What is “good handling,” and why do I want it? After all, all vehicles have handling of one sort or another, and yet few authors seem to be able to pin down an agreed-upon definition of what would be “good.” Perhaps it is like pornography. A Supreme Court judge attempted to define “pornography” for a case years ago. After spending an obscene amount of time on the issue (great pun!), he cried out “I may not be able to define it, but I sure know what it is when I see it.”
I suspect that my parents, both mechanical engineers and car nuts, could have come up with a definition of “good handling” as it applies to cars. We’ll take on car handling another day.
In my experience with motorcycles, my definition and experience of “good handling” has changed over time with technology, my developing skill set, changing taste, and yes, the onset and gradual seepage into my life of what passes for maturity. In general, “handling” probably refers to the interaction of the suspension, brakes, frame, and engine with the rider in acceleration, deceleration, and cornering. Good handling should lend itself to a more efficient, more rapid, and safer ride.
At one time a bike with “race track” handling was my goal. I was not alone. “Testosterone-poisoning” among men is a wide-spread affliction, after all. I had never raced and was not likely to, and there were no “track days” back then – and yet I took pride in a series of bikes that had “good handling” at speeds far above the rider’s ability to attain or maintain. Certainly mine. I sacrificed my own comfort, visibility to the rear, and other aspects of good riding in the quest for a highly capable performance motorcycle. Of course, in retrospect, what I was really after, like the majority of young men, was the appearance that I was in control of a high performance motorcycle.
This quest for “good handling” reached it’s zenith with the purchase of an extremely rare (1 of 56) Muzzy Raptor. This was a 1996 Kawasaki 750 hand-modified by the Muzzy mavens in Bend, Oregon to within a whisker of an AMA Superbike. In fact, a Muzzy Raptor is the only street legal bike ever to earn a podium finish at an AMA Superbike race. Mine was probably one of the few that was never raced – at least during my ownership. I purchased it, brand new, in 2001 – a brand new 5 year old bike, its status a product of the extremely high price and the limited marketing and advertising capabilities. It was one of 10 of the original 56 purchased by Cycle Barn, and they served as a series of showroom “halo” bikes while being sold off. Mine was the 9th, and oddly enough, the last one was sold the day after I purchased mine.
As a new owner, the riding experience (and with a bike like this there are no test rides), left a few things to be desired. For one, the seating position was so radical I could not see where I was going in the Shoei helmet I had at the time. The fix? An Arai with a viewing port higher on the helmet.
Another riding concern was that the Muzzy had flat slide carbs that were great from 8 – 13000 rpm – but would drown themselves if the throttle was opened too vigorously at a more usual street riding rpm level.
But the handling – that is where we left the world of the optimistic and dropped over the edge to just plain dumb. The “seat” was about ¼” of foam. The wheels were incredibly light (and expensive) Marchesinis – as less unsprung weight improves handling. The triple disc brakes were very powerful. But the suspension – even when set up soft – was meant to comply with bumps taken at 85 – 150mph. Ridden by me on the street, it was essentially a solid board – a riding position and seat to make the Ducati 916 of the era seem plush.
I do not regret owning the Muzzy at all, even if riding it was rife with problems. The purchase (at a substantial discount) was part of an optimistic Cycle Barn marketing plan I concocted. The idea was that the bike would be sold to me at an eye –watering price, and then I would lead customer rides on it until a customer had to have it, and the company and I would split the profits. As it turned out it was sold to me through the company on a 3 year loan, and my salary was raised by the same amount as the payment, so except for the insurance it was free. Nice negotiating job, David!
My plan did not work very well from Day 1. The riding experience was so harsh and totally involving that I did not enjoy riding it within 200 feet of anyone else. When I came home from solo ride on my days off I would be so amped up from the extreme adrenaline rush and the focus required to ride that I would need to pace around the garage for several minutes in order to calm down and act like a more or less normal human. Riding it with customers on club rides was just not going to work.
In the end, I sold it at a considerable profit after two years and only 1800 miles. By that time, with no track miles, no races, and having never hit the ground, it was the finest Muzzy in existence I am quite sure. The guy who purchased it was in Illinois, and he later sued both me and Cycle Barn over “shipping damage” that was non-existent. That is another long and (now) amusing story, involving 4 plane flights and a trial in 24 hours – and the good guys won. I split the profits with Cycle Barn as agreed, and moved on – a wiser man.
In any case, the Muzzy was assuredly the finest handling bike of the 450 I have ridden, by quite some measure, and yet it was uncomfortable, hard to see from, at times frightening, and pretty much unusable in many situations. So “good handling” has to be looked at more critically with an eye for actual use.
Even at the time, I wondered if I would not be faster at a track day on the Kawasaki ZRX I owned. The ZRX was much heavier and had less horsepower, but was so much more usable. I could see where I was going, the brakes were terrific and I was well braced while using them, and the big old bus that it was never seemed to be upset by much of anything – including on a few occasions being a tad sideways.
Last year I did a Puget Sound Safety Advanced Street Skills class at Pacific Raceways, and my mount for the occasion was a BMW R 1200 R. I think that was the most fun I have had in one day on a bike – ever. The R 1200 R had power, but not enough to worry about spinning up the rear tire out of every corner. An excellent riding position and tactile brake feel meant I could plunge down the hill into corner 3A, a sharp hairpin to the right, with utter and complete confidence – usually making up 100 yards on whoever was in front of me.
I repeated the experience this year on a BMW F 800R. Once again, good visibility, utile power, excellent brakes, and a seating positioned that fostered control meant that I was faster (I think) than I would have been on a theoretically faster and “better handling” motorcycle.
I really began to think about this last spring while breaking in a new demo bike for Ride West BMW. The 2011 BMW R 1200 RT in “Oyster grey metallic” is a bike so subtle in appearance and apparent design you might just walk past it, and never consider the handling. But the riding experience – wow! It has, for a touring bike with large bags and the capability to carry two people in comfort, an incredibly short wheelbase, which allows you to make U-turns in about the width of a sock. The classic boxer engine design keeps the engine mass very low, so initial turn in to corners requires effort levels similar to raising your eyebrows. Raising your eyebrows is what you will do after a two hour ride on a winding back road, when you realize that an R 1200 RT will not only do everything you require but seems to anticipate what you will require before you have thought of it!
I am pretty sure I could ride a 1200 RT on a winding road on a rainy and cold day at an average speed higher than I could maintain on a Muzzy Raptor.
I can also now understand why the BMW R 1200 RT P (police version) is becoming a favorite with motor officers all over the country.
As a concept, “good handling” has changed quite radically for me over the years. If a bike has a comfortable seat that allows me to move around, great brakes, a reasonably stiff chassis, and weighs less than 550 pounds or so, then it probably has handling that will be a boon to the riding experience. The actual power of the engine is almost a non-issue. In fact, too much power (Like over 150 or so) can make the handling worse, or at least more worrisome, and cause more problems than it solves. These days such a bike might also have ABS brakes and even traction control – both options I would tick if available.
In the final analysis, handling is not a constant, but can be flexed in various directions depending on what your riding intent will be. The capability to win AMA Superbike races need not be a consideration.
Copyright David Preston 2011