morocco dades gorge

Sand Dunes & Souks

It goes without saying that 2020 has not exactly been the year for international travel, with or without a motorcycle. The world grinding to a halt has brought uncertainty and frustrations to many of us and as a keen motorcycle traveller, who loves nothing more than making a beeline for Folkestone and the Channel Tunnel when the summer arrives, I’ve certainly felt this. That said, the change in pace has brought its advantages and a chance to reflect on past trips. I recently found myself flicking longingly through photos of Morocco which I visited in September and October 2019 just before all the borders closed. Whether you are a seasoned traveller of the Maghreb, or you have Morocco on the bucket list, I hope you find my experiences of this wonderful country interesting.

Having seen a fair amount of Europe on the bike, I was keen to venture a little further from home. Morocco had really appealed to me for some time, mainly because I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I booked three weeks off work and set sail on the Santander ferry from Plymouth. Not owning a ‘proper’ adventure bike, the trip was done on my Yamaha FZ8. Absolutely no off-road capability, questionable luggage-carrying capacity, and high mileage from being used as my commuter made it an interesting choice, but it had two wheels and an engine so it was good enough for me. Also, it was my only option!

Rif mountains.

The first part of the trip was fairly standard, the 24-hour crossing the Bay of Biscay, then making my way down through Spain, stopping in Burgos, Madrid, Malaga and finally in Algeciras. I had made the decision not to camp on this trip so was booking cheap hostels along the way. Algeciras was the destination as it was here I planned to make the crossing to Africa. On approach to the port town there are dozens of kiosks and travel agents advertising crossings to Tangier Med, meaning there is no need to book from home and making it very easy to remain flexible. I was lucky enough to find a very helpful agent who booked me a flexible ticket both ways and even threw in a free bottle of wine. I chose a cheap hostel overlooking the port and took an early crossing the next day.

My first night’s accommodation was in Chefchaouen, the ‘blue city’. I had met up with another solo traveller on the ferry and we decided to grab lunch in Tangier, a 45km drive around the N16 coastal road from Tangier Med. The first five miles out of Tangier Med make you feel a long way from home – just two hours on a ferry and you have arrived in a totally different world. The crowds lining the sides of the main roads, the small shacks and the barren landscape are a far cry from the relative greenery and affluence you left behind in Western Europe a few hours ago. Shortly after, we went our separate ways and I joined the N2, winding my way through the northern Rif Mountains into the touristy blue town. On arrival in Chefchaouen, and like most major towns and cities, you are unable to get anywhere near the centre with your vehicle, which is where most of the hotels are. Tipping a local to help you find a safe spot for the bike and your way to the hotel is a wise move, as the old streets can be maze like.


Todra river.

One night in the blue city was more than enough. The town that looks so idyllic on Instagram exposed as some old building painted blue in real life, and the small narrow streets are plagued by tourist overcrowding. I took the backroads to Fes from here, avoiding the signposted main roads and opting instead for the R408, a very rural back route.

This was a good move as it was quiet, beautiful and full of small communities where you see the real Morocco. Stopping anywhere near these villages attracts a crowd in seconds which at first can seem intimidating, but you soon realise that the locals just want to say hi and be friendly.

Arriving in Fes, I was hailed by a parking attendant and ushered into his car park. This seemed a bit of a con at first, but I accepted, paid and tipped him an extra 10 Dirham (80 pence) to look after my bike whilst I spent a couple of days in the city. This tip turned out to be the bargain of the holiday. On my return he was very proud to show me that he had remodelled his corrugated iron barn around my chained-up bike. Slightly embarrassed of having doubted the man, and humbled by his generosity and hard work, I tipped him again before loading the bike up and heading out into the Sahara. The cities are full of people who will harass you for money and it’s wise to be vigilant to this, but you will be bowled over by how kind the vast majority of people in this country are to travellers. Fes is a fascinating place to spend some time if you want a break from the bike, with plenty of interesting attractions and activity to fill a rest day.

It was after leaving Fes that the fun motorcycling really started. The N13 heads south from the city and is a fantastic road with long sweeping bends that take you into the peaks and give the full view of the vast desert you are passing through. I continued this road to Errachidia and onto Merzouga the following day. The latter part of this turns into long straight desert roads which can be a bit of a slog in the heat, but it is worth heading south to experience the vast sand dunes and rolling desert scenery.

Touring in Morocco on my FZ8

Another must see whilst in this part of the country is the Todra Gorge, with its single-track mountain roads through the vast canyon of the Todra river and the famous mountain pass of Dadès Gorge. Even in peak season, these roads are reasonably quiet and are the perfect playground on two wheels. The scenery will take your breath away around every corner too.

After a couple of days of exploring mountain passes, only to eventually discover they turned to gravel tracks and turning back (on account of my lack of knobbly tyres), I picked up the famous Tichka pass, which takes you north from the Atlas mountains and into Marrakesh. I was looking forward to Tichka, but had unfortunately timed it with some fairly major resurfacing work, meaning dozens of harsh gravel sections which were causing punctures in trucks and 4x4s. Miraculously I made it through without an issue and into the city. Biking through this bustling city in the heat was not an experience I would repeat in a hurry. On approach I was harassed by kids on mopeds trying to sell me directions, something which was made worse when a local crashed into the back of my bike as I stopped to avoid a pedestrian. Fortunately, we were both okay and there was no damage.

It was in Marrakesh that I decided to wander the souk, an experience I would highly recommend. Largely unchanged in format for centuries, the souks are a labyrinth of stall traders and a fascinating insight into Moroccan culture. As I have a love of cooking, I treated myself to a traditional Moroccan tagine. Looking back, buying fragile cookware when you’re a thousand miles away from home on a motorcycle, isn’t the most sensible thing to do. And in a scene which wouldn’t have been out of place in a ‘Top Gear’  special, I found myself disposing of some of my best Primark apparel to accommodate it in the top box. I was extremely pleased, and shocked when I unpacked it in Reading with not so much as a chip on it.

The day had arrived for me to head for the port and back to Europe. I had seen the best bits and always planned for a day of motorways, it seemed a fair trade off for more time in the Atlas Mountains and rest days exploring the cities. The port at the weekend is far busier and chaotic than during the week, with ferry timetables seeming to go out the window and boats missing their arrival time slots the journey back to Spain took just shy of 12 hours, and I arrived in the early hours of a Monday morning. I had enough time during the final leg of the tour to ride round the Algarve before heading North through Portugal, crossing Northern Spain, into the Picos and back to Santander for the sail home. I arrived back home late Sunday night before dragging the bike back out for the Monday morning commute up the M4 into London, still covered in red Saharan dust.

Fantastic roads, unbelievable scenery, a warm and welcoming culture and great value for money means I’d highly recommend Morocco as a biking destination. One of the best things about motorcycle travel for me is the feeling of how joined up the world really is, and this is hard to ignore after a trip to this amazing country. You can leave your home in the UK, jump on your bike and a few days later be riding past some sand dunes in the Sahara Desert. There are a few ferries and a bit of paperwork to navigate in between but it really is that simple. You do not need any expensive equipment or special vehicle to visit Morocco – I am a firm believer that the best Adventure motorcycle is the one stood in your garage – just a bit of common sense and a thirst for adventure.

A few tips for first time visitors:

Motor Insurance and Currency
The Moroccan Dirham is a closed currency, meaning it cannot be bought outside of Morocco. Entering Tangier, you will see kiosks selling the Dirham which is roughly 12 to the Pound.

On arrival the port authority will ask for your V5 and they will issue you with a small card. Use this at a kiosk in the port to buy your Motor Insurance, which cost 30 Euros for 10 days. Periodic police checkpoints in Morocco will ask you for this card so keep it somewhere handy. Most checkpoints wave you through and if they do stop, they are very friendly with no issues.

Accommodation is inexpensive in Morocco. Even in the relatively touristy rural areas of High Atlas and Dadès Gorge, you can get a nice room with breakfast and dinner included for around 25 euros. I was in Morocco in late September and early October, one of the most popular times with travellers avoiding the height of the summer and never struggled with finding somewhere. I tended to book a day ahead online but had a couple of times where I just found somewhere en-route.

It’s worth checking out the Riads. These tend to be family run and have 2-3 rooms. The hosts I met were incredibly accommodating, and they were great value for money. A great way to get a more local feel and some delicious home cooking.

Food and Drink
You will find plenty of roadside restaurants, and supermarkets are common in the towns for lunch on the go. For those worried about food hygiene, most traditional Moroccan dishes are slow cooked so I had no real issues. Avoid salads and drink bottled water only. Hotels and restaurants do not serve alcohol, but it’s easily found in supermarkets if you want a few cans.

Local driving
As you can probably imagine, the driving standards are not quite on par with, say, TVAM standards. There are broadly two types of vehicle to watch out for, the 40-year-old Mercedes van with four odd wheels carrying 8 tons of luggage on the roof, and the highly impatient tourist minibuses. Neither want to wait for you, or get out of the way, and neither will factor their vehicle’s limitations into their overtakes. Go round every corner expecting the worse and be ready to back off. If you brave the motorway for whatever reason, be extra careful.

The road quality is also worth mentioning. The surface is generally good, however I encountered lots of road improvement works which see you sent out onto a gravel track for a short stretch. I was on road BT023 Battlax sport touring tyres on the Fazer and was fine but keep this in mind, both when riding and deciding whether to pack for puncture repairs. If you are on a bike with off-road capability this should be no problem at all.

As a precaution I kept my camera in my lockable top box and all my documents, money and phone in my tank bag which I never left behind…exactly the same as I would at home. I took a lightweight lock and used it but rarely felt like it was necessary.

In terms of personal safety, I never felt at risk in the rural areas. Wandering around the cities alone at night is not advisable, particularly in Fes. If you want to go out to a restaurant, your hotel will arrange someone to take you and bring you back.

Andy Barnes

First published in Slipstream November 2020

Morocco Overland by Chris Scott is a great book to have whilst planning your trip. Geared up to those going off the tarmac but also extremely useful if you just plan to stay on it!

Zero SR/S (2020) Review

Are motorcycles finally ready to embrace electric motors?

2020 will be remembered for a lot of (mostly terrible) things, but it also stands to become the turning point for electric car ownership in Western Europe. A number of regulatory and social factors have collided with the relentless march of technology, and electric cars are finally good enough to replace their petrol-powered versions for many people.

There is now genuine choice from a broad swathe of manufacturers at a wide range of price points and form factors. Need something cheap and cheerful? The Renault Zoe has you covered. Got kids to haul around? The Kia E-Niro awaits. Money to burn? Sir or Madam’s Porsche Taycan is right over here. Time to replace your Volkswagen Golf? Try the ID3. All good cars at competitive price points, and despite their high-tech electric powertrains they are all genuinely usable real-world transportation.

Car manufacturers in Europe are under the gun of course, with new internal-combustion-engine (ICE) powered cars set to be banned from sale in the next couple of decades. The UK government has triggered one of the shorter countdowns, with 2035 looming large for manufacturers who have yet to dip a serious toe into electric waters. True, questions remain on how those forced to park on the street will charge their cars, and our high-speed recharging infrastructure is a patchwork of broken and incompatible chargers, but I’m confident that those problems can be solved in time. Price and range still leave room for improvement, but we’re honestly not far off. No, the bigger question and my chief concern is how our precious motorcycles will fare in this brave new world.

For now, the upcoming UK ICE ban does not include motorcycles and scooters, so it sounds like you’ll still be able to buy petrol-powered two-wheelers in 2035. Of course, there’s plenty of time for our Government to change its mind, and even if not, it’s only a matter of time before ever-tightening emissions regulations squeeze the petrol out of your tank. It’s also true that our electric two-wheeled choices are getting better, even if pickings are slim at the moment. In a few short years promising newcomers Alta Motors and Mission Motors have both risen and then fallen again, while electric pioneers Zero have been quietly, ahem, plugging away.

Despite Harley-Davidson’s £30,000 Livewire and its high-profile television debut garnering all the publicity, it’s Zero’s new SR/S that caught my eye this year. Essentially a faired version of 2019’s SR/F, the SR/S and its naked sibling mark a turning point in Zero’s product design and capabilities. Their previous offerings with their less powerful, shorter-ranged bikes never caught the imagination of mainstream motorcycling. Performance and finish quality equivalent to a 20-year-old Kawasaki Ninja 250 and asking prices not far removed from high-end Ducatis were of little interest to all but hard-core early adopters, though they did show up in some odd places. I’ve never ridden one because, quite frankly, they were just too expensive and too short-range to be serious contenders for any of my purposes.

But the new SR platform is a very different beast. Gone are the spindly wheels and questionable running gear, and instead we’re looking at proper modern sports bike tackle. Sure, the J. Juan brakes are an oddity and don’t quite match the bite and power of the best Italian or Japanese competitors, but twin four-piston radial-mount calipers are nothing to sniff at. Showa adjustable suspension front and rear ticks a quality box, while LED headlamps and a TFT dashboard present the very picture of high-tech modernity. But where you’d expect to see cylinder heads and a catalyst-packed exhaust system poking out from under shiny plastics, we instead see a lightly-finned battery pack and gold-anodised electric motor.

And what a motor it is. Packing 110bhp and a frankly ridiculous 190Nm from a single moving part, Zero’s latest-generation permanent-magnet brushless motor spools the fat 180-section Pirelli Diablo Rosso 3 rear tyre up through a maintenance-free kevlar belt drive. Numbers like this have to be taken with a pinch of salt, because the way that electric power is delivered is so different to what we’re used to. But in the right throttle mode, the SR/S builds speed more than quickly enough. I actually suspect that output at lower speeds is being limited by the traction control to prevent either burnouts or wheelies, and I wasn’t brave enough to try switching it off.

Conventional… until you notice the lack of exhaust

Zero were one of the first to market.

An unassuming piece, this beast of a motor has to be held back by electronics.

Even my dealer had trouble adjusting the settings, and that was with the bike stationary.

Electric motors deliver 100% of their maximum torque straight from zero rpm, so there’s no waiting for an engine to spool up and into its power band to make swift progress. But also unlike an internal combustion engine, that torque figure never gets any higher as revs climb. In unrestricted form an electric motor’s dyno chart would be a straight diagonal line, with output plummeting as revs rise. The Zero’s chart is weirder still, supporting the theory that the bike is massively limiting its output until almost 4,000 RPM. I suspect that 140Nm isn’t the maximum twist the motor can produce – it’s simply the maximum that the bike’s traction control system has decided that it’s safe to deliver.So what does that feel like to actually ride? Well, it’s…different. An electric motor under load actually makes quite an interesting array of (admittedly quiet) noises, and is honestly a lot more interesting to listen to than many of today’s overly-silenced petrol bikes under many conditions. It is utterly silent when stationary, however, and it’s almost eerie pulling up to a set of traffic lights and being able to hear the sounds of the city or countryside around you. It’s also hilarious to swoop past traffic on the open road in total silence, having changed no gears – just twist and really go.

There’s a hell of a lot to like about electric powertrains. Obviously, electricity is cheaper than petrol, but the fact that you can top up at home and leave the garage with a fresh ‘tank’ every day is a novelty that never gets old – or so I’m told. At a stroke, zero-emissions zones are of no consequence, and you’ll never wake up your neighbours leaving for an early Sunday blast, nor get dirty looks from people as you rattle past them outside peaceful village cafes. The instant on-demand power at any speed is addictive, and you’ll never experience a power train with more immediate throttle-response.

The ownership experience should be more relaxing, too. All those dirty, messy, oily reciprocating parts are gone, replaced with a big sealed battery pack and a spinning shaft inside some electromagnets. There’s no oil to change, no valves to adjust, no filters to replace – not even a chain to lubricate! Aside from your tyres and brakes there’s nothing to warm up when cold, nor anything to bed in when new. An electric motor is a devilishly simple thing compared to the incredible complexity of an internal combustion engine, and needs practically no maintenance. And that’s what makes Zero’s insistence on a 4,000-mile service schedule so baffling. Yes, pivot points need lubricating and brakes and tyres need checking, but not even Suzuki insists on dealer visits that often. Still, an electric motorcycle is a prime candidate for easy low-cost home servicing.

But there are downsides too – both to electric motorcycles in general and the Zero SR/S in particular. Electric motors are extremely efficient at turning energy into motion (95+% is not uncommon) with petrol engines struggling to convert more than 20-35% of their fuel into motion. Yet even state-of-the-art lithium-polymer batteries are hopelessly poor at storing energy when compared to liquid fuels. Based on a number of sources, it’s generally agreed that the energy density of a high-tech 14.4kWh battery pack like the Zero’s is handily beaten by just two litres of bargain-basement supermarket petrol. And that battery pack is heavy, pushing the otherwise mechanically simple SR/S up to a meaty 230kg curb weight.

The efficiency of that electric motor is a good thing then, because I doubt that even my V-Strom 650 would get very far on just two litres of fuel. But while Zero claim 150 miles’ range in the city, after just 13 miles of mixed riding I had already drained 23% of my battery’s charge. Ride normally and a fully-charged battery wouldn’t get you much more than 60 miles. Ride hard and you wouldn’t last an hour before stopping dead at the side of the road. Trundling in a more relaxed manner between public charging points might make a new type of touring possible, but one mistake and you’d be calling for someone to collect you in a van.

No clutch lever, obviously – just direct, instantaneous drive.

Commuting might make more sense. Regenerative braking, where ‘engine braking’ is actually the electric motor converting your unwanted momentum back into electricity, makes stop-start traffic a far less wasteful endeavour, and the average European commute would be comfortably handled by the Zero’s battery pack. My own ~70 mile round-trip to work and back might be a challenge, except that my employer has installed free electric charge points all around the parking lot. I’m the perfect target customer for a good electric motorcycle.

But while the Zero SR/S nails the electric part, it falls somewhat short on being a good motorcycle. I was actually surprised when I checked the specs later and found that the bike weighs ‘only’ 230kg, because on the go it feels like it weighs a lot more. In a straight line, even on bumpy roads the suspension does its best to hide the bulk, but arrive at a corner and suddenly you realise that there is almost no feel from the front forks. I can only surmise that the suspension and chassis are simply underdeveloped, the result of a tech company building a drivetrain first and a motorcycle second. The bike understeers when first tipped in, then dares you to lean it further to complete the turn, all while the front end is communicating nothing about how much grip is actually available. The contrast to Kawasaki’s identically-weighing Ninja 1000SX could not be starker.

Approaching a corner is almost as bad as riding around it. The brakes are fine, but again, the front forks let them down. You don’t have the confidence to squeeze hard, and for some reason the sportier the riding mode, the less of a braking effect the motors are programmed to give you. The result is that you freewheel into every corner as though in sixth gear, yet don’t have the front-end feedback you’d need to trail-brake to compensate. And before anyone suggests dragging the rear brake as a solution, it’s so ineffective that it’s barely adequate for slow-speed manoeuvres, never mind high-speed corner entry!

That battery sits low in the chassis, but doesn’t actually hold that much energy.

J.Juan front brakes are fine, but Showa-sourced forks deliver little feedback.

Unpack your sandwiches and a good book, and plug in the charger.

Direct-action shock absorbs bumps well, with plenty of adjustability.

Perhaps these handling issues are merely a symptom of my age-old problem – I simply don’t weigh as much as the suspension’s designers anticipated. Zero is an American manufacturer, so their average rider specification may well skew heavier than the European or Japanese brands. I am usually able to determine whether a suspension is otherwise good or bad just by riding it, and can make an educated guess as to how the bike would perform once adjusted for my lighter stature. But in the case of the SR/S, I simply can’t tell. Maybe the Zero would positively scythe down British B-roads after £1,000’s worth of suspension work, but that’s a heck of a gamble on an already £20,000+ motorcycle.

