Why Are Road Tests So Darn Technical? | Tech Matters

I took a ride over to Marcus Dairy not too long ago. For those of you who aren't familiar with the place, it's a popular Sunday-ride destination located in southern Connecticut, about an hour north of the Big Apple. Sort of an East Coast Rock Store or Alice's Restaurant. I occasionally stop there for a preride breakfast and the chance to kick a few tires. Anyway, there I was, all set to dive into an artery-clogging mix of greasy hash and overcooked eggs, when an older fellow, a very casual acquaintance at best, elbowed my buddy aside and squeezed his way into our booth. "Mind if I ask you a question," he wheezed. Since he was obviously a man on a mission, I paused in my shovelling and told him to go right ahead, questions, at least questions about motorcycling, being something I like to answer, or at the very least make an attempt to.

"I want to buy a new bike, so I've been reading a lot of road tests, but all they do is confuse me. Tell me something, why do you magazine journalists make those tests so damn technical? They throw numbers and dimensions at you left and right. I don't need to know what the rake and trail are, or the bore and stroke. All I really need to know is if the bike works well and is fun to ride."

My first inclination was to blow the guy off with some wiseass remark and dive back into my congealing breakfast. But as I started to formulate one of those snide, snotty remarks that make me the life of the party, I realized the old coot had a question worth elucidation.

Road tests need to include hard numbers for any number of reasons, but primarily because without them the reader must place his trust in the author's subjective impression of the motorcycle, and as we all know, what's good for the goose isn't always so great for the gander. Secondly, without hard numbers it becomes very difficult to comparison shop between the different makes and models. Naturally, the author of the road test must assume that his readers have at least a fundamental understanding of what those numbers mean. But when the author does his job correctly and the reader understands what the numbers mean, he can compare the bike being tested to any other bike, and understand why they behave differently. For example, let's consider two heavyweight cruisers that share the same general parameters. Both have a rake angle of 30 degrees, but one has a trail dimension of 121mm while the other has a trail dimension of 175mm.

Obviously, if you have no clue as to how rake and trail affect the way a motorcycle behaves, the previous sentence is just so much gibberish. But if you have even a passing familiarity with frame geometry, which I suspect most of you do, you'll understand instantly that, all things being equal, the bike with 121mm of trail will feel lighter and respond quicker to steering inputs than its near relative with the more generous trail dimension.

A tester describing either bike could tell you that the bike in question handles well, corners nicely and is fun to ride, without including the specifications. The problem is that without the math, the reader has no real basis for comparison between those two bikes or any other he may be interested in, save for the author's subjective impressions. When hard numbers are included, the test provides qualitative information that the knowledgeable reader can use for comparisons, and for making a reasonable assumption as to how the bike will behave compared to its rivals.

Of course, we're not just limited to frame specifications. By providing some information on the engine's architecture, for instance bore and stroke or cam-timing specifications, the tester can convey a sense of how the engine behaves or feels that may work better than simply saying, "It pulls hard," or, "Revs to the moon."

Back in the day when dealers tossed prospective customers the keys to a new motorcycle as easily as a politician tosses the truth, road tests could afford to be a bit fluffy. After all, you could always trot on down to the local BSA dealer and take a nice new Lightning for a ride. If you liked it, fine, if not, then why not take that new Norton, Matchless or Honda around the block a few times, too?

These days dealer-provided test rides are as scarce as buggy whips. Therefore it's the responsibility of those of us who get to routinely test new motorcycles to convey as much information to our less fortunate brethren as we can. It's important to provide that information in an easy-to-understand format and as accurately as possible. As I explained that morning to my table-hopping friend, hard numbers are the easiest way to quantify what can be very subjective impressions. All you have to do is understand what they mean. -Mark Zimmerman