Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Ted's Tips for the Street Rider

Riding on the street is a calculated risk, which is what makes it so engaging and so much better than sitting on the couch. It's not like a video game or a carnival ride. Learning to ride well on the street is more like learning to fly an airplane. It might offer a type of relaxation at times but we should never loose sight of the fact that it is serious business. It demands our highest physical skills and situational awareness. The following are a few of my personal tips for happy survival in the asphalt jungle.

Keep your eyes moving and scan the scene ahead. Like a fighter pilot in enemy skies, there are possible threats that must be anticipated and planned for before they materialize. Deer, dogs, rocks in the road, almost anything could unexpectedly present itself and you will have almost no time to react. Cars and trucks represent the greatest danger whether oncoming, merging, or entering from a cross street. The road you will be riding in the next few seconds is your battlefield. Identify every possible threat and be prepared.

Position yourself in your lane to allow the greatest possible time to react should something turn against you. When oncoming cars approach, I like to ride to the right. When passing a cross street with a waiting car ready to enter or cross my street, I move away from the car. When entering a blind curve, move to outside of the curve where you can see further down the road.

Overtaking slower cars on a bike is part of the fun, but watch out! If there is a crossroad or driveway on the left, your slowpoke may be planning a left turn. Wait until after you pass by that possibility. The more maddeningly slow your roadblock is, the greater the possibility that he is planning to do something – but what? Ask yourself why he is going so slowly. Be ready for anything, including a U-turn.

Keep a finger or two draped over the front brake lever. The smallest fraction of a second in reaction time could save your life. Your front brake is much more effective than the rear as weight is transferred to the front tire.

My personal advice about the rear brake may be controversial but I am a believer. Unless you are on a heavy cruiser or touring bike, the rear brake can get you into a lot of trouble and is seldom much good in a hard emergency stop. The rear tire may even lift off the ground. I never use mine except on slippery surfaces where I very cautiously modulate both brakes. The danger is that in an emergency stop your foot will automatically press hard on the pedal, locking and sliding the tire. Unless you are traveling in a perfectly straight line, the rear will step out to the side. Then, if you react by releasing the brake, it will suddenly snap back. This can result in what is known as a “high side” crash where you are flung through the air. Ouch!

If you get into a corner too hot, don’t give up on your bike. Wait for it to give up on you. Chopping the throttle or braking in a corner will upset the balance of the bike and reduce ground clearance. Modern tire technology will probably allow you to successfully make that corner. Even if it doesn’t, you are much better off falling down to the “low side” and grinding metal to the outside of the turn. The other two deadly alternatives are, giving up and riding right off the road at speed, or lock-snapping the rear and flying though the air.

Leaning way over in a turn is great fun but don’t max yourself out on any curve unless you have just ridden it and know that turn well. This is what track days are for. Go in slower than you think you need to and open the throttle once you have the turn made. Roaring out of a turn is more fun that braking into a turn anyway.

Practice counter-steering. Yes, on a motorcycle we steer left to turn right. You can flick the bike left and right with great effect when you consciously apply aggressive counter-steering. When you need to dodge an obstacle in the road quickly, you don’t want to be waiting around for your bike and body to get into a lean. Practice tightening up your line mid-corner, as if you suddenly realized you are in a decreasing radius turn. Counter-steering forces are necessary to maintain a tight line once leaned over. Practice.

Read Twist of the Wrist - 2 by Keith Code. His explanation of our natural “survival reactions” and how they can work against us is the kind of information that can save your life.

Wish List - 2008

Now that the 2008 models have been introduced and I have had the opportunity to sit on many of them at the Cycle World show in Seattle, I thought it was time to concoct another fanciful wish list. Last time I did this I concentrated mostly on street bikes but now the dirt bikes I am really interested in can be had with a Washington license plate so this list will include them as well. Since I have not had the opportunity to test ride some of the models on this list, there is a certain amount of guesswork involved. As before this list includes only new motorcycles available on the American market at this time. There is nothing realistic in the prospect of purchasing several new 2008 machines at one time, but this imaginary possibility does reveal the current market choices and how they align with my personal taste in motorcycles. The idea here is to identify which bikes I would choose if given the constraints of selecting one bike, or two, or three, and so on.

