Blog: The answer is progress…If only we knew the question

Steve Rose
By Steve Rose

BikeSocial Publisher. Has been riding since before Frankie said ‘Relax’, owned more than 100 bikes and has written for, edited or published most of the UK’s best known bike magazines. Strangely attracted to riding high miles in all weathers, finds track days ‘confusing’ and describes the secret to better riding as ‘being invincible’. 

‘It’s the answer to a question that no one asked.’ Every time anyone mentions anything about Yamaha’s three-wheel Niken, it’s the stock answer that pops up again and again. And it confuses me because I have asked the question ‘Why can’t someone invent a motorcycle that I can ride faster around corners and in bad weather without crashing’ many times. In fact it’s probably the question I ask most.

So I started thinking what other questions has nobody asked that have ended up bringing innovation and progress to motorcycling? Fuel-injection, cornering ABS, shift-cam technology and radial calipers spring to mind.I don’t remember anyone in the olden days asking why we couldn’t replace those lovely complex, mechanical carburettors, stuffed with tiny, fragile components with a series of computer controlled squirty things. But, after a fluffy start it got better and modern fuel injection allows our bikes to be faster, more economical and according to a science paper I might have misunderstood yesterday at least 16 times less toxic than when fitted with carbs.

Likewise, none of those heroes who could outbrake a 1990s ABS system were vocal in calling for one that worked in corners, but it turns out to be one of the best safety aids yet to be invented.

And I certainly don’t remember riders complaining that their sports bikes were too light, too nimble and not tall enough or covered in enough aftermarket suitcases a few years back. In fact I don’t remember anyone saying what we need are enormous, too-tall-trailies making 180bhp and weighing as much as a Pan European. But Ewan and Charlie convinced us otherwise.

Similarly, I don’t remember any of the tens of thousands of GSX-R, CBR, ZXR or FZR owners of the early 1990s asking why their bikes had so many cylinders. Big V-twins were certainly a question nobody asked and look what happened next?

But the best one is surely anti-wheelie control. If you can do wheelies then presumably it’s because you wanted to do them enough that you spent all that time and pain and cost of replacement parts practising. So why would you want electronics to stop it. Racers…yes, I get it. But road riders? I never asked that question. What I really want is a gizmo that lifts the front wheel, slowly, safely and so cool I’m guaranteed a snog from everyone who sees it. Pro-wheelie control is a question we’ve definitely asked and we’re still waiting.

Knowledge is like power. An excess can potentially get you out of trouble. The point is here that the people who make motorbikes generally know how to make motorbikes. And they have a good idea what will make a bike go faster, be better handling, safer or more comfortable.

What stops them doing this stuff better is usually economics or conservatism. Yamaha blow hot and cold with the economics, but they generally manage to ignore the conservatism and push the innovation sliders further than most.

If their current solution to the often-asked question of ‘How do we make bikes go faster round corners without losing the front is the Niken, then I’m interested. Clearly they spent more money on the engineering than the styling and, presumably the actual team responsible for designing the back end will be back from holiday in time for the 2020 revamp to replace the cleaning staff who did the 2018 version. But let’s ignore that for now because the engineering works.

And if the Niken’s engineering is an answer to a question no one asked, then, I’d suggest that we need to be not asking more questions. What are the still-to-be-answered challenges that nobody has mentioned yet? What are the big issues on modern motorbikes still waiting to be solved?

Making them harder to steal would be one thing, as would stopping them falling apart like a 1980s Austin Montego after being ridden through winter. Mirrors that showed more than blurred elbows would definitely be progress as would something that dramatically (possibly electronically) increases visibility to other road users. Switchgear you could use in the dark would be good (especially as all the additional functions now means our handlebars weigh as much as a whole motorcycle back in the 1960s), as would headlights that weren’t just ‘better than a…’ but were actually good at lighting up a road. A centrestand that didn’t require you to google ‘hernia repair’ would be nice. And some kind of final drive system that doesn’t rely on technology invented in the industrial revolution or weigh half the total mass of the bike.

What are yours? Answers (or should that be questions) to enquiries@bikesocial.co.uk.

Don’t worry if you can’t think of any, the problem with predicting what we don’t want is that, er, we don’t know what it is we don’t want.
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