Category Archives: Intro to Motorcycle Touring

Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #3, Part I (Comfort)


Photo description: My OEM FJR1300 front seat is on the left, and my custom-built Sargent Cycle Products front seat is on the right. Note the differences in seat width and shape.

 

#3: Comfort, Comfort, Comfort!: As mentioned above, things that are annoying on a casual two hour ride easily become absolutely unbearable after 8-10 hours or more. After doing the test ride procedure described in Point #2, a rider should have a good idea of what areas of the motorcycle may not be to his or her liking. Here are some of the common areas that long-distance riders look to maximize comfort:

Seat: This is probably the first area most riders look to make a change when they start riding long distance. Many stock seats work fine for an hour or two. After that, many riders start to develop some posterior pain that steadily grows from a nuisance to downright agony.

One of the mistakes some riders make is immediately dropping hundreds of dollars on a brand-new seat, when some seat accessories could have provided them with adequate comfort at a fraction of the price. One example of seat accessories is a sheepskin seat pad. Alaskan sheepskin is used in medical applications to prevent bedsores, so it is a natural fit for having your rear in contact with your seat for long periods of time. Another seat accessory is an air pad (like an Airhawk), which is inflated with air and helps promote blood flow and overall comfort. Yet another accessory is a beaded seat pad. These function pretty much the same way as the air pads, but use a set of wood beads to promote airflow and circulation. They may not look comfortable, but the author has met more than one long distance rider who given the beads a rave reviews. All of these options can be found for around $150 or less. A rider could go through two or more of the options before they have spent the equivalent of a brand-new seat.

For riders who have tried the seat accessories but find they need something more, there are plenty of options out there. Brands such as Saddlemen, Mustang, Corbin, Russell and Sargent are well-recognized within the motorcycling community. One thing that seems counterintuitive to many riders is the hardness of aftermarket motorcycle seats. When most of us think about comfort, we think about sinking into a plush couch or chair. In motorcycle riding, a plush seat does not hold up nearly as well. This is in part due to the relatively small area of a motorcycle seat. Most stock motorcycle seats become uncomfortable because the foam is relatively plush and bottoms out. That is why that soft seat that feels comfy when you first sit on it, but then begins feeling like a church pew after a couple hours. The longer a rider sits on the weak foam, the more their weight begins resting on the hard seat pan.

Testing seats from different manufacturers is often impossible, and purchasing an aftermarket seat is usually an expensive proposition. After doing the series of test rides on the stock seat, a rider should have an idea of what they would like in a new seat. Corbin seats are known for being very stiff, and tend to be preferred by heavier riders. More basic aftermarket seats are usually between $250-$400 for just the front seat. Russell Day-Long seats are known as the cream of the crop, but tend to be very, very pricey. Read some reviews on the different seat manufacturers and see which one seems to fit what you are looking for. Sargent Cycle Products, who re-did my Bandit 1200 seat and built a new seat for my FJR, has a great article about seat comfort, technology, and shape. It can be found here: http://www.sargentcycle.com/Custom-Seat-Services/Road-To-Comfort/.

Handlebars: Adjusting handlebars is just as much as safety issue as it is a comfort issue. Riders need to be confident in their ability to steer their motorcycle in an emergency. However, comfort can also become a factor in safety. For example, modern sportbikes tend to place a good portion of a rider’s weight on their wrists. If a rider has been riding his/her sportbike for several hours and is suffering with sore wrists, that can negatively affect their ability to quickly input direction changes to the motorcycle in an emergency. Overall, a rider needs to adjust their handlebars to where they feel they have both maximum control, as well as maximum comfort.

Most motorcycles are equipped with either 7/8-inch or 1-inch handlebars that can be replaced relatively easily. Handlebars vary based on their width, rise (the height of the ends of the bars compared to the center) and pullback (how much the bars are swept back toward the rider). Each rider has their own personal preferences for handlebars. Some riders like bars that are tall with a lot of pullback so they can sit very upright. Some riders like flatter bars that make them lean forward and distribute some of their weight off their rears and onto their wrists. Whatever your preference, make sure you can still turn the front wheel lock-to-lock without the bars hitting the gas tank or any other part of the motorcycle.

Another issue with changing the bar position is controls cables and wiring. If the bars are raised or swept back too much from their original position, items like brake lines and the wiring for electrical pods may not be long enough to accommodate the new bars. Having to buy custom brake lines or extend wiring can be expensive, or cumbersome, or both. Take a look at how much slack there is in your bikes cables, hoses, and wiring before selecting a new set of bars.

