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Road Test: K1200GT v CBF1000F v KTM990 v GSX-R600

Going touring? You need a big bike, panniers and a top box. Or do you? From full-on sports tool to fully laden mile eater, via adventure tourer and slick all-rounder, the choice is yours. Team Visordown packs its bags and heads south.




Go somewhere, go anywhere, get away, just get on your bike and get lost. You can go touring on anything - it just depends on how far you want to go and what you want to do when you get there. Does 'touring' mean heading somewhere to see sights and views and places? Or seeking out new roads to ride and old favourites to revisit? Or something in between?

For the sake of our purposes 'touring' is a convenient catch-all word that means escaping the real world and going somewhere far, far away. What you do when you get there is up to you.

So what kind of bike is best suited to the role? Full dresser, all hard luggage and comfy pillion armchair? Maybe, but not if that ain't your thing. What about a focused sports tool? Perhaps, but the other half won't like it on the back. Something else, then. But what? The type of roads you ride on or the kind of riding you plan on doing when you get there may determine the bike best suited to the role, but there's more than one way to boil an egg. And to prove the point we got four of them together and headed south.

We deliberately made this a test of contrasts, so rather than pitching like against like we instead brought together representatives from four different fields of two-wheeled excellence. All are new, or heavily revised, 2006 models, and all are pitched to excel in their chosen niche.

Heading up the serious continent-crushing contingent we have BMW's K1200GT SE, the luxuriously faired, fully-luggaged-up, mile-eating variant of the German firm's K1200S hypersports tourer. At the opposite end of the spectrum, waving the flag for sports bike hooligans everywhere, we've got Suzuki's sharp, screaming GSX-R600, which is pretty far removed from most people's idea of a tourer. Then padding out the middle ground is KTM's 990 Adventure monster trailie/adventure tourer, and finally Honda's Fireblade engined, soft-edged do-it-all rounder, the new, and bargain priced, CBF1000.

Waking up in a foreign land with nothing to do but ride bikes all day is a wonderful feeling. Breakfast eaten, hotel bill paid and we've got a day's jaunt south through France ahead of us. To get the job done in time we'll be mostly using autoroutes, but a route national detour at the end of the day will get us to our destination - the twists and turns of the Ardeche Gorge.

Tip-toeing out of the car park into St Omer's one-way system, light drizzle and cool morning air, I'm on KTM's lofty, lanky 990 Adventure. Now fuel injected and with a 40cc bigger motor, the Adventure is a much loved tool here at TWO. With serious off-road pedigree behind the name, the KTM has an edge to it that other monster trail tools lack. Its exhaust note has a sharp bark, the suspension moves with the refined control of serious off-road kit, and even the handlebar grips smack of proper rufty-tufty dirt bikes. And it's big, with a capital 'B'.

Being tall and lanky myself, I'm right at home on this type of machine, and the KTM quickly finds a place in my heart. With the carbs of old consigned to the bin, the motor has a new sharpness at very low revs and small throttle openings. Direct and responsive and with no nasty snatching, grabbing a handful at low speed is a genuinely enjoyable experience: the motor responds with a crisp rumble, the forks extend and the back end squats down. And we're off. In town, or down tight, blind back lanes, the KTM's saddle is a very entertaining place to be.

As we head to the autoroute it's easy to forget that Daryll, Oli and Rob may not be having such an easy time of it. The Adventure's advantage in town, in France, avoiding lazy rush hour traffic, on damp roads, while looking for few-and-far-between road signs, is considerable.

Out on the autoroute, settling into a day-long routine of fuel stops, bike swaps and speed trap spotting, the KTM's advantages start to fade. But it isn't half as bad as you'd think it might be. The motor has the guts to hold an easy ton - considerably more if your licence is up for it - and it's surprisingly comfortable.

That high and wide riding position isn't as tiresome as it looks, with the stubby, upright and not too pretty screen doing a remarkably good job. Last year's 950 had a seat designed by the Marquis de Sade; the new 990's is wider, flatter and better padded - "a massive improvement over last year's," according to Rob. Oli is less impressed, accusing the screen of 'almost unbearable buffeting'. My only gripe is that the twin fuel tanks angle wind between my knees and the sidepanels, forcing my legs apart. Keeping them flat against the tank is a strain.

No such problems with the CBF1000. One fuel stop down the line - dictated at around 110 miles by the GSX-R600, the bike here with the shortest fuel range - we swap mounts and I'm on the Honda.

The CBF oozes competence. Nothing about it jumps out to excite; it just gets on with the job of being a slick, efficient, well-executed all-rounder. The motor is silky smooth, and the chassis should be - that is 'should' be - well up to the job.

Trouble is, the CBF1000 carries its excess baggage of fully-laden optional hard luggage with far less aplomb than the more dedicated long distance hauler. To be frank, it spoils the Honda. With all that luggage space the temptation is to pack it full. Which we've done. Do that, stick a passenger on the back, and it's more than the chassis can cope with. What was a nimble, brisk, fun, enjoyable motorcycle becomes soft, wallowing and unresponsive. There's enough motor to deal with the extra weight - you'd hope a lump half-inched from a Fireblade would have some go - but the suspension is flattened and steering geometry thrown to cock, even with everything maxed out.

