Tourers in Prague

When you need to cross Europe in temperatures low enough to make a brass monkey wince, and still need to look chipper at the other end, only a serious tourer will do. We take three of the best to Prague for the coldest test of the year

0
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 01/05/2005 - 13:28


TWO Magazine Feature

On the face of it, this test was madness. Not just daft or perhaps a bit foolish, but potentially an exercise in precisely 'what not to do'. Riding to Prague isn't the hardest of trips - it's only 900 miles away and most can be covered on motorways, but in the depths of Europe's harshest winter for years it was an entirely different prospect.

Watching the weather reports plunge from laughably bad to scarily awful, I learned the night before we were off that Kent was already one large snowdrift, and with more of the white stuff forecast overnight our chances of making it even as far as the Channel Tunnel were slim to none. Assuming we made our crossing there was still France to contend with, which had at this point been largely closed for three days thanks to heavy snow. And if we got through that, the rest of the route was all enjoying yet more snow and temperatures between minus five and minus ten. And these were the daytime highs - once the sun dropped things would get really cold...

But how bad could it be? As the weathered veterans and bon viveurs we were, surely this would be a walk in the park. Hell, it would be fun. A jolly jaunt across Europe to one of the world's most beautiful cities (and one which conveniently specialises in very cheap beer and highly beautiful women at that), on the best tourers money could buy. What more could we want?Exactly. So to hell with the cold and on with the test. Our requirements were simple but specific. We needed large amounts of comfort and weather protection, plenty of luggage space, endless motorway ability and we needed some agility too to stand a hope of making it through the snow, ice and slush that lay ahead. In short, we needed big tourers, and as there are only three on the market our choices were simple.

From Honda we had the Pan European, a motorcycle long-recognised as the governor at churning out the miles with minimum fuss. From Yamaha came an FJR1300. Capitalising on the cult following of the long-deleted FJ1200, Yamaha have revitalised the spirit of that old war-horse with some modern touches for a sportier-looking take on the grand tourer theme. Finally we had a Beemer in the shape of the new R1200RT. Heavily taken to task by its makers this year in an attempt to oust the Pan from top slot, this bike is true to BMW form. For starters it has an incredibly dull name, secondly it is rather ugly and thirdly you'd be a fool to assume it'll be anything less than excellent at the job in hand.

Day one dawned as Ben and myself slithered out of south London bound for the Eurotunnel where snapper Martin would meet us. The roads were clear, there wasn't much snow and although it was icy cold it was bearable. Sat atop the Beemer I began to reassure myself all was well and that I wasn't leading my compatriots to a snowy doom in the depths of eastern Europe.But as we left the cosy urban confines of the M25 and headed into deepest north west Kent, things began to change. The M20 shrunk to one lane ahead of us as falling snow turned the rest into the Cresta Run, articulated lorries began spinning into the Armco like pinballs, and the BM's radio refused to find anything other than Radio Three.

Despite all this, and despite the M20 finally giving out in favour of a 'diversion' that had apparently last been gritted by the Romans, we made the Tunnel. Not only had Ben and myself failed to drop the BM or the Yamaha, but Martin was there waiting for us with the Honda. Huddled together for warmth on board the train we swapped notes. It didn't take long because, as it turned out, we'd all been that preoccupied with staying upright we'd barely thought about the bikes. All we could say at this point was they'd swallowed all our clobber with ease, and had been manageable enough to get us through the worst conditions any of us could ever remember riding road bikes in. So far then, so good.France greeted us freezing cold and very snowy, but with mercifully clear motorways. Unless you count the patches of ice that is, but compared to what we'd already been through this was a piece of the proverbial.Now we were touring. With all three bikes packing suitably deep tanks, 150 miles to a stretch became the norm and before we knew it France had given way to Belgium, which in turn had become the Netherlands. Now, normally this part of the world looks like Norwich on a bad day, but with six inches of snow all over everything it was transformed into something far better as we breezed through.

