Going the (First) Distance: Choosing a Touring Bike

Fear not ye Ninja 500 or Harley Street 500 owner: You too can enjoy long distance riding. A lot of touring riders will tell you that you need a “big” bike to really enjoy touring. Bigger motorcycles, cruiser or street, do have certain advantages. Their added weight can make going over bumps or bridge joists less unpleasant. Their higher torque output can make passing traffic a lot easier. Some larger touring bikes, like the author’s Yamaha FJR1300, also have large fuel tanks for fewer fuel stops or longer forays into the wilderness.

However, smaller motorcycles are just as capable of doing long-distance as their larger brethren. They also have some advantages. Lots of riders tour on 650cc twins, like the Suzuki SV650 and Kawasaki Versys 650. Smaller bikes’ better fuel economy means lower overall trip costs, and their lightweight can be a godsend in urban traffic or traffic jams. Their lightweight advantage is amplified in the growing adventure-touring market. A lighter single or twin-cylinder motorcycle, like a Kawasaki KLR650, a BMW F800GS, or even the new Kawasaki Versys 300 will do a lot better on dirt roads than a much heavier BMW S1000X or a Honda VFR1200X. Heck, my editor at the Two Wheel Power Hour Motorcycle Show toured on Ninja 250s for years.

In reality, as long as your motorcycle is at least 250cc, it is usually the best bike to start touring on. Long-distance riding has many challenges, and it is better to face them with the devil you know than the devil you do not know. In reality, how a motorcycle is set-up is far more important to making long-distance riding enjoyable than the motorcycle itself. The next several points will outline the process by which a rider can go about figuring out what touring set-up will work best for him or her.

I cannot stress this point enough. A motorcycle cannot be properly set up for long distance riding until the rider has figured out what needs to change. By taking your bike out for several structured long rides, a rider can figure out where the biggest issues are. Not doing a test ride can cause one of two kinds of problems. Some riders may not make enough modifications to their bike. Little things that are marginally uncomfortable after an hour or two of riding easily become unbearable after eight or ten hours of riding. The other problem can be a new long distance rider wasting money on lots of touring farkles that do not actually work for them.

Some motorcycles are better set up from the factory for touring than others. The author’s Yamaha FJR1300 already had good-sized hard luggage, a relatively comfortable riding position, plenty of wind protection, and heated grips. However, the author has still made a series of modifications over the past several years to get the bike better set up for him. The FJR’s seat has been changed, the heated grips were replaced with a different brand that offers better grip, the cam chain tensioner was replaced with a manual type, and mirrors have been swapped for wider ones. The author also did his first long-distance ride on a Honda Nighthawk 750, which is about as bare bones of a motorcycle as any manufacturer has made in the last 25 years. A good touring bike is any bike that is properly set up for you.

I personally made the mistake of not test riding several times. While I lived to tell about those experiences, a simple test ride would have shown me I had a problem well before I had hit the open road. My first such experience occurred on my first motorcycle trip back in 2008. I had decided I did not want to spend a lot of money on luggage (which will be discussed in Point #4), so I bought a small sissybar bag, a Joe Rocket magnetic tank bag, a set of small Dowco saddlebags, and a motorcycle backpack for the trip. The tank bag worked out very well and was one I used for the next eight years. I still have it as a backup in case something happens to my current tank bag. The saddlebags also worked out well, and were a set I held onto for several years. The problem was the backpack. When I bought the backpack, I never considered either how long I would be riding, nor the weight of what I planned on cramming into it. I ended up stuffing the backpack full, and it was heavy enough that it started hurting my back. The weight also kept wanting to pull me backward and away from the handlebars. Had I simply done a test ride before I left, I would have figured out that I needed to move some items to another piece of luggage and off of my back.

As it turned out, I had not fully learned my lesson with motorcycles and backpacks. The next summer, I did my three-day tour to get ready for my trip to Utah. In a sense, the tour was really a three-day test ride, so I did not do things completely wrong. However, what I learned on the trip was that I still had a lot to learn about touring. Since I had had problems with the backpack, I decided to add a tail bag to the saddlebag set. That way I could move my laptop and other heavy items off of my back and onto the passenger seat. However, again, I did not do a test ride. As I began my ride, I discovered that the backpack was actually sitting on top of the tail bag, and kept on sliding around as I rode. By the time I figured out it was a real problem, I was already well into my first day. I got to enjoy the unpleasantness for another two days on the road.

The next year when I decided to do my ride to Utah, I sold the backpack and bought a Givi 45-liter top case. I kept the tail bag, and when I left for Utah, tried putting the tail bag back on the passenger seat. Once again, I did not do a test ride. What I had not planned on was the position of the top case pushing the tail bag forward a couple inches. Also, a week or two before I left, I had the tires on the bike changed (more on that in Point #8), and decided to replace the front brake lines too. When I went to install the lines, I came to the realization that the handlebar riser kit the bike came with made the bars too tall for the length of the brake lines. So I had to take the riser kit off and ride with the bars being an inch lower. Lowering the bars made the riding position very different but actually worked out okay. As soon as I sat on the bike for the first time with both the tail bag and top case on at the same time (which was 7am the morning I was leaving as the bike was warming up), I felt the tail bag pushing me forward in the seat. 4,500 miles later, I really regretted not having done a test ride. I had spent $325 on a custom seat the winter before, and I could barely use it because the tail bag was pushing me too far forward in the seat.

Two years ago Speedy Dan and I began planning our trip to Austin. I told Speedy it would be a good idea to test ride the ST1300 he would be borrowing for the trip. I was concerned that stock seat would not be comfortable enough for Speedy for consecutive nine-hour days. Speedy ended up only taking the ST1300 out for a couple short rides. Over the course of the trip, the seat actually worked out for Speedy. However, Speedy Dan struggled with a buffeting problem. Speedy Dan finally used the electronically-adjustable windscreen the last 200 miles of the trip and found that it solved the problem. Speedy could have enjoyed 3,500 miles of no buffeting instead of 3,300 miles of riding with a buffeting issue.

A good way to go about test riding is to use several rides, each one longer than the one before. The first ride should be equivalent to one tank of fuel for your bike. It will give a rider an idea of what issues may come up if he or she is not making any planned stops between fuel stops. The second ride should between the distance of the first ride and the amount of ground the rider wants to cover in a typical day. Usually, this would be about half or two-thirds of a typical day-long touring ride. The third ride should be the full distance a rider wants to cover in a day.

As you progress through each ride, write down what seems to be working well, as well as what is not working so well. Be sure to note how much worse each problem area becomes as the rides get progressively longer. Do not worry about how to fix the problems you discover yet. Just make sure you have a thorough understanding of what is causing the problem. For example, your rear end may be getting sore as the rides get longer. While the seat is usually one of the first things long distance riders change, it is not always the seat’s fault. Could it be the way you are sitting on the seat? Or might you need to change which portion of the seat you are sitting on throughout the day? Additionally, if it is the seat’s fault, there are lots of ways of addressing seat problems. Some of those solutions are covered in the next section.

It is best to not stray too far from home during these test rides in case it becomes really unbearable. One good method is riding to a certain point, then turning around and heading home. Another method is getting on a city’s outer loop freeway (if one is nearby) and just riding it a couple laps or more until the desired distance has been covered.

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