L.A. to Laguna

By The Motorcyclist Staff, Photography by Joe Bonello, Todd Westover

Honda Goldwing ABS
Too big? Too heavy? Too much? Too cool.
Words: Charles Everitt

You just know the shine has come right off your day when you find your head screwed into the dirt and you're being half-nelsoned by a Honda Gold Wing.

Fortunately I didn't hear the usual epithet shooter Joe Bonnello had greeted me with when I was two hours late getting to our jumping-off point for our ride to the U.S. MotoGP.

"Dammit, Charles!" he said. Repeatedly.For the remainder of the week that's what I'd hear whenever Joe laid eyes on me, whether I was late or not.

"Dammit, Charles!" Yes, Joe. And a fine top of the mornin' to yourself as well.

Not this time, though. I guess my augering in of the Wing looked worse than it was, because not only did I not hear, "Dammit, Charles!", Bonnello didn't even get a shot of me trying to extricate myself from the Gold Wing's too-intimate grip. Instead, he and Test Bike Manager Michael Candreia ran over to help right the fallen beast. Aw, they really care.

"Is the bike OK?"
Only then, "Are you OK, Charles?"
Sigh. At least it wasn't, "Dammit, Charles!" Not then, anyway.

How I ended up in such a predicament would take too long to tell here. Suffice it to say I had good reason to do what I did; that is, I had a photographer's reason, which is always good enough.

More to the point is why I was on a Gold Wing, specifically a 30th-anniversary Gold Wing, when colleagues Carrithers and FNG Catterson were on far more sporting hardware--a BMW R1200RT and a Triumph Sprint ST, respectively. Simple: Someone had to represent traditional-style motorcycle touring, and I missed the meeting where it was decided who would do so.

Not that riding the Wing would be odious duty. In fact, I was looking forward to it. Inveterate readers of the masthead know I'm not only the rented mule but also a senior editor, which means I'm old, with all the attendant physical ailments you'd expect not only from age but also from having thrown myself down the road periodically for years. A GL promised a respite for long-suffering joints on this jaunt.

In case you're new here, or have been inhabiting an alternate universe for 30 years, Honda's Gold Wing has long reigned as the ne plus ultra of traditional, American-style touring, and for a simple reason: It's as if it had been created by the Touring Gods themselves, Ramada and Exxon, with an 1832cc liquid-cooled opposed-six that's been refined within an inch of its life, extraordinary weather protection, linked brakes, ABS, 141 liters of saddlebag and trunk room with remote opener, plus reverse, cruise control, trunk-mounted six-disc CD changer, CB, heated grips and virtually every other bell, whistle and bijou for which your little long-distance heart could pine. Overall, Honda's Gold Wing has been smoothed, polished, cajoled and caressed into near touring perfection. Nowhere is it more obvious than in this 30th-anniversary version, marking--obviously--the legendary Gold Wing's 30th year of production.

All of which was James-dandy with me on the trek up Interstate 5 from Los Angeles to Kernville, our meeting point. With a wet weight of 898 pounds, a rangy 66.6 inches between axles, 29.25 degrees of rake, 4.3 inches of trail and a center of gravity somewhere around your ankles, stability is the order of the day for this ship of touring's state and just the thing for low-stress travel on two wheels. That trait is matched by near- magic-carpet ride quality from the conventional telescopic fork with antidive, and preload-adjustable (choose one of 25 positions with a push of a button) single air shock. Just dial up your favorite tunes (Mississippi John Hurt's "Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me" for instance), point the bow thataway and stop only when you feel like it or must.

Despite the Gold Wing's almost scary refinement, though, not all is perfection. For a 5-foot-10 rider, there's nasty high-frequency helmet buffeting with the adjustable windshield at its lowest point. You can move the buffeting by raising the windshield, but not everyone wants to look through it. And although Honda has worked commendably hard to keep the saddle height low (29.1 inches) to suit a shorter, broader audience, so to speak, we think it's gone too far. Riders more than 6 feet tall end up with their knees uncomfortably higher than their hips, and want more fore and aft room. For a motorcycle so devoted to luxury touring, the Gold Wing needs and deserves an adjustable seat.

