Road Test

Road Test: BMW K1200LT vs. H-D FLHTC vs. Goldwing

A weekend of wine tasting on bikes that represent the more refined side of life. We explore France's Loire Valley from the comfort of three ultimate touring machines.




Ordering a bottle of wine in a restaurant leaves you open for a barrage of potential disasters and social embarrassment. Get it right and you can bask in the collective appreciation and admiration of your fellow diners. Fail and you may as well book your next dinner date at McDonald's.

Which is a problem, because my own status as a wine connoisseur is roughly similar to that of the local tramp swigging a bottle of screw top on a park bench. Beyond the basics I am, frankly, lost. Drinking wine, it seems, has more protocols attached to it than meeting the Queen. In fact I know this for certain - I've met the Queen. All I had to do was remember to bow, wait until she asked the questions and not call her Liz.

So with Christmas approaching it was time to get educated, not to mention get a few bottles of the good stuff in to impress the relatives, and what better place to learn than the home of fine wine - France's Loire Valley.

That was the plan. A voyage of discovery, with the option of getting pissed on quality vino. The choice of bikes? Simple, the three with the most luggage capacity (for wine carrying), combined with serious grunt to haul the extra weight around. So mega tourers it was - Honda GoldWing, Harley-Davidson Electra Glide and BMW's revamped K1200LT.

But just 200 miles into France it so nearly all went wrong. Flashing on the GoldWing's LCD display was a warning that strikes fear into any hardened tourer. Three words that spell potential disaster: 'CD Multichange Error'. A wave of panic spread over me as I was faced with the very real possibility of spending the next three days forced to listen to the horror that is French radio. With increasing desperation I fiddled with the various knobs and buttons controlling the Wing's onboard entertainment system (20 at a rough count) and after a few seconds peace was restored again as Elvis returned to the speakers. You can't even begin to understand my relief.

During the whole 400-plus mile journey from the Eurotunnel to Angers at the start of the Loire Valley this was the only moment of anxiety. The three bikes simply ate the miles as the mundane nature of the journey dissolved away in a blissful, 80mph cruise-controlled blur while the scenery flowed past to a selection of soundtracks. When it comes to straight-line motoring these bikes can't be beaten.

"They are simply fantastic," enthused VFR-owning photographer Mykel when, after 140 miles, the Harley's fuel warning light indicated that a stop was needed. "There's no effort. Just stick on the cruise control and listen to your CDs. Can I have Elvis? REM is making me feel suicidal."

All of these bikes have seats with more padding than your average sofa and in-built speakers that mean music can be heard even at 80mph with a full-face lid on. That said, the Harley's speakers are noticeably the best, followed by the BMW, then the Wing's. Still slightly concerned about the CD multichange on the Wing, I took the opportunity to swap bikes.

Changing from the Wing to the BMW is quite a culture shock. The first thing you spot is the lack of clutter, from the Honda's myriad buttons to the BMW's space saving German efficiency. If it isn't needed, BMW doesn't put it there.

Although the riding position initially feels alien compared to the Wing - more sit 'on' rather than 'in', and the pegs feel higher and further back - it's still comfortable, but not quite as good as the Honda. After a stint on the BMW, 6ft 6in Shippey found the BMW gave his calf muscles cramp. Mykel, who is under six foot, found it perfect.

Arriving at Angers just past 9pm we checked into the delights of a Comfort Inn followed by much-needed food at the Buffalo Grill. Not glamorous, but money saved here could be better spent on fine wines, a sacrifice worth making. In order to give our taste buds a starting point we ordered the table wine, which although okay was nothing special Things could only get better.

And they did. The first vineyard on the list was Chateau Bellerive, recommended as one of the best white wines in the area. Despite owner Monsieur Dufour not speaking much English, and us not knowing much French, we muddled through.

