Motorcycle Designer - Insider Views

Image: Michael Uhlarik

Image: Michael Uhlarik

Michael Uhlarik on Motorcycle Modifications

Image: Michael Uhlarik

Image: Michael Uhlarik

Are you getting what you really want and can you even tell?

Michael Uhlarik is a veteran motorcycle designer, and has been involved in designing for big name brands such as Yamaha, Aprilia, Bombardier  and Piaggio. He’s a worldwide leader in the industry when it comes to product planning and as an industry analyst. Michael has written articles for moto publications including Canada Moto Guide and Cycle World and he's also the co-founder and designer of SURU, Canadian made electric bikes.


Image: Michale Uhlarik

Image: Michale Uhlarik

Image: Michael Uhlarik

Image: Michael Uhlarik


Interviewer: Jim Martin | Guest: Michael Uhlarik | Photos: Michael Uhlarik

This transcript has been created from the original audio episode released May 17, 2018. This transcript may have been modified to make reading easier. As Adventure Rider Radio shows are meant to be listened to and not read, the following script may contain some grammatical and other errors. You can also listen to this interview by downloading the episode.


Jim (Narrate): What goes into designing a motorcycle? What does it really take? We all have seen these incredible builds from the custom motorcycle builders: a bobber, a cruiser, or a scrambler…they look incredible. They’re all done in a garage. Maybe with one or two people working in there. So, why do the manufacturers take so much time to produce, or even make a modification of, a new model? Or, how about your bike, for instance? When you did modify it, how did your modifications effect the overall performance? We like to think that our mods always improve. But, do they? And, how can you tell? Or, can you even tell? When a new bike hits the market, and a company says- the frame has been stiffened by 15 percent, or, the shocks are now a larger diameter- what does that really tell us? Well, today we have a motorcycle designer that is quite willing to speak…well, rather frankly…about what goes on behind the usually closed doors of motorcycle design. What he has to say may not only surprise you, but it might even make you mad. I’m Jim Martin, this is Adventure Rider Radio. Stay with us; we’ve got a good one for you. 


Jim (Narrate): Michael Uhlarik is a motorcycle designer. Yeah, he has one of those dream jobs of designing the bikes that we love to ride. Over the next hour, we’re going to talk about motorcycle design, modification, and some ideas and concept that may have you seeing your bike in a slightly different perspective. I kind of like to imagine that this conversation that we’re about to have right now is sort of what it would like to be a fly on the wall in the design department. Where you’re often hearing things…well, that you really weren’t supposed to. 

Michael: My name is Michael Uhlarik, I am a motorcycle design and product planning consultant. I’m from Sudbury, Ontario. 

Jim: Michael, welcome to Adventure Rider Radio. 

Michael: Thank you.

Jim: We’ve been talking for a long time before we even started doing this interview. That’s how good the conversation gets, I think, at least from my perspective. Let’s start out with talking a little about your background. How did you get into motorcycles, and where does that come into your life? 

Michael: I think like most people who grew up in rural Canada…dirt bikes and unlicensed two-stroke dirt bikes were kind of everywhere… Like a lot of young boys [I thought] they were cool. I wanted to do that. So, I had a couple of opportunities to mess around on various motorcycles, not knowing what I was doing. I attended a motorcycle show in Toronto when I was 16. I went on a last minute whim with my older brother. And one of the contests that I applied for was a learn to ride program with Yamaha and Humber College. I won. And that was it, I was hooked. I got my license. Studied industrial design. After a couple years of working in the toy business, I just thought- well, life’s short. If I wanted to do anything in the world, what would it be? And I thought- well, I design products…I want to design motorcycles. After that, went to Europe. Got a masters degree in vehicle design, did a thesis project on a turbine monaco{?} sport bike, then an internship at Piaggio… And the rest just fell into place. Worked at Yamaha for many years…Piaggio group in Italy… Travelled/lived abroad for 11 years. Italy, Japan…various countries. Then eventually came home to Bombardier, did some advanced concepts for them. Since 2010, I’ve been a freelance consultant for a lot of different brands on electrification programs. Sort of strategic product planning. Basically, helping them decide what to do, rather than how to do it. 

Jim: So you’re still a motorcycle designer.

Michael: Oh yeah. 

