I long assumed that I was just another Type A personality. But I’ve come to realize it’s something much worse: Where motorcycles are concerned, I’m a control freak. Even as electronics have become such a huge part of our sport, I have, over time, quaintly disapproved of their intrusion—something about them getting between me and the machine.
I’m not quite old enough to be part of the group that felt electric starters were the devil’s work. But I clearly remember curling my lip at early fuel injection—they’ll never make it as good as a set of carburetors!—and thinking that ABS for bikes was dumb. It could have been the early implementations, which were far from graceful. Anyone remember that heart-stopping experience of, say, an early BMW K100 trying to brake on a wet road?
We’ve come a long way, but I still find myself chafing at bikes that seem to think they’re smarter than I am. (Well, they may actually be smarter, but that doesn’t mean they can anticipate the road or my desires.) Nowhere is this more evident than in my feelings for Honda’s current-generation VFR. I’ve never really got along with the Dual Clutch Transmission automatic—and, yes, I know I’ve not been shy about saying so.
But here’s the thing: After we had our run on the 2012 VFR1200 DCT, Honda allowed me to ride over to HQ and swap for a manual-transmission version. (It helps when you say please.) It’s the same bike in almost every regard, save for the do-it-yourself transmission and a few pounds of fluff left behind. And yet it feels like a totally different motorcycle. For me, the ability to choose gears on my own made up for the transgressions of the DCT. Suddenly, here’s a bike that feels more responsive and seems much more in tune with what I want out of it than even the best-designed, most intelligently coded computer can manage. Just the short ride from Honda’s American compound to my office really surprised me.
And that was just the beginning. I joined a group of 25 guys for a ride up to Pacific Grove, CA, for a friend’s bachelor party. It says something about the guy—or maybe the 25 of us—that we’d ride 400 miles just to have dinner with him. As is often the case, the riders soon segregated themselves into a ranking based on skill and willingness to push on the street. Before lunch, I found myself in the top third, behind two guys on GSX-R1000s and a motor officer on his modified Ducati SportClassic. At some point, I realized we were really hauling the mail. And about a millisecond later it dawned on me that I was doing it on a bike that I’ve called fat, unfocused and underpowered. Oops. So, what was really the issue?
Motorcycling, it seems, is always on the cusp of something. Tires, chassis, engine output, control systems all vie for attention. Development happens in fits and starts—engines overwhelm chassis, which get better and tax tires, which themselves improve to make the engines feel less impressive. And so the cycle repeats.
Today, we’re in the age of quickly maturing electronics, and I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that a very mechanical company like Honda is working hard to catch up. The VFR’s new traction control works as advertised, but is extremely conservative, especially in the time it takes to give you the throttle back after a traction event. Worse, it’s either on or off. Kawasaki and Yamaha get it. The Europeans—Aprilia, BMW, Ducati, Triumph, even MV Agusta—all get it, too. More and more, the electronic systems have provisions for fine tuning by the rider. Multiple levels of TC, alternative ABS thresholds, variable throttle-response and engine-braking maps—these user-defined variables can make the difference between making the best use of an electronic aid and hating its very existence.
And the future is already upon us. Zero’s electric bikes can be configured using a smartphone app communicating with the bike through Bluetooth. Want a little more engine braking or softer throttle response? Tap-tap-tap, it’s yours. A control-freak enabler that also makes phone calls. Imagine.