Whether you’re buying a sportsbike, an adventure bike or anything in between, these days it doesn’t matter which of the manufactures have got their name slapped on the side of it. Chances are if you’ve gone for the top spec model, it’ll have space-age gadgetry and state of the art motorcycle tech crammed into every nook and cranny. Will it catch on? Well it seems as though it already has, in quite a big way. Especially when you consider the fact that in recent years we’ve seen cruise control on superbikes, launch control on naked bikes and traction control on bikes with sub-60bhp. You may, rightly or wrongly, be of the opinion that those particular systems have no such place on those particular bikes, and there’d be plenty of folk that agree with you. However, having sampled all of the delights of the electronic age (motorcycle-wise, anyway) I believe I can say with some authority that most of them will, without a scrap of doubt, make your life better. But not all of them. So, join us in an exploration of motorcycle electronics as we ask ‘Modern motorcycle tech; Is it really worth it?’
This piece of motorcycle tech was one of the ones that I turned my nose up at when I first heard of it entering the bike world. Surely the idea of having a bike is to ride it yourself, not put it in auto-pilot. It wasn’t until I had a go with it that I realised just how good it is. Don’t get me wrong, its not the kind of thing you’ll be faffing about with on a Sunday morning blast with the lads, but every now and then when you have to do some motorway riding it’s ideal. It’s particularly handy if you’ve got average speed cameras bearing down on you, like the eyes of Satan himself; on anything with a bit of power, it’s all too easy to creep over the speed limit and before you know it, there’s a summons on the doormat. Set the cruise control to whatever the speed limit is and you’ll be safe. You might even be able to roll yourself a cig, if you’ve got a big enough windscreen.
‘Leccy suspension still isn’t where it needs to be to seriously improve the performance of a bike on a racetrack, I don’t think. That said, the advantages some systems do have (as far as track riding is concerned) are that their adjustment parameters are a bit more intuitive than conventional, manually adjusted forks. The Öhlins EC2.0 system, for example, lets you ‘increase front end support’ and ‘mid corner stability’ and things such as that, rather than ‘preload’ or ‘rebound damping’. Because most people haven’t got the faintest idea what any of that stuff really does. On the road, this motorcycle technology does make a whole lotta sense, because at the touch of a button (or a few touches of buttons) you can turn your bike from being a stiff, sporty superbike, to a comfortable, compliant cruising machine.
Most modern bikes have got a handful of these now, you don’t even have to go for the top spec versions. If you ask me, there should be a rule that states a bike needs to come out of the factory with more than 150bhp before they even consider giving it anything other than one ‘full-power’ mode. I’ll admit I have ridden bikes that have so much power, with such a brutal delivery, that a slightly softer power map has helped the job, especially when it’s cold and damp. But I’m talking about 200bhp+ bikes, here. If you’ve only got half that amount of power to start with, there’s no way you should ever need to calm things down. If you want a slower bike, buy yourself a slower bike, don’t buy a fast one and then castrate the motor with its own built-in power scalpel.
This one sounds great doesn’t it, but in reality it is a massive pain in the cock. It’s motorcycle tech for the sake of it. As far as I can tell, there is nothing wrong with the age-old, tried and tested, method of using an ignition key to start your bike. Slide the key in, turn it, and Bob’s your uncle. And the best thing about that is that when you need to stop for fuel, the key to your tank is there, staring you right in the face. Perfect. Why change something that isn’t broken? Fucked if I know. You still need a ‘key fob’ anyway. With keyless ignition comes the very real risk of getting half way to work before you realise the fob is sat on top of your green wheelie bin (yep, I’ve done that). You’ve also got to remember which pocket you’ve put it in which, if you are in a leather or textile jacket, could very likely be one of about a hundred. If you’re in a one piece race suit, you mightn’t have a pocket, so what do you do? Do you pop it in your leathers, zip ‘em up and hope it doesn’t slide too far down one of the legs, or stab too far into any of your vital organs. Or do you make a stand and say “enough is enough, give us back out keys”. It’s got to be the latter.