Jim: Why do you say ‘recovering’ motorcycle designer? 

Michael: I guess it’s…I say that because I recognize my limitations. Per our earlier conversation…there comes a time when every creative professional…maybe less so in architecture, but certainly in industrial design for vehicles. You really need to recognize that you’re style is getting dated. There are younger, frankly better, designers beneath me who all over the world who have fresher ideas, and are more in touch with what’s happening. So I’m happy to support that activity…and on the more business side, and planning side…and let them do the wild and crazy styling. 

Jim: What’s the SURV…or is it RU?…moped company. 

Michael: Oh,  SURU. Yeah. SURU is my own business. The initials come from the initials of my children Sophie and Robin. SURU is electric mobility for everyone. Low cost. Incredibly durable. Made in Canada. Think of the Honda CUB, but electric, and made here. 

Jim: And it’s mopeds.

Michael: Yeah.

Jim: So mopeds are still considered the ones with the foot pedals? 

Michael: That’s right. Exactly. Except electric this time. Some of the parameters have changed. Legislation has changed since the 1960’s, so you can’t go quite as fast as you could on a gas power moped. Otherwise it would require a license. But like this, you don’t need a license or insurance, and you can go anywhere a bicycle can go. 

Jim: Well, when it comes to designing modern motorcycles…I think the same as everything, everything is becoming very high tech now. I think I’ve said on this show before; something that’s apparent to me is that when I was younger, when people fixed things up (vehicles, motorcycles…), there’s a lot of making things out of nothing. So you’d find some sort of piece that might fit for something, and you would mickey-mouse it (so to speak), and you would put it on. Nowadays, with computers and computers controlled machinery, we’re coming out with perfect parts…accessories…everything is perfect. Of course, this is in manufacturing as well. They’re manufacturing motorcycles to these incredible tolerances in innovation and design. So what I wanted to talk about was the fact that, when we buy a bike, often the first thing we’re looking at (at least for a lot of us) is- what can we change to make this bike better? Is there a chance that, even though they have all this technology, that we can out-design them in the driveway? That we can bring that bike home and do huge modifications, and make this bike into what it should be? 

Michael: So the short answer is…no. It is the height of hubris for any individual, I don’t care what their background (aero/space/machinist, whatever), to think act they can uncover some performance envelope that hasn’t been engineered in by the literally thousands of professionals that are involved in the development of a mass production motorcycle today. The nuanced answer is…of course, every modern production motorcycle is a compromise of some sort. Compromise toward longevity, cost, durability, ease of use, ownership, whatever. So a great example is is we talk about adventure bikes. If you take a stock dual sport, and entry level dual sport…a CRF250L Honda…out of the box, it does everything very well. But if you’re a really serious adventure rider, you’re going to change the tires to a more aggressive tread, you can add a skid plate, and hand guards, and maybe a rack to put on a gerry can for some extra fuel. All of those improvements that you can do in the driveway are going to legitimately improve that product. For one application. Which is off-road riding, backwoods/long distance backwoods riding. But it will also, by default, make it worse in other areas. It’ll make it heavier, or less responsive on the road. Or reduce the fuel consumption. Plus it will add cost. So that’s the nuanced answer. You can improve any motorcycle (stock motorcycle) with your after market accessories, or your mechanic tuning sense. But what you’re doing is not generally improving it. It’s not like 1970 where stock suspension was garbage no matter how you sliced it, or brakes, or body work, or whatever. What you’re doing is raising capabilities in certain areas, but causing commensurate degradation in other areas. Or simply adding cost. 

Jim: What do you think of when you hear people make statements…like, a new motorcycle comes out, and they say- the suspension is way too soft on that, it needs a higher horsepower engine… What do you think of when you hear things like that?

