Monday, January 16, 2006

Inside Line: Sampling the Future

Well, apart from being too busy with Christmas and clients to update this place more often, I'm also still partly reeling from the monumentous amount of direct and subscriber traffic* generated by the last post on Patek Philippe and wondering what to do with this blog next. When the words fail on watches, it's time to get back to my roots:..... bikes. Please indulge me.
*Subscriber traffic went up by 167 people over a two day period.

Inside Line: Sampling the Future

Curvilicious Lycra®-clad ladies, melting sun, shimmering wristwatches, cool shades, sticky snaky tarmac, glinting prototype bikes and an endless supply of paid up riding time. That’s why I got in to this line of work, Nope, more like meet up at the damp test track and wheel the latest development bike, ‘B8,’ down the improvised club-race-paddock-plank out of the unmarked white van. I got the big shiny chrono though.

It was tatty, typical of a hard used development mule and sprayed matte black like a streetfighter. Mechanically all there, it showed the signs of firm hands, late night frustration and timesaving expedience like brutally cut bodywork to allow easy chassis tweaking. The improvised camouflage was completed by the remnants of dry checkered duct tape splooge left all over the tank from the endless mounting of data loggers, cables, magic markers and dry wipe notepads with test routes. In places, the homemade paint job had peeled enough to reveal teasing clues as to the true colorful identity of the machine. Black works every time making shapes and form disappear. Nobody except dedicated nosey anoraks can spot the distinguishing features and work out what it is. With this one though, a little bit different to your usual disguised next-year’s-superbike, you could not camouflage the sound. You soon had to get used to the unintentional attention of innocent pedestrians. On road rides, typically through villages, hearing it coming from behind, they would whip their heads around like a possessed Regan McNeil as they probably expected to be confronting a plane crash. They did not realise they were privileged to be among the first outside of a paddock to hear a straight-cut, undamped, gear-driven valvetrain, with truly cathedral organesque induction system and the ‘legal’ exhaust of a barely muted modern racer.

Sometimes the sun actually shines here in Blighty. A hot and red Ducati 999s comparison bike cools down after a track session among green grass and daisies. The 999s rocks by the way...if you can bear to fold yourself in half to ride it. Chassis setup details on request

Of course, it has to be this way for secrecy, but also, riding around in replica color versions is not productive. You become super sensitive to how your riding appears to others: style, road position, downshift quality, marginality of the overtakes; they all become too important when the main focus is the test at hand some of which lead to pretty odd behavior or erratic looking maneuvers. You need to relax and focus on testing and you cannot achieve that looking like you made a wrong turning out of the paddock.

I was pretty intimidated given its track reputation and the fact that unlike so many before, it actually IS the pure racer barely changed to create a forthcoming limited edition road bike; from the must-have Marchesinis and Öhlins to the nipples of its Brembos. Starting a little reluctantly, it zaps into life as no other roadbike; like I remember during a childhood visit to a ‘70s F1 paddock – a big fat bark followed by sonorous perfect fifths. It is the end of talking to the outside world and donning the helmet seals the cocoon of yourself and near two hundred horsepower testbike. Helped by a riding position, tank shape and seat that sucks in your loins, it reminds me of the first time you fit together really well in bed with your partner. The clutch is as light as a motocrosser and we pull away; not slowly and gently, but taking it by the scruff of the neck. No embarrassing stalls for me thank you.

And then we start to build it up, but oh, what’s this…..lots of problems. Every upchange is met with a huge dip in torque followed by a huge punch in acceleration. Every throttle blip for a downchange gives a skyrocket high rpm. Idle is all over the place, mixture never the same twice. Huge decel response locks the back wheel on a shut throttle in first or second. Violent oscillations follow throttle input in a low gear. Tapping into every synapse of riding experience waiting for the next unexpected response soon tires me out. There is a lot of work to do yet. At least it wheelies smoothly and the sound in the bubble is incredible, addictive even and the chassis, after a few twiddles to suit one’s own riding palate, is perfect; the setup so fine you can take your hands off mid corner and wave at the imaginary crowd.

And then, a man with a shotgun and a hound appears. As shocked as I am, one of the crew rides out on a spare benchmark bike (a 999S) to challenge him. “The farmer’s given me permission to shoot rabbits, “ he said.

“Well, ok but can you keep over this side as we’re coming through here fairly quickly looking at instruments……” I doubt whether hitting the Jack Russell would deflect the bike; I am more worried about being shot. It’s getting late, so it’s back in the van for the mule and testing stops for the day while we determine the authenticity of our interloper on the cell phone and write up notes.

Timeworn statements, but yes, racing improves the breed and today’s racer is tomorrow’s scalpel superbike is tomorrow’s sports tourer. Nevertheless, there are whole hosts of things preventing bringing you this bike yet apart from the developments needed to legalize it. Sadly, most of them are associated with having to create a product for the lowest common denominator of rider. In our litigious world, “experts only” won’t do so compromises and changes have to be made to allow for everyone and in doing so it inevitably alters the feel and ultimately the authenticity of the ride. I only hope this one does not suffer too much dumbing down just to cover the widest (read safest) possible market. One way or another though you will get to ride this, but, maybe in 2012 with hard luggage and heated grips.

So, look out. The next black bike you see with modest looking rider aboard may well be piloting a mule. If everything is duct taped on, there are no knee sliders, and the riding is erratic you have definitely seen the future.

Copyright 2006 Velociphile
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