All Engines Great and Small

You Always Want What You Don’t Have

I spend all of my riding time on small bore bikes, by US standards. My Ninja 300 at 296cc and the CSC TT250 weighing in at 229cc.

The Ninja will – realistically – pull to about 75mph easily, above which there’s a tardy roll-on to about a top speed of 105, with my 210lbs astride it, at least. The TT250 will achieve 55-60 with nearly linear acceleration. The gearing limits it, with the engine turning almost 7000 rpm. It is possible to gear down via losing a couple of teeth on the rear sprocket, but I do not want to lose any more pull as it is about perfect for the hilly terrain here.

Both are easily quick enough for the street and back roads, but the TT250 isn’t really suited for superslab, at least not allowing for a safety margin.

If you take a 300 on a group ride and you have a lot of seat time on it, you’ll have no problem keeping up, assuming you’re not blasting down an expressway. On a technical road it’s a giant killer. It’s light, stops fairly well thanks to docile brakes and strong engine-braking, and turns in sharply. At around 18ft.lbs peak torque, you can pull silly amounts of throttle and it won’t get out of shape. In short, it’s easy to ride quickly. Get used to people telling you they’re surprised how fast it runs in a pack. It’s a truism that few riders (here, at least) have experienced the limits of their bikes, so they’re surprised how quick a ‘learner bike’ can run in familiar hands. They’ve just not spent enough time on one.

Ninja 300 territory

The TT250 is an absolute blast on tight, nasty roads with a poor surface, thanks to generous suspension travel. A very driveable engine with modest torque, it delivers power a lot more evenly than the piquey 300, but obviously there’s less of it. The bike’s turn-in is very rapid (it’s light at 320 lbs.) and it feels glued to the road thanks to relatively soft tyres. You can easily imagine why Dual Sports are such popular street bikes, not to mention their street-tyred derivative, the SuperMoto.

The downsides? Going uphill. Street bikes in the >500cc class will climb a hill while maintaining good acceleration. My 300 is okay as long as you keep the revs high. The TT250 really doesn’t like it; again my weight doesn’t help and maintaining some kind of fitness would help matters a lot. Aerodynamic drag, which squares with speed, is another. I’m 6’3″, and make a nice sail while sitting on the bike. Tucking low on the Ninja, stomach on the tank, makes a huge difference and I can’t reach the bike’s top speed without it. Running tight roads uphill is often easier in the TT250 due to the engine’s much wider torque characteristics, and short gearing. On a group ride, riders on torquey bikes will typically eat your lunch when accelerating out of tight uphill corners.

My recreational riding on Western PA’s fantastic roads is at a speed regime that is squarely within the 300’s performance envelope. Interestingly, this also goes for everyone I ride with, and that includes someone with a Superduke 1290. I too want a bigger bike sometime soon, and I’ve spent this year riding a few. So why, if all of my needs are met?

Well, they’re not. More power is more fun, and it’s also another thing to master. It’s why we ride, right? There’s more. With larger bikes come bigger tyres, typically better suspension, and stronger brakes. These usually bring a step in performance too. There is a specific scenario any small-bore rider is familiar with – and that’s overtaking. This is a most fraught area when you’re new to riding, as you don’t have enough power exactly where you need it, that is around 50-60mph with a small time window to get around a car. Overtaking is a reality when you’re on an aggressive ride; it’s a necessity. You have to learn to do it and you must know exactly what your bike will do. When in a group you need to exercise highly-disciplined judgement as everyone else will typically have a lot more power available, and they will use it to pass where you cannot.

There is also the matter of work. There’s a fine line between rider engagement and simply being busy, and on a long country ride at spirited speeds, you can be regularly at full throttle while constantly, constanty rowing through the gears. It adds up over a day. Being able to use a fraction of a bike’s performance to run at a pace your comfortable with makes a difference to your fatigue level. The 1000cc class bikes I’ve ridden have been an interesting change in workload. They are by no means ‘easier’ to ride, but they can be less work due to simply having far more performance available in a given situation.

A friend of mine finally sold her pre-gen Ninja 250 last year, and bought a rather handsome Yamaha FZ6R. She’s an excellent rider, and one of the things she was emphatic about was how relaxed it was on the highway, in terms of comfort and smoothness, so she arrived at the twisties with no stress. These things start to matter to you, after a while.


Our Friends Electric

With apologies to Gary Numan…

I’ll make no bones about it: My dream garage would definitely include a Tesla Model S and a Zero SR. I think they’re brilliant. Electric motorcycles are in the news cycle again, thanks to some YouTube and written reviews. Here’s Motorcyclist Magazine executive editor Zack Courts on the Zero SR. Do watch it, because the remarks on performance and handling are of the usual high standard. Courts is a bike commuter in SoCAL, so he knows of where he speaks:

Electric vehicles (I’ll use ‘EV’ for short from here) generate (sorry) predictable levels of rhetoric. We’re humans: We do not adapt to change without resistance (I’m not sorry).

