Mar 2, 2012

Back to school

So the new bug in my motorcycle life is the racetrack. And no, that does not mean I want to be in the MotoGP. Hell, I don't even want to do the Honda or Yamaha one make cups. I just want to ride at a racetrack. Ideally every other day. What gives?

As many of you know, my first outing at the racetrack was unsettling for me. 100 per cent commitment, teetering at the edge of adhesion, sneaking one per cent more throttle is stuff I dreamt of. The question of riding that kind of hard simply doesn't arise. For the simplest of reasons.

I was a street rider then. The street is full of variables. Stuff mostly beyond your control. Weird traffic, bad drivers, bad riders, changing surfaces, animals on the road... You know the weird and wonderful list. In these conditions, I think the most I've ever committed is maybe 70-80 per cent. And when I've had to ride harder still, it's been always been a one or two corner sequence taken repeatedly, with friends kind enough to be watching for traffic to let you know in advance, on a stretch of road out of the way, utterly deserted and far away from civilisation.

So when I arrived at the track, I was utterly lost. I didn't know how to attack any of the corners. I couldn't figure out how to break years of play it safe, and then embrace the search for the fastest possible line through the corner. To bring the tyres to the point where the rubber is balling up on the edges and beginning to fall off under the severe stress you're putting on it. Everyone passed me that day, while I circled like a lost dog, going slowly and hesitantly.

I figured out that racing wasn't for me because being passed did nothing to diminish my awesome ego. I was slow, but I was still awesome. But it did pose a new challenge. How to figure out this beast? The immediate advice was simple - do not crash today. Do what feels right, ride within your comfort zone, ignore everything else. Just return home with good memories. Psycho bull? Not really, falling on the track first time out makes you more hesitant the next time around, or makes you swear off it.

But the past year and a bit have been different. I managed to go to the Indimotard track school (see this story by this guy) twice, and then attended two California Superbike Schools (see this story) as well. They tell me my riding speed, smoothness and skill in improvement terms is night and day. And I think my internal awesomeness mechanism says this is true. I do manage to hold my lines, my motorcycle isn't squirming around, I'm not breaking into cold sweats or swearing inside my helmet. I know where I am on the track and I know what to do there. And most of the time, I seem to able to manage to do the right thing, or nearly the right thing, at the very least. I'm not about to give any of our racers nightmares with blinding speed. But I'm fast enough to not be embarrassed to say it. I've become a fast track rider.

How did this happen? Lots of instruction and lots of time spent pursuing the skills rather than the speed. My understanding of it now is that speed is like a cake in a world devoid of all bakeries and pastry shops. You can't buy it whole (unless you have Graziano's genes, that is). The cake of speed is made of a number of physical and mental ingredients. And it's sort of like a treasure hunt. You have to get after one ingredient at a time, fill a bag full of it and then hunt down the next one. Each ingredient adds flavour to your cake. And one day, you discover that you have a cake. Then you can start working on making a better cake, adding flavours to it and so forth.

In my experience, most of us Indian riders cannot do this on their own. We neither have enough racetracks to figure out the components of speed on our own, nor is there enough track time available. Open days like the pay and ride Sundays at the Chennai track are a bit chaotic, the BIC is nigh impossible to access as a normal middle-class human being and the Coimbatore track I simply don't know enough about in terms of accessing it to make any comments.

But I do know this. TT Vardharajan and his Preethi crew do an awesome job of bringing the annual California Superbike School to India in January every year (for the past two years now) and the instruction and content offered is first rate. The course is logical, progressive and unthreatening. You learn, you see the logic, you practice it, you go faster. Simple. Cost? This years school was about Rs 22,000 for three levels, including a TVS Apache RTR 180 ABS rental (or you could bring your own bike, same rate). Add say, 5-8,000 to that for hotel rooms, 2-3000 for the cabs you'll need to get from the airport to the hotel and then the track, plus food and travel (say 15,000) and you are looking at spending about Rs 57,000 for the privilege. It's expensive, but I think it's worth it. And if you live in Chennai, it's half that, brilliant!

Then there is the TWO Track School run by Bangalore outfit Indimotard. This school is held over the weekend, takes two days per level and is far, far less expensive. Track cost is just Rs 4,000 for the weekend. The school ships bikes from Bangalore to the racetrack and the cost of shipping works out to about Rs 3,000. Sometimes you can also rent a Yamaha R15 from them, for about the same cost as well. Add the hotel - their deal hotel offers Rs 2,000 per room night, or Rs 4,000 total and the flights, say 10k and you have a track weekend that should cost you about Rs 20,000 all told.

