Whatever! – Traction Control and What it Means for the Rest of Us

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Every fall, the big magazine where I used to work hosts an industry ride up in the mountains outside Yosemite, a time for the ad sales people to get in some serious schmoozing, and an excellent time for the rest of us to get in some fantastic riding during the day and some open bar in the evenings.

Seven or eight years ago, I did the ride on a Honda XR650L, which I fell off of repeatedly. I’d get headed up a slightly gnarly hill, spin the back tire, get thrown out of shape a little, and oh dear, this bike is too tall for me, whump. There’s always an easy off-road loop laid out for wannabe off-road riders like me, a tough one for the hard-core dirt dudes, and a street loop – a mix of pavement and dirt roads – for guys who took Clint Eastwood’s advice and know their limitations. I am a pretty poor off-road rider, but I keep going back anyway. A glutton for punishment, my dad used to say. I took the easy loop on the XR, and still wound up with more than my share of lumps and bruises; so did the poor XR.

And here’s me on a Triumph Tiger 800XC without traction control.

And here’s me on a Triumph Tiger 800XC without traction control.

Two years ago, I rode up on a Suzuki V-Strom 650 Adventure. It was a great bike for getting there and seemed just the thing to ride on the street loop. Even so, I nearly wore it for a hat a couple times on some gravel roads when I got a little needy with the throttle through some bumpy sections. Ask Paul the Bohn body armor guy, who was following me, and felt it wise to take evasive action more than once. Street tires didn’t help, but I only blame my own ineptness; I know more than a few guys who could finish Paris-Dakar on the same V-Strom. Some of them were off on real dirt bikes up on Dusy-Ershim Trail. That link says it takes three days in a Jeep. Motorcycle guys do it in an afternoon. How I envy them, sigh …

Last year I rode up on an Indian Chief, and when I got there the only “dirt bike” available was a new BMW F800GS. I’d been to a Shane Watts school in the interim, had new Klim gear and was itching to try the easy off-road loop again. Corey Eastman is one of the guys who lays out the loops every year, and knows how “good” I am off-road.“Corey,” I asked, “can I make the easy loop on that BMW?”

“No, John. No you cannot.”

I accept the challenge.

Really, the easy loop is pretty easy about 90% of the time, but there are just a few tricky steep climbs that make it tough unless you have some skills. I got loose and sideways a couple of times in the first few miles of rutted, winding dirt road, looked down at the brand-new shiny $14,000 borrowed machine I was sat upon and nearly turned back. But I kept going because I hadn’t fallen off yet, and the more little hills I climbed and loose corners I roosted around without incident, the more my over-confidence grew. Even on street tires, the BMW seemed to have no trouble keeping right with people on XRs and Husqvarnas on knobbies. Wow, that Shane Watts is a genius. Even more genius, though, are the people at BMW who programmed the bike’s traction control.

BMW Automatic Stability Control. Brilliant computer geniuses in white lab coats make it possible for crusty morons not to pile into boulders and streambeds.

BMW Automatic Stability Control. Brilliant computer geniuses in white lab coats make it possible for crusty morons not to pile into boulders and streambeds.

I think what goes on, maybe, is I took to heart all that, “when in doubt, gas it” advice the good off-road guys always gave me; I was never quite sure if they were kidding. Maybe neither are they? I think it’s partially good advice, but maybe what I’d been doing wrong all these years is giving things too much gas on loose uphills when the going gets rough. Once the rear’s spinning, it throws you off course, pretty soon you’re running into rocks and roots you had wanted to steer around, pretty soon you’re off the trail and having to pick yourself up and get going again. Pretty soon you’ve got the weltschemrz, you’re tired as hell and swearing you’re going to get in better shape.

On the BMW, though, I just gave it gas and the computer – which you could hear cutting power but never really feel – would decide how much power was the right amount to maintain momentum without spinning the rear tire. Without the rear tire spinning, it was easy to steer the front one. Through boulders, alongside that deep rut instead of into it, around that log … say, this is fun. Being able to make it up a trail you never could’ve before does wonders for your confidence. Pretty soon you’re riding the motorcycle instead of it riding you.

It’s a miracle. On top of the mountain, mirrors and limbs intact.

It’s a miracle. On top of the mountain, mirrors and limbs intact.

