I enjoyed reading my colleague Adam Waheed’s excellent two part report on the Yamaha Star Venture. This is a truly astonishing motorcycle and the stories are well worth reading if you want a comprehensive insight to state of the art motorcycling in 2017.
But the two pieces also raised a major philosophical issue for me – and one which, personally, is at the very core of motorcycling. It’s both as simple and complicated as this: what is the purpose of riding a bike?
Adam produced a whole article, and a supporting film, just on the technology the Yamaha provides. Apparently, it’s really important to have music whilst you ride, two way communication with your passenger and the ability to read text messages.
By contrast, when I ride my motorcycle – I want to do just that. In fact, I am so anti-social and focused that I don’t even like riding with me!
Yet Adam’s analysis raises bigger questions than whether you can switch channels on the control panel whilst wearing gloves. Why should you want to switch anything at all if you are riding a motorcycle?
Let me explain what I mean. Two weeks ago, we – me driving and Carol on the pillion – rode 183 miles through the mountains of Wales, which is where we like to play on our 10-year-old Ducati Sport Classic. I rode well and made only two mistakes the whole trip.
One was when I missed the ideal turning point of a falling, off camber right-hand bend, because I was looking at the tiny clock at the bottom of the Ducati’s tachometer. The other was caused by coming into a bend just a miniscule amount too hot and drifting six inches past the perfect point for peeling across the apex of a fast, open left-hander.
I spent the rest of the week hating myself for those two errors.
It has taken me a year, over three and a half thousand miles of riding and a lot of effort to finally reach a point where I can say that I can ride our Ducati properly.
Would, or could, I have reached this point with the distractions of an in/on bike info-entertainment center, changing settings on a control console or chatting to Carol? For me, given the level of skill I am able to use on a motorcycle, the answer is unquestionably in the negative.
With my degree of competence, I have to give full, undivided attention to the motorcycle I am riding with no distractions whatsoever.
Motojournalists are, by nature, promiscuous when it comes to motorcycles so I am somewhat surprised to find myself more attracted to the Ducati Sport Classic after a year of ownership than I was when we first acquired the bike. You can read the story behind the purchase here.
There are lot of reasons why I like the Ducati but the key one might seem contra intuitive. The Sport Classic is not hard to ride per se but it is difficult to ride well – and that is hugely attractive. When I ride, I don’t want an intensely friendly bike like the Honda CB1100RS – a motorcycle which is so refined and cultivated it could not, and would not, ever bite the rider in the bum – even if he deserved it. Quite simply, it is just too well-mannered to be worth riding.
Nor do I want a motorcycle laden with rider “aids.” The Sport Classic has no ABS, anti-wheelie electronics or traction control and has only the most minimal of instrumentation. However, it does possess an excellent engine – the best air-cooled motor produced by Ducati – in the 992cc, DOHC, six speed motor.
This V-Twin produces 92hp @ 8000 rpm and has a peak torque of 67.3 lb-ft @ 6000 rpm. However, these figures are slightly misleading. The DS engine will rev on freely to 8000 rpm but starts to feel stressed above 7000 rpm. So the sweet spot for the motor is from 5000 and a bit rpm to 6500ish rpm. This is quite a narrow power band for a modern engine.
This means that the rider needs to think hard to keep the engine in that lovely harmonious area where it is performing at its best and yet never gives the impression of working hard.
The problem is that, as standard, the GT is over geared for British roads. I am sure that somewhere, someone in Italy has received a ticket for a speeding violation but how they have achieved this is beyond my imagination. Every time I’ve driven, or ridden, in Italy I’ve been the slowest person on the roads. You know you’re in Italy when two Grandparents scream past in a thirty year old Fiat Panda carrying three kids and a sheep – and yes, this did happen to us on the Italian side of the Stelvio Pass!
As standard, the GT comes with a 15-tooth gearbox sprocket and 39-tooth rear. In practice, this gives around 90mph at six and a bit thousand rpm – which is prosecution country in Britain even on four or six lane highways.
Regardless of the flashing blue lights and two tones, 90mph is also too fast for comfort on a bike with no fairing and a sit up riding position. It’s okay for short periods but I wouldn’t fancy riding any distance with this degree of wind resistance.
The answer was to fit a one-tooth smaller gearbox sprocket, reducing the gearing by 7%. Now, 80 and a few mph comes up with 6000 rpm on the tach in sixth. However, the GT sits very sweetly in fifth gear in the high 70s at the same sort of rpm – right on the edge of maximum torque. The extra 500 rpm, which is available in every ratio from lowering the gearing, is invaluable.
The lower gearing has three more benefits. First, Carol and I ride together a lot on the GT and so the bike used to be working hard in sixth when climbing hills at 5000 rpm. Life is easier now and I can still use top gear as, effectively, an overdrive on downhill descents or where we’ve got a tail wind.
Next, 60mph – the British national speed limit on single carriageway roads – now arrives in the lovely sweet part of the rev band sitting either side of 6000 rpm. This means that I always have instant power available for pleasure or emergencies.
