Sunday, April 24, 2016

Cyclonic patterns

Notes after a test ride of a Suzuki SV650 yesterday:
  • A 40° morning is not the preferred time to be on a motorcycle for the first time in about three years. (Doubly so since that time three years ago was on a Kawasaki Eliminator 125, a baby cruiser with about as much power as a Waring professional bar blender, peddling around a Queens parking lot for my MSF course.) It's not so much that I was cold - that was very manageable - but that my visor would fog up to a thorough and thoroughly unpleasant translucency in about ten seconds if I didn't keep it cracked open. Being on a fairly fast bike (more on that later) with limited visibility is not a good thing.
  • At least I remembered what I was doing. Didn't do anything stupid or painful, didn't drop, only missed one shift, made it around a good eight-mile loop without external drama.
  • Much love to K&H Motorsports in Homer for having a very reasonable test-ride policy and being all-around great guys.
  • This particular machine wore a K&N filter, a Dynojet carb kit, and a Yoshimura pipe. Don't know if that made the throttle as hypersensitive as it was, but something did. Even accounting for an uncalibrated (if very reserved) right hand, response was twitchy as hell and made shifting a bit of a herky-jerk kind of process. Definitely an adaptation situation, but not reassuring early on.
  • Going around corners from a start - think turning right at the stop sign - while being this out of practice felt like trying to go around a corner while jogging and carrying a bowling ball somewhere between my knees. Better to go way wide after making sure that nothing was coming for a mile or so than risk dropping, but still all kinds of awkward dealing with the balance. 
  • Once I got settled in this thing was weirdly comfortable.  After about five minutes we came to a very agreeable sense of positioning - feet on pegs, knees fitting in correctly, wind blast present but not troublesome.
  • Or else I was so busy with everything else that I didn't notice if anything was wrong there. I haven't faced this much sensory overload since at least the kart race. I can totally see how bad things happen sometime, especially for newbs like me: there is just SO MUCH going on all at once coming at you that it's hard to process correctly. Huge sense of motion and exposure, trying to manage a different set of controls, concerns about balance and positioning, watching out for the rest of the world, occasionally looking down to see how fast you're hurtling along some particular piece of road - it's just a lot.
  • Flip side of that is that my massive phobia about having to deal with some clueless Ashley checking text messages in her CR-V or some chemically-impaired redneck or even some otherwise normal dude in an averagemobile who just makes a mistake and is pulling out directly in front of me without seeing me has now been mitigated. It seems manageable. Sure, still a present risk for which one must constantly be watching, but now not as unsettling.
  • Dear God can this thing move. I would be very surprised if I cracked open more than quarter throttle at the absolute most simply to keep it from running away from me. A comfortably manageable 75 to 80 was no problem at all, and there was LOTS more to go. Even beyond the twitchy throttle this was way too much. Would it be better if I tried it again? Maybe, probably. Made me think of what someone once described as the three-session learning curve for club racers who got the chance to drive an old Can-Am car: the first session is all "Oh my GOD how does anyone manage these beasts? That is ridiculous! That is insane! I've never gone that fast!"; second session is more like "Wow, this is still a lot but I think I'm starting to catch up with it and it feels a bit better"; third session is, "okay, yeah...can we get more power somehow?"

But there won't be a second or third session for me on this one, at least anytime soon. All of the above will lead to a very grateful but somewhat regretful phone call to K&H on Monday telling them that I'll pass on this one. $2200 is a ridiculously good price for an SV650, especially one with a bunch of mods I would have wanted to do anyway, but the bike itself is too much right now.

And all of the above also deeply recalibrates my take on motorcycles in general, and makes me wary of a lot of received wisdom - and perhaps illuminates a few things which were between the lines in many cases.

First and most significantly is this idea about starter bikes and outgrowing a bike and a lot of the machismo which goes with the whole scene, which says that starting on something small is only a step towards a Real Motorcycle of serious (if not always well-defined) power and capability. SV650s have always been seen as being right on that border between "starter" and "Real" and well within reason for a capable newb, a decent mid-displacement mid-power machine that is fairly easy to learn, something that (per the script) You Won't Outgrow In A Few Months.

