We all ride for different reasons. It’s one of the fascinating things about motorcycling. Some people are just passing through whereas for others, it’s a way of life and important part of their identity. Ask any rider who has been in the sport for a while and they will tell you that riding motorcycles is a journey. A deeply personal one that’s guided and influenced by a myriad of factors: our desires, our lifestyle, our friends, the media and last, but not least, our ego. And so, in pershaps the longest blog post into -the-making for ChanceMoto.com, let us discuss the pairing of rider and bike to uncover some of the underlying mechanisms that influence how and what we ride.
In a perfect world, every motorcyclist would be riding the bike that’s best suited for them, at whichever stage they are at in their riding journey but sadly, this is often not the case.
Let us first consider the 2 primary factors for this discussion: first: Motorcycle Capability and second: Rider Skill Level. Two subjective measures that, when correlated, create a very compelling matrix (as we will see later on).
Motorcycle Capability (or “MC”)
All bikes are not created equal. Be it because of age/vintage, displacement, horsepower or “personality”, motorcycles have a broad range of capabilities and limits. This is true across segments and within a given segment. For example, let us consider a touring bike from the early 1990’s with 650 cc’s of air cooled displacement, non-adjustable suspension and a weight around 550 lbs. In and of itself, this motorcycle’s MC would rank towards the lower end of our scale. Why? By today’s standards, bikes in the touring category have come a long way and in the right hands (more on this later), are able to rival what sport bikes of a previous era were capable of. Let’s look at another example: a 2010 fully faired sport bike from a European manufacturer (we are witholding brand names on purpose by the way – so as to not bias the discussion). This bike delivers horsepower well into the triple digits, has fully adjustable suspension and weighs under 450 lbs. In its era, this bike was ridden at the Isle of Mann TT and in the World Superbike championship. On our scale, even by today’s standards (over a decade later), a motorcycle like this would be on the high end of the MC scale.
Rider Skill Level (or “RSL”)
RSL is much simpler and more objective to quantify than MC. It’s a combination of riding experience (how long, often, what and where one has ridden and can even include corrollary sports such as cycling), intelligence, training, physical and mental fitness (with a consideration for age). Consider a 65 year old who began riding a few years ago as a retirement hobby, who is overweight and rides a few times a month around his cottage. This is a rider who may be enjoying his motorcycling a great deal but is likely at a low RSL. Conversely, imagine a 40 year old who has over a decade of riding experience, has owned 5 different motorcycles, has toured Europe twice (on two wheels) and attends 3 track days a year in addition to commuting to work on there bike every day. One may surmise that the latter rider has honed her skills and would be in the mid-upper half of our RSL scale. It’s important to note here that RSL can (or should) change over time as a rider progresses but that rider progression in and of itself is a highly personal (and often malpracticed) art.
So, now that we have defined Motorcycle Capability and Rider Skill Level, we can begin correlating the two to better understand the dynamics at play. For this model, we use a simple formula: Recessive divided by Dominant where “Recessive” is the lower ranked value and “Dominant” is the higher ranked value. For example, if someone at RSL 5 is riding a motorcycle of MC 9, the recessive value would be the rider (smaller value of 5) and the dominant would be the bike (larger value of 9) or 5 divided by 9 = 0.56 (or 56%). Interestingly, this terminology already hints at “who is riding who” but let’s save that for later.
Interpreting The Numbers
First and foremost, let’s clarify that these percentages and ratings are not meant to be absolute. They don’t necessarily indicate that something is “X%” optimal and the ratings around bike capability and rider skill level are purposely subjective. What this chart does do for us however is explain how achieving the right balance of bike and rider can yield the best results. But what does “best results” mean? It means several things that range from the rate at which one will grow and develop as a rider with a given bike, to the level of challenge one will find, or it can even highlight that someone may be taking on a lot of risk by being mismatched with an inappropriate bike.