Having never toured a vineyard before I was surprised at how basic it is. All the grapes are hand picked, shoved in plastic buckets and stuck on the back of a comical mini-tractor before being poured into a mechanical crusher. Disappointingly yet reassuringly there didn't seem to be any bare-foot grape stamping going on, which should reduce the chances of catching athlete's tongue from the wine - although Shippey did point out the grape juice falling onto the floor, along a channel and into a collecting area that looked suspiciously like a foot wash at the local swimming baths. From there the wine is sucked up via some ditch pump-like thing into a metal fermentation drum where it stays for a week, before being transferred into wood caskets for 12 months, which gives it a woody flavour, apparently.

Despite it only being 10am the owner enthusiastically cracked open four bottles of wine for us. Eyeing the spittoon in the centre of the table I thought it was best to follow his example when it came to testing the wine. Obviously not one for protocol, he simply sipped the wine while drawing in a breath. "Breath in some oxygen as you sip, it helps your taste buds taste the wine," he explained. Four of the best white wines I have ever tasted later and we were considering dumping the bikes and joining Monsieur Dufour's pickers. But we had a good tip on a sparkling wine to follow up and, after fitting six bottles of white into the Wing's left pannier, we were on our way with instructions to let the wine settle for a month after the journey.

Heading on the twisty back roads from Angers towards Saumur the mega tourers performed well, despite their size. I've always been surprised by how well the enormous GoldWing handles, even at low speed. While you have to be a bit careful at junctions, especially if the road is on a slight incline, once moving the bulk helps plant it to the road. Okay, we aren't talking sportsbike handling, but the Wing rider certainly has nothing to fear when it comes to corners.

On the BMW Shippey was having less fun:"It feels really top heavy at low speed, as if all the weight is over the front. At walking pace the bars are always moving from left to right as you fight the weight. Once going it isn't that bad, but at low speed it's nowhere near as good as the Wing." Swapping with him and riding it for a while I have to agree. At low speed it almost has a mind of its own, which I'm certain is partly due to the weight distribution, but the horizontally-mounted motor's crank also upsets the bike a bit; rev the K1200 at a standstill and you can feel the bike sway slightly from left to right.

"The Harley feels lighter than the others," reckoned Mykel. "It handles well, not as solid-feeling as the BMW or the Wing but the steering's much lighter." With less bulk, not to mention fewer cylinders, the Harley is much easier to move around at low speed. Although it's the only one of these three not to have a reverse gear, it doesn't really need one as backing out of parking spaces isn't really a chore - unlike the Wing and, to a lesser extent, the BMW. The only problem is that the Harley's soft suspension makes it wallow a bit.

Nearing Saumur the fickle Loire Valley weather changed and the heavens opened. On the BMW I smirked at Shippey as he tried to duck behind the Wing's screen; I just pushed a button to raise the BMW's. Somewhat shockingly despite the whopping price tag, the GoldWing doesn't get an electric screen, which is a bit poor. You have to release two fasteners then fight the screen to pull it higher - something that can't be done on the move. The Harley doesn't have an adjustable screen either, but as the front fairing is closer to the rider it offers greater protection.

After seeking the familiar shelter of a McDonald's we squelched into the Bouvet Ladubay factory in Saumur. Beneath the factory is a mind-blowing eight kilometres of underground cellars, where over seven million bottles of sparkling wine are stored. Throughout the caves are huge metal cages containing bottles of wine which, as part of the fermentation process, are turned a quarter of a turn to the right three times a day for four days. A job that used to be done by hand! The whole operation is amazing to look at, but the best bit is the sparkling rosŽ wine at the end. It is beautiful and, according to the lovely Jessica who served us, it goes very well with chocolate. At this point I was forcibly removed from her company by Shippey and Mykel.

From Saumur we headed to our overnight accommodation, the vineyard of Domaine de BeausŽjour, renowned for its rosŽ wine. It was here I found the limitations of the GoldWing: it doesn't handle ruts very well. This is rural France and the drives up to the vineyards are often gravel and uneven. Unfortunately I got the front wheel stuck in a rut and, unable to hold up the falling beast, gently toppled off the Wing at 0mph. Only an ego bruised, as the large engine bars protected the fairing. And just to even the score the BMW fell off its stand a bit later, again its engine protectors doing their job. These bikes are designed to withstand low speed spills.