Screw that. This thing, all innocuous and cuddly per most magazine reports, is a ferociously fast and focused piece of machinery that will do 0 to 60 in less than four seconds and run a quarter mile in the twelves. You outgrow an SV like you outgrow a 911 Carrera S - you don't.

Which makes me wonder about this whole "you'll get tired of it and move on" mentality. I'm not sure when motorcycling became infected with the idea that everything must be a stepping stone to something bigger and faster, or how that ties in with the absolute drought of sensible low- to mid-power bikes which are only now starting to be made available here.

And even then...the hipsterrific Ducati Scrambler makes about as much power as the SV, and everyone raves about how perfect that is as a first bike for undertrained fashion victims. Same with the somewhat heavier Triumph Bonneville. I can't speak to how touchy or edgy they are, and hopefully someone had the good sense to put in some heavier flywheels or something, but still - that's a lot of power and capability to be put into inexperienced hands.

The other side of the argument is the lack of street cred granted to smaller bikes: the Honda 300s and 500s, the Kawasaki Ninja 300, and the Yamaha R3 most prominently on the new market, but really anything with single front brake discs and fairly narrow tires and power outputs in the 30 to 40 bhp range. The Yamaha Seca II works here; so does the Honda CB-1, so do a fair number of '80s machines.

Any of these would have been a world better underneath me than the SV, and most of them are now very high on my seriously-consider list. (The Ninja 300 in particular is drawing an inordinate amount of affection from me right now, but wait to see how that focus shifts according to availability and budget and so on.)

Other stuff - bigger, faster, more aggressive - can wait, if it needs to be considered at all.

Seriously: why the inexorable push for everyone to progress towards unearthly degrees of power and speed? Why the constant prodding to get a Real Motorcycle, as if the others aren't real enough?

A lot of this goes back to well-worn arguments about usability and reality. How fast does anyone really go? How does track weaponry like an R1 or a completely over-the-top creation like a Hayabusa interface with a world of jealously-enforced speed limits and blind corners and iffy surfaces and so on?

And for God's sake, what is it in society that gives anyone the idea that a Superbike makes a reasonable first machine? How do you manage a GSX-R1000 coming off of a bicycle? What failure of self-preservation vs. ego allows people to put themselves into these situations?

I'm not arguing that hypermachines shouldn't exist in the first place. That's a completely different argument which I do no believe and which I will not make. Instead I wish the general population emphasis was much more on real-world usability - including a fair bit of speed, to be sure - and, especially, a gradual but decisive defusing of the It Must Be Big thing.

Which actually gets mentioned once in a while, if quietly and sometimes obliquely, by those who know.

Think about those small-displacement sportbikes. Read a few reviews - the one from last year works well - about the Ninja 300 and the R3 and the like. Given that the folks running the test have massive amounts of skill and experience and therefore would have every right and reason in the modern paradigm to look down with contempt on these tiddlers, what are they saying? Good Lord, they're fun. They're great in real life. They aren't going to gasp and fall over if you go up a hill. They're easy to manage, and in being so they're that much more enjoyable to both live with and throw around when the mood hits. And maybe they won't outdrag a GT-R, but they'll still get the jump on just about anything that's in the next lane at a stoplight and be more than fast enough to be a joy on a good road without being grating on a commute or a highway drone.

Fun. Joy. Bikers - and too many times the rest of us - get so caught up in the push for ever-faster and ever-more-serious and so on that the pure fun part is marginalized or treated as less relevant. Power has to go up to remain competitive, everything gets designed around managing massive power, the intensity gets cranked up to levels which can be wearying on a day-to-day basis.

And there's the too-rare alternative - call it the Miata mentality - the counterculture which cares less about winning a bench race and all the more about just going out and feeling that pure sense of movement and control and sensual stimulation and gratification in the midst of the everyday.

If you outgrow fun, you need to go back.