Once on the move though it's not such an issue. Every now and then the CBF gets a minor wobble-on, either helped by a crosswind or dodgy surface change, but it's nothing major. On the whole the Honda's saddle is a pleasant place to be, with the small but effective fairing making cruising at 110mph or so a relatively relaxed experience.

But if it's real comfort you're after, try the BMW. "Most agreeable," I think to myself, sinking into the K1200's (heated) saddle after the requisite 110-mile stint on the GSX-R. Our BM is the bells-and-whistles SE version, but either way the K1200GT shares the inline four-cylinder motor and advanced chassis of the more sporty K1200S and naked K1200R. The 1200S is a superb machine, so we have high hopes for the GT.

As a distance blaster the GT is hard to beat. In this company, riding the other three bikes on the autoroute is just killing time before another go on the BMW, and another hundred or so miles spent playing with the push-button Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA), heated grips, cruise control and adjustable screen. "Exemplary on the autoroutes," says Oli. "Tracks dead straight with crosswinds having no effect despite the apparent barn door aerodynamics."

The motor is pretty much spot-on for this kind of work too. Blip the throttle at a standstill and it spins up with an aggressive rasp not all that dissimilar from the GSX-R's. On the move, that power is concentrated quite some way up the rev range. Spin it up and there's more than you need - the GT's turn of speed actually took me by surprise when gassing it away from a roundabout to give what for to Johnny Foreigner, thinking he was all that in his Audi TT - and in the high gears on the motorway the delivery translates into a smooth rush.

Around town the BMW is manageable enough (well, it is after we distribute Oli's half-ton of camera gear more sensibly), but a bit ponderous after the Honda or KTM. Obviously there are the panniers to worry about when filtering, but generally the GT isn't the handful it looks like it might be. Brakes are okay too - BMW's powerful but too-sharp EVO system often fails to win friends, but it performed well on the GT. Perhaps the weight of all that camera gear dulled the bite...

No such problem with the GSX-R. If you're going to pick a bike to transport several grands' worth of photographic kit, best not choose a GSX-R600. Or any sports bike for that matter. With the GSX-R you can carry maybe a tailpack, possibly a rucksack and, I guess, a small tankbag for maps, wallets and hair care products (Daryll) or specialist reading matter (Tim).

If you're taking a sports bike touring the idea is that the journey to wherever you're going is a necessary evil to be suffered given the prospect that awaits when you get there. But long distance work on the Suzuki isn't actually that bad. GSX-Rs have always erred to the roomy, with wide tanks, lots of seat room and quite some reach to the bars. Leg room will be an issue for most, but a day spent suffering is worth five of life-affirming riding.

We all shy away from the Suzuki on the journey down, but once settled into the saddle it's kind of okay. "The hour-long motorway stints aren't as miserable as I imagined," admits Rob. "The GSX-R isn't that uncomfortable." You kind of have to force your body into a fixed crouch, supporting chest on tankbag and elbows on knees, but once there's some windblast to support your body it's sufferable for the 100 miles or so you'll get before the fuel light starts flashing.

At fast motorway speeds the motor is surprisingly flexible too. Cruising at 9000rpm may be an odd concept to those used to covering distance on lazy BMW Boxers or throbbing V-four Pans, but at that engine speed the GSX-R is barely operating above 50 per cent capacity. Wind on the throttle from there and the motor pulls with some urgency; tap down a couple of gears and she'll scream. Oli cheerfully admits to being no fan of sports bikes, but reckons the GSX-R's engine is, "lovely, with more torque than it looks like it should have, and a terrific exhaust note." And he's not wrong - the GSX-R's rasping bark as you blip the throttle on downshifts is superb and addictive.

The only real frustration on the journey south is that the chassis is going to such waste. Sweeping slip roads out of services and between interconnecting autoroutes are fleeting moments of exhilaration, and also a sweet reminder of what's to come later in the journey.

The top half of France disappears in a throb, hum, whoosh or scream, depending on the given transport at the time. As we reach Lyon, the autoroute snarls up and pretty much stays that way for the rest of the journey. And it's getting hot - too hot for the excess of clothing we're now sweating into. Exiting the A7 north of MontŽlimar, we hop across the Rhone and finish our journey to the Ardeche on the N86. I'm on the KTM again, Rob on the GSX-R. Something in between would probably be ideal, but we're both having a ball. Oli and Daryll are struggling a bit, each weighed down with fully-laden hard luggage, their panniers restricting swift opportunistic overtakes, but it's still a pleasant enough way to finish what was becoming a tedious journey.

Ending a day's ride in a pleasant, warm, foreign town, with a day's riding on stunning roads ahead is a feeling I'll never tire of. A recce into the gorge before sunset reaffirms that we've come to the right place, both literally and metaphorically. The road through is fantastic, and so are the views, probably. But I'm not looking. This is why we come abroad; this is why we ride bikes. Mile after mile of challenging, twisting blacktop, with a southern French sun setting somewhere right over there. Bliss.