Michael: I hear the same voices I’ve heard for 20 years. Which is…people don’t know what they’re talking about…making very general statements based on their particular point of view. They may be 100% right for a specific use. Remember; everybody wants everything all the time. I went to many professional clinics with Yamaha where you have an early pre-production model of a vehicle, and you interview twenty, forty, sixty people in the target audience, and you ask them… Everybody says- what do you want? Do you want/would you prefer more wind protection or more storage? The answer is- yes. Would you like more horsepower, or better fuel economy? Yes. So, the designers of any brand (could be European, Japanese, doesn’t matter) have to choose a target that’s going to cover the broadest number of consumers. Even the so-called ‘hardcore product’ KTM…’we cater to the off-road super enthusiast’…Really? Not really. Because the person who buys a KTM is immediately assuming/accepting that they are going to spend 20% more than they would for the equivalent Japanese model. So there’s the compromise. I’m willing to spend more money, ergo, I will get more things. Like CNC machine bars, or that beautiful cast swing arm…but oh, the rear shock doesn’t have a linkage. So everything is a compromise. The CRF ‘it’s too soft’…well, it’s a motorcycle for ordinary people. And if you’re a hardcore user, and you’re looking for a 250CC scalpel, yeah, you’re going to need to invest to tune the suspension to your preference. But if you’re selling a bike to a person who’s just got their license, or someone who just wants a dual-sport for everyday use, and maybe do a little light gravel riding, then the suspension’s fine. So that’s the answer there is, the corporation/the manufacturer is trying to catch as many people into their tent as possible. So they can’t make every product to be cutting edge hardcore. They’d never make money that way. 

Jim: When you say compromise…compromise sounds sort of negative…but compromise is something that we even have to do when we’re modifying the bike for our specific application. You mentioned changing the tires for instance. Just choosing a tire is such an individualistic procedure to go through. Because, I might choose a completely different tire than my buddy who I ride with all the time, for different reasons. So I mean, compromise isn’t really negative, is it? It’s just a way of trying to get the most out of something for the masses. 

Michael: That’s exactly what I mean. I have too much of a European/Japanese background. Compromise is not a dirty word. Compromise is what adults do. You weigh in your hands…it’s not zero sum. You can always take away from something to find gains elsewhere. It’s just changing the specificity of what a motorcycle can do. So, absolutely. I do not mean it in a pejorative sense at all. 

Jim: When you’re designing a motorcycle, what kind of thought process goes into it? Sort of in a general sense. Is it designed from the back to the front to be what it is? How much work goes into the thought process of each individual aspect of it? Including the things we were talking about changing; maybe your suspension, or your tires, and things like that. 

Michael: It is an involved process. People want to believe that there’s some lone genius sitting behind a table. The Italian brands do a great job of promoting that image. But even there, it’s nonsense. You have teams of people. You have, in a big manufacturer; a project leader (typically it’s an engineer, but not always), and under that engineer you have someone representing designs, someone representing platform (like the {?} engineering), a power plant engineer, a marketing person… And all of these people get together, and they have subordinate teams of people. The designer has an assistant designer, junior designer, maybe a clay modeller, a hard modeller, a computer modeller or two or three…and that’s just one division. So you have these vast groups of people. At the top, that project leader and the key three or four individuals, they sit down with the product planner. This is where most of my job lately is. You kind of have to target- well, who is this for, and what is the mission? If I pick on the CRF250, since we talked about it earlier, the mission was; dual-sport for everyone. I wasn’t part of that project, but that would be what I would have called it. Dual-sport for everyone; a 5’5 woman, a expert, a novice, someone who wants to go flat-tracking (just amateur Sunday night flat-track racing, but doesn’t want to spend a fortune)…everyone. So, given that you’ve created something called a QFD, which is Quality Function Design, document where you specify; what are the most important things I need to achieve, what are the list of things you would like to achieve (but are expendable)…then you work towards it. Always with motorcycle design, you start with knowns. It’s rare that you have a blank sheet and everything is new. Usually there’s a carry-over engine, or some previous generation of a model. There’s some body of knowledge you can lean on. And all of these things will inform your choices. So maybe it’s that the previous model was good, and you just know exactly what needs to be improved. That might be the situation with the KLR that we spoke of. If it’s a new model, or a model that’s new to that particular manufacturer, then they’re going to borrow components from existing bikes to save cost. Right away you run into- oh, well this gear box…maybe the housing physically doesn’t accommodate the low gears we want. Hmm. Now comes the creative part. How do we compensate for that? Do we put a larger rear sprocket? What are the effects on the rear end? Every time you make a change…a technical change, change the tire size…you changed the dynamic performance of that vehicle. This is the nuance, this is the pure science and engineering, that the average/even above average mechanic backyard tuner cannot possibly begin to understand and appreciate. We’re talking professional engineers working 20-25 years in the motorcycle industry, sometimes with different companies. There are groups of them, and they’re working together with very large resources to work out, so that all of these things come together to form a motorcycle at the end that’s reliable, makes money for the manufacturer, is not expensive to work on, and that can work in as many situations as possible. In our culture, in motorcycle culture, we always have our local guru. The suspension guru, the engine tuning guru… And they’re really good. At one thing. You need to have twenty of those guys to invent a motorcycle from scratch. And they have to be able to work together, and work within a budget, and work within a schedule. That’s the difference between factory level engineering and design, and tuning in the after-market. 

