BIKE CHOICES: What works. And not.

Click on images to enlarge them.

Reviews of recommended and un-recommended
bike/travel stuff that we have road-tested daily, for two years RTW.

See this page and "Accessories" + "Clothing" pages listed at left.
See "India Bike Service" for 50,000 km report.
See forthcoming "Los Angeles Service" 80,000 km report.


Beloved 'Black Bike' – 2006 GL1800 Honda Goldwing:
Posing suggestively mid-desert in Syria.
Background, Wheezy's prior bikes:
'Bike choices are like religion.
Everyone thinks theirs is best; there's no point arguing.'

Nor is there one absolute right answer for all missions. And it's personal.

I'm not selling any specific brand or model here; am a bike/car agnostic who will change rides if new evidence so compels. Merely sharing what I have learned.

Just as background info: My last three bikes have been Goldwings, prior to that I had numerous BMWs and 125-750 cc Hondas. I go all the way back to an old 1960 BMW R50 in Ghana West Africa, which I rebuilt at age 22 with no prior experience, right down to the main bearings and a new paint job from spray cans – it was a great simple, reliable bike that I loved.

Altogether have owned perhaps twenty different bikes over four decades and two continents. Have never wanted a Harley-Davidson, but do not 'dis them, it's just not my type of machinery, a matter of personal taste and riding style. Harley has been one of the greatest of marketing successes which I so admire, plus they look and sound great.


Riding context:
. . .• We're two-up on a 100,000 km ride, making a big difference.
. . .• Driver, pillion, our stuff altogether weigh 450-500 lbs.,
. . . . lots of weight for the bike to handle gracefully, in all conditions.
. . .• Carrying a year's bulky summer/winter stuff, electronics etc, we need space.
. . .• Unsupported, no car/truck, other bikes or convoys.
. . .• Seek mainly asphalt and gravel, trying to avoid deep sand & mud.
.....• The above items lead one to the necessity of a big bike.
. . . . Over-loading too small a bike is not a good idea.
. . .• I'm not into laying in the roadside dirt with tools; awaiting parts;
. . . . reliability is key.
Were this a trans-Sahara type trip as I used to do, or if we had a support vehicle, or if were we touring South America or Africa – I might have gone for a smaller, lighter, dirt-capable bike. Likely a mission-specific Boxer (BMW twin). But that's neither our chosen geography nor style, this time 'round.

Even so, were I solo and mainly seeking harder surfaces, I'd still have chosen this same ride with 20-20 hindsight. No regrets as of Australia and 75,000 km.


Why we made it: Black Bike being blessed in Cairo.


This is the first 'round the world' GL1800. Honda is not paying me ƒor the advertising, no one is, even though I know of a few GoldWings we've already sold for them en route; when we make it back, it'll sell lots more.

Others are likely to do it, now that we proved it's very feasible, plus have written a how-to.

Many riders don't think of the GL1800 as an overseas 'adventure-travel' bike; I didn't either, until I studied it versus the alternatives.

I wasn't pre-sold, but for the real-world and theoretical reliability of my two previous Wings (GL1500 & GL1800) and other Honda cars/bikes I had owned.

Indeed I started with the common assumption that a big Bimmer was likely the way to go, even though my last couple BMWs and I did not have a love affair.

The GL1800 simply won my objective comparison check-list.


Different spokes: An Iranian biking family.



Reliability: This is #1 for me, the entire GL1800 drive train is conservative and confidence-inspiring.

Modern bikes are hard to fix roadside; parts hard to obtain Mid-Nowhere.

This is my 3rd Wing in a row, all three have never failed to start and run flawlessly after many miles. My former BMWs each had some problems – including engine/clutch ones. Maybe it's luck, maybe more.

With decent maintenance, many GL1800's reportedly are good for 300,000++ km before anything serious has to be done. (In Los Angeles, JBJ Cycles did a compression test done at 80,000 km and all six cylinders were perfect.)

