All posts by fastmike585

2009 Kawasaki Ninja 500 Review


Introduction

My short time with my Ninja 500 began with near tragedy. I was rear-ended on my previous street motorcycle in April 2017. I was very fortunate to have walked away from such a severe impact, though I did break my collarbone in the crash. While I was waiting for my collarbone to heal (and was down to one, track only motorcycle) I had time to consider which motorcycle I wanted to buy next.

I knew in the long-term I wanted to go back to a dedicated sport-touring bike. My deceased 2003 Yamaha FJR1300 had given me a taste of the comforts of touring on a true touring bike. I had found that I greatly enjoyed its touring-oriented features like shaft drive, hard saddlebags, and wind protection.

However, my budget and healing collarbone made buying another heavy, dedicated touring bike not feasible before peak riding season was over. Determined to not miss any more riding time than I needed to, I started looking for smaller, budget-conscious motorcycles I could afford that would also work for long-distance riding.

I decided to view my misfortune as an opportunity to try something different. I had been riding 1200cc or larger motorcycles since 2009. I decided it was worth taking a step down in displacement for the first time in my riding career.

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The Ninja 500 was one of the bikes on my list from the start, along with a Suzuki GS500, Kawasaki Ninja 250, Suzuki SV650, or Kawasaki 650. After 10 years of riding four-cylinder motorcycles, I definitely wanted to give a twin a try. I wasn’t interested in finding something that had lots of creature comforts. All I was looking for was something that could be used for long-distance riding by adding soft luggage.

After a couple weeks, I found the all-black 2009 Kawasaki Ninja 500 that I would settle on. The old owner had bought it new off the showroom floor and said she hadn’t had time to ride it much. Other than a crack on the right side of the upper fairing from a tip-over, the bike was in cosmetically good shape.

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The bike’s motor was also relatively fresh with just under 10,000 miles on the odometer. Because the bike hadn’t been run much, it had some trouble idling smoothly but seemed to run okay when the throttle was applied. After getting the bike home, I pulled the carbs out and gave them a thorough cleaning. I also did a valve adjustment that was overdue and re-synched the carbs when I re-installed them. I also changed the oil, oil filter, air filter, brake pads, and coolant, and installed stainless steel brake lines on the front and rear. I also adjusted the choke and throttle cables and changed the brake fluid for both braking systems.

After doing the above preventative maintenance, I rode the Ninja for about 4,000 miles from July (when I was medically cleared to ride again) to the end of September. I traded the bike for another FJR in December 2017.

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Engine/transmission

The engine power and performance were my biggest concerns when I bought my Ninja 500. While I was buying the bike in part to try a smaller displacement motorcycle, the Ninja 500’s engine was a lot smaller than what I was used to. At 498cc, the Ninja 500 is the second-smallest displacement motorcycle I have owned, and the smallest since 2007. My first motorcycle was a 1982 Honda CB450T, and that bike’s mill did not churn out a lot of power. Since May 2009, I had not ridden a motorcycle smaller than 1157cc.

I have to say the engine power and performance were one of the bike’s strong points. The motor was certainly not an FJR mill where I could pass interstate traffic with a slight twist of the wrist. However, I found the power just fine for all types of riding. My Ninja 500 would show 6,000 rpm in sixth gear at 75 mph, which was less than 2,000 rpm more than my 2003 FJR would do in top gear. Engine vibration was minimal and throttle response was excellent. I did have to get used to shifting a lot more with the smaller motor, as the engine did not put out the kind of torque I was used to. The additional shifting actually made riding a more involved experience did not detract from the bike’s fun factor at all.

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Suspension/steering

The Ninja 500 comes with non-adjustable front forks and a single rear shock with pre-load adjustability. The front and rear suspension settings were a tad on the plush side. The bike absorbed bumps in the road smoothly with little headshake

The bike’s biggest drawback was its handling. I couldn’t determine whether the problem was the front suspension, bike geometry, or the ancient Bridgestone Exedra tires that came with the bike.

One of the things I was really looking forward to with a smaller bike was quicker turn-in and better flickability. Instead, I had little-to-no confidence on the front tire and found myself taking corners I was familiar with even slower than I did on my old 600-pound FJR1300. I wish I had had more time on the bike and had been able to change the tires out for Bridgestone BT45s or Pirelli Sport Demons. However, without more seat time and different shoes, I have to report the handling was sub-par and disappointing.

Another problem with the bike was is susceptibility to crosswinds. The bike would become noticeably unstable when passing tractor-trailers or when there was a strong crosswind. I could not tell whether this was due to the bike’s weight (relative to my previous motorcycles) or a geometry issue. Either way, I found myself having to fight to keep the bike in line in heavy wind conditons.

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Brakes

The brakes were another weak point of the bike’s overall performance. Despite weighting in at nearly the same dry weight as the Suzuki SV650, the Ninja 500 only has one front brake. Before I even rode the bike, I sensed that the single brake may not provide enough power in emergency stopping situations. I replaced the front and rear brake lines with stainless lines from Galfer.

