Motorcycles For Touring
(Overnight Or Across the Country)

By Chuck Hawks


Anyone who plans to travel by motorcycle should take a close look at what the touring riders are doing. This particularly pertains to the motorcycles they ride and the clothes and accessories they chose. The fact is, its the touring bikers who ride the most miles, and in the process they learn what works best out on the road.

Today, street bikes seem to be classified as "touring," "sport touring," "standard," "cruiser," "dual purpose" (meaning street and dirt), and "sport" motorcycles. While you can ride around the world on any of these, the dual purpose and sport bikes are the worst choices for serious, long distance motorcycle travel in the U.S., Canada, or any other modern, industrialized country. Let's briefly examine the other four types of motorcycles.

First, the standard motorcycle. The standard is the all purpose street motorcycle. You can ride it on the city streets, or fast down a country road, or on a long trip; to work or to play. It is easy to accessorize a standard for any of these purposes, without destroying its basic versatility. Since they come as honest, basic bikes, standards can be optimized to suit your personal needs. A touring seat, windshield, saddlebags, tank bag, parcel rack, and sissy bar with passenger backrest are among the most useful touring accessories for the standard motorcycle. Because it is less specialized than other types, the standard presumably also has less sales appeal. Yet the best selling motorcycle in America, as I write this, is the Harley-Davidson Sportster, a standard motorcycle that first came to market in 1957. Recently, Triumph introduced a modern version of their famous standard of the 1960's, the Bonneville, and it quickly became their best selling model. Other popular standards include the BMW R1150R and Honda CB750 Nighthawk. An additional benefit is that standards tend to be among the least expensive motorcycles. They may not be the best for any single purpose, but if you want to use your bike for a variety of purposes, including travel, you owe it to yourself to consider a standard.

Few motorcycles admit to being standard bikes today; the bulk of what would have been called standards 30 or 40 years ago are now called cruisers. It is illustrative of the appeal of cruisers that, ironically, the Harley-Davidson Sportster and Triumph Bonneville, those most standard of all motorcycles, are often mistakenly called cruisers. The cruiser motorcycle has become the standard of today. Early cruisers tended to be modeled on "chopper" type motorcycles, perhaps the least practical of all motorcycle types. But in recent years, the cruiser has evolved into a much more practical form. Many of them are very reminiscent of standards from the 1950's, only with much superior modern motors and suspension. These cruisers are both practical and stylish, and far superior as functional motorcycles to anything built in the 1950's or 1960's. They typically give up a bit of handling and performance to achieve a bit more style, compared to today's standard motorcycles. Typical cruisers would include the Yamaha V-Star 650 and the Harley-Davidson Super Glide (the original factory cruiser that started it all).

Most modern cruisers are easily accessorized to accommodate the traveling motorcyclist. The same useful touring accessories I mentioned for standards in the paragraph above are also applicable to cruisers. And the motorcycle manufacturers make a special effort to offer a wide range of accessories for their cruiser models.

A particularly interesting offshoot of the cruiser type is the touring cruiser, equipped by the factory with a windshield, touring seat, and saddle bags. The original touring cruiser is the Harley-Davidson Road King. With these motorcycles, the motorcycle companies have re-invented the basic touring bike, and I have combined these cruisers with the touring bikes in my Touring and Sport Touring Motorcycle Comparison chart.

Another cruiser variation is the power cruiser, like the Yamaha V-Max, the modern street racer. The same accessories that apply to other cruisers can also be used to civilize these powerful bikes.

The other class of motorcycles with a legitimate claim to versatility is the sport touring bike. These are usually derived from sport bikes, with factory mounted saddlebags and fairing, and an improved (more comfortable) seating position. The latter usually includes a plusher dual seat and higher, more natural handlebars than those provided on their sport bike counterparts. This makes them considerably more comfortable over the long haul than a sport bike. They usually retain a good measure of their sport bike handling and performance, making them a lot of fun to ride. If fast Sunday rides in good weather are your forte, with an occasional longer trip thrown in, a sport touring bike is probably what you want. You can get a similar result by adding saddlebags and a windshield, or fork mount sport fairing, to a standard type bike, but the factory sport touring bike will usually out perform a standard "bagger." Good examples of modern sport touring bikes would be the Triumph Sprint ST or the Buell S3T Thunderbolt.

