Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Gnashing of teeth into the dark of the night

The past few days have been rough on riders of motorcycles in the greater Toronto area.

It started in the wee hours of Saturday morning, with a shocking report about a rider who ran from police in Whitby. The rider wasn't alone; there was a passenger on the back of the bike. When the rider cranked the throttle to escape police, the passenger fell off. And was immediately hit by more than one car; Whitby's only 10 minutes east of Toronto and the 401 is busy, even at that time of night. One witness's account of seeing body parts strewn across the 401 in the aftermath was so horrible I won't dare repeat any of it. Death must have come quickly, but before shock set in the pain would have been unimaginable.

Horribly, that's not the most shocking part: THE RIDER KEPT GOING. Left the passenger to be crushed and dismembered in traffic, without a look back. As did the cars who ran over her. No one stopped.

Let me repeat that: NO ONE STOPPED.

This is reminiscent of the murder of Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed to death near her home in the Kew Gardens section of Queens, New York on March 13, 1964, in full view of dozens of her neighbours. Some reportedly called police, but her attacker had time to leave and come back to finish the job. No one intervened.

How can that happen? There, then? Here, now?

Not many facts about Friday's gruesome event have been made public. Why didn't motorists stop? Did those who ran over the passenger's body think that they'd hit a deer? How could the rider - regardless of WHY he (or she - police haven't released the gender) was running from police - leave a passenger to die, alone?

These are troubling questions, and unlikely to be answered until the police find the rider and charge him or her, since it's clear they're holding their cards close to their collective chest until their investigation is ready to close in.

But this sordid tale has caused many a GTA motorcyclist several sleepless nights. There were 30 pages of posts in a discussion of the event on GTAMotorcycle.com by Saturday night. Almost everyone expressed shock and disbelief at the rider's unconscionably cavalier disregard for his passenger's life. A few implied that the guilty party was a member of the board well-known for speeding irresponsibly, often with passengers riding without protective gear. A small but vocal group was throwing out accusations that the draconian Ontario highway code that convicts speeders on the spot by confiscating vehicles was responsible for the rider running. That forums where riders discuss why they might run because of the new law might have influenced the rider.

That's ludicrous. Let me make this clear: why the rider ran is irrelevant. I, and the majority of riders -- THE MAJORITY OF HUMAN BEINGS -- don't care a whit WHY he or she ran. We want to know HOW anyone could do such a thing. Leave another human being to that passenger's fate. Fail to stop once it was evident the passenger was gone.

How motorists, subsequently, could fail to stop.

How have we come to live in a society where any of these things are even possible?

Riders are a group hardened by the harsh reality of the danger of the sport. The passenger's death isn't the only one being discussed this week.

A funeral will be held Wednesday for a rider well-loved by many on the board after his bike piled into a car stalled at Eglington and Albina last Thursday. Another rider I know and respect is recovering from multiple broken ribs and internal injuries sustained when a moose jumped out in front of his bike three weeks ago on Highway 11 near Thunder Bay. Another friend may never be able to use one of his arms again after a horrible crash in North Carolina last summer.

An 18-year-old novice died earlier this month when she lost control of her motorcycle in Clarington. Another rider lost her life on Highway 507 near Gooderham yesterday, mere minutes from where a good friend of mine was hit by a pickup truck last October, shattering both her wrists, an eye socket, a knee, and inflicting many other excruciatingly serious injuries, some of which she may never completely recover from.

The "Rider Down" thread on GTAMotorcycle.com gets far too many posts each season, and each year as I meet more riders I personally know more of the riders who go down. As riders, we know the risks. Most of us wear as much protective gear as we can, knowing that it can happen to anyone, at any time, even when we're vigilant, alert, and road conditions are perfect.

Motorists who have never ridden on two wheels are oblivious to how vulnerable riders are out there. This is evidenced by how closely they tailgate motorcycles in stop and go traffic. Tapping the bumper of a car scratches the paint. Tapping a motorcycle with your bumper puts that motorcycle down and INJURES the motorcyclist. Cutting off another car in traffic results in a fender bender. Cutting off a motorcycle in traffic can kill or permanently maim the motorcyclist. I really wish everyone had to ride a motorcycle in Toronto traffic, just for a day, before being issued a driver's licence. Maybe they'd drive a bit more carefully.

But it's clear that some motorists consider all motorcyclists a menace. I was stunned by the vitriolic comments some readers made on news sites where the story was posted, passing judgment on everyone who uses two wheels for transportation, based on this one rider's actions. It's disheartening to read that someone can hate you, without knowing anything about you, based on your mode of transportation.

But the hardest of all this week's bad news was hearing that 13-year-old Peter Lenz was killed on Sunday after getting run over by another motorcycle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during warm-up laps before his race.