Danger: When we combine a low RSL with a high MC, there is a high risk that the motorcycle may overwhelm the rider as he begins to explore its potential. The obvious example of his is in the sportbike segment. Young male riders, often view 600cc sport bikes as entry level machines and select them very early in their riding career (when their RSL is low). Statistically speaking, there are a disproportionate amount of accidents involving young male riders on middleweight sport bikes and we believe this to be a perfect example of the Danger area of our matrix in the upper right. Note that the same rationale can apply to any other segment. If a mature, but low RSL rider purchases a large, fully-faired v-twin “bagger” as their first bike, they are also mismatched and consequently fall into the Danger area. Although the greatest threat here is physical (injury or death), there is an important secondary issue which is the rate at which a rider can progress. The greater the gap between MC and RSL, the longer it will take for a rider to develop their skills and progress. A classic case of this is in track riding, where new track riders (or correspondingly low RSL) often select high horsepower motorcycles which puts them on a much slower learning curve (and at much greater risk of crashing) than if they had selected a better matched bike.
Caution: Skirting the Danger area, Caution is a lesser risk in that the rider is still over-biked, but to a lesser degree than the Danger area. Riders sometimes end up in this situation when they hope to “grow into” a bike and deliberately select a motorcycle that may be beyond their current RSL. The key to navigating the Caution area is twofold. First, riders need to be aware that they’re in this area. This is often not the case (the same can be said of the Danger area) which is why we feel it important to call out. Second, this rider needs to be dedicating time to furthering their craft to drive their RSL up and move themselves towards the Appropriate and Ideal zones. There is no hard-fast formula on how to achieve this but training, seat time (frequency + length) and self-critique (also known as “active riding”) are definite contributors.
Ideal: This area of the chart is the “perfect” intersection of RSL and MC. Think of this zone as more of an ideological concept and north star rather than an outright goal. What does a “perfect match” look like? The most obvious examples of this are at the pro level of two wheeled motorsports. Consider a Dakar rider who is on a middleweight ADV bike and will have to extract every ounce of performance (and reliability) to complete the gruelling rally. Or a Moto GP rider who is among the top riders in the world, riding a bespoke motorcycle explicitly tailored to their specifications. But it is also a brand new rider who selects a light, user-friendly bike that allows her to learn at a very rapid rate. The key for every rider, regardless of RSL is to be aware of where we are relative to this Ideal in order to help guide our journey.
Mastery: Have you ever heard the saying “It’s more fun to ride a slow bike fast than to ride a fast bike slow”? The central idea here is what our scale refers to in the “Mastery” area of the matrix. If RSL is a little higher than MC, it allows the rider to experience more of the bike and perhaps find the bike’s limits which is turn, offers an incredibly rewarding experience.
Appropriate: On either side of the Ideal like sits categories where there is a near perfect match between MC and RSL. On top of the Ideal zone, Appropriate is a match where the rider is still learning to maximize the potential of the bike but is much closer to achieving it than he would be in the Caution area of the matrix. Conversely, below the Ideal line, the Appropriate area designates riders who have begun progressing towards mastery and are getting enjoyment from understanding the limits of the machine and experiencing them safely and enjoyably. Either sides of the Appropriate zone are great places to be as a rider, offering different and rewarding experiences.
Outgrown: If RSL is high and MC is low, a rider may not feel sufficiently challenged, excited or stimulated. The motorcycle may not deliver the types of experiences that the rider craves in order to further their riding knowledge or progress on their motorcycling journey. Consider an experienced rider who enjoys touring but currently owns a 300cc, single cylinder bike with saddle bags. If this rider has aspirations of traveling longer distances or taking a passenger, they will be restricted by their bike’s MC and have consequently outgrown this motorcycle (at least, as their primary motorcyle in this case). The same can be said of a sport rider who is on a bike with non-adjustable suspension and desires an upgrade in order to discover the merits of suspension adjustment at the track. In actual fact, most riders tend to replace their bikes before getting too far into this zone but we find it interesting to note its existence.
Trying to tell people which bike they should ride is a fool’s errand. What we hope has become clear in this framework is that self-evaluation is an important part of evolving as a rider and is something we should all strive to do on a regular basis. As a reader of this article, we hope to have caused you to reflect on where your current pairing sits within this matrix so that you may extract the maximum enjoyment, in the safest way possible from this incredible hobby of ours.