L.A. to Laguna

It takes most people five or six hours to ride from Los Angeles to Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey. We, as most of you have already figured, are not most people. Deadline stress and the first motorcycle Grand Prix on U.S. tarmac since 1994 dictated something more therapeutic than 325 miles of freeway. Besides, with some 80,000-plus fans converging on California's postcard-perfect Monterey Peninsula from every direction, our regular routes would be choked with motorcycling humanity along with the California Highway Patrol. Just as we learned the Primedia corporate jet was in for an oil change, the phone rang.

Cue Plan B, as in Joey B., aka Joe Bonnello, notorious Franco-Italian motorcycle photographer, raconteur, bon vivant and connoisseur of good food, great roads and jokes you can't tell your mother. After wandering California's vast midsection for months, Joe had come up with a loose itinerary that would take us from L.A. to Laguna on roads only cattle ranchers and Caltrans had ever heard of. Covering upward of 800 miles door to door, our route wasn't exactly direct. But we weren't about to pass up three days' worth of deliciously twisty roads, especially with the Red Bull United States Grand Prix for dessert.

It was also plausible provocation for a week out of the office to investigate this whole touring thing. OK, so motorcycle touring--in the overstuffed American idiom, anyway--conjures all the romance of the Rock Paper Scissors International World Championships (www.rpschamps.com in case you thought we made that up). No thanks.

From an overloaded '49 Electra Glide to a new 999R with a cell phone and an American Express Platinum card, there are as many ways to go touring as there are places to aim your bike. It all depends on your velocity-to-luxury ratio. For us, it's all about reeling in twisty lines on the map six, eight or 18 zip codes from home in reasonable comfort with more amenities than a toothbrush and clean underwear.

To wit, we packed up the once and future king of long-distance opulence--Honda's Gold Wing--along with a pair of smaller, more agile transcontinental alternatives. On the sporty end, Triumph's '05 Sprint ST wraps Hinckley's latest 1050cc triple in a svelte new package. Alongside, BMW's all-new R1200RT splits the difference between the Wing's sheer magnificence and the Sprint's athleticism. Charles `Tuna' Everitt would take the GL, his 51-year-old bones needing the most coddling on a trip like this. C. Timothy Carrithers and newly hired Brian Catterson would go the sportier route, Timmy on the Beemer and Brian on the Trumpet.

After 1200 miles on some of the best and worst pavement in California, we discovered less about winners and losers than the curative power of the road. If you haven't been on anything more ambitious than a Saturday-morning breakfast ride, pull out the maps and aim your front wheel at a fresh destination. Short on ideas? The '06 Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix returns to Laguna next July 21-23. Judging from this year's crowd, you can't be too early.

The Goldilocks Effect: Not too big, not too small, just right
Words: Tim Carrithers

It's Tuesday, bearing down hard on 9 a.m., but time is mercifully irrelevant under this perfectly calibrated azure sky. According to Mr. GPS, I'm sitting 35 degrees and 16.88 seconds north by 120 degrees and 39.58 seconds west and 220 feet above sea level--aka 1065 Higuera Street in San Luis Obispo, California. Uptown Espresso & Bakery, "Home of the Velvet Foam." Gainful employment is still a safe distance away--197 miles south in Los Angeles. To the north, seared into the Editorial Cortex, are Laguna Seca, the 2005 USGP and 1135 miles of the sort of slithering two-lane pavement my R1200RT was made for. No need to rush. Let it all sink in. Have the barista draw another Caf Americano and ease into the whole reality thing.

Looking like some Teutonic heavy in a Japanese anime film, BMW's latest RT is a pleasant sort of optical delusion. It seems larger at the curb than it feels on the road, admirably so for a 600-plus-pound motorcycle packing 7.1 gallons of super unleaded. After a stint on Everitt's Gold Wing it feels like a Hodaka Ace 100 despite wearing BMW's entire options list: heated seat and grips, AM/FM radio and CD player, cruise control, trip computer and ESA (Electronic Suspension Adjustment). No extra charge for the electrically adjustable windscreen, commodious 32-liter hard bags or ABS. Welcome to better living through gadgetry.

