May 30, 2015
May 27, 2015
WI is taking on the “updated” MSF while Minnesota is sticking with the old program for a while. There are nasty rumors coming out of WI about loads of instructors quitting or failing the new certification program. On top of that, many of the people who are still with the program hate the new course, both in the classroom and on the range. The MSF, of course, says things like “The new BRC skill test was also revised to better align with the licensing tests used by many states.” If you’ve ever seen the DMV’s motorcycle test, you know what they are saying. If you can’t pass the DMV’s test, you probably can’t walk and chew bubblegum at the same time. It is grossly, ineptly, irresponsibly, dangerously easy. Apparently, the MSF test has taken that same route even further. The idea that everyone belongs on a motorcycle is industry suicide, but maybe the industry doesn’t care? The real question is, do we? Do motorcycle riders actually care if motorcycles retain their rights and privileges to use the public roads?
If we do, California’s 2015 motorcycle training experiment is where we should all be looking. In most states, the wrong people are in charge of motorcycle safety training and the related income and expense. It’s not that I’m accusing the people who run state programs of being corrupt, but I am accusing them of being marginally interested in the effectiveness of their programs. California’s Motorcycle Safety Program makes the “California Highway Patrol (CHP) . . . statutorily responsible for California's official motorcycle safety training program.” I think this makes a crap-load of sense. The people who have to clean up the mess made by motorcycle crashes, sort out who was at fault in each incident, and those who have the political clout to make big decisions about who provides safety training without a lot of ass-kissing in the state capital to counteract the lobbying by a major manufacturing association (MIC, for example). Whenever possible, the people in charge of a budget should also be the people who are most effected by the effectiveness of the money spent. In most states, unvested bureaucrats of varying sorts hold the purse strings for motorcycle training. That’s almost as dumb as paying for a police department’s liability insurance from a municipal general fund. If the department resources are directly effected by how well they do their job, they do the job a lot better.
The California Highway Patrol changed the requirements for the training program they wanted and the MSF bet that no one would compete with their national franchise. They lost. This year, California replaced the MSF program with something designed to produce better motorcycle riders. The model CHP picked was based on the Idaho state program (derived from the Oregon state program), the Oregon state program, and Lee Park’s Total Control Advanced Riding clinics. Total Control is the core provider. As AsphaltandRubber.com put it, “The two programs differ in that while the MSF curriculum is based on the idea that anyone can be taught how to ride a motorcycle, Total Control Training’s sets higher failure rates for students, and weeds out new riders who would likely not excel at riding on two wheels.” In other words, the MIC/MSF is primarily interesting in putting as many butts on seats as possible. That seems like an obvious conflict of interest, but the MSF/MIC relationship has been largely unexamined for a couple of decades. Total Control’s program has no vested interest in motorcycle sales. The intent of that program is to reduce crashes and fatalities. You would think any state program seriously looking at spending taxpayer money effectively would take that conflict into account.
While Wisconsin’s program appears to be “weeding out” a lot of instructors, I know for a fact that a few of those weeds were good instructors and solid rider-coaches. In a reasonably intelligent world, every state would be reviewing their commitment to a program that repeatedly reminds us that there is no connection between MSF-style “training” and reduced crashes or fatalities. In my opinion, that is a damning statement. “Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System data indicates motorcycle fatalities in California increased 175% in ten years, from 204 in 1998 to 560 in 2008. These increases in motorcyclist deaths occurred at a time when significant gains were achieved in other areas of traffic safety. Although California did experience reductions in motorcycle fatalities in 2009 and 2010; the 2011 data shows an increase. Motorcyclists are [grossly] over represented in overall numbers of traffic deaths.” A lot of eyes should be on California and Oregon, two states who have pulled away from the MSF machine. If they manage to produce something that effectively reduces motorcycle deaths and crashes, the rest of the country should be paying attention.
There is substantial evidence that the current current generation of autonomous cars is (dramatically) more competent than the average driver, which wasn’t a high bar to clear.
May 25, 2015
I'm not sure what I was proving. I set out to make a loop around Lake Superior with my brother, Larry, on my 650 V-Strom and me on my Yamaha WR250X. At first, this seemed like a good idea. Through town and into the backroads country side, the 250 was perfect. For the first 100 miles I thought I had the better deal. Then we started making miles on long straight 2-lanes in Wisconsin into Michigan and across the plains to Ontario the 250 showed its other side; the under-powered, butt-numbing, over-capable side. A bike that can stop on a dime, turn like a ballet dancer, and go from 0-50mph as fast as you can shift from 1st to 6th is under-utilized in a world designed for bad drivers, big trucks, and boring scenery.
