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The Bikes That Paid The Bills : Touring Motorcycles

Saluting the veteran touring rider who carried the industry through its last big boom riding big touring motorcycles across the country.

The touring genre is as ubiquitous to motorcycling as the stereotypes of motorcyclists themselves. Roaming the hot dry asphalt of summer these are the motorcycles envious drivers sweltering in Elantras with no air will most often see on a lonely stretch of road or parked outside a no-name hotel in a one-horse town. These are the bikes that facilitate livin’ the dream. Because models from the touring sector are such common sights on the road, the new Yamaha Star Venture TC should come as no great revelation. And yet, its arrival in this era of Scramblers and Bobbers has taken some industry watchers off-guard. That in itself is surprising.

For perspective, let’s remember that Harley-Davidson and Indian have both bet their bottom dollars on fully dressed touring motorcycles. Sure, Indian might launch a Scout into the market to fill out the side but the Roadmaster/Chieftain duo holds the quarterback position. And Harley may get global with its new liquid cooled Street models but the Motor Company’s heavyweight Touring family still pays the bills. Big touring machines are the cash horses and not just in the cruiser world. BMW would be a long way from where the company is today had the big GS/GSA not lit the roaming fire beneath the saddle of so many well-healed riders. 

Harley-Davidson Project Rushmore review canada

Fully understanding the demand for its Touring motorcycle, Harley-Davidson has continuously upgraded its FLH bikes. If something big happens, it happens to these bikes first. In recent seasons we’ve seen the arrival of the Rushmore project (including an iteration of liquid cooling before the Street models) and then the new Milwaukee-Eight motor. Harley could not afford the luxury of complacency with Indian Motorcycles in hot pursuit.  

Victory Motorcycle completely understood the market for touring motorcycles even with the reinvention of its traditional dressed bike, the Vision, before returning to a more conventional approach with the Cross Country. Alas, in Victory’s case, that is all gas through the injectors now. 

victory motorcycles canada

The fact that these big touring models account for such a large segment of the North American market—pushing a whopping 50 per cent—it is incomprehensible that Japanese manufacturers in recent years appeared to have ceded the field to three (make that two) American brands. There are scenarios to explain the move. 

To begin with, the motorcycle business has gone global. The financial crisis of 2008 saw to that. Yet, the dressed touring cruiser is predominantly a North American phenomenon, while bikes like the Street models are not.

Cruiser sales have slowed, the selection and variety from the four Japanese manufacturers has been drastically cut from 10 years ago. Big cruisers are not where the Japanese companies were going to put their money in this global scenario, as there was an urgent need to build bikes that would sell in Europe, Asia, South America as well in Edmonton, Phoenix or Toronto. Then again North America still accounts for the majority of a still sizable segment. Harley may sell Road Glides outside of Canada and the US but its Touring family is primarily suited best for geographical locations where the miles are vast, the roads are long, and surfaces well paved. Hello North America—just the place for big, comfortable, luxury touring cruisers and it’s here that many still believe in this otherwise antiquated credo: there is no replacement for displacement.

In North America, big still sells. A lot.

Yamaha understands this notion, and with its new Venture TC demonstrates commitment to the touring motorcycle riders who fueled the industry’s last boom—those halcyon days of big money and huge motorcycles sales numbers—the old guy. Yes, that’s right the old—and experienced—man or woman. 

yamaha eluder tries the touring motorcycle segment two up

The Venture TC isn’t about seducing trend-following neophytes into joining the ranks of black leather and fringe. It isn’t about coaxing millennials from their skateboards and smart phones. This is a bike for riders. And we mean that as in the people who have already been riding motorcycles for years. A group that knows what it wants, and is a little picky, and probably holds some brand loyalty.

Many of these riders have looked back at the last 10 years and wondered aloud, what the hell have you built for me lately? They don’t want a reinvention of the cruiser, nor an ADV or naked sportbike. The Venture TC isn’t going to pry many riders from their Ultra Limiteds but it may lure a few that were glancing in Indian’s direction. There aren’t many heavyweight metric touring-cruisers currently on the market and something new just might be what some have been waiting for. 

The last significant heavyweight touring cruiser out of Japan was the 2011 Kawasaki Vaquero—and it was only half-dressed! It was a modified version of the 2009 Vulcan Voyager, which Kawasaki claimed was the first fully dressed metric V-Twin cruiser. Unfortunately 2009 was not a good time to launch an expensive new and improved luxury touring cruiser. 

The Vulcan Voyager 1700 has soldiered on and seeing a 2017 model would require a trained eye to distinguish the differences from back in 2009—but the does remain one of the scarce options among metric touring motorcycles. Despite Kawasaki’s claims of having the first metric V-Twin dressed touring bike, it’s worth remembering the Royal Star Venture, launched by Yamaha way back in the last millennium (1999 to be specific). It very much looked like a traditional dressed cruiser: heritage styling, fairing, saddlebags, top case and plush, thick seating for two. 

Kawasakis big blue touring motorcycle heading into a corner

But there was just one big difference in that this Venture—available until just a few years ago—featured a 1294cc V-Four engine that was based on the mill the gave so much enthusiasm to the original V-Max. It also had a tape deck right up until an era when tapes were no longer even available on shelves, notwithstanding Knack or Loverboy. 

To further frame Kawasaki’s statement of precedence, in 2009 Yamaha also launched the new 1854cc Stratoliner and though tour-ready it was not dressed. In the waning days of that decade there were a couple of heavyweight cruisers also doing touring duty without being dressed—both Suzuki and Honda were attempting to make long distance velvet hammers out of their muscle bikes in the C109RT and the VTX1800T. A mention has to be given to the biggest of the big, the excess for riding across Texas, a moment of silence please, the Vulcan 2000 Classic LT.

So it has been almost 10 years since that flurry of activity in the heavyweight metric cruiser scene, and particularly the touring motorcycle, which is why the Venture TC is such a sight for sore eyes. It comes equipped with the 1854cc V-Twin that served duty in the aforementioned Stratoliner, which didn’t continue in Canada as a 2017 model making the Venture TC now the largest displacement V-Twin on the market.  

Upgrades include Yamaha’s chipped controlled throttle system that had previously not been available in any cruiser, as well as traction control, ABS and cruise control. It has the big infotainment system display that is now a requisite feature for navigation, sound and other things. The transmission is a six-speed feeding the rear wheel via belt drive. 

Although these improvements and 126 ft/lb. torque are great, what is most interesting about the bike, beyond the mere fact of its existence and giant air-cooled V-Twin, is its style and here Yamaha got it right by melding classic and modern to get a look that is unlike anything else on the road (at least from the front). Others, who missed the mark, have attempted this before. For example the Victory Vision had an interesting rear and side perspective, but from the front it was lost in ambiguity.

Usurping the YZF-R1M (which most certainly is not among touring motorcycles) as Yamaha’s most expensive motorcycle, the Venture TC at $31,999 isn’t going to fly off the showroom floor but who cares? It is how it will eventually ride that counts (once they actually arrive in showrooms). This one is for you saddle-sore old guys. You already paid for that big motorcycle party of the 1990s-2000s, and now it is time to celebrate because this you earned with all those miles. The tape deck may be gone but the infotainment system will let you crank up Steve Earle or ZZ Top and head for the horizon.

by John Molony Canadian Biker Issue #332


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