The following day is spent hooning up and down the gorge on each bike in turn. Given that we have four such contrasting machines with us, they all perform very, very differently (see page 60) but, given the weather, the mood and the location, it would be nearly impossible to be on the 'wrong' bike at any time. Unfortunately we've only got a day to play, and a long day north on the autoroute ahead of us.

The journey back the next day is a reverse repeat of the way down, except without the 100-mile traffic jam (a good thing) but with no prospect of a day's awesome riding when we're done (a bad thing). As the weather closes in and Calais looms, the KTM disgraces itself by netting a front wheel puncture, nearly pitching Daryll under a lorry. No one's fault, but with just 15 miles to the ferry port it's a blemish the trip could have done without.

So, 1600 miles and three days later, how do our contenders stack up?

Obviously, and without a shadow of a doubt, the BMW is king of the long distance slog. However, while in this company it was the least favourite bike in the twists and turns of the Ardeche, the GT far from disgraced itself. And no other bike here would be as capable of carrying a passenger on the same journey. It ain't no sports bike - and even tagging it a sports tourer would be pushing things a bit far - but if you want to cover serious continental mileage on at least a semi-regular basis, test ride one of these.

At the opposite end of the scale sits the GSX-R600. We all know sports 600s are the tool to have for sunny weekend blasts and track day action, but the common misconception that sports bikes are no good for covering big distances was kind of blown apart here, because the Suzuki was nowhere near as bad as we thought it might be on the ride south. Oli seemed quite taken aback by just how much he didn't dislike the GSX-R. "It's really characterful," he said, "and I didn't expect that. In my own time, with some gorge road experience, this probably would have wangled its way into my top two."

Glowing launch reports and a bargain price tag set the CBF1000 off on a strong footing, but its unfussy competence split opinion. "About as exciting as a Lib Dem party political broadcast," reckoned Rob. "It's just as middle of the road too, so while the CBF doesn't do much wrong, it'll never get my vote." In contrast, Oli found it 'surprisingly easy to find a soft spot for.'

Once we'd shed the CBF of its luggage it was great fun to ride, if not overflowing with excitement. As a day-to-day long-distance commuter, weekend toy and occasional tourer the CBF has serious credentials. This bike really could be many things to many people, but those looking, or expecting, to get a real kick out of their motorcycling would be best to try before they buy.

Finally the KTM. The 990 Adventure was everyone's favourite in the Ardche and surprisingly good on the way there and back. As a long-distance blaster it has limits - luggage carrying is limited unless you fit the aesthetically-challenged hard box option - and it's not everyone's cup of tea comfort-wise, but it was hard to beat once we got to our destination. It makes a fantastic everyday bike too, with superb around town and B-road potential. The KTM looks awesome and you can't help but stand out in a crowd. Weak brakes and, ultimately, a lack of front end grip if you're really pressing on are the only minus points. And I'd excuse them. Given this trip to do again, but with the choice of just one of these bikes for doing it, the KTM is the bike I'd pick.

But it's a matter of taste. The one thing this test proved was that you don't need a dedicated tourer to head off into foreign lands and have a ball on a bike. All that matters is that you do.

DARYLL'S SECOND OPINION - KTM

Out of the four here the KTM would be my first choice for this type of trip. Being a little shorter than the others I didn't suffer the same buffeting behind the KTM's screen as some, and the seat is easily the softest and most comfortable of the four for covering the long motorway miles. The slightly larger engine than last year's model fitted with a well sorted fuel injection system, plus a wide set of Renthal bars for extra-twisty-road leverage made the Adventure a hoot to ride. My only concern with the KTM on a long, high speed journey such as this is the tubed front tyre. Not for the first time we suffered a front tyre puncture, at speed, and this time it was me fighting to stay on board - just a coincidence or should it be fitted with more suitable tyres for the job?

DARYLL'S SECOND OPINION - HONDA

It may not be the most exciting bike to look at but don't let that put you off - the CBF is way better than its appearance may suggest. Underneath the rather bland exterior is a superb, silky smooth motor that is almost perfect at any speed, the exception being an annoying buzz at 100mph - just where you don't want it, especially when trying to balance fuel economy with getting a move on through France. As with the BMW the Honda does get a bit flighty above 120mph when boxed-up, and ground clearance is a bit limited when fully loaded, but with the luggage removed you can have plenty of fun on the twisty bits. The low seat height suited my short legs, and although not as comfortable as the KTM the CBF wasn't far behind.

DARYLL'S SECOND OPINION - BMW

For obvious reasons I was looking forward to my stint on the BMW. Unfortunately I couldn't have been more disappointed, especially as I had been bowled over by the S version on our trip to Colditz Castle last year. Despite the big tourer being fitted with plenty of creature comforts it was by far the most uncomfortable bike of the four for me. Maybe because all of your weight is concentrated on your backside, or maybe because the seat is made from 16mm plywood, either way within 40 miles or so I had to shift my weight around to try and relieve the pain. This, combined with a light, floaty feeling at high speeds and a bike largely unsuited to the near perfect roads through the Ardeche Valley, unfortunately made the BMW the least versatile and my least

DARYLL'S SECOND OPINION - SUZUKI

Clocking up hundreds of miles aboard a 600cc sports bike is never going to be all that pleasurable, especially when the other bikes we were testing seemed so much better suited to the journey. But for my 5ft 5in frame the GSX-R was a pretty good tool for the job. The head down riding position took a bit of weight off the backside, and once I had settled in and 'assumed the position' the experience was nowhere near as torturous as I thought it was going to be. The limited tank range means fuel stops have to be carefully planned, but the big plus was always going to be when the GSX-R600came into its own on the twisty gorge roads, where I could fully appreciate the awesome induction noise this bike makes.