While the stainless steel lines had the positive, consistent feel that I was used to from the Spiegler Brake Lines-equipped FJR1300, the overall stopping power was not enough for me. In emergency situations the front brake did not stop me as quickly as I was used to. Nor did the combination of front and rear brake provide the stopping power I was looking for.

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Comfort

The bike’s ergonomics were good for a medium-sized sport bike. The clip-on handlebars were mounted to risers that produced a slight forward lean from my 6’2 frame. I did not experience an abnormal discomfort in my wrists. My legs were a bit cramped with the bike’s sport-oriented pegs. I eventually adjusted to them though and found the pegs to be acceptable in the end. Wind protection was acceptable from the small windscreen, and I did not experience any ill effects from wind buffeting.

One aspect of the bike I could not adjust to was the seat. It was awful. I could only ride the bike for about an hour and a half for the first fuel stint, and then only 45-minutes to an hour after that. Had I kept the bike as a back-up touring bike that would have been the first upgrade I would have made.

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Long-distance riding

Comfort issues aside, the bike performed much better as a touring bike than I had thought it would. The 4.2-gallon fuel tank and the 55-60 MPG fuel economy allowed the bike to tour 180-200 miles before hitting reserve.

I was able to mount soft luggage to the bike with ease, and the extra weight of the loaded luggage did not noticeably change the bike’s handling.

The chain drive requires regular chain maintenance. The little space between the bottom of the swingarm and the chain made chain lubrication somewhat difficult. The bike comes with a centerstand as standard equipment, making chain lubrication much easier on a long trip.

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Ease of maintenance

Overall the bike was relatively easy to maintain. The single front disc makes accessing the front wheel’s valve stem easy. The centerstand makes is also a big help to performing maintenance.

The bike’s turn-and-locknut valve adjusters are not real difficult to get to. The only annoyance is having to remove two coolant tubes in order to remove the valve cover. Removing the tank is relatively easy, as is removing the front fairing. The rear bodywork is moderately simple to remove as well.

The oil drain plug, oil filter, coolant drain screw, radiator cap and coolant reservoir are relatively easy to access. The air filter is an older foam design that needs to be coated with air filter oil before being installed.

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Conclusion

Overall, the mid-sized Ninja is a great budget-conscious bike. I would have liked to have kept it as a back-up bike and outfitted it with a better seat and better tires. Unfortunately, my budget and available garage space did not afford me the luxury of having more than two bikes at a time. Even with its several weaknesses, I was very impressed overall by the Ninja 500.

It is an ideal bike for new riders, re-entry riders, urban riders, or a rider who is looking to give long-distance riding a try on a budget. The bike’s bulletproof engine, strong engine performance, ease of maintenance, and ergonomics make it an ideal bike for a young person who wants to take up the motorcycling lifestyle.

While the Ninja 500 is an older design that was phased out of production in the late 2000s, many Ninja 500s are available in the used bike marketplace. New riders or budget-conscious motorcycling enthusiasts looking for an affordable, high-value bike would be well-served by the 500’s ease of maintenance, low maintenance costs, and adaptability.

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Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long-Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #15 (Travel in the Light)(Last Point)


For many touring riders, motorcycle touring is something they do on vacation. It is a time to relax. No emails or faxes pouring in, office insanity, or alarm clocks. While motorcycle touring is a great way to get away from work, the alarm clock is worth keeping around. While some prefer traveling long distances in a car at night, touring by motorcycle in the daylight is best for several reasons. 

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The first and most obvious reason is safety. Motorcycle riders are much more vulnerable to road-related risks like wildlife, distracted drivers, and the like than cagers. While some touring riders have their motorcycles outfitted with eight sets of driving lights, the sun provides a rider the best possible visibility. 

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This holds true for any weather condition as the worst visibility levels occur when riding through fog or rain at night. Moreover, riding at night puts more stress on the eyes, as most motorcycle headlights are not as bright as their four-wheeled counterparts. This can lead to eye fatigue setting in more quickly. 

Another benefit of riding during the day is visibility when not riding. If a rider needs to make a roadside repair or find something in his or her luggage, it is much easier to do during the day.  

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Leaving early also helps a rider ride in the light even if unforeseen circumstances occur. For example, if a rider hits a three-hour lightning storm around lunch time, the rider will have to wait until the storm has cleared to get moving again. If the rider had left at 7:00 a.m. and ridden until noon, he/she may only have 3-4 hours of riding left. With the long days during most riding months, the rider will still be riding in the light for the remainder of their trip. Now let’s say the rider had left at 9:30 a.m. after a hearty sit-down breakfast and a few phone calls and did not stop for lunch until 2:00 p.m. After a three-hour delay, the rider is not moving again until 5:00 p.m., and not getting in until probably 9:00 p.m. Even in mid-summer, it is starting to get dark at 9:00 p.m. almost everywhere.   

Try to leave as early as you reasonably can when on a trip. I usually shower and re-pack at night when on trips. I then get up at 6:00 a.m. and try to be checked out of my hotel, fed, and on the road by 6:30 a.m. or 7:00 a.m. at the absolute latest.

