You can tour on anything. Although the vast majority of my touring has been on my BMW R100RS, I have also used three MZ 250s; a couple of Enfield Bullets; a Velocette LE200; a Harley-Davidson Tour-Glide; a BMW K100RS; a BMW R90S; a Moto-Guzzi V50; and a Honda 90. I've never tried touring on ultra-fast modern bikes, not least for financial reasons. But it can be done.
The main things to consider are what you can afford, and what sort of touring you want to do. A close third, though, must be reliability and reparability. This is covered in greater length in [fuel, oil and maintenance] but it is worth saying here that an advantage of a relatively simple, old-fashioned machine is that it is a lot easier to work on than a high-tech wonder. This is equally true whether you do the work yourself or have someone else do it. On the other hand, a relatively new, high-tech tourer is a staggeringly reliable machine and is likely to need far less maintenance or repair than something older or less sophisticated or both.
Yet a fourth consideration is wheelbase and steering geometry. A short wheelbase and nervous steering geometry makes for wonderful 'flickability' but a longer wheelbase and conservative trail makes for a bike that can be ridden long distances without the rider becoming too exhausted. A bike that is stable in a straight line has to be set up earlier for a corner, it's true, but equally, it usually can take more [luggage] before the handling is too adversely affected.
Even the smallest, lightest bike, preferably solo (though a Honda 90 carries two in surprising comfort), can be used if you don't plan on going too far or too fast: there's more about this in [Route Planning]. Sure, you can ride a Honda 90 flat out on the motorway for hours on end. I've done it. And then rebuilt the top end the following week.
Of course, a motorcycle that is regarded as a fast tourer these days is likely to have more power than an out-and-out racer from 50 years ago, let alone the road-going superbikes of their day. A Velocette Thruxton had at most 41 bhp; a DBD 34 Goldie a mere 38 bhp in road trim, or maybe 43 bhp in race trim; a basic Vincent Rapide just 45, with 55 for the Black Shadow and maybe 70 for a full-house Lightning. The legendary Brough Superior SS100 could muster just 45 bhp, and the 74 bhp of the JAP-engined New SS100 'Two of Everything' (of which only 8 were built before they switched to the much less powerful Matchless motor) was almost certainly something of an exaggeration. For comparison, a 1500cc Honda Goldwing flat-six was delivering 100 bhp at the beginning of the 21st century.
The old bikes were much slimmer and lighter, and therefore required much less power to deliver the levels of performance that they did; but even so, there's no denying that old bikes were by modern standards pretty slow. They also had lousy brakes but that's another story.
If you ride just for the pleasure of riding, then there's not much more to say. You already know what you like. But if a substantial part of the pleasure that you get from touring is seeing places, stopping, and enjoying yourself off the bike as well as on, you may care to read on. It's personal, but it's based on a fair amount of experience.
The biggest argument for a fast bike -- one that can cruise all day at 100 mph, 160 km/h, or higher, with a top speed of 125 mph, 200 km/h or higher -- is that it makes it easy to get from A to B quickly, so you can start to enjoy yourself at B. For instance, if you live in Scotland, and you want to go touring in Portugal, there's an inconvenient amount of England, France and Spain in the way, though you can trade riding time for ferry time to a certain extent.
The biggest argument against a fast bike, especially a big, fast bike, is that some of them aren't very suitable for pottering through back roads, exploring urban alleys, and riding on rough tracks. Then, something smaller, lighter and altogether more relaxed is well worth considering.
A lot depends, too, on whether you're touring solo or two-up. Since Frances and I have been married we've always been two-up. Solo, carrying [luggage] isn't too much of a problem. Two up, you need a bigger, heavier bike to carry your worldly goods.
Although there's a lot to be said for touring on really small, light, low-powered motorcycles, for general riding you really need at least 250cc and 15-20 bhp. This may seem laughably low, but for touring, there's a lot to be said for flexibility and a generally relaxed style of riding, without too much furious g ear-changing to pander to a peaky engine. This is what makes the Enfield Bullet such a pleasure to ride. Just 18 bhp from 346cc may not seem like much when you can get similar power out of an engine half the size -- in fact, the reason it doesn't seem like much is that it isn't -- but it's a very relaxing bike to ride.
The maximum comfortable cruising speed of the Bullet, maybe 50-55 mph, 80-90 km/h, is too low for sustained motorway journeys and indeed can be a bit frightening if everyone is whisking past you at 70+ mph, 110+ km/h. You therefore need to [plan your route] appropriately. On the other hand, my old MZ TS 250, ridden solo, would cruise at 70+ mph except when faced with a long steep gradient or a head-wind or (worse still) both. As I recall, it had just 17 bhp but they must have been quite big horses.
Although I've never used them for touring, most Japanese 250cc to 350cc machines are entirely adequate, and have well over 20 bhp. Several of my friends have used them and been perfectly happy. By the time you get to 500cc, you are getting into the realm of 'big bikes' though of course some 500s are a physically lot bigger than others.
