Friday, June 30, 2006

Urban Mobility: Are Two-Wheelers The Ultimate Solution?

This Erion-tuned CBR929RR really should be ideal for any daily commute...

Rising prices of petrol and diesel, and traffic congestion that’s getting unbearable - these are just two factors that are making cars almost redundant for many. It doesn’t matter anymore whether I can or cannot afford to buy a car. It doesn’t even matter that my employers offer to pay for the fuel. What matters is traffic in Mumbai (where I used to live, before I moved to Pune three months ago...), which gets worse every day. At any given point, any day of the week, roads are clogged to bursting point with cars, UVs, autorickshaws, trucks, buses and two-wheelers. It’s one gigantic, smoke spewing, honking, weaving, swearing, struggling, simmering cauldron of catastrophe. And I haven’t even started talking about the months when it’s raining.

For me, and I’m sure countless other people in Mumbai, getting from home to office and back every day is one big challenge. Is there a solution? Clean, quick and efficient public transport systems – those that aren’t crowded enough to make you dread going to work – will happen when (and if at all…) they happen. In the meanwhile, perhaps it’s time for a lot of car users to start looking at the humble old two-wheeler all over again. Traffic congestion and parking woes are less of a problem on nifty little scooters and motorcycles, and you’ll be burning less fuel in the process. In fact, according to one research report which I read recently, two-wheelers account for only one percent of the fuel consumption in individual modes of transport, 0.5 percent of total road transport NOx emissions, and 1.6 percent of the total PM emissions. A large part of this can probably be attributed to two-stroke engines having died out in most countries. Also, these figures are for the European market and I do suppose they might be higher for India, but you’ll probably agree that these facts and figures should command some serious attention from road users everywhere.

Of late, there’s been a significant increase in motorcycling in several countries in Europe, with people turning to motorcycles to beat traffic congestion during their daily commute. We are talking about people who can easily afford to buy one or more cars (and most of whom already do own at least one car), and yet, these people are turning to small two-wheelers for traveling within their cities. Already, some EU countries have a formal national strategy for promoting the use of motorcycles and scooters, along with clearly defined lines of action in terms of rider training, and smart traffic management which favours two-wheeler users. Policy makers in some of these countries have realised that greater adoption of two-wheelers, rather than space and fuel hogging four-wheelers, can greatly improve urban life, and hence, integrating two-wheelers in their transport policies has become a clear priority for them.

A recent survey carried out in Europe, for what was called the National Motorcycle Week, revealed that two-wheeler riders, as well as a large majority of non-riders, agree that the top three benefits of traveling to work on a two-wheeler are reduced journey time, reduced cost (compared with cars and/or public transport) and a general reduction in congestion on city roads. And as a reflection of that increasing general acceptance of two-wheelers as a more viable mode of city transport, sale of scooters in the UK has increased from 500 units in 1993, to 8,000 units in 2004. There’s also been a drop in new car registrations in the UK and in France. Cars have, indeed, served us very well for the last many decades, but given the ever-increasing congestion on our roads, how long will it be before the car simply ceases to be a viable mode of transport, at least in cities? Some major cities in the West levy ‘congestion charges’ on car users who use their vehicles in city centres during peak rush hours, and it seems inevitable that something on these lines will have to be done in India as well. If not now, maybe five years down the line.

With monthly sales of more than 6,000,000 units, India is already one of the biggest two-wheeler markets in the world, and it’s growing. Our Central and State governments should certainly ensure they include motorcycles and scooters in mainstream public transportation planning, and help create an environment that allows two-wheeler riders to commute easily and safely.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Schwantz Speaks!

Used to watch (on television…) Kevin Schwantz racing in the 500cc FIM Motorcycle World Championship, in the late-1980s and early-1990s. Wayne Rainey and Eddie Lawson were also very good, but Kevin Schwantz was something else. He was awesome. He was God. He was the best of the best. Even though he won just one world championship (in 1993) as opposed to the seven which Valentino Rossi has already won, in my mind, Schwantz will always be the greatest. So it was a very special occasion when we got to interview him recently. Here’s what the man had to say:

Is there any MotoGP rider today who reminds you of your own days in GP racing?

Rossi. And I say I wish I could have done it that good!

What’s the biggest thing in racing that’s changed since the mid-1980s?

It’s how big the hospitality side has become.

In racing, what’s more important – man or motorcycle?

It used to be 90% man, 10% machine. Now it is 75% and 25%.

What’s your opinion of the forthcoming 800cc MotoGP machines?

I am happy with MotoGP and its direction. 800cc is a good change and I don't think it will slow them down.

Who do you think is the most awesome motorcycle stunt rider ever?

