There are more rider aids out there than ever before – and more on the way. But which are the good AIDS and which are the bad AIDS, as it were? Let’s find out…
When I was a lad, the only ‘rider aids’ you had on your bike were the speedo, throttle, brakes and clutch. And, if you were lucky, a reserve fuel tap, which you could switch to ‘reserve’ when you ran low, then forgot to turn it back, and ran out next time anyway. We were dead ‘appy though, weren’t we?!
Now though? Modern riders can do almost everything except make a skinny soya latte with the high-tech gizmos on their bikes. And we’re expecting the Nespresso edition Ducati Scrambler anytime now. Electronic suspension, traction control, anti-lock brakes, colour dashboards, cruise control, power modes, quickshifters, wheelie control, anti-rear-wheel-lift control, launch control slide control – where will it all end? Setting up your bike for a Sunday blast can seem as big a faff as programming your mum’s Betamax video recorder to tape Brookside back in the day.
Plus, if you want to do a wheelie on some bikes now, you need to fax the factory a week in advance so they can WiFi the permission to your clever-as-fuck ECU. Result? You end up turning it all off, and plough into a ditch at high speed on your way to your favourite wheelie lane. Booh. The facking things turn themselves back on as soon as your back is turned anyway (KTM, we’re looking at you here). So. Here’s our run-down on the tech aids which we love, and the ones to which we say NO!
It’s fair to say that anti-lock brakes have come a long way since their early days on BMW’s K100 back in the 1980s. That system was borrowed from cars so was big, heavy and slow to operate. A bit like me these days. The principle remains the same as that first system – a small computer measures the speed of the front and rear wheels as you hit the brakes. If it sees one wheel slowing down too much, it reduces the brake pressure, so the wheel won’t lock up. Early systems were pretty lame, often turning the brakes off and on completely in what felt like five second cycles, leading to that horrible ‘I’m hauling on the brakes for a corner and this stupid bike has turned them off’ feeling. Things like small bumps on the road would confuse the system, and the slow response rate and fairly simple algorithms could be caught out. And they had little ability to control braking while leant over in a corner.
Nowadays, the very best setups are tied in with IMU sensors so it knows when you’re leant over, and if the bike is stoppying or not, and can also cycle the brake pressure much faster, meaning they can run much closer to the locking point, and make more intelligent decisions about whether or not to cut the brake pressure, and when. A lot of the latest and greatest even sport fancy cornering ABS, which basically means you can keep squeezing at your bike’s anchors at the same time as pitching into corners… and not find yourself folding the front. Again, it’s all down to fancy sensors that micro-manage brake pressure application according to your angle of lean. Blooming marvellous, eh!
PROS: losing the front is almost always a crash, especially for novices, so it’s a big safety mod.
CONS: even good ones can sometimes kick in when not wanted, especially on track, and expert riders can still exceed their abilities.
GOOD AIDS if it saves one front-end spill, it’s got to be worth the effort.
Worst tech of all time… Proximity key fobs
Ok, maybe it’s not the very worst tech of all time, but it’s up there with wind up torches (buy some batteries, you tight git) and Teletex. There are a few bikes on the market with this naff system, including Triumphs, Ducatis and Harleys… and it’s rubbish. Not just because someone can nick your bike while you’re stood ten feet away, but because the simple action of turning your ignition on gets dragged out painstakingly. And, then you’ve got to find a place to stow the bloody bulky thing on your person, because you’ll be needing it to get in your fuel tank – using a key. Beggar’s belief, eh. Yes, if you buy a bike with a proxy key fob, ironically, you’ll still need a key for certain everyday functions. They’re not cheap systems, either, so you better not go loosing yours. I’d love to say something even a wee bit nice about them, but I’m struggling. Avoid like the plague.
Like ABS, the term ‘traction control’ covers a multitude of setups, from very basic ‘safety’ systems aimed at stopping you from falling over if you open the gas too much in a gravel car park, to the very latest ‘performance’ systems designed for advanced track use.
The first bike to come with a TCS (traction control system) was the 1992 Honda ST1100 Pan European, which had a combined TCS/ABS system. That setup merely cut the ignition sparks if the rear wheel started spinning faster than the front – the engine used carburettors, so there was no way to reduce fuelling by turning off fuel injectors or close a ride-by-wire throttle. Wheel speeds were measured by the same sensor rings used by the ABS system, which we’re all very familiar with these days.
Up until fairly recently, roadbike traction wasn’t much more advanced than that system. If the traction ECU saw the rear wheel spinning too quickly, it would cut the engine’s power by retarding ignition timing, or even turning off some sparks altogether (which gave that cool popping and banging as unburnt fuel backfired in the exhaust). Some systems like the 2008 ZX-10R didn’t even have wheel sensors, instead analysing the acceleration of the crankshaft – if it span up too quickly, the rear wheel must have lost grip, since the bike couldn’t be accelerating as fast as the crank was. ‘Hmmm’, as we all said at the time.
