Single Track Mind – How Much is Too Much?

September 26, 2013
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

There can’t be many Englishmen who are more at home in America than me. I owe much to the USA and this is why, two hours after landing in America, I am a fully integrated English American and feel as if I have never left your wonderful country. Even so, some parts of the American way of life still confuse me almost to the point of distress.


Reading MCUSA’s report of the new 899 Ducati Panigale I was reminded of a meal Carol and I had in the Midwest. We had met a lovely classic bike racer and he kindly took us to his favorite restaurant, well-known in South Dakota for the spectacular quality of its food – and its truly, no holds barred, “Eat All You Can Farmers Buffet” policy.


So Gary showed us how to heap our plates with fabulous pork ribs, mashed potatoes, steak, fried bacon, hash browns, beans, salad, sausages and goodness only knows what else.


Each item was truly delicious, and as good an example of Midwestern cooking as you will ever find, but Carol and I groaned. We’re hardly anorexics but the mere sight of another pile of food stacked up high turned our stomachs. Give us just a couple of the courses and we would have been in heaven – but too much was a turn off.


I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeonly old wrinkly but I am beginning to wonder whether motorcycle manufacturers have reached the “All You Can Eat” stage in terms of what they are serving to customers.



The 899 Panigale is pitched as an entry level superbike for those who don’t want to afford an 1199 or perhaps feel that the bigger bike is too much motorcycle for them. In itself, the idea that the 899 is somehow a “beginners’ superbike” is utterly and completely ludicrous. Without wishing to sound immodest, I can still ride a motorcycle competently and I struggle with anything much above 75 horsepower even on a track. The idea that 148 hp and 175 mph is somehow an easy option is a joke.


Ducati have to give you more pork ribs, bigger portions of steak and an ever higher mound of mashed potato with every new model to keep the sales coming so the 899 Panigale owner now has DTC (Ducati Traction Control); DQS (Ducati Quick Shift); EBC (Engine Brake Control) and full ride-by-wire as an optional extra.


The three standard riding modes comprise of Race, Sport and Wet and these not only modify the power delivery but also the ABS and anti-rear lift up. In fact, there are eight levels of traction control fully integrated into the riding modes. All this is wonderful but it doesn’t alter the fact that in MCUSA’s home state of Oregon the speed limit is still 55 mph – and it is enforced even in the most empty areas of high desert.


If this seems like an attack on the 899 it is absolutely not. First, to do so would be utterly hypocritical because if I were very rich the 899 would probably be my choice for a trackday bike. Spend another couple of thousand dollars on some dyno and suspension setup time, tape up the lights and you could have one of the great track bikes of its generation with science fiction fast performance which is still, more or less, useable by normal mortals. Even so, there would still be vastly too much handling and braking performance for me.


So, congratulations to Ducati in making their Farmers’ Buffet the biggest and best in the “Eat All You Can” motorcycling restaurant.


You might think that the Honda Grom is such an inferior motorcycle to the 899 that it shouldn’t even be mentioned on the same website as the Duc. For under $3k Honda will sell you a physically small, 9-hp, four-speed, single-cylinder, gizmo-free machine which ought to be barely more than a road legal pit bike. Yet, have a look at Adam Waheed’s video and see the reaction not only of our vastly experienced Road Test Editor but also of the superstars who rode with him. They were not having such a good time because they were fine tuning the suspension, or altering the power mapping, but because the Grom put them back in contact with the heart and soul of motorcycling.


Despite being a new bike for the US the Grom has already opened a door on what is becoming a closed room in the world of motorcycling: the joy of playing about with your bike in your garage.


The 899 is such a technical tour de force that no home mechanic can do anything to it except add some fancy decals – and then only carefully because the original Ducati ones are perfect!


There is absolutely nothing you can do to improve the engine without a dyno and a laptop – although as an aside, I do know a chap who spent his divorce settlement on installing a dyno in the backyard of his newly purchased slum house so there are always exceptions.


Further, not only are 99.999% of riders incapable of knowing whether the suspension on a Panigale is set-up for optimum performance but they lack the knowledge and expertise to change it even if they do understand what is happening.


Contrast this with the Grom. This is such a simple motorcycle that it begs to be played about with. Already, Two Brothers Racing have got a trick exhaust for the bike and you can be certain that the accessory business will be in overdrive providing a plethora of totally unnecessary bits and pieces which will provide endless pleasure for home mechanics.