As of the end of the ride, not once did the bike fail to start – instantly, even on some damn crappy 82 octane gasoline.

That's after beating the hell out of it in extreme climate conditions and many, many roads that I expected would rattle it to pieces. But it's tight as a drum and runs like new at the end of the trip.

Not one of the many electronic systems failed; I'd expected surely some would.

Once in Pakistan the water temperature almost red-lined while hill climbing in 2nd-3rd gear for hours at 40-44˚C (112˚F) on really nasty gravel; I coasted down hills and took it very easy to bring temperature down, it worked but was my sole engine worry.

Black Bike needed new front and rear suspensions in SE Asia, as would be expected, so I had the best stuff flown in from USA.

Destroyed the front wheel bearings that had to finally be replaced in Singapore – that could have been serious but was not. Steering bearings were a bit sloppy too but not critical, replaced them too. Both were cheap and bearings were available locally.

Other than that – tires and routine maintenance; nothing else I can think of!

A pretty eloquent statement of good design and construction I'd say. Could not ask for much better.

• • •

Engine (a) Characteristics: Personally, I love:
. . . .– the conservative 1800cc, velvet smooth 6 cylinder;
. . . .– low centre-of-gravity engine layout;
. . . .low-rpm, excellent power even under 1,000 rpm;
. . . .superb torque curve, just-right power band;
. . . .– cruising at a relaxing 2,500-3,000 rpm;
. . . .open up, feel the no-hesitation smooth power surge;
. . . .– need to change gears less often, always leave traffic behind;
. . . .– could easily be 180 HP @ 1800 cc, but is 110-115 HP;
. . . .– conservative design yields reliable, long, un-tweaked legs.

Engine (b) Torque at lower RPM matters a lot in long range touring; the GL1800 has stump-pulling torque. Here's a comparison of 2009 versions of three big touring bikes – interestingly, they all weigh about the same:
. . . .BMW K1200LT = 86 ft-lb torque at peak (not good.)
. . . .Harley CVO Ultra Electra-Glide = 110 ft-lb (very good.)
. . . .GL1800 = 125 ft-lb (serious bike torque.)

Engine (c) Horsepower: One can have lots of HP at, say, a screaming 8,000-12,000 rpm from a smaller-block engine, but at lower rpm still have pathetic torque = no grunting power. Hence you shift much more often to stay in the narrow power band, slip your clutch more to take off, etc. Not how I like to ride. The K1200LT and GL1800 are close in claimed peak horsepower. However the Wing's peak is at lower RPM, red-lining at 6,000 which it almost never sees. Harley is behind in HP. Bottom line, the GL1800 has plenty of power, I never crave more, do not even want more for this kind of mission.

Engine (d) Power/weight ratio: As-is, it works out to roughly 10 pounds per horsepower with just me on it, 11-12 lb/hp with passenger and load – that's excellent, but not extreme. One can pass almost anything else on wheels up steep hills, or at a stoplight, excepting the hottest bikes/cars.

Engine (e) Performance: Its smooth torque and horsepower curves combined, deliver abundant performance in all situations. In twisty hill climbing and passing at high speeds alike, I prefer using torque versus high-rpm horsepower. Gear changes are far less frequent. It has enough power to go faster than you ever want, pass anyone, even fully laden with 2-up, against strong winds, up a steep hill – even in 4th or 5th. What else does one want or need?
. . .– I know guys who have had it well over 200 kph = 125 mph.
. . . . .The best I can personally attest to is 180 kph = 112 mph, where
. . . . .there is plenty throttle left, it tracks like on rails. We've done 160 kph
. . . . .= 100 mph for long stretches of autobahn, the bike and we were
. . . . .perfectly happy. Absolutely no high speed wobble or instability.
. . .– Acceleration: 0-100 kph is 4 secs; quarter-mile 12 secs. PDQ.
. . .– More power would eat tires & clutch faster, be harder on drive train,
. . . . .eat more fuel, while not adding to the touring experience.