An Electroglide or Goldwing is more suited to boring roads, but so is a station wagon (or SUV, if that designation makes you feel less wimpy for driving a station wagon) with cruise-control and HVAC. While I sat on my skinny dirt bike perch, I had way too much time to think about the mechanics of the trip. Both bikes, the DL650 and the WR250X knocked down the exact same 55mpg, mile-after-mile and fill-up-after-fill-up. The difference being two gallons more capacity in the 650, even after I'd installed an aftermarket fuel tank on the WR. So, I stalled the trip for fuel stops twice as often as Larry. Plugging along at 65mpg for 1600 mostly-straight miles gave me more than enough time to think about what I was doing on that road.
One of the things I thought about is that, obviously, mathematically and practically-speaking group motorcycle rides don't make sense. Even little groups, like our two-man crew. Two guys on 55mpg motorcycles are spending more transportation money on their bikes, than they would taking one car, if the car got at least 28mpg. My Ford Escort gets 34mpg and it's a crappy old station wagon with 200k on the odometer and 1998 fuel economy. Four 55mpg bikers could have been traveling in a 16mpg camper. Six bikers would have been able to justify a rented luxury bus.
It proves to me, again, that motorcycles are best suited to solo travel. When one person wants to, or needs to, get from point A to Z. Of course, you could argue that two people can travel more economically on one motorcycle. Obviously, 55mpg is history, going two-up, since even an efficient bike is going to be less efficient with more weight and greater wind resistance. Tire wear is accelerated. Maintenance becomes more critical and more expensive. The two-up motorcycle is bigger, more expensive, and less maneuverable; a Goldwing instead of a KLR, for example. More important, one person can ride anywhere.
Two, not so much.
The idea of riding with someone is much more interesting than the reality. In a group, you have to lead or follow. I suck at either position. I don't look back and I like to keep at least two miles between me and whoever is in front of me. I have another unpredictable human mind to anticipate. More distractions and obstacles to deal with. Twice as many maintenance problems to solve. Fuel stops are more complicated and take way longer. I'm either slowing someone up or someone is dragging me back. I have to pay attention to moods, interests, habits, problems, and other personality issues. I'm lucky to know what I'm thinking. I have no idea what is in your head and usually don't care.
So, the next time someone asks to go somewhere with me, we're going to take the cage. The advantages are obvious. First, I might not have to drive. Second, the trip will be cheaper. Since I'm going with someone, I'll have the chance to talk to them on the trip. We can easily carry more camping and travel gear. We can save money by sleeping in the car; that's what reclining seats are for, right? We can venture away from the parking lot, since we can lock up our stuff in the cage and worry (less) about thieves and vandals. [You can't meaningfully vandalize my Escort because Ford and I beat you to it.]
There are places where all this logic falls apart. Not many, but some. When there is a good reason to go somewhere with someone else, next time I'm going to shut off my analytic mind and enjoy the ride. To do that, I have to stay away from boring roads to ordinary places.
Trail riding is an obvious buddy event; ride a few miles, fall down, make fun of the victim, pick the bike up, tell stories about the last ride, hydrate, share power-bars, ride some more, fall down and start the sequence all over again. I'm not sure the riding part of an off-road trip is a group event, but the falling down parts are. Other than trying to avoid running over the other guy or being run over by him, all I have time and capacity to think about is staying on the trail. But there is always some time along the trail for extracurricular activities when I'm on the trail.
So, while I left on last summer's trip with the idea that I would prove that my little bike was a serviceable touring bike, I came home with the proof that touring with someone else is a silly idea. At least, I proved that to myself. Your mileage will probably vary. As far as the original concept, the WR250 did fine. I'd take it places over my 650 on at least three out of four mid-length trips and about 99% of my usual commute and around-town errands. However, if I'm going to be bored with the road, I'm going to take the big bike. At least I'll be comfortably bored.