Eventually we came to a clearing in the trees at the bottom of a longish, steep climb with loose rocky switchbacks and some pretty slick-looking slabs of bare granite, with a few boulders strategically placed to make things a little tougher and the ever-present deep rut criss-crossing the trail – the toughest section on the easy loop. I could see several cronies, way up at the top, taking a trail-side break and looking down at me. I gazed upon the lovely unbroken mirrors of my still-virginal BMW, its unbent handlebar and unmolested plastic, and I was afraid.

But there was no turning back now, was there? I let out the clutch and up she went in first gear, like a mountain goat. No problem. I was so happy I forgot for a second how short my legs are and almost toppled off the cliff at the top as I came to a stop. I wished I still smoked, it was a Marlboro moment. The air was way too clean up there. All that spoiled the perfection was that my friends were a little disappointed; they’d all stopped there to watch me destroy a $14,000 BMW. Sorry.

And now to my point: It saddens me when big magazines review bikes like this and say, ‘it works okay off-road after you switch off the traction control.’ Eh? The problem is, they always send the “experts” off to test bikes like this, and if you’re an expert, you grew up in the dirt and are used to riding like Taddy Husaberg or whatever his name is, spinning the rear all the time and jumping from mountain peak to mountain peak. You don’t really need traction control.

As if to prove my point as I sit here writing this, I see Cycle World just posted this about the new V-Strom 1000: “Despite the aforementioned off-idle glitch, which can be a bit disruptive when you’re trying to be gentle with the throttle, the engine is well suited to the dirt. With the traction control turned off, the V-twin delivers tractable, easy-to-modulate power everywhere. Its smooth, low-speed lugging ability is a plus, allowing a rider to maintain traction in slippery conditions where higher rpm or bigger throttle openings might cause a loss of rear-wheel grip.”

Well, gee, why not just leave the traction control switched on, and let it maintain traction in slippery conditions where higher rpm or bigger throttle openings might cause a loss of rear-wheel grip, since that’s exactly what it’s designed to do? I mean, this is the first production Suzuki with TC, so let’s explore how it works switched off? Seriously?

If it works half as good as what’s on the BMW F800GS, thousands of guys like me will be able to boldly go where they’ve never gone before. I have discussed TC and how it applies off-road with real experts, who have told me the problem is that when you come to a place where there isn’t any traction, you’ll have to turn around and get a run at the problem and use your expertness to get up the hill. Fine. I don’t want to go up Dusy-Ershim on a 500-pound dual-sport. I just wanna do the easy loop and get back to the bar with fingers that can still grasp a glass.

040314-whatever-traction-control-mladin-tc

Mat Mladin’s critics sometimes suspected he had the advantage of a traction control system. Mladin admits he did, only he called it his “wrist”.

I learned the same thing a few years ago when we did a big comparison about liter-bikes with TC switched on and off. Our expert roadracer’s times never varied more than a second around Inde Motorsports Ranch, a really tight circuit with only one long straight. The main take-away from that test wound up being that TC is no big deal if you’re an expert. My times were way slower than his, but when I jumped from a ZX-6R (no TC) onto a new ZX-10R with TC, after a few laps in which I learned to trust the computer, I was circulating a full 10 seconds faster. That’s a ridiculous improvement.

Not only does good TC allow average riders to do things they normally can’t, it’s also a brilliant real-time teaching tool: Once you trust it, you’ll find out just how hard a thing like a ZX-10R can accelerate off a corner. Just twist the throttle till you see the pretty blinking lights on the dashboard. You’d be amazed how much more traction that rear contact patch actually has if you’d just been trusting your instincts all these years like me to make a rough estimate. And once you learn that feeling, you go faster on any bike, TC or not. Just like I learned that the rear street tire on the F800 is really not as much of an impediment to climbing a steep hill as my lack of a more sensitive throttle paw.

You begin to understand why the “experts” poopoo, downplay and or switch off the TC; it lets the rest of us ride more like them. But I think they’re doing a great disservice to the millions of us who are not, in the words of the great Tim Carrithers, “wing-footed deities.” As for me, I think TC is the greatest moto invention since the rubber tire.

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  • drivit

    its ok, you write better than they do.