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This article concludes this series on long-distance motorcycle riding. I hope my readers have gleaned the information they need to make their first tour an enjoyable and successful one. I happy to answer readers’ questions if they have any.

Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long-Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #14 (Stop Frequently, and for Fun)


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As was discussed to a lesser extent in Point #12 (Trip Planning), touring is often not just about the destination. Sometimes time restrictions, limited PTO, and the like force a rider to focus only on the destination. When I was doing my first cross-country ride (Buffalo, N.Y. to Salt Lake City, Utah) I had very limited time for sightseeing due to time constraints.

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However, I have found multi-destination tours are by far the most fun. There were a lot of things on my Utah trip that I got to see, but not experience, like the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument or the Iowa 80. As new touring riders build up their riding stamina, they can plan longer stops and do more sightseeing.

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When time constraints are present, a rider can try to do his or her sightseeing on one leg of the trip. For example, a rider could focus on getting to the trip’s furthest point quickly, then take an extra day or two riding back to experience what their route has to offer. Keep in mind that touring often involves going a long way from home to areas of the country you may not see again for a long time. Make the most of that time and experience everything you can while there.

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Meeting new people and experiencing new regions and local cultures becomes very enlightening and even useful. If you work in an industry that requires making business connections across the country, sharing your experience in a contact’s home region can be very meaningful and powerful. Your bike also helps you meet new people on the road. I have lost count of how many people will just walk up to me at a rest area or in a restaurant parking lot and just want to chat about bikes and riding.

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I am currently working on a database of tourism attractions for long-distance riders to use. Whenever I cross a state border on an interstate, I look for the “welcome centers” that are usually full of tourism brochures. I have built up a healthy collection of them and am in the process of turning them into a searchable database. Hopefully I will have a prototype finished before the end of 2018.

Until then, here is a list of tourism-related activities that a wide range of riders may enjoy:

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Museums/Landmarks: History is everywhere, and therefore so are museums. Most any place on earth has some sort of story to tell, and many of those places have a museum to tell it. Museums that are not tied so tightly to their locality may be of interest as well. For example, there are several notable motorcycle museums across the county. These include the AMA Hall of Fame Museum in Pickerington, Ohio, the Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, N.C., the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa, the Motorcyclepedia Museum in Newburgh, N.Y., and the Barber Museum in Leeds, Ala.

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Museums can also be found in nearly every corner of the country. For example, in tiny Hammondsport, N.Y. we find the Glenn Curtiss Museum. Such an iconic name in American aviation and motorcycling history’s namesake museum is not found in a huge metropolis like New York City, but rather in a small Finger Lakes village.

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A related category of touring stops is a landmark. While many landmarks are accompanied by a museum, not all are. Riding to New York City from points north or west? Make time to stop and see the curvaceous NY Route 97 at Hawk’s Nest that is featured as the backdrop in so many motorcycle ads or posters. Another fun landmark is the Four Corners Monument, which is the only place in the United States where four states border each other. Visitors can lay on the middle of monument to be in four states at one time.

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Festivals/Events: Almost every region has at least one annual celebration of some kind. Look for events that are of keen interest to you. For food connoisseurs, the grape festival in Naples, N.Y. or the bacon festivals held in several parts of the country may be worth a stop. Motorcycle road rallies also make ideal stops. These can include Americade in Lake George, N.Y., Laconia Bike Week in Laconia, N.H., AMA Vintage Motorcycles Days in Lexington, Ohio, Daytona Bike Week in Daytona Beach, Fla., and and Johnstown, Pa.’s Thunder in the Valley Rally.

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Another good event stop can be motorcycle races. Never been to a flat track race? Check the AMA’s calendar and see if there is a flat track race along your route. These events usually occur at night, so find a nearby hotel, check in, then head over to the track to check out something new and exciting. Is a Grand National Cross Country race sounds more like a marathon than a motorcycle race? Ride up to the Snow Shoe ski resort in the Pocahontas Mountains, West Virginia and watch the dirt fly in ways you’ve never seen before.

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Activities: Never tried ziplining? How about sandboarding? Look for the opportunity to engage in new activities along your chosen route. Heading down to the Tail of the Dragon? Try stopping in the Gatlinburg area (preferably off of peak tourist season, the valley gets really, really crowded) and give ziplining a go. If you’re planning to cruise down the east coast, don’t miss a stop at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in North Carolina’s Outer Banks and try your hand at sandboarding.

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National/State Parks: One of my favorite things about motorcycle touring is getting to see the diversity of scenic setting we are blessed with in the United States. If you’re riding across southern Utah, do make time to take the loop road through Natural Bridges National Monument. You will be glad you did. Similarly, if you riding to the Tail of the Dragon, take some time and drive northeast and see the majesty of the Great Smoky Mountains.

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Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long-Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #13 (Go with a Group)


One of the smartest things a new touring rider can do is go on their first tour with one or more experienced touring riders. This is not a topic I have a lot of experience with. I have only done one non-solo tour, and I was the more experienced rider in the pairing. However, if you have friends or family who are already long-distance riding enthusiasts, use their experience to your advantage.