Being a vastly younger outfit, Indimotard's course material is differently structured, the instructors work with a marginally large group of students per session (three at CSS versus five-six at TWO) and classrooms are less structured. On the other hand, TWO offers more riding time on track (five 20 minute sessions per day at CSS versus four 40 minute sessions per day at TWO) and has open sessions where you're technically not at school but on a trackday, a great chance to get the instructors to work with you as well as a opportunity to apply what you've learnt for a qualifying style fast lap and see what the score is.

I've seen students get significantly faster and more confident at both schools but this is not a school comparison at all. The point is, I am yet to meet a student at either school who either doesn't swear by the instructions or doesn't intend to return and do it once again. As in, all students at both schools think this is value for money. A weekend well spent.

The benefits you already know. To give my own example, my abilities have vastly, vastly improved. I never imagined that I would be keeping up with certain characters who frequent the track, one of these gentlemen, incongruously enough, is nicknamed after an extinct flightless bird (he's far from extinct, most certainly can fly and isn't a bird no matter how you look at this). He is in many ways my hero. He is cheerful and affable in the pit lane and super fast, super smooth on track.

He was also by turns, much, much faster than me the first time I rode with him. This time, I found myself keeping up with with ease. And then, magic happened. We spend a set of five-six laps at a quick clip. Not quite on the edge but close enough to it for the experience to be rich and vivid. He followed me for a few laps and then I followed him for a few in turn. And it was pure magic. It was a riding memory I will have forever. I think he might as well. I've rarely felt so at peace, so overjoyed and so proud of myself all at the same time.

And that feeling makes me want to come back and ride the track more. And to return to school at every available opportunity. And I'm hoping I'll meet you there.

Feb 19, 2012

Next stop

So the track bug has bitten. Hard. And also biting is the missing end of my motorcycle immersion - ownership. I don't own a motorcycle today. I've owned a few before but had to sell them since my day job gives me many, many new motorcycles and I have to ride them, allowing me little time to have my own. But now that I've ridden the KTM Duke 200, I want one.

Why? Because it is intense.

On the face of it, it's a solid motorcycle. 200cc, 25PS, 125kg dry is a potent sounding combination. But there more to it than that. There is the stuff spec sheets cannot capture. And perhaps, it is right that they cannot. For the intangible is a powerful thing.

Let me describe a quick short ride to you. Get on the bike. It's freaking skinny in feel. The tank feels so thin, but not too thin. Pegs are back, handlebar is weirdly wide and upright. I think I'll want a fist fight about now, it seems to suggest just by the riding position. Start the engine up. It settles into a blatty, gruff idle. Blip the throttle. Revs rise incredibly fast and fall just as quickly. Gulp.

Click into first, roll on a bit of gas, let the clutch out. The KTM shoots forward with a strong sense of purpose. It forces a quick reset of your performance threshold right there. And then it bounces harshly, unceremoniously off the redline. Already? The damn redline is at 10,000rpm! How the hell did it get there? Snick into second, the digital tacho flashes across the width of the screen and bam, you're back on the redline. This is really getting annoying now. Snick up four more gears and it's the same story, until you see 140kmph on the speedo, bash into the redline once more and drop to 136. Holy cow.

The exhaust note, had it been louder would make this whole drama feel more real, but there is no getting away from it. A short geared set of ratios, a weightless crankshaft and a fast, effortless engine is a breathtaking combination. I'll have another helping of that, please. This time your left foot is a blur, up shifting just in the time, making the blat go louder and more urgent. This is lovely and super aggressive. Again, please?

Then comes a corner. Slide bum off to the inside a bit, hook up the outside knee securely in that extremely well-designed recess, find it awkward to hook up the ankle, but feel solidly hooked up anyway. And countersteer. Oh crap, I'm going to go off the track. On the freaking inside! Where is the 136kg kerb weight? Where the hell did they hide it? The motorcycle is without weight or inertia. It tips smartly, eagerly into the corner with almost no effort. The tyres give a great sense of hooking up and driving forward, the chassis is just so, the feedback you receive is excellent and there is no gap between you thinking of changing direction and the motorcycle responding. A chicane is dispatched with the same effort as you would use to bat an eyelid. And just that quickly. Oh my freaking god. I'm in love. For now. Until the 350 comes out...

Meanwhile back in the present...

I have to get myself one.