Ten years on, more powerful engine management systems, together with ride-by-wire throttle control and IMU sensor packages mean engineers can build much more sophisticated traction control algorithms. Like ABS, more powerful algorithms, sensors and computing power means they make far better, faster decisions about cutting torque to the rear tyre – and are also much more controllable by the rider, with multi-stage settings on most systems now.
PROS: Adds safety, encourages more aggressive throttle use out of bends
CONS: Might be used as a replacement for rider skill
GOOD AIDS – on balance, a top TC system is A Good Thing. You can turn it down as your skills improve, and it’s a useful safety net as you go.
An easy one here – if your ECU has access to the ride-by-wire throttle, a clutch switch, an IMU unit which tells it the pitch angle of the bike (if you’re wheelying and by how much), and maybe some suspension travel info, then it’s a simple job to program a launch control algorithm.
It knows you’re in first gear with the clutch in, and the twistgrip jammed open, so can hold the engine revs around peak torque rpm. As you let the clutch out, the ECU feathers the throttle valves open and closed to maintain the peak-torque revs, while also watching the angle of the wheelie. The computer dials in just the right amount of throttle opening to keep the revs at the right point for maximum acceleration, without flipping the bike. Once the throttle’s at 100 per cent and the revs hit the redline, you change up into second and the job is done.
PROS: Impresses car wankers
CONS: Impresses car wankers
BAD AIDS – Like a good wheelie, this is something you want to learn yourself. Where’s the skill in merely engaging a small silicon chip to have all the fun?
Sort of a sub-set of traction control, but some bikes (Ducatis especially) let you alter this separately from TC. Basic wheelie control is taken care of by traction control hardware – if the front wheel comes off the deck, it starts to slow down while the rear wheel keeps accelerating. Harsh old-school TC would just cut the power at this point, and the front slams down. More sophisticated systems take speed, gear and throttle position into consideration, and at lower TC settings, will let the front wheel stay up for a while if it thinks the circumstances suit.
The best systems use the IMU unit to know that you’re not leant over in a bend, and can also measure the pitch angle to see how high the wheelie is going. So if you set minimal wheelie control, with moderate traction control, you *should* be able to do top wheelies in a straight line, yet still have protection from highsiding or losing the back end while cranked over coming out of a bend.
PROS – A good setup will let you pull sweeeet mingers while saving you from highside hell.
CONS – More basic setups will just spoil all your fun.
BAD AIDS – learn to do it yerself!
A variation on traction control: slide control is a system on more advanced IMU-based engine management, where a six-axis sensor package works out the ‘yaw’ of the bike, and uses that to control the traction system, in theory, allowing the computer to hold the bike at a pre-set angle of oversteer, without crashing. Wooo.
PROS – It’s the ultimate in PlayStation style rider aids, in theory.
CONS – You still need big skills and big cojones to slam a 200bhp bike on its side and slam on the gas.
GOOD AIDS – we should be amazed by the sheer computer power and skills that make this even possible.
One of those things we used to be a bit ‘meh’ about, but which we scweam and scweam like spoiled Trump fans watching CNN when it’s not there. Shaving milliseconds off your gearchanges, and not having to bother your left adductor muscles seems moot, but it really does make life easier, and makes you go faster.
The principle is simple on upshifting – there’s a switch on the gear lever, which senses when you change up or down. Upchanges are easiest – simply cut the fuel injectors or sparks for a tiny period when the switch is pushed. Downshifts need a ride-by-wire setup, so the ECU can feel the lever moving down, and ‘blip’ the throttle so the engine revs increase to match the new gear. Up-shifters are so common they seem to be issued by the NHS these days, but the best results come from having an auto-blipping downshifter too.
PROS – Err, you don’t need to use the clutch once moving, saving time and effort.
CONS – Can get in the way on wheelies, or if you tend to hold your foot near the lever.
GOOD AIDS – clutch shifting is so 2007 dahling.
Rider power modes
This setup made its big debut on the Suzuki GSX-R range in 2008, where Suzuki’s Drive Mode Selector appeared. At the push of a button, you could give your 1000 the power of a 750 or a 600. Hmmm. It was even less useful on the 600, which was hardly a power-heavy monster to start with. The principle varies – some older systems just keep secondary throttle plates closed a bit to lop a load of power off everywhere, with the aim being to make a softer engine for novices and use in the wet. The better ones used on ride-by-wire bikes alter the shape of the throttle position map, so you still get 100 per cent throttle (eventually) when you want it, but 10 per cent at the twistgrip (say) gives you seven per cent at the throttle bodies, 20 per cent gives you 15 per cent, etc.