Jim: You mentioned to me before, we were talking about selling motorcycles, and you mentioned about the concept of ordering online for motorcycles. That would sort of lend itself to a more specialized or personalized purchase of a motorcycle, in my mind. I’m just running this through as we talk, but I’m thinking- if you could order the bike online, that’s about the only way (of course, this would be ordering, and waiting for it to be built) you could customize it for each person. Because, if they’re used generalities to manufacture motorcycles…in particular we talked about the CRF250…if they used generalities to manufacture that motorcycle, you could then go online and say- okay, I’m not that weight, I’m this weight, and this is how I want to use the bike. It could change some components, and then actually deliver your perfect bike. I think the only fly in the ointment is for new riders who wouldn’t know what they want until after they’ve ridden for a while. But does that make sense? That’s sort of the only way you could ever get a bike that’s built for you. 

Michael: So that totally makes sense. This has been dreamed of and talked about for as long as I have been in the business. It’s not a new idea. The difference is that the technology makes it possible. 3D printing and rapid prototyping, and more importantly, incredibly…not-sexy, but revolutionary…changes in logistics. We can now order a pair of gloves from Guano, and Amazon will deliver then to me in like 3 days, halfway around the world, for free. That makes it possible for a manufacturer to say, yeah, you should be able to go online, you should be able to choose your own triple clamps, your own suspension, your own…and have this a la carte menu put together. If I can order from HelloFresh, or Blue Apron, to have food custom delivered to my house…food that perishes, that expires, in a complex meal with 25 ingredients…why can’t an OEM the size of a Honda Kawasaki BMW simply be able to, at the factory level, at the distributor level/at the national distributor level say- alright, I’ve order a Ducati multi strata, I want this basic model, but I want the suspension from the R, and I want the hard cases, but I don’t want the top case…like you should be able to really just pick and mix, and have that delivered. 

Jim: Even if they put together different shocks and things like that…systems where you could say- no, they’ve got three or four, six different choices…and they give you explanations of what each one is, and you choose it. I mean, to me, that would allow you to get the bike so that it’s perfect for you. Rather than going the other route. So, obviously this isn’t going to happen. Now I was going to mention, there was a car company before that did it, I’m trying to think of the name of it. It escapes me now. What was the car company that had…they would actually order the car-

Michael: SCION. 

Jim: Was it SCION?

Michael: SCION did, which was a Toyota brand, offer factory customization on a level that had not been available previously. They were really with it when it came to branding the web. The idea was that SCION was going to be the first car for millennials, the first brand for millennials. The irony is that SCION shut down after less than 15 years because, although it was targeting millennials, the people that bought the cars were their parents. So it ended up being baby boomers buying cars that they thought their kids would like. Then when the kids didn’t drive them much, mum and dad did, and really liked it. That drove the next generation of SCION to be older, to be more conservative. And then by the 3rd generation, the ballon had deflated. It’s an interested case study. But if mass customization hasn’t worked in automobile yet, it’s just because no one has hit the magic formula. Starbucks is proof that mass customization works. That you can make every individual coffee complete unique to the consumer. That’s something that’s…there’s so many combinations…’I want a blonde latte, decaf, with a twist of lime, and served in this cup’…and they’re like- sure. 90 seconds later, it’s done. And they’re making profit doing that. So there’s no reason why you couldn’t do this on a OEM level with motorcycles. Especially since most of the comments are already…most motorcycles are built that way now. So, Ducati right now has a family of platforms, a family of engines, and a family of body styles. Basically, four of each. Roughly. And with that, they provide a catalogue or like, forty-five models. They really don’t, but what they have done is master this logistical trick, so that you can order this bike with this style, but with one of four different engines, and one of four different trim levels, and different levels of performance, and so on and so forth. On the back end, it’s not costing them any more. In fact, it’s costing them less. So this is definitely something that motorcycle manufacturers are going to do. I just don’t think it’s going to happen over here. I think it’s going to start happening in places like India and Thailand, where the motorcycle market is much more robust. 


