Three for the Road, Part Two 

Lean on Me

 

“It’s impossible to crash,” said the man from Piaggio as he handed me the key to the three-wheeled MP3 scooter. I cocked an eyebrow. “Well, maybe impossible is the wrong word,” he said, backpedaling. “It’s difficult to crash. In most circumstances. But I haven’t ridden it much.” “Stop there,” I said. “I’ll send it back in pieces if you’re wrong.” I snapped my visor shut, rode up a grassy hill, over a sidewalk, whumped down a curb onto the road, and waved goodbye to the distressed Piaggio representative.

 

I did things with the MP3 I wouldn’t normally do on a scooter. I crossed fields with waist high grass and hung with a trio of large-displacement adventure bikes on a railway line trail. But the MP3, despite feeling, from the saddle, like a typical two-wheeler, didn’t lose its footing. My goal with the MP3 was to intentionally instigate the most feared mishap in motorcycling next to ramming a car that’s turned across your path: tucking the front wheel.  

Piaggio's Mp3. As good as it is odd, and likely the fastest and most sure-footed machine ever devised for the urban commute.

Losing front-end traction in a corner wedges you under guardrails and jams you beneath the axle of a FedEx truck. If you’re lucky, you write-0ff your bike. If you’re unlucky, your life is a write-off. Even twenty-somethings on GSX-Rs who slalom highway traffic at twice the limit turn meek on a mountain pass. Fear of the very thing that drew many of us to motorcycling—the sweet lean of cornering—has precipitated an epidemic of timidity. The result of this worry? The invention, and popularity, of the Can-Am Spyder and Polaris Slingshot.

 

The problem with non-leaning three-wheelers isn’t—despite what some motorcyclists maintain—aesthetic. While hardly design masterpieces, the Spyder and the Slingshot are no more ungainly than Suzuki’s plasticky M109R or Kawasaki’s Vulcan S, a machine that sits upon its wheels as elegantly as a fishing boat upon a trailer.

 

The problem with non-leaning three-wheelers is that they’re mechanically compromised (for more, read part one of this story). Which makes leaning three-wheelers all the more amazing; they fuse motorcycle dynamics with a mountain goat’s sure-footedness, and, unlike non-leaning three-wheelers, they’re not beholden to sophisticated electronic intervention to function.

 

But, still, I was skeptical. Until I found the parking lot from hell. I’d noticed it while riding the MP3 on the highway. I dove to the next exit, and a half-hour of searching later, discovered it at the end of a dead-end street. It was an abandoned industrial complex, and the chained and fenced-off parking lot a tableau of destruction rivalling anything Detroit could offer.

 

Hacked to pieces in the middle of the compound was a ’70s motorhome, its flayed aluminum skin and the camper’s contents spun-out in a fifty-foot radius. I rode the MP3 up the embankment that bordered the highway and back down into the parking lot. In doing so I inadvertently hit an alternator, intentionally rode over a radiator, and dodged a pair of pants covered in blood or automatic transmission fluid. I hoped for the latter. Then I plotted a road course that weaved around anything too big to ride over. A mini-Laguna Seca that turned left at an engine block, went right-round a washing machine, with a hydraulic press at the hairpin exit at the end of the straightaway to keep me honest. In lieu of Laguna’s corkscrew, I went straight to the source: a dozen wine bottles marked the decreasing-radius turn that ended the circuit.     

 

I wasn’t seriously attempting to crash; victory would have been undermining the MP3’s composure. But when one of the MP3’s front wheels lost traction, on gravel or a pizza box or on those pants, the other wheel steered it to safety. And when both wheels lost traction, as they did on the camper’s aluminum walls, the MP3 skittered sideways like a skier on an icy patch. But it didn’t fall over. On the ride home I wondered—what would this technology do on a motorcycle with full-sized wheels and with an engine bigger than the MP3’s 500 cc single? I’d have to wait to learn.

Yamaha, as early as 1976, filed patent applications for what it calls LMW—Leaning Multi Wheel—technology. (Yamaha even trademarked the LMW nomenclature.) After adding a second front wheel to a Passol scooter, promising test results were shelved, as development personnel and budgets were diverted to serve the booming (two-wheeled) scooter market.

 

Eventually, Yamaha returned to LMW technology and, in 2007, released the four-wheel-leaning Tesseract prototype at the Tokyo Motor Show. And, again, the technology was shelved, this time due to the 2008 economic collapse.