MMM July 2012
May 24, 2015
Andy’s talk was about the history of his company, a story I’ve heard more than a couple of times, and the company’s mission. If you’ve been around Andy for any time at all, you know that he believes commuting, traveling, and riding motorcycles for fun is “good for society.” He has studied this idea and promoted it as much as anyone on the planet. In 2008, Andy and Aerostich published a scholarly book on the subject, Bodies in Motion: Evolution and Experience in Motorcycling written by Stephen L. Thompson. During his talk, Andy described how motorcyclists suffer fewer of the usual litany of modern human maladies: obesity, depression, anxiety,
Andy’s description of the benefits of riding made me wonder which way this activity works: does motorcycling make you a better person or do better people ride motorcycles? It could be either, right? Or both. We ride motorcycles because we are people who are more tolerant of risk and we are more driven to seek the sensation of motion. The alternative is that accidentally stumbling into motorcycling has provided us with the benefits of becoming more tolerant of risk, change, and physical stress which makes us healthier.
An article by “naturopathic” practitioner Pamela Reilly titled "How Motorcycle Riding Improves Physical Health" describes how motorcycling burns calories, improves knee stability and strength, etc. Otherwise, I can’t find much on the internet that makes this claim. If anyone has a source or study that argues motorcycling’s health benefits, I’d like to hear about it.
May 18, 2015
One of my all-time favorite books is Philip Kitcher's Abusing Science, a line-by-line scientific refutation of every anti-evolutionary argument written by a wonderfully logical, scientific mind. (Yes, I am agnostic, a firm believer in evolutionary theory even with all of the evidence that humans are probably de-evolving into something less intelligent than lemurs, and a cynic.) I have owned a copy of this book since a philosophy prof recommended it to me in 1984, after an extended debate in his Logic and Critical Thinking class. Using reasoning that is below the standards of Abusing Science, but in my own version of Kitcher's critical spirit, I was inspired to write this rant after reading the 2011 Minnesota Motorcycle Rider Survey Results. I'm not sure whether the authors of that document or I am abusing statistical evidence more enthusiastically. I'm inclined to make connections where only my biases allow me to see the dots. Regardless, I know we both are on infirm ground.
The 1,349 rider survey found that 46% of the surveyed had "basic" rider training, 35% owned "cruiser" style motorcycles, 37% owned Harley Davidsons, 34% wear helmets "never" or "rarely," 48% "never" ride wearing reflective gear, 60% own black helmets, 66% thought that "driver inattention" poses the greatest risk to motorcyclists, 53% rode less than 3,000 miles/year, and 65% were motivated to get rider training to get a motorcycle license. There are so many connections to be made in those statements that I can almost see a sketch of Peter Fonda before I start connecting the data points.
The 65% who got "safety training," primarily to get their license, present an easy target. There is no real age spike in that statistic, either. The over-60 crowd were 10% less likely to have had that motivation with a slight bump in the "increase personal safety" impetus (a stat that has a slight linear rising slope with age). Put this information together with the substantial percentage of cruiser owners and those related puzzle pieces make perfect sense. While cruisers are the status-symbol-of-the-decade, they are a bitch to ride well. "I trailered the bike home, crashed it in my driveway, and decided I needed to take a class" or "I couldn't pass the DMV test, so I wanted to take the test on a bike I can control" is a story MSF instructors hear a few times every class. The driver's license motivation is the worst of all possible reasons to take a safety class. The safety classes teach a new rider how to ride in a swept clean, empty, stress-free parking lot; an environment the student is unlikely to ever see again. A rider with some skills may pick up useful tactics in the basic class, but a first-time rider will concentrate on getting through the class and the test and often leaves with false confidence and a ticket to ride into traffic without a clue how dangerous or complicated that experience will be.
Likewise, the 34% of rarely-to-never helmet wearers are guaranteed to be over-represented by cruiser and new riders; two groups of notoriously low skill riders. In my opinion, that crowd will be a good portion of the 66% who think the big threat to motorcyclists is other drivers not looking out for them. According the the 2008 NHTSA data (http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811159.PDF), 81% of motorcyclists killed in Minnesota were helmetless, 26% were alcohol or drug impaired, 25% collided with "fixed objects," and 43% died in single-vehicle crashes. Minnesota statistics similar to data from the rest of the country. As Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Even worse, we're not smart enough to know we're the problem and we want everyone else on the road to "start seeing motorcycles" so we don't have to start learning how to ride them.
The number of riders who wear protective gear, visible gear, or take safety training to improve their safety odds is so insignificant that you'd think we're a suicide squad. Maybe all those 1%'ers should scrape off the swastika tats and replace them with the flag kamikaze pilots wrapped around their heads before taking off on a suicide run. That's probably unacceptable because the red and white image would be too visible. You should never commit suicide half-heartedly.
