheelie control, engine-braking control, launch control, and a choice of engine map profiles to alter power delivery, true ride-by-wire technology. Two fingered braking on the edge of adhesion yields to anti-lock braking systems, all these small diodes presumably arranged in such a way to save us from ourselves. Slipper clutches make blipping the throttle to match revs on a downshift unnecessary. X-Box motorcycle games aren’t becoming more motorcycle-like, motorcycles are becoming more X-Box like.

Enter active suspension: You and your dumb springs are just along for the ride. This is not only going to change bikes, it’s going to change the way we ride, you can see it at the highest levels in MotoGP right now if you look at rider positioning in the corners. It may even change if you ride, just listen to Sean Muir complain about the new IoM rules.

Stripping a Motorcycle

Kallfelz and Mike Andrews strip an old Honda, so they can salvage the frame for a vintage racebike project.

I know these advances will result in fewer brake lock-ups, less high sides under throttle, and a reduction in inclement weather mishaps on the street. In short, these technological advances will help keep riders upright, and I am an ENORMOUS advocate of that. Rider safety should be paramount. And lowering the barriers to new riders should take priority as well. These electronic advances accomplish all of that. But they do so by diminishing the rider’s role in this whole dance. What had been a monogamous motorcycle marriage for two now has an interloping third-wheel black box with its own “strategies” for cryingoutloud! Just a box, a very smart box, a box that probably doesn’t cuss like a sailor when it can’t find its 17mm deep well socket.

Which gives rise to another related issue. I love working on stuff, I don’t think I’m alone in that regard. As in break open the box that contains tools rather than, “strategies,” and really get to know the bike because you can go over it, and have gone over it, with a fine toothed torque wrench. It’s very satisfying. To me it’s part of being a motorcyclist. You never hear anybody trundling to the Piggly Wiggly for a box of Cheeze-Its and a liter of Pepsi in their Prius referred to in any way so as to imply a relationship with that machine. I’ve never seen a carist, or an automotist. And motorist? Who has ever described themselves as a motorist? Working on a motorcycle is part of establishing that relationship, and it’s very rewarding, it is, or was anyway, part of being a motorcyclist. And there was a time where if you didn’t wrench, you often didn’t ride.

BMW Active Suspension

Neil Armstrong’s lunar landing module had less processing power than this motorcycle. Neil went to the Moon, you’re simply going to Des Moines.

Look, I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking I’m some sort of unrepentant Luddite, and yes, I suppose there is something to that. I miss wing windows in trucks and K&N Superbike bars, I like analog gauges. But I don’t want to return to the days of sitting on a dark roadside with a Mini Maglite clutched in my teeth cleaning points with a matchbook cover. I couldn’t care less if my dwell meter ever moves from its appointed place on the wall again. Re-jetting a bank of carbs to work with a new pipe only to still be too lean, or too rich, or too whatever, and having to pull them off and do it all over again is time consuming and a royal pain in the ass.

These days you simply download a map on your laptop, pop a cord into your Power Commander, load it up and see what you have. If it doesn’t work? No big deal, go download another map, or get a reputable tuner with a dyno and some know-how to make a custom one for you. No dirty hands, no wrestling with banks of carbs and cursing at airboxes. This is indeed progress. But I do appreciate the inherent simplicity of what used to be motorcycles and the joy that came from working on them. And therein lies the rub – you COULD work on them. You could change spring rates and damping in your completely inactive forks by, amazingly enough, simply popping them open and putting new springs in them and playing with different fork oil weights. See? I’m not an Orthodox Luddite, I’m just conflicted.

It’s one thing to make bikes more competent – by the mid-90s top shelf 600 supersports were blowing-away what had been TZ750 track records all across North America – it’s another thing entirely to take the duties of riding out of the rider’s hands.

Occam’s Razor, thus named for Franciscan friar William of Ockham, a 14th century logician and reputed BMW airhead enthusiast, states, “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” Basically, if you have two competing solutions for a problem, the simplest one, the most elegant one, is the correct one. There is a lot of truth to the phrase ‘simple is good,’ that Occam was a smart guy. And while it may be true that bikes are getting more technologically advanced, they most certainly are not getting simpler. As to how necessary all these advances are is for everyone to decide for themselves. It’s one thing to make bikes more competent – by the mid-90s top shelf 600 supersports were blowing-away what had been TZ750 track records all across North America – it’s another thing entirely to take the duties of riding out of the rider’s hands.