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Among the benefits of doing one of your first tours with a group are:

Experienced perspective: Doing a group tour will give you insight into how other touring riders perceive long-distance riding, how they handle certain situations, and whether something you are experiencing is a normal part of touring or not.

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Pace setting: Allowing an experienced rider to lead the tour would allow a new touring rider to learn what touring pace they are comfortable with. Some touring riders really like to put the hammer down on the road, but take long breaks at each stop. Some touring riders are the exact opposite. By going with an experienced group, a new touring rider would be able to observe several different individuals’ pace, and find what pace is right for them.

Regional familiarity: An experienced touring rider may have knowledge of the area you are going touring in. This can make trip planning a lot easier, as the experienced rider can help find interesting things to see along the way and help you better plan the tour.

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Pooling tools: If a group is staying together for an entire tour, each rider does not need to bring their full tool set. Instead, the riders can divide tools among the group, giving everyone lighter luggage.

Safety: In the event some goes wrong and someone in the group crashes, breaks down, and/or is injured, the other riders can help out. Another rider can call for help or give the injured rider and ride to safety. It is also easier for motorists to see a group of motorcycles stopped on the side of the road rather than the narrow profile of only a single bike.

 

New touring riders also may have a hard time knowing when and how badly fatigue may start setting in. An experienced touring rider can look for signs of fatigue in a new rider on the road and at stops. This can be a literal lifesaver for a new long-distance rider.

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Before embarking on a group tour, it is important to know the norms of group riding. To review the AMA’s rules for group road rides, visit: www.americanmotorcyclist.com/Riding/Road-Riding-And-Touring.

 

Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long-Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #12 (Start Short)


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Chances are a majority of people who read this article are researching long-distance riding in anticipation of a long-desired, cross-country trip. Some may have a week-long, coast-to-coast tour in mind. Others may dream of riding up and down one of the coasts or venturing to scenic places or motorcycle rallies afar.

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Whatever the case may be, you may want to start with something a little shorter than a week-long or month-long tour. A common piece of advice experienced riders give new riders is, “Your first bike should not be your dream bike.” The same goes with touring. It would be wise to make your first tour something relatively short. You do not want your dream trip to turn into a uncomfortable, expensive, or even dangerous learning experience. 

This is not to say one should start too short. The best thing to do is take a weekend or a long weekend and try to stay within a reasonable ride to home (say, 3-4 hours). Also, do not try to push on mileage. Aim for 400-500 miles per day by Interstate, and less by back roads.  

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Not sure where to go? Use county and state tourism websites to find a few things of interest not too far from home. Museums, some national parks, landmarks, and events make great destinations. For example, if a rider lived in Columbus, Ohio, they could do two loop routes on two consecutive days to get a feel for touring. Day one would take him or her from Columbus to Pittsburgh, Penn. to see Point State Park and visit the park’s museum. Our rider could then head up the Pennsylvania and Ohio Turnpikes to Warren, Ohio’s National Packard Museum. After seeing the antique cars and other artifacts, our rider could then head back to Columbus for the night.  

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The next day our rider would head southwest on I-71 to Louisville to visit the iconic Louisville Slugger Museum. After a couple hours seeing timber artifacts, our rider would ride north to Speedway, Ind. to visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s museum. The last leg of the trip would take our rider home to Columbus via I-70. A sample trip map can be found here. 

In short, there is no need to make your first tour epic. Your first tour is more of a classroom than a vacation, and you will be surprised just how much you will learn about yourself as a rider, as well as your bike. In looking around for local places to tour, you may also surprise yourself with how much there is to see in your home region.

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Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long-Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #11 (Trip Planning)


Introduction

For a new touring rider, planning is an essential component of a successful first tour. Some riders may enjoy intentionally getting lost on back roads while exploring their home countryside. Long distance riding, however, can easily lose its fun factor without proper planning. Many new touring riders wrongly write off long distance riding after one trip. What they do not realize is that they dislike their failure to properly plan, not long distance riding itself. For those reading this who have had a bad experience with touring, follow the advice below and give it another try. For new touring riders, hopefully this advice will allow you to never know the pain of a poorly planned tour.


What you Need Before You can Plan

In order to properly plan a tour, a rider must be able to answer the following questions:

How many miles can your motorcycle cover on a tank of fuel?

This is one of the most important things to know about your motorcycle, whether you are touring or just riding around town. Even though motorcycles are a lot easier to push than cars, running out of gas is a real inconvenience. The inconvenience is exacerbated on a long trip, and can even become dangerous. Out west, gas stations can be 50 or 100 miles apart, even along interstates. If you pass an exit with a gas station, and do not know when the next one will come up, you are playing Russian roulette with your trip. Being “pretty sure” you can make it to the next stop is not good enough. Chancing it can leave a rider with a long walk (think 50+ miles) to get gas, and can leave them exposed to the elements or wildlife with no means of escape. A motorcycle will easily outrun a mountain lion or bear. Unless your name is Usain Bolt, I guarantee you that you cannot.

