Electronic Assistance Off-Road – Defeating the Purpose?

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I’ve just come from testing the Yamaha Super Tenere, and I’ll admit it, I found the non-defeat-able ABS (Anti-lock Braking System) uncongenial to off-road riding, or even gravel road riding. The same goes for the traction control if you forget to turn it off. Which raises the question, if these safety systems and aids have the opposite effect on gravel, is there a way bike companies could better spend the resources they represent?

I do realize that you can defeat the ABS on the Super Tenere, but it’s a cumbersome process. One has to place the bike on the centre stand and run the bike in gear until the ABS is confused enough to decide there is a malfunction and deactivates. As if you thought the press-and-hold deactivation of ABS through a single button of BMW or KTM was a pain. The traction control is a press and hold affair, that resets back to the default “intrusive” mode every time the bike is switched off at the ignition. We won’t go into the tedious drill down through multiple levels of the Triumph Explorer 1200’s set up menu to deactivate the traction control and ABS.

No doubt these systems, ABS, Traction Control and Linked Braking and the like, have a place on road. The amount of inertia carried by a large adventure bike when things get out of shape on the pavement is tremendous. The problem is these systems are primarily designed for on-road use, where a loss of traction is an exception versus off-pavement where reduced and inconsistent traction is a consistent state. As Jimmy Lewis former Dakar racer and Dirt Rider Editor-At-Large quipped when we crossed paths in Tahoe this summer, “If you have full traction off-road then something is wrong.”

The problem in the dirt is, unless the system is very refined, electronic assistance interrupt a bike’s predictable behavior, which doesn’t make it safer or more manageable.

Standing on the Super Tenere’s pegs, riding over washboard I’m conducting an experiment. The traction control is on, and power is suddenly cut to the engine; momentarily, briefly, lurchingly. On a bike with less compression braking from the engine, this might not be an issue, but on the Tenere the traction control has suddenly and abruptly interrupted the bike’s predictable power delivery on-gravel. That is a serious shortcoming in an adventure bike, but not as much so as the ABS.

Let’s assume, that for every time you hit the Forest Service Roads, you don’t take the time to undertake the Tenere’s onerous ABS deactivation process. If you’re a regular adventure rider, you likely value the rear brake as a tool for managing the 575lb/260kg bike. Press on the rear brake on any vaguely loose surface, and the result is ABS chatter with only marginal braking effect, versus a controlled rear tire slide without the system. To it’s credit, one can be surprisingly aggressive in grabbing with the Super Tenere’s front brake before the ABS kicks in. Linked to the rear, with proportional allocation based on load, the front lever activates the bike’s “unified” braking system, which lacks feedback and feel.

That and you’re never really sure when the ABS will decide to activate, at which point you realize there’s no negotiation with physics.

So three systems meant to improve the a bike’s safety, in turn reduce its predictability off-pavement. Here’s the crux of the issue; how much better could bikes like the Super Tenere be if less emphasis were put on electronic assistants that read like checkmarks on a marketing plan, and more on the essentials of building a good adventure bike.

What if, as an industry, instead of ladling on electronic options to “improve handling dynamics”, the focus were on predictable power delivery, less weight and good suspension.

What would happen, if bikes like BMW’s G650GS Sertao jumped from “barely good enough” suspension to “good” suspension? If the Yamaha’s Super Tenere or the Honda Varadero went from jovian weights to mere saturnian weights (we can only expect so much improvement here after all)? If less emphasis were placed on horsepower and torque figures, in the increasingly sportbike-esque arms race of power, and more on usable and predictable delivery. The result would be adventure bikes with truly good handling dynamics.

A shift of emphasis from interruptive technologies off-road means the marketing departments would have to rethink. It’s much harder to quantify “handling” dynamics than compared to a laundry list of electronic assistants that may or may not assist a rider off road, horsepower, torque figures and displacement. Ok, so that means they can still compare weight, but please, no games, make it the wet weight; fully fueled and ready to ride. Please though Industry, take the time to get the basics for off road right first.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. BMW R1200GS LC. Nuff’ said.

    Like

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