I'm going to make a few mods though. There has got to be a louder exhaust on it. I need to fashion and mount a set of heel plates. And I need to figure out what all I can remove or replace to lose as much weight as possible for the inevitable track days it will have to attend with me.

I always thought my next motorcycle would be a big one. A supersport class machine. But hey, looks like the future's orange.

Aug 26, 2011


IS THAT ALL YOU CAN DO? And the rain finally showed its full fury. The motorcycle engine screamed in anger. Rain rippled water was rent asunder by warm rubber looking for tarmac. And for grip. The falling drops were drowned in the howl of the wind. Vaporised silently on the clear plastic of my visor. Steam curling off the radiator slipped unnoticed through the fairing. Water collected slowly in the boots. The world was a happy streaking wet blur.

Now sitting in the balcony looking at a sea of wet kit. Imagining the muck drying off leaving (hopefully horizontal) streaks on the fairing downstairs. The rain is slowly leaving my gloves, pants and jacket. The last drop gleams defiance on my helmet. The boots squelch though my toes aren't in them anymore. The cool breeze isn't laden with a million drops of water anymore but laced thickly with a fresh, wet memory.

The world is still happy. Inside my head, I'm still laughing like the maniac I sometimes become.

Feb 12, 2011

Let's speculate: Yamaha YZF-R15

Three years on, Yamaha is finally readying what appears to be a significant upgrade to the YZF-R15. If you search for 'R15 spy pics' in google, you will be rewarded with a whole bunch of pictures of the blacked-out spy shots doing the rounds. Now, open another tab and look up the Yamaha YZF-R125 and you'll immediately see the similarities in design. And then you will note that the mechanical bits don't match.

First, the R125 will never officially come to India. It simply isn't going to happen. Two-stroke nuts and fellow optimists, give up. The logic is simple. It's a two-stroke. It won't ever meet our norms. And if it did, it. I am given to understand the motorcycle would be too expensive for Indian customers to digest. That's not counting the fact that if it were re-tuned to meet our emission and noise specification that it would turn out so weak and so expensive that of you lot, about two would be willing to buy one. It ain't gonna happen.

What is likely to happen, on the other hand, is that Yamaha will neatly transplant the R125's awesome looks on the new R15. Which, as far as I am concerned, is a good thing. The slim, fit rear-end of the European stroker will fix the weakest link in the R15 package - the rear end. It'll gain both a fat rear tyre and a sleek rear-end in one shot. Nicely done. The R15 looks like an older R1, the R125's package resembles the tightly packed GP bike with an almost vestigial rear, it's a forward move in styling, definitely.

But what is crucial is how the performance and price moves, right? Here's what I think is going to happen. There's only two options. The harder way is to boost the performance. The R15 engine has been a pretty well-used engine in the sense of offered performance and potential performance. You have to remember that Yamaha's option to extract all of the horsepower from this engine is restrained, even strangled , by our pollution and noise norms. Can they bump up the power further? I think they can. Say you add another cam shaft (raise the redline, but lose still more ability to operate effortlessly at street speeds), some clever engineering, bump up the compression (raises sensitivity to fuel quality so you have to be careful) and so forth, and you should be to get say, another 2 horsepower out of this. Is that enough? A 10 per cent rise in power is pretty damn good I have to say. Although if you look at it as the gain over three years of a product's life, it does look weak.

You could also switch to more exotic materials as an option or in addition and lose weight to gain more performance. But there's no getting away from the fact that this is the expensive option. Unless you're willing to up the displacement.

Which is another can of worms because now you have to change the name. A 223cc R15 cannot be called R15. R22 or R22.3 is just weird. If you do an R25, on the other hand, you have to assume that the extra power means more serious chassis upgrades as well - another cost. And what do you do with the R15? Use it as a base model? Kinda lame unless you drop the price. Which in turn impacts the margins - dammit.

And remember that the price and the performance of the CBR250R hangs like the sword of Damocles over all the products in this segment. Rs 1.5 lakh ex-showroom gets you a Honda-badged 250cc single making roughly 25PS of power.

This ain't easy.

The simpler option is actually, perhaps, the smarter one. Bump up the power by half a horsepower. Bring in the slinky new styling. Localise some of the still-imported components to drop costs. And smoothly move the price down to a more acceptable, more accessible level. Yelling boo? Think about it. You get the motorcycle that is almost the automatic choice of the enthusiast - either money-down or aspirational - with updated rubber, some more power and more modern styling at less money. It might sound like the option here with less flair, but it has merit.

