Yamaha Niken: Are two front wheels really better than one?

Yamaha Niken two wheel test three

Story: Donovan Fourie
Pics: Meghan McCabe
The Yamaha Niken is the first full motorcycle – by that we mean not a scooter – to feature their now-famous leaning trike format. From the handlebars backwards, it is an MT-09 with the same sweet triple 847cc motor pushing 115hp and 87.5 Nm of torque.

From the handlebars forward, it is nothing short of martian. Those two front wheels, that complex lever system, those four shock absorbers and did we mention two front wheels? It leans like a motorcycle with the same countersteering input as on a “normal” motorcycle, meaning riding it feels very much like riding said normal motorcycle. There’s one big difference – having double the contact patch gives the feeling of more traction inspiring confidence in the rider. Front end confidence is the most critical element in any cornering motorcycle – ask any racer right up to MotoGP.

With this, the rider flings the Niken into bends with unwavering impunity, but there is just one problem – two front wheels and double the contact patch does not necessarily mean more traction. In fact, contrary to what is held as a solid fact by most people, the contact patch does not increase traction.

Yamaha Niken two wheel test three

Let’s try explaining this without straying into Einstein levels of complexity;  traction is determined by two factors – the surface area making contact with the tar and the force pressing down on it.

Still with us? Well done.

Basically, the harder the force pressing into the road through the contact patch, the more traction. That’s part of the reason racers trail the brakes into corners, to increase the force pressing down on the tyre. But the force pressing down doesn’t increase because it’s still same. Riders don’t magically push the front harder because there are two wheels. The force down on the road is spread over a larger area, so the force pushing through each square inch of the contact patch is the same, meaning no more traction. The bigger contact patch spreads the force and cancels itself out. Ask any engineer or physicist.

So, why do people keep insisting the Niken has more traction? There’s one way to find out.

Yamaha Niken two wheel test three

Monroe Drive is a twisting road elevating the scenic hills of Houghton. Most famous is the hairpin bend below the lookout point. Our camera crew loves this corner – it has the background, the right light, the right setting and a backdrop of Johannesburg. It’s a magnificent location to shoot motorcycles. There’s only one problem – incessant traffic on this road means the surface of this corner is appalling – bump, rutted and greasy. While the scene is perfect for shooting, the bike will be nearly upright as the terrified rider (me) tries to negotiate it without experiencing grievous bodily harm.

So, let’s take the Niken there and judge its success by the amount of bodily harm.

The trip down the road is the toughest, with gravity assisting the lack of surface grip. So let’s go: it starts with an off-camber lefthand sweep that the Niken handles finely. Braking is confident, especially as it swings inward. The initially tip-in is heavier than on the two-wheeled variety, but the extra stability certainly makes up for that. Then it switches back, brakes hard and shifts down two gear before the hairpin. It’s at this point that two wheels come tumbling down, both metaphorically and, often, literally.

I’ll admit to some trepidation on the first run; the Niken can still crash, like a regular motorcycle, although this crash will very likely end in a larger bill and the same, maybe more, bodily harm. Yet, the Niken made the corner without so much as a glimmer of trouble.

Yamaha Niken two wheel test three

The up-run offers added hope, more psychological than physical, so let’s toss it in harder…

…and again nothing. It simply rounds the bend.

Now for a second down-run. The last time it showed no weakness, so let’s make this one bigger – brake later, turn harder and carry more speed. And again, it just takes the corner. As the runs go, it gets faster and harder — eventually, the front slips.

This would mean instant doom on a two-wheeler, and yet on the Niken the front shudders and rights itself. If anything, it pushes the front slightly, and instead of dropping on the floor, it holds up and corrects itself.

It happens over and over as I get cocky, eventually making the rear, a mere solitary wheel, start spinning in a display of apparent bravado. It feels good, and onlookers believe they are watching a riding god, but this is all unwarranted because the Niken is not letting go. At the point where a two-wheeler would have long ago perished, the Niken stands firm.

Why is this? The physics suggest that the Niken should fall at the same point as the two-wheeler, and yet doesn’t. In retrospect we have some theories – the first is that, while the extra contact patch doesn’t add more grip, the extra weight to create that contact patch might. The weight created by the extra wheel, the lever system and the four shocks mean more force on the front and therefore more grip.

Yamaha Niken two wheel test three

There’s also the fact that the Niken makes contact with more of the road, so if one wheel is hitting a bump or a slippery patch, the other might still be on firm ground. It’s why 4×4 cars don’t get stuck. Then there’s the lever system the maxes out at 45º, something that may add stability and delay the sudden drop to the floor, giving the motorcycle more time to recover.

All of these theories might be bollocks, but somehow the Niken has extra cornering that the two-wheelers don’t have.

So, to summarise, the bodily harm level was nil. I left with all my limbs gratefully intact, something I doubt the two-wheeled variety would mange.

Is two wheels at the front better? Yes. How’s that for a succinct conclusion?


Yamaha Niken gallery – click to enlarge:

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