An overnight stay in the chateau, followed by a quick tour of the vineyard with the very friendly owner, Madame Marie-Claude Chauveau, and we were back on the wine. This time at just after 9am! After a quick education on why French wine tastes better than other wine (because the weather conditions are so static in Australia and South Africa the wine tastes the same every year, which isn't a problem in France), we settled on a few bottles of her lovely rosŽ, which is made by fermenting it over just a few hours so the red pigment in the grape skin doesn't soak out, giving a less vibrant colour.

With the Wing's panniers full and the BMW's filled with Mykel's camera kit - which both Shippey and myself suggested dumping in favour of more wine - we loaded up the Harley before heading off to our final vineyard.

With three of the four wines covered the final one needed to be a quality red. At this point were all starting to get sick of touring vineyards so were quite relieved when the lady at the Domaine de la Desoucherie vineyard didn't speak much English. A few samples of the red, a suitable year chosen and we headed back towards Calais, with an overnight stop planned halfway at Rouen.

Well that was the plan. Somehow we managed to miss all the hotels in Rouen, so we carried on up and, after finding all the hotels in Abbeville were full (I even checked out the Hotel de Ville, before Shippey reminded me it was actually the Town Hall), we decided to carry on to Calais. No drama, just a few extra hours and a CD swap or two.

After a night in one of Calais' crappest hostels we headed to a supermarket to fill up on cheap plonk for the relatives we didn't like enough to give the good stuff to. An hour later, with the Wing carrying an impressive 40 bottles (two boxes strapped to the pillion seat), the Harley a sterling 30 (only one box on the pillion) and the BMW 18 plus Mykel's camera kit (none riding pillion and the CD changer limiting pannier capacity), we boarded the Eurotunnel.

Locked in the train we agreed that we would all go for the Wing. The motor is packed with grunt, the panniers are huge (although not as solid as the BMW's), and it's super comfortable. But it needs an electric screen. The biggest complaints were aimed at the less than adequate brakes, the clunky gearbox and the mind-boggling number of buttons to fiddle with.

The BMW was a very good bike, but the low speed handling let it down and both Shippey and myself felt it wasn't as comfortable as the others. The motor was strong and very smooth, but the brakes were a bit sharp and grabby. What sets the BMW aside is the thought that has gone into it. The panniers are solid, it has an electro-hydraulic centre stand, pannier lights, a gear indicator, heated grips, clear controls and even a light that illuminates under the bike when you stop and automatically turns off after a few minutes. Brilliant.

As for the Harley... Well, Shippey loved it and it looks the best and is very comfortable, but it isn't very fast. For 80mph touring it's great but overtaking is a bit of a lottery as it struggles to accelerate fast from 70mph. On the BMW and Honda you simply wind the throttle on, but the Harley requires gear changes. Good for slow speed touring with style, though.

Mykel summed them up perfectly: "If you had to make the perfect bike most of the parts would come from the BMW, but you'd put them on the GoldWing."

SPECS - BMW

TYPE - TOURER

PRODUCTION DATE - 2005

PRICE NEW - £13,335

ENGINE CAPACITY - 1171cc

POWER - 116bhp@8000rpm

TORQUE - 88.5lb.ft@5250rpm

WEIGHT - 387kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 770mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 23.4L

TOP SPEED - N/A

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - N/A

SPECS - HARLEY-DAVIDSON

TYPE - TOURER

PRODUCTION DATE - 2005

PRICE NEW - £15,695

ENGINE CAPACITY - 1449cc

POWER - 67bhp@4200rpm

TORQUE - 81lb.ft@3100rpm

WEIGHT - 372kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 745mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 18.8L

TOP SPEED - N/A

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - N/A

SPECS - HONDA

TYPE - TOURER

PRODUCTION DATE - 2005

PRICE NEW - £16,949

ENGINE CAPACITY - 1832cc

POWER - 116.6bhp@5500rpm

TORQUE - 123lb.ft@4000rpm

WEIGHT - 363kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 740mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 25L

TOP SPEED - N/A

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - N/A

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