Pipeburn

Last November, I decided it was time for a new motorcycle. My supermoto had been getting more and more time out on the road, but it wasn’t cutting it. Trips on the highway were pretty much out – ragging on the motor 2/3 of the way to redline for more than a couple minutes made me cringe – and it wasn’t the most comfortable machine around. Winter was knocking at the door, but getting the little 400 to power it’s own headlight was a big ask, so heated anything was a pipe dream. On top of the usual practical limitations that come with small displacement motorcycles, my better half was developing an affinity for riding with me and I enjoyed sharing the experience with her. Last time I checked, the world wasn’t nearly as accessible with 40 horsepower as it is with 140. Ferrari fast is supposed to be part of the package.

So I laid out my requirements and started crossing bikes off the list. Enlisting the reluctant help of my thoroughly disinterested friends, I concluded that a 2009 Speed Triple in New Orleans was the way to go. A plane ticket and a two day ride later, I put the kickstand down of the coolest streetfighter around in my parking space.

I was content: I owned a genuinely cool motorcycle that made lots of power, would get me through cold winter days when the urge gripped me, had plenty of seat real-estate for two, and made pretty noises. It was a match made in Heaven. Until the next day.

It started giving me trouble almost immediately.  The most predictable kind of trouble for British machines: electrons going places they shouldn’t and not going places they should. It’s been a couple months and the problems still aren’t resolved. I lose patience quickly now and only go out to work on it occasionally, usually when I’ve got a promising idea. I’ve learned a lot about this particular motorcycle, but I’m not sure I like what I’m finding.

At first, an intermittent no-crank condition looked like it could have been caused by a failing clutch switch. My solution would have just been to remove the switch and solder the wires together. The Internet warns against this, though, because the ECU won’t play nice with fuel maps if it thinks the clutch is pulled in all the time. Then I checked relays. Five of them, I think. After that, the starter solenoid. Eventually, I learned that the ECU will automatically cut power to the starter if the battery voltage falls below a certain level. The number of sensors and switches and safeties and fuses and general electrical complications of this motorcycle is staggering. And, as motorcycle electro-magic trickery goes, it’s a pretty simple machine.

These days, premier race machines – you know, those barely-disguised plastic wonder rockets that litter your dealer showroom and local bike hangout – are coming equipped with ABS and traction control and variable everything to get the most out of the motor in every conceivable circumstance. There are miles of wire in them. The computer can even decide which things to shut down in the event of  an insufficient-current circumstance. That Triumph? It won’t start if the headlamps are burnt out.

Full Stop.

I’m sorry. What? The bike thinks it’s better to be stuck somewhere than allow the rider to assess the risks of the situation and find the best solution?

When did we set this precedent? The starter button, which used to be a glorified solenoid jump, plumbs to the ECU which determines if it’s okay to crank the bike over before sending a signal to a relay to switch the solenoid. The kill switch routes through that same little black box along with a hundred other things. That box controls ideal fueling and spark, it reads air temperature and gear position and whether or not the kickstand is up or down and computes a really weird miles-per-gallon figure and has a magic 8-ball feature.

I remember sometime about 2006, I didn’t own a car for the better part of a year. A ’99 CBR600F4 was my primary means of transportation. It was a simple bike: electronic ignition, four carburetors, braided steel cables from the twistgrip to the throttle plates. Nothing fancy. And it quit. By the end of the year, it seemed like I was working on it every weekend. It never left me stranded, but I realized that motorcycles weren’t up to the task of every day use like their 4-wheeled counterparts and I broke down and bought one. My Honda couldn’t, so what kind of hubris lead Triumph to believe that they could overcomplicate the issue and still come out with a reliable product? Triumph… of Lucas Electrics infamy.

I’ve got a workable solution thought-out for the Speed Triple. It’s not perfect, but it will allow me to enjoy my investment. This is well and good, but  now I can’t shake the feeling that motorcycles have headed in the wrong direction. Most MotoGP racers will tell you that the most important person in the garage right now is the guy that sorts out their electronic aids. And that’s trickling down to street bikes very, very quickly. We’re in an age of CAN-bus technology and fly-by-wire throttles. I’m becoming less and less confident that I’ll be able to fix my motorcycle on the side of the road if I end up there… air, fuel, and spark aren’t as simple to track down as they once were.

Less is more. It’s worth giving a shot. All this extra stuff doesn’t seem to be working for me, anyway.

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