Cross-Rutted Column

Jean Turner | August 6, 2020



Motocross season is here! (Sort of.) While this summer’s delayed and abbreviated Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship is anything but normal, one thing Covid hasn’t ruined for us is the arrival of the 2021 class of motocross bikes. The next generation has been revealed (mostly), and the long, hot days at Glen Helen’s proving grounds have already begun. It’s always an exciting time of year not only to see how the latest in motocross equipment stacks up, but also to see the trends in the technology itself.

This year there are a lot of “finallys.” The CRF450R finally has a hydraulic clutch, and Honda finally went back to the single exhaust. The KX250 finally has electric start. The KTM finally has tunable mapping (rather than just a handlebar map switch). Suzuki has yet to reveal their hand for 2021, but I have a feeling there will be another “finally” or two when the latest RM-Zs are unveiled.

Once the manufacturers’ cards are on the table for the new model year, the question from the keyboard quarterbacks becomes: who is leading R&D? I’ve noticed a lot of people want to point to KTM as the category leader. Yes, they’ve been at the pointy end of our shootout field in recent years, and no doubt, the Austrian company moves more quickly than its Japanese counterparts when it comes to evolving product. Just look to their midyear Factory Editions for evidence of that. But does this necessarily mean that Mattighofen is leading the way in motocross innovation?

After one company takes a step in a new direction, the next thing to watch is who follows suit (if anyone). Air forks, dual exhaust, traction control, map switches… What’s the difference between a trend and a gimmick? Is this new feature a genuine technological advancement that is going to set a new industry standard, or is it merely a distinctive talking point? You’re only leading if someone is following, after all, and by that logic, 2021 might have revealed some new leaders.

Kawasaki’s new Belleville washer clutch spring is unique in appearance, but similar in concept to the damped diaphragm steel (DDS) clutch spring KTM has been running on select models for several years. Coupled with hydraulic actuation, is it the key to that smooth, progressive feel we all covet? Time will tell! As for the Austrians, it appears they took a cue from the tuning-fork playbook with their new WiFi option for 2021, offering wireless connectivity to your smartphone by way of a downloadable app on the 2021 450 SX-F. This is similar to what Yamaha has been offering on its YZs as early as 2018, but unlike the Yamaha, KTM requires you to purchase the WiFi transmitter.

Now this, in my opinion, appears to be the next big step in R&D, even if Yamaha’s innovation hasn’t been fully appreciated yet. They introduced the WiFi technology and the Power Tuner Smartphone App nearly three years ago, but I suspect they might simply be ahead of their time. With KTM now moving in the same direction, it will likely bring wider spread attention and understanding to the technology.

Cross-Rutted Column

With or without WiFi capabilities, the Yamaha YZs are magnificent machines, and many owners are perfectly content to never download the app. “Oh, I don’t mess with that stuff,” a friend told me. I pointed out that it’s also an hour meter and a maintenance tracker. The look on his face suggested that idea seemed a little more palatable.

It seems there is a big hurdle here—a firewall, if you will—in the concept of digitizing engine tuning. When EFI came onto the motocross scene around a decade ago, I posed the same question: have we crossed a boundary by bringing computers into the garage? Have we left the hobbyists behind? Who wants to put the wrench down and pick up a computer? Ten years later and I still don’t think we’re there, even with the tuning capability brought down to a free, built-in, user-friendly app that you can access right from that thing in your pocket that hardly ever leaves your side. It’s much easier than Honda’s tuning program they offered a few years back, or even Kawasaki’s handheld KX FI calibration kit. The $700 price tag of Kawasaki’s handheld device is an immediate turnoff for many, oddly the same crowd that doesn’t think twice about spending $1000 on an exhaust system. But here again indicates the barrier. We have not started to embrace the capabilities of digital manipulation as much as we value the mechanical ones: exhaust, engine porting, valve jobs—we spend thousands of dollars in search of more useable power. Will we eventually retrain our brains to start thinking in ones and zeros the way we used to think about jets and airscrews?

It might not be a simple matter of crossing the digital barrier. There is an added hurdle to get over: the analysis paralysis of too much choice. If you were to ever watch a professional team plug an ECU into a computer, the grids and graphs are enough to make your eyes cross. Even the “dumbed down” interface provided on the Yamaha’s tuning software can seem overwhelming with dual 4×4 matrices of ignition and fueling options. Despite Yamaha’s assurance that you cannot screw up your engine with the app, and you can always return to baseline, there still seems to be a reluctance by the general motocross population to tinker with the engine tuning.

Even with these hurdles in the way, I think things will start moving in this direction, and that the digital age will eventually permeate the motocross industry. Do I predict the average rider will be altering their mapping from track to track? No, not quite. But I think we will soon arrive at the point where the WiFi capabilities are a factor in purchasing decisions. I believe people will use these apps more and more, perhaps just to find two or three preferred power settings and never touch it again, only using the app for maintenance and tracking hours. That alone could be hugely helpful.

And in the future, who knows what else a smartphone app might be able to do? Tune traction-control options? Link to a heartrate monitor? Perform midrace suspension adjustments? A “find my bike” app? Justin Barcia might have found that useful at the Salt Lake City 4 Supercross. Are we far from a bike that can respond to Siri-type commands?

“Hey YZ. Load yourself.”

Dare to dream.

Perhaps another manufacturer will come along and do it better, or invent an even more user-friendly interface, or features that will entice more riders to go digital. But when smartbikes become the norm, just remember that Yamaha did it first. CN


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Jean Turner | Contributor A former staffer at Cycle News, Turner continues to contribute to the website and magazine as a columnist and someone we can count on to whip up a few thousand words on an off-road race when needed.