It's less complicated. There's no serious technology upgrades to be worked out. Styling is plastic - relatively easily to handle. A lower price point brings you closer to the buyer and makes your nearest competition (P220, Karizma et al) sweat harder. And raises the distance between yourself and the CBR250R so that something else - FZ250? - can be slotted into that space. Heck, you could do a proper R25 later if you chose this method.

It'll bring volumes. Lower price means more buyers. And Yamaha need volumes - every thing they can get - to meet their own target of market share.

It frees up attention. Which you need to focus on other products. Like the scooters Yamaha is supposed to be working on. Taking on the Activa isn't child's play, you know.

Of course, this is all my guess work. And as I write this, it makes sense to me. It may not tomorrow. What I do know is that Yamaha needs new products and that an R15 upgrade is coming. Dates? Hopefully March, but this is unconfirmed.

Jan 12, 2011


Memories rarely arrive as fully formed sequences like an artfully directed short film. The best of the lot arrive as flashes. Flashes that offer scintillating overlays of past experience on the reality your retinas are currently capturing. The psychologists and their ilk will tell you that our senses are powerful triggers. Textures felt, aromas inhaled, things seen, taste are all capable of setting off the memory equivalents of the camera flash barrage that you see at movie premiers and celeb-dotted events.

The trip I made to Delhi recently was burnished with sweet memories. For the first time in a long time, I arrived into a bright, stunningly sunny, but ferociously cold Delhi. Thanks to the fog, I was put on a morning flight for an evening function. I'd usually pack the space in between with meetings and other boring but sometimes necessary evils. Today was different. The vagaries of the fog - ironically, the very lack of it - meant a day, literally off.

Within moments of exiting the airport, I was both cursing myself and enjoying memory flashes. Have you had them? You return to a place once familiar. You're sitting inside the car hearing the buzz of traffic around you. And just for a fleeting instant, your brain takes a sharp left at the approaching intersection. A mad two-stroke twin howls dementedly away as your right wrist just keeps rolling the throttle further and further open. In the moment, you feel the rear tyre squirming under you bum. And then with equal abruptness, you return to being within the car, smiling contentedly to yourself knowing that the straight you were on leads to two corners. The second of which is off-camber and it tightens on the exit. That's where you first heard the screeching glory of chrome on tarmac as you ground out your precious, there's-no-spares-to-be-had-exhaust. That's where the runt on the RX100 finally grasped that the RD350 was not a motorcycle to be messed with.

Then, coming back to our hotel in the night, my friend and I were sitting quietly in the car as it whirred away, appliance like, tearing a path through the gathering tendrils of the nightly mist. A hint of a rolled down window let a thin shaft of wind ruffle my hair with the attendant sizzle of the cold. It brought back musty memories of a leaky Vega HP helmet. And once more, I remembered the tireless nights I spent running in my RD350 on that very road. How I laughed while I rode that brand new engine hard-hard-hard while practical-alter-ego-me screamed in frustration - another month's salary expended on a new set of pistons, another overbore and so forth. Maniac-me retorted, "Overbore? Means more displacement and then more power." Underneath, the twin throbbed with the vitality of recently born, tearing the night apart with its brutal, all-pervasive roar. It could have been the Qatar GP if you measured the events in terms of intent and commitment.

Nothing stirs in Delhi at night. Well, it didn't in those days. The roar of the rare beast shattered the unearthly silence if at all. I should know. I was on one. I was one.

Once more the brain hangs a left sharpish at the next roundabout. Lean over all the way to the right, and hold. Lift gently out of the seat to allow the bike to aborb that nasty bump caused by tarmac that's lumped up, flowing glacially in Delhi's searing summer. Feel the sudden arrival of the wind in places it usually doesn't get to. And then remember that cold balls means more spunk - never a bad thing. Smile today at the simplistic conclusions of a more youthful time. Then lower back into the seat, nail it. And pick up the gleaming black RD and flick it hard left at an arbitrary exit, knowing that this part of Delhi is jam-packed with roundabouts. Lefts and rights in any flavour you like, in any sequence you can dream up. I see myself disappear in a blur of fog-white and smoke-blue lit balefully by the yellow sodium-vapour lamps that dot Delhi. The roar fades out, the twinkle of the weak-bulbed tail lamp finally disappears...

Drat, someone's rolled up the window all the way.

