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Forays into the physical with thoughts on industrial design from frog's product design team.

Motorcycle Form and Function: Why It's Hard to Live With an Italian Supermodel

I ride a motorcycle, and, it's true, I'm also gearhead ... and a mechanical engineer. So it is no surprise that when my friends go shopping for a new motorbike, I'm typically the first place they come for advice. One of the conversations that happens frequently is that someone will ask me for a café-racer or sport bike recommendation. As their friend, I'm torn between helping them fulfill their motorcycle fantasy, or telling them the cold hard truth: sexy bikes are hard to live with—really hard to live with. But why? Well, if we take a closer look, we will notice that all the things that make a café racer or sport bike look cool aren’t there for aesthetic reasons. Each of them is actually a functional design element born from racing, and racing is focused on performance, not on little things like creature comfort, rideability, and ease of use (all things a first time rider will definitely need to get into riding).

Let’s take a look at the Ducati Sport Classic, one of the most beautiful bikes in production today and compare it with the KTM Adventures, one of the most usable bikes on the road today, and similar to one I actually own:

1. The solo seat cowl improves airflow over the rider at high speed.

2. The thin seat pad positions the rider low  and behind the tank for better aerodynamics and handling.

3. The deep sculpting in the tank lets the rider tuck in his knees and gives him something to grip when he is moving around on the seat during hard cornering.  The hump at the rear of the tank positions more of the rider’s body out of the airstream.

4. The low handlebars (clip-ons) allow the rider to lean forward to be more aerodynamic at high speed.

5. The low-slung stiff suspension is set up for stability during high speed cornering.

6. The high rear-set footpegs and controls increase cornering clearance.

But now let’s consider what all of those functional elements that make the bike visually desirable mean for riding to your local coffee shop. How do these same design elements impact the casual rider:

1. The solo seat cowl and no passenger foot pegs means no room for a passenger.

2. The minimal seat padding is very uncomfortable

3. The hump at the rear of the tank during hard braking can be punishing for, ahem,men.

4. The low handlebars put strain on the wrists. Also, when leaning far forward it is harder to see over cars and other obstacles.

5. The low-slung stiff suspension translates every bump from city streets into your back and arms.

6. The high pegs can be uncomfortable for taller riders’ knees as they are more bent which reduces circulation.

So while prospective riders crave the look of a café racer, what do more experienced enthusiast riders ride?

They tend to ride large dual sport bikes like BMW GSs or KTM Adventures.  They aren’t particularly good looking, but let’s look at the design elements that these bikes have in common taking the KTM Adventure as an example. Keep in mind that this bike has about the same engine size (~1000cc) and configuration ( V-Twin) as the Ducati we just took a look at.

1. The long seat and foot pegs allow you to ride with a passenger.

2. Generous seat padding is comfortable for long rides.

3. Tall handlebars result in an upright riding position which offers excellent visibility of the road.

4. Tall mirrors aren’t very sleek, but provide excellent visibility.

5. A large fairing and windscreen deflects the wind at high speed.

6. Tall, long-travel suspension soaks up the bumps of potholed city streets.

7. Lower pegs keep the legs in a more natural position.

Look at the difference in riding position between these two bikes.  Which one would you rather spend a couple of hours on?

(Screenshots courtesy of cycle-ergo.com)

 So why are new riders so attracted to racing inspired bikes and essentially turned off by more ergonomic designs?  Well, before someone actually starts riding a motorcycle regularly, one’s only frame of reference is what the bike looks like, and racing bikes fulfill the stereotype of what we feel a bike should look like: fast, low, and sexy. Without the experience of how these functional elements affect the way the bike rides and how the bike makes you feel, these factors remain largely abstract and intangible. The feeling of catching a glimpse of yourself on your bike in a shop mirror as you pass by is thrilling, but fleeting whereas the pain in your wrists, neck, and butt tends to linger a bit longer. The more time one spends shifting around on a bike trying to get comfortable, the less time one has to enjoy the thrill of hard cornering or just taking in the view as it whizzes by. 

Every prospective motorcycle rider has to run through a couple of bikes before he or she figures out that as you start racking up seat-time, the functional elements matter more as time goes on.  As designers and engineers, there is an important lesson here that translates to other products. People are attracted to how they think a product should look and feel. It is our job, albeit a tough one, to marry the functional attributes that ensure a product is a delight to use, with the aesthetic elements that make a product desirable.