Switching the bike into ‘Street’ or even ‘Eco’ mode cranks up the regenerative engine braking in stages, and ‘Eco’ provides much more natural control going into bends as a result. But with the throttle set this way getting back on the power is so slow and woolly that you lose all precision, making corner exits a sloppy mess. My dealer tells me that it’s possible to configure a ‘Custom’ mode that would combine the crisp throttle-response of ‘Sport’ with the maximum engine braking I craved, so maybe that would provide a solution for more enthusiastic riding.

But switching back into a gentler mode for cruising is not easy. The clunky mode-switch requires multiple press-and-hold operations, and you’ll need to spend a frankly dangerous amount of time looking at the dashboard to confirm that your inputs have been registered before moving on to the next stage in the process. Imagine trying to program the timer on a digital watch while also riding a motorcycle and you’re just about there. The heated grips are a similar story – adjusting the heat requires delving into a menu and holding various mode switches down for a few seconds. Would an extra button or two really have been so hard?

And the thing is, when riding progressively an experienced motorcyclist will adjust their engine braking constantly by selecting the appropriate gear for the speed and difficulty of each corner. Binding the regenerative engine braking to throttle modes makes this impossible, and makes you wonder why there isn’t a foot-operated lever of sorts that would allow you to adjust the level of the effect in real-time? Electric cars do this exact thing with paddles behind the steering wheel, and the concept works perfectly.

The overall impression the bike gives is of a product entirely built around its core technology, with details at the periphery left as something of an afterthought. The much-lauded hard luggage requires one of the ugliest pieces of bolt-on scaffolding I’ve ever seen, and the optional top-box mount is barely integrated at all. The bike is meant to epitomise the latest in high-tech transportation, yet features what I believe are 2006 Triumph Daytona 675 filament-bulb indicators. The switchgear is rather cheap and nasty, and the plastic hatches on the faux-tank and charging ports are very flimsy indeed. When so much of the bike oozes class, these other pieces stand out a mile and would really spoil the ownership experience.

No gear lever, of course, but you do get belt-drive and a centre stand.

The seat seems fine for short trips; you’ll never get a chance to try it on long ones.

The seat and general riding position is relatively comfortable and nicely detailed, the paint and lines of the bodywork clean and uncluttered in pleasant comparison to many modern motorcycles. The wing mirrors are incredible – mounted low, like old BMW tourers, they provide a clear rear view completely devoid of shoulder or elbow. I’m a fan of the clean and easy-to-read dash, even if the user interface for configuring it is a nightmare. For my height the windshield works really well, keeping pressure off my chest but directing clean airflow at my helmet. With the handling issues resolved, it would be a lovely motorcycle to spend time on.

Low mounted mirrors are excellent, something other manufacturers should take note of.

Really well-judged screen is effective, with no adjustment necessary or possible.

Of course, that brings us back to the range, because you’d be spending just as much time drinking coffee while it charged as you would riding it. And that’s not really Zero’s fault, who have been relentless in their push to bring practical electric motorcycling to the mass market. Harley-Davidson’s LiveWire can reportedly get a little further on a full charge and has the added benefit of DC fast-charging support, rare as such chargers are in the UK. Given Harley-Davidson’s more extensive experience of actually building motorcycles, perhaps the overall result is a little more cohesive – although you’ll certainly pay for it. A brand-new LiveWire makes Harley’s petrol bikes seem cheap at an eye-watering £30,000 a piece.

Consider the specifications and performance of both these examples and you’d reasonably expect petrol-powered equivalents to cost around half what Zero and Harley-Davidson are asking for their premium electric motorcycles. And while electric cars seem to be around £5,000-10,000 more than their internal-combustion cousins on a spec-for-spec basis, it’s a fact that those massive battery packs add a tremendous cost to the parts list. The SR/S and LiveWire have batteries that are much, much smaller, so where is all that extra money going?

I fear that the answers lie in sales volume and development costs. Even if electric vehicle battery cells can be purchased wholesale from any number of suppliers these days, developing a good motor and the supporting electronics costs money. Then there’s the engineering required to slot it all into a modern chassis, whose design has been steered by the physical dimensions and necessities of internal combustion engines for more than 100 years. Styling, marketing, user interface design – all the things that don’t directly contribute towards the individual cost of a product must still be paid for in the end, and when that cost is spread over a relatively small number of customers, each sale must cover a larger chunk. Later, when all that prior expense has been paid off, and if the products continue to sell, then prices can come down. That’s why a new Suzuki SV650 today is significantly cheaper than its inflation-adjusted 1999 ancestor. Cars, even electric ones, can amortise those costs over hundreds of times as many actual sales, rapidly closing the gap on their petrol-powered versions.

The people who jump in at those early price points, who are willing to pay an outsized chunk of the manufacturer’s research & development costs are called early adopters, and it is they who Zero and Harley-Davidson and all the other nascent electric motorcycle manufacturers are aiming for. They need that money to pay for the work that’s already been done, so that future models can be offered to the rest of us at more palatable price tags. And perhaps some of that money will go towards refining the experience, sanding down the rough edges and ensuring that those future products aren’t just notable for their powertrain, but instead notable for being really great motorcycles.

First published in Slipstream December 2020

TFT dash is easy to read, but the user interface is an ergonomic disaster.

That battery doesn’t cost £10,000, so why is the SR/S £10k more than a Ninja 1000SX?

And if it sounds like I’m disappointed, it’s because I am. I really wanted to come back from my time with the SR/S gushing that it was worth the sky-high price, that electric bikes had finally reached the point when they were good enough to not only compete with conventionally-powered motorcycles, but to replace them as well. If you’re a technology enthusiast with money to burn and can overlook the many rough edges then there’s plenty to recommend here. But for everyone else, I have to recommend sticking with petrol for a couple of years longer.Nick Tasker
Rear brake is terrible, barely enough for low-speed manoeuvres.

Why I Bought a KTM 790 Duke

I’d had my Suzuki SV650N for 8 years and it was time for a change. I now own a KTM Duke 790 which is fantastic – though not the usual choice for a step up from an SV. What led me to the KTM?

I had been pondering a new bike for a while, as I had outgrown my elderly SV and needed more power. The decider for me was a 250 mile TVAM ride in August in the wind and rain on my underpowered SV650…. time for a new bike.

I wanted a bike with a bit of spirit that I wouldn’t outgrow quickly, yet calm and stable, light [not more than 170kg], upright and flickable but would double up as a tourer with a bit of kit on it. I also wanted riding modes, abs, traction control and an up and down quick-shifter, and it had to be narrow and light enough to squeeze through the alleyway to my back garden.

Initially I looked at the F900XR, Shiver 900, Tracer 900GT, Tiger 900GT pro, MT07 and the Street Triple. Although these are great bikes, none of them actually fitted me or my requirements, and I had to be quite disciplined in turning away from them. This was hard.

So what did I need? Well, what mattered most of all [after the squeeze] was that I needed an upright seating position – less stress on the joints. Looking up and using my SV as a comparison, I was able to see what it would be like sitting on different bikes. I know this sounds rather mechanical but it was actually very helpful, further proven from visiting dealerships to sit on bikes. It was fun going in with my list of what I NEEDED not what have you got, and helped me see through the marketing blurb. indicated the KTM naked sports bike Duke range. Power-wise for me, this meant either the 690 or 790.  Anything bigger was wider and therefore irrelevant – I know you can get narrow bars for any bike but this was a mod too far for me. I wanted to keep it simple.

So it was down to the KTM Duke 690 or 790. A spin on Chris Brownlee’s 690R single was delightful – I came back saying, it’s really light I must have said it about 3 times, I was astonished at how quick and nippy it was yet stable and solid. However I wanted more technical gadgets and a twin, so this led me to the 790 and Alan Bradford who gave me loads of helpful tips on his, thank you.

I had first seen the KTM Duke 790 aka ‘The Scalpel’ in a ‘Ride’ magazine a couple of years back in 2018. The mere name of it put me right off. Who rides a bike called a scalpel? But two years on I saw it in a different light, looking closely at its features and found that it ticked all my boxes. I was ready to book in a test ride.

I loved it from the start. It was amazing. Light, powerful, flexible and equally at home filtering through town or out on the twisties. A little windy at high speeds and the original seat was like a plank but this was sorted with a touring screen and their comfort ergo seat. A parallel twin and 105bhp but only 169kg – perfect. Great price at £7,500 new for the 2020 version which I recommend, as they have re-designed and fixed some issues prevalent in the earlier version.

A second test ride confirmed my selection and I was ready to buy.

Early days were spent on local roads, learning all the technology – I had never had anything like this before, not even ABS on the SV. The emissions requirements make it a bit twitchy at low speed but I adapted and it doesn’t bother me now – choosing a lower riding mode helps. It is also a bit vibey at higher speeds but not excessive. Everything else is fabulous!

The first 600 miles were running it in so I was careful not to over-rev it. It felt like learning to ride all over again which was a surprise [only my second middle-weight bike]. A little ‘red mist’ was quickly eradicated by my advanced rider training.

At 1,000 miles, what do I like about it so far? It has had its first service, oil change and the full rev range has been unleashed. This bike just keeps giving and giving, right through the rev range. It accelerates really quickly, is light and fun through the twisties yet stable and not intimidating. I don’t feel overpowered by it and love the different riding modes, abs and lean-sensitive traction control. I’m loving the quick-shifter and auto-blipper. Narrow for filtering and lovely sounding – bangs and pops through the exhaust. The suspension, though not adjustable on the forks, feels well set up, and the preload is adjustable. I have it on the comfort setting and it is great. This bike gives me the potential to grow with it. I currently ride in the ‘street’ mode but am looking forward to exploring the sport and track modes. Would I recommend it? Absolutely! Check it out, what have you got to lose?

Catherine Russell

First published in Slipstream November 2020

National Road Rally 2020

On 12th September 2020, Stef Bellon, Hev & Barrie Smith (me 😊) took part in the National Road Rally (NRR).

Stef and I have completed the rally on previous occasions, on our own and with other people, and we completed the 20hr rally in 2017 with Andy McWalter. This was Hev’s first time riding in the event. I appreciate that many of our members have also taken part as individuals or formed small teams of between 2 & 4 people. TVAM members have traditionally done well in the rally with ‘Thame Village Idiots’, AKA Si Rawlins, Chris Bowler and Martin Cragg, regularly winning the overall team event for many years. Si also tells me that a TVAM member won the overall individual award a few years ago.

I should explain what the NNR entails. The quote direct from the NRR website is, “the National Road Rally is a navigational scatter rally organised in conjunction with ACU and the BMF. The event is not a race and each rider follows their own route, visiting different controls around the country, the only time stipulation is that riders complete their route in the allotted time. The number of controls each rider visits will depend on the award that they are competing for.”

Traditionally there are thirteen award categories that riders could compete for: five daytime awards; three night-time awards; three 20hr awards; and two 20hr awards with special assessments involved at the start of the rally. The different awards were calculated based on start times and total points or distance travelled between controls. The matrix gives you a number of points between each control, ranging from 20 to 50 points and these are what you’re credited despite how far you actually travel. It’s worthy of note that you can only arrive at a control that is linked by the matrix to your previous control. For example, we could travel from Sherfield On Loddon to Winchester to Horndean because they were linked, however we couldn’t go direct from Sherfield On Loddon to Horndean because they’re not linked on the matrix.

Due to Covid-19, this year the NRR was reduced to an 11hr rally and it ran from 09:00 until 20:00 on the day. The reduced hours did not appear to put riders off. The awards page of the NRR website shows that 590 riders took part this year, compared to 600 in 2019 and 576 in 2018. This is across the whole of England.

As a team, we decided that we would go for the Gold Award, which meant that we had to start between 09:00 and 10:00, finish by 20:00 and visit 12 controls obtaining a minimum of 265 points and a maximum of 280 points.

We arrived at Reading Harley Davidson at Winnersh Triangle at 08:45 ready to get on the road and have a fun day out riding motorcycles around the countryside. Stef had already plotted the route, using the matrix to create a circular route, meaning that our first and twelfth controls would be Winnersh. Leaving Harley Davidson at 09:00 we knew that we had an unpressured 11hrs ahead of us. The stops that you have to comply with, a minimum of 45mins, happen naturally with re-fuelling and eating so the biggest challenge of the day was avoiding the largest roads whilst still meeting our target of finishing by 8pm.

Stef led us on the first leg to Sherfield On Loddon, a lovely, twisty, typical-Stef road, with the odd emergency stop to avoid him going past the goat track he intended to take next! Plenty of gravel on the road but at least no fords on this occasion. We arrived at the control postcode to find that the old garage had been turned into a hair salon. No use at all to Stef and I and even Hev didn’t appear that impressed. On consulting the control details in our rider packs, we found that the garage was still in operation at the back of the salon. A quick walk down the side road and we found it.

In previous years each control was clearly visible, often with a gazebo and people gently beckoning you over to them with the concern that the average rider cannot see a huge tent in the middle of a car park! This year, due to the current restrictions, each control consisted of an A4 size fluorescent piece of paper with the NRR logo and a six-figure control number written on it with a black permanent marker. Unfortunately, not all of these pieces of paper were located in the most obvious position.

We advanced sort of people with our sharpness of observation should have found these easy to spot, or so you would have thought! Ok, we got there in the end and noted the control number and time on our control cards. We were awarded 20 points for the first leg.

We switched leaders and I led the next leg to Winchester, taking in the A33 to Basingstoke and then the B3046 through the Candovers before picking up the A31 to Winnall, Winchester. Stef and I knew this control well, as it’s a regular on the rally.

After a short stop we continued south-west to Totton, which is as far south as we went before heading north-west to Amesbury and Countess Services. Yes, the controls are often in the most beautiful locations! We made this our lunch stop, with a baguette from Subway, and spent about 45mins chatting whilst sat on a nice grassy spot at the back of the services. As I said, there was no real pressure on time and we needed to ensure that we remained fresh throughout the full day’s riding.

Our next leg took us west to Warminster and, as the A303 was congested and uninspiring, we headed north to Durrington before turning west through Larkhill, Shrewton, Chitterne and then picked up the A36 to Warminster. The control was in the services and, struggling to find it, we headed around to the filling station to fill the bikes. Sure enough there was the control poster, stuck on the filling station window.

From here our route took us north through Devizes, another control, and on to Cricklade our 8th Control point. The controls and points were ticking by nicely. From Cricklade the route went through some of the nicest countryside the west of England has to offer, the Cotswolds. We went west through Ashton Keynes and past the Cotswold Airport on our way to Nailsworth, our next control. The control here was at the Weighbridge Inn, the regular place for the control point for the rally and a lovely little pub that I could imagine was heavily frequented by locals eating and drinking in normal times. From here we turned north to pick up the Cirencester road (A419), bypassing Cirencester and crossing the A417 at Quarry Junction. We worked our way east until we picked up the B4425, a fantastic road that cuts through the Cotswolds to the beautiful village of Bibury. We continued north-east along the B4425, through Aldsworth and up to join the A40 at Burford.

The A40 was busy, as we were now late afternoon, and Stef decided to take a short detour, basically the wrong exit, off the roundabout with the A361 that landed him up a dead-end. He realised as he looked to his right to see myself and Hev riding slowly along the A40 laughing! A kind couple stopped to let him across the path to re-join the A40 heading towards Oxford. It wasn’t long before we turned down to Carterton our 10th control point. We couldn’t avoid a few extra minutes laughing at Stef’s error a few miles before! We only had two control points to go now and plenty of time on our side.

We headed south past Brize Norton and down to pick up the A417 at Stanford in the Vale. At Challow we picked up the B4001 and headed down to Lambourn and on to Chilton Foliat before picking up the A4 at Hungerford. We had to head towards Marlborough on the A4, as the control point was at Froxfield. With about an hour and a half left, we set out east to return to our original control point in Winnersh, taking the A4 for much of the route to Theale before heading across to Burghfield, Grazeley, Three Mile Cross and Shinfield. We arrived at Winnersh shortly after 7pm and, having completed all twelve control points, accumulated 270 points and done it all within the 11hr timeframe, we achieved the gold award. Our total mileage was just under 300 miles for the day.

We then had to log the controls we visited, the six figure control numbers and the points between the controls onto the NRR website in order to gain our award.

The day worked well because we had three riders that worked well together. We changed the leader for each stage and made sure that we rode to the standard we’re known for in TVAM. We stopped regularly to refuel ourselves and the bikes and generally kept the day light-hearted and relaxed. We didn’t push beyond our comfort zone and, if one of us saw something from another rider that we weren’t happy with, we stopped.

Hopefully the 2021 event will be back to the more normal event with manned controls and plenty of fun interaction with the great people that look after those points across the country.

If anyone is looking for a fun day’s riding, then the 2021 event is planned for Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th July.

Barrie Smith

First published in Slipstream November 2020

Girl Torque

The official TVAM discussion group for women members.

In September we finally started to get some runs going that I had promised the group pre-Covid. After rides out to Aston Pottery and then down to Longstock on the first two Saturdays of the month, both in glorious sunshine and September warmth, our third run of the month saw rather chillier autumnal temperatures taking over, with a couple of the group breaking out their electrically heated gear! Okay, I did have my heated grips on and also changed from my summer to winter gloves and added a layer.

Despite the coolness of the weather, the sun was shining and our little group headed out from St Crispin’s, which I haven’t seen since 2019, to enjoy Bryan Symon’s route which you will find on our centre pages this month. Starting from the Sainsbury’s store at Calcot we headed straight out onto country roads, thoroughly enjoying this first section. Bryan’s first marked stop was at The Grocer Chef, about 40 minutes into the route in the small village of Ardington. The cafe, also the village shop, had plenty of outdoor seating and we ordered coffee, managing to resist the cakes and pastries on offer. Our host was a keen motorcyclist and had rushed out to the front of the premises to see what we were riding, but in line with the route instructions we had parked up round the back of the buildings a short distance away. Note that you have to walk round past the bakery to access the front of the shop/café. If you can find your way into the centre of the village you can park immediately outside.

The Grocer Chef, Ardlington.

The Old Post Office, Guiting Power.

Refreshed we headed on north towards Charlbury and beyond before turning westwards and further into the Cotswolds on empty roads with a mix of fields of harvested crops, sheep, small towns and villages to view, then filtering through Stow-on-the-Wold and across the always busy A429 Fosse Way before heading to Lower Sewell on a narrow country road leading us up and away to our second stop, and time for lunch at The Old Post Office in Guiting Power. Parking around the corner we walked back to hopefully find some availability. With only a few busy two-seater tables at the front we were seated at the only available table inside this quaint eatery and shop, our luck was in. Ram-packed with odd bric-a-brac, cards and gifts we felt we had landed in a time warp. The food was excellent with lots of choice, a great stop for lunch or at any time as the cakes looked delicious too. Make sure you have a browse upstairs where even the toilet is decked out in items for sale.

The Old Post Office, Guiting Power.

The Old Post Office, Guiting Power.

The Old Post Office, Guiting Power.

Court Hill Centre (inside)

Court Hill Centre (outside)

The first section of the afternoon led us through the Cotswolds, again through lovely countryside and villages, plus an extremely busy Bourton-on-the-Water, looking like it would at any normal time with little use of masks apparent and people in close proximity everywhere you looked – well we weren’t stopping, just passing through thankfully. A fast and flowing ride took us to Court Hill Centre, arriving at 4.05pm, to find it was closed at 4pm. But not to worry, they were really accommodating and served us coffee, tea and cakes with no pressure to drink up and leave quickly. From there we opted for the more rural journey back to the start through Chieveley, Hermitage and Yattendon before waving each other goodbye as we approached Reading.