There's no real upper limit to the capacity or power that you can use, but for most touring in Europe (and especially in India) there is a limit to the maximum desirable weight. On broad, smooth roads, a Honda Goldwing is wonderful; but as soon as you get onto the back roads, the twisties, the bumpy bits, the narrow urban alleys, it starts to live up to the name its detractors give it, the Leadwing.
Of course I'm biased, but I reckon that my 1978 R100RS is about as heavy a bike as is suitable for general touring, and indeed, there are times when I wish it was a bit lighter. I quite frequently load it to the maximum permitted vehicle weight, and when I have to push it to park or un-park, over 250 kg (550 lb) of motorcycle and luggage is more than enough. Certainly, I'd hate to try wrestling with some of the behemoths that weigh more than that, unladen.
Likewise, I seldom feel the need of more power than the R100RS has. It's been slightly modified, with gas-flowed, twin-plugged heads and improved oilways to stop cavitation at very high engine speeds. There's maybe 70 bhp at the rear wheel: when it was new, that was the claimed bhp at the crankshaft. The top speed, unmodified, was claimed as 200 km/h or (with the rider crouched behind the screen) 'in excess of 200 km/h'. But when I got back on to the R after a few weeks on a K ('Brick') I have to admit that the R didn't feel very powerful. I've never ridden a bike with significantly more than 100 bhp, and I've never gone much over 140 mph, so I can't comment on really fast bikes. But with the crowding on German motorways nowadays, I can't imagine you'd be able to use the full power very often.
The fastest I've ever seen on the clock of the old R100RS, which is fairly accurate and which indeed may well under-read at very high speeds because of the centrifugal expansion of the tyres, was in Germany: 135 mph, two-up, with full touring load. The instruction book specifically tells you not to do this: you are not supposed to exceed 130 km/h, 81 mph, with the panniers on. But the bike seems more stable two-up and laden than it does solo and unladen. It just requires a lot more braking effort, and a lot more time to go much over 100 mph. But on a substantially empty autobahn, without speed limits, I thought it was worth finding out how fast it would go.
We find the BMW ideal when we want to thrash down the French motorway system at high speed, because we can fairly easily put 400 miles (650 km) into a day. That's around six hours actual riding, four hours at an average of 80 mph (130 km/h) on the motorway and two hours on back roads and through villages at an average of about 45mph (70-75 km/h), plus two or three fuel stops, a meal stop, and one or two toilet stops (women tend to have smaller bladders than men). Ideally the fuel stops and the toilet stops should coincide but they don't always. Then there is the question of looking for a hotel, which can take anything from no time at all -- we see a likely hotel, stop, and that's it -- to a couple of hours' hunting around. There's more about that under Accomodation.
Speeds in India
Interestingly, we find that our speeds in India are about the same in km/h as they are in Europe in mph. In other words, on non-motorway roads we average about 45 km/h (just under 30 mph) instead of 45 mph; typical speeds on fast roads are 50-70 km/h (30-40 mph) instead of 50-70 mph; and the fastest we normally go is 80-100 km/h (50-60 mph) instead of 80-100 mph.
With the exception of a few heavyweights -- BMW's Paris-Dakar machines are perhaps the prototypes -- the big problem with off-road bikes is the amount of luggage you can carry. On the other hand, there are plenty of destinations where the ability to explore unsurfaced tracks and even to go off road from time to time can be very welcome indeed: Portugal, Hungary, even rural France spring immediately to mind.
My own inclination on this, and maybe I'm being old-fashioned, is to go for a middleweight general-purpose bike: one that is happy enough on the road, and happy enough off it. Once again, the dear old Enfield Bullet has a lot to commend it.
When you plan on spending many hours a day in the saddle, possibly for days on end, saddle comfort is an important consideration. This was brought home to us in the most rigorous fashion by our original 1990 tour of south India on a Bullet. You can get used to most saddles. They may hurt a bit at first, but it passes. Not so that particular saddle, which was designed for skinny Indian arses rather than (overly) well-fed Western ones. The foam was too firm, the edges too sharply defined. Towards the end of the 4000km trip we were forced to get off the bike for five minutes in every hour just to assuage the pain in our backsides.
We haven't had that problem with other Enfields, but then, we haven't gone 4000 km on them in three weeks. What we should have done on that original trip was gone into the bazaar and either had that saddle re-upholstered or bought another one: custom saddles are by no means unknown in India.
Likewise, my R90S (bought second-hand) came with a 'bum-stop' racing saddle that would have been just about tolerable for touring solo, but was completely hopeless for riding any distance two-up. I therefore bought, second hand, a big, fat, German touring saddle -- the standard BMW item from (I think) an R75/5. It looked like hell on that sleek, fast bike, but it was certainly comfortable.
There is no need to assume that you invariably need to change saddles, though. The standard saddle on my old R100RS, in particular, is perfectly adequate for two-up touring. Sure, you get a bit saddle-sore eventually, but you would with any bike, so I'm not going to worry about it. Although I do find that I have to have it re-upholstered every ten years or so, as the foam packs down and the edge of the seat pan begins to bite.
And if I went on a diet, any bike would be more comfortable...
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last updated: 29/10/03
© 2003 Roger W. Hicks