Saturday, 13 April 2019

Gold Winging It

My buddy Jeff is heading off to the West Coast and a golden retirement shortly, so he's cleaning up and vacating Ontario (good time to be doing it).  One of his motorcycle herd is a GL1800 Goldwing.  He offered Max and I a ride last weekend to see if it worked for us since Max is now a full sized adult and your typical motorcycle is overloaded with two big guys on it.  A few years ago I rode Jeff's daughter's Honda Firestorm, by far the sportiest bike I've ever ridden.  This time around we were way up the other end of the spectrum with the 'Wing.

That seat looks mighty appealing to a kid who has been forced to ride motorcycle saddles since he was eight.  Not only is it recliner comfortable, it's also heated!  The rest of the bike is equally enormous and astonishingly appointed.  With fourteen year old, adult sized Max on the back, we had no points of physical contact, which is strange because we're usually back to chest on the Tiger, which is a big bike in its own right.

We rode out of Jeff's place on a dirt farm road in South Western Ontario, in April, so it was really wet and soft... on an eight hundred pound gorilla, uh, bike, with 430ish pounds of us on it.  The 'Wing handles our size without a problem, but the whole thing rolling down the road is massive, so massive in fact that you just ride through puddles and mud and ignore variations in the road that I'd be skirting around on a typical bike.  The Tiger is a sure footed thing, but it felt a bit skittish on the muddy driveway, not so the 'Wing.

Once out on the road the first thing that hits you is no wind, at all.  I ended up flipping open my helmet even though it was a cool day because of the zero wind blast.  No wind noise, no buffeting, it didn't really feel like riding a bike.  All the elemental cues that I get from riding were gone.  I'm looking out through a screen instead of over one and the fairings cover you head to toe.

The dash looks back at you with a staggering array of buttons. My car doesn't have half that many. The tachometer looks like the one out of my old Civic, and red lines lower. It took me ten minutes of riding to work out where the heated grips and seats were. The grips themselves are meaty, way thicker than any I've used before; my hands didn't quite wrap around them.

On pavement you twist the throttle and get whooshed down the road without drama.  The 'Wing is motorbike quick and smooth, but I wouldn't call it inspiring.  Jeff set a quick pace on his Yamaha Super Ténéré and I had no trouble keeping the twelve hundred pounds of us in sight of him.  I was tentative in the first couple of corners, but once I realized how nimble the 'Wing felt, I just dropped it into corners and trusted the tires to handle us.  I often feel weightless when I'm riding, but as well as the Goldwing handles its size, I was always conscious of it.  In fairness, it also had over four hundred pounds of human on it as well.

The brakes haul it down from speed quickly and it picks up with piles of torque and very little need to change gears, which were smooth and direct when I did use them.  By the end of the ride I was up and
down in the gears without a second thought, so that's a thumbs up from my foot.  The first time I realized I didn't need to cancel the turn signals after a corner was a nice surprise, but habit had me turning them off anyway.  The GPS in the middle of the dash is nice too, but wasn't very bright.

We did a short, half an hour ride around the area, looking for some of the few twists and turns available to us in the agri-desert that is rural Southern Ontario.  Jeff is moving out to Vancouver Island where the riding season is virtually year 'round and the roads are never dull, but the 'Wing isn't making the trip.  The Super Ten and his customized BMW Cafe Racer are going in the container though.

After parking it back up I can say I get the Goldwing.  I understand why it's as popular as it is and what function is serves.  As a device to transport my son and I in comfort it does that, but I find myself back where I was in 2014 pondering the CanAm Spyder.  There comes a point where a motorcycle is trying so hard to be something else that it isn't really a motorcycle any more.  The Goldwing, with its faceful of buttons and speakers and radios and weatherproofed rider cocoon,  removes me from what I think riding is all about.

I'm a number of years into riding now and I've been on all sorts of bikes in all sorts of strange places.  That experience has refined my aesthetic sense of motorcycling.  For me it's all about getting to that feeling of flying.  It's a visceral experience with wind, noise and a sense of lightness.  When you bend into a corner that feeling is amplified.  You can probably see where this is going.  The 'Wing will lean into a corner, but it feels stately and remote when it does it.  Everything feels far away, and ends up begging the question: why suffer the indignities of motorcycling when the bike is trying so hard to be something else?

I can get a lightly used one of these for the same price as a Goldwing.
Given a choice, I'd go for the mini-Mazda Ferrari in a second.
It might sound perverse, but the other side of motorcycling for me is embracing the physical difficulty of the activity.  I don't consider motorcycling a hobby, I consider it a sport and want to attack it with the same physicality.  This philosophy doesn't only contrast with the Goldwing.  Any bike that does all it can to not delivery that immediacy of riding experience misses the mark for me.  Whether it be a Harley tourer or a BMW K1600, any big, heavy cruiser with windshields and fairings and every gizmo imaginable makes me wonder why in terms of motorcycling.  If you want to bring that much stuff with you, go in a car.  In many cases the car is cheaper and more efficient, and contrary to biker prejudice they aren't all cages.

I love to ride, but I'm still smitten with bikes that feel like bikes and focus me on the aesthetics of riding.  When a lightly used Mazda MX-5 RF costs the same as a new Goldwing and looks like a piece of rolling art rather than a compromise, that's where my eye wanders.  Motorcyclists call car drivers cagers trapped in their boxes, but a massive bike that does all it can to not feel like a motorcycle is more of a fetishy gilded cage than any number of cars designed to be entertaining drives.

So, the Goldwing is not for me.  When I get to the point that I can't handle the elemental feeling of riding (a moment I hope I never see), I'll be looking for a Lotus, not a mega-bike.  My son is only a couple of years away from starting the never-ending and sickeningly expensive licensing and insurance process in Ontario.  I'm hoping that he has developed a taste for riding and will one day join me on a ride on his own machine, then we can both revel in the visceral feel of flying down the road together.

Jeff will have no trouble selling his Goldwing on.  He has meticulously maintained it and there is a strong market for 'Wings since there are so many older bikers who are looking for that kind of ride.  I, for one, will miss him when he's gone.  As a motorcycling mentor, he has been a great friend and teacher.  I hope I can get out to see him on the West Coast and ride those magical roads in the future.  In the meantime, I'm feeling more and more like Ontario is getting too tight for me, yet here I stay.