How safe is the classic chopper...?
All motorcycles are a compromise designed to cater to the broadest range of rider interest and inexperience.
The classic chopper just like a 'cafe racer', a tourer, a dirt bike or a drag bike is a purpose built machine. Like any of these other machines, when a chopper is ridden according to its purpose... cruising, sedate cornering and straight line acceleration, it is a very safe and effective design.
The chopper does of course have "the Look" which to many is much of its appeal, and this can be its down fall when built for that reason alone, without thought for proper geometry and structural integrity. Keep in mind that the sports bike and racing look alikes are built to achieve "the look" too!
Our comments on chopper safety obviously are made assuming proper construction and geometry and obviously discounts some of the wilder show style stuff...
1. What are the classic chopper's main drawbacks to safety...
a heaviness at speeds below 15 km per hour which require some extra concentration,
the common rigid rear end which handles poorly at speed on bumpy corners.,
undampened springers and girders can give a "disconcerting" ride at speed in undulating conditions if the spring rates aren't properly balanced against each other. A common modern dampening method is to mount a steering damper in front of the springs . This makes a big difference.
the small narrow tank does not usually allow the rider to grip it with his knees, which is a disadvantage in wet slippery or sandy and muddy conditions.
the feet position does not provide as much control in slippery conditions.
2. Why a well set up chopper is much safer than most would think...
Low seat position...
The chopper's low seating position (especially on a rigid) also greatly increases stability, safety and manoeuvrability especially at low speeds and more than compensates for heavier low speed steering that is due to the extra trail. Any one who has thrown around a mild rigid chop will attest to fantastic confidence and ease of manoeuvring with this set up.
The chopper's upright rider position gives a better field of view in all conditions than a sports bike and more steering control when the handle bars are below shoulder height and not too wide.
The chopper rider in his upright position, tucked into a high-backed seat is less subject to fatigue on the highway than a sports bike rider. The tourer's windscreen (not cool on a chopper!) is an advantage in open road cruising... except in high side winds. Some wind protection is one reason for the sleeping bag (poor man's fairing) often seen on choppers out on the highway.
Passenger position and rider fit...
The chopper passenger has a better field of view (over the rider's head) giving an added set of eyes for the rider. She is very secure with a back rest or sissy bar.
If anything on the road is dangerous, it has to be the pillion set up on many sports bikes... I pity the poor sports bike passenger perched precariously on a tiny strip of padding, feet tucked high with no back support. I am surprised that it is even legal.
The chopper is invariably built to suit its owner's stature (at least it should be) and is therefore inherently safer because everything fits like a glove.
Benefits of increased trail...
The chopper is inherently safer at high speed than a sport bike because of increased trail, longer wheel base and lower seating position. After all, if sports bike's steering geometry was optimal, why would it need a steering damper!!!
Sometimes, chopper builders aiming for "the Look" without understanding the benefits of trail, will add rake into the triple trees to bring the trail back to near stock for light low speed handling. This then only gives the rider a small advantage in increased wheel base and loses the all important chopper stability gained from extra trail.
A well set up chopper front end with its extra trail is a delight to ride at highway and high speed. The shovel pictured at the top of this article with its 6" extended front end and 40 degree rake has been ridden up to 200kph (on the speedo) on a less than perfect road and it sits on the road like its on rails.
One engineer once said to me "Long front ends on choppers are the next best thing to automobile air bags and should be mandatory" and this is another good point.
Extra stress on raked front ends...?
Engineers calculate increased stresses produced by greater rake and longer front forks and warn against the danger of broken frames and triple trees. The facts seem to indicate that sensible welding, gusseting and the tubing sizes found on motorcycles are more than adequate to cope with these extra stresses. Stock (but raked ) frames have been ridden consistently for 20 or 30 years without failure.
Springers do have benefits...
Critics of the "outdated" springer should also note that springers handle irregularities found out on the highway better than telescopic forks despite having less travel. Their rocker action also retains a more constant trail, a key to handling in rough cornering conditions... not that chopper riders are into cornering.
Long wheel base spells SAFETY...
And the chopper's long front end? The chopper's long wheel base is a significant safety advantage. The longer wheel base does makes for slower and different cornering techniques... but chopper riders are not into road racing anyway... which increases the chopper jockeys life expectancy 1000 fold!
The short wheel base of racing bikes is designed for quick handling and direction changes in a racing situation. Sports bikes have followed the same design despite public roads being seriously unsuitable places to race. Even "cruising" sports bikes with more up right position, screen etc still compromise open road stability for the "look" and low speed light handling of the racer.
With a longer the wheel base, the the rider has more time to correct a sudden change in direction such as a sliding rear or front wheel due to gravel or an obstacle hit by either wheel. A number of chopper riders I have personally spoken to have reported recovering from tricky situations that they are sure they would not have on their sports bike.
This rider has hit a pair of 6" and 4" diameter logs on a sharp corner at speed and aside from being lifted clean off the seat, one twitch of the steering and then it was on down the road as if nothing had happened. This was because of the strong self-centring action due to greater rake and trail and the long (6') wheel base. I would have been scraping up my skin off the road if I'd had stock length forks and trail and been sitting on the bike rather than in it!
Designed for a purpose...
Sports bikes are set up for quick cornering not for high speed touring, choppers are set up for relaxed cruising not fast hills cornering. No one would dispute that trail bikes are in their element on the dirt but that their knobbly tires are a hazard in city traffic and on slick sealed roads. Each design has a different purpose and should not be compared in each others roles.
General safety...? When compared with the off road tyres and poor lighting allowed on "off road" bikes and the inherent sports bike high speed instability and dangerous lack of passenger security, the classic chopper fares very well in the safety stakes.
The classic chopper is definitely a safe design and should not be criticized by the uninformed or legislated against.
You think this writer is biased? Well maybe I am, but then again, maybe it's not wise to criticise the chopper unless you've spent some time riding a well set up chopper built to suit you. Perhaps you should try it... you just might end up a convert!
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