Honda CBR1000RR SP

Honda has elected to go a different route, choosing the less is more philosophy and instead fitting world class, non-sentient, suspension and brake components to their top of the line CBR 1000RR SP sportbike. Öhlins and Brembo have a way of finding the podium.

And maybe that is what it gets down to, weighing the merits of these advances in the face of simplicity lost and rider duties delegated, and arriving at where you fit into this Brave New World. While I applaud the advances and recognize how much “better” off we are today, I can’t help but feel we might be leaving something of value behind from the days when things were simpler; you took pleasure in mastering things like two fingered front braking while blipping the throttle through downshifts, standing a bike on its nose late braking into a corner modulating the lever, and feeling the back end step out at the exit knowing the only throttle control you had was you and your right wrist. No black box did that, you did, when you did it right it was rewarding, and the reward was entirely yours. You, and only you, were riding that bike.

There is something artful about riding a bike well, it takes years to become good at, a lifetime to try to master, and you never quite get all the way there but it’s a challenge to try. And caring for that bike like the dance partner it is is part of that relationship. But 2014 is a new year, and technology just tapped me on the shoulder, it wants to step-in on this dance. I have mixed feelings about that, and I can’t help but have a strong inclination to dance with what brung me.

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  • Oslo Norway

    That lead art, the CBX carb bank shot, is Gary Evans, one shit hot crew chief and mechanic, and a great human being. Some of you Suzuki guys know Gary no doubt…

    https://fbcdn-sphotos-d-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-ash3/886136_621299857885865_1899417800_o.jpg

  • fastfreddie

    How cool would it be for an old-school bike to whip the pants off those x-box bikes!

    Can’t help to feel cold about the advent of all those gadget-bikes…

  • DavidyArica Freire

    I like “new” technologies like ABS… It came out in the 80 on bikes and way earlier on cars. While I get the whole working on your bike to actually ride, I do appreciate some technology like FI, modern brakes, ABS, etc. But I’m with you on letting some of the piloting duties left to the pilot, specially in racing. Great article I have come to really enjoy your articles and it inspired me to finally try out racing and not just track days.

  • Chester

    I don’t think rider aides take any of the enjoyment out of riding. Body position, choosing your lines and smooth inputs are still the essentials to a rewarding blast around the canyons or track. And if you’re so inclined you can work on the computer strategies yourself.

    I’m sorry but even though you say you’re for people staying on their bikes, your arguments basically yearn for the opposite of progress. And for those who agree with you why not just work on an older machine from the 90s, 80s or 70s. I believe I’ve read that most MotoGP riders believe that their bikes are making so much power that they would be impossible to ride without electronics. Would you say that those riders aren’t skilled, that they’re only a reflection of their teams electronics?

    • Guest

      I would never denigrate any racer that showed up on any start grid to take a green light or a green flag. As far as what role electronic aids play in getting to the checker first? Well, I’ll let Shaun Muir speak ofr his team ona done of his riders that won the TT eight times…

      “The kit systems from other manufacturers already contain strategies
      for rider aids, traction control, and anti-wheelie for example, whereas
      the Yamaha’s isn’t that advanced, so we would be at a distinct
      disadvantage, especially when it comes to putting in consistent 131mph
      laps where a full electronics package is necessary.” —Milwaukee Yamaha team owner Shaun Muir

      As far as today’s bikes being unrideable without the electronic advances? I think when you look back at the power delivery of the old TZ750s and their frames made out of pasta al dente and tires chiseled from granite, or what was just savage machinery of the 500cc big bang GP bike era, a la’ Rainey and Schwantz, et. al., and what they had to contend with, or even here at home with the F-USA Series and Kurt Hall and the Methanol Monster, Canet on that nitrous equipped FZR-1000, Yosh’s Big Pappa, KR Sr. bringing a pair of those 500 GP beasts over to compete in the series…any one of those bikes had “too” much power to ride given the tires and chassis of the time. But they rode ‘em to the edge of the envelope THEY defined, not a black box.

