ADV Gearbox 101: Vijay Parmar’s Column
Gear ratios. Absolutely critical for ADV motorcycling. An exercise in balanced compromises, often biased in favour of a long pull for tarmac rather than lightning response on dirt. Sometimes a hopeless middle path between both, leaving the rider lamenting the constant lack of power. Throw in the mid-level ADV rider who is slow to make gear changes and you have the recipe for off-road failures!
Triumph changed its first gear ratios on the Tiger 800 after realising that the initial takeoff was being hampered and the change made their bike a veritable hole-shot rocket. There is still that tentative area between 3rd and 4th which needs attention! BMWs have, over the years, managed to pin down the gears to mesh with torque output in such a way that you have low-down grunt through the box in almost every gear.
The masters of the short gearbox are KTM. Though you have power throughout, you need to keep shifting through the gearbox almost continuously to stay competitive! Too much effort for the standard ADV rider who would rather stay in the same gear for much longer, hoping, not unreasonably, that the 100bhp generated by his steed would be more forgiving for last-second gear changes. And so was born the quickshifter! Well not really. Quickshifters have been there on the Jawa of the 70s and the Yezdis of the 80s. However the present generation ones vary from noticeably clunky to those on the R 1200 GS that actually blip the throttle during a change. They do reduce hand fatigue but your foot still gets a workout.
The Africa Twin DCT takes all that to the next level. I just spent the last week learning to live with a CRF 1000 L from 2017. At first having no clutch to feather seemed to take away all the control one had learnt over the last 43 years of cajoling motorcycles up impossibly gnarly slopes. The complete lack of a gear lever was equally intimidating.
The auto transmission, manipulated by the Dual Clutch Transmission or DCT seemed at first to have a mind of its own. Changed gears up too soon and then changed down too late. Corners approached and you floated through them with your left hand grabbing air and your foot tapping a soundless tune! The discovery of the paddles for climbing or descending through the gear boxes seemed to be a lifesaver. A ‘manual’ mode was discovered and for a while I lived with that and the paddles. The gears changed like a Formula 1 car though. No drop in revs and no false shifting. Razor sharp and racing fast.
The bike started growing on me. It started to learn my riding style - which it began to imitate as far as the gear changes were concerned. Add a ‘Gravel’ mode to further compliment the choice of manual and the bike started to push the envelope. The first tentative power slides gave way to more tractable ones. Blipping the throttle on super slow turns to stop the bike falling did not end badly either. The power came on smoothly instead of stalling - a major bugbear on all the big clutch-driven ADV bikes. Several times when I would have dropped any other bike, the Twin powered through smoothly. The gearbox, even though on ‘manual’ shifted to first if I almost came to a sudden stop. Very thoughtful this overriding of the ‘manual’ mode by the ‘auto’.
The gearbox in ‘Manual’ is great for the rough and gnarly trails, the auto set to ‘Sport’ great for spirited twisty mountain tarmac and the normal ‘Drive’ mode perfect for the long highway stretches where you want to watch the scenery instead of concentrating on the gear changes!
Gear ratios are going to be a thing of the past. The DCT is the harbinger of ‘variable’. Variable Valve Timing changing the performance of the same gear under different power and torque made available. Solving power output problems through intelligent algorithms.
Maybe, in the future, the RE Himalayan will grow beyond its unending first gear that needs a downhill start and a tail wind to get into the powerband! Maybe.