TALES OF TESTING-MY 50TH BIRTHDAY-JAN ’95

TALES OF TESTING-MY 50TH BIRTHDAY-JAN ’95

Roger DeCoster


How did I celebrate my 50th birthday? The way that most people do: a small party, a cake, opening some silly gifts, and, of course, starting on a five-bike 250cc motocross comparison in which I would be the primary test rider. I spent all last month doing more of the usual things that 50-year-old-men do–you know, riding motocross bikes six hours a day at a variety of different tracks, changing tires and suspension components and taking notes while the younger [Dirt Bike] editors offered encouragement from the shade.

Actually, I enjoy it. I think that testing motocross bikes is a lot of fun. I’ve been doing it for a very long time now, and I hope to continue for years. But testing is a very difficult job and needs to be taken very seriously. As you’ll read in this issue, the 250 shootout involved 11 different days of testing at eight different tracks. Why did it take so much riding? Because I’m not smart enough to figure out which bike is best in just one day on one track. At one time or another during the test, each of the five bikes took its turn being my ‘favorite’ for the day. As the days continued, though, a lot of false impressions began to fade, and the results became more solid. That’s why testing is so difficult. Any rider, no matter how experienced, can misinterpret riding impressions. You can ride a bike with low tire pressure and a soft seat, and come back thinking that the suspension is super-plush on small bumps. Or you can ride a bike with a stiff frame and think that the suspension is stiff. I’ve certainly done it. Every rider I’ve ever worked with has made mistakes.

With almost all riders, a test session can go good or bad, depending on the rider’s frame of mind. With top racers, if you test late in the season after most of the racing is done, riders usually say that the bikes are just fine. After the new season starts, though (and especially if the riders aren’t winning), the bikes suddenly aren’t so good any more. That’s human nature. I remember back in the late Sixties, Joel Robert and I were traveling together and racing for CZ. Joel was doing quite well in those days, and he always bragged about how well his 250 worked. He nagged me about riding it for several days, telling me that I would fall in love with it. I didn’t really like riding other people’s bikes, but eventually I gave in, just to get him off my back. The bike was terrible! It felt like the wheels weren’t even lined up. The brakes were poor and it certainly wasn’t faster than my 250. He had simply convinced himself that it was good, and he won, so that was all the proof he needed. Later, when Joel wasn’t winning as much, he would complain about his machine during test sessions. I would ride the bike and it would be perfect.

Back then, however, you had to adapt to a bike. If the rear brake didn’t work, then you had to learn how to ride without a rear brake. Test sessions were as much to get the rider sorted out as the bike. The Japanese began to change all that. If a rider got the clutch too hot, then the engineers would work on it until they fixed the problem. You were no longer expected to change your riding style in order to work around some deficiency.

In general, the engineers at Suzuki and Honda were very good at problem solving, and so test riding was very important. If you gave them good, solid feedback–if you said the fork bottomed too much and too harshly–they would be in heaven. They had a problem that they could solve. But if you gave them subjective feedback–if you said the fork didn’t feel right in rapid bumps–they were frustrated. They would rather find another test rider who said the fork was fine.

And, of course, as time went on, and many of the objective problems were solved, testing became more difficult for the riders and more frustrating for the engineers. Riders would complain using vague terms like ‘mushy feeling’ and ‘uncertain footing.’ Japanese engineers liked road racing much better. There, the riders could hit the exact same line, pull the same G force and shift in the same spots every lap. The stop watch would make more decisions than the test rider. Motocross was too loose and subjective. A rider might be having a good or bad day and the test results might not make any sense at all.

Worse yet, riding styles are so wildly different from one motocrosser to the next. For example, Johnny O’Mara and David Bailey could have identical bikes with identical carburetors and identical jetting. They could even turn identical lap times. Yet O’Mara could run out of gas in a 40-minute moto while Bailey would have a quart left in his tank. Differences in riding style could cause poor conclusions to be made, too. In 1988, Ricky Johnson was winning virtually everything. He liked the first upside-down fork simply because the rigid design worked for his riding style. The other riders didn’t like the fork as much, but since Ricky was winning with it, they figured it [must] be good. As a result, the 1989 CR production bikes came with upside-down forks that weren’t nearly as good as the earlier conventional forks, for the average rider.

Other riders had their individual needs. Jean-Michel Bayle was very hard on rear brakes. He would use it to regulate his speed, even with the throttle open. As a result, we had to work hard in developing a powerful, fade-proof rear brake for him. He also wanted the frame and suspension to be stiffer, compared to the other riders. O’Mara, on the other hand, was very hard on clutches. Stanton wanted the bike to be lower in the rear. Testing is always difficult when you have such talented riders with individual needs.

Of course the truly difficult part was deciding how much input to take from top pros when we were finalizing production bikes. Rick Johnson, Johnny O’Mara, David Bailey, Jean-Michel Bayle and Jeff Stanton were not average riders. They did things on a motorcycle that most people couldn’t dream of.

I kept that same goal in mind in the 250 shootout for this issue. I considered not only what was best for me, but for the average [Dirt Bike] reader. One thing is easier about my job these days, though. I am required to find any flaws, analyze them, explain them and then rank them in relation to the other bikes. But I am no longer required to come up with solutions and get the information to Japan in time for the next run of production bikes. That’s someone else’s problem these days. I just have to get the information to you.

 

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