Monday, December 24, 2012

Three rides, man: Merry Christmas from Backmarker

I haven't posted much lately. I was up in Canada visiting my family and a few old friends, then came back to Kansas City just in time to get ready for Christmas. I didn't have much bandwidth left for blogging.

Last week, winter finally came to KC, about a full year late -- last year, we had a long, beautiful fall that just kept going until we an early spring arrived. Global warming seemed like someone else's problem, until we had weeks of 100 degree-plus highs all summer.

Anyway, we're guaranteed a white-ish Christmas now, since our one good dump of snow so far has not yet melted. Mr. Chubbs, my dog, saw it for the first time and went bananas. That was entertaining.

I'm gambling that, like last year, I can get away without winterizing my bikes; hopefully I'll be able to start them and ride them at least every couple of weeks. That's pretty pathetic, eh? It's not that they don't deserve some seasonal maintenance, but until I get a garage the best I can do is just ride 'em. At least that way fuel will keep moving through the carbs, oil will still circulate, and fork seals will get a tiny bit of exercise.

It's that time of year when people tend to look back, and forward. I won't bother with the looking-back part; we all lived the same year in the grand scheme of things, and although I've got nothing to complain about personally, my year was mostly just a daily grind, leavened primarily by gym time. I must be training for something, but what? I find myself poring over Craigslist and pausing at stuff like trials bikes.

I've got a bunch of stories I want to write up over the off-season, and hope to find the time.

  • My friend, the artist and motorcycle racer Bill Rodgers recently completed an amazing series of paintings and drawings that incorporate track maps. I can't wait to show them to you. 
  • I'm fascinated by the seeming fall of Falcon Motorcycles. The company, it seems might have been more appropriately given another 'flying' name: Icarus.
  • I'm also fascinated by the paradoxical rise of motorcycle print magazines. What's with those Iron & Air guys deciding to go to print? And I'm aware of two newish British 'zine start ups: Benzina, and Sideburn. I'm going to try to interview the publishers of all three.
  • Any week now, I could have great news about my book, Riding Man, and the long journey it's taken towards becoming a feature film. Who's shopping it to who; who's interested in acting in it, writing the screenplay, and/or directing... that stuff's not a secret, but I'll wait until there's an official announcement before I fill in the details.

Is 2013's single biggest 'question mark' how Rossi will fare, back on Yamaha?

I was thinking about him the other day; how for so long he really seemed to be in league of his own. But it can't last, can it? No matter how dominant an athlete, eventually his rivals catch him -- and it's not because the athlete necessarily ages (though that happens too, of course.)

The first really organized motorcycle racing actually grew out of bicycle racing. At the turn of the century, bicycle racers in velodromes trained behind -- and in some events actually raced behind -- motorized bikes. Such a vehicle was called a 'derny'. It was inevitable that before long there would races between the dernies. But that's not the interesting part of the derny story...

The use of dernies was eventually banned in most types of bicycle racing (though they are still used in 'keirin' competition, and is six-days racing, I think.) Bicycle coaches thought, "Hmm... how will I set  my rider's pace if I can no longer just be there, in front of him?" Some enterprising coaches realized they could shine a spotlight on the track, and their riders could use that as a pacing cue. Although the spotlight 'target' didn't confer any of the old derny aerodynamic advantage, the spotlight was such a powerful psychological aid for riders that that technique, too, had to be banned.

Think about that; just having that thing to chase made them so much faster that it had to be banned.

So it was when riders like Stoner (good riddance), Pedrosa (whatever), and Lorenzo (smooth=quick, eh?) came up through the ranks and encountered Rossi at his peak. And, although it took some time, they got as fast as he was.

On the face of it, that should not have happened. I mean, Rossi was in many people's opinion the best rider of all time. What were the odds that, within a decade, several more riders as fast would surface? (Very small.)

But Rossi was that light ahead of them on the track. Ironically, he was the advantage they needed to rival him, and eventually beat him. Personally, I doubt that Rossi will resume his dominant status. Evidently, Yamaha's racing department shares my opinion, but the marketing department seems to feel the old Rossi commercial magic can be rekindled. The truth will out.