Aboard the BM since leaving Blighty I'd had plenty of time to mull over its highs and lows, and high number one had to be that screen. Call me easily impressed but this piece of Perspex is a marvel of modern engineering. No, really it is. Stick it right up and you too can enjoy peace and tranquillity at 120mph, all day long. You can also see through it even in driving rain, and despite being six foot three my bonce didn't stick above the parapet enough to warrant the kind of buffeting you can get with lesser tourers. Having such a good screen also means you can enjoy the view, and helps distract from the BM's cockpit display, which looks like it's been ripped out of a bad 1980s 'car of the future'.

Hopping off the R1200 some 300 miles into continental Europe it was time for musical chairs as we swapped bikes. The Yamaha became mine for a while.Talk about a change. Blimey. Where on the BMW you sit high up and regal like some Panzer commander swatting cars from your path at will, on the Yamaha you're back to a more traditional lower perch. The riding position's no less comfortable mind, and your feet even get a little more protection too. That said, your upper body takes much more of a beating and the Yam's screen is the least effective of this touring trio.

High point of the Yam though had to be the motor. Back in the day, FJ1100 and 1200s were bombproof blasters that could only be ridden by real men, and which pumped out drive smoother than James Bond's pick-up lines. And this is what the FJR manages, although you'll have to remember times have moved on since those heady days, and just as Bond would now get more of a slap than a tickle with his cheesy old lines, so the FJR isn't the outright force of firepower it's forefathers were once considered.Nope, that job falls to your R1s and the like these days. It's a lazier deal than that with the FJR but even so that lump is still impressive, pulling top gear happily from 600 revs all the way to the redline with oodles of torque everywhere, and happily banging on the door of 150mph when you feel like it.And while we're on the subject of autobahn bashing, the Yam was the most solid bike here on the boil. "It's a rock," said Ben after one particularly exuberant stretch. "It just sits there, utterly unfazed, whatever the speedo says". He was right too. Where the Honda went into a half-cut weave above 120 and the BM got a wobble on when the going got bumpy, the Yam refused to budge.

It also refused to budge at slow speeds, which was less good. Through town the bars would flip and flop in your hands with all the enthusiasm of a wheelbarrow full of bricks in wet cement. I know we had the bike well laden, but even so the soft springs, low back end and long wheelbase that made the bike a paragon of high-speed stability robbed it of any agility and left it tied in knots in while the other two merrily ran rings around it.Frankfurt turned out to be roughly half-way to Prague, and with the last of the day's light slipping away we headed for the centre and a hotel. Unloading later at the Arabella Sheraton (any relation to Paris Hilton?) it became clear just how much you could load onto these bikes.

Forget the single measly tailpack that accompanies sportsbike touring, here we had a pair of vast panniers each along with extras, and once we'd disrobed from our myriad layers, thermals and winter suits, our rooms were all drowning in enough kit to stock a couple of bike shops.The next morning wasn't the most pleasant mind, not because we'd drunk the town dry in a fit of expenses-fuelled madness, but because we'd gone traditional German for dinner so had washed down a few pints of local cider with loaded plates of boiled meat and sauerkraut. Let's just say I pity whoever got in the lift after us...

Back onto the road and heading east we struck out for the Czech border. Another swap meant I now had the Honda, and Ben had been raving about it that much over dinner the previous night I was curious to see if it was the bike I remembered. "The Pan's like a GP bike, the motor pulls and wails, and it feels dead exciting," he'd frothed between mouthfuls of pickled cabbage. I'd nodded indulgently across the table at the time, but in my head was concerned we may have been losing him to the early stages of hypothermia.

But on board the Honda I could almost see what he meant. Obviously all things are relative, and not even Rossi could get this barge onto a MotoGP grid without the competition being blindfolded and made to ride with one hand tied behind their backs, but next to the BM and the Yam, the Honda's motor has the most instant punch.Where the other two have a gentle but discernible lag between whatever you do at the twistgrip and the motor responding, on the Honda you ask and that sweet V-four delivers instantly. The marshmallow-like wallow that gently sets in at 120-plus mph remains invisible below these speeds and the bike feels pleasantly taught which, allied to that motor, makes it the most fun here to thrash down the backroads.The brakes aren't bad either even if they are linked, although in keeping with the rest of this trio and the more leisurely pace expected of tourers they aren't exactly super-sharp.