The one "safety feature" the study didn't look at was noisy exhaust systems. Random and constant noise seems to be the only nod to self-preservation that most motorcyclists are willing to make, even though every piece of evidence has found that noisy exhaust systems are a waste of effort. It's a shame that question wasn't asked, just to round out the general impression of foolishness and irrational behavior that motorcyclists take so much pride in. Even the pubic opinion conscious AMA seems to be afraid to buck the "loud pipes save lives" argument.
I know this is a marginally rational way to look at the data from a relatively small, voluntary survey. However, since the data fits my own experience, the best I can do is to say I wasn't surprised by any of it. For me, the pieces fit together exactly the way I expected. Scientifically, that is exactly not how you should interpret data. So sue me. Humans are a marginally rational animal and if we're going to insist on being a foolish species, why should I behave differently?
MMM June 2012
May 17, 2015
Mad Max has always been a great source of weird motorcycles, but the latest edition: Mad Max Fury Road has set a whole new bar. Follow this link to the the craziness: http://www.motorbikeonly.com/mad-max-fury-road-motorcycles/.
I love it.
May 11, 2015
I've written before about the newbie claim "I'm good as long as I'm moving," but this is a different take on changing momentum. Holding on to momentum is not a "skill." The fact that you're able to continue wandering in a generally forward direction is less about your ability and more about Newton's Laws of Motion. When you jump off of a cliff, you're "ok" as long as you're falling. It's when you stop that you discover Newton's second law also applies as your mass and acceleration result in forces that rearrange your body parts.
Stopping quickly and safely is a basic motorcycling tool. Everyone needs to know how to do it and the only way to perfect any physical skill is practice. You can read books, listen to riding coaches preach technique, and sit in your garage squeezing controls until your tires rot off and you won't be better at stopping until you do the real thing. The best time to practice an emergency skill is in a safe, low stress, non-emergency environment. By that, I mean you should be practicing your braking technique every time you need to slow down or stop. By "every time," I mean every time. Every opportunity you have to decelerate, you should be working on your technique so that it is automatic when the cell-phone-yakking, coffee-sucking, self-absorbed bozo in a 4,000 pound SUV sails through a stop light and obscures the sun with his rolling mobile home. One of the great advantages of learning to ride the old fashioned way, off-road and on little (250cc and under) motorcycles, is that learning to use both brakes in a variety of situations is less threatening. When all conditions are less-than-ideal, you get used to sliding tires and shifting center-of-gravity when your brake application is imperfect. Dropping a hippobike on asphalt is almost always a catastrophe of some sort. Dumping a 225 pound dirt bike in gravel or grass is often just funny.
Late last season, I took my street-tire attired WR250X out for a trail ride with a friend. On the gravel roads, in deep sand, and through the muddy sections, I spent a lot of time sideways, but stayed upright and did ok with the throttle and brakes. On a couple of soaked clay sections, those street tires let me down and breathing on the brakes or bailing from the throttle resulted in an unceremonious, but comedic, dip in some pretty sloppy mud puddles. My Aerostich needed washing and my friend needed entertaining, so it was all good. By the end of the ride, my braking and throttle technique was a lot smoother and when we hit the gravel road back to the truck I was a lot more confident in my skills.
Move that experience on to my 470 pound V-Strom and the chances are that I wouldn't have been laughing when I ended up under the bike in a foot of mud. Move that experience to the street and put me on something like the Honda VT1300CX I tested a while back and there might not be enough protective equipment in the world to keep me whole.
One of my biggest complaints about hippobikes and cruisers is that they are not designed for emergency maneuvers. I know there are riders who can haul a Harley or a Goldwing down to full stop in incredibly short distances, but most riders are afraid of their brakes and couldn't swerve around a 747 on a full runway at LAX. I spent an afternoon working on the MSF braking exercises, while I had the VT1300 Honda and I never hauled that monster down quickly enough to feel good about my personal safety in heavy traffic. I can stand my WR on its nose and approach the maximum G-force my arms can support on the V-Strom without feeling out-of-control. I'm not saying I'm a great rider and those big bikes are beyond anyone's capability. I am confident that I'm a better rider than anyone who comes out of one of my MSF beginner classes and I'm not worried about putting my skills against the majority of riders who take the Experienced Rider Course. Many of those people are going to hop on to bikes I am uncomfortable around and I know they are hoping that Newton keeps them vertical and that exhaust noise and the kindness of strangers keeps them safe.