This is a lovely ride I will certainly repeat, all the stops were must do’s, with friendly and welcoming staff.


Salli G

First published in Slipstream October 2020

Moto Guzzi V85TT Review

An absolute winner on paper; can the reality live up to my expectations?

Now here is a bike I’ve been waiting a very long time to ride. I never found time last year, and with the pandemic shuttering the country for months on end it’s taking some time to work through my shortlist of sensible do-it-all motorcycles. Can Moto-Guzzi’s retro-inspired entry into the increasingly-crowded market win me over?

On paper, things look pretty good. Technical specifications list a modest 80bhp from the modified 850cc version of Moto-Guzzi’s venerable ‘small-block’ twin pushing an acceptable 229kg wet weight. Part of this mass is accounted for by the class-leading 23 litre fuel capacity, a welcome sight in a world where BMW’s F900XR carries just 15 litres. ABS and traction-control are to be expected, full LED lighting is on-trend, but cruise control is still a welcome surprise. Four-piston Brembo front brakes bode well, and an air-cooled shaft-driven drivetrain is a fantastic recipe for a low-maintenance motorcycle.

Build quality is first class, even if aesthetics are highly subjective. I can appreciate the retro styling, but some colour schemes are definitely more appealing than others. There are fine details galore, including the Moto-Guzzi wings emblem designed right into the twin headlight housing as an LED running light. Paint is glossy and thick-looking but the number of exposed alloy surfaces suggest a salty winter might not be a good idea. Still, this is clearly a clean-sheet design – there are model-specific castings everywhere, and even the V9-derived engine is essentially all-new for this application.

Colour dash is modern, but very much a first effort with clunky menus and tiny text.

850cc 90-degree longitudinal twin has lost none of its character.

The rather small full-colour dashboard comes to life with a flashy animation, confirming that Moto-Guzzi are trying hard to be taken seriously in an increasingly high-tech market. But the noise and physical response that result from pressing (and holding) the starter button tell a very different story. The starter motor clunks, seethes, and whines, and the two cylinders cough and splutter into life after a second and settle into a loping, uneven idle. This is nothing like the refined experience recent BMW boxer twins have become; it’s far more akin to coaxing a Harley-Davidson to life.

That engine – and the sensations and motions it generates in the chassis even before you’ve selected first gear – set the tone for the entire riding experience of the V85TT. My words on that score should not necessarily be taken as criticism – I happen to love this sort of mechanical theatre. It gives each ride a sense of drama and occasion, but others may find the crudeness at odds with their expectations and quickly resent it.

Holding the bike upright in preparation for takeoff, the whole machine throbs beneath you, and blipping the throttle causes the chassis to twist to the right in reaction to the spinning crankshaft. Dropping into first is a little clunky, but once warmed up the gearbox is as slick as any I’ve used, to the point where clutchless shifting becomes easy and fun. Not that using the clutch is hard work – it’s feather-light, a modern affectation that hints at the modern engineering lurking beneath the old-school aesthetic. The ride-by-wire throttle is equally light, enabling the one-button cruise control and variable riding modes that, while having zero discernible effect, are de riguer for any new motorcycle in 2020.

Once on the move, the mixed bag of new and old starts to become more problematic. The brakes work as well as you would expect from premium parts, and the suspension is on the good side of firm, but never quite settles. Turn-in is a little slow, possibly due to the extra weight of those spoked and tubed wheels. Still, the wide handlebars make it easy enough to lever the V85TT into corners, where it will happily hold or adjust a line without complaint. Trundling around town, the throttle seems a little imprecise, and there’s a definite feeling of stumbling from the engine, especially down low. I suspect that tuning an air-cooled engine to pass 2020 emissions regulations required some difficult compromises, and the ride-by-wire throttle is clearly being used to filter throttle inputs in compensation for the dips and bumps in the torque curve.

I like to think I’m a technical guy, but I couldn’t get the V85’s cruise control to work at all.

Beautiful to look at. Worst seat ever.

Outside of 30 mph speed limits some issues become magnified. The bike I rode was still being run in, with the engine speed limited by the computer to just 7,000RPM. Anything above 5,000 generated an increasingly distressing array of Christmas lights on the dashboard as the on-board computer implored me to take things easy with the new engine. As such, short-shifting was the order of the day, and while the 850cc 90-degree twin is willing enough low down, there isn’t enough power there for progressive overtakes, and not enough of a rev ceiling to go in search of all of the power plant’s claimed 80 horses. Once the unusually-long 1,000-mile running-in period was over and the full range of the engine could be used, things might be easier, but I can’t imagine the engine vibrating any less at higher revs. While this is one area where I was unable to make a fair assessment, I’m confident in saying that this is an engine that will always be happier on a relaxed trundle than a spirited ride.

And honestly, that could be said for the entire motorcycle. The firm yet unsettled suspension detracts from the enjoyment of the ride, giving a worryingly numb or detached feeling. Combined with the rather imprecise throttle, the V85TT comes across as somewhat bewildered at or above the national speed limit – more of an ivory-handled butter knife than a carbon-steel scalpel. But then you have to ask yourself – what would you rather have in your hand when buttering a scone during an unhurried afternoon tea?

The fact is, the Moto-Guzzi V85TT might be very good at a certain type of motorcycling, and might be the perfect choice for a certain type of motorcyclist. That person would still need to do something about the horrendous windshield, which generated buffeting so bad it almost gave me a headache after an hour. Standing full upright on the pegs only just put my helmet out into clear air, while ducking right down improved matters significantly.

Next, a new owner will need to do something about the worst seat I’ve ever encountered on a motorcycle. I can see what Moto-Guzzi were trying to do – it’s narrow near the front to facilitate a shorter reach to the ground, and wider further back for comfortable seating. But pushing yourself back that far creates an uncomfortable reach to the bars and prevents you from bracing your knees against the tank. I understand that shorter riders need to be accommodated, but those riders would also have even shorter arms, making this configuration a lose-lose for all parties. Moto-Guzzi offer an optional comfort seat, but I wouldn’t be enthusiastic about gambling on that solution with my own money.

Every bike should have a shaft drive, in my opinon.

Mode switch seems to be entirely for show – the bike doesn’t feel any different regardless.

Exhaust looks bland and is mostly drowned out by the wind noise.

There are a few other small niggles. The indicator switch has no click when you press it, and very little travel, meaning that you’ll need to look down at the instrument panel to check if you’ve actually cancelled your signal. I couldn’t figure out how to activate the cruise control system, and it took two of us to deduce how to change engine modes, which, as I’ve mentioned above, seem to have zero actual effect. If you move your boots too far back or in and touch the frame you’ll discover the unpleasant buzzing vibrations that the rubber-faced pegs are hiding, so you have to be careful where you place your feet. And the tubed tyres mean that any punctures will require either tyre levers or a breakdown truck, rather than a 5-minute plug at the side of the road.

It’s a damn shame, as I’ve recently confirmed that the maintenance costs on Moto-Guzzis are hilariously low, thanks to those exposed cylinders and lack of coolant. Not only can mechanics get to the valves easily, adjusting them is the work of a moment due to their old-fashioned pushrod design. No chain to oil or adjust removes a tedious job at the end of a long day’s touring, and the oversized fuel capacity and impressive 55mpg should make for an excellent touring bike – and for some people I’m sure it will.

For my purposes, I need something a little sharper on a twisty road with fewer potential compromises to put down the £11,000 Moto-Guzzi want me to hand over in exchange for my own V85TT. It’s possible that I could fix the handling and comfort with suspension mods and a new seat, resolve the buffeting with an aftermarket screen and get used to the frustrating switchgear. Maybe I could convert the wheels to tubeless tyres, or replace them entirely with an aftermarket alternative. That done, I could perhaps enjoy the character and practical benefits of an air-cooled, shaft-driven Moto-Guzzi. But that’s a lot of ifs and maybes, a lot of financial risk I’d have to be comfortable with, and I’m not sure I’m willing to do that.

If you like what the V85TT has to offer but don’t actually do any long-distance touring, then the reality is that you can pick up a V7-III Stone for almost £5,000 less and enjoy that same low-tech, low-effort, low-precision experience while trundling around your local roads. But if you are planning to do a lot of long-distance travel or need something you can rely on as your do-it-all daily bike, I’m afraid I have to recommend looking elsewhere.

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream October 2020

Kawasaki Ninja Z1000SX Review

Can Kawasaki’s updated Sports-Touring stalwart win over a V-Strom fanboy?

Kawasaki’s Z1000SX has been a best-seller for the brand ever since it launched in 2011. It almost single-handedly breathed life into the dying sports-tourer genre of motorcycling, offering ageing sports bike enthusiasts an alternative to the unstoppable adventurer-tourer juggernaut. Of course, it wasn’t perfect, and has been revised every couple of years since with nips and tucks to keep customers happy. Now the evergreen bike has been re-branded the Ninja 1000SX, and has received a plethora of upgrades to match. Is it enough to tempt my fancy?

A first-generation Kawasaki Z1000SX actually made it onto the same shortlist as the freshly-updated Triumph Street Triple R, the bike I eventually purchased in 2013. Back then my criticisms were that it was expensive and heavy, and I was keen to try something light and flickable after my 250kg Suzuki Bandit 650S. But all the reasons I considered it then are still true today, and at £12,000 on the road for the Tourer model it’s downright reasonable compared to some of its increasingly expensive competition.

A shame then that it’s still a 235kg proposition, a mass figure that’s quite apparent when wheeling the bike around for photographs – and that doesn’t include the 56 litres of included waterproof plastic panniers that clip neatly onto the integrated luggage racks. You could save yourself £1,000 and choose the standard bike, but alongside those boxes you’d also lose the taller touring screen, tank pad and heated grips. The version I was given to ride for this review lacked all of those extras, but they’re certainly features I’d want on my long-distance touring motorcycle.

What has changed in the last decade is that motorcycle user interfaces have become significantly more sophisticated. Tucked away in the Ninja’s fairing is a neat little full-colour computer screen, providing more information than most people would ever want about their ride. The basics are all there – speed, tachometer, gear position – alongside some more modern content such as average and instant fuel consumption. Toggle through the display and you can also find some truly nerdy delights such as battery voltage and highest-recorded lean angle. You can even set the display to show you your current lean angle in real-time, a feature that is almost guaranteed to result in a spectacular crash!

While the right-hand switch cluster holds nothing more than an integrated starter/kill-switch, the left cluster has been hoarding the remaining buttons. Not only can you control every aspect of the dashboard from here, you can also activate this bike’s new killer feature – electronic cruise control. Z1000SX owners have been clamouring for this feature for years, and the best compliment I can give is that it works exactly as intended. What’s also new is the two-way quick-shifter, allowing you to change up and down through the gearbox without touching the clutch. Usually, I find these systems tend to disappoint, working only at high revs and at wide-open-throttle, but Kawasaki have clearly spent a significant amount of time calibrating their implementation. Any gear, any engine or road speed, any throttle opening – it just works seamlessly.

Passenger grab rails incorporate the mounting lugs for the 28-litre hard panniers.

Not as big and beautiful as BMW’s, but Kawasaki’s TFT dashboard is well designed.

So many buttons on the left cluster, and yet only a single switch on the right.

Quick-shifter works flawlessly up and down the gears; it’s genuinely useful.

Not that using the clutch is a hardship – it’s ridiculous how light modern slipper clutches are, and the Ninja is no different. Kawasaki apparently removed three of the six clutch springs and still somehow generate enough clamping force to keep all 140 horsepower directed at the rear wheel. The new electronic throttle is equally light. With no direct connection to the throttle plates, only a light return spring is working against your wrist, and the combination of the two controls makes tickling out into traffic as easy as on an automatic scooter.

Fuelling is ever-so-slightly fluffy at low revs when cold, but the engine quickly shakes off any cobwebs and provides entirely linear drive as you trundle through town. There’s no drama, it’s all very civilised, with no trace of the low-rev jerkiness I’ve come to associate with big-power motorcycles. What’s more, you can choose pretty much any gear you wish for this job – even sixth works just fine, the 1,043cc in-line four responding without hesitation or complaint to any request at any speed. Kawasaki could have left the engine modes on the drawing board and just reminded their customers that the gearbox will do the same job of modulating rear-wheel torque just fine.

Once opportunities to make progress appear, you might expect me to report that a twist of the wrist transforms the docile steed into a snarling, raging monster – but that simply never happens. I did find that you can provoke a slight head-shake through judicious throttle application in first gear, but the sophisticated traction control systems quickly bring things under control. Perhaps disabling some of these safety features would add a little terror to your day, but the only thing that makes the default bike scary is when you look down at the speedo and realise that you’re going a lot faster than you thought you were.

The brakes are excellent; the suspension sublime.

Rear shock preload can be adjusted easily to cope with luggage or passengers.

It’s deceptive. Whereas other bikes let you know you’re going fast through noise or vibration, the Ninja simply hums along quietly as you smoothly build speed. It’s almost as though Kawasaki have found a way to dampen inertia itself – you twist the throttle, and the tiniest moment later you are simply going faster. A lot faster. It’s just as well that the Kawasaki-branded mono-block four-piston brakes are so good, because you’ll want to know you can safely and quickly scrub off any excess speed before the next corner arrives. Overall, it’s honestly hard to judge your speed because it’s just all so eerily smooth…which is also when you first notice just how astonishingly good the suspension is.

You see, the way I can usually tell that I’m going too fast on most motorcycles is when I’m holding on to the handlebars for dear life while being bounced out of the seat. When I upgraded the suspension on my V-Strom I initially thought I’d wasted my money because nothing seemed to have changed…until I checked my speedometer. Good suspension does that – it lets the useful information from the road surface through while filtering out all of the noise and sharp edges that unsettle both rider and chassis. You should know that there was a nasty bump there without actually getting…well, bumped, and can instead focus on maintaining smooth, fast lines.

Well, the Ninja does that out of the box. I’ve never encountered a stock suspension setup this good before – it’s almost like it’s already been reworked for my 11 stone weight. Gripping the tank with my knees I could feel exactly what the front wheel was doing, could intuitively tell how much grip was available to work with, and as a result had more than enough confidence to scythe along atrociously-surfaced Northamptonshire roads within minutes of setting off. I was able to safely exploit the entire width of the carriageway, positioning myself and the bike for maximum advantage without worrying that I was going to be launched off my line by a mid-corner bump. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the council had magically resurfaced my test route just minutes beforehand. Amazing.

The trade-off for slightly softer, more compliant suspension is that you lose some handling precision. It’s the same on my V-Strom – at very high speeds you start to notice just a touch of vagueness, and the chassis seems to take a little longer to settle itself after big inputs – from yourself, or from the road. While the Ninja 1000SX enables a fast, smooth riding style, it also requires it. There’s no defying physics here – a 235kg motorcycle cannot be forced to react like a 190kg Supersport, and you won’t be flicking the big Ninja from side to side like a ZX-6R. It’s not exactly ponderous, nor are brakes or acceleration noticeably blunted by the extra mass as on some bikes I’ve ridden. I suspect that you’d want to tighten up the damping somewhat before your next trackday, but here in the real world, on real roads, it’s a compromise I welcome with open arms.

Wide, plush, comfortable – one of the best seats in motorcycling.

Tilt-adjustable windshield delivers good results in any position. Touring version is taller.

Supporting both the suspension and indeed my bony backside is one of the most comfortable motorcycle seats I’ve ever spent time on. In an era of narrow, scalloped designs prioritising low height over long-haul comfort, the Ninja’s seat is defiantly wide and plush. Another tricky area, wind protection, has also been resolved without apparent difficulty by Kawasaki’s engineers. The standard windshield can be manually adjusted for angle, and all positions result in a flow of quiet, clean air to my helmet. When so many stock windshields go in the bin on day one due to horrendous buffeting, Kawasaki should be commended for getting this part right straight from the factory.

What else is there to say? The wing mirrors are excellent, and even fold in neatly on a spring-loaded mechanism, allowing you to pop them back into position in seconds should you need to squeeze through a tight spot. Every light on the bike is LED, and the front indicators are even neatly faired-in for improved aerodynamics. You get a hydraulic preload adjuster on the rear shock for when you’re carrying a pillion or have over-filled those panniers, and both front and rear suspension is fully adjustable. Yes, you have to fetch your screwdrivers and do it yourself, but given how good the out-of-the-box setup is, that’s honestly not a problem.

Problems, in fact, are few, but they are there. The Ninja 1000SX is a sports tourer, and yet it’s unique amongst its competitors in not supporting the simultaneous fitment of both a top box and panniers. What’s more, Kawasaki say that this is on purpose, and that having all three boxes mounted at the same time would make the bike unstable at high speeds. Yamaha used to say the same thing about their FJR1300, but even they seem to have that figured out by now.

There’s also no way to mount a centre stand, as Kawasaki have filled that space with an ugly under-body exhaust silencer. Maintaining the drive chain would require a paddock stand at home, and an automatic chain oiler may be worth considering for solo tourists. Further still, because the Ninja 1000SX is technically a new product in the eyes of the insurance industry, the quotes I received were 50% more than an identical Z1000SX from the same insurers. Once the algorithms figure out that we’re no more likely to crash this new bike than the old one, prices should theoretically level out.

If I wanted to nit-pick I’d question Kawasaki’s mounting of the rear brake caliper underneath the swingarm where it will surely seize solid in winter salt. But they’ve been mounting it there since the 80’s, so maybe they know something I don’t. It does mean that paddock-stand lugs are set quite far forward, which might cause clearance issues for some stands. And I’m always going to wish they’d found a way to take 20kg out of the wet weight without compromising load capacity, but I guess that’s a trade-off I’ll have to accept. The dashboard screen is a little small perhaps, and I do worry that it will look out-of-date long before the rest of the bike does. And when everyone else is spoiling us with gold-anodized Nissins or big-block Brembos, the black Kawasaki-branded brakes look a little down-market. But honestly, these really are minor complaints.

No, the only big issues with this bike lie with its motor, and it’ll be up to each individual to decide if it’s a big enough fly to spoil the ointment. First up, my perennial bug-bears of fuel economy and it’s sibling fuel range. 19 litres of petrol seems like a reasonable amount until you look at and realise that 45 mpg (UK) appears to be average for this engine. That means around 180 miles to empty, with the low-fuel warning light coming on at just 150 miles or less. What’s softened my stance on this issue recently is the results of my research into long-term running costs, and determining that an extra 10 mpg really wouldn’t save you that much money, even over 100,000 miles. Maybe fuel prices will suddenly spike to £5 per litre and we’ll all switch to Honda PCXs, but otherwise it’s unlikely that many others will notice or care.

Paddock stand mounting lugs are forward, rotating chain adjuster is unique.

The second issue with the motor is down to the complexity and how it’s installed in the motorcycle. Kawasaki quote £400-£600 for minor/major services, and an additional £400 to check the valve clearances – more still if they need adjusting. That big engine is buried under bodywork, hoses, and wiring, and takes a long time to dig out. Combined with the poor fuel economy the Ninja 1000SX becomes one of the most expensive motorcycles to own long-term. It could be worse – valve checks only need performing every 26,000 miles, and if you’re comfortable handling oil and filter changes yourself you could save a lot of money while still leaving the really tricky tasks to the professionals. Still, that’s modern motorcycles for you – high performance, features, and reliability make for complex machinery. One more reason to look forward to electric motorcycles, perhaps?