Another option is handlebar riser kits. These usually consist of a set of metal inserts that raise the level of the handlebar clamps. They are usually relatively inexpensive and easier to install since they reuse the stock handlebars. However, the same issues with hoses and wiring apply to riser kits. The good news is that most of the kits will come with new brakes lines or other cables/lines that are needed. The bad news is you may need to drain and replace your front brake fluid whether it is due for a change or not. Also, riser kits only change the height of the bars. While the angle of some motorcycle steering stems may allow the bars to come back toward the rider some, the width and pullback of the stock bars remain unchanged. Just keep that in mind when considering a riser kit.

Another important point to keep in mind is that changes as little as one inch can make a big difference, for better or worse. One of my buddies (let’s call him John Bolt) bought a 2013 Yamaha Bolt a couple years ago. Coming off of a 1986 Yamaha Virago 700, John found the relatively flat bars of the Bolt very different from the mini apehangers his Virago 700 had come with. John ended up getting new bars from Yamaha that had an additional inch of pullback. John called me before he bought them, skeptical that they would make a big enough difference. I assured him they would make a bigger difference than he was thinking they would. John bought them and ended up finding one inch was all the difference he needed to be comfortable.

Personally, I changed the bars on my Bandit 1200 several times. When I first bought the bike, a previous owner had put a handlebar riser kit on it. While the bars did not seem overly tall, the pullback on the bars forced me to hold the grips at a weird angle that hurt my wrists. As I wrote about earlier, I took the riser kit off when I replaced my front brake lines with braided steel lines. The angle of the grips was much improved. However, I felt like I was putting a little too much weight on my wrists than I wanted to. What I ended up doing was reinstalling the riser kit, but replaced the handlebars with a lower, wider bar. The brake lines had very little slack in them, but they were not under tension and worked fine. The wider bars made initiating turn-in a little easier, and was also a little more relaxing on long rides. Even though it took a couple tries, I eventually got to the point where the bars were properly set up for me.

A good technique to use, after you get the seat squared away, is to sit on the bike, but not reach for the bars. Rather, sit on the bike the way you want to sit on it. Then reach out and see where you would like the bars to be. This will give you a rough idea of how much of a change in width, rise, and pullback you are looking for. Then you can start shopping for bars that work for you. Another technique is to look at the handlebars that are available, then sit on your bike and move your hands to roughly where each set of available bars would put them.

Another thing to keep in mind are your electrical pods on both sides of most motorcycle’s handlebars. Usually the turn signals switch, high/low beam switch, and horn are on the left, and the start button and kill switch are on the right. Some bars also have reservoirs attached to them for the front brakes or clutch. Many of these pods have tabs that go into pre-drilled holes in the stock handlebars to keep the pods from rotating. DO NOT just cut off the tabs in the pods. They are there for a reason. Instead, when you take the pods off of the old handlebars, measure the distance from the end of the bar to the hole. Then place the new bars in a vise, measure that same distance (or some variation, if you want to move the pods on the new bars), and drill the holes. Sometimes it is easier to drill a pilot hole before drilling the full bore. Make sure you are drilling into what will be the top of the bars when they are mounted in the motorcycle. Fluid reservoirs do not respond well to being rotated backward or forward.

For riders wanting to tour on a motorcycle with clip-on handlebars, things get a little more expensive. While a few motorcycles with clip-ons may have the bars elevated, most clip-ons set the bars below the top triple clamp. This can put a lot of a rider’s weight on their wrists. While moving the rider’s weight forward may help with handling on a race track, it is not ideal for a long day’s ride. The primary option for raising the bars is a completely new set of clip-ons (like Woodcraft’s elevated clip-ons or Helibars). Like with traditional handlebars, be cognizant of brake line, cable and electrical line lengths when installing clip-on risers. Some kits can raise the bars as much as three inches, making even the sportiest sport bike capable of long distance duty.

Some sport-touring models, like the author’s FJR1300, the Triumph Sprint ST, and the Kawasaki Concours 14 have the handlebars on pylons bolted to the top triple clamp. Riser kits are available for this type of handlebar setup. Additionally, some models offer several positions that the pylons can be adjusted to. However, few options are available for changing the pullback or width of the bars to the same degree as normal handlebars.

Footpegs/Floorboards: Options for relocating footpegs or floorboards tend to be a little more limited due to their connections with the shift lever and rear brake pedal. Footpegs or floorboards should only be adjusted after getting the seat and handlebar situations squared away. The author is 6’2, and his legs felt a little cramped when he first got his FJR. The author replaced the seat with an aftermarket Sargent seat, which raised the seat height. That little increase in seat height fixed my leg cramping problem.

