The Zen of Sports Touring

The UK’s Bike magazine recently asked for contributions to a story about the why, the how and the myth of “Sports Touring”. Which prompted me to put together a few random thoughts, and here they be:

The Why?

There’s something very basic here: you don’t need some full-blown mile-muncher to tour on: what has been done on a Gold Wing will, I guarantee you, also have been accomplished by some nutter or other on a Honda 90, probably whilst wearing wellies. They may have been a bit slower, carried fewer changes of clothing and been rather more numb of the fundament at journey’s end, but they’ll have gotten there. The fact that the current round-the-world record holder, Nick Sanders, did it on a Yamaha R1 is indicative both that you can tour on anything and that he really is quite mad. Mind you, if he’d done it on a BMW 1150GS, as per Kevin & Julia Sanders, the previous holders, he probably wouldn’t look quite as shagged out as he does in every picture I’ve seen of him. But he did it. And there’s nothing quite like barreling across Europe on a sporting motorcycle, accepting the slight-to-monstrous trade-off in comfort for for the sheer joy to be had from being able to make full and focussed use of the really fun bits: the hairpins of the Alps, the fast sweepers of the Eiffel Mountains or the cliff-hugging nadgery of the Amalfi coast. That’s what it’s all about.

Now for a little of the how and what…

Travelling Light

This is the very essence of Sports Touring and should be considered at all times when packing. Sawing your toothbrush in half to save weight & space might however be considered excessively anal.

You WILL take too many shirts. You will NOT take sufficient socks. It’s a law of nature. However, try laying everything out two days before. Add/subtract to the pile over a 24-hour period. Pack half of everything. But do remember to include your trousers – a 6′ hairy bloke wandering around the continent in his girlfriend’s red sarong is not an edifying sight.

Mains chargers for phones/GPS/PDAs/cameras etc take up a ludicrous amount of space. Invest in a multi-voltage, multi-device charger such as those that iGo do. Then remember to take it.

Modern climbing/trekking clothes are incredibly light and robust – look for fabrics containing silver (antibacterial) – means you can wear them for much longer without people giving you a wide berth (or at least wider than usual). Phase Change Fabrics will change their structure according to temperature – allowing one garment to work over a much wider temperature range and gaining you useful geek bragging rights.

A superlight cycling waterproof, bought large, will pack into a very small space and go over leathers in light showers.

Navigation

If travelling two-up, strap the map case the the rider’s back and use intercom or hand signals (see below) for navigation.

Use pencil or permanent marker to write out route instructions: anything else will run. Even if your map case or tankbag are genuinely waterproof, condensation will still do it.

Learn to use your GPS BEFORE you set off.

Do not assume that your GPS is omniscient: turning a VFR around on what has turned out to be a precipitous mountain bike track in the Ardennes takes some doing.

Pillions on Tour

Etiquette: When sailing around the outside of groups of sportsbikes on fast bends, having your pillion stick both arms out sideways and perform an impression of a Messerschmitt on a strafing run is generally considered poor form.

If you haven’t got an intercom, work out a simple signalling system with your pillion to cover the basics, such as:

  • I could do with a loo break at the first possible opportunity.
  • My arse/knees/neck started hurting 100 miles ago and you ignored me. When you do stop, you’re going to get hell.
  • Pillock, you’ve missed the turning!
  • Stop NOW – the panniers/exhaust/centrestand/wheels have fallen off! (I ride a Ducati…)

Make sure that such signals a) can’t be confused with normal body contact while riding, b) are easily felt through leather and c) do not cause permanent damage to the rider.

On a Goldwing, knitting en-route is an acceptable pillion pastime. On a sports tourer, it is not.

Pre-Flight Checks

Before heading off on a brisk lap of the Nurburgring, two-up with panniers, with the express purpose of sticking it to the snotty git with the tricked-up F4S, do make sure that said panniers are closed properly…

Take time to work out the best suspension set-up for travelling loaded and two-up, if applicable. Spending a week fighting the bike’s stock set-up is no fun at all. If your rear shock adjusts via a c-spanner, take plasters for skinned knuckles.

Luggage

Ignore fancy pannier liner bags – they just take up space: the good old bin liner has much to commend it.

Don’t overstuff the tankbag. “Honest officer, I couldn’t see the speedo” is not going to cut it.

On the Road

That first/last hack around the M25/M2 to Dover/Folkestone is really, really boring. And heavily policed. Having a court appearance pending from the first morning will definitely cast a cloud over the trip.

French white lines are really, really slippery. The French also have an elite cadre of specially trained cows, whose sole task it is to sneakily crap on the turn-in points of all the best bends.

Belgian roads are the worst on the planet. Really. And I’ve ridden in Congo.

If you’re an EU citizen and touring in the EU, Switzerland or Norway, take your EHIC (European Health Insurance Card)

Zip-ties have multiple uses. So do condoms (Waterproofing small objects and as emergency petrol carriers. For a start). Wet-wipes are handy too – always carry a pack under the seat.

A couple of Ibuprofen every morning work wonders for aching joints, especially if you’re doing unfamiliarly long distances on a sports bike.

Take a spare key and either put it in a tankbag pocket or give it to your pillion to look after. If asked to list the top million places not to drop a bike key, a chemical Portaloo in the middle of rural France would probably come pretty high up the list. Which is as much information as you could possibly want, but it took nearly ten minutes of not-daring-to-breathe movement-by-the-millimetre to retrieve the thing from where it teetered, on the edge of, ah, oblivion.

Attitude

Warm up body, mind and bike gradually, over several miles: you’ve got the whole day to play with – allow yourself to get into that Zen groove, baby…

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