Power Mad

by Thomas Day

It’s about 98 in the shade. I’m hot, worn out, and out of gas. I think I must have discovered the longest way back to the Cities from Bayfield and I’m only half way home. I stopped at every river launch, every scenic overlook, and checked out every park between MadelineIsland and wherever the heck I was when I stopped for fuel.

The station clerk asked me what kind of bike I was riding (Suzuki), how big it was (650cc), how could I stand riding in this heat with “all that gear” (stealing a line from Pat Hahn, I told him it was a “dry heat”), and how many miles I’d done that day (450 and still counting). He admitted that he had an 1100cc Honda Shadow, but the Shadow was too small for his kind of riding. I told him my 650 did 120-something mph and that was fast enough for anything I needed to do. He said his Shadow would do the same top speed, but he felt he needed “more power and a bigger bike,” like the Honda VTX 1800. This guy was about 5’2″ and 200 pounds of fabric-softened fluff. What he’d do with more power than a Shadow was something I try not to imagine. The upside is that the VTX top speed is only 110 mph, so he won’t have to worry about going faster with that “extra power.”

All along this trip, I passed a lot of folks with big motors. Not that I’m going all that fast. Mostly, they’re plodding along about 5 mph under the speed limit and coming to near-stops at every corner. Maybe it’s because power and handling don’t come in the same package? Maybe power is compensating for something less well developed? (Riding skill, not what you were thinking. Get your mind out of the gutter.)

The lack of anything shielding the riders from bugs, birds, heat, wind, rain, and dust may have something to do with the lack of motivation to move quickly. On the road there appears to be an inverse correlation between the size of the motorcycle and the amount of gear the riders’ wear. (Not what you thought I was going to correlate was it? You really ought to think more elevated thoughts.) I’m not just picking on the big twin owners, either. The rule appears to apply to big anything; from cruisers to sportbikes. However, the big iron crowd makes up for lack of motion by being extra noisy. Passing a line of monster twins puts me in a sound pressure field as hazardous as a helicopter cabin. A pack of illegally-piped liter sport bikes is about as tolerable as a 747 at low altitude.

What this American big bike fixation reminds me of is the scene in Spinal Tap where Nigel explains to the camera why his rare Marshall that “goes to eleven” is more powerful than all the other Marshall amplifiers whose volume knobs are labeled to ten. Since most of Spinal Tap’s audience was made up of brain-damaged metal heads, Marshall discovered that knobs going to eleven actually sold more amplifiers than the decade-based knobs. Perception is everything, marketing dweebs tell me. Power isn’t directly related to engine size (or decibel level), but you can sure fool most folks, as Abraham Lincoln suspected.

A decade ago, I irritated or entertained (depending on your perspective) a bunch of rec.motorcycle readers by comparing the 1/4 mile times, top speeds, and rear wheel horsepower of a variety of bikes vs. a couple of Harley’s sporty models. If “powerful” means “fast,” 400cc of most anything from Japan was pretty damn powerful in comparison. The power term was quickly redefined in torque values, but since hp and torque are mathematically linked too closely to separate, that argument was taken up by better minds than my own and 400cc of Japanese four-cylinder power still came out looking pretty strong. However, I think to the big bike fans “powerful” really means that the torque curve develops so early in the powerband that it’s easy to get the bike away from stop signs and lights. This maneuver appears to be high on the “difficult to achieve” list of way too many recreational riders.

A decade later and Japan is making the comparison within its own product lines. The VTX 1800 is slower and much more massive than the cruisers Honda made before they caught the big iron virus. If maneuverability were a commonly described feature, Honda would not list that VTX spec under threat of Congressional investigation. But VTX buyers are not interested in going where no cager has gone before, being quick and nimble, or covering long miles efficiently without leaving tire impressions in the highway. VTX and other big iron owners are making a statement about some aspect of their personalities or (some have suspected) anatomies. It’s fitting that one of the color options for the VTX is “Illusion Blue.”

Now I’ve heard it said that it’s a good thing that all motorcycles are not alike. That the variety of motorcycles is akin to variety in ice cream flavors. I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, a big part of my dislike for huge motorcycles is that these damn blimps are so popular that other “flavors” of motorcycles don’t make to the US.

While Europe gets all the hippo bikes it can swallow, they also get a wonderful variety of small commuter bikes, dual purpose cycles, and small displacement sportbikes. We get a couple models of dual purpose bikes, one or two beginner street bikes, a few sport bikes, and seventeen zillion big butt cruisers. The motorcycles imported into the US are the culinary equivalent of the Atkins Diet without the vitamin supplements.

Obviously, there is a huge profit margin in heaps of chrome and loud noises. If it were difficult to build that sort of motorcycle for fun and (large) profit, there wouldn’t be dozens of Harley clone manufacturers scattered from California to Golden Valley, MN to New York to Tokyo and back to Milwaukee. If it’s easy to do and lots of people are willing to overpay for it, obviously, everyone is going to jump on the bandwagon and avoid doing the hard stuff until it’s absolutely necessary. Which means we’re stuck with boiled meat and potatoes until the recession really cuts deep and the hippo bike craze dies off. Or when my generation passes through its mid-life crisis and the market goes belly up when we all start buying chrome-plated, solar-powered walkers.

A friend once said he fought in Desert Storm to protect Americans’ “right to be excessive.” It’s a right some of us seem to be dedicated to express in all of our hobbies. Don’t get me wrong, I like excess. One of my life’s dreams is to ride an open class dirt bike through a pristine golf course; turning sand traps into giant berms and manicured greens into knobby-tire-tracked trenches. I love riding fast and watching folks ride even faster.

But some forms of excess are plain boring at worst and ridiculous at best; big bikes and coal car-sized SUVs combine both emotions. These extremes of internal combustion engine development make me wonder if the technology has about reached its end. In my experience with technological evolution, I’ve found that the last gasp of a dying technology is often expressed in two ways: extreme refinement and extreme silliness. The entertainment value of the silly technological developments can’t be denied, but it does make me wonder how much longer we’re going to have hydrocarbon powered vehicles to kick around.

M.M.M.

 

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