• • •

Cruising: At decent speeds, the vast majority of riding, it simply cannot be beat. A perfect highway cruiser, period. Even at 110 mph = 180 kph loaded bike is rock solid in buffeting winds, passing trucks, confident as can be. At 120 kph it's on rails.

• • •

Bad roads: Excellent, especially considering how much weight it is carrying. So far, as the end of Australia, I have dropped it only once while moving (see Cambodia blog), not bad considering some of the crappy sand, gravel, mud we have done. Had a few close calls in deep sand and mud ruts – but somehow stayed upright.

It's clearly not a dirt bike, but 99% of riding in this round-world trip has been on acceptable surfaces. Besides, I think I'd have dropped or almost-dropped any bike in identical circumstances.

• • •

Bumpy curves while leaned over: In a banked turn when pavement is uneven, the original-equipment suspension absorbs the bumps, does not wallow, twist, wiggle or self-steer; really good handling while leaned over, even hard, especially for a loaded beast. Stiff frame helps a lot I suspect. But it gets even (far) better once you upgrade the suspension – see below.

• • •

Suspension – the biggest Goldwing world-touring issue: Honda’s original forks are too mushy for many riders, me among them. I much prefer sprightlier, tight, positive handling – which is asking a lot of a big heavily-loaded bike.

See "Suspension" section in "Accessories" blog.

• • •

Damage when dropping the bike: If you look at the big fairing and saddle bags, you might fearfully imagine cracked fiberglass from a spill in a Lower Slobovian village. I did, but decided it's more a psychological concern than a real-world one.
. . .1st, I have dropped it numerous times standing nearly-still, having lost
. . . . .balance or foot traction for various reasons – but never damaged
. . . . .the fiberglass so far. The excellent front-back roll bars prevent
. . . . .it from going all the way over. (And, yes, I can pick it up alone, even
. . . . .loaded, although far easier if Thao helps. There are tricks ...)
. . .2nd, the Kuryakyn highway pegs partially absorbed the drops, got
. . . . .damaged a few times, but the roll bar didn't even get scratched.
. . . . .Protection is another good reason to get the Kuryakyn highway pegs.
. . .3rd, even if you damage the paint or crack some fiberglass in a nasty
. . . . .fall, as long as the drive train works and frame/wheels are not bent,
. . . . .get to any good body shop, remove the damaged panel (it's easy) and
. . . . .fix it – no biggie. Or, carry some 'don't-leave-home-without-it' duct
. . . . .tape, cover any cracks, wear the band-aid.with pride until you find a
. . . . .Honda shop to replace the damaged bit.
. . .4th, cracked fiberglass is far preferable to bent steel on a bike; also
. . . . .better than damaged riders. The Wing has good protection in falls.

• • •

• • •

Reverse: Superb, reliable, necessary and amazingly powerful. Use it several times a day. Can be a safety feature too – backing up a dangerously steep hill of big gravel in Thailand I prudently decided not to descend for example, I'd have been in potential trouble without the reverse, helping it along with leg power. Then there's parking on steep downhill streets with your front wheel against a curb for safety ... Reverse is a must-have on any big heavy bike. On the Wing it works from the starter motor which has been failure-free.

• • •

Vibration may feel sexy for short rides, but in long ones it adds fatigue; high rpm's ditto. An iron-butt fact. This engine is turbine-smooth from a no-lugging 900 RPM all the way to 6,000. The mirrors never vibrate, you can always see aft clearly. Most bikes have innate un-sweet vibration spots, but not this one.

• • •

Luggage space: Excellent, we do not need more. Wish trunk lid opened sideways like Harley's, so helmet on back seat was not a problem. Nooks and crannies all over are excellent, solve a lot of little storage problems.