Stunting is bad for our image as motorcyclists! Stunting has no professional place and therefore it is done mostly on public roads. I don't know any stunters.

In terms of motorcycle engineering prowess, which manufacturer’s work do you admire most?

Suzuki. The GSX-Rs all impress me. I will always admire Suzuki for the size of the factory (how small they are) and how good their product is.

What do you think of 1000cc, 180-horsepower sportsbikes being available to the average rider?

Motorcycles just like cars are getting lighter and faster, and I hope always will. As riders, we need to be taught more and better, and wear the proper gear. Arai helmet especially!

Did anything in racing scare you ever?

I was scared after Rainey got injured.

What do Suzuki need to do, in order to win a MotoGP championship?

The tires need to be consistently better to help Suzuki make big improvements to the bike.

What do you think of the Isle of Man TT races?

Dangerous, but they are part of our sport.

Do you ever miss your racing days?

I race for fun in the US. It will always be in my blood. MotoGP is for younger guys.

Do you know anything at all about India?

I don't know much about India. I would have to come visit your country and learn more about your people.

Current street ride: Suzuki GSX-R1000
Valentino Rossi or Freddie Spencer: Rossi, no doubt
Cruisers – yes or no: Yes. It's a motorcycle
All-time favourite racing motorcycle: Suzuki RGV 500, 1993 model
All-time favourite street motorcycle: Suzuki Hayabusa
BMW bikes – yes or no: Yes. It's a motorcycle
Ferrari or Lamborghini: Ferrari
Max Biaggi, in one word: Good
Favourite food: Mexican
Most memorable post-race party: Jerez, 1989

Watch the inimitable Schwantz in action on his Suzuki RGV500

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Sportsbike development: No looking back!

It really is amazing how motorcycles have moved on in the last three decades. There doesn’t seem to be much of a market for high-performance bikes here in India and hence we have missed out on all the action. But worldwide, the pace of progress has been absolutely astounding. In the west, Joe Average – with an average job, average income and yes, average riding skills – can go out a buy a motorcycle that’ll accelerate from zero to a 100 km/h in about three seconds and go on to a top speed of more than 300km/h. And to top that, such motorcycles cost only as much as a basic family hatchback, are as reliable, and are freely available to anyone who can afford the insurance. No question about it then – right here and now is the best time for people who love fast, powerful bikes.

It’s interesting to see how ‘superbikes’ have evolved over the years. The first mass produced four-cylinder bike from Japan, the late-1960s Honda CB750 weighed 240 kilos, had less than 70 horsepower on tap and on a good day, would do about 200 km/h. The 2006 Yamaha R6 weighs 160 kilos, has 133 horsepower and does more than 250 km/h without breaking a sweat. Comparing the old CB750 and the newest R6 in terms of acceleration and handling would probably be akin to comparing your living room sofa with a Greyhound. One is big, soft and gentle. The other is lean, quick and vicious.

So how is it that modern day motorcycles are able to offer performance that’s so hugely in excess of their 1960s/1970s brethren? What exactly has changed? Well, everything really. Engines, to begin with. In the old CB750’s time, two-valve cylinder heads were the norm, unlike the double overhead camshafts and four-valve cylinder heads that are popular today. And given carburetors and their float chambers (which only allow certain mounting angles), inlet/exhaust ports were often restricted from offering their best. Today, four-valve cylinder heads allow the combustion chamber to be more effectively shaped and also allow higher compression ratios.

Carbs have made way for fuel-injection, which means far more precise fuel metering. Clever, electronically-controlled throttle valves allow much bigger air/fuel intakes than what was possible back then. Intakes are partially restricted at lower engine speeds (thereby ensuring adequately high air velocity in the intake tracts and preventing fuel from dropping out), but are opened up fully at higher speeds for The Full Monty. EFI systems can also be mounted at much more extreme angles than carburetors would allow, usually giving the air/fuel mixture as straight a run at the combustion chamber as possible. Again, the result is more efficient combustion and more power.

Modern engines are ‘oversquare,’ where the bore is bigger than the stroke. The pistons in such an engine have shorter distances to travel, compared with the pistons in an ‘undersquare’ engine of the same capacity, which allows for much higher rev limits. Witness the new Yam R6 again, where the four-cylinder 600cc engine is redlined at 17,500rpm – stratospheric when you compare it with the old CB, whose four-pot 750cc unit would not go beyond 8,500 revs. Credit must also be given to advances in materials technology, which allows for lighter, stronger and more durable pistons, cams and con-rods.

If power outputs have skyrocketed, braking, handling and grip have also kept up. First, the brakes. In the 1960s/1970s, you were lucky to have disc brakes at all – most bikes were making do with drums. Bikes which did have disc brakes at the front were fitted with one small disc and a small, single-piston caliper. Modern superbikes have huge discs – two of them – at the front, gripped by four- or six-piston calipers. Stoppies, anyone?

