Motorcycling safety in the digital age
HOW MANY TIMES have you had a hand held up to your face and heard the words, “I’ve got all of the traction control I need right here.” Usually it’s combined with a smirk and an impugnable sense of pride. That’s because generations of motorcyclists survived without the help of electronic rider aids, and we, as a group, love to hate the idea of anyone but us being in control.
During the International GS Trophy, a wily and experienced enduro rider said he wouldn’t even think about using ABS as we descended a long, downhill section of Thai jungle covered in greasy mud. I convinced him to turn on the R1200GS’S linked Enduro-pro system, and when we stopped at the bottom he was wide-eyed at how well the system worked. “I haven’t trusted ABS since my 2006 GS,” he admitted.
And that, dear reader, is the paradox of electronics—they are constantly changing. In GS Joe’s case, he had condemned antilock braking systems wholesale based on his experience a decade ago. How absurd do people make you feel if your cell phone or computer is more than a few years old? That’s how fast the systems in our motorcycles advance too. Except it’s traffic safety, not messaging apps.
To complicate it even more, the world of ABS and traction control has splintered into layers of complexity and adjustability. Some antilock brake systems link the front and rear wheels (like the R1200GS), monitor lever pressure, and know how far you’re leaning over. Other systems just know not to let the wheel lock. The same goes for traction control. Some are amazing; outdated ones can be so rudimentary that they’re scary.
Simply put, there are systems for safety and systems for performance. Think of it like insurance: Many of us survive on high-deductible plans that are designed to keep you from going bankrupt if you need emergency surgery, but day to day they don’t help us. A professional athlete, on the other hand, has their health insured on a daily basis. Even if they don’t get hurt, they receive care to make sure their bodies are in winning condition.
Basic ABS or traction control is that high-deductible plan—if the system senses a huge mistake it will activate and try to save your hide. Say you’re peeling through an intersection and as you get on the gas you hit a puddle of coolant or a wet manhole cover. Traction control cuts power, you crunch your groin into the tank, and you curse through watery eyes at the bike. But you didn’t crash.
What that basic TC can’t do is monitor umpteen different angles and accelerations hundreds of times per second, make your inputs smoother and more efficient, and help you be a better rider. But these systems exist. Take the aforementioned R1200GS’S fancy ABS or the Yamaha YZF-R1’S wheelie control that will automatically carry an inch-high Motogp-style power wheelie through three gears with the throttle wide open. That’s that Nfl-athlete insurance, and, boy, is it good. But even the rudimentary stuff is worth its weight in silicon, especially if you’re tired, distracted, or panicked.
I’m not telling you to give up or that the machines have won. I hate the feeling of a computer insulating me from the pastime I love. Switch them off if you want—enjoy raw and pure motorcycling. I sometimes do the same. Just remember that when an instant can mean everything, good electronics are better than you are and they’ll be there to help.