The final issue with the motor is that it’s a little too good at its job. In-line fours have always prioritised high power-per-displacement ratios – it’s the boring choice, but it delivers results. Interesting inline-fours have existed in both cars and motorcycles in the past, but noise regulations have smothered raucous induction tones and made high-revving screamers impossible. The fact is that noise and vibration are waste products, energy not being used to drive you forward.

And while I still very much enjoy the aural sensations of an internal combustion engine, the tides are turning against us, with whole stretches of road in Germany and Austria now off-limits to all but the quietest bikes. The 1,043cc engine in the Ninja 1000SX has been around since 2003 in various forms, but it’s now so quiet and refined that I can’t imagine an all-electric drivetrain being that much different to experience. There’s a little more mechanical noise at very high revs, but it’s not really something you’d go chasing for aural pleasure.

Maybe you’d get used to it. Maybe you’d modify the airbox, swap out the exhaust, and liberate a little of that early-2000’s Superbike sound. Or maybe smooth, quiet efficiency is exactly what you’re after. Maybe you don’t want a torque curve littered with spikes that send the front wheel skyward when the engine comes on-cam. Maybe you just want to cross continents in speed and comfort, and then embarrass noisier, flashier riders as you overtake them on the outside of a corner while waving nonchalantly at them. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then the Ninja 1000SX might be just the bike you’ve been looking for.

I rode home after returning the Ninja on my de-baffled V-Strom, air-box and exhaust roaring a rousing symphony every time I slammed the throttle wide open for another overtake. It’s something I’d certainly miss were I to swap a mid-capacity 90-degree twin for a turbine-smooth inline-four. But the rest of the package is just so damn good that I may well forgive it this one flaw and learn to enjoy a different type of motorcycling for a while.

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream October 2020

Why do people decide to do the IAM Roadsmart Advanced Rider Course?

I suspect the answer to that question is different for every new associate that signs up. Some need the qualification to ride blood bikes; others want the insurance discount; some want the accolade of an advanced riding certificate; some have been on BikeSafe courses; and others just want to improve their riding. (I suspect there is a whole host of other reasons I haven’t thought of).

I have ridden motorcycles since I was 10 years old, I’m now 53 – yes that’s me on my fist bike, an Italjet two stroke 80cc scrambler. Motorcycles have been my life and my passion ever since.

I have had two serious motorcycle collisions on the road, one in 1990, the other in 2009, neither of them my fault, and neither would have happened if I’d been riding like an advanced rider. Hindsight is a wonderful thing!

Well my reason for doing the Advanced Rider Course is a simple one – I thought I was an amazing rider when in fact I was rubbish.

So my journey starts there.

For no particular reason, I had decided that I was going to do loads of motorcycle courses in the summer of 2018. Between April 2018 and July 2018, I did a knee down course, two wheelie courses, and an advanced machine control course – all at Rufforth Airfield near York.

Another of the courses I had booked was the BikeSafe course with the police. I went to Humberside Police’s Beverly office for the day-long Bikesafe course on 11th August 2018. I had thought that with 30 unbroken years of road riding experience that I would be better than any of the riders there, and probably on a par with the police riders. Pride comes before a fall!

The BikeSafe course shocked me by highlighting just how badly I had been riding my motorcycles on the road for over 30 years! How I was still alive was a miracle!

So to correct those highlighted deficiencies in my riding, I decided to do the advanced rider course with IAM RoadSmart. On 13th August 2018, I booked online and was directed to my now beloved West Yorkshire Advanced Motorcyclists (WYAMs). I say now beloved, because I didn’t actually want to be in a motorcycle club when I booked the advanced rider course. I just wanted to learn to be a better rider and perhaps even pass my advanced test. I had absolutely no interest in being in WYAMs. I could not see the point or necessity of of having to join WYAMs – more about that singularly mistaken belief later.

I was lucky enough to get Stuart Fielden as my observer. Some of the associates and newer members may not know Stuart very well, but he is not only a very accomplished and experienced motorcyclist and observer, but he’s an amazing human being too. We became very close friends as he taught me how to be a better rider, and to this day, I’m pretty confident he has no real grasp of how much his sessions saved my life and rescued my crippled mental health. Because in between starting the advanced rider course and finishing it, I underwent a cataclysmic breakdown in my domestic situation, and I was at rock bottom. The advanced rider course literally saved my life, and Stuart’s sessions were the lifeline that I needed to help me out of the emotional hell hole I found myself in. Motor Cycle News recently ran an article about riding motorcycles for mental health – never a truer word has been printed. My bike, and Stuart’s sessions saved my life – literally.

My test took place on a filthy, rainy mid January morning. It remains a completely blurred memory to me. Dudley Martin was my examiner. I do remember it felt like the worst I’d ridden in a really long time, and yet I passed. Dudley later said that I would have got a first if I hadn’t skidded on the cattle grid on the slip road just off J22 of the M62. Fortunately I stayed on the bike, but he was right I hadn’t ‘observed’ the cattle grid because I’d been going too fast as I went over it turning left – hence the skid. A costly mistake!

Anyway I passed. Now what was I going to do? The structured sessions with Stuart were at an end, and whilst we had become very firm friends and remained in close contact, my emotional lifeline had gone. How was I going to survive that loss of regular structured riding with Stuart that had become my lifeline? Well, the answer came in my second guardian angel from the club – Terry Dutchburn. Some of you know Terry very well, other newer members and associates may not. But Terry, like me, is a Geordie. So basically we are brothers, or cousins, or related somehow. We got on like a house on fire from the get go. The reason Terry became involved with me was because Stuart, knowing how important structured riding was to me and my emotional wellbeing, had suggested that I consider observer training. I agreed, got the approval from the committee, and Terry became my observer trainer.

Once again, and I’m sure without even knowing it, the club had provided another experienced trainer in Terry who had unwittingly rescued me from the abyss of facing extreme challenges in my personal life without any diversions.

I had the familiar structure of regular training sessions, this time as a trainee observer. It was another life saver. I passed the observer assessment process and I’m now the club’s newest local observer.

Looking back, I view the dual processes of instruction for my test, and instruction to be an observer as not only incredibly informative, but also as transformative of me as a rider. I have emerged from the personal nightmare of 2018 – 2019 as a stronger and more healed man than when I started, and without even knowing it, WYAMs helped me through it when there was nobody else that could. Motorcycling is my life and Advanced motorcycle training has saved my life. The whole advanced riding journey has been a truly Zen like experience for me.

But the most unexpected surprise for me was the club – WYAMS. Because as I said, when I booked my Advanced Rider Course with IAM RoadSmart online way back in August 2018, the last thing I wanted was to join a motorcycle club! And ironically being in WYAMS is the part of the whole process that has nourished me, and enthused me, and helped me recover as well as making me a better rider.

Two of the most memorable motorcycling days that I have ever had have been club runs! One Tuesday run to the Lakes and one John Burrow’s Sunday run to Whitby. Bearing in mind I have been riding motorcycles pretty much non stop, on and off road, for over 40 years, in Europe, America, Asia, and Australia, to say that two of my best days riding ever has been with WYAMs, in the last 12 months, is truly saying something!

So here’s my impassioned plea to associates, and new and old members alike. This is your club, our club! All of us have one thing in common – we all love motorcycling. The strength of the club is in how the individuals interact. It’s for the long standing members to share their knowledge, experience and skills and for the new members and associates to soak it up! I can promise you this, if you disengage after you pass your test, you are missing the best part of your advanced training. The absolute very best part!

I know it’s difficult coming to any new club and not knowing anyone and feeling like you don’t belong – but you do belong – you are one of us now!

The wealth of riding experience on the training and club runs is probably unparalleled. I defy anyone to go on a club run and not be beaming from ear to ear inside their helmets. I defy anyone who goes on a club or training run not to learn a huge amount from watching the riding of the elder statesmen like John Burrows and Allen Davey to name but two of so many.

Your Advanced Riding journey doesn’t stop at your test pass, but rather that is where it begins! Undoubtedly your riding will improve as you deploy these skills riding solo, but in observing other experienced advanced riders on club or training runs you also learn by osmosis. You critique your own riding by conscious and unconscious comparison. You improve as you ride with good riders. Simple! You cannot buy that quality of training – and you don’t have to it’s free on the club and training runs!

My zest for all things Advanced riding didn’t end there. In fact, that’s where it really began for me! I reached out to a number of other affiliate clubs including Sheffield Advanced Motorcyclists and Thames Valley Advanced Motorcyclists. I wasn’t sure what kind of reception I was going to get as an “interloper”. However, the IAM RoadSmart family has not disappointed, I’ve been made to feel very welcome by both. I spoke to Chris Brownlee, a fellow North Easterner, and chief Observer for TVAM. He could see I was deeply enthusiastic about how TVAM operate, and so he invited me to join TVAM and I did, and was invited on the TVAM Observer weekend which was sadly cancelled but I’ll be there next year!

We may all have started our advanced motorcycling journeys for different reasons, but we all share the same passion – two wheels.

Looking back, I guess it was silly of me to think I wouldn’t be welcomed by “my tribe” even though they are at the other end of the country!

I’m so glad I didn’t do what I had planned to do when I was at rock bottom. And if this article gives just one person the strength to “hang in there” for another day, then another, and another, until that dark pit is a distant memory, then my advanced motorcycling journey won’t have just saved me, it will have saved someone else.

Chris Dunn

First published in Slipstream September 2020

The Isle of Wight’s First TT

Wednesday 13th – Sunday 17th October 2021

The Diamond Races is an all-new motorcycle road racing festival, featuring some of the top names in the sport and expected to attract around 50,000 people, extending the island’s summer season.

The Isle of Wight’s first TT is looking likely to be held on the above dates (at the end of the 2021 British Superbike calendar), with a 12.4 mile-long course (see centre pages 18-19) in the south of the Isle of Wight playing host to the event.

Steve Plater and James Hillier check out the course along the Military Road.

Gary Thompson was Clerk of the Course at the TT, Classic TT and Manx GP for ten years and set the course. Three quarters of it is very technical and curvy, and competitors will complete time trials through the picturesque villages of Chale, Kingston, Shorwell, Limerstone and Brighstone, often flanked by trees or bushes before hitting the last third which runs along the coast via the Military Road and is said to be a stretch at least as fast as the Sulby Straight at the Isle of Man TT with 200mph+ in the offing. The section is about twice as long as on the Isle of Man.

The technical part will also offer fast passages, some of which are driven in fourth gear, but also many tight bends or blind crests. The road surface is described as good with no potholes or bad surfaces. The start/finish and the hospitality unit will be set up on the Military Road,

Steve Plater and James Hillier.

Is the Isle of Wight ready for this?

The key players behind the conception and organisation of this event include Gary Thompson MBE (Isle of Man TT Clerk of the Course), Steve Plater (past Isle of Man TT Senior winner and ex British Champion), Neil Tuxworth (ex-Honda Racing Manager) as well as James Kaye (exBritish Touring Car Championship driver and Diamond Races co-founder) and Matt Neal (three-time British Touring Car Champion and Honda UK ambassador), not forgetting James Kaye and Paul Sandford, the two Isle of Wight residents who first came up with the idea.

The races will see two days of practice, on the Wednesday and Thursday, as riders get used to the course. Friday will be a rest day and everything kicks off at the weekend, with Saturday being race day. Sunday may include some limited public riding. In its first year there are expected to be somewhere between 30-36 riders, with the bikes setting off from the start line every ten seconds.

If you are a keen TT attender, it’s another one for the calendar – let’s hope it happens!

First published in Slipstream September 2020

The Hidden Costs

How much does a modern motorcycle cost?

As with perennial questions regarding the length of a piece of string, the answer is always “it depends”. But it’s easy to forget that the showroom price tag is just the tip of the iceberg. Every year you pay for your share of the potholes with the road tax licence, shield yourself from unforeseen events with insurance, and pay your local MOT tester to confirm that your machine meets the minimum possible safety standards. On top of that you’ll be paying for fuel and servicing, both of which increase proportionally along with how much you actually ride.

These are the costs that are often forgotten when the smiling salesperson at your local motorcycle dealer is explaining just how cheap owning a brand-new high-tech, high-powered dream-machine could be. They’re keeping you focused on the cost of the equipment, and you’re forgetting that the cost of actually using it can be far higher. I’m sure that I’m not the only person who’s ever been caught in horrified surprise when the bill for the annual service is presented.

I’m always shopping for new bikes in one way or another, and at the moment I’m semi-seriously planning for my V-Strom 650’s eventual retirement. With my annual mileage, I could easily see 100k on the clock before the end of next year, which seems like a reasonable life expectancy for a well-maintained modern machine.

Are cheaper bikes actually cheaper to own over the long haul …?

It’s wearing its miles well, but I’ve decided that it’s time to figure out what I’m going to be riding for the next 100k. The great news is that there’s never been a better time to shop for an upright do-it-all motorcycle, so it’s time to do some maths.

My loose requirements have led me to a long list of Adventure-Sport and Sport-Touring motorcycles which, in their base spec, can be ridden away for £13,000 or less. That being said, I usually choose a higher-spec to start with and it’s always worth remembering that adding luggage usually costs extra still. Comparing apples to apples is very difficult indeed. I’ve used to estimate real-world fuel economy to the nearest 5 mpg (UK), and used my current local petrol prices of £1.069 per litre to calculate the cost-per-mile to fuel each bike.

I’ve also contacted dealers for each manufacturer to confirm the service intervals and pricing for each bike on my list. Some brands were a pleasure to deal with, and for some brands it was like trying to get blood out of a stone. Special mention must got to Blade Motorcycles Cheltenham who had one of their service managers call me directly to answer my questions and provide some valuable insights. Sales staff are trained to be friendly when they’re trying to take your money; knowing your dealer has a similar approach to their after-sales service is well worth while.

Despite my considerable efforts, the miles are starting to take their toll.

I’ve given up trying to get numbers from Honda, so their bikes aren’t represented in my data. I’ve called and emailed half a dozen dealers, and was basically fobbed off or ignored entirely. It’s also worth remembering that while manufacturers will specify the number of hours each service takes and the parts needed for each one, individual dealers control their own labour rates and part markups. The data I’ve gathered should be used as a guide only, and I always recommend getting quotes in writing from your local service department for any motorcycle you are considering, and then follow up with your own calculations.

Most bikes have a different service schedule, but all follow a fairly similar pattern that then repeats as mileages continue upwards. For example, every bike I’m looking at needs a break-in service at 600 miles, and most then follow with minor/major alternating services at fixed mileage intervals. In most cases, a major service includes a valve clearance check and adjustment, which dramatically increases the cost due to the time involved. Moto-Guzzi’s air-cooled engines need their clearances checking and adjusting at every service, but Yamaha’s only need doing every 4th visit.

To smooth things out and give a realistic estimate of long-term total cost of ownership I added up the total cost of servicing up to the point when it started to repeat, and then divided that by the number of miles it took to get there, giving me an approximate cost-per-mile for maintenance that I could extrapolate from. None of this included suspension servicing, time-based maintenance such as brake fluid or coolant changes, and tyres and other consumables need to be added on as well. But without any reliable data to draw from, estimates for those costs would be so inaccurate as to be worthless, and so I’ve ignored them here.

Finally, in order to get a comparable lifetime cost, I’ve assumed 100,000-mile ownership, multiplying the cost-per-mile of fuel and servicing by that number to get those total costs, then adding them to the original base-model purchase price of the vehicle. Again – these numbers are for comparison only, and your mileage will literally vary. But what we do see in these results is very interesting indeed.

I’m making a couple of assumptions (purchase/petrol price) but the numbers don’t lie.

Sorted by total cost, the results are somewhat surprising.

First up, some motorcycles and brands are incredibly expensive to maintain. Secondly, while some bikes are more expensive to buy up-front, their reduced fuel consumption and servicing costs can make them more competitive than they would initially seem. The obvious example here is my wildcard electric motorcycle, the Zero SR/S. Almost £20,000 for the base model with no extras, but cheap(er) servicing and tiny fuelling (electricity) costs mean that it sits right in the middle for total cost of ownership. An interesting detail here is that Zero want you to bring their bikes in for a service every 4,000 miles, something their dealer was unable to give me a good explanation for. An electric motor requires no servicing, so the only things your dealer is charging you (hah!) for are checking that nothing’s worked loose and inspecting the brakes and tyres. If there was ever a candidate for home-servicing, it would be this one.

Here it is: the most expensive all-round motorcycle you can own.

Triumph unfortunately lose this competition right away. Not only are their bikes priced quite high thanks to their features and technology, the relatively frequent servicing costs are truly eye-watering. The bigger Tiger 1200 fares a little better here with its impressive 10,000-mile service intervals, but the thirstier engine and high purchase price cancel out the gains almost exactly compared with the cheaper Tiger 900. Clearly Triumph’s engineers are placing ease of servicing very low on the priority ladder. That being said, the tick-sheets I’ve seen suggest that some of this is at least due to a far more thorough schedule of work – no other manufacturer that I know of includes greasing suspension linkages and changing fork oil as official service items.

Seeing Ducati taking a dishonourable second place shouldn’t really be a surprise – they’re expensive to buy, you expect them to be expensive to service, and that turns out to be true. The Italians have tried to improve matters in recent years by increasing the intervals with which your dealer will empty your wallet, but empty it they will. More surprising is to see Kawasaki nipping at their heels, with the Z1000SX and Versys 1000 siblings costing almost as much to run in the long term. It’s a triple-threat here, with Kawasaki pushing their pricing up in recent years as they’ve piled on the technology. This combines with frequent and expensive servicing and a relatively ancient engine design that delivers fairly shocking fuel economy figures.

Modern design and electronics, but thirsty and difficult-to-service engine raise costs.

Cheap to buy, frugal on fuel and low-cost servicing, but questionable reliability.

Almost as surprising was to see Suzuki’s V-Strom 1050 close behind. Suzuki is another once-budget brand that has recently developed up-market aspirations, and the elevated purchase price coupled with eye-watering service costs make for unflattering comparisons with the competition. BMW’s big 1250cc boxer needs servicing slightly more often than Suzuki’s venerable v-twin, but the ease with which the mechanics can access those exposed cylinder heads means that servicing is some of the cheapest around. You can push the purchase price up with frightening ease once you dip into the not-really-optional extras, but it’ll still work out cheaper in the long run than the decidedly less sophisticated Suzuki.

Yamaha’s Tracer 900 suffers from the same problem as other Japanese motorcycles. It’s becoming an expensive bike, especially if you start adding on luggage and opt for the better-equipped GT model I recently reviewed. But because valve clearances only need checking or adjusting every 24,000 miles, maintenance costs are kept under control, and like the big BMW it manages impressive fuel economy for such a powerful motorcycle. I’ll get to this later, but I’m also more inclined to believe that the Tracer 900 would last 100,000 miles without too much trouble, whereas I’m not sure the R1250RS would.

Same exposed cylinders and also no chain or coolant to replace.

Our two oddballs come next, coming within spitting distance of each other. In KTM’s case, it’s because the 790 Adventure only requires the attention of a mechanic every 9,000 miles, and owners are easily returning an impressive 60mpg (UK). Reliability is a concern, with recent KTMs becoming infamous for requiring unscheduled dealer visits even during the warranty period. Not a problem for some, but a deal breaker for me I’m afraid. The Moto-Guzzi needs more frequent servicing, but that work is very cheap thanks to the exposed cylinder heads and relatively low-tech engine. The V85TT also boasts shaft-drive meaning that chain and sprocket replacements will never be necessary. What’s more, an air-cooled engine means it will never need coolant changes, a further cost saving compared to all the other bikes I’m considering. A very tempting choice indeed.

