It seems like a week does not go by these days without a riding buddy calling me up to tell me that some motorcyclist crashed. Othertimes, I will visit an on-line forum or read about a crash on a mailing list. Upon further querying, I often find that the riders who go down tend to be new riders who seem to have the latest and greatest sportbikes. Typically, the latest and greatest sportbikes are street-replicas of the ones used by professional racers. These motorbikes tend to be motorcycles of 750cc or more.
I, like many sportbike riders, frequently ride the many canyon roads that dot Southern California: Angeles Crest Highway, Mulholland Highway, Palomar and GMR just to name a few. SoCal is perhaps one
of the best riding destinations in the world: year long riding weather with very little rain. The mountainous region boasts many canyon roads that attract riders from all over, trying to tame the canyons. Canyon-carving, as it is often called among sportbikers, is "spirited" (some say aggressive) riding along these curvy roads. Some riders do it at a safe pace and other do it with reckless abandon. Riding the canyons offers very little margin for error. If you over shoot the turn, you could easily have an un-scheduled meeting with the canyon wall. If you are lucky enough to miss a turn and not head towards a wall, you might find yourself airborne flying off the edge of a cliff. If that was not bad enough, you sometimes have to contend with other motorists who might not be paying attention to what they are doing and cut across the centre-line into your lane.
There are many uncontrollable variables and many things can go wrong. While we cannot control all of them, one that I will address in this article is the combination of the new or inexperienced riders and "big-bikes". These days the "litre-bikes", or motorcycles with close to 1,000cc are all the rage. Everybody wants to be a Mladin, a Rossi, a Duhamel or one of the Bostrom brothers. Anything less than a litre-bike will make you look like you either cannot afford something bigger or that you do not have the cajones to ride something fast.
A new rider with a litre-bike is a very bad combination indeed. Unfortunately, we are seeing more and more of this pairing everyday. It worries me to see that the majority of new riders want to rush out and buy the biggest and "baddest" sportbikes. I have heard many reasons as to why new riders purchase big-bikes.
Some are confident that they can handle
the power of the bigger engines just because in the past they have driven performance cars or ridden dirt bikes. What they do not realize is that the power to weight ratio on a modern sportbike can easily get you into trouble with a blip of throttle. Many of the new litre-bikes come with easily over 130 hp and weigh a mere 400 lbs. or less! They accelerate from 0-60 in first gear in less than 3 seconds with top speeds well over 150 mph. That kind of power in the hands of a novice is like giving a fully automatic assault-rifle to a child. It can hurt the one yielding it as well as others around.
Other riders feel like they cannot afford to buy a smaller motorcycle to start of with and then after getting some riding experience, trade up to a bigger one. Therefore, they buy a big bike right from the start. My advice to these riders is to buy a cheap used bike, practice riding with it for several months and then after you have some experience riding it, sell it and buy something bigger. If you buy a bigger or new motorcycle right from the get go, I can almost guarantee that 95% of you will drop that bike, whether a high or low speed crash. At least if you have an older and smaller bike, the damage to the bike will not be as expensive to fix.
Yet, some others feel that after a few days of riding the smaller motorcycles, they will outgrow the performance of that given bike. I can quite honestly tell you that even most of the most experienced riders do not come close to tapping the full potential of any modern sportbike. You will definitely never come close to the limits of any motorcycle on the street (that is what track-days are for). Unless you are the next Valentino Rossi or Mick Doohan, you can be sure that you will never ride any bike to its full-potential.
As a new rider, buying a brand new 1000cc or even a modern 600cc sportbike is like learning how to drive in a Ferrari Modena. You are likely to cause harm to yourself, the machine and possibly
even the ones around you. It would be better off starting on something smaller like a Kawasaki EX250 or EX500 or even a Suzuki SV650. These bikes are more forgiving and you can still have heaps of fun on them. Once you have more experience riding, you can gradually move up to something with more power. Remember, the bike does not make the rider. No matter what bike you have, if you cannot ride well, a better rider will still pass you on a smaller bike. If that were to happen, the coolness factor of owning a big bike just went out the window. What can be more embarrassing to a new rider than to have the latest and greatest motorcycle only to drop it in front of everyone because they cannot handle it or to own the new 2004 Kawasaki ZX-10, only to be passed by someone riding an Aprilia RS250.
While I am not one who should decide whether you can or cannot handle a big displacement bike, I do strongly encourage any new rider to take one of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation training courses (for more info, go to www.msf-usa.org or call (800) 446 9227). Even if you are a rider who has logged thousands of miles, a training course like this would be very beneficial to your riding skills. Your competence on a motorcycle could be the difference between life and death at times. Therefore, you can never have too much rider training. Always remember that public roads are not race-tracks and while riding the canyons are fun, if you must ride at speeds, take that testosterone to the local race-tracks. In Southern California, we are blessed with some of the best tracks in the country so make it a point to visit The California Speedway (in Fontana), Willow Springs Raceway (in the Santa Clarita Valley) or Buttonwillow Raceway (up by Bakersfield). For an economical way to get into track riding, visit www.thetrackclub.com.
Shawn H. Ooi is a resident of Los Angeles and has been riding motorcycles for over 14 years. He has owned many makes and models of motorcycles and his current ride is a Ducati 748. Shawn is also one of the owners of Moomba Cyclesports Inc., which specializes in suspension set-ups and race-tuning. Moomba Cyclesports also provides regular service & maintenance and does parts & motorcycle apparel sales. He can be reached at [email protected] or at (626) 618 0385.
Photo credit: Shawn Ooi