Over the past 10 years we have seen an electronic revolution in the world of motorcycling. When we were all living in fear of the Millennium Bug hitting and planes falling out of the sky, the most advanced form of electronic control on a motorcycle was fuel injection, and even that was pretty basic.
ABS was in its infancy and even an onboard lap timer was considered pretty impressive. Fast forward 12 years and we have traction control, sport ABS, variable fuel maps, anti-wheelie, lap timers, gear indicators, electronic suspension - the list goes on and on. Now Husqvarna has added a new name to this list - off-road ABS.
So what is it? Essentially the off-road ABS system is identical to 'normal' road bike ABS when it comes to hardware. Husky is owned by BMW and so has borrowed some of its technology. The control unit is incredibly small and weighs less than 1.5kg, but what makes it neat is the way it works.
The Husky system monitors front- and rear-wheel speed, but it basically only acts on the information from the front wheel. Why? On an off-road bike the rear is often skidded into a corner, or is up in the air, something that isn't common (hopefully!) on a road bike but happens naturally in an off-road environment due to the uneven terrain. While the system looks at data from the rear, it ignores it if it is significantly slower than the front wheel's speed. Because ABS works when you are on the brakes, the rear is unlikely to be moving faster than the front (unless you are holding the throttle open while braking!!!), but it is likely to be slower if you are skidding or it is in the air. Cleverly, if the rear's speed is close to the front's and the ABS is activated it will actually reduce the amount of ABS, calculating that as the rear is moving there must be more grip. So that's the techy part over; what's it like to use?
At this point on a conventionally braked bike you can apply the brakes, but with the weight off the rear it often locks and I assume the front will also skid should I panic and grab a handful. Experienced off-roaders will simply use the engine's braking and skillful use of both brakes to slow the bike down, but I freely admit that I am not overly skillful! Which is where the ABS comes in.
On a fairly tricky (for me) off-road course and trail ride through a forest I found the ABS a huge comfort. Things happen quite quickly in an off-road environment and the fact I didn't have to concentrate on the front locking meant my little brain cell could instead focus on where I was going, look for obstacles and generally plan a route through the trees and rocks. Dropping down steep inclines I had the confidence to apply the front brake and although I admit this mainly proved that there was far more grip than I assumed there was, on the occasional 'panic brake' when an unexpected rut or sight of a looming tree caused a reflex twitch, the ABS saved it turning into something more serious.
The thing about green lanes as opposed to motocross tracks is that you never know what is around the next corner. Track riding is constant, round a bend on a green lane and you may encounter a walker, horse, fellow rider or a multitude of varying natural conditions such as an incline, rut or huge patch of mud. ABS gives riders an extra safety net that, while I would say is more suited to less confident off-road riders, is also a valid addition to a more experienced rider's arsenal.
When it does appear, Husky has hinted that it will have varying modes to allow you to decide on its sensitivity as well as the ability to turn it off completely. Personally, if I was considering venturing off-road I'd get a bike with ABS, use it to learn the limits of front wheel traction in safety then turn the sensitivity down or ABS off completely when I was more experienced.
So does ABS belong off-road? While I'd say not in a 'race environment' or motocross track, for your average Joe who likes green lane riding with his mates I reckon that by the time Husky launches its system it will be developed enough to be a worthy addition. So that's another field of motorcycling invaded by electronics. How long until we get off-road traction control?