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Rider aids and skill development

Posted February 3rd, 2016 at 01:24 PM by adouglas

TL;DR: IMHO rider aids (that work as intended) can help you focus on the skills that matter.

A recent thread from a member who's thinking of upgrading from a fairly new 250 to a 300 solely because the latter has ABS got me thinking about rider aids.

The observation was made by those who know first-hand that aids like ABS can actually hinder proper bike control under certain circumstances (threshold braking on the track). Having no experience with an ABS-equipped machine, I'll take that at face value.

Nevertheless, I'm in favor of rider aids in general. The reason is that they alleviate some of the worry associated with screwing up by lessening, or potentially even eliminating, the consequences of rider error. As a result, the rider can focus more on skill development and less on disaster avoidance.

My first exposure to the track was in a car, back in the early 1990s at the now-defunct and sorely missed Bridgehampton circuit on Long Island. To this day I remember the first time I blasted down the front straight at 120-130 mph, faster than I'd ever gone.

What stayed with me was how much focus and attention it took just to drive in a straight line. I was so consumed with thinking about the first corner that I didn't even have the mental capacity to look down at the instruments. One lap I even hit the rev limiter because I forgot to upshift. For those who have never been on the track... yes, it really does consume that much of your mental capacity.

Motorcycles are physically more complicated to operate, so the mental workload is even greater. There's so much to think about that anything to lessen that workload is more than welcome in my book.

I'm talking tech like quickshifters, slipper clutches, traction control, wheelie control and so on. If I can think/worry about one less thing, great. That's more "attention points" I can devote to body position, reference marker identification, braking, turning, line selection and acceleration.

Sure, it's very satisfying to master blip downshifts and clutchless upshifts. Developing a finely tuned sense of when the rear is slipping or when the front is nearing the limit is important. All these things are worthwhile... but the priority should be on making the bike go where you want it to safely and (in a track setting) as quickly as possible.

Having said all this in favor of rider aids, there are two things to add and both of them are negative.

First, these technologies can also be used as a crutch. Modern MotoGP bikes are practically unrideable without these aids because they're intentionally set up so that the rider relies on them -- they're not a safety net.

Witness what happened when Marc Marquez collided with Dani Pedrosa a couple of years ago, tearing the wire out of Dani's rear-wheel speed sensor. He went down instantly the moment he touched the throttle, because the traction control had been rendered inoperative. Dani's no slouch... he's one of the most skilled riders on the planet. But he lost that rear in a heartbeat.

With slipper clutches now commonplace (even the 300 has one), some riders are getting lazy and hitting them as a matter of routine, instead of learning how to blip-downshift.

As more and more bikes get traction control, I'll bet that more riders will start doing the same thing they do with slipper clutches; just whack the throttle open, trusting that the ECU will keep them from killing themselves.

IMHO this blind reliance on technology is not a good thing. It makes the rider lazy and does not lead to proper skill development.

It's the same phenomenon that has made people incapable of doing basic arithmetic in their heads, because we have machines to do it for us. Next time you're at a store, watch the cashier make change. Every time, they look at the register. This is simple subtraction -- it should be something anyone can do with their eyes closed. And don't get me started on spell checkers.... You have a brain. Use it.

Personally, I make a point of doing things on my own whenever I can, to avoid skill degradation. Believe it or not I even have a slide rule on my desk and I use it regularly. (For those of you who don't know what that is, it's a simple manual tool used for mathematical calculations that just happens to be what engineers used to get us to the moon and build the SR-71. The human mind is awesome IF you exercise it. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise.)

I'd love to have an all-singing, all-dancing rider-aid-laden bike. I'd love it even more if none of those systems were to ever engage, because that would mean I'm riding right.

Which brings me to the second negative. Those who have had ABS trigger when they didn't want it to hate it and prefer to shut it off despite the fact that it can potentially prevent an accident. To me, that's an indictment not of the concept of ABS, but of the specific system and the fact that it triggers too soon.

So the takeaway is a caveat: Rider aids are great, IF they work as intended. That means they trigger only when a Bad Thing will happen if they don't.
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