Smile for miles! It's the best touring motorbikes
If you decide that you want to go touring on two wheels for long distances, the first decision you need to make is what motorbike you will use. Getting this wrong has the potential to make or break your trip.
The starting point should be the type of touring you intend to do. A lightweight off-roader may be the perfect choice to explore the Trans European Trail, but it could be horribly uncomfortable and impractical on the motorway.
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Likewise, you don’t want to explore the UK’s green lanes on a Gold Wing, but it would make perfect sense on an Autobahn-based tour of Germany. Start off by thinking honestly about what your tour will involve. Click the links below to see MCN's top suggestions for a number of scenarios:
Touring motorbikes for the road
If your tour will be road-based, there are still decisions to be made. Although it’s possible to tour on a superbike (ask Nick Sanders or Sjaak Lucassen), it’s certainly not for everyone. If you are travelling fairly light and want to make the most of some twisty roads there’s no reason to rule out a sportsbike.
If you want to be self-sufficient and carry camping equipment and/or a pillion, a sports tourer, adventure sport or a full-dress tourer could be your ideal choice. Here are some options to consider for exploring on tarmac.
Touring on a sports bike
If you’re going on a comparatively short trip (a long weekend to a fortnight) and you’re staying in hotels there’s no reason whatsoever not to use a sports bike if that’s what you have.
Covering ground quickly won’t be an issue, and the pay-off for sore wrists, back and legs on longer stints will be the bike’s ability when you reach a ribbon of twisting tarmac. Nick Sanders has ridden a Yamaha R1 around the world on more than one occasion and won’t hear a word said against it.
"Wherever you are riding the fact that you’re on an R1 means that it’s an exciting ride. People think that riding around the world is all off road, but there are some absolutely amazing roads around the world that were just built for sports bikes.
"You can ride over the Alps and have an hour of the twisties. Try crossing the Andes – it’s five hours of sportsbike bliss."
Elsewhere, MCN's very-own Chief Road Tester, Michael Neeves has toured on countless superbikes as part of his rigorous long-term test reports. This includes a Ducati Panigale V4S, a BMW S1000RR and a Kawasaki ZX-10R. You can also watch an in-depth touring guide from the man himself at the bottom of this page.
One of the top sports tourers on the market has to be the Kawasaki H2 SX range. A supercharged, 197bhp Kawasaki may not sound like the ideal tool for a bike tour, but that’s exactly what it is. MCN Deputy Editor, Richard Newland rode almost 715 miles in a day on his H2 long-term test bike to see how it fared.
"Home. The trip says 714.5 miles, the clock says 10:30pm. Exactly 18-hours in the saddle with nothing but fuel breaks – and I feel fine. The H2 SX might be a compromise, but it’s a bloody good one.
"The comfort is impressive, and on fast flowing A and B roads it’s sporting prowess never fails to deliver. Maybe compromise isn’t such a dirty word after all."
Multiple versions of the Kawasaki H2 SX are available, with the standard bike also complimented by the H2 SX SE and H2 SX SE+ models. The 'plus' model boasts the highest level of trim, plus electronic, semi-active suspension.
Within that, there's also 'Performance' and 'Performance Tourer' packages to consider, which consist of accessories such as Akrapovic end cans, taller screens and official Kawasaki lockable luggage systems - perfect for touring. It seems there's an SX for everyone...
Other examples of sports tourer models include the Honda VFR1200F, BMW R1250RS and the now-discontinued Suzuki Hayabusa. You should also consider Kawasaki's own Ninja 1000SX, which was introduced for 2020 as a replacement to the Z1000SX series.
Adventure bikes have grown in size and become increasingly powerful in recent years and manufacturers noticed that many were used predominantly - or even exclusively - on the road. This led to the creation of the adventure sport.
Often looking like conventional adventure bikes, these machines boast smaller, road-going 17in wheels, grippy road tyres and sporty suspension. They were never destined for dirt tracks or sand dunes, but can easily swallow a trip into Europe, a weekend blast and, perhaps, even a trackday - all whilst providing a similar luggage provision, comfort and weather protection.
In the past few years, there have been an abundance of new sports adventure bikes coming to market, with old models being updated to meet more stringent emissions regulations, as well as updates to performance, handling, styling and more.
One of the most recent updates was the 2020 BMW S1000XR, which replaces the outgoing 2015 to 2019 model with a fresh engine, revised styling and chassis. Producing 165bhp from its BMW S1000RR-derived engine, there is plenty of performance, alongside oodles of comfort. There’s also an accessory catalogue as long as your arm, with everything from heated grips, to luggage and Akrapovic end cans, to carbon fibre bling.
Also offering four-cylinder thrills is the Kawasaki Versys 1000, which got updated for 2019, before being tweaked again for 2020 to ensure Euro5 compliance. Although significantly down on power compared to the BMW, Kawasaki’s range-topping SE model borrows electronic Showa suspension tech used in the firm’s ZX-10R SE superbike and promises one of the smoothest engines currently available.
If four-cylinder engines don’t tickle your pickle, you could also consider a thumping twin – in the form of either KTM’s 1290 Super Duke GT, or one of Ducati’s many Multistradas.
The Super Duke GT is the sportiest of the sports adventurers, packing over 170bhp from its 1301cc V-Twin power station, alongside electronically adjustable WP suspension, a striking three-pronged trellis chassis and marmite Super Duke R-derived styling. If you’re stepping away from sportsbikes, but still lust after the performance, this is the way to go.