The elephant in the room is range. You cannot talk about EVs without mentioning range. Zero knows it, Elon Musk (of Tesla and SpaceX) knows it, and the public sure as shit knows it because they never shut up about it. There’s a comment on the video that is prototypical of the criticism of current EVs:

i wonder how long it will take for electric bikes to reach a top range of 500 miles round trip, as well as a full charge time of 20-30 minutes, all for about $12-15k. that said, i dont think id consider buying one of these until there was at least a 300 mile range, with a charge time of 1 to 1 and a half hours max and preferably around $10k or less.

This theoretical bike’s range isn’t currently achievable from the internal combustion (IC) market, as far as I know. In fact, most bikes wont’ even manage 2/3rds of that. You see this a lot; this notion that electric will only be viable when it’s achieving utterly arbitrary performance numbers.

Taking the Zero SR as an example, here is the spec sheet concerning range:


For Commuting, The Range Problem Is Already Solved.

The average commute in the United States is 15 miles Consider that the worst scenario for EV endurance is highway running, the very opposite of an internal combustion engine, because there is no regenerative braking; no opportunity to convert the bike’s kinetic energy back into chemical (battery) energy. With that in mind, 81 miles isn’t bad at all. That’s London to Southampton, with change. Of course, that’s a one way trip.

What about a round trip?

Using the Zero SR’s two ’70mph’ stats (‘Highway’ and ‘Combined’) and a really handy web tool that draws range circles on Google Maps, I made this graphic:

Range circles for ’70mph Highway’, and ’70mph Combined’

This represents round trip endurance, roughly centred on Monroeville, Pennsylvania. This is approximately (only accurate if the bike could fly, and I don’t think Zero have included that feature yet) what you could do without recharging. I picked Monroeville because it’s where I live; Ohio and West Virginia, and a tiny corner of Maryland are within reach, but that’s not really the point. That area has lots of riding on great, twisty roads, and you likely would not use the highway if you’re anything like me, so the range would probably be somewhere between the two circles. For reference, my average weekend ride is about 2-3hrs long, and about 50-150 miles; lets say 75 miles on average. My commute is a 30 mile round trip, so at present the Zero SR would work for all but my longest weekend rides. Without a charge, that is. As I’ll elaborate next, realistically you aren’t going to be charging mid-ride. Not yet, so the range can be considered as a bound on any trip.

Filthy Lucre, Charging Spots, and Kilowatts

The way I see it, two things stand in the way of EVs being widely adopted, and they are two areas where IC vehicles are king: sticker cost and getting fuel in the thing. There are no two ways about it; EVs are expensive. The Zero SR is the premium chocolate in the Zero cupboard, and it will set you back about $16,000 for the base model. You’re going to want the charger tank or power pack, so call it nearer $18,000. If you’re a true 24/7/365 biker, you would experience some bottom-clenching at that price, but you’d likely still do it if you could. If you’re a weekend warrior, forget it. Despite the cruiser crowd dropping well over $20,000 on their chromed sofas; they’re buying a lifestyle, not a spec sheet. It is similar with the sportbike casuals. They’re doing a hard-charging 2-300 miles on the occasional summer weekend. This isn’t their bike. Likewise the 55yr dentist with kids just in college that buys a 600lb ADV bike the size of a Humvee to go to Alaska (there’s an internet forum full of them, trust me) won’t see anything they like either. Unfortunately, those three examples cover the majority of riders in the United States outside of CA (in which the motorbike-as-an-appliance prospers). Most riders would be considered hobbyists, for whom the motorcycle is a recreational toy. Certainly here in Western PA very, very few riders commute, even in ideal weather. Zero Motorcycles have a tough job. They’d should kill it in England, or any territory where bikes are woven much deeper into the transportation system. So what’s stopping them? Well there’s the cost. IC bikes are way, way cheaper, and more practical right now, because…

When you think about it the distribution of petroleum products on the planet is an absolute marvel. An incredible achievement of engineering and logistics. It’s also completely insane. From pulling it out of the ground, to refining it, to shipping it about and building places to distribute it from…all of this for something that is running out.

If that is possible with gasoline, it’s definitely possible with electricity. It’s already everywhere, it’s relatively easy to transport (or more accurately, transmit), but the sticking point is the charger and battery tech. That’s what we need way more investment in, and it needs to work faster. A bike with a 122 mile range is one thing (very much the low end of a typical IC bike’s endurance), but the ability to recharge it quickly – say around one hour – is crucial, and will open up much longer daily rides for the time cost of sitting down to lunch. Right now the quickest you can officially recharge a Zero SR using supported infrastructure is 2.6hrs, but that’s with multiple chargers to increase the charging circuit’s KW throughput. Realistically you’re looking at leaving it for 3-9hrs. There is a third party ‘supercharger’ available ($1755!!) so it looks like progress is being made.

