It feels to me like motorcycling has suddenly been split in two, torn down the middle by the two camps heading in opposite directions. And while I appreciate and enjoy all forms of motorcycling, I’m genuinely surprised about where I’m finding myself planting my flag.
You see, motorcycling has been getting more and more sophisticated in recent years. It all started with fuel injection, then ABS; digital instruments are now standard and even technology like traction control and semi-active suspension are starting to filter down to bikes that we might actually buy. Heck, the new Bosch ABS system in the latest KTMs will let you brake as hard as you like mid-corner and you can still keep turning!
On the very near horizon we have heads-up displays, both as bolt-ons and fully built into helmets, and I’m calling it now – BMW will be the first to have a system that links wirelessly to your bike (providing you also buy the compatible BMW helmet ;)).
As a tech guy, I should love this stuff. I should be champing at the bit to trade in my bike for something with more wiring than a Dreamliner, and yet…I just can’t bring myself to do it. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at myself – I’ve always loved Harleys for their agricultural simplicity, and I’ll take another carb-fed VFR 750 over a brand new VTEC model any day of the week. I appreciate the incredible things the technology is capable of, and although no-one has ever accused me of being a luddite…I just don’t necessarily want it in my bike.
There are all sorts of reasons for my distrust – many of which are shared by a large number of other bikers, and some of which are completely irrational. For one thing, this tech is all very, very expensive, and drives up the cost of motorcycling, both at point of purchase and in servicing. Ask anyone who’s ever tried to bleed a Honda or BMW ABS system and you’ll see the wince of recollection at servicing that relatively standard (these days) feature. Or go look up the replacement cost of one of BMW’s adjustable suspension modules – just make sure you’re not drinking anything at the time, or you’ll risk spraying hot tea all over your monitor.
Some riders believe that the electronic rider aids actually hinder their performance – that they can out-brake ABS, and like to drift around corners with the rear tyre lit up like a catherine wheel. I can’t, and don’t, and I’m not sure they really do either – but it’s an emotional response at something potentially being taken away from them, from the experience. And that I can relate to.
I’ll admit that my new bike, a 2013 Triumph Street Triple R, was optioned with ABS when I purchased it. I commute every day, in every weather, and as evidenced by the recent demise of my beloved Bandit, you sometimes need to panic stop very quickly indeed. And fuel injection is better than carburettors – I’m sorry purists, I know where you’re coming from, but I’m averaging 55mpg on a spirited commute, on something that makes 107bhp. Show me a ’95 CBR600 that can do that.
But honestly? That’s it. And that’s one of the reasons I chose this particular bike. No riding modes, manual suspension, manual gearbox, no cruise control, no heated seat or grips…just two wheels, an engine and a seat. And I love the simplicity. My Bandit had become, by necessity, a two-wheeled car, loaded with as many creature comforts as I could bolt on. But now that I have an actual car, my bike could be just that – a bike.
The industry is getting this, too. KTM’s Duke 690 is a masterclass in what can be done with four valves and one cylinder. Yamaha’s new MT07 is going to deliver SV650 levels of power with Street Triple levels of weight, and all landing below £6k (if the MT09 pricing is anything to go by). Kawasaki’s ER6 is going from strength to strength, Honda’s new 500 range is fantastic, and Yamaha is bringing the SR400 to the UK again – all simple, cheap, fun motorcycles. They’re lightweight, get great fuel economy, are simple(r) to service than their 4 (or even 6!)-cylindered brethren, and are cheap to buy, insure, to run…and all that with modern reliability and build quality.
It’s bringing motorcycling back to what it used to be – a cheap way to get around really quickly, really efficiently, and with a giant grin all over your face. There’s never been a better time to be a biker!