MotoGP rider Fabio Quartararo was in the lead and pulling away from the field at the Spanish Grand Prix earlier this month. His third successive victory a near given—all he had to do was stay out of the gravel trap. But then Quartararo lost his form and slowed. First Jack Miller came past. And then another rider, and another, Quartararo’s sure win surely gone away.
Did his tires wear prematurely? Had the 22-year-old fallen in love with a flag-waving corner marshal and lost his motivation? Unlikely, though 22-year-olds have been known to ride the peaks and troughs of emotion with unpredictable results. After the race, in which he finished 13th, the on-board camera of Quartararo’s Yamaha showed a man in distress. His face, through a flipped-up visor, twisted in misery as he slumped forward.
Within 48 hours Quartararo was in the operating theatre, his right arm immobilized as doctors addressed Quartararo’s chronic exertional compartment syndrome, better known as arm pump. It happens when forearms are (over) worked and when the fascia, which surrounds the muscle, doesn’t expand with the muscle. The easiest way for laymen to replicate the syndrome is to do 50 pushups, immediately grab a fiddle, and then play Paganini’s fiendishly difficult Caprices.
Arm pump and motorcycle racing go together like motorcycle racing and broken clavicles. Half the MotoGP grid has had arm pump operations, including Jack Miller, who had his less than two weeks prior to his win in Spain after he took advantage of Quartararo’s misfortune. And Quartararo betrayed no sign of relapse (he was operated on in May of 2019 for the same problem) this season through three prior races. The problem isn’t the vulnerability of human musculature—mostly, the problem is with the motorcycle.
A rider has four points (two hands, two feet) with which to manipulate the five controls (front brake, rear brake, clutch, throttle, shifter) on a motorcycle. (I’m overlooking the handlebar, but since it can be pulled- or pushed-upon by whichever hand has less to do at that particular moment, let’s say its requirements can be spilt, evenly, between left and right hands.) This means one hand or foot has to double up and operate two controls. But this shouldn’t be too hard. Humans, after all, can be taught to play Paganini.
But it is a problem. To my knowledge, Quartararo, and every other rider who’s battled arm pump, has struggled with their right arm. And that’s because the placement of the controls on a motorcycle, which repetition of use and historical precedent has told us to accept without questioning, is all wrong. The two most important controls? The front brake and the throttle. Why is the right hand taxed with operating both of them?
A clutch, particularly with the advent of quick-shifters, requires our attention only at starts and stops, and yet it has a hand dedicated to its use and its use only. Same for the shifter and the rear brake. And yet the front brake, which we rely upon for 95 percent of our stopping power, and which demands a deliberate yet delicate touch, is paired with a throttle which must smoothly and progressively be rolled on or off. It’s manipulating the smooth transition between the front brake and the throttle that taxes our right hand, while, in the case of a racer, dealing with forces loading the arms from 200 mph braking.
In the ’90s my father and I made roadworthy a 1947 Indian Chief. Its throttle was on the left end of the handlebar, and the front brake was paired with the twistgrip for the spark advance on the right handlebar end. The left foot worked a rocker pedal for the clutch and the right foot the rear brake. Shifting was done by hand with a lever nestled on the right side of the fuel tank. Oh, and the throttle didn’t have a return spring. Sound complicated? It wasn’t.
I was in the 20s at the time, and despite lack of experience with bikes of this vintage, within 10 miles I had it mastered. The spark advance was only used to retard the ignition timing to (kick) start the bike; the rest of the time it was immobile. That meant one hand for the throttle and one hand for the front brake. And not having a return spring on the throttle was a boon. High idle for a chilly morning warmup? No trouble. Cruise control on the open road? Built in. But, you say, didn’t the revs soar if you forgot to roll the throttle off during a shift or while braking with the clutch disengaged? Never happened. Not once. Despite onlookers shuddering at the thought of riding such a beast, it was, in many ways, more logical than any modern motorcycle. (I acknowledge that not having a throttle return spring could make a crash interesting.)
Humans, all of us, are adaptable. With my right arm in a sling after I broke my clavicle in a racing crash, my left hand, within two weeks, had 90 percent of the capability of my right, despite being right handed. I wrote left-handed, shaved left-handed, and even shifted my manual-transmission car left-handed. Amputees drive cars modified for whatever physical capability they lack. Same for one-armed motorcyclists.
A MotoGP rider, who has mastery of the space-time continuum beyond the capabilities of the rest of us, could, after a few hundred laps of testing, adapt to a revised control regime with alacrity.
Why not move the clutch lever, which racers use only at the start, to a left-thumb operated lever? Then move the front brake to the left side, in place of where the clutch is today. Bicycles place the front brake on the left side, and most MotoGP riders spend a lot of time on bicycles, presumably without bafflement at the operation of the controls.
Tradition is fine—Clean Monday. Fat Tuesday. Good Friday (which is every Friday). But blind habit is just proof of a failure of imagination.