Upon arrival in Kernville--"Dammit, Charles!"--my idea of our journey went up in the smoke of one of my 'boros. I'd imagined gloating as my compatriots pounded along the interstate, uncomfortable and bored to tears, as I simply turned up the volume on the stereo to drown out their piteous laments. Something like James Brown's "I Feel Good." Not hardly. Instead we were going to take Joe Bonnello's patented scenic route, some 1000-plus miles of the finest, most sinuous and sticky pavement you or I have ever seen. To give you an idea, over our three-day journey to Monterey we were on straight multilane roads maybe 45 minutes. "Dammit, Charles."

Still, all was not lost, or even misplaced. Just as no one told the bumblebee it should not be able to fly, no one has let the Gold Wing know it shouldn't handle swervery with much of the same grace it copes with swallowing vast expanses of interstate in Orient Express comfort. While sheer physics guarantees stability, a low center of gravity thanks to astonishing weight management legerdemain means the bike snaps into corners like something a third of its weight and size. Credit is also due the overachieving powerplant; prodigious torque (82 percent of the 109.9 pound-feet peak is accessible from 2000 rpm to 6000 rpm) and a relatively quick-revving nature make using all of its performance absurdly simple. No, there's not much cornering clearance, and broken pavement has the suspension pounding against its stops loudly enough to drown out said stereo, but the Gold Wing surely can hold its own.

So, I figured, fine. Even though they tried to throw the Wing and me a curve with their dipsy-doodle sportbike route, that didn't mean I had to swing. After all, this was a dream ride, and smacking the bike's undercarriage through every corner in a futile attempt to keep up seemed nightmarish at best.

Instead, the Wing and I proceeded at a sufficiently spirited pace to keep me entertained, the stereo provided a superb soundtrack and I actually got to see some of the scenery in place of the narrowing tunnel vision you get when you're hauling ass on a sportbike. Besides, where were they going to go? They had to wait for me. A three-bike story means you got to have three bikes for photography.

Photography--as well as filtering through the clogged traffic entering and exiting Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, among other things--illustrated a couple of other shortcomings. Anywhere under about 15 mph, a fully loaded Gold Wing with passenger sheds its grace as quickly and easily as it does metal from its engine guards against twisty pavement. Likewise, such slow speeds keep even a whiff of air from getting to the rider; extremely unpleasant on a hot, 100-degree day.

But even those unpleasantries couldn't prevent me from having an altogether splendid time. What's not to like? A week of travel with (mostly) convivial companions, and a comfy, reasonably capable mount to guide over roads to maim for on the way to the motorcycling event of the year. And they paid me to do it ... "Dammit, Charles!"

For the 200-mile homestretch--when the route finally was to the Gold Wing's advantage--there was time to reflect, unlike on a sportbike where all the rider can think about is hitting the next apex. And foremost was what an extraordinarily rewarding time you--yes, you too--can have proving how well the traditional American-style touring bike fares even when it's baited-and-switched into a role that should utterly confound it and its rider. The Wing coped amazing well with almost everything thrown at it. That's a testament to its breeding and to Honda's success in making this latest generation far more multidimensional than its predecessors.

Just a few miles from home sweet hovel, back in L.A.'s comforting thick summer smog, a final thought occurred about a neat parallel between our ride and the stunning MotoGP weekend: There was one winner at Laguna's GP, a rider who dominated the competition with consummate ease from start to finish, and his name is Honda's Nicky Hayden. Likewise, there's a single motorcycle that lords over traditional touring, and has for 30 years, making every competitor look like a second-rate pretender. And its name is Honda's Gold Wing.

By The Motorcyclist Staff
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