Next comes another surprise. Despite featuring an increasingly-common parallel twin engine layout, the BMW F750GS and F900XR are apparently very easy to work on, resulting in very cheap servicing, even at a BMW main dealer. They’re not cheap to buy, especially when you pile on the usual practically-mandatory option packs, but genuinely impressive fuel economy helps to push ownership costs down further still. These new engines are made in China, not Germany, so reliability remains to be proven, and BMW haven’t exactly been winning awards on that score of late in any case. But if you got lucky, either bike represents a very affordable way to enjoy that BMW ownership experience.

Next comes another surprise. Despite featuring an increasingly-common parallel twin engine layout, the BMW F750GS and F900XR are apparently very easy to work on, resulting in very cheap servicing, even at a BMW main dealer. They’re not cheap to buy, especially when you pile on the usual practically-mandatory option packs, but genuinely impressive fuel economy helps to push ownership costs down further still. These new engines are made in China, not Germany, so reliability remains to be proven, and BMW haven’t exactly been winning awards on that score of late in any case. But if you got lucky, either bike represents a very affordable way to enjoy that BMW ownership experience.

Surprisingly cheap to own, but BMW reliability has been slipping of late.

Bringing up the rear in the best possible way are the quartet of Kawasaki’s Versys/Ninja 650 pairing, Yamaha’s smaller Tracer 700, and in last (first?) place, Suzuki’s own V-Strom 650. I didn’t do these sorts of detailed calculations before choosing my own V-Strom back in 2015, but it’s interesting to see that even if I’d bought new and paid a dealer to take me all the way to 100,000 miles it would still have been the cheapest bike in the segment to own. In my case I’ve saved money by doing my own maintenance, then spent it again on performance modifications, but so far my own records suggest that I’m coming in way under-budget. This is important, as all four of these smaller-engined ~70bhp machines still require a big-bike-sized amount of regular maintenance. Good fuel economy and low purchase prices help keep the numbers down, but their comparatively low-tech nature makes them prime candidates for learning to change your own oil and check your own valves.

Mechanically simple engines present a realistic home-servicing opportunity.

With rising price tags, the Japanese bikes are now competing directly with the Europeans.

We can draw some interesting overall conclusions from all of this. Firstly, while recommended retail price is a good indicator of lifetime ownership costs there are enough outliers to warrant closer inspection. Secondly, if a bike looks easy to service, then it probably is. Exposed cylinders make for quick, and therefore cheap, valve clearance checks, while complex multi-cylinder engines are generally difficult to work on. Thirdly, the Japanese manufacturers may want to be careful about how quickly they’re moving their products up the premium bike ladder. Most consumers – and in some cases, their own build quality and dealership/ownership experience – still mark them as more budget offerings compared to their European competition. If they drive pricing up to far too quickly, they’ll find that they’ll lose more budget-oriented customers to previously-dismissed players like Moto-Guzzi, while still being unable to tempt customers away from their new premium competition at Triumph, Ducati, and BMW.

Fourth, Triumph needs to get their act together. I stopped taking my own Street Triple R to my dealer very early on because of the laughable quotes I was being given for scheduled maintenance, and it looks like the latest evolution of that engine is even more expensive to work on. Ducati has worked hard to shed it’s expensive-to-maintain reputation because it was genuinely hurting sales. If Triumph can’t engineer their bikes to be easier and therefore cheaper to service then it won’t be long before they pick up that particular thorned crown.

Fifth, electric bikes are getting very close to where they could be seriously considered as sensible all-weather, all-purpose commuters. The range and charge time mean that touring is out of the question, but if you rack up big mileages riding to work you can just about break even with the petrol-powered competition. Just as we’ve recently hit a breaking point in electrically-powered cars, practical home-charged motorcycles could be just around the corner. It will be interesting to see what Fuell’s upcoming offerings look like in this regard, and even Honda are said to be preparing an electric version of their CBF300 with a focus on affordability.

Sky-high purchase prices are coming down but frequent servicing is a puzzler.

But as I’ve suggested earlier on, you’ll want to do your own calculations and see how the numbers stack up for you, but this should at least get you started and it’s enabled me to draw some interesting conclusions. Most bikes will never see the sort of mileages I’m suggesting, which is just as well as I don’t trust a lot of them to last that long. What’s more, while bikes like my V-Strom are proven to be reliable well beyond their warranty period, owning the likes of a BMW could potentially get very expensive once coverage expires. I’ve never seen a high-mileage Multistrada, but don’t know whether that’s because no-one rides them that much or because they all explode long before they reach six digits. I do know that my local independent Ducati mechanic is always over-subscribed, but maybe their newer engines are more long-lasting than their old air-cooled stuff.

One final point to remember is that every motorcycle is designed to a brief – it’s designed to fulfil certain criteria, and longevity is one of those. Honda know that Goldwing riders will hit six digits with ease and regularity, and a reputation for reliability is what keeps them coming back. That’s why Honda’s engineers spend extra time, money, and resources ensuring that those bikes probably will hit 100,000 miles without breaking a sweat. And I’ve seen a 50,000-mile tear-down of a modern Tiger 1200, and absolutely everything was still perfectly in-spec, a good sign that the engine had been designed to do big miles.

Improved reliability, but would you trust it to last 100,000 miles?

Doing high mileage? Buy a bike that can handle it.

BMW once told me that their customers trade their bikes in for a new one on average every 20 months, after which the bike is sold into the used market. Cynically-speaking, that second owner matters far less to BMW than someone who guarantees them a regular income for years to come by buying their bikes brand-new. If that first-owner, the person they’re trying to impress and keep coming back never sees 30,000 miles on any one bike, how much effort and money do we really think their engineers are spending to ensure that those engines will last two or three times that long?

Honda has an incentive to ensure that Goldwing owners’ reliability expectations are met.

But just as important as the design brief are your requirements as a customer, as a motorcyclist. If you like buying new bikes fairly regularly and never rack up big mileages, then long-term servicing costs probably won’t matter to you. If you ride infrequently, then the difference between 40 and 50mpg is completely irrelevant. And if you don’t depend on your bike for daily transport or regularly take long trips, then maybe you’re happy to risk needing that warranty every now and again. And let’s face it, thanks to PCP, a lot of people spend more on their monthly phone contract than it would cost for some new motorcycles. If that’s you, then knock yourself out – go enjoy the incredible variety of choice available to you at your local showrooms.

MV Agusta TVL: Money or reliability no object, my perfect motorcycle. But sadly, both are factors

But if, like me, you want to buy and keep a bike long-term and expect to put big miles on an engine without dealing with unexpected repairs, I suggest you be a little bit more discerning. Choose a bike that the manufacturer intended for that purpose. Do the maths and make sure you aren’t going to encounter any nasty financial surprises, and maybe you’ll find that some options you’d previously dismissed become viable choices after all. Do your homework and you can sometimes extend that new-bike honeymoon period to the full 100,000 miles.

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream September 2020

Does Suzuki Have a Future?

With the global economy about to swan-dive into depths not seen for more than a century and many European governments piling on the pressure to speed up the transition to zero-tailpipe-emissions motoring, many are arguing that motorcycling faces an uncertain future. Some manufacturers are well-positioned and making positive steps to prepare for difficult times ahead, but many other old and established brands may well be caught short.

I’ve covered more miles on Suzuki motorcycles than all other brands combined, either owned or borrowed. Both of those I paid for with my own money were workhorses, used for everything from commuting to trackdays to touring, and while masters of no individual discipline they were undoubtedly competent at all of them. But miles travelled don’t translate to profits – quite the opposite, in fact, as those who actually use their bikes as practical daily transport contribute less to manufacturer’s bottom lines than our fair-weather brethren.

After 70 years, is Suzuki’s motorcycle business running out of steam?

We perhaps spend more on tyres, but dealer service schedules and pricing are directly at odds with the penny-pinching mindset of the year-round rider. And while modern motorcycles are more than capable of shouldering six-digit figures on their odometers without exploding, the market is skewed to undervalue well-used examples. PCP doesn’t work when a three-year-old bike already has 30,000-60,000 miles on the clock, and the steep depreciation hit makes regular replacement uneconomical. So we run our bikes until they literally fall apart, maintaining them ourselves to extract the best value-for-money from our investments.

The problem with building a great bike is that there’s no incentive for customers to upgrade.

The result is that brands who specialise in sunny-Sunday toys that get replaced every 18 months with well-padded profit margins have flourished in recent decades, while those making more basic but long-lasting machinery have struggled to maintain, never mind grow, their market share. I find it unlikely that the likes of BMW, Ducati, and KTM deliberately engineer their machines to fall apart after 30,000 miles; I simply suspect they don’t bother to ensure that they don’t. Their marketing departments work hard to engender customer loyalty towards their brands as a whole, not towards the particular bike that they happened to choose this PCP cycle.

Supporting that regular upgrade habit requires that there be significant perceived improvements year after year, so that a three-year-old motorcycle will seem old-hat next to the current version. While top speed, weight, and power figures were once the way to woo buyers with wandering eyes and bulging wallets, these days electronics have to provide the incentive to trade in early. But that kind of technological arms race is expensive, and those without the resources to invest in future product risk falling behind. It’s a vicious cycle – without the fancy tech to tempt owners to upgrade you don’t earn the profits necessary to fund the development of the next wave of marketable bells and whistles.

Goldwings are famous for easily swallowing hundreds of thousands of miles.

Owners love their Bergmans, but not enough bought new ones to justify further updates.

This might not be the end of the world if a given manufacturer could simply continue to sell their existing models to their core customers. But even if those customers weren’t eventually lured away by the promise of newer, better motorcycles, emissions, noise, and safety legislation mean that some degree of ongoing product development is essential. Wait too long and you’ll find you’re no longer allowed to sell some of your bikes, and your product range gets whittled away to nothing. With limited budgets, you have to pick and choose where to spend your research & development funds. And just like a battlefield medic, you sometimes have to let some of your patients die in order to save others.

This is the exact situation that Suzuki seems to find itself in at the moment. When the 2007 financial crisis hit, the Japanese manufacturers battened down the hatches, freezing research & development spending and hoping to ride out the dip. A number of European manufacturers did the opposite, using the time to develop new technology and modernise their entire product range. The result was that, as economies improved and buyers returned to showrooms, they found that there was no reason to replace their 5-year-old Japanese motorcycle – the brand-new models were exactly the same as the ones they already had in their garage. But the likes of BMW had leapt ahead, offering a truly next-generation range of motorcycles, and converting customers in their thousands. The fact that exchange rates meant that European exotica was not dissimilarly priced to more basic Japanese fare merely accelerated this shift.

Yamaha rallied magnificently with their modular 700cc twin-cylinder and 900cc three-cylinder platforms, designed from the ground-up to be fun and affordable for all. Their range was almost completely renewed in just a few years, with the resultant profits providing the necessary funds to keep bikes such as the ageing FJR1300 compliant with government legislation. Honda dragged their heels a bit, reluctant to invest in genuinely new engines and platforms, but also used their NC-series to corner the commuter/courier market at a time when no-one else was even trying to cater to those buyers. What’s more, their small-capacity motorcycles and scooters continued to sell in incredible numbers in markets that would consider a 750cc bike to be grossly oversized.

It’s also worth remembering that motorcycles are just a small part of Honda’s business, the corporation having plenty of capital to invest in long-term product planning. Kawasaki is an even starker example here, with motorcycles representing a mere footnote in a corporate portfolio that includes gigantic cargo ships and military aircraft. They’ve been able to regularly renew and refresh popular bikes such as the Versys 650 and 1000, not to mention the best-selling Ninja 1000SX, providing them with comfortable margins and a loyal customer base.

Yamaha’s bulk sellers earn enough to cover the costs of keeping the FJR alive for now.

But Suzuki has none of these safety nets, and has been struggling to attract new customers for more than a decade now. Their car business folded entirely in the United States and is facing tough competition across Europe in the low-cost segments from the likes of Hyundai and KIA. Their small-capacity bikes remain popular in south-east asia, but profit margins are thin and increased competition from the Chinese manufacturers is eating into their volume. Europe and America used to be the cash cows whose high-margin product paid the research & development bills, but those funds have been drying up for a long time now.

The result is that Suzuki’s product range has stagnated, with key lines being forced to retire due to increasingly-stringent emissions legislation. What little money remains has been spent carefully, one bike at a time, in the hopes of striking gold and kick-starting a sales success that could, in turn, fund further development of their ageing lineup. But time and time again it seems that the upgrades and face-lifts are too little, too late, and always one or two steps behind their competition.

A popular, steady seller, but the money for Euro 5 upgrades just wasn’t there.

The V-Strom 650 remains a steady, if unspectacular seller amongst the practically-minded, which is probably why Suzuki has continued to spend the minimum-necessary funds to refresh the design and stay ahead of emissions legislation. The fully redeveloped V-Strom 1000 launched in 2014 with the fanfare befitting a major brand’s new flagship, but BMW had stolen their thunder with the all-new watercooled and tech-laden R1200GS just one year earlier, and buyers weren’t interested. With PCP the new and exciting way to make expensive bikes affordable, the lacklustre residuals of historically rust-prone Suzukis made their bikes deeply uncompetitive in this strange new financial landscape. It didn’t matter to most people that the retail price was thousands of pounds cheaper; if you were buying on PCP, then BMW offered you a lot more bike for very similar money.

Pivoting towards their traditional cash-cow, the GSXR-1000, may have seemed sensible, and in 2017 we got an all-new litre-class sportsbike with modern electronics and segment-competitive horsepower figures. But this was the first serious effort in over a decade, and those traditional customers had moved on. With the Japanese brand now seen as a budget alternative to the more desirable European offerings, matching the now well-established upstarts on the spec sheet wasn’t enough to bring buyers back in sufficient droves. What’s worse, choosing to pin their hopes on these two big bikes meant that the money necessary to keep the GSX-R 600, GSX-R 750, Hayabusa, Bandit 650/1250, and even the Burgman 650 compliant with the latest round of European emissions regulations simply wasn’t there. Visit a Suzuki dealership today, and the choices are looking very limited indeed.

The 2014 V-Strom 1000 was fantastic, but customers ultimately voted with their wallets.

Which brings us to Suzuki’s latest refresh of their big adventure-tourer in the shape of the new(ish) V-Strom 1050. Suzuki is counting on the styling to do the lion’s share of the work, and it’s certainly succeeding in turning heads amongst the traditional motorcycle press. And if the public show the same interest, Suzuki is hoping that the technology upgrades will carry them the rest of the way to their cheque books. We’ve got cruise control, lean-sensitive ABS & traction-control, not to mention various gimmicks like hill-hold assist. We’ve also got a new LCD dashboard, just in time to be considered out-of-date next to the current crop of big-screen full-colour TFT dashboards the competition are triumphantly displaying. Still, it works, and it’s a pleasant enough bike that does a perfectly adequate job of being a good all-round motorcycle.

But while Suzuki have increased the spec to match their competition in the adventure-touring space, they’ve also upped the price to match, giving up their value card and going toe-to-toe with the likes of Triumph’s new Tiger 900 and Ducati’s Multistrada 950. And as much as I am a fan of Suzuki and their V-Strom line in particular, I don’t think this is a fight they can win. Personally, I’m not sure I trust Ducati’s engines to last 100,000 miles without serious work, and the servicing schedules and costs are clearly not designed with high-mileage riders in mind, but it’s a much more exciting bike to ride. My experiences with modern Triumphs suggest that they can shrug off salty British winters far better than a V-Strom can, but again – servicing costs become prohibitive when used regularly.

I’d like to say that this is an area where the new V-Strom has retained its edge, but dealer rates for both basic oil changes and valve adjustments are equally eye-watering. I’ve historically found that Suzuki’s motorcycles are very easy to service at home, so a competent home mechanic might perhaps choose the Japanese option for this reason alone. But as stated earlier, the people willing to spend £12,000 on a motorcycle and also get their hands dirty maintaining a 20,000-mile-per-year vehicle are a very small and unprofitable minority. Suzuki was hoping to lure in buyers from other brands, but I fear all they’ve actually done is freed up their existing customers to go elsewhere.

The new V-Strom 1050XT looks the part, but underneath it’s a 6-year-old bike. Competition is fiercer than ever, especially at this new, higher price point.

For my part, I’m planning to spend some more quality time with the top-spec V-Strom 1050XT soon. While my short initial ride failed to disappoint in the way that many over-hyped and over-priced alternatives have, it also failed to bowl me over. If my own personal V-Strom 650 exploded tomorrow and I wanted a well-specced replacement, it’s newer, bigger brother would do a fine job of filling those particular boots. But the market for sensible, upright, all-weather do-everything road bikes is now very, very crowded, especially at this price point. I’ve got an appointment to look at both Yamaha’s Tracer 900GT and have my name down for a ride on a Moto-Guzzi V85TT as soon as it’s available. Ducati’s Mulistrada 950 waits in the wings, and BMW are trying hard to tempt me with their new F900XR. And finally, there’s the Tiger 800 XRT that so impressed me last year, and its brand-new 900cc replacement.

If Suzuki can’t keep me as a customer, then who else is left?

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream July 2020

Yamaha Tracer 900 GT Review

There are a lot of motorcycles that, on paper, look perfect. Ride enough bikes and apply a little critical thinking and you can start to spot the things you like and the things you don’t in each offering. Eventually, you build up a list of the best aspects of each, mentally combining them into one bike that, if it existed, would have no peer. For me, that bike could well be the Yamaha Tracer 900 GT.

Years ago Triumph emailed existing Street Triple owners like myself a survey in an effort to discover what features and technologies we would prefer they focus on for future versions of our bikes. Many of the items they proposed in that survey made it into the current 765cc Street Triples, but one major variant never materialised. I’d always believed that my Street Triple would be perfect with a small half-fairing and hard luggage. Triumph teased that very idea in the survey, but it would appear that more power and gadgets were more interesting to other respondents.

MT-09-derived 850cc triple provides smooth, balanced power across the whole rev range.

Now that platform sharing has become the new normal, bikes like the Tracer series are inevitable. Developing, and crucially homologating a road engine is an expensive business, so manufacturers have joyfully embraced the opportunity to cheaply fill out their product lineup by reusing the same architectures. Take BMW as an example; there are Naked, Sport-Touring, and Adventure motorcycles based on their 1250cc boxer engine and associated running gear. The same is true for their 1000cc inline-four, which can be had in Supersport, Naked, or Adventure- format.

Yamaha’s naked MT-07 and MT-09 motorcycles donated much of their engineering to their Tracer variants, and the 700cc engine has even arrived in Teneré format. But while the Tracer 700 has previously proven itself a worthy adversary for the Suzuki V-Strom 650, the Tracer 900’s 847cc three-cylinder engine means that the bigger bike has the potential to represent that most elusive of concepts: a perfect combination of sporting performance, touring capability, and every-day riding practicality.

Low-slung exhaust hides a modern bulky silencer better than many designs.

First impressions of the GT-variant Tracer 900 are good. Four-piston radial brakes on adjustable upside-down forks? Check. Smart half-fairing with adjustable windshield and standard-fit handguards? Check. Integrated scaffolding-free lockable panniers with optional top box? Check. Cruise control, TFT instruments, LED headlights, reasonably large fuel tank and surprisingly frugal engine? Check. While 200 miles per tank is nothing to write home about in my book, it’s still welcome in a world where manufacturers are increasingly using theoretical incremental gains in fuel economy to justify smaller and smaller fuel tanks. Heck, you even get a centre-stand, something many other bikes don’t even support, never mind fit as standard.