One bike: KTM 690 Enduro
Having only one bike in the garage is simply unthinkable but here we go. As much as I love to ride on an asphalt snake at higher speed than is sometimes prudent, I love a good mountain trail even more. Today’s dual-sport bikes are better than ever and accounting for the obvious compromises a do-it-all machine must make, I suspect that the new 690 KTM could work for me in that role. It uses the new, improved LC4 motor and should be smooth enough on local road rides and still get me into the mountains for some very fun trails. The choice of tires will be a key factor and the traction on pavement vs. dirt will be the pointy end of the compromise. This model is so new I haven’t even read a test on it yet but the listed 305 lb. dry weight is not much more than my old Suzuki DRZ 400. The new LC4 is said to be the most powerful single on the market and has much-reduced vibration. It would be hard to live with only one bike but this one might ease the pain.

Two bikes: Ducati Multistrada 1100S; KTM EXC 450
Having lived with the Multistrada 1000 for nearly a year, I can say that this bike really satisfies. The Multi offers a degree of all-day comfort one would never expect from a Ducati and combines it with fairly serious sport-bike handling prowess. The wide dirt-bike handlebars make it easy to cut up a curvy road like a carving knife. The big L-twin motor speaks my language like no other and gives a muscular boot when cranking open the throttle. The 1100cc motor is more powerful and yet smoother than my 1000. If it supplied no other sensation, I would ride one of these all day just to hear the motor.

The KTM EXC just seems to be the perfect bike for the trails in our steep mountain terrain. I love the way the motor goes pop, pop, pop, and transmits an irrepressible power-pulse into the ground. What could KTM do to make it any better? They now are fully street-legal at a listed dry weight of only 250lbs. This is all we have asked for so many years – a serious, lightweight dirt bike with the minimum necessary equipment to legally ride the street. It’s no longer necessary to haul the bike into the woods.

Three bikes: KTM 690 Duke; Ducati Multistrada 1100S; KTM EXC450
The single cylinder Duke has been on my wish list since first introduced many years ago. It was the original “hooligan” bike. Like the Multistrada, it is a cross between a dirt bike and a sport bike but much lighter and more nimble. More nimble than the Multi? I would need to take Dramamine before riding the crazy thing. With so many super-motard type bikes on the market now it surprises me a little that the new Duke finds it’s way onto this list. The black and white color scheme actually makes this a handsome street bike and I have never been tempted to say that about any KTM road model before. I‘ll bet that if I had this combination of three bikes, the Duke would get the most frequent use by far. I can only imagine what fun it would be on Sleepy Hallow Road or Halverson Canyon. I would toss on my soft saddlebags and use it to run errands around town. I would need to tie them on tight because this bike was made to wheelie. With 65 HP and only 327 lbs., the Duke is calling my name again.

Four bikes: Honda ST1300; KTM 690 Duke; Ducati Multistrada 1100S; KTM EXC 450
A touring bike in my garage should provide comfort as it’s primary benefit. That goes for both me and my wife - otherwise I’ll be riding alone. This is just a guess since I’ve never ridden one, but I believe the Honda ST would offer all the stability and comfort I need for two-up touring. The Multistrada is not so good with a passenger and wasn’t made to carry heavy loads of people and baggage on boring super-highways. The Gold Wing would be an alternative but my choice is always to go with less weight. The Yamaha FJR1300 made my last list and still merits a test ride. I have ridden the new Kawasaki Concours 1400, but only solo. It would surely be more fun and may have the stability but probably not the comfort of the ST.

If I had the four bikes listed above, I could do most of what needs to be done on a motorcycle. However, where bikes are concerned, you can never have too many. BMW has a new parallel twin, 800cc GS model that really looks like it might be the best all-round adventure-touring bike on the market. Large enough for serious touring yet much lighter than the 1200cc boxer-motored GS. You can’t overstate the importance of lightness for riding in the dirt. Although I wouldn’t find a real sport bike comfortable, I would miss that special feel they have in the twisties if I didn’t have one. When leaned over in a high-speed sweeper, one becomes instantly oblivious to any pain in the wrists or knees. For this kind of speed therapy, I choose Ducati’s new 1098 superbike. It deserves a place in the garage based on looks alone. Like Steve Martin in the movie The Jerk, this is all I need. Six bikes… plus a Montesa trials bike and couple of nice vintage bikes and a little 230lb. road racer and a sidecar for my old BMW and an Aprilia SVX supermotard and…