As far as I’m concerned, there is no better way to go touring than on a bike purpose-built for such journeys. With my wife sitting comfortably behind me and our (OK, mainly her) luggage packed away in a waterproof, lockable pannier system, we are set to hit the road and start our annual touring holiday.
Whether here in South Africa or, when our bank balance permits, in Europe, we generally pick an area and, once there, spend our time exploring all the major, and plenty of the minor, tourist attractions. During summer in Europe, that invariably entails heavy traffic and incredibly congested towns and cities. Were we in a rented car, that would mean wasted hours looking for parking and a rise in blood pressure as the frustration of being stuck in traffic ruins the holiday mood.
But we’re never in a car, so the closest we get to that frustration is when we glide past long queues of tin tops and slot into one of a countless spaces not suitable for parking four wheels. It’s not just time-saving convenience that determines we spend our vacations on two wheels. We both love being part of the environment we’re exploring. Unlike in a car that hermetically seals you off from the outside world, we are exposed to the elements; a factor some might regard as a disadvantage — getting wet seems to scare some people.
It’s not a problem, as a rule, because motorcycle clothing is more than up to the task of keeping you pretty much dry and, during summer, the rain is warm anyway, so no hassles there. So, you have realised that hiring a bike is the best option. Getting a top-of-the-range tourer isn’t cheap, but then neither is a rented convertible. Which one to choose? After many years of travelling this way in many parts of the world, I generally investigate the availability of two options: the flagship touring bikes from BMW and Harley-Davidson.
There are many other alternatives, but these two brands are usually the easiest to source at rental companies and, in my opinion, both offer just about the best options for two-up touring. I’m talking about BMW’s K 1600 GT and Harley-Davidson’s Electra Glide. Both models represent their manufacturer’s ultimate ability to transport two people across vast distances in the greatest possible comfort.
In that sense, they are remarkably similar but, in many ways, they are worlds apart. The BMW is a technological tour de force with electric everything and a mighty 1.6-litre six-cylinder engine that provides a yardstick for delivering smooth power, and lots of it. The Harley has plenty of electric goodies, but though its engine has a similar capacity, it sports four fewer cylinders. It can’t hope to match the BMW for power or speed, but I (and especially my wife) don’t consider these to be the major factors when choosing a two-wheel partner for a foreign jaunt.
The engines are a large part of what makes these bikes so different, even though both are designed to fulfil the same role. The BMW’s cylinder-fest results in quite possibly the smoothest motorcycle engine in production, and a not inconsiderable output of 118kW and 175Nm of torque. These figures mean the GT is not far from being a superbike and I have seen the far side of 260km/h on this beast — a speed that is guaranteed to result in a holiday of stony silence should your partner be with you. Ignore outright velocity though and that great lump of torque means relaxing progress is ridiculously easy. Factor in BMW’s unique Telelever and Paralever suspension, and this 306kg monster is quite happy threading through the tiniest gaps in the traffic, or barrelling into a high- speed mountain pass.
The Electra Glide’s 1 690cc V-twin produces 138Nm (Harley-Davidson is shy about promoting power figures, but it’s probably in the 70kW range) and also revels in low rpm acceleration and cruising that perfectly suit its intended role. That big V-twin is a vibey old thing at tickover (good, desirable V-twin vibes) but once on the move it, too, becomes uncannily smooth. The Harley’s not in the same handling league as the Beemer, but it’s still capable of providing an entertaining ride along the most demanding of Alpine roads.
Both are extremely comfortable over long distances — for both rider and passenger — and both can be specified with excellent sound systems, GPS navigation, heated seats and handlebar grips and a host of other comforts. In purely dynamic terms, it’s difficult to argue against the BMW’s capability: it is the better bike. But, given the choice, I always go for the Harley- Davidson. If you’re a sociable person who enjoys meeting new people and being the centre of attention, the Harley is the perfect holiday companion. The non-biking public is always impressed by the Electra Glide, and this great lump of American metal never fails to create a stir wherever you stop. Joe Public wants to chat with you in a way that simply never happens on the GT.
The Facts: BMW K1600 GT
Engine: 1 649cc, in-line, six-cylinder
Power: 118kW at 7 750rpm
Torque: 1 75Nm at 5 250rpm
Fuel Tank: 24 litres
Weight: 306kg (Dry)
Price: R217 000
The Facts: Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Classic
Engine: 1 690cc V-twin
Torque: 138Nm at 3 750rpm
Fuel Tank: 22.7 Litres
Weight: 411kg (Wet)
Price: R308 995