As Goldilocks said after having her way with the Bear family's furnishings, it's neither too small nor too large--but all things considered, a fitting compromise. That's the sort of thing that bounces around in my head at 78 mph on California 99, watching exits for Weed Patch and Pumpkin Center go by. It could be worse. I could be exiting.

Punch the cruise control up a notch, thumb the adjustable windscreen to a comfortable angle of attack and all is well. One helmet and a suitcase and Comfort on the ESA display mean the rear shock is set for one rider with luggage in need of minimal damping: a bit soft, but aptly named for freeway work. The 1170cc boxer is admirably smooth below 85 mph. Sound from the AM/FM CD is literally blown away above 45, so check the trip computer; we're 223 miles from empty, averaging 46 mpg and 52 mph since leaving Boss Angeles. Ambient temperature is 91 degrees, but hey, it's a dry heat.

Threading through lunchtime traffic in picturesque Bakersfield--City of Many Smells--the RT seat is either mercifully or maddeningly tall depending on your personal dimensions; it's perfect for my 34-inch inseam. Keep its saddlebags clear of yonder Kenworth and the RT moves easily through the sweltering clots of 18-wheel behemoths and Cowboy Up stickers. The only real glitch in the powertrain is an overabundance of driveline slack that thwacks and clunks every time you're on or off the gas around town. Thankfully, town gives way to cooler temperatures and greener pastures as SR178 traces the route of an angry-looking Kern River toward Lake Isabella.

Watching the sun drop over my shoulder into Lake Kaweah, various things have become clear. I could have rolled into the Best Western lot on a YZF-R1 or GSX-R1000. There's probably a nice, clean jail and expert chiropractic help in the greater Three Rivers area too, but on the RT, I won't need either. Slipping off the world's best standard luggage en route to a hot shower, the most pressing question of the evening is who's buying the beer? Like I said, life is good. I wouldn't tape up these lights for a track day; it'd take too much tape. But Das Boot has more than enough steam to keep Bonnello and Catterson in its sights. Even pushing 631 pounds soaking wet, Munich's steamiest boxer hammers out an impressive stream of smooth, useable thrust from 4000 to 8000 rpm.

Thumb the ESA to Sport mode and the chassis acquits itself quite well, as long as the Caltrans repair crews have smoothed things out ahead of you. Wicking it up where they haven't--especially with a week's worth of gear in the bags--serves up a ride that professional bull riders will enjoy. I'd opt for the standard dial-adjustable shock instead and spend the difference on new leathers, at least until BMW provides a broader range of electronic adjustment. Slow down until things smooth out and it covers ground better than 631 pounds of anything else on the road. Cornering clearance is abundant. The new chassis is long and tall enough to require a premeditated cornering style, and the Beemer needs more steering input than the average sportbike. Still, as long as I'm mindful of its mass, the RT covers these 90 miles between Lake Isabella and Springville--some of the most magnificently twisted pavement on this or any planet--as fast as I'll ever need to go.

Note to self: commission a suitably grandiose bronze medallion--suitable for framing--for C. Tuna Everitt's exemplary valor while grinding away the GL undercarriage against said pavement. Thankfully, there are more civilized ways to slow down. Luddites, narcissists and other professional swellheads auto-inflate at the mention of ABS and linked brakes. That's cute, but when the only landmarks are Elephant Knob and Mule Peak, I'll take all the electro-hydraulic enhancement I can get. BMW's power-assisted system generates more power than feel, but it never gets in the way of a good time. It also hauls Das Boot to a drama-free stop from 75 mph on crappy, gravel-strewn pavement, well short of an inopportune '51 Studebaker pickup ... with one finger.

Here's the deal. I don't know how it is where you live, but these days the only certifiably great roads around here that haven't been discovered by infidels and the CHP are two or three or five hundred miles away and wrapped around lonely hunks of rock. That means you need a motorcycle comfortable enough to make the trip without inflicting musculoskeletal torment and sporty enough to have some fun when you get there.