When I say “tank of fuel”, I am referring to the main tank, or the tank before it goes onto reserve. For carbureted bikes, this is usually when the fuel level gets low enough that the rider has to switch from “main” to “reserve” on the petcock. For fuel-injected bikes or bikes with a fuel gauge, this is when the fuel light comes on or the gauge is reading near the bottom. The reserve fuel is meant to be a cushion in case your bike is using more fuel than normal, or you get stuck in several long traffic jams that eat into your fuel economy.

To figure your bike’s fuel range, fill your motorcycle’s tank and go for a ride. Stay on roads you know well and ride until you get your motorcycle’s low fuel warning occurs (petcock/light/gauge). Repeat this process two or three times (not necessarily on the same day) to get several different results and get a general idea of fuel range. Do not worry about how often you need to stop and get off the bike for this part. Your only goal is to see how far your motorcycle can go before you have to refuel.

Some motorcycle tend to have wider variations in fuel range than others. My old Suzuki Bandit 1200 would get somewhere between 150 and 165 miles on a 4.2-gallon main tank before I went onto reserve. My FJR1300 was not as consistent, but would stay somewhere between 210 and 240 miles per tank (5.3-gallon main tank) depending on ambient temperature and how fast I was riding. The Ninja 500 I used this past summer after my accident had a bit more variation in its fuel range. I would get anywhere from 175 to 215 miles per tank (4.2-gallon main tank).

 

How long can you ride before you need to stop?

Once you know how far the motorcycle will go on a tank of fuel, a rider needs to figure out what their fuel range is. Many long-distance riders, like myself, like the idea of riding from fuel stop to fuel stop. This limits the amount of time spent off the bike and saves a lot of time. However, every rider is different, and new riders need to be especially conscious of this. Getting tired behind the bars is not the same as getting tired behind the wheel of a car. Drifting off while driving is dangerous enough, but car drivers do not have to worry about keeping their cars balanced. The need to keep a motorcycle balanced makes riding more physically and mentally demanding than driving, which in turn makes fatigue set in much sooner.

All riders who are new to touring need to go out on another couple rides after they figure out how far their bike will go on fuel to see how long they can comfortably ride. Just start riding away from home until you start to feel a little fatigued. Find a place to pull off and rest (like a gas station or diner), refuel the bike and body, then get back on and head toward home. Try to note if the fatigue starts to set in around the same time on the second part of the trip as it does in the first. Organizations like the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) recommend for no longer than two hours at a time (http://www.msf-usa.org/downloads/mom_v16_GS_low_res.pdf, page 45). I think that is a little conservative, but I personally try to not ride for longer than 3-3.5 hours at a time.

 

What kinds of roads are you planning on riding for your tour (interstate or back roads)?

The next step is figuring out how many miles you can reasonably cover in a day. For really short trips, this may not be a big deal. For example, a ride from Columbus, Ohio to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is only 3 hours each way. A rider can relatively easily leave around 7am, get into Pittsburgh around 1030am with a fuel stop, see all things Pittsburgh, and be back in Columbus at a reasonable hour. The problem arises when distance begins to increase. A rider can easily make it from Columbus, Ohio to Philadelphia’s western suburbs in a full day by interstate (7.5 hours riding time per Google Maps). If that same rider attempts to take all back roads to get to the same destination, they may find themselves arriving well after sunset (almost 13 hours of riding time).

 


Preparing the Plan

The best way to do trip planning is to use an online mapping site like Google Maps or Bing Maps. Online mapping allows a rider to easily play with route ideas and trip stops while getting updated trip mileage and riding time. While nearly everyone has used Google Maps to figure out who to get to a bank, repair shop or motorcycle rally, planning a multi-day, multi-stop trip is a more advanced process. Try following these steps:

 

Pick your overall starting point and destination

This part is pretty straight forward. Simply enter into Google Maps where your trip is starting from and what you final destination is. For demonstration purposes, let’s do a trip from the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA)’s headquarters outside of Columbus, Ohio (13515 Yarmouth Drive, Pickerington, Ohio 43147) to the Circuit of the Americas race track outside of Austin, Texas (https://goo.gl/maps/2gj1KtHHSb22).

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There are two things to notice after getting directions from Google Maps. First, the trip would be 1,257 miles long using the most direct route. If your motorcycle has a fuel range of approximately 200 miles, a rider would be looking at approximately five fuel stops (six, 200-mile segments) during the total length of this trip. The second thing to notice is how many hours you will likely be on the road. In our example trip, it takes (on average) 18 hours and 34 minutes to reach Austin by interstate. For an experienced touring rider, this is likely a two-day trip. However, if you are a new touring rider, or find that you need to rest every hour and a half to two hours of riding, you may want to make this a three-day ride.

 

Pick your route

If we use the “Options” menu in Google Maps to select “Avoid Highways” and recalculate the route, we see a major change. While the trip mileage is essentially the same, the projected riding time has increase by approximately six hours.

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While a very experienced tourer may be able to tackle this trip in two days, choosing to stay off of interstates has greatly increased the time needed to comfortably complete the trip. There is nothing wrong with taking back roads, as they usually offer a combination of more fun roads to ride and more interaction with local culture. However, touring riders need to set reasonable expectations for themselves as to how much ground they can expect to cover each day. There are additional factors that influence route choices, which will be covered next.