There are, of course, also a few disappointments right off the bat. While the design is, in my eyes, a significant improvement over the ugly original, there are still a lot of untidily routed and exposed cables and hoses. Unlike the V-Strom 1050, the mudguard is too short to do any useful work. And despite this being a top-of-the-range flagship model in 2020, Yamaha still ask you to pay extra for indicators that don’t rely on super-heated wire filaments for illumination.

Some of the plastics seem a little flimsy, some of the decals look a bit cheap, and after experiencing BMW’s beautifully animated and easy-to-use TFT dashboard, Yamaha’s version looks functional at best. Brake hoses are cheap-looking rubber as opposed to braided steel, and the clutch lever is non-adjustable – something I’d expect to find on a 125cc learner bike, not a premium Sports-Tourer. Features aside, the Tracer can’t quite shake its budget-bike roots. This is a problem when the GT model now costs more than £11,000.

Pulling out into traffic, the riding dynamics of the Tracer don’t immediately impress either. When cold, throtte response is decidedly fluffy at lower rev ranges, and experimenting with the three throttle modes only seems to make things worse. Fixed in the lower of its two adjustable positions the seat seems to tip you forward into the tank, and even at its closest position, the brake lever is a bit of a stretch for small hands. The suspension seems fussy, never quite settling itself, as though the forks and swingarm are rubber-mounted to the frame. In reality, it’s likely that double-rate springs have been used in the forks, a common tactic in cheaper mass-produced units.

Handguards look small, but seem to be effective at deflecting wind and rain.

Once out of town and with the engine up to temperature, matters begin to improve. As familiarity with the light and sensitive throttle grows, so does the confidence to exploit more of the vast swathes of usable torque the three-cylinder configuration offers. Seemingly happy at any speed in any gear, choosing a different ratio merely changes how responsive the engine is to your throttle inputs. It sounds fantastic too, a rare feat on a standard exhaust system these days.

TFT dashboard is functional, but is beginning to look long in the tooth.

Front brakes work well, with plenty of power if not necessarily the instant bite I personally prefer, but further into the stroke the forks harden considerably causing the front wheel to chatter along the road surface and robbing you of any confidence during high-speed late-braking manoeuvres. Your mileage may vary along with your bodyweight, but once again we are reminded that motorcycle suspension will always be a one-size-doesn’t-fit-anybody affair. But while as a new owner my first stop would likely once again be MCT Suspension for a complete overhaul, once you start to turn the wick up it’s clear that the underlying chassis is excellent and the bike really starts to shine.

The riding position begins to feel much more Supermoto than Adventure-Tourer; you feel like you are sat much closer to the front wheel than on e.g. a V-Strom. I always believed that larger 19” wheels conferred an advantage on bumpy Northamptonshire B-roads, but Yamaha has clearly demonstrated that they can handle rutted surfaces just fine with the smaller, and therefore more accurate 17” wheel. There’s a sense of playfulness that other, similar bikes simply can’t match, helped of course by the class-leading 214kg wet weight. A modern frame and modern engine mean a 30kg mass advantage over many competitors, and the results are immediately apparent in how quickly the bike gains and loses speed.

It’s also a likely factor in how long the Tracer 900 can make its 18 litre petrol tank last. In mixed riding, the trip            computer reported that I’d managed 56mpg (UK), something that confirms is a realistic and achievable real-world average. Take it easy, and pushing past 60mpg (UK) should be possible, a remarkable feat for a bike that, in the right gear, can build speed with deceptive and frightening ease. More than once I found my grumbling about brakes or suspension tempered when I glanced at the speedometer and found that I had wildly underestimated my rate of progress.

And you know what, I was having fun. It was hot, muggy, occasionally raining hard, and I was threading an unfamiliar bike along unfamiliar roads, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Yes, the stock suspension is far from perfect and would definitely benefit from the significant and expensive attentions of a specialist, but the potential is clearly there for this to be an exceptional multi-purpose motorcycle. And yes, the windshield, even in its highest position, is far too short for me, but ducking down just a little resulted in a bubble of silence with rain streaming off my visor. Clearly, a slightly taller windshield would do the trick, but it’s not something I would be enthusiastic about spending money on given the motorcycle’s stated touring intentions.

Four-pot calipers are fine, but let down somewhat by the front forks under hard braking.

Furthermore, the cruise control refused to engage in 30mph zones, a maddening oversight given the obvious licence-preserving benefit, and the right-side pillion footpeg can catch on your boot if you ride on the balls of your feet.

The minor annoyances continue with unintuitive on-screen menus, and the clickable scroll-wheel on the right-hand control cluster is stiff and awkward to use. Your left boot will catch on the footpeg when trying to lower the sidestand, and the up-only quickshifter is clunky at anything other than high-rev, high-throttle applications. The fuel gauge won’t tell you anything useful until after you have less than half a tank remaining, and activating or adjusting the heated grips can only be done by navigating into a submenu. It’s all a little bit…unrefined. Unfinished. And like Suzuki’s V-Strom 1050XT, at this price point the Tracer 900 GT is picking fights with Triumph Tiger 900s, BMW F900XRs, and Ducati Multistrada 950s – all bikes with more brand cache and decidedly more premium user experience.

Seat is two-position adjustable and both gel and heated alternatives are available.

Of course, buying European carries its own perils, not least of which are the cost and frequency of servicing. With valve clearance checks not due until 24,000 miles, the Tracer 900 costs just 6p per mile to maintain, and Yamaha regularly tops the reliability surveys that the likes of BMW and KTM sink to the bottom of. The Tracer is also noticeably lighter than anything in its class, a side benefit, perhaps, of dispensing with any off-road pretensions.

Windshield is adjustable while riding and well designed, but about 10cm too short.

Quickshifter only works going up the gears and is awfully exposed in this application.

As such, the Tracer 900 GT definitely makes my shortlist, in a way that I’m not sure the heavier, more expensive, and less exciting V-Strom 1050XT does. I’m still going to be sampling more of the competition first and may yet be swayed by the Moto-Guzzi V85’s charismatic air-cooled engine and shaft drive, or Triumph’s genuinely impressive build quality and uniquely-configured three-cylinder engine. As always, I’ll have to weigh up the pros and cons and may still decide that the Tracer 900 GT is the best choice for me, even with all its minor faults. So I can only recommend that you do the same and make up your own mind before handing over your credit card.

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream July 2020

Science of Being Seen – Part 6

Looked but FAILED TO SEE!

Last time out I began explaining how in around one-third of all collisions, the bike was in a place the driver could have seen it but for some reason FAILED TO SEE the machine – a ‘detection error’ where the driver looked in the right place, but failed to identify the presence of a motorcycle in the moments before making his manoeuvre.

We need to look beyond ‘not looking properly’ as an explanation. Human visual perception isn’t ‘camera-perfect’ and it’s not true to say that “if it’s visible, and if you look hard enough, you’ll see it.”

Any illusionist or soldier knows that.

Motion camouflage

In the last article, I mentioned that we have some ability to detect light / dark contrast as well as sudden bright stimuli and movement in peripheral vision. Anything that gets our attention is called an ‘attractant’ because it automatically results in our eyes moving to focus on whatever caught our attention – and at that point (and not before) it pops into our consciousness. That’s when we ‘see’ the object.

The problem is that it’s LATERAL movement that we are sensitive to – that is, ACROSS the background.

Movement directly TOWARDS the viewer is much more difficult to pick up. It’s well-known – I was aware of the issue from my science degrees – that hunting animals stalking prey will approach along a line that keeps them motionless relative to the background from the perspective of the prey animal. If the prey animal moves, the hunter subtly adjusts their own path so that they stay on the same relative bearing. This is how big cats and dragonflies operate, and they are exploiting the phenomenon known as ‘motion camouflage’. The only clue to movement is that the apparent size of the hunting animal increases as it gets closer, but it can get remarkably close before it gets so ‘big’ that it suddenly dominates the background. At that point, the hunting animal is finally detected – this phenomenon is known as ‘looming’.

Think about the typical motion of a motorcycle, riding along a straight road and approaching a stationary driver waiting to turn at a junction – the most common collision of all. It cannot be seen moving across the background.

With no lateral movement, we are also motion camouflaged.

And now there’s a significant risk that a driver will fail to detect our approach until we’re right on top of him / her when we ‘loom’ into view by filling the background.

You can check this out for yourself on YouTube. Watch this:

(PS – keep the volume down if necessary – there are some expletives!)

Even though we can hear the Spitfire’s engine, we cannot see it against the background for two reasons:

:: our eyes are focused on the presenter, so the plane is initially in peripheral vision

:: even when the camera shifts, giving us a hint where to look, there is no lateral movement to help us detect the plane – it’s motion-camouflaged.

It is not until the plane is almost on top of us that we see it –  a Spitfire is a LOT bigger than a motorcycle.

Saccadic masking

Here’s another issue. When we’re scanning left and right, we need to shift our eyes. But there’s a problem. This movement of the background is known to cause disorientation and dizziness.

So as we scan across a scene, we don’t move our gaze smoothly across the background although that’s what most of us think happens, and what most books on riding and driving imply we should be doing.

Our eyes don’t behave like a movie camera panning across the scene but work in a completely different way, much more like a still camera taking a series of snapshots of different parts of the view. Our eyes move in a series of jerks, pausing on one particular area – a ‘fixation’ – before moving very rapidly to the next. Then they move on again… and again… and so on.

The movements between the fixations are called saccades but unbeknownst to us, the brain ceases to process retinal images during these saccades. This is known as ‘saccadic masking’ or ‘saccadic suppression’.

Once again, this phenomenon has been known about for a very long time. It’s even exploited by dancers during fast turns – the dancer turns the body but ‘spots’ on a fixed location, then turns the head faster to catch up. Saccadic masking kicks in as the background blurs through the vision, helping maintain balance and prevent dizziness.

And now you can see why when we look left and right saccadic masking shuts down the visual processing system as our eyes move. Rather than ‘scanning’ right through the visual scene as we think we do (and as we’re told we should), it’s only where the eyes stop on an object of interest, in a stationary fixation (remember that from last time?) that we get a visual ‘snapshot’ that the brain can actually process. So rather than a ‘movie’, we get that series of snapshots interspersed by blank gaps.

But – just like the dancers – we are unaware of the shut-down and believe we have searched the entire scene because the brain synthesizes the missing visual data to give the impression of a continuous scan. Only if we are ALREADY tracking a moving object are we able to follow it without saccades.

Saccadic masking isn’t ‘carelessness’ or ‘failing to look properly’, it’s a fundamental limitation of – and a visual illusion created by – the human visual system.

There’s a second, but interlinked problem. As humans we learn. It’s a fundamental part of being human. And our learning often involves discovering shorter, quicker and most importantly, less energy-intense ways of doing something. At junctions, we’re always told to “look for vehicles” before turning. But it turns out to be an ineffective strategy, because if we look for vehicles, all we see are vehicles…

…and what we actually need if we’re to make the turning manoeuvre is empty space between those vehicles. So we discover very quickly – perhaps within half an hour of beginning to drive – that what we need to spot GAPS.

Now, remember the issues I mentioned last time – the narrow foveal vision cone, and the depth of field. There’s not just the possibility that a driver will look BEYOND the motorcycle, but a real risk that in turning the head to look both ways, the bike will be ‘blanked out’ by a saccade.

It’s worth pointing out that exactly the same issue can happen to bikers. There’s some evidence from countries with a lot of powered two-wheelers that suggests riders pull out in front of other bikes equally as often as drivers! So an attentive driver – or motorcyclist – can look both ways and yet fail to see an approaching vehicle.

How can we overcome this problem? Slowing down the head-turn doesn’t eliminate fixations and saccades but it does narrow the blank gaps and offer a better chance of a fixation landing the eyes on the bike.


Kevin Williams / Survival Skills Rider Training

(c) K Williams 2020

The Science Of Being Seen – the book of the presentation £9.99 plus P&P and available now from:

The ‘Science Of Being Seen’ is a presentation created in 2011 for Kent Fire and Rescue’s ‘Biker Down’ course by Kevin Williams. Biker Down is now offered by over half the nation’s FRSs as well as the UK military, and many deliver a version of SOBS. Kevin personally presents SOBS once a month for KFRS in Rochester. He toured New Zealand in February 2018 delivering SOBS on the nationwide Shiny Side Up Tour 2018 on behalf of the New Zealand Department of Transport.

Find out more here: https://scienceofbeingseen/

Science of Being Seen – Part 5

Looked but FAILED TO SEE!

The most common collision between a motorcycle and another vehicle happens at a junction, when the other vehicle (usually a car) turns across the motorcyclist’s path. It accounts for the majority of crashes in an urban area but is also a relatively common crash on a rural road too.

I’ve already mentioned that a significant proportion of these crashes happen when the driver COULD NOT see the bike in the run-up to the crash – the motorcycle might have been hidden by other vehicles, pedestrians or roadside furniture, or concealed by the driver’s own vehicle.

But in around one-third of all collisions, the bike was in a place the driver could have seen it, but for some reason FAILED TO SEE the machine. This is a ‘detection errors’ – ie, the driver looked in the right place, but for some reason failed to identify the presence of a motorcycle in the moments before making his manoeuvre.

Road safety has always treated this as ‘not looking properly’. This ‘fault’ of the driver is nearly always presented as a simple ‘common-sense’ truth, as in “if it’s visible, and if you look hard enough, you’ll see it.”

Sadly that’s simply not true, as any stage illusionist or camouflaged soldier knows.

Illusionists and camouflage both exploit human visual perception limitations, so if we’re to understand why drivers might fail to spot a motorcycle that should be in clear sight, we need to understand a little about how the human eye works with the brain to present a representation of the outside world into our conscious mind.

The starting point is to understand that the human eyes and brain are not the equivalent of a camera and film (or digital sensor). If you plonk a bike in front of a camera, the bike is what the camera sees. But if you put a human in front of the same scene there are a number of reasons that something in plain view can go missing.

So if we’re to understand just how invisible we can be whilst on two wheels, we need to look for a genuine understanding of visual perception, not just resort to the tired old blame-game approach by saying “the driver didn’t look properly”. I’ll start by looking at two human visual perception issues, before finishing off this investigation in the next article.

Narrow foveal zone and peripheral blindness

Hold your arm straight out, clench your fist and give a ‘thumbs-up’. Look at your thumb nail. Now shift the focus of your attention to the top knuckle instead. Your eyes just moved. Although your thumb nail is only a couple of centimetres below your thumbnail, your eyes had to shift FOCUS because the cone of clear, focused colour vision – the foveal zone – is just a couple of degrees of visual angle deep.

Turn your thumb on its side and repeat. Your eyes moved again.

We have to move our eyes because only a tiny patch of the retina – known as the fovea – that actually transmits a sharp camera-like image to the brain and, to see a particular object in detail, we need to line up the fovea to the ‘fixation point’. The zone where we have this ‘foveal’ clear vision is also just a couple of degrees of visual angle wide.

Although the retinas of both eyes combine to give us visual coverage which extends slightly more than 180 degrees left-to-right, outside of the fovea, that light falls on a part of the retina with a very different construction. This ‘peripheral vision’ becomes increasingly blurry and lacking detail, and colour vision fades increasingly to black-and-white the further we move away from the fovea.

Why this limitation? There’s a simple answer – transmitting ALL the visual data that falls on the retina to the brain at the same high fidelity as the fovea would require an optic nerve bigger than the eye – there simply isn’t the capacity to carry, let alone process, the data.

Interestingly, designers of high definition Virtual Reality goggles have hit much the same problem. To get a high pixel density – and thus high realism imagery – across the entire goggle would require more computing power than any domestic computer or phone can deliver. So they are trying to exploit this phenomenon by increasing pixel density ONLY where the user is looking. The screen therefore provides increased resolution where necessary and where the eye can USE it, rather than attempting to display it across the entire screen and frying the processor.

But here’s the remarkable thing. We don’t notice that because the brain creates an illusion. It’s so good that few of us ever notice, but it’s there. The phenomenon has been known to visual science for centuries – it’s attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.

Given the tiny coverage of the fovea, the vast majority of the incoming visual data falls into peripheral vision. Just 20 degrees off the line-of-sight, our clarity of vision (or ‘visual acuity’) is about one tenth of that of the fovea.

Nevertheless, we do have some ability to detect light / dark contrast in peripheral vision, but we’re much more likely to detect sudden bright stimuli and movement.

But once we do, we automatically turn our head to bring the attractant into our line-of-sight so we can examine it with the fovea’s high-resolution vision – this is called a fixation.

Depth of field

Just like a camera, the human eye has a depth-of-field. If we focus on something close to us, everything in the background is out of focus. And vice-versa – if we’re focused on a background object, those closer up tend to blur. Combine depth-of-field with the narrow cone of foveal vision and not only does this have consequences in terms of detecting / not detecting other vehicles in peripheral vision, it also leads me to question the concept of ‘eye contact’ that’s so frequently proposed in the motorcycle safety literature. It seems a doubtful concept at best. Anecdotally, I have heard (and I’m sure you have too) motorcyclists say many times:

“I had eye contact with the driver and he/she still pulled out.”

I’d suggest this is the explanation; that although the driver appears to be looking at us, his actual visual fixation is behind us, and our machine is actually in his peripheral vision. I think that the best we can say is that if the driver is looking our way, we MIGHT have been seen, but it would be wise to assume the driver hasn’t spotted us.

So here’s this month’s takeaway. Never forget that the eye is not a camera, and no two people see the same scene in the same way. And if there’s one vehicle that’s likely to go missing when drivers search the road environment, it’s a motorcycle.

Don’t assume you’ve been seen… EVER.

…to be continued


Kevin Williams / Survival Skills Rider Training

(c) K Williams 2020

The Science Of Being Seen – the book of the presentation £9.99 plus P&P and available now from:

The ‘Science Of Being Seen’ is a presentation created in 2011 for Kent Fire and Rescue’s ‘Biker Down’ course by Kevin Williams. Biker Down is now offered by over half the nation’s FRSs as well as the UK military, and many deliver a version of SOBS. Kevin personally presents SOBS once a month for KFRS in Rochester. He toured New Zealand in February 2018 delivering SOBS on the nationwide Shiny Side Up Tour 2018 on behalf of the New Zealand Department of Transport.

Find out more here: https://scienceofbeingseen/

40,000 miles on a Triumph Street Triple R

Impractical, too small, no wind protection…a perfect all-round motorcycle?

Has it really been six years? My RoadTrip report reckons so. It was  the 5th of October 2013 when I signed the paperwork and rode away on my brand new Triumph Street Triple R. More than 40,000 miles later the very same motorcycle still sits in my garage, and though the odometer ticks up far more slowly these days, it still puts a smile on my face every time I ride it.

Part of that is down to how light the bike is. Triumph’s engineers shaved several kilos off the Street Triple’s wheels, frame and exhaust system for the 2013 model update, shifting the centre of gravity forwards and creating a bike with the same power to weight ratio as the original Honda Fireblade. 105bhp goes a long way when you only have 180kg to push around, and the lack of weight also helps fuel, tyres and other consumables to last longer when compared with heavier and more powerful motorcycles.

What’s more, this is a bike that seems to be growing in popularity, even as its 765cc successor receives styling tweaks and a price cut for 2020. It’s weird how many people have approached me in recent months to ask me my opinion on the older 675cc Street Triple. Perhaps the fact that the new, 17kg heavier version adds so very little to the experience and costs more than twice what a good-condition used example does has something to do with it. With that in mind, let’s dive into what almost seven years and 40,000 miles can tell prospective buyers about this wonderful little motorcycle.