Jim (Narrate): We’re going to take just a short break, and be right back… …When we come back, we’re going to talk about…well, what should we be modifying on our motorcycles? And a whole bunch more. Stay with us.


Jim: Well, when we talk about out-designing, or trying got out-design the motorcycle manufacturer, it’s clear that we’re not going to do that. But we did talk about, and you mentioned, that we can improve certain things on it. How do we know…if we get the brand new bike in the driveway…how do we know what we can change for the good of our ride, and what we shouldn’t be changing? 

Michael: Well, for one things I would say that, people should stop messing around with the exhaust system. This mythology that an open throat exhaust will free up all this power…no you won’t. What you’re doing is freeing up power in a very narrow bandwidth of the engine’s performance while ruing it’s performance everywhere else. The amount of pure science and engineering that goes into developing the ECU, the Emission Control System, and the exhausting, the muffler, and all that…people have no idea. So, please, everyone listening- leave the stock exhaust system on there. Unless you’re willing to go to a Dino, to a tuner, to invest 200 dollars an hours in a professional in a shop with a rolling floor, and a dynamiter, and…more importantly, it’s not just the tools. Do the people there know how to use them? Do they know what you’re looking for? And even then, you’re really just going to liberate some horsepower at the top end, or a little low end torque, at great cost in terms of fuel economy, and performance elsewhere. So don’t touch the exhaust.

Jim: There’s a lot of people that are going to be disappointed to hear that. Though, is changing something for looks no part of a customization that you should be doing? In this case, it’s for sound. Do you think it’s too detrimental to the overall performance of the machine, that somebody shouldn’t be doing it anyway? Even though all they want is the sound, even if they’re willing to give up a couple percent horsepower, or maybe get a little flatter performance out of it? 

Michael: People should understand what I’m saying; do whatever makes you happy. But don’t dilute yourself. If you think that the look of an {?} exhaust system is awesome, and the sound is awesome, and your neighbours aren’t going to hate you, then knock yourself out. It’s the same thing I say to people who are talking about ‘loud pipes saving lives’. I know I’ve just unleashed the gates of hell there, but science and fact unfortunately are pretty clear on this. If you just like it, that’s different. I might disagree with you; I hate open-through motorcycles, they drive me crazy. I’m a motorcyclist, I’ve had a lot of very obnoxious motorcycles in my life, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. But, there’s a point at which you’re just irritating others for no reason. You’re not making the bike better. You are not. But in terms of aesthetics, make it your own. Strip off the body work, change the body work, swap out the handlebar, whatever. Taller screen, remove the screen, luggage…whatever. Go crazy. Don’t weld. Don’t cut frames. And don’t weld onto frames. Please. For your own safety. Because, unless again (I’m not questioning someones skills as a welder, that’s not the point), when you add things on to load bearing structures, you’re messing with the balance of the whole in ways again. Unless you not only are an engineer, but an engineer with the test data showing where the stress points are, you’re playing with fire. This is adventure talk radio, so let me use an adventure example. Ewan McGregor, and Charlie Boorman, on their epic first BMW around the world video, they broke a frame. They broke the frame because they overloaded it. That simple. They had too much stuff. They abused those bikes past their design envelope, and they cracked the frame. It’s on the videos. This is what comes when you over accessorize. So, play within the margins. When the oil change is recommended, change the oil. I know it sucks if you have to pay someone else to do it. But these things are these for a reason. They’re not there to squeeze money from your wallet. They’re done by people like me, who really, really love motorcycling, who work inside these companies, and we’ve designed these products for long life. If you respect the owners manual.

Jim: Okay, so, looking at the rest of the bike then; the common things that people like to change of course are tires, I think tires without question, but then it gets into suspension, and we sort of go up from there. Are there areas that you think, when it comes to suspension in particular, that we just shouldn’t be touching?

