Anyone need assistance?

Here at UKBike Towers, we enjoy pouring over all the various model launches and new bike gadgetry as they appear on the web. But sometimes we just want to read about what it is to be a biker. So we had a little recruitment drive when the blog was launched back in September, looking for riders who could put their biking experiences into fine words. Today we feature an article from Mike, a UKBike forum regular with years of biking experience.

If you fancy putting your bike-related thoughts into words for this blog, then please drop us a line at

Anyone need assistance?

The weather, over the last few days, has been pretty grim. Rain, and lots of it, high winds, waterlogged leaves everywhere: a typically British autumn (and winter, spring and summer, come to that...). But it's been fun being out there on the road, adjusting to the conditions, starting to dial in to the changes in feel and grip. It's a good time of year, in my opinion: suited to a relaxed and smoother type of riding, every bit as satisfying to get right as the frantic speed of a sunny thrash, but in a different, more controlled way. Kit has come a long way: waterproofs can be worthy of the name, warmth is possible – even in the depths of winter – and with that comfort available, there is no reason not to get on and enjoy it.

That isn't, however, the point. I've been riding all year round, every year, for the best part of two decades now and would be anyway even if still meant being cold, damp and miserable to do so. No: what I was thinking about was the welter of new rider assistance technologies, either in production or under development, and what difference they would make if I had any or all of them fitted to my bike.

I don't claim to have any special riding abilities. Over the years, quite naturally, I've learned roadcraft and machine control, gained experience and awareness, developed feel and understanding for the dynamics of being on two wheels. In measurable terms, I have no idea how "good" a rider that makes me, but I am at least comfortable with what I can – and can't, or don't want to – do on a motorcycle. It is an understanding of what the limits are, whether they originate from me, from the road or from the bike – and in all honesty, in real-world situations, it isn't the potential of the machine that often sets those limits.

Over the years, bike design has been refined continuously, if not particularly radically, to reach a point where most of the available models are reliable, stable and capable out of the box. We have engines that don't hand-grenade, frames that don't bend in the middle, working suspension, brakes which stop and tyres which grip. All of which are quite welcome developments, not least because they leave the fundamental relationship between rider and bike intact: a relationship where the machine obeys the rider's instructions. If those instructions are wrong, or exceed the mechanical limits of possibility, or even overwhelm the rider's own capabilities, then the machine still obeys them. That is why riding a bike requires skill and judgement and rewards the constant improvement of those abilities. It is a pure form of freedom, where a rider accepts both responsibility and consequences for their actions and earns every moment of pleasure that comes from getting it right.

Electronics, though, are a different matter. In many respects, it is an insidious form of marketing to describe them as safety aids or rider assists when they actually do neither. In fact, they overrule. They have to: this isn't the Matrix and the technology isn't a sophisticated augmentation of human abilities. What it is, simply, is the interception of the rider's input. If that input is deemed to fall within acceptable thresholds, it will be passed through, if not, it will be replaced by whatever the device in question is programmed to consider safe. Philosophically, that represents a huge shift in the bike-rider relationship – one in which the rider is only allowed control over aspects which the machine permits – even if, technically, at this early stage it appears a relatively minor change.

The obvious consequence of this shift is that the rider will be required to maintain fewer skills, at a lower level, to achieve the same, or higher, level of machine performance. That may sound like an attractive prospect, but is it, really? Look closely at what is on offer – easier, faster and safer – and then at the price being asked – acceptance that electronics can and should be used in preference to human skills. It is a very Faustian bargain: once taken, that acceptance cannot be retracted. Implicit in that is that the craftsmanship of riding can be devalued, reduced to the lowest common denominator. That motorcycling can be treated like any other activity, de-risked, de-skilled and marketed to the masses as just another lifestyle choice.

It won't happen yet – the technologies are still immature and crude – but take a look at the more advanced parallels of the car industry. Better, faster, shinier, laden with gadgets to relieve the driver of the burdens of being able to drive, or observe, navigate, steer or even park. And look at the results: an increasingly large number of car users who not only lack the skills to drive properly, but are so insulated from their vehicle's actual workings that they have no way to even learn those skills. Ironically, of course, risk compensation does mean that, despite the increased safety measures, levels of recklessness actually increase even when the person taking the risks is significantly less equipped to deal with the consequences.

So, out there in the rain and wind and darkness, I was wondering: would I like to be able to simply open the throttle wide, knowing that fly-by-wire would moderate it and traction control would find me some grip? Would I like to be able to grab the brakes as hard as I can and let ABS stop me crashing? Would it be nice to flick a switch and set my engine to a manageable level of horsepower? How about having a V2V Bluetooth phone call to warn me every time there was danger nearby? Satnav to dictate the best way home? Would I be faster as a result? Possibly. Would I be happier?


I can already control all of those things. I have working senses, a brain, and some semblance of control over my limbs. My bike has a throttle that works both ways and a level of mechanical capability that is more than equal to the conditions. As the weather's bad and the road is slippery, all I really need to do is observe more carefully, exercise some additional moderation and enjoy the ride. My ride.

A better headlight would be nice, though.

Please feel free to challenge any of my points or assumptions - you can usually find me posting in the forum section if anyone is interested in entering into more of a debate on the subject.

- Mike Liassides a.k.a. endemoniada_88


Anonymous said...

Spot on! Forget ABS, traction control, multiple throttle mappings, and little voices in your ear competing with those in your head.

Great lights, heated grips and an analogue fuel meter - that's where electronics belong.

Plus, maybe, fuel injection that just gets on with it when carbs freeze, cough and splutter. Or is that a convenience too far, is that where it all began? Cold, damp morning starts with a grumpy pig for an engine teach respect and finer clutch/throttle/rear brake skills...