  • DavidyArica Freire

    Blasphemy! Shun the unbeliever … I’m a fan of tc/ABS, but I don’t like how it is becoming more and more mandated by the gov. Either way it’s good to have electronic aids.

  • John Donald

    I have never owned a bike with TC or ABS. I have ridden a few however. Burns is absolutely right with this analysis. My next bike will have both. Burns delivers stellar insight that only an honest reviewer could. Well done as usual.

  • Old MOron

    Wow, TC got you 10 seconds? When I was a club racer, I was a middle of the pack guy. I think losing 10 seconds would’ve made me the Valentino Rossi of my class. Nowadays I just try to stay at 7/10 in the canyons. Don’t think I’ll be spinning any tires even without TC.

    • john burns

      I probably was still learning the track a little, but still ridiculous. And that’s a track that should really favor a 600 over a 1000…

      • Old MOron

        You just reminded me of Valentino’s remark after he tried Honda’s Moto GP traction control for the first time, “This is like cheating.”

        I guess that’s one sure thing about racers. If they can find a way to cheat, they will. At least that’s what we slow guys used to say :-)

  • http://dangerismymiddlename.com Paul Danger Kile

    Thank you. I always expected this to be the case. Before my disability, I did a couple of track days. I always thought that I was fast, and safe, but in that environment I was making numerous mistakes, and every time that I did, my ABS saved the day. Here are my thoughts on that:
    http://dangerismymiddlename.com/archives/152
    http://dangerismymiddlename.com/archives/8277

  • Oslo Norway

    Well of course you like traction control, John? It covers up ineptitude, and who doesn’t need that on occasion. It’s like having a good editor…I mean come on? We should all have accommodations, ya know? “Oh, I’m sorry, Honey, is that throttle thing too troubling? Here lemme help ya, here’s your black box.”

    Cripes…

  • Walter

    Somewhat talented riders disparage electronic aids because it makes them sound/feel like better riders than they usually are, and it allow folks who might have less talent ride to similar outcomes. Disparagement usually lasts up until they ride a bike with a good package.

  • overloadinco

    Can you do a followup article on how to set the ABS and Traction Control? It used to be on or off, but many current bikes allow many different levels of each.

    Also, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around which traction-related crashes Traction Control would/could save, and in which we would/could crash given that we’re on a two wheeled vehicle. If I’m spring riding and I hit sand in a corner, will Traction Control help? Is TC only on the rear wheel?

  • StreetHawk

    There are frequent times off road where it’s an advantage to spin the
    rear wheel to reposition the bike. The benefit of this approach is the
    greater percentage of the time when the rear is spinning you won’t lose
    traction on the front. TC gets in the way of this approach. Mind you I’m advocating this approach in more open loose surface conditions
    that your traveling at more then a walking pace. Summary, open loose
    surface areas will see you benefit with a bit of wheel spin. (* Hint a
    lower gear hitting the rev limiter will help slides stay in control).
    Snotty , tight walking pace conditions with elevation changes may well
    faster with TC on. Pick your Poison.

  • Craig Hoffman

    I wouldn’t want TC on my lightweight 450cc dirt bike. Sliding around, doing wheelies, backing it in and being a nut in general are some of the principal attractions of off road riding. The thing with a 450 is to just give it more gas and churn the tire and get it charging again if it lugging, or if you want to turn it with the rear end. No nannies to stop the party for me, thanks.

    On the other hand, lets get real. If I was riding a 500 pound street bike off road, well, I will take all the help I can get. Once that big of a whale gets too far out of shape, it is going down amid a bunch of expensive crunching sounds.

  • Backroad Bob

    Good stuff, JB, good stuff. We can always depend on your out of the box perspective to stir things up. Let’s hope no one ever puts you back in.

  • Billy Bartels

    I have friends who test bikes with me that are the same pooh pooh attitude, like there is no way the computer is better than them at figuring out traction. I’m with you, though, I can use all the help I can get.

  • Goose

    Great stuff. Back in the old days we had traction control, it was caused by heavy crankshafts and low power output. Then egos got involved, cranks got lighter and power went up. It seems like TC lets us have the best of both worlds, pretty cool.

    Remember Blazing Saddles:
    Cleavon Little “Need any help?”
    Gene Wilder “Oh, … all I can get”

    I’m with Gene and the bitter little man.