 

Pick your voluntary stops

Sometimes a tour is really only about the destination. Some parts of the country simply do not have attractions that a particular rider is interested in stopping to see. Sometimes a touring rider cannot afford to make stops along the way because of how long it will take to reach their destination. In those situations, interstate rest areas/service plazas or gas stations provide adequate places to stop. All a rider is looking for is a place to get something to eat or drink and get out of the saddle for 10 to 20 minutes.

However, more often than not, there is something worth stopping to see along your chosen route. Whether it is a monument, an old friend, or an event, a tour is often more enjoyable when there are things to experience in addition to the ride itself. Every rider needs to take at least a couple breaks during a day-long ride. You had may as well make the most of those stops when you can.

Sometimes there is plenty to do along a planned route, while other times a rider will need to develop a new route to accommodate a stop. Let’s say we wanted to stop at the National Corvette Museum outside of Bowling Green, Kentucky (37.00406° N, -86.37453° E) on the way to Austin. We are in luck. The museum is right off of I-65’s Exit #28.

Now let’s say you have an old friend from high school who lives in Terry Haute, Indiana (39°28′11″N 87°23′23″W). They are a little way off the shortest route, but you may not have another occasion to ride through that area and see them in the next year or two. So, you decide to add Terry Haute to your tour.

For purposes of this exercise, let’s say our friend will meet us at the Denny’s on U.S Routes 41 & 150 (https://goo.gl/maps/PfBtztmmTHB2). Just click “Add destination”, type in “Denny’s, 3442 U.S. Route 41, Terry Haute, IN 47802”, and hit return. Then move the new destination between the starting address and ending address.

Photo 3

The good news is the change has only added 20 minutes and 38 miles to the trip. If the new stop was somewhere further away (let’s say, Omaha, Nebraska), it would change the trip significantly in terms of riding time and require a completely new trip plan.

 

Pick your fuel & overnight stops:

Once the “fun” stops have been selected, it is time to figure out where to stop for fuel. Let’s use our example trip from Columbus to Austin via Terry Haute. With the slight increase in trip length a rider would need to average around 215 miles between fuel stops in order to maintain the original five-stop (six segments) plan (1,297 / 6 = 215.16). This is a little bit longer that our known fuel range of 200 miles. Personally, I would probably try to chance it for just 15 more miles per segment. However, in most cases, it is not worth it. So, now let’s recalculate our planned fuel windows. If we add a sixth fuel stop (creating seven trip segments), we end up with an average segment length of roughly 185 miles.

So, the projected riding time for the trip is 19 hours. Now add 15 minutes for each of the six-fuel stops (usually they do not last that long), and we are now up to 20 hours and 30 minutes. Since this trip is for a new rider, let’s say they want to plan to be off of the bike every 2 hours or so. Since the fuel stops are roughly 3.5 hours of interstate riding, we would need to add a stop between each fuel stop (seven stops, times 10 minutes per stop), increasing our total trip time 21 hours and 40 minutes. Let’s not forget about our friend in Terry Haute as well. Let’s say we are going to have brunch with him/her, and that will take an hour and 20 minutes. We now arrive at a grand total trip time of 23 hours.

Now we can start working the more detailed parts of trip planning. Go back to your Google Map with the trip route. Our fixed stop in Terry Haute is 265 miles away. This is too far to make on one tank of fuel, so we will need to look for our first fuel stop somewhere between Columbus and Terry Haute.

The first thing I did was locate an interstate exit that looked to be about the right distance and clicked-and-dragged the route to the surface road (in this case, US 231 at I-70). I then right-clicked on the little dot, made it a destination, then moved the new destination between Terry Haute and Columbus.

Photo 4

Unfortunately, this stop, while having several gas stations, is too far from our starting point (229 miles). I then pan eastwards looking for another suitable exit and use the exit numbers to roughly figure out how far east I need to pan (40 miles or so). This takes us back into the Indianapolis metro. From experience, I know that there is an exit off of I-465 on Indy’s south side that has several gas stations (I-465 Exit #4). So, I pan over to that exit, highlight and delete the old location for the fuel stop on US 231, and click on the Pilot Travel Center on the north side of I-465. Google Maps tells us that the Pilot is 194 miles from our start point (still inside our fuel range) and is only adds three miles to the trip length. This would be our first planned fuel stop for this trip.

Photo 5

Our next stop would be Terry Haute to see the old friend from high school. Terry Haute is only 73 miles from our fuel stop, and much too soon to stop for fuel. We will count the stop as a rest stop and look for the next fuel stop. Keep in mind we are looking for a second fuel stop that is 185 miles or so from the last fuel stop, not from our stop to see our friend. Using the same technique outlined above, I found several gas stations off of I-57 Exit #116 (https://goo.gl/maps/ji1DLwaJYFn).

Photo 6

Now we need to pick where our first overnight stop will be. With stopping time, we are looking at roughly 8 hours of travel time each day. Since we decided we do not want to push too hard and will do this trip over 3 days, we will need a total of two overnight stops. Do not forget to factor in the longer stop in Terry Haute to see our high school friend.

