Form Equals Function: Part Two
In Part One of this article, we covered a lot of the excuses that new riders give for wanting to start on a 600cc sportbike. This second half finishes off our discussion of this reasoning and discusses why high-powered sport machines are not the ideal beginner machine.
False Logic Completed
Last month, we covered many of the reasons new riders give to justify why they want or should get a 600cc sportbike. Now we finish with the last and most common excuses given.
I'm a careful driver so I'll be a careful rider and not get into trouble.
This is what I call the "I'm responsible and mature" argument. This one is a general excuse and does not apply to sportbikes in particular.
Recent studies have shown that 90% of all drivers feel that they have average to above-driving abilities compared to other drivers on the road. These drivers also said that they think 60% of those on the road are less skilled than they are. It's an interesting perception as it indicates a mentality that everyone else is sub-par, not you. Obviously someone has to be wrong because the percentages just don't add up.
A proper attitude towards driving as well as riding is essential. But these same drivers who see themselves as superior also engage in dangerous driving habits (aggressive weaving, illegal passing, bad merges, following too close, lack of attention to traffic/road conditions, etc). Very few drivers are truly honest with themselves and their ability to handle a vehicle.
The problem is, on a bike, the perception that you are responsible is not enough. On a bike, you must be. You either learn to be or you are going to be in trouble really quick. In talking with other riders I have found that they tend to be much more defensive and thoughtful drivers behind the wheel because riding raises their perception of their surroundings.
Ultimately, responsible and mature does not equate to riding skill. It has nothing to do with it except how you will approach riding in general. You want to know the sign of a responsible rider? Look at their gear. Are they in full safety gear? Watch them ride. If you are seeing them turn their heads to clear their blind spots, making careful and smooth maneuvers, leaving a nice, safe amount space around them and working to maximize your chance of seeing and knowing what they are doing, then you are looking at a responsible rider.
Now do the same exercise and watch the drivers around you. How many turn their heads to check their blind spots, signal lane changes, leaving several car lengths of space in front of them, weave in and out of traffic or dash to the end of a ramp and then attempt to force themselves onto the highway rather than yield like they are supposed to? I'm willing to bet it's not going to be a pretty significant percentage. Now imagine these same individuals on a bike. I'm sure you'll be able to spot more than a few of these types on bikes to (just look for the T-shirts and flip-flops as they blast by you at 100mph on the Interstate on the right).
How you approach the task of driving is how you will approach riding. Attention to the task of riding is the number one way you avoid trouble by not getting into it in the first place. Study your own driving habits. Good habits will definitely keep your chances of getting into trouble but they have little to do with controlling a motorcycle. Any motorcycle. Many lax drivers often become much better drivers as the result of riding a motorcycle. It is far less common for it to go in the other direction.
I drive a fast car so I'll be able to handle a fast bike.
Of all the excuses and justifications, this one is my personal favorite. It is in the top three most common excuses given and it shows a complete and utter lack of motorcycle knowledge. It is a statement made out of naivety rather than ignorance.
Most of the folks who make this statement own fast cars (Corvette, Mustang, Acura, modified Civic, etc) or think they do. The belief is that if you can drive fast in a car you can handle a bike that can go fast. I would argue unless these folks race cars on weekends, driving a car that can go fast does not make them a experienced high-speed driver. And for those that do understand how to handle a car at high speed, it gives you knowledge of braking and traction but even that knowledge is useless for one simple reason:
Bikes are not cars.
Braking, traction control, acceleration and handling are totally different on a motorcycle. Cars do not lean. Bikes do. When bikes lean, it changes the part of the tire contacting the ground (the contact patch/ring) and changes the stability and dynamics of the bike from moment to moment. The physics of motorcycle control are in a league of their own. Even the ability to race cars will not give you instant godhood on a motorcycle.
Are you aware that a racing motorcycle (any 600cc supersport made today basically) when it is turning is touching the ground with an amount of rubber equal to a couple of postage stamps? The same applies to any street bike at deep lean angles except they don't have the advantage of a smooth surface to hold on to or sticky race tires. Now imagine having to control the power and the amount of traction you are getting in that space.
Like being responsible, the ability to handle a car at high speed has nothing to do with handling a fast motorcycle. You are missing two wheels, a cage and a seatbelt on a bike. Turning at 70mph becomes a whole different world on a motorcycle compared to car. Braking is a different experience too. It is fairly hard to stand a car on its front fender if you stomp on the brakes. It can be done with two fingers, a good amount of speed and a moment of panic on a sportbike. The only cars that have brakes equal or better than that of a sportbike built in the last 10 years is a Formula One race car.
The skills to handle the potent combination of acceleration, instant-on power and brakes are best learned on a smaller machine so when you finally get on that ultimate sportbike, you have an idea of what to do and how to handle the machine. Driving a car won't give you that. Only time in the saddle, the more, the better.
Other people have started on a 600cc sportbike and didn't get hurt. So why can't I?
This is probably the number one reason that pops up. However, it isn't so much a reason as an observation. And it is a true one. Every year, lots of new riders go to their local dealerships or scour their local ads and bring home a brand new or used 600cc sportbike. And many of those riders do successfully manage to get through their learning process on these machines.