When I got back on the flight, I was beside myself with the longing for another go in the saddles of my two twins. To shatter through the night like I was twenty once more, sans care, sans EMI and sans sense. And then I wanted to come back in heat of the summer as well. To feel the 47 degree wind tear the moisture right out of my system. To feel the gaze of cagers around me as they wondered why an 'unprotected' biker would be out there in this heat. To feel the RD engine panting for a little respite. To smile and deny mechanical mercy until I was quite done.

It almost makes you want to wish that memory was a well-made long-format movie. Something you could download in 3D-HD from youtube. So you could go back and live it any time your bloody well liked.

Dec 23, 2010

Missed call

Two incidents on one day. Forewarned? Coincidence? Or just the usual, reality trying to scare the life out of you?

Incident one. In my housing society, the exit gate leads to a steep downward ramp clad in the slipperiest paver tiles known to man. This leads to the (scruffier, grippier) paver tiled road. I normally stop (as in feet down) at the head of the ramp - to check on traffic - before I head down and left and leave for work or whatever. Today I noticed a Honda City coming up the road slowly - heading in the direction I would once I made my turn. I nodded to the chap as a sort of, "Allow me to go first, please?" And crept down the curve once I saw his head bob downwards like he understood. Halfway down - hard to stop at this point - I realised that the Honda City'd picked up his pace. Whoa.

I quickly accelerated while leaning further to keep my line tight and to get the bike cleanly ahead of the car. In that moment, I looked into the car with a WTF-ish sort of thought. I realised that the man hadn't bobbed a yes, he was merely getting ready to text someone on his freaking cellphone. And now, in the midst of the SMS, he hadn't realised that he'd picked up the speed.

Incident two. This took place at a T-junction. I usually pass the top of the T from right to left. This can usually be done rapidly because no one appears to use the intersection to turn right across my path on to the vertical body of the T (heading downwards, as it were). The rare traffic the vertical part does see is traffic turning left in my direction of travel, and in the evening, traffic turning towards me (up the vertical body and right). Complex. I hope you understand the word imagery - I don't have the time to sit with a graphics software right now, apologies.

Anyway, so I'm crossing this place today and I see an autorickshaw coming up in the opposing lane (top of the T, heading left to right) with his indicator blinking. As is usual, he was drifting into my lane as a pre-cursor to actually turning. So far so good. I flashed him with my R15's twin headlamps to ensure he understood that I was going to go straight past him first. I saw him slow up and continue to inch into my part of the road as auto rickshaws are won't to do. But his slow-ness assured me that I wasn't going to be blocked, so I continued.

As I crossed the rick with about two feet of space between me and his front wheel, I saw a Pulsar hidden behind the rick. Rider and pillion, no lids and no clue. They weren't slowing either. Oh sh*t.

Nothing happened, thankfully. For two very good reasons. First, I was bang in the middle of the powerband as I usually ensure I am when I enter intersections - whether I'm on the throttle or not. In my peripheral vision I noticed two things - the rider's hand was not on the throttle - which meant his speed wouldn't change - it'd be near constant. Second, he was looking over his shoulder as he chatted with his pillion - so he wouldn't do anything - evasive or stupid. What happened next, then, was entirely up to me - not too bad a deal I think.

So I rolled on the throttle hard-hard-hard and the R15's indefatigable engine carried me past without a hitch. But not before my heart-rate accelerated rapidly. And I'm certain the clueless Pulsar-borne duo had their own oh-sh*t moment as well in there.

What did I learn? That I'd just gotten lazy and had two reality checks handed to me. In the first case, I should have waited until I was sure he nodded. Or simply done the ultra-safe thing - just waited for the City-man to pass by. I'd have been past him on the straight within moments anyway. In the second case, I should have remembered something that I read once. that is so obvious that it beggars belief when you think about how you never follow that simple instruction.

We, motorcyclists, scan for hazards constantly, right? The better ones among us smoothly identify and deal with these hazards in the normal course of things in a number of ways. Right? The thing I read somewhere - think it was Art Friedman at, but I'm not sure... The think I read somewhere was that reality never guarantees that a particular moment in time poses only one hazard.

In simple terms, you need to pay attention to the hazard to process and mitigate it. But that doesn't mean another or more hazards do not also exist in the same moment. That you need to learn to keep scanning for hazards even as you deal with one. This is harder than it appears on the face of it by a matter of scales - but it isn't optional.

But you live and learn, eh?

Dec 10, 2010

Hyosung's second advent

I went out and rode the two Hyosung bikes. The Indian distributor, newcomer Garware Motors, intends to launch the bikes by March-April 2011 with as many as ten dealers covering the major cities.

