An increasing number of buyers are citing the availability of an electronics package as being a significant factor when purchasing new motorcycles. In the first part of our survey into bikes combining TC and ABS, we look at the arguments surrounding the need for electronic rider aids.
A personal interest needs to be declared from the off – literally so. Over a hideously long period of time (don’t ask) I’ve had unscheduled partings from bikes three times. On each occasion, I crashed following a loss of traction on a dodgy surface, with no other vehicle involved. The most recent occasion was on Boxing Day, on a section of (very) unclassified road at night. I probably shouldn’t have been on road tyres – farm vehicles being the most common users of that particular stretch – but the surface was technically tarmac, and I believe a robust approach is necessary if you want to ride in the UK in winter. I thought taking the bike would do me good… and I reached my destination fine. On the way back, I touched the brakes at one point and despite coming straight off them again, I was fighting a loosing battle to stay upright from that moment on. I ended up in casualty with various minor injuries and a dislocated thumb needing to be re-homed.
As I suspected, it subsequently turned out that I’d hit some mud when I braked. The point being that I’m in no doubt that the accident would have been avoided if I’d had an ABS/TC package, and arguably avoided with either – just like the other two offs I’ve experienced. Whilst this doesn’t mean that I’m about to order a bike with most advanced electronic aids money can buy, it has certainly prompted me to take a closer look at the options available: and not before time, since electronic control is the fastest evolving area of motorcycle design right now.
The level of opposition to electronics should not be understated. While researching this piece, the most vociferous doubters tended to be experienced, older riders. No one is suggesting that those who have a long standing relationship with a much loved, relatively lo-tec machine, banish it in favour of a new bike with all mod cons. But opposition to ABS and TC is so entrenched in this substantial demographic that virtually all the more senior riders we spoke to claimed that they would never consider buying a machine with rider aids. One wonders if these people deliberately buy cars without airbags and ABS, on the assumption that they don’t need them – or believe that their presence will somehow sap enjoyment from their driving. It certainly seems contradictory for someone to accept electronic safety devices in their car without demur, but ban them point blank from a form of transport where, in the event of an accident, they are physically more vulnerable.
Perhaps people who have been riding happily for years without mishap simply can’t understand the value of rider aids designed to prevent one happening: some won’t really get the concept until the day they need it. The problem, of course, is that no one can predict when that day will come. It has also been suggested that opposition to electronics is partly political: give the manufacturers an inch, and big brother will muscle in on the act, using electronic development to foist all manner of unwelcome control devices on motorcyclists. Whilst it’s entirely reasonable to be wary of politicians, lack of co-operation between biker lobbying organisations across Europe is a far more serious threat to Planet Bike than ordering your next Fireblade with ABS.
In particular, the role of road traction control seems poorly understood. It is not primarily designed to help fire you out of Druids without mishap, although it will it be happy to assist if required. Its job on a road bike is to kick in when you find yourself, like I did, suddenly confronted by mud, slurry or any of the horrible surfaces which anyone who rides regularly in winter will have encountered. I know of at least two people who have had serious accidents attributed to loss of traction on poor surfaces – and neither had touched the brakes. That’s where TC starts paying back on your investment.
A UK Ducati dealer we know recently took a bunch of favoured customers to a track day and data-logged them in an effort to find out how they were using their front brake. Rider experience varied, but included track day veterans. At the end of the straight they were told to brake as hard as they could. Not one single rider used more than 40% of what was available prior to lock up. As a result, they reasonably theorised that riders must sometimes crash rather than use all the safe braking on offer. It is hard to find a more compelling case for ABS, which allows you to brake firmly without fear of a lock up.
The scenario also gives the lie to those who claim not to need ABS on the grounds of their own competence. The Ducati figures suggest that there are a lot of otherwise capable riders who would be found out in the event of having to brake extra hard on the road. The fact that a tiny minority of riders are quicker stopping without ABS given perfect conditions is academic, if a large percentage of bikers are reluctant to apply the front brake with sufficint force on the road when required.
Bikerglory often sings the praises of older machines, from 70s rebuilds to our own winter hack. Obviously you can ride safely and have a lot of fun with old skool bikes: lo-tec machines often provide a more rounded riding experience precisely because the level of involvement is different on (say) a CB900 than would be the case on a Cross Tourer (equipped with both TC and ABS as standard). Which still begs the question as to which route the CB900 rider should go down if (s)he decides to buy new.
If you ride frequently, and especially if you prefer not to be dictated to by the seasons, it seems to us that buying new and eschewing electronics on principal borders on perversity. This would not have been the case even four years ago, such is the pace of development. Hence our survey of all new machines offering integrated ABS and TC: the cheapest, the most sophisticated, the most fun and so on. Watch this space for part 2, in which we examine the types of control on offer, and the bikes using them.