Common Tread

Video: My top five naked bike modifications for touring

Jan 19, 2018

Whenever Lance comes into town, he likes to dazzle us young bucks with tales of what life was like before electricity, indoor plumbing, and sliced bread. As our conversations always drift back to motorcycles at some point, we recently got around to talking about the bloat in modern touring machines.

For you younger riders in the audience, it’s important to remember that the original touring bikes were literally whatever machine you owned with a duffle bag strapped over the back seat. Even the Gold Wing was born as a naked bike. It wasn’t until the aftermarket developed a fairing kit for it that the modern idea of a touring machine began to develop.

Anywho,  while Lance and I might not always agree on the same machine (I think the Yamaha FZ-10 is an amazing machine with touring potential and he’s ruled it out based on looks alone), we do agree on the idea of touring on lighter, more basic motorcycles. These are bikes which the Motorcycle Industry Council defines as a "traditional."

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The original Honda Gold Wing was nothing more than a standard motorcycle that you could modify for a more comfortable touring experience.

Traditional motorcycles

The “traditional” segment is growing in this country, more so than any other type of motorcycle on the road. This grouping is defined less by a strict adherence to a specific style or level of performance but rather by its upright seating position, making it comfortable and fun for both sporty, more aggressive riding as well as everyday commuting and regular use.

A lot of different bikes fall into this segment. The MIC gives this designation to everything from a Triumph Bonneville to a Yamaha FZ-10 or a Suzuki SV650, and any other flavor of traditional or naked sport bike in between. With a few simple modifications, riders can add even more functionality to these machines and turn them into lightweight, sport-tourers.

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With a few simple modifications, you can turn any standard motorcycle into a touring machine. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

In our recent coverage of the Kawasaki Z900, there were a lot of questions regarding available mods to help improve its long-distance prowess. As I was planning a motorcycle trip with my dad, I decided to look into some parts to transform the naked machine's touring capabilities. Keep in mind that while the Kawasaki Z900 is going to be our case study for this article, these mods are going to work for a large selection of the naked traditional bikes on the road.

1. Storage

The first step to being able to take a multi-day trip or ease your daily commute is to have a place to store your gear. Whether it’s a tank bag, a tail pack, or a set of saddlebags, if you’re going to be traveling for a few days on a motorcycle, you’re going to need a way to carry some things with you.

Some of the newest products we’ve seen come to market over the past few years are semi-hard bags. These bags are often lighter than hard luggage but still retain more of their shape than traditional soft throw-over bags. Their advantage over hard bags is that they don’t require the complex mounting brackets required for panniers, which makes them a perfect alternative for the naked sport bike crowd. Their advantage over regular soft luggage is that they have bike-specific mounting hardware that utilizes a rail system that can be removed when not in use. This rail system holds the bags in place, regardless of whether they are full or empty. 

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The SW-Motech Blaze saddlebag system blends the functionality of hard bags with the affordability and ease of soft bags. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

There are a variety of examples on the market from brands like Givi and SW-Motech. Because the mounting hardware for these bags is bike-specific, a lot of you will end up going with whichever brand manufactures something for your bike. Which is exactly why I went with the SW-Motech Blaze Saddlebags for the Z900.

These worked great on my trip. The included waterproof pods kept my gear dry in the rain. The bags stayed in place perfectly and didn’t move around or lean against the wheel or shocks when fully packed, the way traditional throw-over bags sometimes do. And when it was time to head into the hotel at night, they quickly snapped off the bike.

A tank bag is another great option for adding simple storage to pretty much any bike. Because the Z900’s gas tank is made of steel, I was able to use a magnetic tank bag. Super simple in its design, a magnetic tank bag utilizes powerful magnets to hold the bag to the tank. If your bike has a plastic tank, you’ll need to use a bag with a strap harness or something like Givi’s tanklock series, which mounts to a ring installed around your motorcycle’s fuel filler cap.

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My Dowco Fastrax tank bag in action on my trip to Texas with the Triumph Street Twin. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

I’ve probably owned more tank bags over the years than any other type of luggage. For this trip, I used my Dowco Fastrax Backroads bag that I picked up shortly before my trip down to Texas on the Triumph Street Twin. The magnets are insanely strong, the contrasting internal green color makes it easy to find items, and I love the separated internal top section.

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A copy of one of the original maps of the Lincoln Highway from 1924. Image provided by the Lincoln Highway Association.

2. Navigation

Over the years, I have navigated most of my trips via paper maps. I once navigated a trip across the the country following the Lincoln Highway using archival maps from the 1920s. While I still enjoy studying paper maps, for this trip, I wanted to take a more modern approach.

While the cost of mounting an expensive GPS unit to a motorcycle’s handlebar may have been prohibitive in the past, the smartphone revolution is changing all of that. Advancements in apps like Google Maps, REVER, and Waze have made digital navigation easier and more affordable than ever (affordable assuming you’re already a smartphone user).

