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The Road Calls: Vintage Touring

by Richard Backus


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Vintage touring, or more precisely, touring on vintage bikes, seems to be experiencing something of a lift in popularity of late. While there have always been motorcyclists who answer the call of the open road by hopping on their old /5 BMW, or for that matter anything with two wheels — count me in both groups — more and more owners appear to be turning the front wheel of their classic bike toward the open road and points unknown.

The growing popularity of commercial classic tours supports this notion. Last issue Jeremy Beer told us about Classic Bike Esprit’s Corsica tour, and coming up in September 2012, a lucky reader will join me for a 700-mile blast through West Virginia on vintage Italian twins, aided and abetted by Joel Samick and his classic bike touring company, RetroTours. If this is indeed a movement, Anders and Nic Carlson would be its poster children for recently consummating their nuptials by riding his and hers 1973 Hondas from California to Chicago. OK, so they stopped just short (read Cross-Country Honeymoon on 1973 Hondas), but that’s a good ride by any standard, and doing it aboard 39-year-old bikes makes it that much better.

Yet while Jeremy, Joel, Anders and Nic are happy to swing a leg over sometimes half-century-old iron before heading out for points unknown, not everyone shares their sense of adventure. To be sure, it takes a certain comfort with exposure to roll 1,000 miles straight on a 1974 Norton Commando: It’s not quite the same as hiding behind the mammoth windscreen on a Gold Wing or BMW R1200RT, bikes that cosset their riders with almost car-like levels of comfort and capacity.

And many people wonder if those miles can really be piled on safely and predictably. I can answer that in two words: yes, and no.

When it comes to the question of safety, I’d argue that a 1976 Kawasaki Z1 can be as safe as any modern bike. Certainly, many new bikes come with ABS, definitely a safety edge. On the other hand, many new bikes get their riders up to triple-digit speeds so quickly and easily, the average rider doesn’t really appreciate the level of exposure those speeds engender. That old Kawi is actually pretty slow by modern standards, a fact that, rationally enough, seems to remind riders to ride within the bike’s — and their — limits.

If safety means reliability, again, I’d suggest that same old Kawasaki, properly maintained and shod with a good set of tires, can be every bit as reliable as any new bike. Although it may not have the appliance-like serviceability we’ve come to expect of new stuff, e.g., multi-thousand-mile oil change intervals, no-adjust hydraulic valve lifters and big mile maintenance schedules, there’s no reason that old Kawasaki can’t go from Dayton, Ohio, to Daytona Beach, Fla., without missing a beat. It might need a bit more maintenance at the other end, but that’s about it.

Further, vintage touring on decades-old machinery tends to inspire a slower, more considered pace, pushing riders off the super-slab and into the back country, where the good riding is anyhow. The back roads are also where you find the people who will actually aid you when you’re unlucky enough to break down, like the cook at the roadside cafe in Wyoming who enthusiastically helped me glue, tape and wire a broken carburetor mounting flange on my Norton Commando.

New bike or old, there are no guarantees. Any bike can break down, but regular and preventive maintenance goes a long way toward ensuring a safe and reliable ride. And new bike or old, isn’t riding them the point? — Richard Backus