Chicago Bluesman Howlin’ Wolf first pointed out the essence of the problem in 1963, when he sang, “I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed.” Wolf was a big man—as was Willie Dixon, who wrote the song—so they put the best possible spin on their bulk, informing us they had, “everything all you good women need.”
This is all very well in a Southside nightclub after everyone’s had a few drinks, but out on the highway, we perfectly sober motorcyclists have been trying for years to balance the apparently irreconcilable demands for both comfort and speed. We want it all, and when engineers get it approximately right, the product is usually called a “sport-touring bike.”
So, then, what exactly is a sport-tourer?
I see it as a kind of genetic cross between a café racer and a full-blown touring machine, with the glaring disadvantages of both types removed. What you want, essentially, is a café racer that doesn’t hurt your wrists and a touring bike that doesn’t feel like a tank. Suffering is thereby minimalized on the Great Plains and the bike is actually fun to ride when you hit the Rockies or Appalachians. Depending on which way your bike is pointed.
My own early long-distance tours were done on fairly sporty “standard” bikes (Honda CB160, Norton Commando, Honda CB400F, Honda CB750), usually with an Army surplus duffel bag bungeed on the back. But the first dedicated sport-tourer I bought was a 1984 BMW R100RS. Silver Smoke.
I rode this thing from Wisconsin to the West Coast and back several times, and it may be the best traveling bike I’ve owned. It had a great stock seat, slippery fairing, tall gearing, and could cruise across the wide-open spaces at a serene 100 mph all day long or until the cops showed up. Yet it handled two-up duty with supple stability (after progressive fork springs were installed), whether climbing the Going-to-the-Sun Road or descending through Big Sur on California 1. Great factory hard bags, too.
“What exactly is a sport-tourer? I see it as a kind of genetic cross between a café racer and a full-blown touring machine, with the glaring disadvantages of both types removed.
Shortcomings? A too-weak charging system for heated grips and vests, and brakes that were fairly wooden. A little clumsy around town, too.
After that, I did a long trip out West on my 1996 Ducati 900SS with soft bags, which was surprisingly all-day comfortable (with a Corbin seat), though somewhat stiff at the rear. Seduced by hard bags, I foolishly traded it for a Ducati ST2, on which I could never get comfortable enough to contemplate crossing a state line, no matter how many different handlebars, seats, and over-the-counter painkillers I tried. Same for my ST4S. I loved the looks, sound, and feel, but the ergos just didn’t fit me.
Back into the beckoning arms of BMW. First an oil-head R1100RS and then an R1100RT that Barb and I took all the way to Canada’s Gaspe Peninsula and back home through New England. The latter actually handled better and was less rubbery than the RS, even though it was a larger, heavier bike. The stock seat, however, was terrible, and I somehow left on the trip without replacing it. I don’t think Barb has ever forgiven me—or BMW. We stood up most of the way from Maine to Wisconsin, as if cresting sand dunes on our way to Dakar.
When the R1100S came out, I used CW ’s long-term test bike for the summer. I rode it to Wisconsin, and then returned it to California in the fall, via the Southwest. To me, this was a nearly perfect modern sport-tourer. Comfortable, fast, agile, not too big, and with modern brakes. I still have a thing for these bikes and am always half-watching for the right one to come along. In black.
But about this time, a sea change occurred with me and my riding buddies. Sport-tourers, in general, seemed to be growing porkier, more complex and visually dense, while the growing band of dual-sport bikes offered a return to see-through simplicity, utilitarian character, and upright, roomy comfort. Plus, you could ride on a gravel road—or even a goat path, thereby breaking your leg in exotic places with the natives watching.
“All I ask for in my next sport-tourer is lightness, comfort, and agility. And heated grips, of course.
I went from the RT to a KTM 950 and, later, a Buell Ulysses, which I still have. And a lot of my friends began a serial love affair with various iterations of the BMW GS. At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be much will to retreat from this one-bike-does-it-all versatility. Unless, of course, dual-sport bikes grow too tall, heavy, and complex. Could happen. I know three guys who have recently downsized to 650 V-Stroms. But back to sport-touring.
I rode a friend’s BMW R1100S again on a road trip through Northern California last year, and it suddenly seemed…small, light, low, and agile. And rational. The whole comfortable café racer concept came flooding back to me in a warm glow. It was a great traveling bike, with very little extra stuff hung on its spare engine/frame structure. Coming up off the sidestand, it “hefted” just right. This is an extremely important test to me.
There’s a terrible phrase we often use in road tests, one that often signals the beginning of the end for my interest in a given motorcycle genre. And that phrase is: “It’s a big, heavy bike, but the weight goes away once you get rolling.”
Personally, I’m a big fan of having the weight go away on the drawing board at the motorcycle factory.
So all I ask for in my next sport-tourer is lightness, comfort, and agility. And heated grips, of course. My needs are very simple. And getting simpler all the time. I’m actually thinking of taking my next long tour (to King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas) on a DR650 with a duffel bag bungeed across the back, but I suppose I could be talked out of it by an elegantly minimalistic café racer of unsurpassed comfort. And speed.