After our second fuel stop, we will have approximately an hour of riding left for the day. About an hour south on I-57 we find a Comfort Inn near Marion, Illinois (https://goo.gl/maps/6T8bPGWWUZ82). We can use our American Motorcyclist Association or Motorcycle Sport Touring Association membership to get a discount on the hotel room. To finish this trip plan, continue using the techniques outlined above until all fuel stops, rest stops, and overnight stops have been plotted.

One of the most important parts of planning fuel stops is finding locations that have more than one gas station. Why is this important? Say you’re riding through Wyoming on I-80 where the cheap gas is 50 to 100 miles apart. You do your trip plan and start into the trip, only to find the only station near a planned stop has gone out of business. There isn’t another station right off of the interstate for 50 miles in either direction. If you’re close to reserve and do not have 50 miles of fuel range left, you’re screwed. If you had selected a different exit with multiple gas stations, one of them being closed is not a big deal. In situations where an exit with more than one station is not available, try to pick a cluster of them spread over several successive exits. You may have to ride backward to the last open station you saw. However, it would only be a few miles the wrong way, and a minor inconvenience compared to running out of gas in the middle of nowhere.

 


Conclusion

The directions above may seem complicated and laborious. They can be, but better to put in the work before you leave than have to try salvaging your very first tour. Once you have a couple tours under your belt or know areas of the country well enough, you may not have to plan as much. However, with a plan in place, it is much easier to figure out which assumptions you had about touring were not as expected, as well as figure out what to do different on your next tour.

Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long-Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #10: Dressing for the Occasion (aka Riding Gear)


Riding gear is one of the hotly-debated topics within the motorcycling community. Many riders suit up and look like storm troopers, while other will go riding in a t-shirt and gym shorts. While the debate rages on, riding gear can be even more important to a touring rider than a casual rider for several reasons. 

The first reason is safety. Many riders forego some or all of the riding gear that is available to riders. The risks of doing so are evident, but touring riding can greatly increase those risks. Let’s say a rider goes down while going through a corner on a country road. If the rider is not too far from home, someone may be available to come aid them. When that same accident happens in rural Wyoming where there may not be help for miles, injuries can grow far worse by the time help arrives. This is particularly true for large areas of road rash. Wearing proper riding gear can limit road rash and allow a touring rider to patiently wait for help rather than have large open wounds. 

The second reason is protection from the elements. A rider only needs to try riding in the rain once without enough protection to know how painful it can be. Plus, rain is only one of the elements that can dampen a tour (pun intended). Even the best sunscreen can wear away on hot days, leaving a touring rider with a nasty sunburn. Cold weather can also be a tough adversary. Once a rider gets cold, it is very difficult to warm back up without heated gear or stopping and resting in a heated building.  

The third reason is comfort. Gloves can make holding onto motorcycle grips more comfortable. Jackets and pants that are equipped with vents can move air around a rider’s body to keep them cool yet protected in hot weather. Face shields can keep bugs from making it into a rider’s teeth. Heated gear can extend the riding season by months for those living in cooler climates.  

Personally, I subscribe to the all-the-gear-all-the-time (ATGATT) philosophy. I wear a full-face helmet, riding jacket, riding pants, motorcycle boots, and gloves. I also carry a balaclava several different kinds of gloves with me that cover almost any riding condition. I do not criticize those who choose to wear less gear: I simply choose to take every precaution I can to ensure my safety. Distracted drivers, animals, and the like make motorcycle dangerous enough. Personally, I do not see the need to risk even more to have the same experience. 

My decision to adopt ATGATT is in large part based on my riding experience. When I first started riding, I wore the riding jacket, helmet, and gloves. I usually just wore jeans or even sometimes shorts, and typical work boots. That changed when my best friend crashed in front of me. He went down going over a set of railroad tracks on a curve. He lost traction on the front and his bike almost took me out. At the time I was only wearing a t-shirt and jeans with a helmet and gloves. If I had gone down as well, I would have been looking at some pretty bad road rash on my upper body. While I escaped unharmed, my best friend did not. He was wearing a helmet and gloves, but was also wearing a long-sleeve polyester shirt. The portions of the shirt that made contact with the pavement melted into his skin. He told me cleaning out the wounds was the most painful thing he had ever endured. After that I began wearing my riding jacket all the time, and eventually added riding pants as well.  

A full complement of riding gear for touring consists of the following: 

 

Helmet

Helmet 

While the debate rages on about helmet use, a helmet is especially important for touring. Full face and three-quarters helmets help knock down wind noise and provide maximum protection in the event of a crash. Many full face and three-quarters helmets with face shields have swappable shields. That features allow riders to carry multiple shields (clear, tinted, amber, etc.) for different riding conditions. It also saves a touring rider from having to clean their shield every time it gets covered with bug guts. 