• • •

Weather protection, ventilation: None better. BMW's electrically adjusted windshield I do not covet; am happy with this one, and one less switch/motor to fail. Fairing is big but does its job.

Wet feet in the rain are an issue on this bike, so waterproof boots are a must.

• • •

Cruise Control: Excellent. My 2001 delayed, this 2006 does not.

• • •

Weight (a): At very low speeds, like barely balanced, it's heavy and one needs to take care. With low centre of gravity and frame stiffness, it has good low-speed handling for its class. With no passenger or luggage, it almost feels like a Vespa. (I said 'almost'.) Very easy to handle. Loaded up, any bike is harder to handle at low speeds.

Weight (b): 1,300 lb as-is loaded, is the main bad news. That said, BMW K1200LT weighs about the same and has a higher center of gravity. Ditto big Harleys. BMW R1200RT is almost 300 lb lighter – I did consider that trade-off carefully.

• • •

Ground clearance: My biggest single complaint, albeit fixable. See "Suspension" section in "Accessories" blog.

• • •

• • •

Seating position: Wish it was more long-legged, but can live with it at 6' tall. Taller guys need to make sure they are comfy before buying one. Legs can be stretched without stopping once highway pegs are installed.

• • •

Factory seats: Wide and excellent; waterproof; neither of us ever have a sore butt; no need for after-market seats. Avoid after-market seats with either genuine leather or stitching that both absorb water. They are fine for at-home weekend rides, but not for this trip.

Seat heaters: Superb, use them often as this is year-'round riding; separate front/rear controls work flawlessly.

Passenger has cushy luxury: Sometimes even falls asleep (!)

• • •

Low Octane: Honda recommends 86 octane or better which in some countries is comfortingly low. To me, it just feels better in the 90's octane range, but have never heard actual engine knock.

Fuel consumption: I keep a fuel spreadsheet, make entries about 1/3 of the time under all conditions. Average actuals on this fully laden trip, with much fast highway riding, much city, country roads, twisties etc. = 6.42 liters/100 km = 36.8 US mpg, an OK actual.

Here is my spreadsheet until Thailand (click it if interested). It is exact for the tank-fills I actually logged. Some legs have notes on octane, type of riding etc.

• • •

• • •

Built-in GPS: Excellent when you have maps. Even in areas where you have no maps, it has a compass, shows with dots the route travelled, so re-tracing is easier; but it needs more world maps that work with Navi system. I prefer built-in vs handlebar after-market GPS for a variety of reasons, but we Wingers need more world maps east of Europe – hello Garmin!

• • •

I've ordered a new hard-wire system that gets controlled from the Wing's audio system to be installed in LA. Will report here how it works.

• • •

Intercom works. Not 5-star in my books, perhaps 3-star, although I have no basis for objective comparison with other bike manufacturers. Honda ought to build in rock-solid Bluetooth to eliminate those umbilical cords to the helmet. Wind and ambient noise irritates if in the constant-on position, see below.

See "Headsets" comparison in the separate "Accessories" blog.

• • •

Lots of buttons and dials: Yes. Aesthetically, wish there were fewer. But as long as they keep working, they run a lot of systems – and it beats scrolling through complex menus while driving. Most important is, they all still work at 60,000 km in SE Asia, even after major-major dust, rain and strangers often playing with things when I'm not around (grrrr); those are good quality buttons and dials!

• • •

Engine cooling fan: It's too noisy, comes on often at low speeds or idle, especially in hot climates. Not a huge complaint, but annoying at times.

• • •

Side Bag Open indicator: An oft-mentioned annoyance by GL1800 owners. My right side saddlebag needs to be closed extra-tight, has a sub-optimal front-end latch. I can close it with a small whack while in the saddle. Minor, but ...

• • •

Horn: Superb, a real horn not a wimpy Road Runner beep-beep; sounds like a serious car horn and people notice it! Best bike horn I've ever had.