Continuous hard riding pushes MPG down into the mid-40s, but the average is impressive

Firstly, the engine is a delight to use. It’s torquey off-idle and, with practice, you can pull away with barely a hint of the throttle. And yet, it’s smooth all the way to redline with a screaming, snarling exhaust note that puts an inline-four to shame. You can ride around in the middle of the rev range enjoying instant throttle response or waft along in a higher gear returning seriously impressive fuel economy numbers. And with the world moving to bigger, low-revving twins, the joy of a genuinely usable engine that can still rev to 12,500 RPM is something to be savoured.

Brembos would be a little sharper, but there’s honestly no need, even on a racetrack.

The brakes are great; in the years since taking ownership, I’ve had chances to sample some serious Brembo equipment that beat them on both bite and feel, but only by direct back-to-back comparison. Low weight means less mass to stop, and your forearms will give out long before you extract full power from the twin 4-piston Nissins. Triumph equipped the Street Triple R with high-friction sintered-metal brake pads as standard, and it’s the only bike I’ve ever owned where I haven’t felt the need to deviate from the OEM specification.

The fully-adjustable suspension wasn’t quite as great out of the box. As I’ve mentioned many times in previous articles, it doesn’t matter how high-quality or how clever the components are – a stock suspension setup will always be a compromise. The average rider doesn’t really exist, which means that the spring rates and valving will always be set either for someone lighter or heavier than you are. I seriously considered trading the bike in after just a few months because the bucking over bumps and skittering around corners had my confidence in tatters.

When I met Darren from MCT at the London Motorcycle Show and described my symptoms, he was quick to confirm that I wasn’t the first person to bring one of those Street Triples to his attention. He reckoned that there was a design flaw in the forks and that remedial work was necessary. It was an expensive trip, involving modification of the fork internals, but the results were transformative. Suddenly, I was riding what every journalist had promised me I had bought – one of the best-handling motorcycles in the world.

A further tweak was the reduction of the rear tyre pressure after my TVAM Observer commented that the contact patch on my rear wheel looked far too small. Reducing the pressures from the 42PSI indicated in the owner’s manual to the 36PSI recommended for the almost-identical Daytona 675 resulted in a much less skittish rear-end. There was no drop-off in fuel economy, nor an increase in tyre wear, and my only explanation for Triumph stating different pressures for functionally identical motorcycles is to blame their lawyers. With no separate rider/rider-with-pillion pressures listed as with most Japanese motorcycles, I concluded that the Triumph legal team didn’t trust their owners to make the necessary adjustments, and erred on the side of caution when writing the owner’s manual.

Same frame, same wheels, same engine, same suspension… different tyre pressures?

Shaving off several kilos makes a big difference in such a lightweight machine.

The next upgrade, and one I thought long and hard about, was the exhaust system. Believe it or not, the sound or volume was not the primary factor here, rather that the stock system is huge, ugly, and heavy, taking up a surprising amount of space underneath the bike. The catalytic converter is a separate piece from the silencer, so my exhaust emissions remain unchanged, and I’m still within the noise limits for most UK trackdays.

And that’s more or less it! I wanted to keep the bike lean and simple, and resisted excessive modification. I tried a filler-mounted tank bag for a while, experimented with Lomo drybags and eventually settled on a stack of Kriega luggage for my touring needs. A TwistyRide phone mount coupled to a 3A 5V charger handles GPS duties, and a 12V socket wired into the tail unit provides power for a compressor when encountering punctures. And finally, I swapped out the throttle grip for one from a contemporary Speed Triple, reducing the amount of wrist rotation necessary to fully open the throttle. It makes the bike a little snatchy for those not used to it, but means I can enjoy the whole engine, not just the first two thirds.

Without fitting scaffolding to the back of the bike, tailpacks are the only luggage option.

Somewhat disappointingly the paint on the tank quickly became scuffed where textile trousers rubbed on it and the seat has actually cut all the way through to the primer. The official accessory crash-bungs failed miserably at their one job when I finally tipped the bike over at a standstill last year. The indicator hit the ground first, bending the small mounting frame behind the fairing and finally crushing and popping open one of the cells in the radiator. Luckily the plastic pieces weren’t too expensive to replace, and while a new radiator was more than £400, a local specialist was able to repair and clean the old one for a mere £15. There wasn’t a mark on the crash bungs. Useless.

The crash bungs had one job, which they failed to accomplish the only time they were needed.

Other than that, the only issue to report is a hot-starting issue that’s plagued the bike for more than 30,000 miles. Often, when stopping the engine just long enough to fill up with petrol it coughs, splutters and stalls when trying to start again afterwards. It needs a little bit of coaxing and then settles down after a few seconds, but I’ve never been able to figure it out. I recently met another owner who’d experienced an identical issue and traced it to the idle control stepper motor, so maybe I’ll see if I can pick up a used one and swap it out.

Straight bars are a real asset on a tight track like Mallory Park.

And that’s it! With the help of ACF50 my bike commuted through two British winters before the V-Strom took over that job, and the standard-fit stainless bolts are all still shiny. Triumph charged me a fortune for servicing to maintain the two-year warranty, then refused to help when the hot starting issue materialised, so I gave them the finger and have been doing everything myself ever since. Oil changes are easy, but valve checks are a nightmare and due every 12,000 miles, so you’d best hope yours don’t need adjusting! You’d also better have a Windows laptop and a DealerTool handy, as that’s the only way for home mechanics to balance the throttle bodies and reset the service warning indicator.

What of the new 765cc Street Triples that Triumph launched a couple of years ago – am I tempted to upgrade? In a word, no. The resale value of a 40,000 mile Street Triple would barely cover the deposit on the new bikes, and the extra power and needless riding modes don’t interest me. And if you read the small print, you’ll notice that Triumph has started quoting dry weights for their bikes these days, leading some short-sighted journalists to claim that the new bike is slightly lighter than the old one. More recently a magazine actually weighed one and found that the bigger engine and reinforced frame add around 17kg to the total mass, cancelling out the benefit of the more powerful engine.

And in truth, those changes wouldn’t really add to the experience for me. Traction control is always nice, but the fact is that there’s nothing a Street Triple can dish out that modern sport-touring rubber can’t handle, even at a racetrack. If Triumph had made good on their threats to create a version with a half-fairing and hard-luggage, things might have been different. But as it stands, it wouldn’t be much of an upgrade.

Scotland, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Luxembourg…

In the last six years I’ve commuted, visited friends and family, travelled the length and breadth of the UK, explored its limits on the racetrack and scraped my pegs around alpine hairpins. It’s handled the Hard Nott Pass and the Nürburgring, moved house with me three times, and eaten 5 sets of tyres. It’s drunk more than 3,400 litres of petrol, chewed up two sets of chains and sprockets, ground down four sets of front brake pads and even worn out a set of front disks.

I’m planning more trackdays, more trips abroad once the present situation opens up the tracks and borders for foreign travel, and still go looking for every opportunity to take my Street Triple R out for a spin on our bumpy local roads now we can get out there again. It’s not as comfortable or practical as my other bikes, it’s not great at motorways or in bad weather, and it’s the worst motorcycle I’ve ever owned for carrying luggage. But with motorcycles getting heavier, with electronics filtering our every input and with the days of new petrol-powered bikes numbered, I’ll treasure my Street Triple R for as long as I possibly can.

I’ll update you all when I hit 100,000 miles, or when it explodes – whichever comes first!

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream June 2020

Bullets, Camels, Elephants & Tigers (Part 2)

The next morning our departure was delayed due to lots of local families wanting to speak English and have their photos taken with us and the bikes. Eventually we left and rode on to Jodhpur, known as the Blue City, where we had a tour of Mehrangarh Fort, one of the largest forts in India, which from a distance looks as though it is carved out of the mountain.

Then back on our Bullets, which by now felt like old friends, and a leisurely ride to Chandelao, where we found our next hotel, which was like a converted palace. This evening we had time to walk around the village, which was obviously very poor but where the locals were so friendly and welcoming.

The following morning we couldn’t wait to mount our bikes again for the next stage of the adventure. It didn’t disappoint, wiith another great mix of road types, from newly-constructed tarmac to complete off-roading going through many very poor villages where the local children would run out to wave and shout. By early afternoon we had arrived at our next hotel in Ranakpur and after an excellent lunch and a rest we had a very different mode of transport – an open top, 4×4,  8 -eater Maruti (Suzuki) Gypsies – which took us on a safari into the foothills looking for leopards.

The next day took us on real mountain roads full of hairpin bends and again the Bullets excelled themselves. We reached Udaipur and our lakeside hotel where we stayed for 2 nights and took in lots of sightseeing, some with guides and some on our own.

Leaving Udaipur we again rode lots of mountain roads then a stretch of off-roading to reach a lakeside restaurant for lunch and relaxation before pushing on to Bijaipur and a converted Maharaja’s palace, which was to be our next hotel.

Pachewar Fort was our next destination, and the mix of roads was possibly even better than any we had done so far; up and down mountains on hairpins, great open roads with linked bends, a long off-roading section then crossing the top of a dam via the service road which included negotiating a railway line without a level crossing.

The Bullets in front of Mehrangarh Fort

Elephants at the Amber Fort

All the towns and villages were very colourful, having been decorated with millions of coloured lights and other decorations ready for Diwali and the start of the national holiday. Another converted fort was our next hotel and in the evening the Maharaja demonstrated his skills by cooking our meal.

We arrived in Jaipur on the day they celebrate Diwali and were all invited to join Narendra and his family at their home for this famous festival. We were even given traditional Indian clothes so that we truly felt like part of the celebrations. The party was held on the roof terrace of their house, which had a good view across Jaipur where the sky was lit up by fireworks continuously from dusk right through to dawn the next day.

The morning after involved yet another form of transport: elephants at the Amber Fort. Then later that day we may possibly have broken a world record with 8 of us, plus the driver, travelling in a 4-seater Tuk Tuk across Jaipur. Even the locals seemed surprised to see that!

The next day we said our farewells to the group as they headed off to Agra to see the Taj Mahal whilst we travelled south by car to Ramthanbore National Park. There we took a safari in the Tiger Reserve, where one was actually seen and photographed.

Who could visit India without going on the Indian railways?  Well we certainly couldn’t so we caught a train to Agra for our final days of sightseeing which included the must-see Wonder of the World, the Taj Mahal.

Normal riding India style

The next day we said our farewells to the group as they headed off to Agra to see the Taj Mahal whilst we travelled south by car to Ramthanbore National Park. There we took a safari in the Tiger Reserve, where one was actually seen and photographed.

Who could visit India without going on the Indian railways?  Well we certainly couldn’t so we caught a train to Agra for our final days of sightseeing which included the must-see Wonder of the World, the Taj Mahal.

After a couple of days in Agra and countless more photos, we finally said our sad farewells to India and arrived back at Heathrow. Two men of mature years were back in England, very tired, with lighter bank balances but with fantastic memories and photos to enjoy for the rest of our lives.

Someone asked me what the three best bits were. Very difficult to answer as there were no bad bits but certainly some of the highlights were:

  1. The Indian people, so warm, friendly and welcoming
  2. The Royal Enfield Bullets, they look like museum pieces but took everything in their stride
  3. Celebrating Diwali with an Indian family at their home in Jaipur

Would we do it again? Yes. Would we recommend it to anyone else? Yes, if you like bikes, just do it.

Would we recommend the tour company? Yes, 100%. They were

If you are thinking of doing a similar tour and want more advice, just let us know and we would be pleased to help.

Here are a few tips.

The System applied to riding in India.

I – Information:  Too much on offer, best to ignore

P – Position:  Anywhere you can find a space, but not restricted by the road

S – Speed:  No chance, slow or extra slow

G – Gear:  Any you can find in the box, they are all much the same

A – Acceleration:  About 0-60 in two days


MAD:  They all are and are all around you

TUG:  Take, every man for himself

POWDDERSS:  If the horn works and the engine starts that’s all you need to check

OUR:  It’s all too hectic, just react

IAMSAFE:  If you are awake that is all that is needed

Biking gear

Men – always the driver, t-shirt, shorts, flip-flops and sunglasses are essential, plus a mobile phone in left hand and probably being used. A helmet is legally required by the driver but optionally worn and often carried on the arm. No helmet requirement for passengers, normally at least 2 passengers on every bike.

Women – Sari and optional flip flops. They ride side saddle carrying a week’s shopping and up to five children. All bikes are manufactured with a side step and sari guard, as side saddle is legal.

The Right of Way

In India only one thing has the right of way and that is the cow. Everyone has to defer to the cow without exception, even the President.

John Stevenson & Patrick White

First published in Slipstream May 2020


Science of Being Seen – Part 4

‘RIDE BRIGHT’ or ‘THINK BIKE’ success?

I’ve made a start on what the Science Of Being Seen – both the research and the presentation – is all about, and I mentioned a bit about the background context and just why I felt it necessary to put this work together.

The answer is that although the ‘RIDE BRIGHT’ motorcycle conspicuity campaigns aimed at bikers and their logical counterpart, the ‘THINK BIKE’ campaigns that exhort drivers to look harder for the difficult-to-see two wheeler, have been running from the mid-70s to the current day, and although they have run all over the world, and either adopted voluntarily or enforced through legislation, there’s no significant evidence that either strategy has had any significant impact on collisions between bikes and cars.

Drivers still suffer the ‘Looked But Failed To See’ (LBFTS) error and commit the ‘Right Of Way Violation (ROWV). As you can see, they’ve been happening for so long and studied so intensively, the research has created a pair of acronyms.

And riders still sail into these crashes all too regularly. Riders have also known about this collision for so long they’ve given it their own their own nickname – the ‘Sorry Mate I Didn’t See You’ SMIDSY.

So let’s go back to the beginning of the story.

As long ago as 1975, the Greater London Road Safety Unit identified powered two-wheelers (PTWs) as being over-represented in accidents. Detailed analysis followed and the results indicated that a major contributory factor was that other drivers failed to see the motorcycles in the general street scene.

The Greater London ‘Ride Bright’ campaign followed. It’s likely it was the first road safety campaign specifically designed to encourage riders of powered two-wheelers to improve their conspicuity by wearing bright clothing, preferably of fluorescent material, and by switching on their headlights in daytime. The campaign was extensive, involving radio advertising, a poster campaign, leaflets distributed through a number of routes (including dealers, garages, colleges, businesses and by London’s Metropolitan Police Service) and give-away items such as combs, pens and key-rings.

At around the same time, a US researcher named Harry Hurt (of whom you may have heard) working with Dupont wrote in 1977 that:

“the most likely comment of an automobile driver involved in a traffic collision with a motorcycle is that he, or she, did not SEE the motorcycle…”.

Hurt became synonymous with research into motorcycle crashes a few years later when he put his name to a mammoth study that became known as the ‘Hurt Report’ (1981). It has become a seminal work and you can find it easily online. Based on his research in California, what Harry Hurt found (amongst other things) was that:

“Approximately 3/4 of motorcycle accidents involved collision with another vehicle at an intersection. The driver of the other vehicle violated the motorcycle right-of-way and caused the accident in 2/3 of those accidents and did not see the motorcycle or did not see the motorcycle until too late to avoid the collision. Most involved passenger cars…”

A few years later, on our own side of the Big Pond, Keith Booth looked at 10,000 motorcycle crashes in London. Although I cannot find the original research, he released a report called “Characteristics of Urban Motorcycle Accidents” through the Institute of Motorcycling. Booth’s observation was that in London:

“62% of motorcycle accidents were primarily caused by the other road user. In 2/3 of motorcycle accidents where the driver was at fault, the accident was due to the driver failing to anticipate the action of the motorcyclist.”

In other words, much the same crashes were happening in big cities on both sides of the Atlantic and in much the same proportions.

The obvious question was: “Why?” Hurt drew much the same conclusion as the earlier GLC study in London:

“The origin of this problem seems to be related to the element of conspicuity (or conspicuousness) of the motorcycle; in other words, how easy it is to see the motorcycle. When the motorcycle and the automobile are on collision paths, or when the vehicles are in opposing traffic, the conspicuity due to motion is very low, if it exists at all.”

I’ll be coming back to this concept of ‘motion conspicuity’.

Hurt continued, “Consequently, recognition of the motorcycle by the automobile driver will depend entirely upon the conspicuity due to contrast.

“If the approaching motorcycle and rider blend well with the background scene, and if the automobile driver has not developed improved visual search habits which include low-threat targets (such as motorcycles and bicycles, as contrasted with the high-threat targets presented by trucks and buses) the motorcycle will not be recognized as a vehicle and a traffic hazard exists.”

Note that phrase about depending ‘entirely on the conspicuity’ – it’s going to be important too.

These accidents are often categorised as ‘Looked But Failed To See’ errors (LBFTS), because the driver claims that they looked in the appropriate direction for conflicting traffic, but did not see the approaching motorcycle.

If drivers were colliding with motorcycles that they hadn’t seen because the motorcycle had poor conspicuity,  what was the answer? Not surprisingly, the road safety bodies came up with two ‘common sense’ answers:

  • motorcyclists should make themselves more conspicuous by wearing light-coloured, reflective and fluorescent hi-vis clothing and white helmets, and to ride with dipped headlights on, and if they did, this would help drivers see them
  • drivers should look harder for motorcycles – drivers were told to ‘Think Bike’ and to look twice or take longer to look for them, and if they did this they would see bikes.

And that’s pretty much where we are now.

So… did any of this work?

Clarke et al (2007) investigated a sample of crashes involving motorcycles in the UK:

“A sample of 1790 accident cases was considered, including 1003 in detail, from UK midland police forces, involving motorcyclists of all ages, and covering the years 1997-2002 inclusive. Significant differences were discovered in the sample with respect to types of accidents involving motorcyclists (and their blameworthiness). There seems to be a particular problem surrounding other road users’ perception of motorcycles, particularly at junctions. Such accidents often seem to involve older drivers with relatively high levels of driving experience who nonetheless seem to have problems detecting approaching motorcycles.”

Even more recently, Helman et al (2012) wrote in a paper for the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) that:

“It is widely accepted that one key factor in motorcyclist crashes around the world is the difficulty other road users have in detecting an approaching motorcyclist or correctly appraising their speed and position. This is of particular concern at road intersections, when drivers need to detect gaps in oncoming traffic to make turns either across or into traffic flows. If a motorcyclist is not detected by a car driver in this situation (so-called ‘looked but failed to see’) then this can lead to a manoeuvre that violates the motorcyclist’s path, and a potential crash.”

If we look outside the UK but still within Europe, the pan-European study ‘Motorcycle Accidents In-Depth Study’ (or MAIDS for short), first released in 2004 then updated in 2009, found that just over half of all crashes involving a powered two-wheeler (ie a motorcycle or moped) took place at an intersection. 60% of these collisions were with a car, 72% of the accidents took place in urban areas, and in 50% the car driver was to blame. And the important conclusion was that in over 70% of the collisions resulting from an error on the part of the other driver, the collision involved a failure to see the a motorcycle.

And the latest study from Transport for London on motorcycle crashes in the capital repeated the findings that the car – motorcycle collision at a junction remains the biggest single issue facing riders.

So, the conclusion is inescapable. The interventions first recommended in the 1970s and early 80s don’t seem to have had any effect on the prevalence of the LBFTS error. And so the SMIDSY remains the most common crash involving a bike and another vehicle.

If our generation of riders is to do any better, we need to look for a better explanation. And we need to do it ourselves, not rely on what we’re told. And that’s why I’ve spent so much effort working on SOBS over the last nine years.


