Alan Dowds: Motorcycle Expert
Alan is currently Deputy Editor at SuperBike magazine in the UK – Britain’s biggest and best performance motorcycle magazine and website. He’s been a motorcycle journalist for more than a decade, and has ridden almost every major motorcycle built in the last 25 years, as well as MotoGP and WSB race bikes. As well as his work at SuperBike magazine, Alan has also written a number of motorcycle books.
Alan is from Greenock in Scotland. He now lives in south London.
Alan is from Greenock in Scotland. He now lives in south London.
A good helmet is the most important piece of safety equipment for any motorcycle rider – fact! Sure, you need a nice pair of boots, some smart leathers, and flashy gloves – and these are all vital to keep you in one piece should the worst happen. But, to put it simply, your head is your brain is you. Serious head injuries are the number one killer in motorcycle accidents – you can break a leg or an arm and survive, even major damage to your body can be fixed up in the ER. But damage your brain, even slightly, and that can be the end of you. But a well-chosen, high-quality helmet can protect you from injury in many crashes. Helmets are generally made from a tough outer shell, usually of fibreglass, carbon fibre or Kevlar weave, with a softer liner. This liner – usually expanded polystyrene – protects your skull by absorbing the energy of an impact, slowing down the deceleration of your head inside the outer shell, and preventing the bruising, swelling, and skull fractures which are so often fatal. The outer shell also serves to prevent penetration injuries from such items as motorcycle footpegs and roadside fence poles.Read More »
A helmet’s primary purpose is protection, but they also have a number of secondary functions. A movable visor is essential, to provide eye protection, while many helmets have quick-release systems to allow a dark visor to be swapped in for riding in bright sunshine. Vents are important to allow cooling airflow into the helmet, and there are a variety of fastening systems available, including ‘seatbelt-type’ buckles for easy fastening.
The most important part of a helmet though, is the fit. It’s essential that the user tries the helmet on and makes sure it is the right size – not too large or too tight. A helmet that’s too big can come off your head in a crash, leaving you totally unprotected, while a too-tight lid can cause discomfort and headaches. It’s not just size either – different helmet models can suit different head shapes. If your head is long and narrow, you may find one model will suit you better than another that will better suit a rounder head shape.
This is one purchase that you really shouldn’t just make online – you have to go to a dealer and try on the helmet you fancy before you buy.
In a similar way to the 4x4 sector of the automobile market, off-road styled motorcycles have become a massively important part of the motorcycle world. Thousands of riders worldwide have appreciated the benefits offered by a large capacity machine, with a commanding and comfy riding position, space for a pillion, good luggage provision and a protective fairing. If that machine also combines long-travel suspension with ample ground clearance and tyres suited to unpaved roads, so much the better. Whether the rider actually embarks on any adventures more arduous than riding across a gravel car park isn't important – these bikes look as if they could take you to the ends of the earth, and that's what counts.Read More »
Having said that, some adventure sports bikes do offer genuine off-road performance. BMW's GS range, made famous by the exploits of ‘Star Wars' star Ewan Macgregor on his round-the-world charity rides, are the Range Rovers of the bike world, offering civilised touring comfort as well as solid capability on the dirt. Similarly, KTM's Adventure was developed from the Austrian firm's hugely successful competition off-road range, particularly its Dakar-Rally winning machinery.
Some firms have given up any pretence that their bikes have much off-road ability though. Triumph's Tiger originally wore dirt-styled tyres and wire-spoked rims when it launched in the early 1990s. But the latest 1050 version has sport-touring road tyres, cast aluminium wheels and sportsbike brakes, and has hardly any offroad ability. But it makes an excellent offroad-styled touring machine, and is ideal for many riders.
For many riders, touring is what motorcycles were made for. Making the most of the freedom and mobility of a big, powerful bike, heading out for the horizon with your life in the panniers. Rather than being cooped up inside a sterile car, you become a part of the new world you're travelling through, breathing the air and feeling the sun on your back.Read More »
Ultimately, you can go touring on any bike that's street legal. Even the most extreme current sportsbikes can be made into a tourer with nothing more than a rucksack and some determination. But if you want to cover large mileages in comfort, with your spouse on the back (while avoiding a forcible divorce), you're best advised to look for a specific touring model.
There are various levels of touring weaponry: at the top of the tree are the mega-tourers – massive, 700lb behemoths like Honda's Gold Wing, which are built solely with comfort in mind. They incorporate huge, sofa-like seats for rider and pillion, massive, built-in hard luggage and a host of gadgets, from sound systems to sat-nav and reverse gears. Next are the big tourers like Honda's Pan European or BMW's K1200GT. These keep the comfortable seats and hard luggage, but in a smaller, less luxurious package that's much more recognisably a motorcycle. Finally, there are the sport-tourers, like Triumph's Sprint ST, which make small concessions to comfort, and can have hard luggage fitted optionally, but are essentially, softer versions of "proper" sportsbikes.
Sportsbikes are the most incredible performance vehicles you can buy to use on the road today. With up to 200bhp in a race-ready chassis weighing under 400 pounds, they offer mind-blowing acceleration and speed, with amazing rideability and drive.Read More »
Super-powerful brakes and wide, sticky race tires give phenomenal stopping power, massive lean angles, and tenacious grip under acceleration. The whole package is then wrapped up in stylish, aerodynamic bodywork and shipped to the owner, often for less than $10,000.
Sportsbike engines broadly fall into two categories – inline-fours, and V-twins. The ‘Big Four’ Japanese manufactures; Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, and Kawasaki, make four-cylinder powerplants in 1,000 and 600cc capacities. Exotic Italian firm MV Agusta also builds inline-four engines. The other major Italian manufacturers – Ducati and Aprilia – produce V-twin engines in capacities from 850-1200cc. There are also three-cylinder sportsbike engines – UK firm Triumph and the Italian company Benelli make inline-three motors that combine the strong, torquey character of a twin cylinder engine and the top-end power of a four.
We’ve listed five of the best sports machines below – but there are a couple of notable machines which just missed the top five spot. Honda’s CBR1000RR Fireblade makes a fine road bike, with its civilised, sophisticated ride and seductive performance. On the other hand, Kawasaki’s ZX-10R is a machine for committed riders only: its lunatic performance and switchblade-sharp handling require nerves of steel to get the most from.
What makes a good motorcycle for new riders? In Europe, most people’s first bike is a 125cc learner machine, but once over that hurdle – or in a state without a 125cc learner limit – there’s a wealth of choices. For most novices, a 600cc-class machine is the perfect tool on which to develop those vital early skills. Something like Ducati’s Monster 696 or Honda’s CB600F combines easy-to-use controls and a comfortable riding position with smooth, predictable engine performance and easy handling. You don’t want any surprises from the motorcycle when you’re looking to hone those braking, accelerating and cornering skills.Read More »
Light weight and a low centre of gravity also helps beginners avoid slow-speed tumbles, and bikes with less bodywork than a full-bore sportsbike generally sustain less damage in the inevitable mishaps that learner riders suffer.
Novice bikes don’t have to be dull bikes though. Triumph’s Street Triple is based on the firm’s all-conquering 675 Daytona supersports machine, and has the same engine and chassis layout. But it’s a perfect machine for learners and experienced riders alike, with a mix of easily-accessed usability and cutting-edge performance.
Whichever novice bike you choose, try and get as much training as you can. Enroll in a local advanced riding class even if you’ve already passed your test – additional riding skills can make you safer and more proficient, faster.