Gorge yourself: arsing about in the Ardeche

The Gorges de l'Ardeche and the D290 that follows it run west-east from Vallon-Pont-d'Arc to

St-Martin-d'Ardeche in central southern France, about 20 miles north west of Orange. The Gorge itself is spectacular, but the D290 is pretty damn good too, around 20 miles or so of snaking undulating, twisting, well surfaced road running along the north side of the river Ardeche. Just mind the tourists. And the tour coaches. And the cyclists. And the hordes of local and foreign bikers there for exactly the same reason you are.

BMW

The K1200GT was more of a handful. In BMW's world the GT has the body and soul of a sports touer, but to the rest of us it's more of a full-on touring machine. Doesn't mean fun can't be had, but it's not in the same league as the KTM or even the Honda when it comes to kicking ass in the Ardeche. The flexible motor and strong brakes were plus points, but the BM simply carries too much mass for serious cornering action. I've never been a fan of BMW's disassociative, rider unvolvement approach to chassis and suspension design. Some riders love it - "you just need to have faith in the quirky suspension," insists Rob - but I simply can't read what's going on underneath me when pressing on on a Beemer. The GT was no exception, no matter which of the ESA's options - Comfort, Normal or Sport - I selected. Great for enjoying the views, though.

HONDA

If you're taking a fully laden CBF1000 on a riding holiday to the Ardeche, you'll want to unpack and junk the hard luggage before hitting the gorge for some fun. Do that and a ball is there to be had. Those down-sizing from a sports bike will soon find the limits of the CBF's ground clearance, but in the Ardeche the Honda became our flexible friend. The retuned motor has its torque in exactly the right place for easy squirting from blind, unfamiliar turn, via crumbling precipice, to blind unfamiliar turn, and the light, easy steering is spot-on for tracking along unknown roads. Even Honda's linked Combined Braking System found favour - trail a bit of pedal in a misjudged corner and it tightens your line just so - although Daryll did manage to start a small fire on the rear caliper after one descent. Soft, neutral, unthreatening, perhaps even a tad dull the Honda may be, but it's actually a mightily effective, entertaining way to explore new, unseen foreign roads.

KTM

The KTM ruled in the Gorge. Its thumping 990cc V-twin motor delivers exactly the right type of pretty much exactly the right amount of instant grunt for catapulting from corner to corner. The suspension soaked up the bumps and the riding position was spot-on for reading the road as far ahead as possible. Only two things let it down. First, the front knobbly gave up its grip just before ground clearance did. Better rubber is needed for full-on banzai antics on Tarmac. Secondly, the brakes aren't ace. Forget the ABS - with it switched on Rob had to check the KTM really did have two discs up front instead of one - but even with the ABS turned off stopping power isn't excellent. Relatively minor complaints though, and the plus points made the 990 THE bike to be on.

SUZUKI

Finally the GSX-R600. You might expect the Suzuki to win hands down in a situation like this, but such a full-on motor, with power concentrated well up the rev range, coupled with firm suspension and razor steering that demands some commitment, is not the ideal recipe for carving down nadgery, unfamiliar canyon roads. Make no mistake, the GSX-R was a lot of fun, but given the choice between that and the KTM in the Ardeche, I'd have the 990 every time. The Suzuki just felt like it was never quite being put to its proper use. If you really want to wring your GSX-R's neck and make the world a happy place, leave your mates in the Ardeche and head west to seek out the N88 from St Etienne to the A75 west of Mende, or the N102 from MontŽlimar to Brioude. Proper sports bike heaven.

SPECS - BMW

TYPE - TOURER

PRODUCTION DATE - 2006

PRICE NEW - £13,295

ENGINE CAPACITY - 1157cc

POWER - 133.3bhp@8900rpm

TORQUE - 85.3lb.ft@7500rpm

WEIGHT - 249kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 820mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 24L

TOP SPEED - 155.9mph

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 155miles

SPECS - HONDA

TYPE - ALL ROUNDER

PRODUCTION DATE - 2006

PRICE NEW - £6299

ENGINE CAPACITY - 998cc

POWER - 94.9bhp@8600rpm

TORQUE - 69.4lb.ft@6500rpm

WEIGHT - 220kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 940mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 12L

TOP SPEED - 135.2mph

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 130miles

SPECS - KTM

TYPE - ALL ROUNDER

PRODUCTION DATE - 2006

PRICE NEW - £8695

ENGINE CAPACITY - 999cc

POWER - 89.8bhp@8600rpm

TORQUE - 62.2lb.ft8000rpm

WEIGHT - 195kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 915mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 22L