• • •

Service: Changing the air filter is an hour of surgery. Most other stuff is not bad. Honda dealers exist everywhere, but not Goldwing parts/experience. There is always FedEx and I carry a shop manual in my laptop. Replaced the rear suspension that has pre-load electric controls, in Bangkok (4-5 hours), at a small shop that does lots of BMWs, but had never torn apart a GL1800 before; shop manual and intelligence was sufficient – it was a pretty significant dismantling front-to-back.

• • •

Image: Wing has an 'old man's bike' image among some (this old man challenges skeptics to a cross-continent race.) Harley has the 'tough biker' image, although the majority I have met are weekenders with bandanas, not iron butt riders. BWM has more Euro-Tech or Enduro images, depends which model – but they actually do it, and seem to own the biggest slice of the serious riders market outside N America. But functionally, I'd compare the GL1800 well versus any other bike, for major two-up road trips.


Choosing bikes, do your own objective comparison: I bought this 2006 GL1800(ABS) new in spring 2007, from Burlington Cycle [link] outside Toronto, trading in my 2001 GL1800. I loved the first-year GL1800 model, but wanted the new built-in GPS, bigger alternator, better stereo, seat heaters; didn't get the optional airbag.

It is superb machinery that has gradually evolved since 1975 [history link], designed for a luxury touring niche it serves very well, not for the 'round-world enduro market. Still, it is doing our serious riding job brilliantly.

I found few recent touring bike comparisons on line, but:
..........• Here is one [link] comparison between K1200LT vs GL1800.
..........• Another [link] in which a trio of Brits compare
.............the '05 GL1800 with BMW K1200LT and H-D FLHTC.
..........• And a BWM guy writing up a new GL1800 [link].

One of the big BMWs are frankly the only alternatives I considered, and the choice was all about functionality. Cost-wise there is little substantive difference between the big bikes – by 'substantive' I mean within the context of serious travel.

You may choose differently; if another bike works better for your tastes, go for it. No argument from me.

However, as of month twenty-one overseas, there is no other bike I covet – or I'd sell this and get another. Or frankly, I'd get an AWD SUV, if we got sick of biking. Neither option has even been considered.

There is always a budget, but once having made the 'let's go riding' decision, the prime issue when comparing wheels choices, is more about:
..........type-of-riding goals (acceptable roads versus bloody awful);
..........what matters to you in your bike (handling, carrying stuff, image);
..........and most important, making it to the end with reliability and safety.

A decent used bike, versus new; do-it-yourself mods; doing without certain items on the wish list; 'making do' with the sub-optimal – are among the big cost savings in wheels.

However, much bigger budget-stretchers are available by spending less on the road; going to the cheaper countries; sleeping 1-2 star; etc.

My advice: You'll regret the wrong bike daily, it can cast a shadow over your dream trip. Sleeping cheaper can add to the fun, a worse bike likely won't.

This time 'round, later in life, I admit to having been fortunate in biz, so can afford my choice of wheels; were that not true, I'd do the trip anyhow. I'd just do it more modestly.

See the 'Who We Are' blog; the specific biking choice was made after much real-world, hands-on travel experience – not theory, brochures or an image.


Check latest tech specs and features of new big-bike models at:
..........Honda's web site [link].
..........BMW's site [link]
..........Harley-Davidson's site [link]

Doing a comparison spreadsheet is the way to make your buying decision I believe. Just list the priorities that are most important to you and start entering data – the objective answer tends to jump out at you in the end.


Forums: There are also various rider groups and chat rooms if you have time to read the widest possible collection of opinions from folks you do not know anything about.

For Goldwing forums:
..........GWRRA [link] is the biggest Wings club, see their website whether its for you.
..........Goldwing Riders Forum [link] is another large one, and some
.............exchanges seems pretty serious.
..........Steve Saunders has a good web site with all kinds of Wing tips called [link].
..........• There is no 'Goldwing world riding' group that I know of.


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