For now, though, Merry Christmas, eh?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

There's cops doing amazing things on cumbersome bikes. And then there's this

Who doesn't love to watch the amazing feats performed by police gymkhana competitors? The precise, floorboard-grinding control they display, riding heavy bikes laden with police equipment really can make us wonder, what we gonna' do when they come for us?

Take these cops, who perform near miracles on Honda ST1300s. I definitely wouldn't want to try to outrun them -- at least, not if I had to weave through heavy traffic...

But, this member of Mexico's elite, Presidential-guard security team seems a little more fallible, as he fails to notice one of Mexico City's famous speed bumps. Not even the top cops can nose-wheelie an 800 pound dresser.

No animals were hurt in the making of this video. I can't say as much for that guy's ego.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Moron thought experiments. Oops, I mean 'more on' thought experiments

I expanded on the comparison between MotoGP and 'mere' World Superbike lap times in a recent Backmarker column on When researching that column, I made an embarassing mistake by not realizing that MotoGP and World Superbike run different course configurations at Aragon. Anyway, that edition of Backmarker actually got more than the usual amount of positive feedback, as well as some angry negative and dismissive comments.

Oh well.

The thought experiment of putting a top-flight MotoGP rider on a Superstock-spec (or indeed, production) bike, to see just how close production bikes are to the fastest bikes on the planet, is admittedly probably not something we'll ever really see conducted.

But that doesn't mean it isn't fun to speculate. When I worked at Motorcyclist, I used to fantasize about another experiment that would have been even riskier to carry out, but way more fun.

In this moto-journalist fantasy, I would go up to some place like the Rock Store or Deal's Gap, where dozens of sport bike riders convene on weekends, including  plenty of rich squids on really tricked out top-of-the-line bikes. You know the type; guys who buy the latest Ducati Panigale or BMW HP4, but don't even take it out of the dealership before fitting a full-race exhaust and a swathing it in carbon fiber.

I'd select half-a-dozen of these guys and take them to a race track, where I'd let them spend a day setting their fastest laps. In between sessions they'd endlessly brag up their bikes, citing comparison tests and dyno figures from memory. Once they'd set their best laps, I'd bring out my ringer.

This would be some totally hard core racer, but not just any racer; a guy picked for his ability not just to go fast, but to go fast on shit bikes. Frankly, I'm not sure who I'd pick today, but back when I was having this fantasy, I'd have hired Pascal Picotte for the task. Picotte was a guy they wouldn't recognize in plain leathers, but he combined world-class speed with a knack for extracting speed from less-than-world-class bikes. He came up through the old RZ Cup system, racing Yamaha RZ-350s, and first attracted real attention in a one off ride when the World Superbike series made a rare stop in Mexico. He was blazingly fast on a bumpy, crap track.

The first time I ever saw him ride in person was at my (then) home track of Race City Speedway, in Calgary. That was scrappy, bumpy track, and Picotte set the outright lap record on a Fast by Ferracci Ducati when they brought it up for some testing. I knew the track intimately, having put in several hundred laps at least, and Picotte did things that were, simply, impossible.

Later still, when the ill-fated Harley-Davidson Superbike program brought Scott Russell in as a rider, they added Picotte as Russell's team-mate and Picotte kicked his ass over and over.

I watched Picotte again, riding the Harley Superbike at Loudon. I was racing there, too; it must have been almost the last year that the AMA had it on the schedule. Both the bike and the track were a handful, and Picotte was breathtaking.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the experiment.

Then, I'd set my rider off to record his best lap on, say, a bone-stock 600. He'd go way, way faster than the fastest squid. (In my fantasy, the squids are all watching from the pit wall, with stop-watches.)

After coming in on the 600, I'd send my ringer out on progressively shittier bikes. Like, maybe the second one out would be a Hyosung 650GT. And on down the line until -- hopefully we'd be at a flowing, technical track, maybe Barber in the eastern version of this experiment -- my ringer was lapping faster than the squids, on a shagged Honda Nighthawk 700, or a Buell Blast.

This would be cruel, but if you datalogged the whole thing it would also be enlightening. Of course, no motorcycle magazine would ever do it, because their bread is buttered by the manufacturers of new bikes.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Parsing Jerez: SBK/CRT/MotoGP

I used to think that MotoGP and World SBK went out of their way to avoid giving punters like me a chance to directly compare lap times. But the recent Jerez test, in which the world's two premier classes briefly overlapped, allowed for a nearly apples-to-apples comparison.

