Whatever: Touring Bikes  They’re Not Just for Old Guys Anymore

It’s “Touring Month” here at MO, and how fitting, ’cause I’ve been riding the wheels off our borrowed Honda Gold Wing for a while now. (Just to let you know I’m not in Honda’s pocket, I’d be just as happy to be riding the wheels off the BMW K1600B, but BMW had to have it back.) I could also be happy to be riding the wheels off a Victory Cross Country 8-Ball, though a quick sweep through Cycle Trader informs me those things seem to be holding their value nicely and are still out of my price range.
Technically, these are all “baggers” since none has a trunk; for that reason they all say “old guy” less loudly than a full-on tourer: I picked out this bike, not my spouse. The only extra shoes I’m packing are flip-flops – no hair dryer on board. I retain a vestigial amount of independence and hipness. Not that you can’t be independent and hip two-up.
Not that a trunk can’t be stylish, like the one on this poor defunct Victory Cross Country they let me loose on a few years ago. Photo by: Brandon Burns.
The first Gold Wing I had access to was kind of a novelty. Honda had just bumped it up to a six-cylinder GL1500 the year before I got to the big magazine, and when I saw it parked in the shop, I thought it would be a bad idea if anybody expected me to ride a thing that big. I’d never even been on a boat that big. I did ride it, though, eventually, and was soon amazed how easy it was to do, and how pleasant a thing it was to ride, in a completely different way compared to all the crotch rockets that had drawn my attention before.
Since then, as I look back upon it from a distance, the moto-memories that stick in my brain the most are less the ones that involved getting to do a couple laps around Misano on Foggy’s championship-winning Ducati or riding Hayabusas around Catalunya, but more the ones that happened on big touring bikes. There’ll always be a certain amount of stress and adrenaline whenever there’s a racetrack involved, and a little of that stress lingers even when you’re riding on the street with people you love (even more stress if we’re in the dirt, for me).
But on a big touring bike (or bagger), well, getting away from it all on the open road is about as de-stressed as life gets. I think it was 1992 or so when I was between jobs, and David Edwards at Cycle World asked if I wanted to do the Iron Butt Rally on a Gold Wing? My well-honed non-competitiveness meant I had enough sense not to go for the win, but only to finish. That was still something like 11,000 miles in not many more than 13 days if I remember correctly, but the ’Wing made it one of the best times I ever had on a motorcycle (other than that 33 mpg meant we had to stop more than I wanted to). When I did go for a bonus leg with a couple of other gung-ho IBR riders, I remember a midnight creek crossing up to the bike’s axles on a lonely dirt road that I miraculously made it through – twice, since it was a dead end. No more bonus attempts for me after that.
At the time I had no job, no kids, no cell phone, and on that ride – because I was on that ride – no worries. Just reeling in the miles and taking the world in. I did have a new wife, and I dropped her off in Wisconsin on the way through. She slept most of that third day – 800 miles from Spokane to Madison there on back of the ’Wing. (If there were intercoms then, I would’ve not used them then also.) The U.S. was a nicer place, less up-against it in the rural parts and happier in general.
Carmel Valley was lovely, dark and deep on the way home from World Superbike last weekend.
Before the Iron Butt, I remember going on a big luxo-barge comparison at Cycle magazine, with (I think) Ken Vreeke, Thad Wolff and Steve Anderson. Thirty years ago we were all cracking jokes about the Yamaha Venture Royale, Suzuki Cavalcade, Kawasaki Voyager and whatever else we had, but I can still close my eyes and see the sparks flying from all our footpegs as we carved our way through the giant redwoods and prehistoric ferns in the dark forest that arches over California 128 as it runs east from Mendocino and the Pacific coast. Straight out of Star Wars – giggling inside our helmets most of the way. Anybody who doesn’t think you can ride a touring bike fast has never ridden a touring bike fast. Even on those crude early attempts to outdo the ’Wing, you could go for days and even wear clean underwear. If you felt like it. I don’t remember what bike won (probably the Gold Wing), but we all had a whole new respect for all of them.
Another (pre-internet) time, an Editor dispatched me back to York, Pennsylvania, to pick up the first H-D Road King and bring it back to Cali. My navigation system mostly consisted of the sun and a vague idea of west by southwest. I rolled into Gettysburg by accident, pretty much like the battle that determined American history. Right after I started working here at MO, I managed to make them think that doing a big loop through Arkansas, Missouri and Nebraska on a beautiful Victory Cross Country would be a good idea. By then I had an ex-wife, a son in high school and was on about my fifth cell phone, third Aerostich suit and ninth or tenth personal/professional crisis (who’s counting?) – but those couple of weeks on the road had the same restorative effect as always.
I don’t know if it’s the residual effects of manifest destiny, that caused our ancestors to uproot from the Old Country and just keep going west until there was no more West, or if it’s just all the John Wayne movies and Yosemite Sam cartoons we saw as kids, but the only time I identify as “American” in a positive way lately is when I’m flying down the highway on a motorcycle – and the bigger the better for purposes of communing with Buffalo Bill, Woody Guthrie and Wild Bill Gelbke. (Though a new Kawasaki H2 SX wouldn’t be out of the question either). Even though you know you have to go home eventually, that fix of fleeing toward limitless possibility is still wrapped around part of your medulla oblongata. Then again, it could just as easily be wanting to ride out, just one more time, as the clock ticks down… maybe it doesn’t matter which one.
Buffalo Bill’s place up on the North Platte in Nebraska
Anywho, the kid and I got to ride the ’Wing and the K1600B up to Calistoga for the Half-Mile a couple months ago, and that was a pretty swell thing to share with my offspring. I wasn’t home for more than a week or two when it was time to head back to Monterey for our Lightweight Sportbikes Shootout – and so it was back on the ’Wing again for me, unfortunately, as Brasfield’s Tacoma was full of Brasfield, Tommy and Troy (’wink).
Then I needed to get back to Laguna Seca again last weekend for World Superbike. How, oh how could I get there? When we were big and expansive and the sky might’ve been the limit, so was the Gold Wing. Now that we are smaller, contracting, and attempting to simplify – so is the new ’Wing. It’s smaller, lower, and the DCT version doesn’t even expect you to shift gears anymore as it hurtles you downrange with greater muzzle velocity than ever. I was more than happy to pack it up one more time for the 350-mile hump to Monterey.

I had a great time hanging at the races Saturday and Sunday (but I was working), then I had an even better time riding around on new Pirelli tires and Panigale V4s on Monday (which was also, technically, work).
Tuesday morning, very early, it was time to head home. And then it was just me, the Gold Wing, Carmel Valley Road, Taft and Highway 33. Chilly and foggy, hot and sunny, and all points in between. Why I took the long way home I’m not quite sure, but when I got here I felt good as new. Nearly new.
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