Shape of things to come?
Does Ducati’s new Supersport signal a renaissance for comfy sportsbikes? MCN investigates the science of sitting at speed
Twenty years ago, there was a glut of comfortable, practical sportsbikes – machines that had the sporting ability our heart desires, but combined with the practicality, ease of use and comfort our head demands. In a world that was then sportsbike crazy, it wasn’t a coincidence that these were some of the country’s best-selling bikes. They were simply brilliant bikes – and allowed us all to scratch, tour and trackday on the same bike without too much danger of a cricked neck or dodgy knee.
There’s still loads of them around now – bikes like the Honda CBR600F and Firestorm, Yamaha Thunderace and Thundercat, Suzuki RF family and pre-2003 ZX-6R still boast lots of happy owners who’ll never swap.
But change was afoot. By 1999 the Yamaha R6 heralded the arrival of the truly diminutive race-replica and, in the last half of the 2000s, the headlong development of road-based, production racing sportsbikes reached a logical conclusion. And the end result was painful – the average sportsbike was a compressed ball of high-revving fury that, with 50% of British riders now over 40-years-old and not getting any slimmer, many of us simply couldn’t be bothered with the effort.
The solution was enough to make many give up on sportsbikes and buy a BMW GS. With its elongated riding position, day-long comfort and the promise of adventure, it could take you places your tiny superbike couldn’t.
But the Supersport could help redress the balance. It’s the first sportsbike for a decade where comfort has played as big a part in its design as performance. If it catches on, it could be the bike that restarts the comfy sportsbike category and breaks the superbike-to-adventure-bike chain that’s made the GS the UK’S best-selling machine.
It’s all in your behind
But what is it that makes a bike uncomfortable, or for that matter, comfortable? “Comfort is in the bum of the beholder,” says Dr Alex Stedmon, a rider ergonomics expert at Coventry University. “Fundamentally, a comfortable riding position comes down to the bars/seat/ pegs triangle. Most bikes still lack any adjustability of those points without aftermarket modifications. And differ-
ent riders suit different styles of bikes, based on the geometry of their joints.”
Like old-school comfy sportsbikes, the Supersport addresses this with a high-bar, low-peg combination - the handlebars are 100mm taller than a Panigale and 150mm closer. The result is straighter back and straighter arms.
According to Stedmon, this is classic sports-touring territory. “We don’t want our knees or elbows too tight. If we get uncomfortable we’ll adjust position to compensate and by the end of the ride we’ve adopted a poor posture and will have a stiff back or neck, for example. And it can even become a safety issue if we don’t do life-savers so often because it’s harder to turn our head.”
But just because the Supersport is on-paper comfortable, we shouldn’t accept that as the reality. The Panigale, for example, is comfortable because of its roominess and wide bars. “Just because a new model comes out and we think it should be more comfortable because it’s less aggressive than a sportsbike, we won’t know until we’ve ridden it a long way; more than just an hour’s test ride,” concludes Stedmon.
Comfort is the key to control “In ergonomics we talk about user Continued over
‘The Supersport could be the bike that restarts the comfy sportsbike’
requirements, user needs and user limitations – and looking at the requirements of someone who wants a sportsbike to be more comfortable, it may not just be a case of make the bars wider, or higher, or adjust the footpegs; that may be part of it, but it might also be reducing turbulence, or improving weather protection, or the physical size of the bike,” continues Stedmon.
“On a bike we hold that posture and we can’t do anything else. That’s why we’re always stretching. Static work can be more demanding than active work because it takes more effort to maintain a posture than to move around. But when it’s static work, our body can get over-stressed easily, hence when we get off the bike we suddenly feel achy. And we could be building up longerterm issues.”
If Ducati have got the ergonomics right, the Supersport could be more comfortable than an adventure bike. “A sportsbike is designed with the idea of extreme rider movement; on a track, we never sit in one place for long. The ability to move our weight about is central to the bike’s dynamic. On an adventure bike, about the most we can move about naturally is to shift from riding on our toes to the heels of our feet. And that’s it – we can move our bum back a bit, but with a dual seat we can’t go too far back. And we can’t easily lean forwards either – so
‘The more useable we made the Blade, the more units we sold’
we tend to get locked into position on an adventure bike, and that leads to too much static work and joint stiffness.”
Is this the comeback of the comfy sportsbike?
It’s certainly a start, and if this bike catches on, we could see similar models from the other manufacturers. Honda for example, already produce a CBR650F on similar lines, but a biggerfaired, more comfortable Firebladebased CBR1000F would have huge appeal, especially considering how diminutive the new Blade is. A bike like that could be the best of both worlds.
But there has to be a compromise. Sportsbike designers have an impos- sible job factoring in the impact of random rider shape and size on chassis dynamics – a rider can increase the weight of a sportsbike by between 25 to 40%, often in exactly the place an engineer would least want it.
This means sportsbike riding positions are always a compromise – and the more extreme the bike, the less scope for making the rider comfortable. This leads to the fairly obvious observation that if we, the bike-buying public, still like sportsbikes, making them more comfy and less extreme will be a good thing. And, as Honda’s Dave Hancock, test rider for the original Fireblade, points out: “In 1992 all the journalists raved about the Fireblade, but it wasn’t all that comfortable – it was a radical riding position and quite raw. So, over the years, we listened to our customers and made it more user-friendly. We lifted the bars 10mm higher and we moved them out 10mm – and the more useable we made it, the more bikes we sold.”
Derriere comfort is key to pillion and rider harmony DUCATI SUPERSPORT S £12,795 ● 111bhp ● 183kg ● 810mm seat
Sitting comfortably? 810mm seat height is the same as the Panigale, but the depth and shape of the seat is different, with deeper sculpting sitting the rider deeper behind the fuel tank. This in turn makes the bars even higher in relation Lower footpegs The Supersport’s pegs are a few cm lower and further forward than the 959’s, but both bikes share the same relative distance to the seat. Knee and ankle angles will be roughly the same Raised clip-ons Approximately 150mm further back towards the rider, and 100mm higher than the 959. This puts the rider’s body more upright, straightens the back, and carries the head higher Screen height Two position settings. While 50mm between low and high might not sound much, it’s enough to move turbulence from the head (bad) to the chest (good)
Low bars Low clip-ons put more of the rider’s weight over the front wheel, increasing forward bias for better handling and feel Open wide Oddly, the Panigale has a comfy leg position due to a very open knee angle for a sportsbike. The tank’s indents also aid rider comfort levels DUCATI 959 PANIGALE £13,795 ● 155bhp ● 176kg ● 810mm seat
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