A Better Rider


During an online conversation about motorcycle technology, one of my fellow members of the Internet BMW Riders opined that all of the electronic systems on BMW’s Championship Winning S1000RR Superbike, “would make me a better rider”.

Upon reading this, my blood ran icy cold and reality slowed to a crawl.

This is something that had been bugging me for quite some time.

Heck, this site is actually named after my definition of that problem.

So will the best set of electronic rider aids on the planet “make one a better rider?”

Um, no, it won’t.

That is precisely the point.

It will enable me, perhaps, to get down the road faster, but what that then makes me is a rider with deteriorating skills sitting on top of a machine that doesn’t need me in order to be faster.

I’ve had several folks tell me that this sort of logic leads one backwards to manual spark advance and beyond, but this is different. They say, it isn’t that your skills are deteriorating, it’s just that you’re redeploying them to other areas from ones where you no longer need them.

I have had the experience of being out on the road for a day on a state of the art electronically managed superbike – a KTM with the LC8 engine. It absolutely WAS fun. But after a few miles I wanted to see exactly how omni-present my ‘electronanny’ was. It was a spring day with a great deal of snowmelt going on, and the country roads had streams of meltwater running across them perpendicular to the line of travel.

Going down one long straight, I dialed in some healthy throttle, knowing full well if I did this on an analog bike when I hit the water the rear tire would spin up, upsetting the chassis. Half throttle – no slip and no stutter. Three quarter – no slip. WFO – nothing.

It was as if this hazard had simply disappeared.

When Don Canet did the initial road test of the S1000RR, on a wet track, being of similarly smartassed inclination, he did several laps with the traction control set to max and the throttle pinned wide open. Every time he went WFO on a wet track leaned over the computers just dialed the output back to the available traction until the bike was straight up and down again.

“Could do this all day long,” said Don, or something to that effect. “Kinda dull, though”.

Kevin Cameron’s most recent race report has a section in it that basically said that the newest MotoGP Champions are folks that don’t have any experience that tells them that dialing in max throttle while on the very edge of their back tire will hurt them. They just jam on and trust their tires and electronics.

Old guys – some of them in their 30s – just can’t shake their experience and muscle memory to get to that level of trust.

Their choice is between losing or retiring.

Fortunately, I’m not racing, so I don’t have to go home.

I just can choose to do what gives me pleasure, and turning over the whole dance of the throttle, brakes and contact patches to some software engineer just doesn’t engage and immerse me the way a bike that needs me for those things does.

I’ve spent the majority of the last 30 years getting to the point where I can confidently manage a tire that is sitting on the very edge of grip on a corner exit. I don’t want my machine to give a get-out-of-jail-free card after I would have just run off the road. If I do something stupid — I want to be able to see bad consequences. Its that sense of instant consequence that produces the focus necessary to enter into my motorcyclist’s state of grace.

I’m not pretending for a second to tell you how you should live your riding life.

But the condition where motorcycles save themselves without asking you for input is of no interest to me, and that takes almost every significant bike built in the last 5 years off the table.

Classic motorcycle designs sought to optimize performance in metal.

Doesn’t matter what it was – brake master cylinder sizes and pad swept area, suspension pistons, cam profiles, flywheel mass, intake and combustion chamber shapes – all sought to optimize performance and response to mechanically transmitted human inputs.

Engineers were ‘artists in feel’ – with this suspension valving I have good turn in on the brakes, with this one I don’t. With this cam profile I have good control over the rear contact patch coming out of a third gear corner, with this one I don’t. The goal — rarely acheived — was to create balaced machinery whose responses were predicable enough to let a talented human control them with the amount of focus and concentration that our brains can provide.

Current practice is to throw way too much of everything at a problem – horsepower, torque, braking — and then let the sensors and automation dial it back until it’s inside the envelope again. Given the effective limitlessness of modern processors, the ability of those systems is apply corrections is also effectively unlimited.

What has happened is we’ve taken systems where the physics of the overall system was fundamentally stable through a very deliberate process, and ‘advanced’ to a state where the systems are fundamentally unstable without the intervention of their electronics.

The Rolling Physics Problem of a motorcycle is a suspended endless instant where the motorcyclist’s human skill balances him between life and death. To lose that is to lose something that is beyond replacement.


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