What the Tuono and Versys 650 taught me
I've been reading motorcycle magazines for over 20 years. So I must be extremely knowledgable by now, right? Turns out, there's loads left to learn. My 2016 began with a spectacular working week. I tested the Indian Chief Dark Horse. I had the Kawasaki Versys 650 for two days. Then I had the Aprilia Tuono V4 1100 Factory for two days and of course, I rode my own motorcycles, the two-year old KTM 390 Duke and the ten-month old Triumph Street Triple. I also rode our long term test Mahindra Mojo. If you're turning green, it's okay, it's allowed. I am actually boasting.
But the point is that the Tuono and Versys opened my eyes to something I was aware of but hadn't given much thought to. At least not as much as I should have. And that is suspension.
You know what suspension is supposed to do. Its job is to ensure that the tyre stays in contact with the ground. This is a simple statement to make but very complex to grasp.
Let us say that a motorcycle wheel approaches a semi-circular bump that sticks out above the surface of the road. When the tyre starts to climb the bump, the wheel starts to travel upwards. Thanks to inertia, the suspended part of the motorcycle (engine, frame, seat, rider, bodywork - everything above the suspension) continues forward unchanged. Ideally, the suspension needs to compress so that the suspended chassis doesn't change its attitude in response to the rising front wheel.
Once the wheel has reached the peak of the bump, the role reverses. Now the suspension has to permit the wheel to drop back fast enough so that the tyre stays in contact with the road. Once again, inertia aims to keep the suspended chassis going forward without a drop in orientation. This job can be harder at speed when inertia wants to carry the frontwheel forward and up at the peak rather than allow it to drop.
The rubber staying in contact with the road is absolutely vital. Once the tyre loses contact with the road, the rider's ability to maintain control over the motorcycle disappears. You cannot turn, brake or accelerate. What the Versys showed me and the Tuono Factory even more so, is what changes when you have better suspension to work with.
The easiest example here is difference between the Ninja 650 and the Versys 650. They're both very similar is most ways. The biggest difference is the ride height which is taller on the latter. The extra ride height comes with more travel in the suspension. Which means the wheels can move up and down more - handle bigger bumps - on the Versys 650 without affecting the suspended chassis than on the Ninja.
To make this ultra clear let's assume that a bump is 30mm tall and the suspension travel is 25mm. It's that eventually the suspension will become fully compressed from the upward movement of the wheel and the chassis will have to rise 5mm to go over the bump. On the other side, similarly, the wheel would drop 25mm and find the extension limit of the suspension. Then the chassis would have to dip 5mm to return to the surface.
I thought that the extra travel is the big deal. But without underestimating its importance, it's the sophistication of the Versys' forks that makes the bike stand out. By sophistication I mean the nature of absorption of small bumps versus big ones versus sharp-edged ones versus shallow troughs versus deep troughs. The Versys is able to keep the chassis and rider more stable and insulated from all of these irregularities than the Ninja 650. What is stunning is that it is also able to keep the tyres in contact with the road through most of this. Which improves my sense of (and actual) control over what's going on. In the same intermediate road situation, my inputs are more likely to produce results on the Versys 650 than on the Ninja.
At this point, I still thought the extra travel was the magic. Then came the Tuono. The Factory version gets the highest specification of Ohlins' suspension. Being a sporty naked rather than an adventure tourer, suspension travel is limited. Indeed ride and seat heights are both lower than the Versys and more like a regular street bike.
But that Tuono offers levels of control that make even the delightful Versys feel crude. How? Top flight suspension means that the forks, for example, have more flexibility when it comes to handling various kinds of bumps and troughs. It means the forks and the rear shock absorber can allow the wheel travel up or down much faster than other suspension systems while maintaining the balance of the suspended chassis. It has quicker as well as more precise reactions.
I'd be willing to believe, in fact, that the Tuono has forward looking radar that knows what is coming up and it can alter its internal mechanism to ensure control and stability. Yes, magic. Of course, this is just my imagination because the Tuono Factory doesn't actually even have semi-active suspension. Semi-active allows the suspension to monitor movement of the suspension and rapidly - within fractions of a second - change damping characteristics to permit the wheel to travel faster or slower as needed to keep the chassis attitude stable. The Tuono feels like it can do this, but it's a feeling, not a reality.
The Tuono just has the absolute best all-mechanical suspension units money can buy. What it did for the motorcycle and for me as a rider was mind blowing. It turned my nervousness and fear of riding such a small, incredibly powerful machine into pure joy. It did this by keeping the tyres firmly on the road in more situations than any other motorcycle I've ever ridden. It made bumpy concrete roads feels smoother than they were while putting down incredible torque through the tyres. And before you pipe up about the Tuono's incredible electronics, all this went down smoothly with no electronic intervention until I turned up the volume from swift to nuts. And at this point, Aprilia's traction control deserves kudos for being nearly invisible.
The Aprilia quickly and firmly brought me to the conclusion that the surfeit of engine mods and parts that we get easily are a false promise. Taking 79PS to 106PS isn't as great an achievement as taking a motorcycle that is able to use 79PS 50 per cent of the time (thanks to our bumpy roads) and giving it the ability to use the power 80 per cent of the time (thanks to better suspension). That power is nothing without control.
And all we seem to do nowadays is chase power and forget about control.
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