Let's call it apples to quinces.

Sure, the fastest SBK lap -- Laverty (Aprilia) 1:40.1 -- was a banzai effort on Pirelli qualifying tires, while Hayden's fastest lap of the test, coming a day later, was a 1:40.090 done in serious testing-for-data mode on Bridgestones. And Superbike Planet may have been correct to point out that "Jerez has never been a sweet spot for the Ducati." (Although when MotoGP raced at Jerez last April, in similar conditions, Hayden recorded essentially the same best lap, and started from third -- wouldn't that have made it his, and Ducati's, best dry qualifying session of the year?)

More to the point, while the fastest SBK bikes and riders were present in Jerez, the fastest MotoGP bikes and riders were not. I'm guessing that Lorenzo and Pedrosa, had they been present, would have put in laps in the 1:39s, just as they did when they qualified 1 & 2 there in April.

What was more interesting to me than any single best-lap stats, however, was that Melandri and Sykes were both under 1:41 on Superbikes as well. I.E., the best laps recorded by three different Superbikes at this test would have qualified ahead of Ben Spies, who was just over 1:41 on the factory Yamaha MotoGP bike last April.

Unanswered question: how much faster are the fastest MotoGP riders than the fastest SBK riders?

My point in all this is, at least in a qualifying-at-Jerez simulation, the fastest Superbikes are at least as fast as MotoGP prototypes (if the prototypes are ridden by humans, not aliens). 

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, eh?

Ten years ago, we were kind of shocked when, during qualifying for the British Superbike Championship round at Donington Park, Steve Hislop set the outright motorcycle lap record on his Ducati Superbike, eclipsing Valentino Rossi's record set on the fire-breathing Honda 500GP two-stroke. Hizzy was a special case, but it's clear that the technological convergence of Superbikes and MotoGP bikes have resulted in a lap-time convergence, too.

Where were/are the CRT-class MotoGP bikes in all this? Last April, the fastest CRT rider was Espargo, who was four seconds off the pole. Over the course of the year, the CRT bikes in general and Espargo in particular closed the gap. At the season finale last month, Espargo was two seconds off the pole. Which is good, for what it is, although I guess the CRT experiment won't be very long-lived if Honda comes through with a promised customer MotoGP bike.

I don't want to say, "I told you so" (OK, I love saying that) but it was obvious that the CRT bikes weren't going to be faster than the Superbikes from which their engines were sourced. It's still interesting that they aren't faster. 

I mean, you're basically taking a Superbike motor and handing it to a bunch of really smart guys and saying, "Throw out the rest of the rule book; give it carbon brakes, go nuts." But at the end of the day, what they make isn't faster than a production-based bike that's fairly tightly constrained by SBK rules.

Unanswered question: How much faster are the fastest SBK riders than the fastest CRT riders, if at all?

Why haven't CRT class bikes improved on production-based SBK lap times?

  • As important as the bike is to the rider, it's not as important as the rider is to the bike.
  • Current production bikes are fucking incredible, and yes, they really are almost as fast as MotoGP bikes. This is crazy, really. Anyone with a reasonable job can afford a street bike that is almost as fast as the fastest prototype. It's as if a showroom Dodge Charger was only a few seconds a lap slower than Sebastian Vettel's F-1 car.
  • Motorcycle chassis are complex, dynamic systems. If you took all the restrictions off the chassis, you could use a Dodge Charger motor to power a car that could lap within 10% of an F-1 car. It's not so easy with bikes.
  • More than anything else, electronics -- it's your choice whether you call them 'traction control' or 'rider aids' -- have become the rate-limiting factor in motorcycle racing.

Now that Dorna controls both MotoGP and World SBK racing, it will be interesting to see how they go about packaging the two racing 'brands'. One thing is sure: the prototype class loses its raison d'ĂȘtre if it is not faster than the production-based class. With cost-control and safety concerns arguing against any changes that will make MotoGP bikes faster, the only solution in sight is making Superbikes slower.

Until they do that, they'd better avoid putting Superbikes and MotoGP bikes on track together.