So, what do you do if your faith in luck and momentum is realistic? First, buy a motorcycle that fits your skills and ability. If you're an inexperienced rider, that won't be an R1, a Fatboy, a Goldwing, or a customized piece of garage candy. You don't need big power, nothing you can do will make you look cool if you aren't cool already, and the more mass the more force required to rapidly decelerate. Go small and go light and put your body in a riding position not a rolling Lazy Boy.
"Standards" often fit the bill in all of their available sizes, from 125 to 650cc. The standard riding position is familiar to anyone who has sat on a mountain bike. The weight distribution is rational and functional. The upright riding position provides a slight advantage in visibility, too. You can see over most cages and most cagers will see you, too. Since your feet are under you, strong deceleration doesn't feel like you are being launched over the bars or sliding over the tank and that gives you confidence to put more power into stopping.
The MSF Basic and ERC classes shoot for a 20' or less stopping distance with an entrance speed of about 15mph. (20feet/second). I think that's a worthwhile goal. If your stopping distance is in that territory, you are riding a motorcycle that you might be able to stop in an emergency. If you can't squeeze your braking into that space, when your speed gets up to highway velocity you're going to be counting on magic for your survival.
MMM May 2012
May 4, 2015
During a test ride last fall, I decided to compare bike butt sizes. You know what I mean. To answer the age-old biker question, "Does this bike make my butt look big?" I had, in my garage, a trio of dramatically different street bikes. Two that I loved and one that I didn't like so much.
There are a variety of reasons for picking a motorcycle. The older I get, the more limited my options become. As much as I love modern MX and DP bikes, I can't get my arthritic legs over the 36" and greater seat heights. I love 'em, but I can't ride 'em.
Or, at least, I can't get on and off of them safely.
Power-wise, what you give up in flexibility in the VT, you do not get back in power. The VT1300CT's rear wheel power delivery is a paltry 56hp. The V-Strom dyno's at about 56hp and the little WR puts out about 28 rear-wheel horsies. When you need to change speeds quickly, the VT is not much better at acceleration than the WR and the V-Strom is a world quicker than the big cruiser. Acceleration is all about power vs. mass and the more mass you're hauling, the slower you're going to go. All that goes a long ways in explaining why I am having less fun on a bicycle in my dotage, too.
The momma bike, the V-Strom 650 is just right for long distance hauls, especially with the Sargent seat upgrade. 434 pounds is not insignificant, but even a fat old dude like me can wheel it around and through slow moving traffic. Where it is legal, I do not hesitate to split lanes on the V-Strom. The 32" seat height is a problem for some riders, but I have a 29" inseam and I've lived with my V-Strom for 60k miles without the height being an issue. Sitting up almost a foot above the VT1300 puts me where I can see over and around a lot of traffic, which is a safety advantage. The "standard" footpeg/handlebar/seat design allows for aggressive braking and steering and a more natural posture, which is a big deal for long distance riding and safe commuting.
Depending on what you're planning on doing, the V-Strom is damn close to "just right." The baby bike, the Yamaha WR250X, might be as far from "perfect" as the Honda for a lot of riders. The 35" seat height is a hard bar to cross. The upright seating position, the quick steering, precise braking evenly balanced weight distribution (including the rider's weight) demands less from a rider than you might expect. Many of the complaints I've heard about motorcycles this small and lightweight are more directed at tires. With modern, sticky street tires, a bike with low weight and relatively wide tires will stick to the road, resist wind turbulence, and handle suspiciously like a larger, heavier motorcycle from 20 years ago. The WR's 28hp will haul my 200+ pounds at 70mph all day and will pass at speeds around 85mph on flat ground. It's not a race bike, but it is a pretty damn good commuter and its surprisingly fun on a 2,000 mile tour.
A friend, who is considering getting a motorcycle, told me he had to have a cruiser because he looks ridiculous on smaller bikes. Dude, a fat guy on a cruiser looks no sillier than that same chunk of meat on a scooter. It's not the bike that makes your butt look big, it's the big butt that does you in. The fact is, the skinny WR does make my butt look big. The V-Strom is probably "just right," appearance-wise. The VT just makes me look like a poser with an oversized garage candy budget. Think about it.
MMM April 2012