Now we are getting to the heart and soul of motorcycling. If you want a practical vehicle to carry you in complete safety in every weather condition then you want a car. You don’t get wet in a car; you don’t get cold in a car and, unless something goes seriously wrong, you don’t get so badly hurt in a car accident.


But a car is a transport box which, when doing its job well, isolates the driver from his surroundings. My Nissan X-Trail diesel is as good an example of this as you can find. I get in it, set the air-con, switch on the radio and don’t expect to hear anything from the car for the whole duration of the journey.


The contrast between riding our V-Strom on the road, let alone a race bike, is huge. If I am not involved in the riding experience with our V-Strom I am very disappointed. If I wasn’t even more intimately involved with my bike when racing I would be upside down in the gravel!


There is an anthropomorphic relationship between motorcycles and their riders which is arguably unique in the modern world, where the thrust is to isolate everyone from any involvement with the equipment they use.


Yet the longing to be intimately involved with your bike still exists. By any sensible criteria cruiser motorcycles are horrible contraptions which are grossly overweight and have poor performance, exacerbated by appalling handling and dreadful brakes. Yet, go for a 200 mile ride even in sports bike mad Britain and 50% of the bikes you see will be cruisers in all their myriad forms.


It’s not only the very real fact that you will lose your driver license for riding at 100 mph – that’s when you pop your Yamaha R1 into second gear by the way – but it is also the stress of riding a modern sports bike. Merely not crashing one of the hypersports machines, let alone riding it hard on roads littered with near comatose car drivers talking on cell phones, tractors with no road sense, spilt diesel from trucks and a myriad of law enforcement devices, is an ever increasing achievement and so the attraction of chuffing along on a two-wheeled truck at 50 mph becomes ever more attractive.


I almost choke asking this question but are cruisers now more in tune with motorcycling than sports bikes?


This hearkening back to an earlier, simpler, life is reflected in the plethora of fake classics which is flooding the market. Retro is now cool – especially amongst the “30 somethings”.


There is a certain irony in this situation because wild horses wouldn’t drag the David Beckham lookalikes within a mile of a real classic bike – and with good reason. Groping around inside a classic bike engine, breaking beautifully pedicured finger nails is not nearly as cool as lolling against your 2013 Triumph Bonneville in a pre-faded leather jacket carrying a “Bell” logo.


But I don’t take the wrinkly purist’s view of fake classics. Bringing new motorcyclists into the family should now be our #1 priority. If playing the part of a Steve McQueen lookalike turns you on then why not? The key thing is that you are riding some form of motorcycle. Anyone who rides any motorcycle should be welcomed with open arms.


However, for us wrinklies there is sometimes an amusing distance between the mechanical, not to say electrical, knowledge of younger riders and their motorcycles.


This was recently shown in a quite graphic way on our local TV station. It was Saturday afternoon and one of England’s finest had consumed far too much beer. With the alcohol well in the driving seat of his brain, the young man staggered into his garden and threatened to burn down his, and all his neighbors’ houses with a single gallon of unleaded gas – not even race fuel which would have added a bit of class to the episode.


Now one could argue that the threat was more than hollow since causing a major conflagration with only one can of gas in a garden would be challenging but, regardless, the police were called.


We loved the wide footprint of the Groms road tires that roll on 12-inch cast aluminum wheels.
Fun to ride and $2999, the Honda Grom has generated plenty of buzz. Read more in MotoUSA’s 2014 Honda Grom 125 First Ride Review.

With sirens screaming, a bike riding officer arrived on the scene and, being Britain, where there is a less than zero tolerance to threatening behavior, rather than simply walk across to the drooling trainee felon and remove the can of fuel from his hand the officer follows procedure, whips out his taser and takes aim.


At this point a classic riding motorcycle Officer would have taken cognizance of all the facts. Fact one: 25,000 volts produces a jolly good arc across an engine’s spark plug. Fact two: Tasers hit with an initial 50,000 volts. Fact three: a fuel can with an open top emits flammable vapor. Fact four: a $9.99 track suit embroidered with a metallic Chinese dragon across the left breast will in fact generate a very adequate spark when struck with Taser probe. Fact five: even a slobbering drunk with very little brain sobers up extremely quickly when the fuel can he is holding bursts into flames.


Clearly, this proves that everyone under 50 years of age should be made to attend a classic motorcycling course before being granted a license to ride a modern motorcycle – or operate a taser in a public place.