Michael: I guess, no, suspension’s pretty safe. Again, it’s all about the quality of the workmanship. If you’re doing it yourself, check the user manuals, go online, get a torque wrench, find the specifications for the torque specifications, and stick to them. If it’s supposed to be locked tight, put lock tight on it. The common sense stuff. Things usually get bad when people are ham-fisted. That aside, swapping out forks, changing forks fork length even by a few millimetres, will change the ride characteristics. People don’t realize how sensitive vehicles are. Cars and motorcycles. I’m not saying it’s going to be catastrophic, but just be aware that changes to tire profile will change the suspension travel. You change the tire profile, it will roll into the corner differently. Now, some of that’s very nice. You go- oh, I like this, this is more what I wanted. Terrific. Go for it. Have fun. But recognize that the bike, as it was delivered, was designed for a certain outcome. When you change out tires and suspension, the outcome will change again. Better in some ways, for what you’re looking for, but worse in others. Be aware of that. Maybe the braking performance will be reduced in certain conditions because you changed the suspension setting. Stiffer suspension means you are more likely to encounter chatter over broken surfaces and hard braking. So, that’s it. Just be aware. Be aware when you make these modifications that suddenly, these 3000 hours of testing that went into he bike before it was given to you, is now basically gone. You’ve got to reevaluate what the bike can do with your modifications. 

Jim: And you really need a base line for that, don’t you? It’s something that I always do with a bike. I like to get the bike and ride it first for a very long time, until I really get the feel of something, before I start modifying it. Because, without a base line, you have no idea what you’ve changed, and whether it’s gotten better or worse.

Michael: Well, and the biggest point that anyone in this industry will make, and most veteran motorcyclists will say the same; every stock motorcycle today is so far better than 99% of motorcyclists. You want to go faster in the corners? Get some training. Go to a track day. You want to be a better off-road rider? Go get some training. Spend $300 on a weekends worth of training before you spend $300 on any modification on your motorcycle. Because I guarantee you, the expert instructor can take a bone stock motorcycle, and wax your behind on any course of the world. So the stock condition of most motorcycles is already far beyond the capability of most people. I include myself very much in that category, even after all these years. Motorcycles are phenomenal now. So, modify to your heart’s content. Make them as unique as you dare. But, just stop lying to yourself. If you think you’re going to make it somehow so much better than stock. You’re just going to make it better for you, and that’s terrific. That should be applauded. But, you’re not making it holistically better. 

Jim: Is there any way to know whether or not we’re actually going to improve the ride when we start to mess with things? How do we go about it? In other words; you’ve got the new bike sitting there in the driveway, you’ve ridden it lots, now you know what it feels like…how do you know where to go from there? Or maybe is that an indication that you shouldn’t be doing it? I mean, the question. 

Michael: I guess I would say that. There’s a reason why (I said earlier) every region, every province or city, has some kind of suspension guru, or engine tuning guru. That person has spent many, many years working on many motorcycles, and has learned things and failed, and learned from those failures. Maybe they were a technician at a factory level for some reason, or were a road racer, or off-road racer, whatever. But that’s the level of expertise you need. Again, I’m not telling people to not go on eBay and buy some forks, and swap out the front end, and have fun. Have fun, I encourage that. But the fundamental truth if, you are not going to improve the bike. Not knowingly. You need to have that depth of experience. You were talking about a base line. You know how you get that base line? By methodical data entry. Boring stuff. You’d have to ride the same stretch of road, the same way, over and over again, and carefully and meticulously note…the air temperature, the ground temperature…was it wet, was it humid…how did you feel…what did you feel in feedback from the bike… And if you think I’m exaggerating, how do you think that the factories do it? The test program on every new motorcycle is like that. You have two or three test riders working with two or three suspension engineers, and two or three {?} people, and the project leader. There are reams and reams and reams of data. We have sensors, torque sensors, mounted all over the bike. You sometimes see these pictures in magazines. That’s how you get a base line. Anything else is just seat of the pants. And that’s fun, and we North Americans love the story of the hero, of the super talented technical wizard who just kind of felt their way through. Well, guess what? That doesn’t happen. It just doesn’t. Reality is, think about whatever industry you work in. Your day job. How do you get good at it? By doing it lots, and by being careful, and disciplined. And that’s the only way you can know if your motorcycle…what your motorcycles performance base line is, and have a target of what you’re trying to achieve, and then work towards that target. You’re going to work through it by trial and error. There’s no silver bullet. There’s no getting around this boring methodical cataloguing of data. Otherwise, it’s just…otherwise, what you’re doing is just playing in your garage. And, again, play in your garage. Do it. Have fun. But don’t delude yourself into thinking that you’re somehow going to find this magical place where your KTM is suddenly going to be like red bowl racing ready. It’s just not.