TOP SPEED - 130.1mph

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 140miles

SPECS - SUZUKI

TYPE - SUPERSPORTS

PRODUCTION DATE - 2006

PRICE NEW - £6799

ENGINE CAPACITY - 599cc

POWER - 106bhp@11,150rpm

TORQUE - 43.4lb.ft11,400rpm

WEIGHT - 161kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 810mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 16.5L

TOP SPEED - 153.2mph

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 110miles

Go somewhere, go anywhere, get away, just get on your bike and get lost. You can go touring on anything - it just depends on how far you want to go and what you want to do when you get there. Does 'touring' mean heading somewhere to see sights and views and places? Or seeking out new roads to ride and old favourites to revisit? Or something in between?

For the sake of our purposes 'touring' is a convenient catch-all word that means escaping the real world and going somewhere far, far away. What you do when you get there is up to you.

So what kind of bike is best suited to the role? Full dresser, all hard luggage and comfy pillion armchair? Maybe, but not if that ain't your thing. What about a focused sports tool? Perhaps, but the other half won't like it on the back. Something else, then. But what? The type of roads you ride on or the kind of riding you plan on doing when you get there may determine the bike best suited to the role, but there's more than one way to boil an egg. And to prove the point we got four of them together and headed south.

We deliberately made this a test of contrasts, so rather than pitching like against like we instead brought together representatives from four different fields of two-wheeled excellence. All are new, or heavily revised, 2006 models, and all are pitched to excel in their chosen niche.

Heading up the serious continent-crushing contingent we have BMW's K1200GT SE, the luxuriously faired, fully-luggaged-up, mile-eating variant of the German firm's K1200S hypersports tourer. At the opposite end of the spectrum, waving the flag for sports bike hooligans everywhere, we've got Suzuki's sharp, screaming GSX-R600, which is pretty far removed from most people's idea of a tourer. Then padding out the
middle ground is KTM's 990 Adventure monster trailie/adventure tourer, and finally Honda's Fireblade engined, soft-edged do-it-all rounder, the new, and bargain priced, CBF1000.

Waking up in a foreign land with nothing to do but ride bikes all day is a wonderful feeling. Breakfast eaten, hotel bill paid and we've got a day's jaunt south through France ahead of us. To get the job done in time we'll be mostly using autoroutes, but a route national detour at the end of the day will get us to our destination - the twists and turns of the Ardèche Gorge.

Tip-toeing out of the car park into St Omer's one-way system, light drizzle and cool morning air, I'm on KTM's lofty, lanky 990 Adventure. Now fuel injected and with a 40cc bigger motor, the Adventure is a much loved tool here at TWO. With serious off-road pedigree behind the name, the KTM has an edge to it that other monster trail tools lack. Its exhaust note has a sharp bark, the suspension moves with the refined control of serious off-road kit, and even the handlebar grips smack of proper rufty-tufty dirt bikes. And it's big, with a capital 'B'.

Being tall and lanky myself, I'm right at home on this type of machine, and the KTM quickly finds a place in my heart. With the carbs of old consigned to the bin, the motor has a new sharpness at very low revs and small throttle openings. Direct and responsive and with no nasty snatching, grabbing a handful at low speed is a genuinely enjoyable experience: the motor responds with a crisp rumble, the forks extend and the back end squats down. And we're off. In town, or down tight, blind back lanes, the KTM's saddle is a very entertaining place to be.

As we head to the autoroute it's easy to forget that Daryll, Oli and Rob may not be having such an easy time of it. The Adventure's advantage in town, in France, avoiding lazy rush hour traffic, on damp roads, while looking for few-and-far-between road signs, is considerable.

Out on the autoroute, settling into a day-long routine of fuel stops, bike swaps and speed trap spotting, the KTM's advantages start to fade. But it isn't half as bad as you'd think it might be. The motor has the guts to hold an easy ton - considerably more if your licence is up for it - and it's surprisingly comfortable.
That high and wide riding position isn't as tiresome as it looks, with the stubby, upright and not too pretty screen doing a remarkably good job. Last year's 950 had a seat designed by the Marquis de Sade; the new 990's is wider, flatter and better padded - "a massive improvement over last year's," according to Rob. Oli is less impressed, accusing the screen of 'almost unbearable buffeting'. My only gripe is that the twin fuel tanks angle wind between my knees and the sidepanels, forcing my legs apart. Keeping them flat against the tank is a strain.

No such problems with the CBF1000. One fuel stop down the line - dictated at around 110 miles by the GSX-R600, the bike here with the shortest fuel range - we swap mounts and I'm on the Honda.
The CBF oozes competence. Nothing about it jumps out to excite; it just gets on with the job of being a slick, efficient, well-executed all-rounder. The motor is silky smooth, and the chassis should be - that is 'should' be - well up to the job.

