Way back at the beginning of the information age, in about 1992, a biking, IS'ing friend of mine told me that he was beginning to hate the World Wide Web. Since we'd been working together to assemble a corporate website for our employer for the previous couple of months, I was a little surprised. His argument was that when the web really hit, "everyone" would be on the internet. When that happened, the Net would cease to be a resource for geeks and technoids and it would become as saturated with unskilled people and pointless crap as radio airwaves have been in the last fifty years. At that time, about the only way to even use e-mail was to be a moderately competent UNIX programmer and be able to assemble enough code to modify a text editor to suit your ISP's requirements. It was a pretty exclusive club. You had to be a geek, or be really nice to one, to accomplish anything on the Net.
He was right. Now, everybody is using the WWW and it's commercial, crass, packed full of time-wasting, resource hogging advertisements, porno and politics, and, in a few seconds of search engine manipulation, you can find the wrong answer to almost any question. The web is more fun and more useful, too, but if you didn't know how to use the old tools you probably don't get as much out of the newer, more powerful tools. Looking at national and Minnesota accident statistics, I'm beginning to think that my real gripe against hippo-cruisers is that they make motorcycling too damned easy for "everyone" to become motorcyclists. In particular, they make it easy for average, poorly trained, unskilled, "physically (and, sometimes, mentally) challenged" folks to ride a motorcycle. At least, they can ride it badly.
An Art Friedman Motorcyclist column noted that there has been a steady and significant increase in engine displacement that appears to be closely linked to a steady and significant increase in motorcycle crashes and motorcycle deaths. The writer cautioned that relationship could be related "to rider-training availability, to older riders, to faster sportbikes, to fewer helmet laws, to a reduction in recent rider experience, to the displacement march among popular cruisers. . . " And so on. How about a possible relationship between all these crashes and the fact that most of these older, untrained riders are buying butt-heavy big cruisers that any damn fool can get out of the driveway but nobody can actually safely maneuver on the road?
Look at the characteristics of the typical hippo-bike:
- Minimal horsepower, but lots of low rpm torque. So grandma or grandpa can let that nasty clutch lever fly, like a pinball machine flipper, without stalling the bike or wheeling down the driveway.
- A center of gravity so low that the bike stands by itself, requiring hardly any concentration from the rider in balancing the bike and putting it in motion.
- Fat and flat tires for more of that balance-free start-up action. 22" to 28" seat height so obese and inflexible American couch potatoes can wedge a knee over and mount up, even if they are so disabled that they are no more agile than a marble statue.
- Short seat heights and a low center of gravity forces designers to accept impractically low ground clearances. Yet another way to sacrifice one of motorcycles' safety advantages. If you can't even think about clearing a curb in a tight situation, you've trapped yourself to the asphalt where all the violence is going to be.
- To make up for years of cubicle paralysis, blimp owners want lots of sound and vibration to compensate for all that wasted time making the boss rich. I think Shakespeare called this "sound and fury signifying nothing," It's not nothing. It's a sensory generator for the the tactilely disabled. If you can't tell how fast a well tuned four is spinning by the buzz in the bars, ride a big-ass twin and your ribs bang together for a much more obvious sensation. Of course, you can't hear a 747 about to fly up your butt, but you can imagine all that noise moves people out of your unstable path of travel.
- Hippo-bikes are exercises in long-framed, super-stable geometry. So, once you get your hippo rolling, it doesn't do anything surprising, like turning. Some of these bikes won't change direction unless you really put your mind (and lots of body and handlebar pressure) to it. Trains are more maneuverable.
The list could go on for pages. Every aspect of these bikes is intended to make it easy for "anyone" to saddle up and roll forward. Unfortunately, rolling forward isn't all there is to motorcycling. You have to stop, sometimes you have to stop quickly; something that is made much more difficult when all that extra mass gets plugged into the momentum equation. Turning is a good thing, too. Sometimes being able to turn quickly is the difference between an exciting moment and a final moment. Turning these massive and infinitely-stable motorcycles feels like something you do after submitting a flight plan and requesting a stay on the laws of physics.