Alternatively, you could opt for a Ducati Multistrada, which provides a similar two-cylinder thump, with a slightly more adventurous edge. There are currently six models of large-capacity Multi – all making use of the firm’s 1262cc V-Twin engine.
Alongside the smaller 950 models, there is currently a standard Multistrada 1260, a 1260S, a 1260 D-AIR (compatible with Dainese airbag technology) and the racier 1260 Pikes Peak. If you’re after something more adventurous, consider also the 1260 Enduro.
The one arguably most suited to touring though is the Multistrada 1260 S Grand Tour, which was revealed ahead of the 2020 riding season at the 2019 Ducati World Premiere, in Rimini.
Geared for maximum rider comfort, you get a centre stand, panniers, and a new seat. Also expect heated grips, plenty of LEDs, keyless petrol cap and tyre pressure monitoring. Despite rumours of radar cruise control, the finished bike did not feature it.
Full-dress tourer – Honda Gold Wing
Full dress tourers are the ultimate in two-wheel comfort. Top-end versions of the Honda Gold Wing over the years have included features from stereo systems to airbags and hot air vents to keep you warm.
The pillion provision is incredibly plush and the bike’s high starting weight and flat-six 1800cc engine make carrying large quantities of luggage a cinch. If you plan on cruising around in a relaxed fashion with lots of luggage and a pillion, a full-dress tourer could be the perfect solution.
If you can’t stomach the £30,699 price tag (2020) of the Gold Wing Tour with DCT and airbag, there are cheaper versions available, however don’t expect any to be cheap. A base model 'Wing will still set you back £22,399, for instance.
Another bike to consider here could be the Indian Challenger. Launched for 2020, the all-American bagger boasts a whopping 1769cc V-Twin engine, producing 120bhp. With even the cheapest Dark Horse model costing a penny-shy of £24,700 (2020 prices) it's a serious investment, however is still considerably less than the top-spec Honda.
Also coming from over the pond are Harley-Davidson, who have arguably been the reigning kings of all things bagger for about 60 years. Their biggest machines, such as the Road Glide Limited, got a big update for this year to include fancy electronics, but they’re not cheap. The Road Glide Limited starts at £24,695, although they do also offer the mini-bagger Sport Glide for £15,295.
If you fancy something European, you could also consider BMW’s K1600 range, with its 1649cc six-cylinder engine – plus all the mod-cons you would expect, legendary BMW build-quality and a six-pot soundtrack reminiscent of an early-noughties M3. It could be the ideal toy for distance work.
That said, we did criticise the 2018-on K1600 Grand America for developing a noticeable weave above 80mph. Not an issue in the UK, it could prove problematic on the autobahn. A detailed road test report revealed the bike felt like it had a hinge in the middle of the chassis – perhaps one to avoid if top speed blasts are your thing. See also the BMW K1600B.
Touring motorbikes all-terrain
In the true spirit of adventure, it could be that you don’t really know how much off-roading you will do on your trip - or that you don’t want to rule it out as an option. Even if you intend to explore the dirt, you could still need to travel for long periods on the road in between. This is where large-capacity adventure bikes come in.
A larger-capacity adventure bike is the ideal weapon of choice in this scenario and - due to their ever-growing popularity - would-be owners are now truly spoilt for choice, with all-terrain globetrotters now available from most major manufacturers.
The undeniable king of the genre is the BMW R1250GS, which took over from the R1200 in 2019 as the German brand’s flagship adventure bike. Since its inception, it has won every MCN group test it has taken part in. Also new for 2019 was the R1250GS Adventure, which offered a 30-litre fuel tank for more miles between fill-ups, wire wheels and long-travel suspension.
Although looking like an over-grown trailie, the big GS is also more than capable of handling itself on the road and the large boxer engine and shaft-drive make it incredibly reliable.
It’s not all about BMWs though and adventure enthusiasts should also consider the Suzuki V-Strom 1050XT, Honda CRF1100L Africa Twin, KTM 1290 Super Adventure S, Yamaha 1200ZE Super Ténéré Raid Edition, Triumph Tiger 1200 XC and Ducati’s Multistrada 1260 Enduro.
Off-road touring motorbikes
For some, the whole point of touring is to get off the beaten path and explore as much of the world as possible. While larger adventure bikes can give you that, the prospect of muscling over 250kg off-road can be an intimidating thing.
It’s for this reason that it may be worth considering a lighter alternative. Although sacrificing some on-road grunt, the shrunken stature can actually deliver more fun on the trails.
This is a fast-growing segment of the market, with the Triumph Tiger 900 family becoming the latest in a long line of middleweight adventurers to join the party. Elsewhere, there’s also the Yamaha Ténéré 700, KTM’s 790 Adventure and the BMW F850GS.
Even these are quite large though and you can also find adventurers for the A2 licence bracket. Okay, they won’t be the fastest way to get across continents, but since when did adventure mean top speed?
Here, you’ll find the Kawasaki Versys-X 300, the Suzuki V-Strom 250, Honda CB500X and the BMW G310 GS (seems there really is a GS for every scenario…). Retro lovers should also consider the 24.5bhp Royal Enfield Himalayan.
Small in stature, what it lacks in performance, it more than makes up for with its charm. What’s more, it was the bike of choice for renowned explorer, Steph Jeavons, who lead an all-female riding troop along a 2300km (1429-mile) trip to Mount Everest base camp.