It’s apparent an old engineering problem has to be solved: packaging. You can shove all of this stuff into a car chassis, you’ve got the space and don’t need to worry that much about the weight: a Tesla Model S weighs around a pretty staggering 4500lbs; that’s similar to a Chevrolet Silverado pickup. A motorcycle designer must concern themselves with both, so between batteries and charging equipment (the latter is quite large, about the size of a PC power supply) you do not have a lot of room to play with.

Glancing at an owner’s forum, it seems preferable to have faster charging versus lugging a bigger battery pack around, which takes even longer to charge.

In an ideal world chargers would be on every street corner, on every lamppost, and in every parking space. Until such time, it’s going to be a tough sell for the mass market, and there will be no mass adoption until the infrastructure is there, and without the numbers the vehicles will remain expensive, and to paraphrase The Matrix’s Agent Smith the futuristic whirr of an EV feels an awful lot like “…The sound of Inevitability”, but we’re not quite there yet.

Summer Blues

August 8th, 2017

I’ve been riding a lot, but I haven’t been writing a lot. It’s definitely not been due to a lack of things to say; but time’s played a part. I’ve been spending a lot of quality time with my kid, and Summer’s been pretty fun outside of problems with my bête noir, the Pittsburgh weather.

I’ve ridden a lot of bikes; more Ducatis, some Yamahas, and a Suzuki, so that’s a target crossed off this year (I wanted to get a lot more demo rides in).

I’ve also made some more riding friends and been out on group rides a few times, and bike nights have been a blast.

I have also, truth be told, experienced a little fatigue towards riding, although everytime I hop on the Ninja I’m invigorated. I think it’s some irritation toward the lack of any real bike culture here, so riding becomes a little close to tedium at times, and tedium is a very efficient passion killer.

I’ll write some more about this, I need to think carefully about how I word it as I may come off as a little harsh.

We will see.

Be Paranoid

If you think they’re out to kill you, it’s because they behave as if they are.
Crane Truck McFuckface was hiding in this tunnel
The tunnel monster is real

Riding to work this morning on my dual sport, I negotiated this blind corner and came upon a stationary utility truck (the type with the dorsally-mounted crane) head-on smack in the middle of the road.

My guess is that the driver did this to allow the crane to clear the tunnel ceiling. Be that as it may, it was poor judgement as the this tunnel has a blind entry on both sides:

Blind entry to tunnel in both directions
Blind entrance, both ends

I’m assuming the driver had his window down, heard me, and stopped. There were no lights, no flag man, nothing. Had I been riding more aggressively than was prudent, had I been on my sport bike, this might have been a little hairy; you can see it is an appealing pair of corners; that’s why I ride this little road in the first place.

Ride safe, folks.

The Perfume Road

Spring riding.

April 28th, 2017.

Late Spring’s a glorious time to ride. The sun comes out, mornings are cool and bright, and the olefactory system gets bombarded with a range of pleasant distractions. It’s still cool enough that the asphalt doesn’t get heated to the extent your senses are overpowered by hot tar and exhaust fumes.Cut grass,petrol, and the pleasant cocktail of plants in bloom.

Most of all, there’s a short period when people’s windows come down, before they start surrending to the heat, closing their houses and cars up, and resorting to the air conditioner. You pass houses where breakfast is cooking, fresh laundry is carrying on the cool breeze, and nobody looks in a hurry.

Somewhere in front, perfume escapes through a car window, for miles and miles. It’s hypnotic.

A Place, A Time

Kiski Junction Railroad, Pennsylvania, June 26th 2016.

I’d taken my family to ride this little railroad just the week before. On the road down I’d noted the last few miles would make a good bike ride, and so one week later I took my Ninja 300 there.

It was a boiling hot day, but a curiosity is how it’s the details of the bike’s life that stay with me: That chain was on its last legs, and had a tight spot I just could not massage out. The rear sprocket would soon be gone too, but the greatest recollection of all was the valve adjustment. just a few days later over the July 4th weekend, I tackled the valves. The diminutive Ninja had about 8000 miles on it; the recommended check was 7600; conventional wisdom on the Kawasaki Ninja 300 forum was to leave it to 15000, I did not want to leave it to chance.

It actually turned out to be a long undertaking, and the exhaust valves were indeed out of spec. I got the job done, and the bike still runs today. It remains the most complex thing I’ve done mechanically.

The joy of bike ownership, learning to do things you never thought you could.