      What happens when a guy who started out on a bike with ABS, and rode for years on bikes with ABS, either has his ABS system fail, or somehow manages to find himself on a bike without ABS. How well equipped do you think that guy is for properly breaking in a, “I gotta stop NOW,” situation?

      I was hoping that column might make people think and spur discussion, because I don’t know what the answer is, I don’t know if there is a “right” answer, and I do appreciate many of those advances. I dunno, maybe it’s just a recognition that it is a double edged sword…

    • Oslo Norway

      I would never denigrate any racer that showed up on any start grid to take a
      green light or a green flag. As far as what role electronic aids play in
      getting to the checker first? Well, I’ll let Shaun Muir speak for his team and one of his riders who is undoubtedly a talented guy, eight-time TT winner Ian
      Hutchinson…

      “The kit systems from other manufacturers already contain strategies
      for rider aids, traction control, and anti-wheelie for example, whereas
      the Yamaha’s isn’t that advanced, so we would be at a distinct disadvantage, especially when it comes to putting in consistent 131mph
      laps where a full electronics package is necessary.” —Milwaukee Yamaha team owner Shaun Muir

      As far as today’s bikes being unrideable without the electronic advances? I
      think when you look back at the power delivery of the old TZ750s and their
      frames made out of pasta al dente and tires chiseled from granite, or what was just savage machinery of the 500cc big bang GP bike era, a la’ Rainey and Schwantz, et. al., and what they had to contend with, or even here at home with the F-USA Series; and Kurt Hall and the Methanol Monster, Canet on that nitrous equipped FZR-1000, Yosh’s Big Pappa, KR Sr. bringing a pair of those 500 GP beasts over to compete in the series…any one of those bikes had “too” much power to ride given the tires and chassis of the era. But they rode ‘em to the edge of the envelope as THEY defined it, not a black box.

      What happens when a guy who started out on a bike with ABS, and rode for
      years on bikes with ABS, either has his ABS system fail, or somehow manages to find himself on a bike without ABS. How well equipped do you think that guy is for properly braking in a, “I gotta stop NOW,” situation?

      I was hoping that column might make people think and spur discussion, because I don’t know what the answer is, I don’t know if there is a “right”
      answer, and I do appreciate many of those advances. I dunno, maybe it’s just a recognition that it is a double edged sword…

      • Chester

        I think you’re right, training should be the most important thing for a rider. We shouldn’t the electronic advancements as a crutch. Practice is essential to being a safe rider.

        As for racing, teams will always attempt to create the fastest bike within the rules. Arguing whether all of the electronic advancements have a place on the racetrack is something that is up to the racing organizations and popularity with fans.

        I ride everyday all year round, I race in a one make series(cbr250r) and practice the basics as much as possible when on the street. But I’m not a riding god and I’m not always 100% health all the time. ABS and TC especially on the street are there when I’m not perfect. And I’ve never thought that they were a detriment to my enjoyment.

        I think the opinions in the article are more moan than well thought-out arguments.

  • CaptainPlatypus

    Go tell Marc Marquez that all the skill and art is being taken out of riding bikes these days. Let me know what he says.

  • Marc Givogue

    i think that these advances are good in only 3 points:
    1. reliability. i like to tinker…i do not like to fix when it breaks down all the time
    2. emergency situations. i do not think ABS, DTC etc etc etc should start working till the very last instance when chance of wiping out is very high unlike today…i also think they should only start working when there is significant risk of injury (ie higher speeds)
    3. pushing to the absolute limit – racing scenarios

    On top of all that:
    1. the ability to reduce and even turn off should be an option on all rider aids
    2. riding tests should be done with all rider aids turned off

    Just my opinion…not like anyone will care :p

  • CrashFroelich

    I have a 2010 Kawasaki Z1000. Best bike I’ve ever owned (since 1964). Looked at the 2014 model. No thank you.

    • http://www.motorcycle.com/ Sean Alexander

      Chris, the 2014 Z1000 is not equipped with power modes or traction control. The only thing it has that your ’10 doesn’t is ABS. However, what the 2014 does have is an engine that breathes a little better on top, a better suspension, and tighter handling. I like them both, but I like the 2014 a little more.