Here's a discouraging quote from Motorcyclist's 2003 review of BMW's F650CS, "to put the entry-level rider in the crosshairs, BMW has kept the engine full of torque and the injection purposely tuned to make the bike as docile as can be. With generous flywheel effect and a smooth clutch, edging out into traffic couldn't be easier." That's a positive spin on exactly what I'm talking about. I don't want to pick on the F650CS much, though, because I happen to think it is an ideal bike for riders of all skill levels (assuming those riders have at least a 36" inseam). This is a pretty good, general purpose bike, but it's obvious that BMW's designers are joining the mindless marketing rush to attract unskilled crowds to their motorcycles.
Don't get me wrong. I want lots of folks on motorcycles. I'd like to have dozens of models at my local dealership that tempt me to part with my money, if I had any. I'd like to have the highways, freeways, and side roads buzzing with motorcycles so that we have enough political and social clout to take advantage of motorcycles' advantages. I just want those riders to be competent enough that they don't all kill themselves in a lemming dive across the median.
Even further back in ancient history, my ancient history, I was taking a cross-country bus tour and ended up sitting next to a comedian heading back to L.A. after making an unsuccessful run at New York. We started sharing jokes and stories and he hit me with "why is there handicapped parking at tennis courts?" Thirty years later, I still can't explain handicapped parking at tennis courts, but I've been watching ever since and I never see those spaces filled.
Motorcycling is somewhere between a physical activity and a sport. I don't think people who might park their cars in handicapped spaces belong on motorcycles. There have been a few times in my own riding history when I began to think that I either needed to become more fit or quit. The thought of leaving two-wheeled transportation is always an exercise motivator for me. If you don't have the coordination to deal with the controls, you don't belong on two wheels. If you can't turn your head far enough to check blind spots, you shouldn't be at the wheel of a car or riding a motorcycle. If your judgment is impaired, temporarily or permanently, two wheels are less safe (for you) than four and you should avoid self-piloting altogether. There are folks that some MSF instructors classify as TDTR (too dumb to ride). It may not be a full-fledged sport, but motorcycling is a lot more physically and mentally demanding than driving a car or riding the bus. A clue to your motorcycling future might be "if you suck on a bicycle, you will most likely suck on a motorcycle."
I don't think motorcycling is well served by the "universal vehicle tactic." Building bikes that allow new riders on the road with next-to-no-skills or capacity for riding is the easy, dangerous way to attract customers. It's easy because it avoids the responsibility of getting across the critical point that motorcycling is a high risk activity, unless you have the skills to reduce the risk. Without bodywork to act as armor, motorcyclists don't do well in multi-vehicle collisions. It's dangerous because, when these baby-rider-sitting-bikes put a large quantity of riders on the road whose lack of skills and physical incapacity gets them killed or injured in ways that attracts the insurance industry's attention, we could be in for some nasty regulation from Big Momma Government.
We'll be seeing even more regulations like road and traffic access restrictions, helmet laws, health and life insurance penalties for motorcyclists, equipment inspections, and even more limitations on motorcycles that can be imported and receive EPA and DOT approvals. That, particularly, bothers me because the bikes I like the best are the bikes that provide the lowest profit margins for manufacturers. Those bikes will be the first to go when the boom falls. High tech, leading edge, small caliber bikes are only profitable if they sell in big numbers. Without those profits, even the big companies will try to imitate the boutique bike manufacturers to attract the discretionary dollars of the idle rich, because that's where the big bucks for minimal engineering and manufacturing investment lies.
I can clearly remember a lot of great bikes rotting on the showroom floors in the early and mid-80s. Depressing times and the bikes that followed were almost as depressing. Today's big bikes are the residue of that economic lesson. A lesson not well learned by the motorcycling business. Motorcycling is not the kind of activity that survives well in a vacuum. We have to stick together, as a sport and a mode of transportation, or we all vanish. I don't think the World Wide Web model will work for motorcycling. If we put enough incompetent people on the road, insurance companies and government will start to take notice. That won't be a good thing.