I got a shock the other day when the ABS system of my motorcycle failed to get activated and I locked the front wheel at high speed before releasing the brake lever just in time. It would have been ironical as well as painful if I'd crashed. This year is the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the anti-lock brake technology that has probably done more than any other to improve riders' safety.
The first production motorcycle with ABS was the 1988 version of the BMW K100 four, but anti-lock brakes made a big impression on me a year or two before that. I can still vividly remember trying a prototype anti-lock equipped motorcycle for the first time and being surprised and impressed when it stopped far more quickly than I could manage on a conventional motorcycle.
That first test, of a mechanical anti-lock system developed by Lockheed, was slightly false, because it was on a smooth, wet proving ground surface with a friction coefficient close to that of ice. Even so, the potential was obvious. And BMW's first system was well received, with 70 percent of K100 buyers opting for it by 1989, even though the expensive system weighed over 11 kilograms extra. But those early ABS systems were flawed, mainly because processor speeds were too slow. The ABS tended to cut in too early, so on motorcycles such as Yamaha's 1993-model GTR1000 an experienced rider on a dry road could stop a fair bit harder without ABS installed.
There were still more serious problems more than 10 years later. At the launch of BMW's K1200S in 2004, I braked hard approaching a downhill hairpin, felt a pulsing through the lever as tha ABS cut in... and suddenly found myself without any brakes for several seconds as the system was overwhelmed by the combination of gradient and bumps, I entered the bend far too fast and crashed, solely due to the ABS.
Systems have improved a lot since then, although the quality still varies. Even a motorcycle as sophisticated as the Ducati Multistrada 1200 from three years ago had ABS that cut in too soon when faced by that tricky blend of bumps and downhill gradient. The ABS on my latest motorcycle was pretty good until it deactivated when I did a small wheelie, but on a dry road an experienced rider could still stop harder without ABS.
The best modern ABS systems, as fitted to motorcycles such as the BMW HP4, Ducati 1199 Panigale and the Triumph Daytona 675R, are compact, light and brilliant.. I can still sometimes barely believe what I'm experiencing when I approach a racetrack bend and can squeeze the front brake lever as hard as I like to receive breathtaking levels of stopping power with no danger of locking the front wheel.
The safety advantages of this are obvious. My last big crash was when locking the front wheel of a KTM 990 Supermoto R at highspeed a few years ago. It simply wouldn't have happened on the latest version of the 990 Supermoto-R, which has ABS as standard.
I actually think ABS can have more value than its occasional use in an emergency, because it allows riders to learn how hard they can brake. Approaching the limits of traction, especially with the front tire, is risky even on a closed course. Unless your motorcycle has ABS, in which case you can practise safely for as long as you like.