Motorcycle suspension has become far more sophisticated too. USD forks reduce unsprung weight at the front and given their stout dimensions, just refuse to flex. Some manufacturers also apply special coatings to the stanchions, to reduce stiction. At the rear, shock absorbers often use rising rate springs and are adjustable for preload. Suspension on the more expensive bikes is also adjustable for compression and rebound damping so that owners can tailor the handling of their bikes to their own tastes.

Also in the interests of handling, lightweight and strong aluminium beam frames are used, which keep the centre of gravity low and which are largely free of flex – giving riders the confidence to push ever harder. Rake and trail figures are also much lower now than they used to be, which has made even big bikes more ‘flickable’ then before. And finally, wide, sticky and low-profile radial tyres make sure that in high-speed cornering, riders usually run out of courage before they run out of grip.

Lighter, more powerful and ever faster – that’s the mantra for sportsbikes. And thankfully, there’s no looking back.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Motociclo Bello!

I often wonder what it is about Italy. It’s a small little country, and unlike Japan or Germany, it’s not generally regarded as being particularly advanced in… well, anything. With one exception though. Italian motorcycles. And cars for that matter. Some of the most exquisitely beautiful motorcycles available today are from Italy. Which is delightfully surprising, because none of its neighbouring countries is anywhere near Italy in terms of motorcycle building abilities. French motorcycles? When was the last time you heard of a Voxan? Germany? Except for the BMW K1200R and the R1200GS, I can’t think of a single German motorcycle that I’d want to have anything to do with. Austria? The KTM 990 Super Duke is interesting, but apart from that, absolutely nothing. And it’s the same story with Switzerland, Greece, Hungary, Algeria, Bulgaria, Croatia, and… I can’t think of any other countries in that neighbourhood. Motorcycles from these European countries? Zero, zilch.

While the Japanese are certainly making some of the most powerful, quickest, fastest, and fun to ride motorcycles (which are also very reliable and affordable…), the Italians have taken the art of making motorcycles to another level altogether. The engine performance may be just about equal to, and in many cases below that of similar-spec Japanese bikes, but when it comes to styling, the Italians are Gods. Take one look at the MV Agusta F4 and tell me if you think its lines can ever be improved upon. The F4 750 was launched in 1997, and ten years on, it’s still the best looking motorcycle in the whole world. And the other MV, the Brutale 910 isn’t too far behind either.

The man who designed the F4, Massimo Tamburini, also designed one more motorcycle which the world will never forget – the Ducati 916. While Ducati have, since then, moved to the 999, the new bike certainly isn’t as svelte and sexy-looking as the old 916. Which is understandable perhaps. Tamburini is Italian. Pierre Terblanche, who designed the 999, hails from South Africa. At least the Ducati Monster, especially the S4R, continues to look good as ever. The new Ducati Sport Classics have more style, more beauty than the best Milan fashion houses put together, and the Paul Smart replica is to die for.

Though I rate the Bimota Mantra as one of the ugliest bikes ever made (but then it was designed by Sacha Lakic, a Frenchman, not Italian…), I have been a big fan of other Bimotas. The SB6 and the YB11 was really good looking, and the even more gorgeous Furano, fuel-injected and packing 164 horsepower, was, for some time in the mid-1990s, the fastest production motorcycle in the world. And what motorcycle enthusiast can ever forget the hub-centre-steered Bimota Tesi 1D, so radical, so beautifully engineered and so deserving of success? What a pity then that Bimota have never really managed to earn enough money for proper, full-scale R&D operations. Still, the new Bimota DB5 and the Delirio are some of the most sumptuous motorcycles produced anywhere.

And the list doesn’t end with MV Agusta, Ducati and Bimota. There’s also Aprilia with the very beautiful and aggressive RSV 1000R and the slightly insane Tuono. There’s Moto Morini, with their mind-blowing Corsaro 1200. And there’s Benelli and Laverda and Moto Guzzi, whose long-departed Sei 900, Jota and Le Mans 850 are still remembered with so much fondness, by fans of Italian motorcycles. No doubt, Italian motorcycles have always been special in ways that cannot be explained by real-world logic. Let’s hope they stay that way.

Ducati Desmosedici RR: Whatever next?!