  • Scott Silvers

    As the author mentions how ‘fun’ it was to yet again rip open a bank of carbs to tweak for a new pipe, I have to agree that if I never have to do that again (over and over again), it will be just fine. Anyone who’s ever had to juggle jets, float bowl level heights, needle jet clips, etc….just to get the bike to be in the ballpark, will be unanimous in thinking how marvelous fuel-injected bikes are these days. I don’t miss the good ol’ days a bit.

  • Scott Silvers

    I do wonder how all these new bikes with computer controlled suspension, brakes, engine management, etc., will be in 20, 30 or more years. What will the garage mechanic situation be like then for people shopping for ‘vintage bikes of the future’? Just look at any craigslist page that has bikes from over 25 years ago, and most of them are easily worked on with the most basic of tools. Will people 40 years from now look at the wunderbikes of today, as we look at old bikes in the classifieds? I wonder what old bike issues await the Craigslist classifieds shopper in 40 years, looking at that really cool ‘old school’ vintage BMW s1000rr that only needs a replacement servo wave ABS solenoid (or trans-flap-valve whatever) to get on the road again…..?

    • Jason

      You can answer your own question by looking in the automobile classified section. All of these “new” electronic aids were introduced in automobiles decades ago. People still purchase and maintain cars from the 80′s, at least the interesting ones.

  • Jan Snider

    The fact that aftermarket ECU’s could make their way to race bike is something. What ever happened to tuners? I know carbs were kind of an iffy prospect somedays, but putting a computer is fine, as long as the competition can use them, too.
    I do feel that this will make the bikes have less personality. No fiddling with anything, just start and go. Its all up to the rider, because that “computer” in your head can control what the bikes computer can not. I can’t wait to see what’s next? Riderless motorcycles buzzing about the cities and highways, making deliveries without having to pay a rider his wages or if he calls in sick finding someone to ride his route.
    Scary to think about but not impossible. Just set the location and let it ride, cruise could be set and/ or have a throttle jock in a warehouse tilting the joy stick. That is what the future could look like. I really do not want that at all.

  • Kevin

    The “BLACK BOX” that has me the most concerned is the one so may cagers are holding in their hands while they are supposed to be operating motor vehicles. I’m pressed to believe that these rider aids are made necessary as so many more aids, such as lane departure warnings, active cruise control, and blind side monitors etc. are being stuffed into automobiles in an effort to make it acceptable to drive distracted. The times are changing, like it or not we change with it or quit riding.

  • Wererat

    I think a couple assertions in this article are false:

    - The author correlates wrenching with the rider experience, even if he qualifies it later. Is taking apart your suspension and adjusting springs and oil really that cool, or is tracking telemetry with MoTeC and adjusting the bike by uploading just better?

    - The author makes some remarks that he’s “never seen a carist, or an automotist.” The term is “driver” although God knows there are few enough of them compared to the masses who merely occupy the space behind the wheel.
    All this tech just makes it possible to put more capable bikes in the hands of more people, more safely. In my relatively short time on two wheels, I’ve seen and read enough of people who made a momentary error or encountered a road condition and paid for it. The roads are too imperfect and the car-occupants too wacky to accept the status quo. On the racing front, victory is only a matter of what is better than the other rider >given the series ruleset<.

  • frank

    Good article..

    So you learn how to ride a bicycle, struggle with developing the skills necessary to do that safely, take the training wheels off, then get a faster bicycle, then put the training wheels back on…?

    Yes technology is great…but when it takes away from the human process of learning…the struggle for acquiring the knowledge that comes from the experience of integrating new skills, then there is a real danger of it interfering with the fundamental reason that we as humans go through this life in the first place.

    If a machine is too powerful for you to ride fast and safely, then either accept the challenge and take the time to learn by pushing yourself through the personal barriers that keep you from doing so, or, simply get a machine that you don’t need to put ‘training wheels’ on, and enjoy the ride! .. (added bonus: they’re a lot less expensive). There is often danger that comes with accepting various sorts of challenges, and often the greater the danger the greater the reward. But if this one is not for you, that’s ok. There are after all many different, and certainly equal if not more valuable ways to challenge yourself in this life.