Catterson's Sprint ST is probably more fun through the twisty bits. It also slow-roasts your right side with engine heat and comes with a seat like a plywood picnic bench and mirrors that shake so badly you can't tell a CHP cruiser from the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile. I'll let him tell you about the saddlebags.

Meanwhile, back at the Home of the Velvet Foam, life is good. Call it touring or traveling or just going for a good long ride. This game is about the details. There is an inverse ratio between miles from home and the amount of irritation necessary to ruin your day. In that equation, the Sprint and I encounter irreconcilable differences in the first 20 minutes. And as good as it is at what it does, like a 46-foot motor home or a 72-ounce steak from The Big Texan, Honda's Wing is more than I need.

Meanwhile, there are untold thousands of great roads in California, waiting, and 49 more states after that. The best way to get there isn't too big or too small. It's an R1200RT.

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.

Triumph Sprint ST
The insult comic sport-tourer
Words: Brian Catterson

Ever been to Salinas? It's a nice place ... for me to poop on!

Sorry, but whenever I hear the name Triumph nowadays, I can't help but think of the insult comic dog from Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Ever since the trash-talking, cigar-chomping mutt told J. Lo her butt was "like Mount Everest for dogs," he's made me, uh, howl.

I got a hoot out of riding this latest version of the Triumph Sprint ST, too. Apologies to my two high-rolling companions, Charles Everitt Winchester III and Tim Car-rithers, but I don't care how much money you spend, there's no better platform for sport-touring than a sport-tourer. And when your destination is the USGP at Laguna Seca, and your tour guide Photo Joe Bonerello on the Notorious CGC (Cagiva Gran Canyon), the sportier the better.

For 2005, Triumph--the manufacturer, not the dog--redesigned the Sprint from top to bottom, giving it an all-new twin-spar aluminum frame and the same fuel-injected, 1050cc inline-triple as the nasty-boy Speed Triple. Compared with the previous 955cc version, it's got significantly more poop, if you'll pardon my pinscher.

Things didn't bode well for our trip when I turned the Sprint's ignition key for the first time and nothing happened. Dead battery? Nope. Not until you toggle the kill switch does the dash report for duty, the analog speedo and tach needles sweeping gracefully through their arcs, the warning lights illuminating to signify they're present and accounted for. Cool display, but it takes about five seconds, during which time the engine won't start. That's not an issue until you're parked in the middle of one-lane Santa Rosa Creek Road with a hay truck fast approaching.

Fittingly, the triple's dash--along with its headlights and underseat muffler outlets--holds true to the Rule of Threes, with a trio of gauges: speedo on the left, tach in the middle and multi-function trip computer on the right. Pressing the leftmost (of three, naturally) buttons varies the digital display to show time, mileage, fuel economy and range, plus average and top speeds--but not your current speed, which would be arguably more useful given the tiny numbers on the 180-mph speedo. Something to consider when your target buyers are in their 40s; our vision isn't getting any better, you know.

Cruising I-5 en route to our rendezvous point at Kernville, I found the Sprint's riding position to be pretty much perfect for sport-touring, with handlebars that aren't too far of a reach, footpegs that aren't too radically rearset, a fuel tank that isn't too fat and a smallish windscreen that actually does a good job of deflecting windblast. The seat felt nice and cushy at first, but got a bit too cushy as we piled on the miles, the padding compressing until I could feel the plastic base. That, however, pales in comparison to the other comfort issue: excessive engine heat rising up around the fuel tank and radiating from the exhaust pipe inboard of the

right footpeg. Admittedly, this was worse in slow going than at speed, but I'm fairly certain I'm sterile now.In terms of power delivery and handling, the Sprint feels much like a typical inline-four. Two details are notably different: First is vibration; not in a bothersome, high-frequency, finger-tingling sort of way, but rather a coarse buzz. And second, the distinctive exhaust note, which changes from a menacing rottweiler growl at low revs to a coyote howl near redline. So you could say it has the bark to go with its bite.

