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Common Tread

Redefining the sport-touring motorcycle

Mar 04, 2015

An interesting thing has happened lately: the motorcycle community is evolving.

Whether you attribute it to riders' preferences evolving or motorcycle manufacturers' lineups evolving, we're beginning to see the emergence of a different class of motorcycles. It's a class that combines the capabilities of sport and sport-touring bikes with the upright ergonomics of adventure bikes, but without the pretensions or compromises required to make it "able to go off road."

The sport-touring category has long been epitomized by bikes like the Kawasaki Concours, Yamaha FJR1300, Honda VFR800 and VFR1200F, and BMW K 1200 and K 1600. Each of these are massive sport bikes with ergos relaxed just enough to make them tolerable for long distances and then given comfort features like better seats, electrically adjustable windscreens and waterproof, locking luggage. Hell, I know a lot of people who think the best sport-touring bike out there is the Suzuki Hayabusa with some soft saddlebags strapped on.

This is not a sport bike. BMW Photo.

In the past decade, we've watched as riders have started to choose big adventure-touring motorcycles as the best choice for long-distance duty, even if they never put a wheel in the dirt. To varying degrees, these big, upright bikes with pointy beaks and panniers were designed to be capable of handling some dirt, or at least not be terrible in the dirt (given the right rider). I was at a dual-sport event two years ago when a guy's fully farkled BMW R 1200 GS got a little out of sorts. I remember watching in horror as it tipped slightly, became too much to hold up, and then fell over, snapping his femur with the engine case.

Like owners of four-wheel-drive suburban SUVs that never hit terrain rougher than the speed bumps in the mall parking lot, some riders of adventure-touring bikes rode on semi-knobby tires and spoked wheels they didn't really need, since they weren't about to ride around the world.

Now, we have a new version of sport-touring bikes emerging.

My favorite sport-touring bikes of the last several years have been the Ducati Multistrada, Aprilia Caponord, KTM 1190 Adventure, Suzuki V-Strom 1000 and Yamaha FJ-09. The only problem is, we keep measuring those bikes against the dual-purpose adventure bikes they resemble. We've come to assume that an upright riding position equals off-road. But recently, something really cool has happened: brands stopped pretending.

Ducati Multistrada
This is a sport bike. Ducati photo.

We see sporty fuel maps, sport-tuned suspension and 17-inch front wheels (which offer a much larger variety of sporting rubber) instead of the 19-inch or 21-inch tires found on adventure-touring bikes (better for tracking in the soft stuff). But this new breed of sport-tourers has the upright ergos, hard luggage, and "adventure" aesthetics.

If the traditional sport-touring bike, like an FJR1300, was created by upsizing a sport bike and making it more comfortable for touring, then the new sport-tourers are created by taking adventure-touring bikes, dropping the off-road pretensions, and making them more capable of sport riding on asphalt.

BMW S 1000 XR
2015 BMW S1000XR. BMW photo.
At the Yamaha launch, when asked about how the FJ-09 did in the dirt, the Yamaha PR guy responded, "We don't really think of this as an adventure bike. We have stuff that does that well. This is a sport-touring bike that feels like a supermoto bike, which we think is more comfortable and fits a little different than our other sport-touring bikes." I literally started clapping.

It's not just Yamaha. Remember when the Aprilia Caponord was meant to have some off-road capabilities? The new version comes with a 17-inch front wheel shod with Dunlop sport tires. It's the same reason BMW is putting an in-line four-cylinder in the new S 1000 XR. Don't be fooled by the beak. These bikes are built for the street.

Any way you slice it, this segment is quickly becoming my favorite, and I applaud the brands that are building bikes that take the best of the adventure-touring category but are built to kick ass on the street. Now we can finally stop asking, "How does it do in the dirt?"