The purpose of a first ride more than any other is to get the risk of riding for the first year or two as low as possible. You want your margin of forgiveness in the bike to be as wide as possible. A 600cc sportbike gives you very little of that. Yes, a 600cc down low is a tame if sensitive machine. However, it takes very little twist on the throttle to induce a large jump in rpm's. A brief bump on a pothole with a death grip on the throttle can introduce a 4000rpm jump in the blink of an eye (speaking from personal experience). In an experienced rider's hands, this is alarming but recoverable. A gentle rolloff or a little clutch feathering manages the surge nicely. In the hands of a newbie trying to figure out the best reaction to such a scare, a rapid closeoff or a panic brake is often the result and can get you into trouble very, very quickly.
Yes, a new rider can start on a 600cc sportbike. It is NOT RECOMMENDED! The reason this line of reasoning pops up so often is because everyone feels they are the exception rather than just another new rider. It makes sense. It's hard to think of oneself as just another face in the crowd. As a rider, I know I am just another average rider. Although I have track aspirations, I have no doubt as to where my skill level is and it is definitely not in (or ever was) in the "start on a 600cc exceptional group".
In the end, to deal with this line of reasoning is going to involve the new rider, not the one giving the advice. No one can stop that person from going out and buying a 600cc sportbike as a first ride. And maybe they will succeed and crow about all the bad advice they received on starting small. Great! They were the exception.
What you don't hear about are the non-exceptional people. Very, very few new riders who start on 600s come back to talk about their experiences if they aren't in the "I've had no problems." group. On the forums recently, there have been a couple folks who admitted they got 600cc sportbikes to start on and indicated that it had been a less-than-ideal choice. This type of honesty is refreshing and it is very, very rare. I am grateful these riders stepped up.
Most of the time, we never learn the fate of those riders who start on 600s. Some make it and simply never bother to tell their tales except to friends. Some wind up scaring themselves so badly (by getting out of control or by actually dumping the bike and injuring themselves) that they sell off and never ride again. These types can be found. Just troll the ads for new supersports with one owner and low miles. The worst of this class of riders are the ones who become "born again safety advocates". These riders who scare themselves out of riding occasionally become preachers that tell anyone who will listen that "motorcycles are dangerous and should be banned". What they don't tell those they are preaching to is how they got that way. It's bad enough having to deal with the general public (who are at least honestly unaware of what riding is about) but a lot worse to be sabotaged from within by someone who did it to themselves and got in over their head.
Then there is the last group of these "started on a 600cc sportbike" riders that never tell us their tales. They never do because they can't. Instead, they enjoying peaceful surroundings and occasional visits by bereaved family and friends. They made that one mistake, that one error that compounded into a tragedy of inexperience. They can never tell us what that error was so we can learn from it and maybe also tell us that they should have started on something smaller. They were successful right until the point their skills and luck ran out. This can happen to any of us on any bike. But, in the end, new riders on a powerful sportbike can be a recipe for disaster.
Be honest with yourself. Very honest. Take the advice and wisdom of others more experienced than you and consider what they are saying. They may have a point. But if you opt for that 600cc sportbike, be assured you will still be accepted as a rider and still encouraged to act as safely as possible at all times.
The Final Equation
We've covered the reasons why people justify or want to get a 600cc sportbike. But we have one more thing to answer and it is simple: What makes these bad bikes to start on?
Sportbikes are built as racing machines, pure and simple. They are built in response to guidelines laid down by racing bodies for a particular class and made to win races in that class. Ducati, for example, spends most of their existence building bikes to win races. Since 1950, Ducati was always a racing bike manufacturer first and their products reflected that philosophy. A by-product of winning races is the fact that people see those winning machines and want to ride them (if you're going to ride, you might as well ride the best as it goes). It didn't take the motorcycle manufacturers long to figure out that there was a market demand for these machines and reacted accordingly.
Sportbikes represent a technological arms race. This has really become apparent in the past 5-10 years where new models eclipse last years models with better performance and capability with each passing year. To compare a 1989 Honda CBR600F Hurricane (the original CBR) to a 2003 CBR600RR is pointless. There is no comparison except in the model designation showing a distant family relation. The new CBR is lighter by at least 50 pounds and packs 30 percent more power, handling and braking ability that makes the original CBR look like a ponderous dinosaur. But just because that original CBR dinosaur has been eclipsed doesn't make it any more tamable. If anything, older sportbikes are far more temperamental than the descendants.
Consider the fact that this year a privateer (independent racer) bought a Yamaha YZF-R1 off the showroom floor, took off the lights and mirrors, added a race belly pan, exhaust and tires and placed in the top ten at the AMA Superbike race at Daytona. The bike was two weeks off the floor and basically stock (the modifications with the exception of the pipe are required). Since factory sponsored teams tend to take the top slots, any privateer that can break in the top ten is doing well by anyone's definition.