Track is the safest place you can ride: the skills and focus of those on the track are light-years ahead of those of the average commuter. Although racing pushes the limits, track fatalities occur so rarely that any death on a track is shocking. But when the victim is only 13 years old and someone with such amazing talent that we were all watching, waiting, and hoping he would be the next Valentino Rossi... it doesn't get much worse than that.

All these deaths make my heart ache. Peter's broke it.

Please ride carefully, my friends. I'm not sure I can take much more of this kind of news.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bikes tested at Canada's 1st International Women Riders Congress and Festival

It took some doing, given the workload I'm juggling right now, but I managed to get to Canada's 1st International Women Riders Congress and Festival in Huntsville Thursday, a day after it started. After getting there I ended up spending all day Friday writing a Chick Cars Every Guy Should Try feature for Sympatico's Autos channel, a follow-up to Chick Cars Ain't What They Used to Be that I wrote last week.

Made up for missing Friday by spending all day Saturday doing test rides of bikes at the Huntsville air strip. Kawasaki, Yamaha and Suzuki were conspicuously absent and I missed Harley, which had been there Friday but had another demo ride to run elsewhere on Saturday. But Honda, BMW, the CanAm folks and Ducati were there.

Apologies that I don't have photos of any of these bikes. Typically I take a lot of photos every time I go to a bike event, but because I was feeling overextended with work I decided against trying to document the weekend, as I'd normally do - just didn't have the energy to spare.

This is the first demo ride I've attended where litre bikes were available. I was quite eager to take advantage of that, as dealers don't usually like letting customers test ride the litre bikes. I was dumbfounded that there weren't lineups for the Ducati demo rides. Harley dealers and dealers of most of the Japanese bikes regularly hold demo rides, but Ducati demo days are less frequent. Consequently, this was the first opportunity I'd had to test ride a Ducati. I'd sat on them at bike shows, but never ridden one.

Ducati Monster 796

I knew from the bike shows that I could flat-foot a Monster 796, so that's the first one I tried. I've never ridden a sport twin before and had been told to expect the throttle to be on or off without much gradation between. They weren't kidding. The 796 throttle was very twitchy and she wasn't happy if you weren't revving high. That would be OK for city riding and, in fairness, with no fairing that's what the original naked sport bike is for. I didn't really care for the twitchiness and asked if the Monster 1100 was any smoother; the answer was a qualified 'yes,' but I decided to try a supersport next.

Ducati 848 supersport

The 848 was MUCH smoother, and an easy ride all round. The ergonomics weren't as aggressive as on my ZX7-R, which may have the lowest bars of all the supersports. My Ninja snaps nicely into corners but you definitely have to push or tug her bars; the 848 didn't really require much pressure or pull to lean into the corners. It was a demo ride so I never got past 3rd gear, and didn't get to see how she'd react to a real boot. But with 140hp and 72.3lb-ft of torque at 9,750rpm, she certainly felt like she had a lot more to offer, given the opportunity. The main surprise was the racket produced by that liquid cooled L-Twin engine. I'm used to inline fours and these twins are incredibly *busy* compared to inline fours. Loudly so. You definitely need ear plugs if you want to ride one of these and keep your hearing. The the 32.6-inch seat height was a bit of a challenge for my 27-inch inseam - kept me en pointe. But on a bike that weighs only 370 pounds (dry) it wasn't too bad - the only time I was worried about tipping was when there was a lot of gravel or sand under foot.

Ducati 1198 supersport

Next, I tried the 1198 supersport. Handling and ergonomics were quite similar to the 848 and the throttle was smoother yet. She was only seven pounds heavier than her smaller cousin and the seat height was half an inch shorter than the 848 - but that didn't make much difference. She was even noisier, too, which I wouldn't have thought possible. But I have to say that this is the first time in a long time a bike surprised me: with 170hp and 97lb-ft torque at 8000rpm, the bottom torque is *SOMETHING ELSE* and that rear tire had major authority. I felt like asking if they could clear the airstrip so I could see how fast she could go! Not sure I'd want to tour on her, but she'd be awesome on the track.

I wanted to try the hypermotard too, but had time to test only three other bikes that day so I moved on to see what BMW and Honda had to offer.

A note about Ducati mirrors: even the best of them suck at letting you see what's behind you. The short, low-profile ones they had on the Monster - I think they're called performance mirrors (less to break if the bike falls, I guess) were entirely useless. The stock ones on the supersport were a bit better, but not even as good as the ones on my ZX7-R, which are pretty bad.