Ducati had announced their intent during the World Ducati Week, back in May 2004. And today, in June 2006, they’ve kept their word. 989cc L4. 205 horsepower. About 165 kilos dry weight. And a top speed in excess of 320km/h. Ducati’s Desmosedici RR, the world’s first road-legal MotoGP replica is go. Okay, so the road going Desmosedici RR has about 35 horsepower less than the bike which Loris Capirossi rode to victory in this year’s MotoGP at Jerez. And Ducati are only building 400 of these bikes, of which more than 300 are already spoken for. Plus, each RR will cost in about US$65,000 so it’s not like you can just rush to the nearest Ducati dealership and put down a deposit on one. But yes, if there’s one thing in the world which makes me want to earn more money, it’s this Ducati. It’s gorgeous beyond its sand-cast aluminium alloy crankcase and cylinder heads. It’s glorious beyond its titanium con-rods and valves. It’s desirable beyond its magnesium engine covers…

Stunning it may be, but the Ducati still isn’t the last word in straight line performance. That honour would have to go to the MTT Y2K, the world’s first and only turbine-powered motorcycle. The Y2K has a Rolls-Royce Allison turbine engine, which makes 320 horsepower, and the bike is capable of hitting a top speed of about 365km/h. Want to see the bike in action? Want to listen to that turbine engine spooling up? Watch this video. Awesome, eh? Forget comparing its performance with other bikes – the Y2K raced an L-39 Aerovodochovy jet aircraft (for a television documentary filmed for Discovery channel), and won repeatedly, over several runs.

All right, most of us would never be able to go shopping for a MotoGP racer replica, or a turbine-powered jet bike. But if you must have 200 horsepower and 320km/h, there’s still hope. The Kawasaki ZZR1400 for example, which costs a relatively modest Rs 7.25 lakh or so. On the track, and off it, the Desmosedici RR will be in a completely different league altogether. And in a straight line, the Y2K will blow the fairing off the ZZR. However, on the road, the ZZR’s 190 horsepower, massive acceleration (in stock form, it does a sub-10 second quarter mile…), and 320km/h top speed should be just about adequate for most.

Performance sells. And just now, it’s selling more than it ever has in the past. Which is ironic really, given the ever more stringent enforcement of speed limits in most parts of the world. But that’s not stopping more manufacturers from getting on the speed and performance bandwagon. It’s gotten to the point where BMW, whose motorcycles most people only associate with genteel tourers, were rumoured to be going to MotoGP in 2007! Not that it's going to happen, but still...

MotoGP bikes for the road and the quest for 400km/h notwithstanding, there’re also other interesting things happening in the world of motorcycles. The German-built Neander for one, which is probably the world’s first motorcycle to be powered by a turbodiesel engine. The 1400cc unit makes 200Nm of torque at 2600rpm and the diesel bike can accelerate from zero to 100km/h in four seconds. Top speed for this 310 kilo cruiser is 220km/h, so laugh at the Neander at your own peril. More oddballs? Take the very recent British-built Gibbs Quadski – a 140bhp quad, that’s also a jet-ski. Its wheels retract at the touch of a button when you want to use it on water, and the thing can do up to 80km/h on either land or water. Production, I kid you not, is expected to begin within the next three years. What will they ever think of next.

Update (26.09.2006): Ducati have got more than 700 orders for the Desmosedici RR and are planning a second production line to meet orders!

Mods and Ends

We motorcyclists like the idea of bolt-on performance. If replacing a couple of stock parts with a few easily available (and not hugely expensive) aftermarket items gives us a bit more horsepower and a few more km/h, we’re all for it. And hence, this month, my Hyosung Comet GT250 has been at the receiving end of two transplants – the stock air-filter has been replaced with a K&N unit, and the standard, super-quiet (and very heavy!) exhaust can has been replaced with a much lighter, free-flow, stainless steel aftermarket can. And while I agree it’s morally reprehensible, the very restrictive catalytic converter has also been assigned to the dustbin. The shock has been cranked up to max preload setting in order to put a bit more weight on the front wheel and to make it steer a bit more quickly. It works!

We haven’t yet had a chance to pit the bike against our V-Box test equipment, but what I can tell you at this time is that with the K&N filter fitted, the bike definitely does feel like it’s breathing more easily, and the engine is revving more freely now. Fitting the filter took a fair amount of work – fiddling, drilling and fettling – but it’s finally working perfectly now. We haven’t re-jetted the bike yet, but once I log a few hundred kilometers, we’ll see if that’s needed.

With the new free-flow exhaust can, the Comet finally sounds like a proper V-twin motorcycle rather than an electric sewing machine. With the cat-con dumped, and this free-flow system in place, the bike is revving all the way to redline and easily going up to an indicated 145km/h. It’s also noticeably more responsive at lower rpm, and an earlier low-rev flatspot seems to have been eliminated completely. Perfect! Now all that remains is to pit the bike against our V-Box and see how it fares against a stock bike...

Also see:
Hyosung TrendKiller and GT650X


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