The true touring bike is the cream of the crop for the long distance traveler. The comfort, protection, range, and load capacity of the touring bike are superior to all other types. If you plan to ride all year and in all types of weather, you should seriously consider a touring bike. If you eschew owning a car, you should definitely own a touring bike (among others). If your idea of fun is hitting the starter button in Portland, and the kill switch in San Francisco, you need a touring bike. Ditto if most of your traveling is "two up." Touring riders are the most experienced, knowledgeable, courteous, and safest riders on the road. It is true that their big machines can be somewhat clumsy in stop and go traffic, a hassle to park, and that they are less sporting for fast Sunday rides than the other types I have discussed. They may not look as "cool" as a lot of cruisers, but for getting on down the road they cannot be beat. The Honda Gold Wing and Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Classic are typical touring bikes.

Most touring bikes are big motorcycles, usually equipped with a plush dual seat (often with backrests), full fairing with lowers, stereo and intercom system, luggage (typically including both saddlebags and a tail trunk, plus additional storage in the frame mount fairing), low maintenance shaft or belt drive, engine guards (crash bars), floorboards, heavily valenced fenders for maximum protection, and heavy duty electrical system capable of powering electrically heated riding clothes, driving lights, and a multitude of other accessories. Touring bikes tend to be the largest and heaviest of motorcycles, and because of that they typically provide a little less performance than other types of bikes with equivalent displacement. Don't worry though, they will still pull like a train. Unfortunately, they are also apt to be the most expensive motorcycles.

Whichever of the above types of motorcycle is chosen, remember the old adage "no less than 600cc for the highway." Just about any bike in my Motorcycle Comparison charts of this or greater displacement should be adequate for touring if properly equipped.

One of the greatest advantages possessed by the motorcyclist is superior visibility (compared to car drivers trapped in their tin boxes). It is amazing how much better you can see around cars in passing situations. This, coupled with the narrowness of the motorcycle and its superior power to weight ratio, makes for much quicker and safer passing on the highway. Acceleration can save lives. And actually make a crowded two lane highway fun.

Many non-motorcyclists just do not realize how much quicker than a car the average motorcycle is. A quick comparison will illustrate this point. Let's compare a typical standard motorcycle, in this case the very popular 1997 Harley-Davidson Sportster XLH1200, to both a typical sedan, a Ford Taurus, and two very high performance muscle cars, the Ford Mustang Cobra and the Chevrolet Camaro Z28 SS. (All of the car models discussed below are of a vintage similar to the aforementioned Sportster.) I took the Taurus data from Car and Driver magazine, and the muscle car data from Road & Track magazine.

The Ford Taurus accelerated through a standing start 1/4 mile in 16.5 seconds. Pretty good for a sedan.

The ultra quick street racers tied, both the Mustang Cobra and the Z28 SS blazed through the 1/4 mile in 14.4 seconds. Wow, good-bye sedan.

So how does our stock Sportster 1200 compare? As tested by Motorcyclist magazine, the 1/4 mile takes only 13.41 seconds. Good-bye muscle cars.

Wait a minute, you say a typical motorcycle can blow away even the muscle cars, the made-for-the-purpose Detroit street racers? Isn't there some production car that can beat the Harley? Yes, there is. Looking through my summaries of 77 Car and Driver and Road & Track road tests, the quickest car of them all is the 400 horsepower, $118,000 Porsche 911 Turbo. This baby ate up the Cobra and the Z28, and the Corvettes, and the Ferraris, and the Viper, too. Everything. It ran a 1/4 mile in 12.5 seconds.

But remember, we chose the Sportster because it was a typical motorcycle in terms of acceleration. The Turbo Porsche was the quickest car in the world. Take a look at my Motorcycle Comparison charts. Several of the bikes listed there can out drag the German super car. The Yamaha V-Max power cruiser blew through the 1/4 mile in only 10.87 seconds! Way faster than the Turbo Porsche. And some sport bikes are even faster than the V-Max. The point is, when you travel by motorcycle you can have more fun than anyone else on the road. In fact, when it comes to passing power, you rule the road.

When you ride, look professional: always wear a helmet, boots, gloves, and protective clothing (Don't like that 'sissy' stuff? Imagine yourself in a Mercury). Ride safely and enjoy the trip. On a motorcycle, getting there is more than half the fun.




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Copyright 1998, 2003 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.



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