It would be tempting to blame engine vibration for the blurred images in the well-placed mirrors, but alas, they were fuzzy even when the engine wasn't running. Coast-racing down the twisty, bumpy stretch of road from Fort Hunter Liggett to Highway 1, I couldn't tell if it was Timmy on the Beemer, Charlie on the Wing or Michael in the chase truck following me. Joining the mirrors in their Shakira-shaking-her-moneymaker impression were the projector-beam headlights, whose narrow, rainbow-hued beams had motorists in front of me darting for the shoulder at night thinking they were being pulled over by the police. I could maybe overlook that if it had only happened once, but it happened several times. Weird.

To make our Sprint into a proper sport-tourer, we installed a set of Triumph's accessory panniers (saddlebags for those of you in Rio Linda), which for $1050 ought to work better than they do. While the floating, color-matched bags look great, they aren't easy to use. Putting them on and taking them off is relatively painless, and opening them isn't particularly difficult. But closing them with your belongings inside is--apologies to comic Triumph's mom--a real bitch. It takes three hands and a small boy to turn the key, hold down the big button and align the edges of the Tupperware-like lid with their respective slots in the base. The bags are also way too wide--some 38.5 inches across, compared with 36 inches for the RT and just 33 inches for the Gold Wing--which restricts your mobility in traffic ... say while splitting lanes for 45 minutes leaving Laguna Seca. And on top of that they aren't waterproof! You'd think, of all people, the British would understand the importance of keeping one's knickers dry.

Not surprisingly, the bags' added weight (chock-full of a week's worth of clothing and toiletries) taxed the rear suspension, the shock feeling sacked-out and the front end pushing wide in corners. Maxing spring preload in back restored handling to its previous glory, even if the screwdriver in the included toolkit proved too small to turn the adjuster. You need one with a fatter handle to get the necessary leverage.

OK, I'm nitpicking, but that's only because I spent the better part of a week and 1100 miles on the Triumph and have seen plenty of its soft underbelly. Admittedly, most of my criticisms concern peripheral issues, and at its essence the Sprint is a superb motorcycle. Between its potent engine and its near-flawless handling, suspension and brakes, the Sprint ST stood head and shoulders above the other two pretenders whenever the road turned twisty--which on this ride meant most of the time. Although Tim and the BMW did a surprisingly good job of filling my mirrors on occasion, I could pretty much disappear at will. That's because, bags or no bags, the Sprint is a sportbike at heart, whereas the RT and the Wing seem more like conveyances with which to haul an ever-increasing number of gadgets.

The Sprint ST doesn't have a stereo, an intercom, an adjustable windscreen, an electrically heated seat, a top box, a passenger backrest, fairing vents, shaft drive, EAS, ABS, LBS or any other BS, which is fine by me. Consequently, and because the British--bless their nationalistic little souls--still trade in pounds rather than euros, Triumph hasn't been affected by the poor exchange rate that has haunted European manufacturers of late. That means its motorcycles are a relative bargain, especially compared with the overpriced luxury liners piloted by my two nouveau riche companions.

As Triumph the dog might say: "Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poop-On? I keed, I keed, I joke with you! But really, Honda, you're so fat, Sir Mix-A-Lot should have sung, `Goldie's Got Back.' And Beemer, dreamer, you're no motorsickle, you turn me on as much as Michael Jackson's tickle. My namesake, Triumph, that's the one, if all bikes were this good, there would be none ... for me to poop on!"

...and Sleepy.
It's a touch wide for track traffic, however.
Three straight days of chasing vanishing points along two-lane roads that have a touch of the divine. Hardly the Gold Wing's bailiwick, but it was close enough. You should have been there. Next year?
Wild blue yonder: Sprint ST is available in "Aluminium" Silver or our testbike's Caspian Blue for $10,599. Options include the hard saddlebags shown here, plus a top box, gel seat, heated handgrips, satellite navigation system and, beginning this fall, anti-lock brakes.
Nicely appointed dash includes analog speedo and tach, digital trip computer and locking toolbox. We'll take the fifth on the 158 mph top speed figure.