SPECS - BMW K1200GT SE

TYPE - TOURER
PRODUCTION DATE - 2006
PRICE NEW - £13,295
ENGINE CAPACITY - 1157cc
POWER - 133.3bhp@8900rpm
TORQUE - 85.3lb.ft@7500rpm   
WEIGHT - 249kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 820mm   
FUEL CAPACITY - 24L   
TOP SPEED - 155.9mph
0-60     - n/a
TANK RANGE - 155miles

Trouble is, the CBF1000 carries its excess baggage of fully-laden optional hard luggage with far less aplomb than the more dedicated long distance hauler. To be frank, it spoils the Honda. With all that luggage space the temptation is to pack it full. Which we've done. Do that, stick a passenger on the back, and it's more than the chassis can cope with. What was a nimble, brisk, fun, enjoyable motorcycle becomes soft, wallowing and unresponsive. There's enough motor to deal with the extra weight - you'd hope a lump half-inched from a Fireblade would have some go - but the suspension is flattened and steering geometry thrown to cock, even with everything maxed out.

Once on the move though it's not such an issue. Every now and then the CBF gets a minor wobble-on, either helped by a crosswind or dodgy surface change, but it's nothing major. On the whole the Honda's saddle is a pleasant place to be, with the small but effective fairing making cruising at 110mph or so a relatively relaxed experience.

But if it's real comfort you're after, try the BMW. "Most agreeable," I think to myself, sinking into the K1200's (heated) saddle after the requisite 110-mile stint on the GSX-R. Our BM is the bells-and-whistles SE version, but either way the K1200GT shares the inline four-cylinder motor and advanced chassis of the more sporty K1200S and naked K1200R. The 1200S is a superb machine, so we have high hopes for the GT.

As a distance blaster the GT is hard to beat. In this company, riding the other three bikes on the autoroute is just killing time before another go on the BMW, and another hundred or so miles spent playing with the push-button Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA), heated grips, cruise control and adjustable screen. "Exemplary on the autoroutes," says Oli. "Tracks dead straight with crosswinds having no effect despite the apparent barn door aerodynamics."

The motor is pretty much spot-on for this kind of work too. Blip the throttle at a standstill and it spins up with an aggressive rasp not all that dissimilar from the GSX-R's. On the move, that power is concentrated quite some way up the rev range. Spin it up and there's more than you need - the GT's turn of speed actually took me by surprise when gassing it away from a roundabout to give what for to Johnny Foreigner, thinking he was all that in his Audi TT - and in the high gears on the motorway the delivery translates into a smooth rush.

Around town the BMW is manageable enough (well, it is after we distribute Oli's half-ton of camera gear more sensibly), but a bit ponderous after the Honda or KTM. Obviously there are the panniers to worry about when filtering, but generally the GT isn't the handful it looks like it might be. Brakes are okay too - BMW's powerful but too-sharp EVO system often fails to win friends, but it performed well on the GT. Perhaps the weight of all that camera gear dulled the bite...

No such problem with the GSX-R. If you're going to pick a bike to transport several grands' worth of photographic kit, best not choose a GSX-R600. Or any sports bike for that matter. With the GSX-R you can carry maybe a tailpack, possibly a rucksack and, I guess, a small tankbag for maps, wallets and hair care products (Daryll) or specialist reading matter (Tim).

If you're taking a sports bike touring the idea is that the journey to wherever you're going is a necessary evil to be suffered given the prospect that awaits when you get there. But long distance work on the Suzuki isn't actually that bad. GSX-Rs have always erred to the roomy, with wide tanks, lots of seat room and quite some reach to the bars. Leg room will be an issue for most, but a day spent suffering is worth five of life-affirming riding.

We all shy away from the Suzuki on the journey down, but once settled into the saddle it's kind of okay. "The hour-long motorway stints aren't as miserable as I imagined," admits Rob. "The GSX-R isn't that uncomfortable." You kind of have to force your body into a fixed crouch, supporting chest on tankbag and elbows on knees, but once there's some windblast to support your body it's sufferable for the 100 miles or so you'll get before the fuel light starts flashing.

At fast motorway speeds the motor is surprisingly flexible too. Cruising at 9000rpm may be an odd concept to those used to covering distance on lazy BMW Boxers or throbbing V-four Pans, but at that engine speed the GSX-R is barely operating above 50 per cent capacity. Wind on the throttle from there and the motor pulls with some urgency; tap down a couple of gears and she'll scream. Oli cheerfully admits to being no fan of sports bikes, but reckons the GSX-R's engine is, "lovely, with more torque than it looks like it should have, and a terrific exhaust note." And he's not wrong - the GSX-R's rasping bark as you blip the throttle on downshifts is superb and addictive.

The only real frustration on the journey south is that the chassis is going to such waste. Sweeping slip roads out of services and between interconnecting autoroutes are fleeting moments of exhilaration, and also a sweet reminder of what's to come later in the journey.

The top half of France disappears in a throb, hum, whoosh or scream, depending on the given transport at the time. As we reach Lyon, the autoroute snarls up and pretty much stays that way for the rest of the journey. And it's getting hot - too hot for the excess of clothing we're now sweating into. Exiting the A7 north of Montélimar, we hop across the Rhone and finish our journey to the Ardèche on the N86. I'm on the KTM again, Rob on the GSX-R. Something in between would probably be ideal, but we're both having a ball. Oli and Daryll are struggling a bit, each weighed down with fully-laden hard luggage, their panniers restricting swift opportunistic overtakes, but it's still a pleasant enough way to finish what was becoming a tedious journey.