Because sportbikes (and especially 600s since they compete in the most populous racing class out there) are designed first as racing machines, they are built with handling, acceleration and speed in mind. Not just one quality at the expense of others but all of them in abundance! Centralizing the mass of the bike at the center of gravity (CoG) gives the bike neutral stability. The high riding position and the perching of the rider over the CoG gives the bike the ability to flick over rapidly.
The steering geometry and short wheelbase of these bikes is designed to provide short and rapid directional changes. Combined with the higher CoG and mass centralization, the steering setup is what gives sportbikes their amazing turning ability.
Engine designs vary but have settled on V-twins and inline fours as the preferred choices. The sportbike V-twins are liquid-cooled, high-rpm engines designed to generate massive torque (hence acceleration) and power in the mid-range of their design limits. Witness the success of Nicky Hayden and Miquel Duhamel on the Honda RC51 in AMA Superbike as testament to the massive grunt these engines put out. So potent in fact that the AMA changed the rules for the following season to even the odds between the V-twins and inline fours. The inline four equipped bikes simply couldn't outpower the twins on curvy portions of the race circuit.
The inline four is by far the most common engine layout in sportbikes including all 600cc sport designs (the Ducati 620SS has a V-twin but is air-cooled and the bike is not a racing machine). All of the sportbikes that new riders lust after are equipped with this engine design. High-rpm capability (redlines vary between 11K and 16K rpm), liquid cooled and designed to produce peak power at very high rpms. The inline four delivers smooth and increasing power as the throttle is opened. Power tends to build to the peak point, at which power the engine will tend to surge to peak power and fall off as the peak point is crossed. Although nowhere near as bad as a race-tuned two-stroke (which literally double their horsepower as the engine transitions to peak power), the engine displays its roots as a racing thoroughbred.
A 1mm or 1/16 of an inch twist of the throttle can easily result in a 2000-4000rpm jump. You can be cruising along at a sedate 4000rpm, hit a pothole and suddenly find the bike surging forward with the front end getting light at 7000rpm. Definitely unnerving the first time you experience it.
And then there are the brakes. Braking technology has gotten progressively more potent over the past ten years. Even older sportbikes sport twin disc setups with two or four piston calipers designed to get these bikes down from 150mph to 60mph as quickly as possible. Current generation bikes are unreal. These brakes have grown to six piston calipers with massive discs whose sole job is to slow a 180mph missile down to corner speed in the shortest distance possible. If you ever watch racers, notice that they tend to only use two fingers to brake. They don't need anymore than that. The brakes are almost too powerful. And accidents happen on the track a lot due to bad or late braking.
All of these qualities produce an exquisite riding machine. The problem is, all of these qualities are designed to operate at extremes since it is under extreme conditions that these bikes are intended to operate. For the street, these capabilities are overkill. A hard squeeze of the front brake on the street can easily get a sportbike to lock its front wheel. Same applies to an over-aggressive stomp on the rear brake. No matter which way you slice it, highsides hurt.
The powerful engine can literally get you from 0 to 45mph in the blink of an eye in first gear. Come up one gear and you can be at 70mph with the slightest drop of your wrist. Add in one bump at speed without knowing what the throttle is going to do and suddenly you aren't at 70mph anymore. You're at 90+ mph and the bike is tickling its "sweet spot". At this speed, you better not panic. If you botch the slowdown from this error (either by a rapid rolloff or a shift), you can find yourself in serious trouble.
The handling capabilities of sportbikes actually make them wonderful machines to ride once you are used to thinking where you want to go. This actually gives them great beginner qualities (if on the extreme end). The downside is this perfect handling is slaved to amazing power on tap and the brakes that can back it off just as quickly.
In the final equation, a 600cc sportbike is little more than a racing machine with street parts bolted on. They aren't designed for street use; they are adapted to it. But no compromises are made in that transition. The same R6, GSX-R600, ZX-6RR or CBR600RR you can buy off the showroom floor can be converted in an afternoon, be at the track the next day and wind up winning races. And the sportbikes from 10 years ago were the R6s, Gixxers, Ninjas and CBRs of their day. They possessed the same qualities that their modern descendants do just not with the same maximums. Even today on the street, a 15 year old sportbike is little different than its 2003 cousin. The 2003 might accelerate quicker, stop shorter and lean farther but at the speeds us mortals ride at, there will be little difference.
Sportbike technology has gone an amazing distance in twenty years. Performance and ability has almost doubled in that time. But rider ability has not and a new rider from 20 years ago would still have the same challenges then as a new rider would today on an R6.
Sportbike form evolved to meets its function: to win races. Always has, always will. And riders will lust after these technological marvels for that reason. Can you start out on one? Yes. But you can also pretend to be a GP racer on a smaller sportbike that gives up nothing to its bigger brothers where most of us spend our riding days. It is always more satisfying to smoke a 600cc or 1000cc sportbike in the twisties on a Ninja 250 or GS500 than a bigger bike.
But when you are ready to answer the call of the Supersport, they will be waiting for you and you'll be better off having honed your skills on the smaller sportbike. Supersports are not beginner bikes. But they make great second and third bikes.
The choice is yours.