Kevin Williams / Survival Skills Rider Training

(c) K Williams 2020

The Science Of Being Seen – the book of the presentation £9.99 plus P&P and available now from:

The ‘Science Of Being Seen’ is a presentation created in 2011 for Kent Fire and Rescue’s ‘Biker Down’ course by Kevin Williams. Biker Down is now offered by over half the nation’s FRSs as well as the UK military, and many deliver a version of SOBS. Kevin personally presents SOBS once a month for KFRS in Rochester. He toured New Zealand in February 2018 delivering SOBS on the nationwide Shiny Side Up Tour 2018 on behalf of the New Zealand Department of Transport.

Find out more here: https://scienceofbeingseen/

Bullets, Camels, Elephants & Tigers (Part 1)

Having spent a lazy summer swanning around the Cotswolds, John Stevenson was getting bored. Patrick White, who was recovering from a serious illness, was also bored, having not been on a bike for nine months. Both wanting to extend their biking horizons, we braved an adventure north – all the way to Birmingham. The destination was that bikers adventure park, The NEC Bike Show.

Without the use of maps, compass or satnav, we explored the show, narrowly avoiding bankruptcy at the likes of BMW, Norton, Ducati, Brough etc., until we found an oasis of calm and a very friendly welcome at the Indian Rides stand.

Narendra, the founder, and his wife Gopika asked us if we had ever thought of going to India. John replied “Yes, it is somewhere I have always wanted to go,” whilst Patrick, looking horrified, said “You’ve got to be joking!”

Fast forward to early February 2019. Patrick, having been encouraged, maybe bullied, by John agreed that – although it was pure madness – they should just do it. By the end of February having, in true Indian style, negotiated a good deal for the tour, flights were booked with British Airways and deposits paid. At this point it seemed like a good time to do some extensive research into what we were actually letting ourselves in for.

The Tour was to last 15 days, but as we considered ourselves to be “gentlemen of leisure”, we added a day on the front and several days on the back. When planning and booking we worked out a strict budget, but over the following months that gradually fell by the wayside. The months from the end of February to the departure were filled with obtaining visas; having lots of jabs; getting International driving licences; a long search for a map of Rajasthan; endless shopping trips and searches on eBay for suitable biking gear; enough first aid kit to equip a  small ambulance plus large quantities of Deet for the expected mosquitoes.

Then one day we found ourselves at Heathrow Terminal 5. Having checked in the luggage, we settled down at Costa in the departure lounge and said “Well there’s no turning back now!” The big positive was that we knew that we were going to have excellent biking weather.

10 hours after buying some ‘Scottish medicinal mouth wash’ in the Duty Free at Terminal 5, we looked out of the aircraft window to see New Delhi rushing up towards us out of the smog. A car from our hotel collected us from the airport and gave us our first taste of Indian driving and traffic. India, having been part of the British Empire, had all the familiar infrastructure: driving on the left, pavements, roundabouts, pedestrian crossings, traffic lights, English road signs, only you just ignore all that. The police just stand and watch the ensuing chaos.

After checking into our hotel we went for a climatisation walk – a circular tour of the area around the railway station. We were in awe of the volume and variety of traffic, which included cars, lorries, bicycles, scooters, motorbikes, ox carts, Tuk Tuks, cycle rickshaws, dogs, cattle, goats, pedestrians and handcarts. It all appeared totally chaotic. The deafening cacophony of horns and engines which continued 24/7 almost made you forget that the air was over 40°C and heavy with pollution.

Contrary to all the scaremongering, the smell was no worse than most other cities. To get a real flavour of Delhi we took a ride in a Tuk Tuk across New Dehli centre at rush hour – until you have experienced that you don’t know you are alive. We also rode the Metro, which was so modern, efficient and clean we thought we had been transported to another planet.

That evening we enjoyed our first ‘real’ Indian curry followed by a good night’s sleep. The next morning we were collected from our hotel by Indian Rides and whisked some 4 hours away in a mini bus to Mandawa and our hotel, The Mandawa Haveli. It was essentially a town centre manor house of historical and architectural interest, and we felt that we were now experiencing true India. Parked in the front courtyard were our trusty steeds for the next 15 days; 14 new Royal Enfield 500cc Bullets in British Racing Green. Wow, let the fun begin!

That evening over dinner and a few bottles of Kingfisher, we got to know the rest of the tour group which consisted of us, 4 other Brits (3 of whom were IAM members), 1 Dutchman, plus 3 French couples and of course Narendra, our tour leader. As well as this there was the support crew of 2 with their minibus for our luggage and a variety of Royal Enfield spare parts. These two guys we renamed Hudson and Jeeves as we could never remember their proper names and when we did remember we couldn’t pronounce them.

Now the serious riding began but first a safety briefing and bike check: Check 1 engine starts; Check 2 horn works; Check 3 – just ride! The first day of riding covered many aspects including ignoring everything we learnt back home, riding on road surfaces that were so bad that it proved England does not have any pot holes, just minor surface imperfections. We rode through rivers, deep gravel, sand and unmade roads, all while negotiating regular Indian traffic – which appeared to be complete chaos – plus avoiding cows, camels, pigs, dogs, oxen, monkeys, and of course, pedestrians, Tuk Tuks, rickshaws and thousands of scooters. In spite of all this, it was some of the best fun we have ever experienced on bikes and did wonders for our observation and filtering skills.

The Mandawa Haveli.

Hudson and Jeeves.

The following day we left Mandawa and headed for Bikaner, covering another good mix of road types and avoiding herds of camels. We were now really loving the Bullets, the big 500cc single, thumping away, exhaust burbling, plus the popping and banging on the overrun. We stopped off for a tour of the Fort of Junagarh then on to Bikaner, where we stayed in an ancient palace which now served as a 5 star hotel.

After a good breakfast of traditional Indian or European fare, we were back on our Bullets heading for the golden city of Jaisalmer, on the edge of the Thar desert. Dinner in the open roof-top restaurant watching the sun set on Jaisalmer Fort was spectacular. The fort looks like a giant sand castle rising from the sandy plains.

The next day started with a tour of the fort and the town, then more riding but this time out into the Thar Desert. After an hour or so our hotel for the night appeared as if like a mirage. It was a tented complex surrounded by huge sand dunes. Our next test was to access the site up a rather large and steep sand dune. Narendra filled us with confidence while we all waited at the bottom and watched him ride straight up as though it was a tarmac road. We then attempted to emulate him one by one, resulting in no one getting much further than halfway without the assistance of several locals pushing. Having proved we cannot ride bikes on sand dunes and any prospect of competing in the Dakar Rally completely dashed, we all transferred to camels.

That night we were entertained by local gipsy dancers and musicians, and slept under the stars only to discover, the following morning, that we were just as bad at riding back down the dunes.

We negotiated many roads that were covered in sand, some several centimetres deep, but the Bullets never let us down and we couldn’t believe how versatile our bikes were, coping with everything thrown at them and proving you don’t have to spend any more than about £4,000 to have a brand new bike that is great fun and full of character.

Later that day, arriving at our destination, Pokaran, we found our hotel to be a converted fort, complete with battlements and a large outdoor swimming pool. Could this get any better?

John Stevenson & Patrick White

First published in Slipstream April 2020

From Bullets to camels.

Unusual & Infrequent Maintenance

How many of you have ever actually looked at the section of your bike’s owner’s manual titled “Service schedule”? At best, you’ve maybe glanced at the long list, noted the intervals, and made a note to drop your bike off with your dealer or independent mechanic at the specified mileages. The problem with this hands-off approach is that you risk a lot of important stuff getting missed, and suffering the reliability and financial consequences later on.

Whether it’s listed in your manual or not, the official maintenance schedule for your particular model of motorcycle will be defined by your manufacturer. They will have dictated what needs to be done at what mileage and time intervals in order to ensure reliable operation of the machine, or at least to ensure a minimum of warranty claims. The obvious, common stuff will be things like checking and lubricating pivot points (levers, sidestands, foot pegs), checking that no nuts or bolts have vibrated loose, and changing the engine oil. This stuff is easy to do and doesn’t take long, so it’s relatively cheap and makes the customer feel like they’re looking after their bike. Without this work, you’d notice significant degradation in your end-user experience of the product, followed by serious, and easily observable technical faults, such as your engine exploding.

See, long-term reliability and performance isn’t always a priority for the original manufacturer. If you’re a good little customer, you’ll be swapping your bike for a new one every 24-36 months anyway, so any long-term issues won’t crop up under your ownership. If the second or third owner experiences problems, who cares? Those riders aren’t really their customers, so their experience isn’t as important.

Of course, this short-sighted view is why I’d never want to own a BMW or KTM out of warranty but might consider giving Honda, Yamaha, or Suzuki my new-bike money one day. And if no-one wants to buy your used bikes, then suddenly the PCP business model collapses, and your ‘subscribers’ can’t afford your expensive new bikes anymore. But making the maintenance schedule entirely comprehensive would likely hurt new-bike sales. Servicing costs are a significant consideration for many buyers, so Ducati has worked very hard to reduce the frequency with which their bikes need taking in for maintenance. Initial purchase costs can easily be dwarfed by running costs if you’re not careful.

After 33,000 miles, what was left of my V-Strom’s fork oil resembled muddy hot chocolate.

Ask an experienced mechanic what you should be doing regularly to keep your machine at peak performance and you’ll likely be listed a number of things that aren’t on any manufacturer’s maintenance schedule. For example, suspension. Triumph, credit where it’s due, instruct their dealers to change the fork oil as part of regular servicing. Fork oil degrades over time, affecting damping performance, but isn’t considered a service item at all by many manufacturers.

Of course, shock absorbers degrade at the same rate in the same way, and stock units on most bikes are usually not rebuildable. In order to return like-new performance, you’d have to replace the entire shock absorber every 16,000 miles or so. No manufacturer wants to put that on their maintenance schedule, as OEM shock absorbers are hellishly expensive. I once asked a BMW rep at a trade show what their solution was for people wanting to get the suspension on their R1200GS refreshed. With an entirely straight face, he told me that it would never come up because at 18,000 miles I’d naturally be trading the bike for a new one anyway.

Aftermarket shocks can be serviced every 16k miles; stock units can only be replaced.

After a few harsh winters, the running gear under your bike will be in dire need of some TLC.

Staying with suspension for a moment, most modern bikes have complex linkages designed to allow short-stroke shock absorbers to support a wide range of wheel movement. These linkages are usually slung low in the chassis, often placed directly in front of the rear wheel, and get absolutely pelted with rain and salt. What’s more, there’s frequently very little grease pumped into those bearings from new, and after just a few thousand miles of wet-weather use can often by at risk of seizing up and acting against the movement of the suspension.

Because of the torque being applied to these moving parts, it’s rare for a suspension system to seize solid – you simply get metal-on-metal grinding that quickly turns into expensive damage. In the meantime, you’ll experience added stiffness to the ride, but odds are it’ll be so gradual that you won’t notice until it’s too late. Dismantling these linkages can be a very involved job – on a Yamaha FJR1300 you even have to remove the exhaust system – making it very expensive in terms of labour hours.

In a dry climate, with a bike that’s only ridden in nice weather, you could probably go for years and not have a problem. But I’ve taken apart linkages on both my Yamaha T-Max and Suzuki V-Strom when they had relatively low mileages, only to find that I’d caught the problem just in time. One of the linkages on the T-Max was completely seized at less than three years old, and the bearings all showed tell-tale signs of rust. This premium scooter had a full dealer history when I bought it, but nowhere in the maintenance schedule are suspension linkages mentioned at all. But worst of all is when stuff is on the service schedule, but lazy mechanics don’t do it because it’s too much work. Depending on how honest your mechanic is, you might still be paying for the work, but I have strong evidence to suggest that my Triumph dealer never checked the valve clearances during my Street Triple’s 12,000-mile service, despite charging me for the work. “Everything was fine, nothing needed adjusting, that’s 3 hour’s labour please.” I can almost understand the logic; if you’ve checked dozens of engines and they’ve thus far been in-spec at the 12k mark, then it’s very tempting to assume that they’ll all be fine. But you can’t officially not do it, or the manufacturer will blame your dealership if there’s an engine failure under warranty. So you tick the box and move on to the next bike on your to-do list.

Steering head bearings are a similar story. Buried under fairing on many bikes, and requiring hours’ of work to get to even on unfaired models, checking, re-greasing and adjusting them must be a task that’s tempting to ignore. And how would the customer even know, one way or another? Steering head bearings can fail at any time, even if well maintained, and are considered a wear item. No warranty claims, no proof, no problem!

Getting to the steering head bearings is no mean feat, even on a naked bike…

The next problem you have is detailed service records, or the lack thereof. If you’re taking your bike back to the same main dealer, or a dealer with access to a shared records system, you might be OK. They’ll be able to look up what was done last visit and therefore know what is required this time, be it an annual service or something mileage-based. If you’re relying on a different dealer or a mechanic that simply doesn’t keep those kinds of detailed records, you’ve got a problem. You’ll have a stamp in the book showing when the last service was completed, but no details of what work was completed. So the mechanic will ask you what needs doing this time, and unless you’re like me and keep track of individual service items yourself, you’ll have no idea.

Is it time for the brake fluid to be changed? The fuel hoses to be swapped? Are you due a valve check or not? Some items are time-based, others on mileage alone, some a combination. Asking a mechanic to “service” your bike is like asking an artist to paint you a picture – you’re going to need to be a lot more specific. Asking for a “basic service” usually means changing the engine oil and filter, maybe an air filter, a check of the brakes, followed by a quick once-over to make sure nothing external is leaking or otherwise obviously broken. Do that same thing every year or every mileage interval and you’ll probably avoid catastrophic engine failure and maintain basic safety, but long-term reliability and performance will suffer, and you could be storing up some big, expensive repair bills for the future.

My approach is to meticulously document everything

Some independent dealers might list “bronze”, “silver”, and “gold” services, along with what each one entails. All will be generic, none will be model-specific, and even if you follow a sort of minor/major cadence there will be plenty of things that get missed from the official schedule – not to mention the unwritten list of other stuff that really should receive regular attention. The only thing you can do is educate yourself by talking to experts, asking hard questions of your mechanic, and keeping your own records and schedules. That way, you can be in control, can be sure that your bike is being properly maintained, and avoid some really nasty surprises further down the road.

Here are a couple of tips and best practices I’ve developed over the years:

  • Keep detailed service records of exactly what was done and when. Ask your mechanic or service writer for a full breakdown when you pay the bill.
  • If using an independent mechanic, do your homework and get hold of an itemised service schedule for your bike. If they are true professionals, they won’t mind looking at the previous work notes and official service schedule before talking to you about what they recommend needs doing based on your bike’s history.
  • Use forums and owner’s clubs to find out if there are any model-specific maintenance pieces that should really be added to the manufacturer’s list of service items. Discuss these items with your mechanic, with a view to seeking their advice – no mechanic wants to think that their experience is valued less than “wot I read on the internet”, so be diplomatic.
  • Find a mechanic you can trust and stick with them, making sure they understand that you’ll be using their services again. If they’re going to have to pick up the pieces of any corner-cutting, they’ll be less likely to cut those corners in the first place.
  • If you intend to keep the bike for the long-haul, let your mechanic know. The advice they would give to someone looking to keep a bike short-term might well differ from what they would tell someone who wants to still be relying on the same machine in 50,000 miles.
  • Have any particular maintenance tasks you think are frequently overlooked, or maybe a particularly clever way of logging everything? Send me a message and let me know!


Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream April 2020

Science of Being Seen – Part 3

SMIDSY – there’s more than one driver error

Thanks to decades of ‘Think Bike’ style campaigns which in essence tell drivers to “look harder” or “look longer” for motorcycles it’s not surprising that most riders believe that the SMIDSY results from poor driving skills and specifically from “not looking properly”. This advice and these beliefs have arisen from ‘post-hoc’ analyses of crashes. That is, they tell us WHAT happened and we find that out by starting at the end point of the collision, and working backwards till we find the error. It’s pretty straightforward in the case of the SMIDSY; the driver didn’t see the bike.

But post-hoc analyses don’t tell us two things:

  • how OFTEN the crash occurs – in fact, with 30+ million active drivers and between 1 and 2 million active motorcyclists in the UK, serious collisions are remarkably rare – just over 2000 in total in 2017. The vast majority of drivers see the vast majority of bikes – we just notice the ones who don’t see us.
  • WHY the driver failed to see the bike – for that we need to start at the other end of the crash and ask why an everyday interaction went wrong.

Last time I talked about the ‘looked but COULD NOT SEE’ issue, where the motorcycle is simply not where it could be seen. But what about those events where reconstruction suggests that bike was actually in a place it could be seen?

In fact, there’s a chain of perceptual events to be completed between the driver looking and the bike being seen. The ‘Looked But Failed To See’ problem can result from a breakdown at any of the stages:

  • firstly, the driver has to look – if he / she doesn’t look, the driver will not see the motorcycle
  • secondly, the bike has to be where it can be seen when the driver looks – if not, the bike is not visible and the driver cannot see the motorcycle
  • thirdly, the driver has to look and perceive the motorcycle – if the motorcycle is not perceived, the driver will not see the motorcycle
  • fourthly – and this one is hot off the press, straight out of a paper published late in 2019 – the driver has to look, perceive the motorcycle and then retain that knowledge right through the manoeuvre – if the driver forgets that he or she saw the motorcycle, the manoeuvre will be performed as though the driver did not see the motorcycle
  • fifth and last, if the driver perceives the motorcycle, the driver has to assess speed and distance correctly – if the driver misjudges either, the result is likely to be a faulty decision to turn and an unsafe manoeuvre

The proportions of the different errors may surprise you.

‘Did not look’ falls into the smallest segment of the chart, and includes collisions where drivers are using mobile phones. An IAM report entitled ‘Licensed to skill: contributory factors in road accidents: Great Britain 2005 – 2009’ looked at over 700,000 items of official crash data from the UK and found that ‘driver using mobile phone’ was the cause of 0.8% of fatal crashes, and just 0.2% of all injury crashes. I should point out that these are crashes involving ALL vehicle types, and that given the huge increase in smartphone use the figures may be outdated, but the inference is that the crash rate between motorcycles and drivers using a phone is almost certainly much lower than most riders believe.

In fact, the three main factors are:

  • the driver looked but the bike COULD NOT be seen – between one-fifth and one-quarter of all collisions
  • the bike was visible, and the driver ‘Looked But FAILED to see’ – around one-third of all collisions *
  • the bike was seen and the driver ‘looked, saw but MISJUDGED speed and distance’ – around one-third of all collisions

(This total is likely to include the newly proposed ‘looked, saw but FORGOT error’).

From our perspective as riders, it’s important to understand that each error is different, with different causes and different possible solutions. Treating them all as a ‘driver didn’t look properly’ issue has held back our understanding of collisions between cars and motorcycles for over forty years. It’s time to move our understanding and our strategies for dealing with these crashes forward.


Kevin Williams / Survival Skills Rider Training

(c) K Williams 2020

The Science Of Being Seen – the book of the presentation £9.99 plus P&P and available now from:

The ‘Science Of Being Seen’ is a presentation created in 2011 for Kent Fire and Rescue’s ‘Biker Down’ course by Kevin Williams. Biker Down is now offered by over half the nation’s FRSs as well as the UK military, and many deliver a version of SOBS. Kevin personally presents SOBS once a month for KFRS in Rochester. He toured New Zealand in February 2018 delivering SOBS on the nationwide Shiny Side Up Tour 2018 on behalf of the New Zealand Department of Transport.

Find out more here: https://scienceofbeingseen/