BMW K13000S supersport

Over at BMW I hopped on the K1300S supersport, which, as I expected, was as well-behaved as her baby sister, the K1200S, which I'd tested for the first time four years ago. BMW may have taken its time moving away from the boxer engines (which are reliable as hell but entirely uninspiring) but its foray into inline fours is damn near perfect. The engine puts out 175 hp with 103 lb-ft of torque at 8,250 rpm and, given the opportunity, she would certainly haul ass. Yet at sedate speeds she purred like a kitten and was almost impossible to accidentally over-throttle. And, even though at 503 pounds she's almost 80 pounds heavier than my ZX7-R, she feels lighter because of the ingenious way they've canted the engine forward in the frame, lowering the centre of gravity.

Any track junkie would love her yet she's still suitable for lackadaisical Sunday rides for riders less performance conscious. And you have to love a bike with electronic suspension control - there's a toggle that lets you choose a suspension setting for one rider, a rider plus passenger, in sport, normal or "comfort" mode. Her mirrors gave the best rear view of any of the bikes I tried Saturday, too.

Anticipating short inseams at the women's congress she was fitted with the low seat (BMW offers thin seats for most of its bikes for the height challenged), giving her a seat height of 31.1, which allowed me to plant the balls of my feet pretty sturdily on both sides. But she felt so light I would have still been OK with the stock seat.

I lusted after the S1000RR, which was initially made to compete in the 2009 Superbike World Championship, but since it's unlikely I'd be able to afford it (or the K13000S, for that matter) in the near future, I moved on to Honda, which had a CBR1000 I might be able to afford somewhat sooner, and I will have to consider replacing my Ninja eventually. She had 6,300 kilometers on her when I bought her used in a private sale in the spring of 2007 and she started this season with 60,000 kilometres on her odometer. I don't really know how much longer she's going to last, although I've heard of ZX7 engines lasting well past the 100,000 kilometer mark. And I'm religious about maintenance, particularly frequent oil changes. But I know I'm going to have to replace her within the next three years. So, since Kawasaki wasn't there, I made a beeline for Honda.

Honda CBF1000

I've tried recent iterations of Suzuki's 600 GXS-R, Yamaha's R6 and Kawasaki's ZX6-R at dealer demo days in the last three years, but you don't typically get to try out litre bikes at dealer demo days. So when I saw Honda had a CBR1000 there, I headed straight for it. It was already booked for that session, unfortunately, so they suggested I try the CBF1000, which was the same engine but with more relaxed gearing and more upright seating ergonomics. I was disappointed, but the CBR was available for the next ride, so I figured this was an opportunity to check out this engine in its two configurations. I actually like the aggressive ergononmics on my Ninja, the bars are so low and my torso and arms are so short that I'm almost in tuck by default. I've gotten so used to it that a more upright, relaxed riding position usually feels really weird to me.

But the CBF1000 ergonomics were entirely comfortable, even though the seat was wider than the CBR1000 and splayed my legs out more, so that the 31.3-inch seat height put me on my toes. That did feel a bit challenging because at 502.7 pounds dry weight, she felt much heavier than the K1300S. For touring, I like a bit of extra weight, though - it makes passing transport trucks less scary. I had to be very careful about smooth braking and stops because any jerk at all would tip us over; on the tips of my toes I'd not have enough leverage to keep almost 503 pounds from going down. There was no lack of power with 96.55hp and 71.5 ft.lbs of torque at 6500rpm. She felt very smooth and very well-behaved - was so easy to ride she damn near drove herself. This is a great introduction to a sportbike engine for someone who'd like to try a sportbike but is weirded out by the supersport seating. The pegs are still rear-set so you can shift weight onto them in the turns, and you still lean forward but not aggressively so. I wouldn't mind touring on her, although I'd shave some of the foam off the seat to get more of my feet down at stops. I almost regretted relinquishing her at the end of the ride to try the CBR1000.

Honda CBR1000RR supersport

The CBR1000 was pretty much what I'd expected. At 461.0 pounds dry weight she was considerably lighter - and even more spry than the CBF1000. The 32.3-inch seat height was higher, but felt lower because the seat profile has been shaved so your legs don't lose as much height to splaying. Ergonomics are quite aggressive, I wasn't in tuck by default but it certainly felt more natural to lean over the tank than sit upright. She handled beautifully. Power galore, natch, with 178hp (that difference in gearing is critical to how much power gets delivered to the wheel) and the 82.6 lb-ft torque at 8500rpm was spread out quite nicely throughout the range.

I'd prefer her for a long day ride over the 1198, I think.

But the big surprise of the day was that I found myself thinking that of all the bikes I tried the CBF1000 would be my choice for a ride that lasted more than a day. Sure, the gearing makes her a less than ideal bike for racing, but, damn, she was comfortable. And had more power than you'd ever likely need on the street, for quite sporty touring.