The Korean bikes may not have the aura and history of the Japanese or Italian bikes but that doesn't necessarily make them worse bikes. The GT650R's V-Twin is based on the Suzuki SV650. This pretty much determines the nature and feel of the powertrain.

It isn't an all-out sportsbike because it needs a more powerful, more highly-tuned engine to do that. You have to remember that when Ducati competed in the Supersport 600cc class against the Japanese online fours, it used the 749, a 750cc v-twin. The 650cc V-Twin, then, isn't going to set a racetrack on fire. If the track is in Europe that is. India is uncharted territory in the mid-displacement market. We have nothing in there and that means the first mover has the opportunity to set the tone for the market. Will Hyosung be first? Bajaj have now been threatening to unleash the Ninja 650, itself a 650 twin, in India. So this remains an open question.

In the real (Indian) world, the GT is fast enough, adept enough and turns heads. This it will do without fail until we see enough faired bikes to become jaded, er, more mature. The SV650 is a legend. Everything I've read about it says that it is a sparkling example of a motorcycle that brilliantly brings together a happy engine, an eager chassis in a rider-friendly motorcycle. It isn't a motorcycle you'll remember for all the time when you scared the pants off yourself. But you'll love it for the relentless string of thoroughly enjoyable riding experiences you will have with it.

This is where I think the Hyosung will fall a little short. It's handling is secure but not something you'll recount to friends. It looks neat, but it's not going to go on a poster. The engine sounds gruff and purposeful but not evocative. It's a great step up from our 220s but is a waypoint on to something else, not a stop. It should be reliable, but that is a should, not a will because I simply do not enough about the GT or Hyosung to say anything on the subject.

I should take a step back at this point and clarify that the GT650R slots into a category of under-rated but usually very likeably and realistic mid-displacement sportsbikes that play second-fiddle to the likes of the CBR600RR and the R6 is image and performance terms. They have their own charm - they remember that the street is where the sportsbikes tend to spend a majority of the time and being overtly committed to the racetrack - as the R6/CBR do - isn't something that makes for effortless daily riding.

I should also tell you something intrinsic to V-twins here. They're never going to be as smooth as inline-fours. I find it a little strange that we seem to desire big performance but are unwilling to pay its price. Stress an engine for performance and two natural outcomes result - vibration and lower economy. There's no getting away from this. But that's a whole different topic. The point simply is that the inline four hum, smoothness and the clear howl at revs is something V-Twins cannot do. If that's what you're looking for, the GT650 - and indeed any other V-Twin you care to name - will always feel vibey and sound agricultural at lower revs. When a V-Twin gets it right though - I have two blog posts simmering on this (soon, soon) - they're glorious. Every bit as evocative as the Europeans make them out be in their gleaming magazines.

Back to reality, then. Garware promises excellent service and proper spares supplies. Which should allay the fears of those who got their fingers singed in the Hyosung experience last time round. Most people buying the Hyosung will have a tremendous couple of years until they upgrade to something bigger. Only then will they gain the reference they need to put the GT in context.

The ST7 on the other hand, is just plain strange. For a format as well understood and easily grasped as the cruiser, the orient continues to have serious trouble troubling Harleys as the dominant cruiser brand. The Americans have been making cruisers for over a hundred years now and it would appear that the oriental obsession with moving forward hurts them in this niche. Where the Americans happily churn our motorcycles that look old when brand new, the others can't figure out how to do this.

The ST7 on the surface has all the right elements. Chrome? Giant handlebar? Forward pegs? Low seat? It's all there. And yet you will always know that parked next to a beatup dusty Sportster it'll look worse off. Why? Whoever can answer the question accurately and tangibly stands to make a giant pot of consultancy cash - from every manufacturer trying to get into the cruiser market. Inasmuch, the ST7 is as good a cruiser as anything that's come out of Japan. As usual the Korean grasp of styling is beginning to come good - but it isn't all there yet. They've got the bike substantially right, but there are bits where proportions or lines are mildly out of whack. But I did call the bike strange, and not because of the styling.

Part of the problem is the engine. The engine is a long-stroke version of the GT's V-Twin but with a 50-odd-cc displacement advantage. This means that despite the stroke, the torque-boosting tune, it remains too eager to rev. Performance is thoroughly enjoyable but the nature of it doesn't fit neatly. You end up bouncing off the rev-limiter when you should be cresting a tsunami sized wave of torque at ridiculously low revs. You begin to appreciate the performance and notice the incongruence of it vis-a-vis the format at the exact same moment. Uh oh.

