Richard Hammond

Hammond on man and machine

Hammond on: man and machine

It's 4.30am. I have red-rimmed eyes, a nasty taste in my mouth and neckache. Nope, not returned from a late night out - just been awake since 3.00am with good old-fashioned insomnia. With reason, though. Rode my motorcycle. Thing is, it was nearly life-ending, and that's why I'm awake now at 4.30.

Time, traffic and the recent arrival of a new bike meant two wheels was the only way to make the 20-mile trip to Cheltenham, despite miserable weather. On the way home, suitably small shopping duly stowed on board, I hit a patch of mud left on a greasy bend by a farmer as a surprise for bikers like me.

The BMW R1200RT is a very large, very accomplished bike that can trace its heritage back decades. It was correctly conceived from the outset, and so its evolution has been a process of refinement. Its fairing is shaped to protect the rider from the worst effects of the weather, its two-cylinder boxer engine is fruity and characterful, with torque arriving early in the rev range, at the moments when you need it. And its horizontal-cylinder configuration means a low centre of gravity, helping balance and stability at low speeds. It's also, despite being enormous, surprisingly light.

None of this actually ran through my mind as I hit the mud and entered a brief slide, but all of it doubtless had a part to play in the hugely complex physics equation that sparkled on that particular stretch of road in that particular corner of the universe briefly and that resulted in me exiting the corner still upright, albeit bearing a markedly different expression on my face. I am awake now, not because of some residual terror or, god forbid, ‘shock'. No, I have crashed bikes many times before, due to road surfaces, traffic or simple ineptitude on my part. And I have weathered bigger slides too, albeit not on bikes of quite the scale of the big Beemer.

What's kept me awake is wondering about what was going on, what me and the bike went through and why that should be the way I think about it - ‘me and the bike'. We endured it together. I wouldn't feel the same way about a car. So, why the extra bonding business with a bike?

It's because they've only got two wheels. One of my esteemed colleagues is forever moaning that a bike falls over when you park it. And yes, it will. It needs a metal prop to lean on, or you, the rider, to hold it. And that vulnerability is key to its appeal, I think. On the move, with its engine providing the power to propel you both forwards, the fast-spinning wheels generate the gyroscopic forces believed to help it remain upright - although, in fact, gyroscopic effect is calculated to amount to only three per cent of a bike's ability to remain upright, the rest comes from the rider leaning to keep it in balance.

Important too is the castor effect, the degree to which the point at which the front wheel touches the ground trails behind the steering axis, which means the front wheel will follow the way the bike is going, without suddenly deciding to spear off to the left or right.

A group of scientists built a bicycle with counter-rotating wheels to cancel out the gyroscopic effect and with no trailing castor so that the steering wheel wouldn't necessarily follow the direction of travel. But it still worked. Given a push, the bicycle could travel some distance on its own without the benefit of gyroscopic forces or of castor in the steering. So if it can balance without those effects, there must have been something else at work. They calculated it was the bike's mass distribution that meant when it began turning in a given direction, the bike would lean that way and move the mass back into balance directly over the wheels, in much the same way that you will automatically step to the right if you're walking through a crowd and get a shove to the right.

What they postulated was that maybe the bike is a machine, with hinges and rods that can naturally balance itself, to a degree. And maybe the human skeleton is a similarly functioning machine. And maybe a bike with a rider on board becomes a whole different machine, with a lot more hinges and rods, made of metal and calcium, that can balance itself even more effectively.

I am left with the rather beautiful image of rider and bike, fused into one, better machine, working together. Without me at the traffic lights, my bike would fall over, stranded. Without my bike, I would be left at those lights when they change, equally stranded. Together, though, we can tackle the lights, the traffic and even a careless farmer's muddy surprise on a greasy bend somewhere in Herefordshire.

Richard Hammond, Top Gear TV, BMW, Column

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