Ending a day's ride in a pleasant, warm, foreign town, with a day's riding on stunning roads ahead is a feeling I'll never tire of. A recce into the gorge before sunset reaffirms that we've come to the right place, both literally and metaphorically. The road through is fantastic, and so are the views, probably. But I'm not looking. This is why we come abroad; this is why we ride bikes. Mile after mile of challenging, twisting blacktop, with a southern French sun setting somewhere right over there. Bliss.

The following day is spent hooning up and down the gorge on each bike in turn. Given that we have four such contrasting machines with us, they all perform very, very differently (see page 60) but, given the weather, the mood and the location, it would be nearly impossible to be on the 'wrong' bike at any time. Unfortunately we've only got a day to play, and a long day north on the autoroute ahead of us.
The journey back the next day is a reverse repeat of the way down, except without the 100-mile traffic jam (a good thing) but with no prospect of a day's awesome riding when we're done (a bad thing). As the weather closes in and Calais looms, the KTM disgraces itself by netting a front wheel puncture, nearly pitching Daryll under a lorry. No one's fault, but with just 15 miles to the ferry port it's a blemish the trip could have done without.

SPECS - HONDA CBF 1000F

TYPE - ALL ROUNDER
PRODUCTION DATE - 2006
PRICE NEW - £6299
ENGINE CAPACITY - 998cc
POWER - 94.9bhp@8600rpm
TORQUE - 69.4lb.ft@6500rpm
WEIGHT - 220kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 940mm   
FUEL CAPACITY - 12L   
TOP SPEED - 135.2mph
0-60     - n/a
TANK RANGE - 130miles

So, 1600 miles and three days later, how do our contenders stack up? Obviously, and without a shadow of a doubt, the BMW is king of the long distance slog. However, while in this company it was the least favourite bike in the twists and turns of the Ardèche, the GT far from disgraced itself. And no other bike here would be as capable of carrying a passenger on the same journey. It ain't no sports bike - and even tagging it a sports tourer would be pushing things a bit far - but if you want to cover serious continental mileage on at least a semi-regular basis, test ride one of these.

At the opposite end of the scale sits the GSX-R600. We all know sports 600s are the tool to have for sunny weekend blasts and track day action, but the common misconception that sports bikes are no good for covering big distances was kind of blown apart here, because the Suzuki was nowhere near as bad as we thought it might be on the ride south. Oli seemed quite taken aback by just how much he didn't dislike the GSX-R. "It's really characterful," he said, "and I didn't expect that. In my own time, with some gorge road experience, this probably would have wangled its way into my top two."

Glowing launch reports and a bargain price tag set the CBF1000 off on a strong footing, but its unfussy competence split opinion. "About as exciting as a Lib Dem party political broadcast," reckoned Rob. "It's just as middle of the road too, so while the CBF doesn't do much wrong, it'll never get my vote." In contrast, Oli found it 'surprisingly easy to find a soft spot for.'

Once we'd shed the CBF of its luggage it was great fun to ride, if not overflowing with excitement. As a day-to-day long-distance commuter, weekend toy and occasional tourer the CBF has serious credentials. This bike really could be many things to many people, but those looking, or expecting, to get a real kick out of their motorcycling would be best to try before they buy.

Finally the KTM. The 990 Adventure was everyone's favourite in the Ardèche and surprisingly good on the way there and back. As a long-distance blaster it has limits - luggage carrying is limited unless you fit the aesthetically-challenged hard box option - and it's not everyone's cup of tea comfort-wise, but it was hard to beat once we got to our destination. It makes a fantastic everyday bike too, with superb around town and B-road potential. The KTM looks awesome and you can't help but stand out in a crowd. Weak brakes and, ultimately, a lack of front end grip if you're really pressing on are the only minus points. And I'd excuse them. Given this trip to do again, but with the choice of just one of these bikes for doing it, the KTM is the bike I'd pick.

But it's a matter of taste. The one thing this test proved was that you don't need a dedicated tourer to head off into foreign lands and have a ball on a bike. All that matters is that you do.

BMW
The K1200GT was more of a handful. In BMW's world the GT has the body and soul of a sports touer, but to the rest of us it's more of a full-on touring machine. Doesn't mean fun can't be had, but it's not in the same league as the KTM or even the Honda when it comes to kicking ass in the Ardèche. The flexible motor and strong brakes were plus points, but the BM simply carries too much mass for serious cornering action. I've never been a fan of BMW's disassociative, rider unvolvement approach to chassis and suspension design. Some riders love it - "you just need to have faith in the quirky suspension," insists Rob - but I simply can't read what's going on underneath me when pressing on on a Beemer. The GT was no exception, no matter which of the ESA's options - Comfort, Normal or Sport - I selected. Great for enjoying the views, though.

