Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Today's Lesson: Equipment Matters

(Ahh, the island life!)

Another day spent on motorcycle riding around Oahu. I ended up taking a very similar route to the one I drove a month or so ago when I did this the first time. I didn't intend to repeat myself, but, except for a few variations, the path just kind of took me that way. Out of Waikiki past Diamond Head, along the North shore of the island and back through the center past Pearl Harbor.

The day was less fun than the first time, partly because the weather was less cooperative, but mostly because the bike I rented, a Yamaha V-Star 950, was a pig. I'm trying to decide how much of my ennui about the bike stems from failings on Yamaha's part versus my antipathy toward "cruisers" generally. And I think the bulk of my unhappiness can be traced to the latter. The V-Star may be fine for a cruiser, but that qualifier is the whole problem: I just find that every functional thing about the bike has been so severely compromised in pursuit of the cruiser style that the bike's just not any fun to ride. I think I'd rather have been in a sports car. How sad.

I intended to take out the BMW F800GS I'd rented the last time--an impressive and brilliantly-engineered do-everything motorcycle--but alas, someone already had the bike out (though the two guys looked at each other when I asked about it, making me wonder if there was something more to the story). And they didn't have much else that interested me: a bunch of Harleys, a few other cruisers, and a couple sportbikes--an older and a newer Yamaha R6. (Another shop down the street had a Triumph Bonneville for rent, which I'd be interested to ride, but this place was offering a repeat customer discount.) I really should have taken the R6, but I was afraid it'd be uncomfortable for a day's ride. So I picked this new V-Star thinking it might be a pig but at least it would be comfortable.

Well, I was half right. It WAS a pig.

(A huge pedal for the mostly useless rear brake. And then only one disc up front for a big, heavy bike.)

The bike is quite slow for a 950; it offers only one seating / riding position, which is suitable only for short distances; there is no cornering clearance whatsoever; the brakes are underwhelming; the instrumentation and displays are pitiful. And the thing that drives me craziest is that all these things follow inevitably when style trumps function. The whole motorcycle is an exercise in neo-retro styling, a "lifestyle" fashion accessory that only incidentally is expected to carry people on public roads at speed.

This bike is a perfect example of a backwards design process: they STARTED the design with a "cool" riding position(!)--low-slung; feet out front; high handle bars, preferably with a long rearward sweep--and worked backwards from there. Most of the bike's deficits stem from this initial choice. In order to have the low seat height (which is not in itself a deficit), the bike ends up with a wheelbase like a school bus, which in turn gives it the maneuverability of a cruise ship. That length also makes the bike heavy (and usually quite flexy), and this one feels as athletic as a garden tractor. This fetish for having the feet way out in front of you places the weight of your torso AND legs onto your tailbone (instead of having the feet underneath you, where the pegs carry the legs and the butt carries the torso, minimizing sore spots). The seat needed to make this work is deeply padded like a la-z-boy, but the position of the pelvis and the arms reaching out in front of you makes for an awkward, enforced slouch that quickly grates. ("But it felt fine in the showroom!" OK, then leave it parked in your living room and use it to watch TV.)

The feet live on "running boards," which, like the handlebars, are foam-mounted to keep vibration away (making a perfect prophylactic layer of isolating foam between you and machine at all points). The boards force the feet to be in exactly one spot and one angle / orientation forever. The left foot sits just inside the tongs of a heel-and-toe shifter (a Harley innovation, dating from their daring move away from H-pattern hand shifters in, like, the '20s). This feature is designed to assist one in working a gearbox that was too stiff to LIFT with the toe: it lets you do a whole-leg stomp for upshifts AND downshifts. But in this case it forces your foot to sit in one spot only. Presumably Yamaha can build a gearbox that does not require this kind of shifter, and without the double-pedal one could use a standard footpeg; but the style is all about retro, and that's how the old-timers did it. Meanwhile, one's knees are held quite far apart by the bulky (but boldly chromed) airbox covers, and the placement of the feet and hips force one to squeeze one's knees together constantly to prevent a spread-eagle into the slipstream. So tiring and unnecessary.

And the final legacy of this obeisance to retro-fashion is the fact that the whole bike is almost dragging on the ground just sitting still. Ergo, it takes almost no corner at all to make the floorboards drag alarmingly on the ground, and if the corner is bumpy one might drag more substantial bits (it didn't happen to me, but I can see it would be very easy to drag so much that the tires' contact patches unload, causing one to slide sideways).

The motor is tractable enough, starting easily and providing pretty linear throttle response (though the bike's weight and mass would mask a lot of fuel injection glitches). Vibration for a big twin is nicely controlled, and it makes nice, if generic, sounds. But--here's another silly sacrifice to style (or maybe economics)--there is no tachometer so that, like your daddy's Oldsmobile, one doesn't really know what the motor is doing. There's plenty of space for one atop the triple clamp, but we can only assume that would clash with the aesthetic. The speedometer, without which one presumably can't get by, is down on the gas tank between your knees (surrounded by an acre of cheesy chrome, which flashes sunlight in your eyes irritatingly), making one have to scan quite far afield from the road ahead to monitor your speed. Shift timing is by feel, by an osmotic mind-meld with the motor: "This feels like the right place to shift." There are five forward speeds, but a sixth would be helpful here. One can be comfortably in fifth gear at about 25 mph; so 60 mph was pretty frantic. (70 mph was too torturous with the riding position to contemplate.)

Obviously, I'm not impressed. If I won this in a contest I'd sell it or give it away. My Ulysses seems like a miracle comparatively.


Well, enough of that.

A couple other pictures.

A ship storage yard near Pearl Harbor. This is a little part of it.

I may have posted the above before: after arriving in HNL a month or two ago, under the wing of the MD-11, I spied an old Great Lakes airplane I flew in and out of Chicago in my early airline pilot days--101UE. How cool to see it out here.

Then today I see another, getting a little engine work done on the ramp. I can still read "United Express" above the windows, under the white paint. I went into the hangar and talked to the mechanic a bit about the airplane, but he didn't know of his company's history with it. Both planes now fly mail between the islands. He didn't know how many the company owned.


Jon said...

Ok....just tell us what you really think about the bike. It's probably no wonder why you don't see many yamahas on the road, at least around here. And from the sounds of it, with good reason. I would be curious to know where yamaha stands as far as sales with the rest of the bikes around. In fact, I'll bet that Honda is at or near the top. But it would be interesting to see how the rest of them stand. Anyway, if I ever do get another bike, it won't be a yamaha. I do remember riding a 650 special for awhile when I was around 20, and I remember that it was a nice bike with a nice ride. But obviously things have changed to capture something that has nothing to do with riding and more to do with image, too bad.

wunelle said...

Yeah, I suppose I was a little over the top! I just had such a great time on my last ride here, and... so little fun this time.

I think Yamaha actually builds a great product--their sport bikes, the R1 and the R6 and derivatives--are world-beaters. But I think this V-Star is a cheap bike for people who wannabe motorcyclists but don't know enough to keep them from buying on image alone.

Well, I learned my lesson. Next time, it's the R6 or I'll go by foot!

wunelle said...

So I scoured my old logbook and found the following:

I flew 101UE as both captain and first officer, 24 flights for a total of 93.8 hours; and I flew 122GL, also as both PIC & SIC, 26 flights for 98.4 total hours. These were some of the first turboprop flights I took, when I was just cutting my teeth on scheduled passenger airline service.

It's amazing to look back at these logbook entries, to see the incredible numbers of legs and hours we logged in these planes. Life is much easier now!