 

Yamaha’s fitful relationship with leaning three-wheelers finally bore fruit in 2014 with the Tricity 155 scooter and then, in 2016, with the Niken. Derived from the Tracer 900 GT—itself an offshoot of the MT-09—an 847 cc triple powers the Niken. Twin 15-inch front wheels are each affixed to a pair of telescopic fork tubes, which in turn attach to the frame via a parallelogram-link cantilevered mechanism. It sounds odd. It is odd. And it looks like a machine assembled by a drunkard who accidentally combined the remains of two motorcycles.

Unfortunately, Yamaha doesn’t release data that quantifies the Niken’s roadholding vs. the two-wheeled Tracer, aside from a general statement that the bike offers a “greater feeling of stability.” (And because no release from a manufacturer is complete without a word from the legal department, Yamaha follows up a statement claiming the “ultimate goal” of LMWs is to “create motorcycles that lean, but do not fall,” with the caveat that this is “the aim of LMW technology and is not intended to represent the technology itself or the performance of current products.”)

Passol scooter and four-wheeled Tesseract illustrate Yamaha's longstanding dedication to the more-than-two-wheel leaning vehicle. Wire grocery basket is due for a comeback.

The most difficult aspect of riding the Niken for the first time is believing the complex mechanism that links the front wheels to the chassis will function as intended. With an additional 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of front-end weight vs. the two-wheeled Tracer, specifications suggest the Niken will be hobbled by ponderous front-end response. But as I pull out of Yamaha’s parking lot and ride to the highway, the Niken’s feedback is that of a traditional motorcycle. Except it isn’t.

 

Piaggio’s MP3 was astonishing enough, but the Niken, with the rigidity of a motorcycle’s frame and a more sophisticated front end than the MP3’s leading-link fork, is the evolution of the leaning three-wheeler. Forget two-wheeled motorcycles—the Niken’s front end returns a better sensation of groundedness than most cars.

 

A traditional motorcycle’s front tire, once warmed, on a good road, with cornering or braking load applied progressively, can yield astonishing adhesion. But as conditions devolve—rain, rocks, cold pavement, cold tires—the falloff in performance is sharp. The leaning three-wheeler becomes all the more impressive beyond the point at which traction is lost. Exceed traction on a traditional motorcycle’s front tire and you’re on your ear. Push the Niken’s front end hard enough and it’ll protest and skitter but remain upright.

On a Saturday morning, in a town not far from me, I hid in the shadows on main street. I didn’t have a plan. Until I saw them. Four men on dualsports in full Paris-to-Dakar garb; knee-high boots, motocross helmets and goggles, and hydration backpacks. Their single-cylinder engines popped and banged to the edge of town, where I caught them and fell quietly in behind. As expected, they turned onto a gravel road that narrowed to the width of a car then turned into an ATV trail. I pounced. I gunned the throttle, surprised the riders (heads snapped my way as I passed), plowed inelegantly through a series of corners, and disappeared up the washed-out trail. I heard booming exhausts behind but they couldn’t overtake. I stopped at the crest of the hill (to appreciate the view, naturally) and the four riders solemnly rode past as I waved cheerfully.

The Niken is an astounding accomplishment, and a resoundingly positive proof-of-concept for the effectiveness of leaning three-wheelers. But it won’t sway all riders to its side because the Niken, like the MP3, can fall over at rest.

 

Stationary motorcycles, in my experience, are not dangerous. But for legions of riders migrating to Spyders, Slingshots, and traditional bikes—like Harleys and Gold Wings—that’ve been converted to three-wheelers, a motorcycle that can topple over at rest is a deal-breaker. The median age for a motorcyclist in the 1970s was under 25. Today it’s over 50. And some older riders, many of whom have returned to motorcycling after an absence—often of many years—lack experience, fitness, and confidence. And picking up a heavy bike, even a Niken, after a topple-over on a gravel shoulder or in a gas station, is beyond the capability of many.

Down at the docks on a murky day is exactly where you'd expect to find the Niken with its just-crawled-out-of-the-deep visage. Reservations about the bike's appearance disappear the instant you discover loose gravel mid-way round a corner.  

It’s well known that BRP had a fully-leaning three-wheeler prototype similar in its architecture to the fixed-wheel Spyder eventually brought to market. Why BRP chose to go the fixed-wheel route likely comes down to the company’s history—neither snowmobiles nor ATVs lean, so why deviate? And it’s unlikely BRP will release a leaning three-wheeler; doing so would be a tacit admission that the current Spyder was a misstep.

 

To debate whether the Niken is a first step in the evolution of the motorcycle or a transitionary vehicle that hints at what the future holds is a popular pastime. But know this: rumours persist that Yamaha is working on a Spyder-like three-wheeler that leans. And because the as-yet-unconfirmed Yamaha has a broad track and low seating position, it’ll lean and remain firmly on its wheels, even at rest. The promise of the three-wheeler is yet to be realized. But it’s coming. Soon.