In the motorcycle business, press junkets can have a predictability to them. Fly to the location of the press introduction, get transported to a luxury hotel/resort, and attend a welcoming dinner complete with gourmet food and all the alcohol you can drink (or want to drink the day before a ride on an unfamiliar bike). The next morning you gather in groups (typically a “slow” group and a “fast” group) after listening to a technical presentation about the new machine. The groups are then led on a ride covering a variety of roads, from straight highways to tight, twisty canyons. After 140 miles, or so (my PR before this trip was 265 miles in a single day at a press intro), it is back to the hotel for a shower and another “farewell” dinner at a fine restaurant. End of story.
Kawasaki invited me to ride from its Irvine, California headquarters to the small Northern California town of Calistoga to attend a round of the AMA Flat Track National championships at the Calistoga Half-Mile venue. It was an opportunity to do something different. Very different.
I would be riding a bike I was already familiar with, Kawasaki’s luxury touring cruiser, the Vulcan 1700 Voyager. Although I had enough miles on the Voyager that nothing came as a particular surprise from a riding perspective, I didn’t have significant time using the Voyager for one of its intended purposes, i.e., riding two-up with a passenger and 60 pounds, or so, of luggage.
I arranged with Kawasaki to take my wife Kim along on the trip. It seems I had forgotten how much a woman packs for a four-day outing, but I resigned myself to the possibility that I might be limited to a single pair of clean underwear. That is, until we arrived at Kawasaki and watched the saddle bags and trunk devour quite a bit more than we had anticipated. In the end, Kim was able to take everything she wanted (“needed” is another issue), and I had everything I normally pack for a press trip of similar length. After adding 16 psi to the adjustable rear shocks to handle the extra load, we were on our way.
Departing in late July, I was looking forward to avoiding the typical California summer heat by traveling north along the coast. Somewhat to my surprise, Kawasaki immediately led us inland, heading over the I-5 grapevine toward the central valley. Since I hadn’t bothered to look at the route map, I was pleasantly surprised when the group was led off the grapevine and onto Highway 95. We were very quickly surrounded by relatively lush, green forest, as opposed to the drab, brown ground cover found on Highway I-5 during the summer. The temperature began to drop to a more tolerable level, and the tarmac got narrower and twistier. Things started to get fun.
Riding two-up with a full load of luggage on this big bike takes some getting used to. Parking lot speeds and stop-and-go traffic present some challenges for the rider as the decidedly top-heavy arrangement (with an adult passenger and full saddlebags and trunk present).
The added air pressure in the rear shocks may not have helped low speed stability, but they certainly helped the bike turn in quicker once we were moving. After finding my rhythm on the big Voyager, despite moving more than 1,000 pounds of motorcycle, human flesh and luggage, the twisties became a blast.
Traveling through Highway 33 and then on to Highway 58, the heat seems to spike up again, but you can sense the approaching coastline and cooler, moister air. It is on Highway 58 where a faster group breaks off the front to push the pace about as much as we dare on these big bikes, but the Voyager responds very well. The superb linked braking system, coupled with reasonable ground clearance for a cruiser of this sort, and loads of low-end grunt off the corners, result in a sizeable gap developing between our front group and some of the other riders.
Kim, meanwhile, is following all of those rules a passenger should follow by leaning with me into the bends and staying relaxed. Both of us find the seating accommodations well suited for a long trip, with the passenger perch (complete with back rest) quite a departure from the experience on the back end of most motorcycles. Both rider and passenger have large floorboards mounted in a manner to largely eliminate vibration reaching your feet. Kim was so comfortable, she confessed that she fell asleep at one point (not recommended) on Day 2 of the trip. More about that below.
After visiting a memorial to James Dean, at the sight of his fatal crash at the age of 25 while piloting his Porsche Spyder, we continued our trip on towards the coast and our hotel for the first evening in the City of Cambria, which is directly on Highway 1 where we would again head north the following morning.
After a restful evening in Cambria, we got back on the bikes early on a cold, misty morning and began to head north on Highway 1. We stopped to visit a fairly famous stretch of beach near San Simeon, where large seals populate the sand and frolic in the shallow water. After a group of us made our way through a hole in a fence, we were soundly criticized, and rounded up, by an 80-year-old docent. Properly so.
It was nice to get back on the bikes, and it was this cold morning heading up the coast when Kim actually fell asleep in the passenger seat for a short period of time. If this isn’t a testament to the comfort of that perch, I don’t know what is.
Shortly thereafter, we arrived at one of the most famous stretches of California coastline… Highway 1 through Big Sur and into Monterey. This is the twisty, scenic route that you may have seen on television, if not in person, such as the broadcast of the Tour of California bike race. The scenery is breathtaking, and the twisty road sometimes edges along a cliff above the Pacific.
We came to an abandoned lighthouse on a point overlooking the Pacific. The lighthouse may have been abandoned, but there were small apartments there. Accomodations were very simple (bunk beds shared in a large room), but it was cheap and it looked like a fun place to stay for a couple of days. Being on that point of land, the air was incredibly clean and crisp, and the scenery was even more beautiful than that typically witnessed from the road.
Continuing north, after eating lunch in Monterey, we pushed onward through the city of San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County. Kim and I were both getting a bit tired at this point. I’m not used to consecutive 300+ mile days on a motorcycle, despite my role as a motorcycle journalist. This isn’t meant to reflect negatively on the comfort of the Voyager, which is certainly a bike I would consider carefully as an option on a cross-country tour.
Through the narrow and steep streets of San Francisco, the Voyager, despite all of its bulk, the luggage and passenger, handled remarkably well, and the torque of the huge v-twin effortlessly pulled it up and over all of the hills.
The sun was setting as we pushed north of the city through Marin County on the freeway. To go along with my general fatigue, we had the added discomfort of trying to avoid staring into that bright spot ahead of us. I was glad when we finally reached our dinner destination, i.e., a sushi restaurant in Napa County. Kim and I had one of the best meals ever. I’m sure that our long day in the saddle contributed to the sensation, but the food really was exceptional.
After dinner, I assumed we had just a few miles more before arriving at our hotel room. I felt refreshed and was pleased to climb back aboard the bike and head into Calistoga. This trip turned out to be another hour-and-a-half, or so, and the air was quite cold. The cold cut through my jeans despite the wind protection offered by the Voyager fairing, and it was with great relief that we pulled into the hotel parking lot at roughly 8 PM.
Calistoga is a very small town, with lots of character and atmosphere. Having grown up in bustling Southern California, it was nice to see that there are still small towns like this in my state. Main Street was a short walk from our hotel, and that is where we ate all our meals, and did some window shopping before traveling over to the Raceway to watch flat track racing that evening.
It has been a long time since I watched a flat track event. The half-mile oval in Calistoga seems to have some nice dirt that offered decent traction. Watching the races, I was reminded of just how tough these racers are. Crashes are too frequent, and we saw a couple of bad ones that evening. As it turns out, Kawasaki has a couple of competitive flat track machines based on the Ninja 650 engine.
After flying home the next day, for the next couple of weeks the two-day 650 mile ride kept entering my mind. With the weather, and the distance covered, it was almost grueling at times, but the memories I was left with were all positive. It really was one of the best motorcycle trips I’ve ever taken. The variety of terrain, and roads covered was remarkable, and the big Voyager handled it all like a competent, modern luxury tourer with the added benefit of retro style.