Jim: Are there any mods that you find that you’re sort of leaning to when you buy a new bike? Or that you always do when you get a new bike? 

Michael: Yep. All the cheesy reflectors get pulled off. The number plate, usually the big black plastic number plate holder… These are all banalities. I like the bikes to look clean, so I get ride of everything that is really superfluous. That’s always the case. The other thing I do is I tend to remove stickers. I like bikes to have no graphics. If they’ve been clear coated, then too bad for me. But in terms of technical improvements? Zero. I’ve had too many embarrassing conversations with senior engineers in my youth, I learned the way that you can’t…this is the fundamental thesis of my discussion is…you’re going to be really hard pressed to improve your motorcycle. I’ve changed tires to suit what I do more. And I accessorize, for sure. Luggage, racks, hand guards, skid plates, and all that sort of thing. But usually just for function, or looks. I’ve changed the paint. So in other words, really soft stuff. And you’re talking to a guy who designs and manufactures motorcycles from scratch. SURU, and before that Amorok (the electric race bike). We built everything from scratch. So it’s not that I don’t now how, or that I don’t have the connections for professional grade engineering suspension work, it’s just with my stock motorcycles, they’re already better than I am. So I really am just enjoying them as they come, and making tiny changes just to make them look nice for me. 

Jim: So, without running through the same thing over again…you don’t change suspension or anything? 

Michael: No.

Jim: You’re not putting in a better shock, or better valuing in the forks, or anything like that?

Michael: No. No, no. There’s just that-

Jim: I just think that, you pointed it out already, you’re a motorcycle designer, that’s what I wanted to say. It’s kind of bizarre to hear this from sone who has all the capacity to make the modifications that all of us run out and do, and you’re saying- no, it’s beyond me. They’ve already done a great job.

Michael: Because; what would I hope to achieve? I’ll give you an example. I had an FZ1. Yamaha street bike, back when I was working for Bombardier. The bike had a detuned R1 engine, 150 horsepower, all these amazing technologies. It was too much motorcycle, frankly. I’ve had the privilege of riding…I don’t know, I lost count…hundreds of motorcycles in my career from every major brand. At some point… I think that was the first time I had a motorcycle where I realized- there’s nothing I can do to this that would make me worthy of it in it’s stock condition. My skill level is not there. And I’m a good motorcyclist. I’ve had very few incidents, I’m quick, and I’m predictable, and I’m confident in the dirt and on the road, I’ve ridden on the track… But it’s just the height of arrogance to suggest that somehow the bike needs improvement. I need improvement. I need better skills. Everyone does. The best $500 I ever spent was going on a track day. Not became I’m like racer boy, doesn’t matter. Go on a race track with an instructor, and get some skills. Even on your adventure bike. Especially on your adventure bike. They’re amazing. Modern adventure bikes are the best handling street bikes in the world. Period. Better than any super bike. But those bikes have tremendous capability. Sign up for a riders course, or sign up to a local dirt bike…somewhere there’s an instructor. Improve yourself. You will get so much more out of every motorcycle you ride. You will be more confident, you will ride with greater safety, you will enjoy yourself more than spending on thin dime on modifying a stock motorcycle. Modify them, but know that you’re not going to make your riding experience better. And most people say- oh, I can feel the difference. That’s like saying that somehow your ass has the sensitivity to know that… I’m sure there are people, perhaps yourself even, that are outraged by what I just said. But it’s nonsense to think hat you can feel the subtle changes in contact patch between tire x and tire y. Over the course of a thousand kilometres, you’ll notice- this one feels better in the wet, or… But that’s it. That feels better. But better how? More grip? Or just more feedback? Because those are not the same thing. This is why test drivers at the OEM level are paid a lot of money. It’s not just some guy who like- I’m fast. Nobody cares about test riders being fast. Test riders are valued for their ability to accurately describe mechanic nuance. Feedback. Then that get correlated with the data they’re getting from the sensors. So for someone just making changes in their backyard, feeling in through their butt and saying- oh, I can tell the difference…well, I’m sure you can tell a difference, but it’d be hard-pressed to describe that with any sort of scientific accuracy. 

