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.

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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.

Here’s Johnny.

December 12th, 2016.


Groundhog Day

Last year, we were blessed with winter staying almost entirely within bounds; a late December to February even, most severe in late January. This year the lake-effect weather system, resulting low temperatures (10F!!!) and snow started early.

I also got the seasonal man-cold a couple of weeks ago. Any medical professional recognises the seriousness of this condition, for those unfamiliar it is outlined in this documentary:

This coincided with the final November weekend which wasn’t utterly freezing, coincidentally the occasion I’d planned to weatherproof my bike. This involves taking the mid-fairings off (an utterly tedious job that entirely encourages my tendency to procrastinate) and drowning everything that isn’t a brake component in ACF-50. As this didn’t happen, I’ve been reluctant to use the bike much, so I’m just going to have to put on my big-boy pants and do it, even if it causes my extremities to shrivel up and drop off.

That being said, over the last weekend a couple of inches of snow fell, the local authority dumped its customary million tonnes of salt and sand everywhere, but it warmed and rained, and today felt almost like early March; not particularly cold, and very damp. Don’t worry though, by the end of the week it’s going to be utterly freezing, again.

frigid
Oh ffs

I’d forgotten how much crap is on the road surface at times like this. It’s a godawful mix of mud and grit; occasionally very slippery, and I can hear it scrunching on my rotors every time I pull the brake lever at low speeds. Everything gets covered in this fine coating of brown mist that looks a bit like raw sewage. As usual, the most dangerous part of my commute are the hundred yards of road in my apartment plan, which despite the sterling efforts of the property managers, remains unusually slick in poor weather.

For the winter rider, I think this thawing condition is every bit as hazardous as black ice when freezing. In similar circumstances I nearly dropped the bike last January:

Losing the rear
Wet road from melting snow, mixed with mud/sand.

Smoothness is key, but if you’re going over, there’s not a lot you can do. It is also at these times I dislike the abrupt throttle transition on the Ninja 300; it can cut suddenly and unsettle the rear end.

So why do it?

For me it’s a mixture of practical and emotional. I really love riding, I love the challenge and discipline of it in difficult conditions. I desperately do not want to buy a second car; it’ll cost a fortune (as cars do) and I’ll resent it sitting there and devouring money I need while it’s barely used for most of the year. When the weather’s really severe, I take the family Toyota. It is a matter of enduring about 10-12 weeks. It’s not terrible.

Any other winter riders there? I know there’s a few. Share your experiences!

As If Right On Cue…

The weather has started it’s Autumnal swings. 36°F this morning. 36 is an interesting temperature for this rider, as last year I realised that is about the lowest I can tolerate without heated gloves. I don’t get numbness, just very sharp pain that I’m guessing precedes the numbness.

Oct 14th 2016
First frost of the year.

Of course, the afternoons are still too warm for a proper winter jacket, which is frustrating. Even with the full liner, balaclava, and sweater it is a little nippy, but will still be uncomfortably warm later. Also, the forecast is very warm (80°F, fuck yeah!) next week, so plenty of good riding left.

These last few days have got me thinking about wind protection more. I really like naked bikes but I’m wondering if they’d be good for my riding needs, if I had to have just one bike.

Next post will have idle speculation about what I want next. I thought I knew, or at least had a very good idea, but that seems to change weekly…

…And Winter Is Coming.

Predictably on the tails of my last entry, and because I am British, I’m going to moan about Winter. I live in Western Pennsylvania, and while it’s hardly Minnesota, it’s a somewhat harsher experience than my British homeland. The average January high for Pittsburgh is 37°F(US Climate Data, 2016); that is the average low temperature for January in my old hometown on England’s South coast(Met Office,2014).

The stats don’t tell the full story – it may be viciously cold when the sun goes down, but it’s usually tolerable for the morning commute, and crucially, usually quite dry, so there’s no frost to worry about, and a little less risk from ice.

What got me thinking about this is the last two days have seen cooler than average temperatures for my morning commute, around 50°F. I had to break out my waterproof mesh jacket liner (it traps heat), my Oxford neck warmer, and switch my Winter gloves for my thirteen-mile commute to work. I started to get that characteristic slight fogging of my face shield around the pinlock that the cold air causes.

There’s still a good four, maybe six weeks of good riding left for the normies; after that, the bikes get prepped for winter and put away, perhaps breaking them out on the odd sunny day, but generally, that’s it until April.

But not me.

Last October 19th, the morning temperature dropped to an unusually low 29°F. It would be the first time I had ridden in temperatures below freezing.

Ninja 300, 19th Oct. 2015
Below freezing, warming the donk up.

It was a rude awakening. The three mile stint on the highway caused my fingers to become, well, not quite numb, but extraordinarily painful. The wind blast forced its way past the gasket in my face shield, and hurt my eyes. My kneecaps hurt. I had real difficulty warming my gloved hands up again, and resorted to pressing them on the clutch and stator cover at traffic lights, which possibly gave the appearance I was attempting to mate with my bike.

I’d received a hard practical lesson in windchill, the theory of which I was only vaguely aware – this table tells the simple story, and it doesn’t even show figures above sixty mph.

NWS wind chill chart
Wind chill chart. National Weather Service

I was a bit despondent as I’d already bought some expensive winter gloves, but I now knew with certainty they wouldn’t be enough. The problem was the highway. I’d need something heated, either grips on the bike, or my gloves, but that’s another blog entry…