The Pan also does that Honda trick of making you feel instantly at home, so you can hop on as if you've owned it all your life. This doesn't necessarily make it the best bike here but it means the others need a little more tuning into.Which is exactly what Martin was doing with the BMW. "How good is this?" he beamed as we hauled up for an essential coffee/chocolate/cake stop to give us any chance of facing another lengthy high-speed stint in what the temperature gauges were now telling us was minus seven. "BMW have thought of everything on this but the kitchen sink, although I'm sure if I look hard enough I'll find it somewhere," he went on.

With the bikes and ourselves refuelled it was time to press on, and with a swift hop over the border into the Czech Republic we were into the home stretch.Entering Prague for the first time 200 miles later was a wake up call as we piled headlong into the city's chaotic cocktail of cars, taxis and trams, who all seem to be in some kind of great race. Throw in the fact Prague's town planners have a compulsive love of one-way streets, trams run both ways on the same side of the road, and that our city map had apparently been compiled by a drunk man who'd never seen the place, and it was a fraught half-hour searching for our hotel. But after a swift detour through the train station and across the adjoining tram stop we made it.

Now for the next part of the test. Bikes like this are all about doing big miles without any fuss, so if they're up to the job you should arrive at your destination fresh and ready for action rather than looking like the local wino after a rough night - as you do after trying it on any sportsbike you care to mention.And as the usual physical attrition caused by two days of sub-zero motorway-bashing didn't seem too apparent, we unpacked our suits (nicely uncreased thanks to cavernous panniers all round), got ourselves smelled and gelled and headed out to sample Prague's delights. Well, it would be rude not to. As gentlemen we won't to dive into too much detail, so we'll just say Prague does indeed come well-stocked with cheap booze, great bars and fine-looking women. The beer also gives truly world-class hangovers, as we discovered the following morning.Now it was time to head for home, and suddenly that seemed a very long way away no matter how comfy our bikes were.

With throbbing heads, negotiating the maze of Prague's old town complete with its endless cobbled streets, which are not only lined with tram tracks but were also now under the previous night's fresh snow, was a somewhat emotional affair. On the BMW Ben was hating every minute of it. "This thing's so ungainly and I can't feel a thing from the front end, I want the Honda back," he yelled through a steamed-up visor as we slithered the wrong way down yet another one-way street. Being that bit taller than the others, and with a motor that's least happy at low revs, the BMW is the hardest here to tip-toe about on at low speed. It'll do it, but it needs your full attention, and you'll want to avoid any sudden moves because like any of these bikes, once it does start to topple it's got some weight behind it.

He wasn't liking it any better out on the motorway either. Admittedly we were now in the middle of a blizzard and the temperature was down to minus 11, but he'd have been happier on anything else. "I just couldn't get on with that front end, gave me no confidence at all", he said as we swapped later and he gladly leapt back onto the Pan. Guess the BM's not for everyone then. It's more of an acquired taste, but if you do gel with it then it's the best bike here for banging out the miles all day long in superlative comfort and getting on and doing that touring thang, one or two up.

The Honda's certainly the easiest to get on with and delivers the most kicks if you want to play, and it nearly manages everything the BMW does. It can't match the BM in terms of spec, the screen's not as good and buffets your head more at speed wherever you set it, and it weaves a little more if you really hit the high numbers down the motorway. As an out-and-out tourer, the BMW has it beaten.Which leaves the Yamaha, the nearly-but-not-quite of this test. It's not a great deal cheaper than the others but feels it, it hasn't anywhere near as much weather protection, it's awkward at low speeds and comes in a terrible paintscheme Ben described as 'cheap shell suit'. At times though we all had good stints on it and reckoned that in milder weather it would be better but, as a total tourer package, the other two bikes here take it to the cleaners. Another day and another few hundred miles later we rolled back into TWO Towers. There had been plenty more amusement on the way back including a bird the size of an albatross dropping its guts from a great height directly onto my head as we sped by below ("it looked like a pint of mayonnaise falling out of the sky," said an awestruck Martin), a great snowball fight on the German border and nearly running out of petrol in Belgium as they seem to have something against motorway services. But now it was all over there was a touch of sadness in the air as we unpacked.