Jim: Especially when you’re saying they’re measuring things like temperature and torque. 

Michael: Pressure.

Jim: Exactly. There’s so many things that they’re measuring and comparing from one to the other. I’ve often said that when it comes to reviews. When you see some review a tire in particular, they’ll talk about the tire being good on the road, and not so good in this dirt, and better in this dirt… But the thing is though, there’s so many variables there for all of us. It depends on you, and what you have on the bike, your riding style…there’s so much. And the weather. 

Michael: Motorcycle journalism is 50% entertainment, and 50% bull. I say this as someone who’s a monthly columnist for Cycle Canada, and Motor Fire in the UK, and I write for a lot of publications, so I include myself in that. Which is why I restrict most of my writing to thing Is know. Which is how motorcycles are made. Because, I like the guys I work with, and they’re great fun, and everyone should read the motorcycle journals of their choice. It’s terrific. Read Alan Cathcart, read…it’s doesn’t matter. Read any of them that have been writing for a few years. Compare the review of this 2018 model, and go back ten years or five years. They’re saying the same things- this time they’ve raised the game, the braking is like…last year’s model is garbage, but the new brakes are so good… Every year they regurgitate the same nonsense that we (myself included) have put in the press releases from the manufactures side. 12% increase in rigidity. If you add up all the rigidity increases that I have written into press realizes over the last 20 years, by this point, motorcycle frames would have no give at all. They’d be 100% rigid. So, what I’m trying to tell the listeners are; just as you can’t possibly outsmart professional engineers building/designing products for safety and a broad performance envelope, we also at the same time (we, the manufacturers) are leading you on. We’re doing thing sot deceive you, so that you buy our products. Does the rear shock (actual coil, the spring)…does it need to be that big? Here’s the secret answer; no, it does not. It’s big because ‘big means strong’. We paint it yellow, and it’s big, and you go- ooh, heavy duty suspension! We write some nonsense about how we’ve increased the fork diameter to 48mm, and everyone’s like- that’s the must have! We all need 48mm forks! You know what? All that does? Yes, it does increase the stiffness of the individual components…but it doesn’t increase the stiffness of the fork. That’s a function of the way the two…the slider and the {?} come together. So, unless you’re Valentino Rossi, or you’re Marc Marquez, it’s irrelevant. Stop listening to the nonsense we spout off in press releases and brochures. Take what test riders say with a grain of salt when they say- I can tell that this is so much better than last years. Really? Could you? Or was it because at the press launch we gave you six margaritas the night before, and put you up in a five star hotel? Because that’s what happened. So. And your magazine is struggling, and we pay for 12% of the ad revenue. This is the reality, and everyone knows it’s true. Even the guys writing it. So it’s a wonderful little dance that we do. I’ve had the privilege of being on both sides of the isle, and continue to be. So, buy the motorcycle that makes your heartbeat. Buy the bikes and enjoy it. Don’y worry what your buddy says. He’s regurgitating something he’s read in a magazine, that was regurgitated by a manufacturer, that’s half true and half marketing. Just go and ride. Go ride. Fix up the bikes that you look at overtime and go- damn, I love my motorcycle. Make it more comfortable, or make it longer range…make it your own. And please get rider training. You always, I don’t care how many years you’ve been riding…every year, you should pay someone to teach you something. You’ll just be a safer, happier motorcyclist. And you’ll be way quicker than any modification you could possibly make over the counter. 

Jim: Michael, great to talk. Thank you very much. 

Michael: It was my pleasure.   


Jim (Narrate): I’ve been speaking with motorcycle designer Michael Uhlarik. You can find out more about what he does with his ride SURU at


: Jim Martin
Producer: Elizabeth Martin
Transcriptionist: Natasha Martin


This episode of Adventure Rider Radio is made possible by listener support and the following SHOW SPONSORS

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