Long Distance Riding – Choosing a Bike

Choosing the right bike for a long distance ride is going to be a very personal thing.  What’s important will depend on the type of riding that you’ll be doing.  If you remember back to the introductory post that I did, you’ll remember that I limit my travel to paved roads leading me towards certain types of bikes.  

Some of the features you want to look for when choosing a bike are:

  • Ergonomics (seat, bars, foot pegs)
  • Weather protection
  • Waterproof storage
  • Fuel range
  • Cruise control

Ergonomics

When you’re going to be on a motorcycle for 10-12 hours a day over the course of many days, one of the most important things is comfort.  It’s easy to get tired and can actually become dangerous if you’re feeling beat-up and sore from riding.  I’ve ridden two different Harley Davidson Electra Glides and my BMW K1600GTL from NY to CA and found that for me, the Harley’s were more comfortable.   There were times on the BMW where I was miserable for long periods of time due to shoulder/back pain.  It was not a pleasant experience.

Anything you can do to increase comfort will pay off big-time.  The right seat eases pressure on your backside, an adjustable backrest can be a great addition to a seat, highway pegs will allow you to stretch your legs, and handlebars that are right for you can ease shoulder pain.  These are some of the basic elements that can help to avoid a painful ride.

Weather Protection

When you go for a long ride, you can count on hitting some bad weather.  Bad weather can be rain, cold, heat, or wind.  None of these is pleasant without proper weather protection and quality riding gear.

For rain and cold, a windshield, lower fairings, heated grips, and heated seat are all great at minimizing the effects of bad weather.  If you’re cold and wet, riding can become dangerous so anything you can do to avoid this unpleasantness helps you to continue down the road rather than constantly needing to stop to warm up.  Good waterproof gear or a quality rain suit is necessary when riding in rain and can be surprisingly helpful in the cold too.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, riding in hot desert conditions is actually more comfortable with a mesh jacket that provides good airflow while keeping perspiration in and the hot sun off of your bare skin.  Combined with a good under layer made with one of the many cooling fabrics available (such as Under Armor), you can stay surprisingly comfortable as long as you keep moving and air flowing.

When riding in just a t-shirt in the dry desert air, your sweat evaporates immediately and provides absolutely no cooling effect.  Painful sunburn is also a constant threat if your skin is not covered.  Sunscreen can help, but it’s better to avoid the hot sun altogether.  Additionally, a t-shirt provides absolutely no crash protection.

Wind protection is quite important when travelling at 75 mph on interstate highways for obvious reasons.  It’s nice not to constantly be fighting the wind.

Waterproof Storage

You don’t just need storage, you need waterproof storage.  After riding for hours in heavy rain, you really want to have dry clothes to put on.  Even with the best rain gear, if you ride in the rain for long enough, water always seems to find it’s way into places that you don’t want it to be.

Hard luggage that is designed for the bike is probably the best solution to waterproof storage.  Both my Harley’s and my BMW have hard side bags and top case and I’ve never had a problem with water getting into them.  On the other hand, even with rain covers, some of the soft luggage I’ve used has become damp inside after riding for hours in the rain.

Fuel Range

For many parts of the US, fuel range isn’t much of an issue – you may just need to stop more often.  However, when you get out into some of the more remote areas of the American West, it’s not uncommon to travel 100 miles or more between gas stations, even on Interstate Highways.

I would have to say that the absolute minimum fuel range if you’re planning a trip out West is 150 miles.   I’ve seen distances of 160+ miles between gas stations through parts of Nevada.

With higher speed limits and heavy headwinds, your fuel mileage may be significantly lower that what you’re used to.  A good stiff headwind could lower your fuel mileage by 10 mpg or more which can reduce your range by 50 or more miles.

With my BMW, I typically average around 40-42 mpg when I’m at home with 55-65 mph speed limits.  When I travel in areas with 75 mph speed limits, mileage drops to the mid 30’s and if you add a stiff headwind, I’ve seen as low as 28 mpg at times.   With the 7 gallon tank, total range varies from 280 miles down to only 190 miles when riding fast into a headwind.  My Harley’s were about the same but with a smaller capacity tank, my 2006 Harley’s theoretical maximum range with a 5 gallon tank could be as low as 140 miles.

Keep fuel range in mind when planning routes and don’t underestimate the effect of heavy wind on fuel mileage.  When riding in the American West, it’s a good idea to stop and top off your tank at every gas station.

Cruise Control

I guess some people would consider cruise control a luxury that you could do without.  However, the ability to let go of the handlebar and relax your right hand and arm make it easier to ride for hours at a time without your hand getting stiff.

Choosing a Bike

There are many different bikes that you can choose to ride with the obvious choices being the large touring bikes such as Gold Wings, Electra Glides, and various BMW models.  The downside of these bikes are their weight.  These are big heavy bikes, some of them are over 900 lbs.  For ultimate long distance comfort, it’s hard to beat one of the big touring bikes.

Sport Touring bikes such as the Yamaha FJR and Kawasaki Concours are another obvious class of motorcycle that have most/all of the features that you need.  They are reasonably comfortable and have the added benefit of being lighter and providing better performance and handling than the big touring bikes when the roads get twisty.

Of course, you may already have a bike that you like and just need to add a few things in order to make it comfortable for long hauls.  Either way, comfort, weather protection, waterproof storage, and the ability to move around are elements that will make your journey more enjoyable.

I’ve contemplated taking my Street Triple on a long trip – probably not all the way to California but maybe 1,000 – 1,500 miles from home.  I would adjust my daily distances down to 300-400 miles a day and stop more frequently.

In the end, any bike will do, but a more comfortable bike will make your journey that much more enjoyable.

Next Page – Preparing the Bike

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