The Horsepower Crutch

Kawasaki's 300hp H2R

Kawasaki’s 300hp H2R

The seduction of horsepower is tough to resist. After all, who doesn’t like the rush of torque and thrust pulling on their arms when they twist the throttle? And, if more power is good, then even more power must be great, right?

Most motorcycle riders find nothing wrong with an abundance of horsepower, and many strive to buy as much horsepower as they can afford. But, they often do not consider the real cost of maximum acceleration.

The Real Cost

When I mention cost, I’m not talking about the fact that you’ll drop exponentially more jingle on engines with more cubic centimeters (or cubic inches). The real cost I’m referring to is how an increase in power comes with an increase in certain risks.

Sure, more power can get you into trouble faster… and in the wrong hands, can lead to tragedy.  That’s the obvious risk. But, too much power can also conspire to erode confidence and enjoyment and stall or even reverse skill development. This risk is greatest with newbies and intermediate riders, but can pertain to so-called experienced riders as well.

These 1980s turbo charged bikes awarded the rider with a n addictive rush of power.

These 1980s turbo charged bikes awarded the rider with an addictive rush of power.

How Much is “Too Much”

You know you have “too much” horsepower if you rely on it to keep up with your faster riding buddies. This applies to both street and racetrack riding.

As a track day and on-street instructor, I have learned to recognize when a rider is doing this by how he or she enters turns slower than necessary and then piles on the gas.

A Hayabusa just may be more bike than you need...Just maybe.

A Hayabusa just may be more bike than you need…Just maybe.

The Horsepower Enabler

The problem is that horsepower can fool you into thinking you’re a better rider than you are. You can feel that your riding ability is adequate, if at the end of a set of twisties, you are within eye shot of riders you know are truly competent.

Without all that power available to make up for cornering shortcomings, a less competent rider would likely be left in the dust. And peer pressure doesn’t tolerate that.

“Keeping up” is a bad idea, but it is regrettably the most used measure of a rider’s ability when comparing their ability with others. This is especially true among the sportbike crowd, although I see it with all types of bikers.

A rider who uses power as a crutch may not even know it. They have unconsciously developed the habit of twisting the throttle to keep up.  Unfortunately, it often takes a cornering mishap to help them recognize that there is a serious weakness in their overall level of proficiency.

Break The Throttle Habit

A riding coach is the best way to find out whether you’re on the road to trouble, but you may be able to self-evaluate IF you pay attention to how you use the throttle.

While proper cornering technique includes acceleration out of corners, timid throttle application near the middle (apex) of the curve followed by a handful of acceleration at the very end often indicates weak cornering skills. Weak cornering skills lead to a lack of confidence and future crashes. If this is the case, then it may be time to bone up on your cornering technique.

Voluntary Tiered Licensing

So, perhaps you’re not as good at cornering as you think, and maybe the abundant power your bike creates just may be enabling you to remain a mediocre rider. But, power is indeed attractive and even addictive. Kawasaki’s newly released 300hp H2R is proof that the motorcycle industry has a goal of feeding the horsepower addiction.

In other parts of the world, tiered licensing is the norm. This includes a restriction on how much horsepower your motorcycle can have. The MSF understands the importance of low horsepower when learning to ride. They require any training motorcycle to be 500cc or less and weigh less than 440 pounds full of fuel.

But, in the United States, we are free to buy as much horsepower as our credit will allow even if you don’t have a motorcycle license. Knowing that power is often a crutch, I suggest you do the smart thing and impose a voluntary tiered licensing strategy.

The voluntary tiered strategy is good, but it doesn’t mean you will not rely on power to mask your cornering weaknesses. However, without the addiction of abundant horsepower, you are less likely to use it as a crutch.

So, Which Bike?

I suggest that new riders start off on a 500cc or smaller bike, such as Honda’s CB500 or 300, or the Ninja 500, 250 or 300. After a full season on that bike, (including a track day or two), you can consider moving up to a middleweight class bike, which includes 600cc sport bikes, or 800-1000cc cruisers. A couple seasons on the middleweight just may allow you to move up to whatever bike you want.

Before you think that the tiered strategy does not apply to track day and racing, think again. Whenever a track day rider wants advice about what bike to buy for racetrack riding I usually steer them toward an SV650 or Ninja 650R. Why? These bikes have modest power, so they force riders to develop expert cornering and passing skills. Smaller bikes help riders develop a strong foundation to build upon… and they are cheap and fun.

Check out this video of me riding a 32 hp 250 Ninja on the racetrack and tell me this doesn’t look like fun.

What are your thoughts on horsepower crutches?


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Ken is author of "Motorcycling the Right Way” and "Riding in the Zone" (book and blog). He is also the "Street Savvy" columnist for Motorcyclist Magazine, and former longtime author of the Proficient Motorcycling and Street Strategies columns for Motorcycle Consumer News. Ken is Lead Instructor for Tony's Track Days, a 20 year Motorcycle Safety Foundation instructor, and owner of Riding in the Zone Motorcyclist Training.

Posted in All Things Motorcycle, Motorcycle Musings, Motorcycle Safety, Riding Technique & Tips Tagged with: , , , ,
2 comments on “The Horsepower Crutch
  1. Michael Weyant says:

    Another great article Ken, and one that sadly needs addressing on the tracks across America.

    “It is better to ride a slow bike fast than a fast bike slow” has been tossed around quite a bit but that doesn’t make it any less true.

    I got my start on the track on a Ducati 848, and very quickly realized that it was too much bike for me. I picked up a “little” SV650 and rode it for 4 years while I learned how to actually ride a motorcycle. It wasn’t too long before that “little” bike was passing much larger displacement machines. It forces the rider to learn proper technique because one cannot simply twist the throttle and make up ground.

    I hope that your writings will convince other riders to put their ego’s aside and learn all that a smaller bike has to offer them. They will be better riders for the experience.

  2. Ken this topic is so timely for me. This Sunday at Thompson I took my girlfriends Hawk GT out instead of my R1200S. I was having pains in my knees and back slinging that thing back and forth. I was consistent, felt like I was one of the faster riders in the yellow group every time and was curious to see if it was me
    or the bikes HP. Jumping on her bike was an eye opening experience as I found moving the bike around so much easier than the behemoth BMW. The most surprising part was how I could hit my lines with ease and carry way more speed through the corners. I found I wasn’t able to muscle past riders where I had in the past but could make up a ton of ground entering and exiting corners. The lower horsepower allowed me to think and ride more strategically. I will say that riding till redline in every gear worried me but hey it’s a Honda right?! In 2015 I will be swearing off 1000cc’s and on the look out for a hawk or sv650 to truly learn how to ride with skill instead of a point and shoot mentality.

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