Any helmet used for on-road riding needs to be DOT-approved, and are recommended to be Snell 2010 (or newer) approved. Additionally, a rider needs to find the helmet that is the right fit for them. For newer riders, a helmet the “feels” comfortable may actually be too big for them. When I started riding, I was wearing an XL-size HJC helmet. When I had my measured by an Arai sales rep, he told me I should be in a medium Arai, which is roughly the same size as an HJC medium. I took his advice and bought a medium HJC and it made a huge difference. 

The most important part of the fitment is the “crown”, or how the helmet fits with the curvature of the top of a person’s head. Another fitment factor is the length and width of a head. This involves measuring the circumference of one’s head at its widest point (just above the eyes). Most helmets are sized off of this measurement. Additionally, some heads are more oblong, while others are more rounded. Most helmet manufacturers who offer several different shell sizes. Riders need to try on different sizes find the one that fits them best. For more information about fitment, consult we resources like The Service Pavillion’s Online fitment service, or RevZilla’s write-up on helmet fitment. 

 

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Jacket 

A riding jacket is extremely important to successful and enjoyable motorcycle touring. A jacket protects a rider in case of a crash, can help keep a lot of precipitation out, is a place to carry items needed in an emergency, and it essential during cold weather riding. 

Motorcycle-specific riding jackets offer riders several benefits over non-specific leather or textile jackets. For one, motorcycle jackets will often have armor built into them in high-impact zones like shoulders, elbows, and back. Motorcycle-specific jackets will also be constructed of abrasion-resistant materials like thicker leather or treated textiles that hold up much better in a crash (especially when sliding). The choice between leather and textile is really rider preference. Leather provides maximum protection, but is harder to maintain, is much heavier, and is usually more expensive. In my experience, it is best to find a jacket that has as close to an exact fit as possible. This prevents the jacket from “puffing” out when wind gets inside of it and allows for additional layers (like a long-sleeve shirt) to be worn underneath it. 

Additional features such as high-visibility materials and reflective piping can make it easier for drivers to see a rider in dark or inclement conditions. Many jackets include interior pockets which can be useful for carrying a cell phone and/or small first aid kit. In the event of an accident, a rider may become separated from their motorcycle and not be able to walk or crawl back to it. Having a means to call for help and tend to minor injuries on your person can make all the difference in an emergency. Many jackets also come with vents to allow air to flow into the front of a jacket and out the back. This can make wearing a jacket much more comfortable in hot weather .  

Some companies also make “air” versions of their jackets, which use less material and allow maximum airflow over the rider’s core. While the cooling of such jackets is desirable in hot conditions, it can also represent a major safety compromise. While more traditional motorcycle riding jackets can become extremely hot during hot weather, modern venting and pre-hydrating can alleviate the majority of the discomfort. 

 

Pants 

One of the most neglected pieces of riding gear are dedicated riding pants. Motorcycle-specific riding pants are usually constructed with waterproof and abrasion-resistant materials. Those features provide additional protection to a riders’ lower extremities in a crash (which are the most likely to come into contact with the ground), as well as make wet-weather riding less uncomfortable. Additionally, many sets of riding pants are designed to be worn over regular pants. Many also feature full-length zippers for easier dressing and undressing.  

Like with jackets, it is important to find as exact a fit a possible with riding pants for maximum crash protection and comfort. Pants that are too big will flap in the wind and can come into contact with hot engine or exhaust parts. 

 

Boots 

Motorcycling-specific riding boots often include several design features that make them more comfortable and safer for long-distance riding than typical work boots. Motorcycle-specific boots usually extend several inches above the ankle and include armor in the ankle area. They usually use zippers instead of laces, which increases their waterproofness. Many motorcycle-specific boots also have hardened toe areas to help with shifting without the added weight of a steel-toed work boot. Wide-footed riders should be advised that many motorcycle boots tend to be on the narrow side. 

 

Gloves 

Unlike other types of motorcycle riding gear, gloves tend to be made for specific riding conditions. Regular riding gloves are designed to be comfortable in warm to hot, dry conditions. However, they provide little protection from the elements. Rain gloves provide excellent protection from the elements but can provide inadequate warmth in cold conditions. Cold weather gloves provide excellent warmth and comfort on cold conditions but can become unbearable in hot weather. During a tour, a rider can encounter a wide range of weather conditions, and therefore needs to carry several different types of gloves with them. 

The good news is that gloves are the smallest and cheapest of all major riding gear. Personally, I carry a couple sets of traditional riding gloves, a set of rain gloves, and a set of nitrile gloves to wear underneath the rain gloves for additional cold protection. For safety reasons, gloves with a full gauntlet (go over the wrist) are usually best. The gauntlet provides maximum crash protection and does not allow air to shoot up into the jacket through the end of the sleeve. I do carry one set of non-gauntlet gloves for hotter weather when I want additional airflow through the jacket. Some riders also carry heated gloves for cold weather riding in lieu of using heated grips. 

For fit, it is best to find as close to a perfect fit as possible. Gloves that are too tight will easily become uncomfortable on an 8+ hour ride. Keep in mind that some gloves may be a tad bit tight at first, but will adjust to your hand after a few rides. Gloves that are too loose can bunch up and make it hard for a rider to operate their bike’s controls.