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Kawasaki GPz900R central Australia

What makes a Touring Bike?

(from the Travels with Guido series, MT #354, circa April 2019)

by Guy 'Guido' Allen

Let's ponder whether Kawasaki accidentally built the ultimate tourer

You’d think by now we’d all know what a touring bike looks like. Talk to Honda and it’s a Gold Wing, ditto Harley and it’s an Electra Glide. In any case, we’re thinking land yacht with enough materials in the bodywork and luggage to construct a modest house.

They work. Every time I get off a Gold Wing test bike, I quietly end up scouring the classifieds for used examples, wondering what it would take to scratch up the money.

This whole ‘what makes a touring bike’ theme recently popped up somewhere on the road south to Coober Pedy, as I was riding my latest acquisition home. It’s a 1989 BMW R100GS Paris Dakar – see Our Bikes this issue – and we were on the run from Alice Springs to Melbourne. I say ‘the run’ because this is the second time in the space of a couple of years that I’ve done this trip. Last time it was with a 1984 Kawasaki GPz900R.

So, same 2200km trip on two very different machines. Now the BMW makes all kinds of sense, given adventure tourers have successfully eaten into the touring bike market. You can see why: at least some coverage from a screen/fairing, big carrying capacity thanks to a rear rack and panniers and really comfortable ride thanks to long travel suspension. They make all sorts of sense.

And the GPz? Back in the mid-eighties, this was Kawasaki’s leader sports bike. Plus it was a movie star, with a cameo role as Tom Cruise’s mount in the flick Top Gun.

On the face of it, for its time the Kwaka was the exact opposite of a touring bike. Now to be fair, a GPz would now be classed as a sports-tourer and really that’s about right.

So there I was, about 1000km into the trip on the R100GS, making the obvious comparison. Was the big Bimmer in fact better at this task than the Kawasaki? And you know what? I’m not convinced it was.

This is ridiculous. After all, we’re talking about something that has a 35 litre tank, panniers, luggage rack, long-travel suspension, shaft drive. Hell, it’s clearly made for crossing whole continents in a single bound.

The Kawasaki meanwhile had a 22-litre tank, no luggage capacity other than a pillion seat with the some tie-down points under it, very conventional road/sports bike suspension for the time (including a16-inch front wheel versus 21 on the Bimmer!), and chain drive. It did however have a whole lot more power, at a claimed 115 horses versus 60 on the GS.

The result of all that was the Kawasaki, surprisingly, was a supremely capable tourer. Particularly out there where you could hold a 130km/h cruising speed all day. It was just as comfortable as the GS, while having more than adequate fuel range for the trip. As for luggage, well, everything I needed for a few days – including a 5lt spare fuel canister that proved to be redundant – fitted into an Andy Strapz bag strapped to the rear seat.

A real bonus with the Kawasaki was that when I wanted to play it had plenty of power to make it interesting.

As I rolled into the outskirts of Melbourne, I was forced to admit that, as enjoyable as the GS is, it was not substantially better at the same 2200km trip than the GPz.

Maybe it comes down to attitude. One memory of the Kawasaki trip was rolling into a rest stop in the middle of nowhere, perhaps somewhere north of Glendambo. The sky ahead was black with storm clouds and I’d pulled up to put on wet weather gear.

Huddled together under the one shelter within cooee were three riders on late model adventure tourers who, very sensibly, had decided to wait out the storm. Me? I got suited up and wobbled off into the distance.

To me, that kind of sums up the whole thing. More often it’s not the bike that makes the ride, but what you make of the bike.

More Travels with Guido columns

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