Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Is Slow The New Fast?

I was struck by this recent blog post from my mate Chris.  In it, he makes the point that the major motorcycle manufacturers have continued to obsess about speed, producing faster and faster bikes each year, failing completely to realise the implications of the changing demographics of biking. 

Two slow bikes yesterday
He goes on to criticise those same manufacturers for their continued support of the increasingly irrelevant MotoGP circus, pointing out that modern bikers in their 30s, 40s and 50s are increasing unwilling to spend a hot day in a field watching bike racing, and that attendance at GPs will continue to fall.

In Chris' view, this goes towards explaining the huge increase in sales of 'slow' bikes like BMW's GS range, as well as the fast growing interest in resto-mod cafe racers.

I do take his point. Sometime ago I blogged about the futility of the modern superbikes, producing headline power figures that were to all intents and purposes utterly irrelevant for road use. After all, if your 1000cc bike produces its 190bhp at 13,500rpm, and runs gearing that means the bike's speed at the red-line with the throttle pinned is 90mph in first, 112mph in second, 134mph in 3rd, 153mph in 4th, and 169mph in 5th, when is the average-to-competent road rider really going to see more than a small chunk of the power he's paid for? Our society increasingly views high speed as irresponsible and dangerous - its pretty hard to justify 120mph on a country A road as 'perfectly safe' even if you do have 4 more gears to go. 

Those are the real in-gear maximums for a BMW S1000RR by the way.

However, I don't think its a simple as all that. 

For one thing, that is somewhat of a UK-centric view. In someways the UK has long bucked the European sales trend for large naked and enduro bikes. It is something of an anomaly that the machines habitually topping British sales charts were racer-inspired replicas. A visit to my local biker cafe on a sunny Sunday reveals that grey and no-haired bikers still arrive in their scores, leathered-up and astride big, late reg. sports bikes, some with chicken strips as broad as your palm but still having enjoyed the ride. 

What has happened is that the UK is moving to a pattern closer to our continental cousins; 2012's best selling 'proper' bike in Europe by far was the BMW GS, and Triumph's 1200cc Explorer GS-tribute led the UK charts. The only race-reps the top 10 sales lists dominated as usual by 125s and larger scooters were the S1000RR in  Germany and Honda's Fireblade in the UK. 

There may be an element of demographics in play but sales of bikes are heavily affected by economic factors, and European sales are all down. Job insecurity, reduced incomes, and the restriction of credit means the 1.9m motorcycle units shifted in 2006 across the EU had almost halved by last year. Its not surprising that when money's tight a £7,000 naked bike sells better than a  £12,000 race-rep, but roll on a decade of economic growth and those superbikes will still have a market. After all, Rolex still sell watches waterproof to 100m, and your £70k Range-Rover can still ascend a Scottish mountain. 

But right now, it's the economy that is forcing bike manufacturers to change their offerings; Honda's recent fuel efficient NC700 and budget 500s will sell - but because they are cheap to buy and run, not because they don't go fast.

I'm also much more sanguine about the effort manufactures put into MotoGP. I applaud the efforts of Honda, Yamaha and Ducati to build MotoGP prototypes, in much the same way as I love the fact that Mercedes, Renault and Fiat still throw their millions into F1 campaigns. And those MotoGP efforts will still support big sales in the truly big world markets - those in India, Asia and South America, where a powered two wheeler is not just a thrill for Sunday morning ride-outs.  And I think that all it would take to get the crowds piling into the British MotoGP would be a couple of winning Brit riders with the charisma of Simoncelli or Sheene!

One thing that does muddy the water is what has happened to the performance of 'slow' bikes in the last decade. A few weeks ago I spent a couple of hours trying out one of the new watercooled BMW GSs. Not only did it go like hell, but it also handled superbly, and I found myself travelling 10mph faster everywhere. Faintly alarming velocities were an easy wrist twist away - it takes a much more determined effort on my older generation Adventure.

BMW's 125bhp GS. As quick as a ten year old sports bike
When I got home I had a close look at the new GSs performance figures. It turns out that BMW's sensible shoes big enduro/tourer offers the same power as a Ducati 996SP from a decade ago. The GS also has 30% more torque, an utterly dependable chassis, sticky modern tyres and blanket of electronic safety systems, all in a package that weighs within a few kilos of a 996. BMW aren't alone in this - the big Adventure big offerings from Honda and Triumph also serve up big power. 

It turns out that we've embraced 'slow' bikes because they go just as fast as the fast ones used to go. 

Style and the expression of personality is always going to be a big part of riding bikes. Bikers are getting older, and we're all having to be a lot more sensible about money, but for an awful lot of riders, bikes are still about going fast.

Just not as fast as all that.


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