If after getting the seat and handlebars squared away the footpeg or floorboard position is still a problem, aftermarket solutions are available. For floorboards, many different aftermarket floorboards are available, although many appear to reflect changes in style rather than functionality. Floorboards vary in both size and position (in terms of how far they are from the rider). Motorcycles equipped with footpegs have more options. Some aftermarket footpegs are available that allow the rider to change the position of the foot pegs without relocating the control pedals. There are also kits available for many motorcycles that relocate both the footpegs and their associated controls. The co-host on the Two Wheel Power Hour Motorcycle Show (Roy Dyckman) used a relocation kit to move the footpegs and controls on this BMW R1200R down and forward. It was a real shock to me when I test rode his bike and had a peg hit pavement when I was turning slowly at an intersection. Kits vary widely by each motorcycle model, so search for what aftermarket solutions are available for your particular motorcycle.

Another option to consider is highway pegs. These are a secondary set of footpegs that are usually located forward of the motorcycle’s standard footpegs. The idea is that they give the rider a second leg position that allows them to stretch their legs during a ride. Many BMW R-bike owners install highway peg kits on the R-motor’s valve covers. Many cruiser riders who do not have forward controls install highway pegs on their crash bars. One disadvantage of highway pegs is that they take the rider’s feet away from the foot controls in an emergency. The time it takes to move your feet from the highway pegs to the footpegs and actuate the rear brake or transmission can be 1-2 seconds. At 70mph on the freeway, a lot of ground is covered in that timeframe.

Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #1 (Choosing a Touring Bike)


#1: You do NOT need a BIG 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.

 

#2: Do a test ride: 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.

Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long Distance Motorcycle Riding


As we approach the start of the riding season, some of my fellow riders may be considering taking their first long-distance motorcycle ride this year. The transition from being a casual rider to a touring rider can seem daunting. For others, it may seem a little too simple. As someone who has 100,000 miles of road riding experience over the last 10 years, I can assure you the truth in somewhere in between. There is a lot to think about. What happens if you break down? Will your bike be comfortable for six, eight, or even ten hours on the road? How expensive is it to set your bike up for touring? Alas, my fellow riders, the answer to those questions and more can be found in this series of articles.

I decided to write these articles because of several past experiences, both my own and others’. As I was getting into long-distance riding, I did not have any friends where were avid long-distance riders, and very few who rode at all. While the Internet was obviously around, I really did not have a good frame of reference to even know what questions to ask or what to search for. I learned by trial-and-error, which is NOT the best way to learn about motorcycle touring. To a degree, there is always a certain amount of trial-and-error. Each rider needs to find what works best for them. However, there are good and not-so-good ways of going about figuring out what works. You do not want to be half way into a cross-country trip and figure out something isn’t working the way you had planned. Trust me on that one.

Last year I did my first non-solo tour with a friend of mine (let’s call him Speedy Dan). Speedy had never ridden for longer than two hours before taking a 3,500-mile trip to Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas for MotoGP. As Speedy Dan and I made our way down and back to Austin, Texas, I saw Speedy struggle with a few of the same things I had struggled with when I first got into motorcycle touring. Speedy has sworn off long-distance riding (for now, I’ll get him back on the open road sooner than later) However, I have more friends who are looking to get into long-distance riding after seeing how much of a blast I have with it every year. In order to make their first experiences with motorcycle touring, as well as you the reader’s, less haphazard, I decided it was time to turn my experience into sharable knowledge.

Let me give you a snapshot of my evolution into a long-distance motorcycle rider. I did my first overnight ride in 2008, a year after I got into motorcycle riding. I used my 1997 Honda Nighthawk 750 to ride from Rochester, New York to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course near Lexington, Ohio for the AMA Superbike weekend. I took the motorcycle to the shop the week before to get it checked out, bought a small sissybar bag, a small set of saddlebags, a tank bag, and a backpack (with a rain cover). My first back-to-back days of touring was in 2009. I knew I wanted to ride to Salt Lake City in 2010, so I used a three-day trip on my 1998 Suzuki Bandit 1200 to see how well I would do riding 7-8 hours per day for several days in a row. By that time, I had sold the sissybar bag (the Bandit did not have a sissybar), had bought a Dowco saddlebags/tailbag set. I rode from Buffalo, New York to Harrisonburg, Virginia, then to Dayton, Ohio, and then back to Buffalo. In 2010, I finally had a chance to take that trip to Salt Lake City. It took me four days to ride each way. By that time I had sold the backpack and bought a Givi E45 top case.

In my description above, I made several very good choices, and several not-so-good ones. While my misjudgments did not dampen my enthusiasm or curtail my interest in long-distance riding, they certainly made the learning process far less enjoyable than it could have been. In the articles to follow, I will highlight which decisions worked out as planned and which did not as I cover what I consider the most essential advice for new touring riders. I will cover bikes, luggage, gear, accessories, and best practices for avoiding common touring snafus, as well as point out where some trial-and-error is just part of the game. If you, the reader, have questions that fall outside of the scope of these articles, please do not hesitate to contact me. I am happy to welcome new touring riders to the fold and help them get the most enjoyment they can out of their first long distance adventure.