Here's the thing. I think that while the informed enthusiast will probably by-pass these bikes, there will be enough takers for the first few years. In which time the Korean brand will find it's place. Will it become a Hyundai? Or will it remain in some sort of premium limbo we will have to see. Hyosung will plan to price the bikes aggressively. I understand the bikes are to be priced at under Rs 5 lakh for the GT and Rs 6.5-7 lakhs for the ST7. Is this aggressive enough? I'm not sure. A relative unknown brand like Hyosung, with some - and not all positive - history in India needs a peg to stand on. This will, initially, have to be price.

This is also dangerous because price is a game that recognizes no exclusivity or continuum. The high yen will deter the Japanese from lowering pricing beyond a point but what if the yen falls? Also, how big must the difference in price be for you to pick a Korean motorcycle over an equivalent Japanese motorcycle?

The Hyosung adventure part 2 will be a ferocious test of Garware Motors' resolve, vision and understanding of the Indian motorcycle market. The company has no recent history in the automotive business and are very much bright-eyed and bushy-tailed - and I mean this in the nicest, most encouraging way possible. Will this effervescence translate into a fast-moving target that the Japanese will have to constantly worry about? I hope so. But there's tough days ahead for this fledgling motorcycle company.

Nov 8, 2010

Twin = Double?

In response to this post, Julian asked if in the process of making a twin-cylinder as opposed to a single, "Wouldn't just the engine cost double? Not the whole bike?"

Well, the way it was explained to me was this. In pure material terms, obviously, the top the engine - valves etc, double. The middle of the engine, obviously doubles (pistons, bores, mounting studs etc). The crankshaft becomes a lot more complicated and nearly doubles in cost, if not in material. But more importantly, now you have to upgrade the chassis to handle the extra performance. This means that the tyre specification and size, rims, all the suspension, most of the frame has to be upgraded. Again, most of the time, this results in a nearly ground-up reworking rather than a simple make all tubes thicker kind of engineering. This, of course, presumes that the original motorcycle was not a platform. If it were a platform, then the ability to upgrade the frame would be built in - and cost less over the life of the platform. That last bit is a severely complex calculation that is beyond my ability to explain any further.

The upshot is that the twin cylinder engine might appear to be the simple addition of another bore-piston-valve set to the single. But that's the illusion. By the time you've finished re-engineering the product, you are looking at close to double the cost. Now consider the sale price. This will proportionally be higher. But remember that the single - since it is cheaper - will logically sell bigger numbers. This in turn allows smaller margins to justify the products since the volume will compensate and bring your the profit you need. But the twin is more expensive so it will naturally sell lower volumes. So the manufacturer, then, has to command bigger margins on that bike to make similar profit on that model. What results, I am given to understand, is nearly twice the price.

I must admit though, that it never occurred to me to ask if going to twin to triple or four will cause similar price rises but empirical evidence suggests that the big leap in price and complexity is from single to multi as opposed to twin to triple/four and hence the an inline-four is usually not twice the price of the single. Again, this is my conclusion and I could be wrong.

If there's any R&D engineers who are reading this, I would appreciate a clarification on that last bit.

Nov 4, 2010

Honda CBR250R is a big deal

So I did manage to ride the new Honda CBR250R. And I needed to put the bike in perspective and I thought that my long-ignored blog might be a nice place to do that. What say, eh?

As you already know, we've been crawling at an abysmal pace up the value ladder in the motorcycle market while the car guys seems to be able to sell whatever the hell they want to. What gives?

I've long suspected - with increasing confidence - that the Indian motorcycle buyers is value conscious to a crippling extent. And that he expects the motorcycle makers to add all the goodies - displacement, power, styling, comfort etc - at prices that literally boggle the mind.

If you allow me to digress and give you an instance, I was once at a motorcycle clinic where a (undisclosed) manufacturer was trying to understand what Indians want. The respondents were all bike enthusiasts, garage owners, bike modifiers and so forth. And the 10-odd gents came up with the demand for a 850cc V-Twin cruiser that should be on road for, oh, Rs 1.5 lakh.

Anyway, having gotten stuck at 223cc for a long time, things are finally moving again. This time, for real. Mahindra's 300cc Mojo is being readied. Hyosung will re-introduce the Comet, this time with the right engine, the 650cc engine. Bajaj-Kawasaki are working towards a low price point for the Ninja 650 and KTM is working towards the launch of what should be the 250cc Duke by Diwali next year - that last bit is my reading of the market, official word is that the 125cc Duke that is going to Europe is not coming to India. We'd never buy a 125cc at the price it will end up commanding.