Finally, on the rare occasions I take the GT into town I can ride more of the time with the clutch fully home, just trickling along in the traffic, feet up, at 5mph.
When I decided to change the sprocket, there was a line of Ducati “experts” telling me that fuel consumption would rocket but, as I thought, this has proved to be total nonsense. In fact, the fuel consumption has improved slightly from around 42 miles per US gallon to 44 mpg. These figures are accurate because I measured them tank full to tank full rather than relying on the vagaries of a computer read out.
I put this down to the fact that the motor now spends most of its time in the rpm range where it is working most efficiently.
Changing a gearbox sprocket is not difficult, and is a home workshop job, but you do need a torque wrench to tighten down the mainshaft nut to its correct tension. I had the job done by Woods Ducati who charged me for half-an-hour of labor – which was more than reasonable and saved me the trouble of doing it myself.
Because this is 2017, I have to put a warning notice before these next comments. Don’t do what I did. Take professional advice. Wash your hands after using the bathroom. Eat lots of fruit every day. Don’t watch candid videos before lights out – etc., etc.
Okay, here we go. The most important element of making a bike work for you is the ergonomics. It is difficult to stress how important it is to get the bike as an extension of your body so that every control fits perfectly. It’s not only anally retentive ancients who believe in this policy. MotoGP riders play endlessly with tiny shifts of seat position and controls because they know it is so important.
The first job on the Ducati was to get the front brake lever in the correct place. The GT has a pair of walloping great, 320mm front discs and, with no electronic anti-lock assistance, these need to be treated with respect. I have bigger than normal hands, and strong too, from years of racing but the front brake lever was still too far away from the handlebar grip to be ideal. The reason for this is that you have the most strength, and sensitivity, with your hand almost closed.
The fix was to take a needle file and ever so carefully remove metal from the inside of the brake lever until the distance was at the optimum for my hand. Now I know you would never do this at home but if you did, I can’t stress sufficiently strongly how much patience you need in doing the job. Metal is easy to remove but impossible to put back on so I just filed and checked and filed and checked for an hour.
Now, the front brake is fully effective with the lever very near to the ‘bars and I can trail brake all the way to the apex of the corner, just caressing the pads against the discs. Very satisfying.
Next, spend the same amount of time adjusting the gear lever. This can be easily moved up and down by first slackening off the lock nut and then extending or reducing the length of the actuating arm. Wear your normal riding gear – boots and pants – until the gear lever sits just clear of the toe of your boot.
The rear brake lever can also be adjusted but this is the least important element of tuning the ergonomics because the front discs do 95% of the work on a modern bike. Just make sure that the lever sits under your right boot comfortably.
Now to the front brake lever, the clutch lever and handlebars’ positioning. These can all be adjusted by slackening off the pinch screws and slowly rotating the levers. Again, patience is King and micro adjustments are good. The aim should be to have the levers fall under your hands without having to reach for them. Both the front brake and clutch levers should feel like extensions of your hands rather than mechanical parts.
It took me five or six attempts before I settled on the optimum positions.
I also played with the position of the handlebars but, after a lot of messing about, reverted to standard.
The mirror positions are also critical and, in some ways, take the most time to adjust. The mirrors must give you instant information without having to move your head to hunt for what’s going on. Make sure that you are wearing your normal helmet, and riding jacket, when you make the adjustments.
Now, you can ride with the bike becoming an extension of your body – almost like a two-wheeled exoskeleton. I should add that although I have referred to our Ducati in this story, the same tuning of the bike’s ergonomics applies to any motorcycle.
So, the bike fitted me and the motor was performing efficiently – but there was still a huge problem and in the form of the tires. I reported on the Pirelli Angel sports touring tires before and the fact that I just could not get them working as I believed they should. This next bit is another, “And don’t do this at home…”
I was chatting to a retired Crew Chief from British Superbike and, after looking at the tires, he felt that he had the solution to the problem. In short, I was riding too smoothly and not getting the Pirellis working. I am never rough with bikes and so I felt his analysis had credibility.
The answer, my informant said, was two-fold. First, reduce the tire pressure by 10% – 3psi – and then go out for a ride without Carol and hammer the bike round corners at near race speed whenever there was a suitable opportunity.
I duly followed both pieces of advice and, like the best Las Vegas magic, the results were miraculous. Clearly, you should keep to the manufacturer’s recommended tire pressures and we don’t condone aggressive riding on the road.
Now, I can feel the front tire – and this is the most important one of the two – all the way from the transition into the corner, through the apex and as it unloads on the exit. Being able to listen to what the tire is telling me was the most important single thing in being able to progress towards the goal of mastering the Ducati.
For me, chasing this unattainable perfection is the reason I ride motorcycles. It’s also why I don’t need, or want, anything to distract from this single goal. Anything which comes between me and my motorcycle can only hinder the relationship and so I’m happy to keep infotainment in my car which breaks up the monotony of driving it.
Yes, bikes like the remarkable Yamaha Star Venture have much to offer but they also have a lot less. It’s the difference between an all-you-can-eat buffet or one course of haute cuisine. For me, with food and bikes, less is more.