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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 touring and daily motorcycle riders (those who choose a motorcycle as their primary mode of transportation) are doing. This particularly pertains to the motorcycles they ride and the clothes and accessories they chose. The fact is, these bikers ride the most miles and, in the process, they learn what works best on the open road.

Today, street bikes seem to be classified as "touring," "sport touring," "standard," "cruiser," "Adventure" (i.e. scramblers), "dual purpose" (meaning street legal dirt bikes) and "sport" motorcycles. While you can ride around the world on any of these seven types, the sport, dual purpose and adventure bikes are the worst choices for serious motorcycle travel in the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia, Western Europe or any other modern, industrialized country. (A motorcycle tour in under developed, third world countries may be a different matter, but is beyond the purview of this article.) Let's briefly examine the remaining four types of motorcycles.

Standard Motorcycles

The standard is the all purpose street motorcycle, a jack of all trades. You can ride it on the city streets, fast down a country road, on a long trip, or commute to work. 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 a 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. Triumph introduced a modern version of their famous standard of the 1960's, the Bonneville, and it quickly became their best seller, spawning a variety of popular Bonneville based models.

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.

Cruisers

Few motorcycles admit to being standard bikes today. The majority 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. However, in recent years the cruiser has evolved into a much more practical form. Many of them are very reminiscent of standards from the 1950s, only with modern motors and suspension.

These modern cruisers are both practical and stylish, far superior as functional motorcycles to anything built in the 1950s or 1960s. 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 Star line and the Harley-Davidson Dyna Glide line (the original factory cruisers that started it all).

One of the typical cruiser advantages is a low seat height. This allows smaller riders to reach the ground. It also makes it much easier for a passenger to get aboard. In addition, typical cruisers have a low center of gravity, inspiring confidence and making them easy to maneuver at low speeds, as in parking lots. They are friendly motorcycles to ride.

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. Most 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.

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

Sport Touring Motorcycles

Another class of motorcycles with a legitimate claim to versatility is the sport touring bike. Some sport touring machines are designed from the outset for the role, such as the classic BMW RS series, but many are based on sport bikes modified with somewhat increased fork rake, factory mounted saddlebags, a roomier fairing, taller windshield, and more comfortable handlebars / seating position. The latter includes a plusher dual seat and higher, more natural handlebars than those provided on their sport bike counterparts.

These changes make sport touring bikes considerably more comfortable over the long haul than a sport bike. They usually retain a good measure of 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 bike, but the factory sport touring bike will usually out perform a standard "bagger." Examples of modern sport touring bikes would be the BMW F 800 GT or Honda ST 1300

Touring Motorcycles

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 long distances, all year long 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 ("half a car"). If your idea of fun is hitting the starter button in Portland, Oregon and the kill switch in Portland, Maine, you need a touring bike.

Touring riders are generally the most experienced, knowledgeable, courteous and safest riders on the road. It is true that their big, heavy machines are somewhat clumsy in stop and go traffic, a hassle to park and are less sporting for fast Sunday rides than the other types I have discussed. They may not look as "cool" as cruisers, but for getting down the Interstate they cannot be beat. The Honda Gold Wing and Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra are examples of 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 and large fenders for maximum protection. A heavy duty electrical system, capable of powering electrically heated riding clothes, driving lights and a multitude of accessories is required.

Touring bikes are to be the largest and heaviest of motorcycles, and because of that they typically provide a 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.

Conclusion

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 more easily you can see around other vehicles.

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. In fact, when it comes to passing power, you rule the road. The point is, when you travel by motorcycle you can have more fun than anyone else on the road.

Remember, when you ride, look professional: always wear a full coverage helmet, boots, gloves and protective clothing. Ride safely and enjoy the journey. On a motorcycle, getting there is more than half the fun.


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