We reckon the best power mode selector is your right wrist of course. And with traction control systems getting better and better, you’ve got the safety net there to guard against losing grip at the rear. On really aggressive bikes (like the Panigale V4) we like the option of a sharper throttle profile for track use, and softer ones for day-to-day road use. A really sensitive hard-edged throttle can be a pain in traffic or with a pillion. But otherwise, we’re saying no to power modes.
PROS – A good one can give softer throttle for when you have a really bad hangover.
CONS – It’s a bit of a lame solution to a lame problem.
BAD AIDS – when do we ever want less power?
Another one of those things which we’d have chewed our own eyelids off for ten years ago – but is now common on moderately fancy road bikes. Built-in datalogging was the preserve of top GP and superbike race teams, where it could be the whole job for an engineer to capture and analyse the data from a bike. Small computers store information about engine revs, speed, brake pressure, suspension movement, gear position, coolant temperatures, brake temperatures, and much more.
After a track session, the data is downloaded and engineers can see what’s happening to the bike at problem areas. Add on a GPS data feed and you can see exactly where the bike is at every data point too.
Now, this setup is available primarily on a stack of Ducatis, and Yamaha’s R1M. It’s invaluable for working on your setup at a track of course – just be careful not to leave it running when riding on the road. Imagine the fun the old bill could have if they stop you on your early morning ‘Sunday blast’ and snaffle your data files for a quick look…
PROS – Amazingly useful for track setup.
CONS – a potential minefield if you use it on the road.
GOOD ON TRACK AIDS BUT COULD BE BAD FOR YOUR LICENCE AIDS
Like traction control, electronic suspension systems come in a couple of flavours – one for convenience, and one for performance. The most basic type merely tweaks the suspension damping and preload adjusters according to a pre-set programme. So early BMW versions of ESA (electronic suspension adjustment) would have an electric motor that turned the preload adjuster, for rider, rider and pillion, rider and luggage, or rider, pillion and luggage. It was just a fancy version of a C-spanner and screwdriver really – but the ease of use appealed to many less tech-minded riders.
The other type is called semi-active suspension, and this is much more advanced. Here, the suspension adjusters are constantly being trimmed by an ECU, according to a pre-set programme – but the ECU also takes into account what the bike is doing. So when you hit the brakes, the ECU knows, and can fettle the fork compression damping to control dive. Then on the gas back out of a bend, it will have a look at the rear shock and tweak the damping there for the best grip. Add in an IMU unit, and it knows how far you’re leant over, and that, plus speed, gear position, throttle opening and much more can all be used by the computer to constantly optimise the damping settings. Even more advanced setups are possible if the shock and forks have position sensors fitted too – so the ECU knows whereabouts in the stroke the damper is.
PROS – Easier setup, optimised damping for each situation (with semi-active).
CONS – Bit more weight and cost. Something else to go wrong…
GOOD AIDS the best systems are like having a superbike crew chief under the seat hump.
Common on cars for DECADES now but still rare on bikes. Ride-by-wire throttle has made it a breeze to implement – an ECU is in charge of the throttle anyway, so it’s easy to have it keep you going at a constant speed. A useful extra on long journeys of course, but a bit moot on the day-to-day and on fast blasts.
PROS – You get to rest your right wrist so it’s totally fresh when you are having some ‘me time’ later on that night. You can freak out coachloads of OAPs by riding past them on the M6 sat on the pillion seat.
CONS – Riding a bike sat on the pillion seat is a six-point ‘dangerous driving’ gig these days, apparently. Sheesh.
GOOD AIDS it has zero downsides in terms of installation, so why not?
What better way to improve your control than letting you wear thinner summer gloves for more of the year? Heated grips might look a bit commuter, but they make loads of sense, and there’s no real downside. Okay, the grips might be slightly fatter, but if you really, really need dem race grips man, stick to the track (we use them there too when it’s cold haha).
PROS – Better control, summer gloves for ten months of the year, cheaper trackdays.
CONS – None!
GOOD AIDS – frostbite is bad, kids.
Might seem like a luxury, but like a few of these aids, once you’ve sampled a lovely colour screen, it’s hard to go back again. Bikes like the Yamaha R1M, Kawasaki H2SX SE and Honda Fireblade SP have these mini-flatscreen-TVs now, and they generally have different road/race display modes.
They often have lean and pitch readouts, so you can store your maximum lean angle, and see how hard you’re braking with brake pressure displays. They do make it much easier to setup stuff like the electronic suspension and riding modes on the R1M and Fireblade SP in particular. Do they make you faster? No – but they do look massively cool, which is nearly as good…
PROS – Look amazing, your mate’s old Blade doesn’t have one.
CONS – Cost a fortune, and will be expensive to repair when you chuck it up the road.
GOOD AIDS – better living through technology.
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