Traction control is good, and it’s come on in leaps and bounds over the last decade. When we first started seeing it on bikes like S 1000 RRs and ZX-10Rs, it might have been sold to us as a performance enhancing thing, but it wasn’t really. It would occasionally save you from having a whopper of a high-side but that was about it, and most decent riders would lap faster with the traction control turned completely off. Now we’ve got systems that can predict wheelspin before it even happens, and fly-by-wire systems that quell the throttle input before it even gets to the throttle bodies. With systems like that you can barely feel the TC working, and you certainly can’t hear it. We are at a point now where the top TC systems can, and do, make you a safer and faster rider. But I’ve got to say, some of the manufactures are kicking the arse out of it a bit now. Aprilia recently launched their 2021 RS 660, which is a 100hp bike with eight levels of traction control; come on Aprilia, don’t be so fucking stupid.
Antilocking Brake Systems (ABS)
I wasn’t a massive fan of this one when we first started seeing ABS versions of bikes appearing, and I’m sorry to say, I’m still not a massive fan of it now. The very best, most modern systems are a lot better than they were, but I still don’t feel like this particular tech has matured sufficiently enough to really keep us all as safe as it promises to. I’ve been caught out by unexpected and unwanted ABS intrusion on the track and on the road and although it’s never resulted in a crash, it’s put me in some pretty sticky situations. ABS is supposed to stop you locking your wheels up in an emergency, I think we can all agree on that. What all too often happens though, is when you need to pull the brakes really fucking hard because some twat has cut you up or a dick head car driver decided to pull out on you, you yank the lever and the ABS decides you can’t decelerate that quickly without locking the wheels up. In an effort to save the day, it pumps the pads out a bit to give the tyres some time to recover. All the time you’re getting closer to someone’s back wheel or bonnet. I’ve never been saved by ABS, but I definitely feel like it puts me in danger from time to time. It’s a no from me.
We are seeing this more and more on showroom spec road bikes and I, for one, am all for it. Not all of us want to take our pride and joy out through the bleak mid-winter, getting it caked in road grime and salt. Others though, are happy to spend the time cleaning all that crap off for the sake of a bit of saddle time, and a break from her indoors screaming and shouting about hair straighteners and tampons and stuff. If that’s you, heated grips (and if you are really lucky, a heated seat) could revolutionise your life. And it’s not just winter sorties that would benefit from a bit of electrical warmth, early starts and late nights in spring and autumn can be fairly nippy too, and your hands are usually the poor buggers that pay the price. I know heated grips aren’t the sexiest things in the world, but if you’ve got them when you need them, you’ll be eternally grateful for this particular piece of motorcycle tech.
This kind of motorcycle tech makes a lot of sense on a MotoGP bike, and indeed any race bike, on which the clutches will be pulled out and checked as a matter of routine maintenance. I’ve used launch control quite a few times on race bikes and, although it’s not always a golden ticket to holeshot city, it can definitely help you get off the line quickly and cleanly. But why you need to do that on the road, I don’t know. And anyway, I think most road bikes’ LC systems have ‘pre-launch sequences’ modelled on Apollo 11, with buttons to press and hold, switches to flick and all sorts, all which needs to be done in a certain order and within a certain timeframe. It’s good if you’re going racing (albeit a bit of a pain in the arse). But as far as kitting road bikes out with it goes, well that just seems like a waste of time to me.
Shifters ‘n’ Blippers
I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard people tell me they don’t want motorcycle tech like this on a bike. It’s usually grey haired luddites that shun anything that’s been designed to make their life easier; “riding bikes is about riding bikes, why would you want everything done for you?” they’ll scoff at me, as they shovel coal into their back boiler. Well, like flicking a switch on the central heating panel, it just makes everything that bit easier. Less work, less fatigue, more miles, more smiles. And not only that, the proper systems on sportsbikes mean much better performance; faster acceleration and bags more control under deceleration. What’s not to like?
This is another new one that I can’t really get into. Loads of the manufacturers are offering systems like this now, where you can control your phone and your headset (and even your GoPro, on Triumphs) via the buttons on your handlebars. You can see who’s calling, who’s texting, what song you’re listening to or which direction to go all on the bikes dashboard. I can see why the sat nav thing might be helpful, but satnav or phone mounts are ten a penny these days, so you could always just stick one of them, on. And as far as the phone call and music things go, well, that’s not really me. When I’m riding my bike I don’t want to talk to anyone, and if I want to listen to music, I’ll just sing to myself. That said, most of the systems I’ve tried work reasonably well, so if you are into wearing headsets and all that faff when you ride your bike, this kinda’ motorcycle tech might be right up your street.