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From navigation to T-Swift, a smartphone proved to be a solid addition for regular riding. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Utilizing my iPhone 7, which is already waterproof, all I needed was a way to mount it. I opted for a RAM Mount universal cell phone holder, which clamped to the handlebar via a U-bolt. I then ran an SAE lead off of the battery to a Battery Tender USB charger, which worked perfectly to keep my phone powered up, even in the dropping temperatures.

This setup worked great, and because my gloves are touch-screen-compatible I could make adjustments on the fly without having to pull over. It also made it easy to quickly change playlists on Spotify, which was linked to my Sena 20S. There is nothing worse than having your favorite Taylor Swift album end and not being able to restart it. The com system also made it really easy to keep my dad informed of changes concerning the navigation of the route.

3. Protection

Often times, folks think of protection when they are setting up a bike for track or off-road use. It’s not, however, something that usually crosses one’s mind in the touring world. However, adding some frame sliders, a radiator guard, or engine case covers makes for cheap insurance compared to the alternative: ending a trip early.

For example, when my dad installed crash bars on his Suzuki V-Strom 1000, he did so having no intention of riding the bike off-road. Rather, he was simply looking out for one of those future “just in case” moments. That moment came last year when my dad crashed his Suzuki V-Strom and the bike slide off the road and down a slight ravine. The crash bars kept the bike intact to the point of being able to ride it back into town. (Dad’s bones weren’t so lucky.)

For the Z900, I went with the R&G engine cover kit. It is a simple kit to install and it’ll work to keep the engine intact in the event of a crash. Obviously a big enough crash can end any ride, but if you have a low side, or knock the bike over in a parking lot, these can come in handy. Luckily, on this year’s trip with Pops, I didn’t test their functionality.

4. Tires

Tires are one of the most important things to consider on any motorcycle. Often, the tires that come from the factory are an exercise in cost saving. To say that Z900’s stock Dunlop Sportmax D214 tires weren’t great is a bit of an understatement.

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Originally testing the Z900's stock tires in the rain. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Over the summer, Lance and I took the Z900 to the track along with our company Yamaha YZF-R6, which was wearing a set of Pirelli Diablo Rosso III tires. If you’re familiar with the Pirellis, you’ll know they are by no means a rain tire but compared to the Z900’s Dunlops I felt like I was riding full-on rain rubber. I then conveyed this info to Lemmy as he was about to depart on the Z900 for a rainy commute home. His response was something along the lines of “I ride in the rain all the time, I’ll be fine.” He came in the next day, apologized, and admitted to having one of the scariest commutes home that he could remember.

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The Dunlop Roadsmart III tires offered night-and-day performance gains over the stock tires. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

There are a ton of great options out there, but most folks will be served just fine by a good sport-touring tire. They feature a solid compromise between longevity and performance. When it rained for most of my trip, I was glad I'd upgraded to the Dunlop Roadsmart III tires prior to setting off.

The Roadsmart III tires were night and day over the stock rubber. Plenty of grip, great steering input, and from what I’ve been hearing, I can expect plenty of life in order to cover some real mileage. I rode for almost two days straight in the rain and didn’t feel them slip but once when I hit some wet leaves exiting a corner in the mountains of Virginia. This was easily the best performance upgrade I made to this bike.

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The Puig windscreen added a bit of protection from the elements without detracting from the look of the bike. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

5. Ergonomics and comfort

One of the problems with naked bikes is that they leave the rider exposed to the elements over long distances on the highway. Personally, I don’t need a huge windshield or a massive fairing to lay down the miles, but I do prefer something to relieve a bit of the abuse to my neck.

There are a lot of different options out there for wind protection that will vary widely based on the make and model of your machine. For example, on my aging Bonneville I have an old Maier Universal windshield that mounts directly to the handlebar. For the Z900, I went with the Puig Touring Naked New Generation Windscreen. I liked it because it took a little bit of the pressure off of my chest without detracting from the look of the bike.

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The addition of the Yoshimura exhaust offers more room for my giant flipper-like feet. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The final modification I made on the Z900 was to swap the exhaust. Here is the deal: I personally almost never recommend swapping an exhaust for a performance upgrade, let alone for comfort. But this is exactly what I am recommending you consider in this case.

The main problem I had with the fit of the Z900 was the fact that my right foot kept banging into the stock exhaust. I tried a couple of different slip-on options that we carry and I found the Yoshimura Alpha T Works exhaust to be the best. It gave me a little over an inch of extra room back at my heel. While that might not sound like a lot, it was a huge gain when it came to comfortably riding on the balls of my feet. If I owned this bike, I would go even further by modifying the exhaust hanger, but the Yosh pipe was a great starting point.

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A naked sportbike or standard makes for a damn competent touring machine. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Conclusion

This is by no means the end-all list of mods you should make to your naked bike. Rather, these are just some solutions to problems that I’ve had pop up over the years riding naked, traditional bikes as if they were long-haul touring machines.

Every bike will require attention in different areas and everyone has a different idea of what makes for a comfortable experience when they’re riding. Hopefully, this shows that a few simple modifications can give your existing bike more functionality.