When we left it looked as if we might not make Dover, and from then on there was the chance our journey would be cut short any minute. But we'd made the trip and, although none of us had ever been great fans of big tourers , now we'd all seen the light. "They're not exactly great-looking bikes," said Ben unpacking yet another pannier, "but anything that can make a trip like that not just possible, but enjoyable, is one cool bike in my book". Amen to that.

On the face of it, this test was madness. Not just daft or perhaps a bit foolish, but potentially an exercise in precisely 'what not to do'. Riding to Prague isn't the hardest of trips - it's only 900 miles away and most can be covered on motorways, but in the depths of Europe's harshest winter for years it was an entirely different prospect.

Watching the weather reports plunge from laughably bad to scarily awful, I learned the night before we were off that Kent was already one large snowdrift, and with more of the white stuff forecast overnight our chances of making it even as far as the Channel Tunnel were slim to none. Assuming we made our crossing there was still France to contend with, which had at this point been largely closed for three days thanks to heavy snow. And if we got through that, the rest of the route was all enjoying yet more snow and temperatures between minus five and minus ten. And these were the daytime highs - once the sun dropped things would get really cold...

But how bad could it be? As the weathered veterans and bon viveurs we were, surely this would be a walk in the park. Hell, it would be fun. A jolly jaunt across Europe to one of the world's most beautiful cities (and one which conveniently specialises in very cheap beer and highly beautiful women at that), on the best tourers money could buy. What more could we want?

Exactly. So to hell with the cold and on with the test. Our requirements were simple but specific. We needed large amounts of comfort and weather protection, plenty of luggage space, endless motorway ability and we needed some agility too to stand a hope of making it through the snow, ice and slush that lay ahead. In short, we needed big tourers, and as there are only three on the market our choices were simple.

From Honda we had the Pan European, a motorcycle long-recognised as the governor at churning out the miles with minimum fuss. From Yamaha came an FJR1300. Capitalising on the cult following of the
long-deleted FJ1200, Yamaha have revitalised the spirit of that old war-horse with some modern touches for a sportier-looking take on the grand tourer theme. Finally we had a Beemer in the shape of the new R1200RT. Heavily taken to task by its makers this year in an attempt to oust the Pan from top slot, this bike is true to BMW form. For starters it has an incredibly dull name, secondly it is rather ugly and thirdly you'd be a fool to assume it'll be anything less than excellent at the job in hand.

Day one dawned as Ben and myself slithered out of south London bound for the Eurotunnel where snapper Martin would meet us. The roads were clear, there wasn't much snow and although it was icy cold it was bearable. Sat atop the Beemer I began to reassure myself all was well and that I wasn't leading my compatriots to a snowy doom in the depths of eastern Europe.

But as we left the cosy urban confines of the M25 and headed into deepest north west Kent, things began to change. The M20 shrunk to one lane ahead of us as falling snow turned the rest into the Cresta Run, articulated lorries began spinning into the Armco like pinballs, and the BM's radio refused to find anything other than Radio Three.

Despite all this, and despite the M20 finally giving out in favour of a 'diversion' that had apparently last been gritted by the Romans, we made the Tunnel. Not only had Ben and myself failed to drop the BM or the Yamaha, but Martin was there waiting for us with the Honda. Huddled together for warmth on board the train we swapped notes. It didn't take long because, as it turned out, we'd all been that preoccupied with staying upright we'd barely thought about the bikes. All we could say at this point was they'd swallowed all our clobber with ease, and had been manageable enough to get us through the worst conditions any of us could ever remember riding road bikes in. So far then, so good.

Continue Tourers in Prague - 2/2

Crash Media Group
Visordown is part of the CMG Full Throttle Network© : welcoming over 3 million consumers each month