Yamaha remains stupefyingly hard to read. They get the R15 and the FZ16 right. Then they hibernate for a whole two years before unleashing the weedy SZ-X. I'm hoping there's a R25 and a FZ25 in the works for next year. Else it's gonna be grim for my favourite performance motorcycle brand.

TVS is understood to be working on the 220cc version of the RTR. I'm hoping the Southern silence is because TVS has finally seen the light and are instead readying a RTR250. One can hope, right?

My point is that the Honda CBR250R is a great motorcycle. And not because of its performance or dynamics either.

Many of us felt that the R15 was too expensive. And it is an expensive - but outstanding - motorcycle, no contest. But Yamaha is having to get some of the higher tech bits from Indonesia from what I hear which makes a lower price tag hard to achieve.

The CBR is about to turn the premium segment performance and price equation on its head. By international standards it is an uncomplicated motorcycle. A simple single-cylinder engine with four-valves and two cams. Cooled by liquid and fueled by an injector. Stick said unit in a steel diamond frame, tack on appropriate front forks and de riguer linkage-type monoshock at the back and you have it. It even has - for Indian fat-tyre fans - a 110-section front and a 140 rear.

My short stint on board says the motorcycle is sorted. Engine doesn't vibe at all. You notice some vibes past 8000rpm but even those aren't worth complaining about. It sounds strong, is never stressed and it pulls hard enough to be interesting. It also doesn't sound wheezy like the Karizma and the CBZ do. As in, likeable. The thrust lasts all the way through the rev range, the six-speed gearbox is slick and the handling package is accurate, honest and neutral enough for newbies and experienced riders to emerge from their helmets with smiles on their sweaty mugs.

Unlike the R15, the performance isn't delivered with urgency. But it's unquestionably a heck of a lot faster. Also unlike the Yamaha, the ergonomics are closer to the sporty Ninja 250R than the committed R15. Which means you can ride on the street, long distances on the highway with equal ease. That last bit will be a great, great reason to buy the motorcycle in India. I don't think the pillion ergos - in addition - are crippling either. So if the rear perch proves comfortable enough when the launch happens, this will be a proper two-up tourer.

But the true greatness of the motorcycle lies in the pricing. With Honda likely to put down the base version - the one I would buy, minus the C-ABS system - at about Rs 1.3-1.45 lakh ex-showroom when the motorcycle launches here in the February-April 2011 window.

Let us assume for arguments sake that the final price comes out to be 1.45 lakh for the CBR250R. Suddenly the Karizma ZMR looks pale. 16PS for Rs ~90,000 when a full 10PS more, a far more shapely fairing et al is just Rs 60K more? The extra money in EMI terms would be a trifle.

R15? Again, 10PS more, a slightly milder styling ethos for a mere Rs ~30K or so more?

Ninja 250R? Why would you pay nearly twice as much for a motorcycle that makes just 7-8PS more? I have a good reason to actually prefer the Ninja but I will come back to that.

Now the unlaunched bikes. Mahindra's Mojo is likely to be a 25PS bike also. But the stated price is Rs 1.7 lakh. Uh-oh.

And the KTM Duke 250 - if I'm right - will be all-KTM from head to toe and will arrive at a CBR-matching price point, similar or better performance and dramatic styling.

The Comet 650 will come in at Rs 5 lakh odd. That's the Kawasaki Ninja 650's ballpark as well. Uh-oh.

My sole reason to buy the Ninja 250R is, of course, that it is a twin. Those of you lucky enough to still have RDs know that parallel twins are great engines in most cases. And that singles are the entry point to motorcycles. Nothing more. I know from my previous chats with R&D engineers that a twin cylinder engine typically tends to double the cost of making a motorcycle over an equivalent single-cylinder engine. So to me, the Ninja's double price isn't a surprise. If money was no object then the Ninja vs CBR debate would end in the green corner.

That the CBR looks like the VFR is also a minus point for me. The VFR isn't going down as a design classic anytime soon in my book.

The CBR is also great because I think it will sell well. And when it does, it will give other manufacturers more confidence in the motorcycle enthusiast. It will tell them that there are those of us who've seen past the whitewash that is appliance-grade motorcycling.

But words like great being conferred before the launch itself? Am I getting carried away? Maybe. But I'm also desperate. And desperate times call for desperate measures.