HONDA
If you're taking a fully laden CBF1000 on a riding holiday to the Ardèche, you'll want to unpack and junk the hard luggage before hitting the gorge for some fun. Do that and a ball is there to be had. Those down-sizing from a sports bike will soon find the limits of the CBF's ground clearance, but in the Ardèche the Honda became our flexible friend. The retuned motor has its torque in exactly the right place for easy squirting from blind, unfamiliar turn, via crumbling precipice, to blind unfamiliar turn, and the light, easy steering is spot-on for tracking along unknown roads. Even Honda's linked Combined Braking System found favour - trail a bit of pedal in a misjudged corner and it tightens your line just so - although Daryll did manage to start a small fire on the rear caliper after one descent. Soft, neutral, unthreatening, perhaps even a tad dull the Honda may be, but it's actually a mightily effective, entertaining way to explore new, unseen
foreign roads.

KTM
The KTM ruled in the Gorge. Its thumping 990cc V-twin motor delivers exactly the right type of pretty much exactly the right amount of instant grunt for catapulting from corner to corner. The suspension soaked up the bumps and the riding position was spot-on for reading the road as far ahead as possible. Only two things let it down. First, the front knobbly gave up its grip just before ground clearance did. Better rubber is needed for full-on banzai antics on Tarmac. Secondly, the brakes aren't ace. Forget the ABS - with it switched on Rob had to check the KTM really did have two discs up front instead of one - but even with the ABS turned off stopping power isn't excellent. Relatively minor complaints though, and the plus points made the 990 THE bike to be on.

SUZUKI
Finally the GSX-R600. You might expect the Suzuki to win hands down in a situation like this, but such a full-on motor, with power concentrated well up the rev range, coupled with firm suspension and razor steering that demands some commitment, is not the ideal recipe for carving down nadgery, unfamiliar canyon roads. Make no mistake, the GSX-R was a lot of fun, but given the choice between that and the KTM in the Ardèche, I'd have the 990 every time. The Suzuki just felt like it was never quite being put to its proper use. If you really want to wring your GSX-R's neck and make the world a happy place, leave your mates in the Ardèche and head west to seek out the N88 from St Etienne to the A75 west of Mende, or the N102 from Montélimar to Brioude. Proper sports bike heaven.

SPECS - KTM 990 ADVENTURE

TYPE - ALL ROUNDER
PRODUCTION DATE - 2006
PRICE NEW - £8695
ENGINE CAPACITY - 999cc
POWER - 89.8bhp@8600rpm
TORQUE - 62.2lb.ft8000rpm   
WEIGHT - 195kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 915mm   
FUEL CAPACITY - 22L   
TOP SPEED - 130.1mph
0-60     - n/a
TANK RANGE - 140miles

DARYLL'S SECOND OPINION - KTM
OUT OF THE four here the KTM would be my first choice for this type of trip. Being a little shorter than the others I didn't suffer the same buffeting behind the KTM's screen as some, and the seat is easily the softest and most comfortable of the four for covering the long motorway miles. The slightly larger engine than last year's model fitted with a well sorted fuel injection system, plus a wide set of Renthal bars for extra-twisty-road leverage made the Adventure a hoot to ride. My only concern with the KTM on a long, high speed journey such as this is the tubed front tyre. Not for the first time we suffered a front tyre puncture, at speed, and this time it was me fighting to stay on board - just a coincidence or should it be fitted with more
suitable tyres for the job?

DARYLL'S SECOND OPINION - HONDA

IT MAY NOT be the most exciting bike to look at but don't let that put you off - the CBF is way better than its appearance may suggest. Underneath the rather bland exterior is a superb, silky smooth motor that is almost perfect at any speed, the exception being an annoying buzz at 100mph - just where you don't want it, especially when trying to balance fuel economy with getting a move on through France. As with the BMW the Honda does get a bit flighty above 120mph when boxed-up, and ground clearance is a bit limited when fully loaded, but with the luggage removed you can have plenty of fun on the twisty bits. The low seat height suited my short legs, and although not as comfortable as the KTM the CBF wasn't far behind.

DARYLL'S SECOND OPINION - BMW
FOR OBVIOUS REASONS I was looking forward to my stint on the BMW. Unfortunately I couldn't have been more disappointed, especially as I had been bowled over by the S version on our trip to Colditz Castle last year. Despite the big tourer being fitted with plenty of creature comforts it was by far the most uncomfortable bike of the four for me. Maybe because all of your weight is concentrated on your backside, or maybe because the seat is made from 16mm plywood, either way within 40 miles or so I had to shift my weight around to try and relieve the pain. This, combined with a light, floaty feeling at high speeds and a bike largely unsuited to the near perfect roads through the Ardèche Valley, unfortunately made the BMW the least versatile and my least favourite.

DARYLL'S SECOND OPINION - SUZUKI
CLOCKING UP HUNDREDS of miles aboard a 600cc sports bike is never going to be all that pleasurable,
especially when the other bikes we were testing seemed so much better suited to the journey. But for my 5ft 5in frame the GSX-R was a pretty good tool for the job. The head down riding position took a bit of weight off the backside, and once I had settled in and 'assumed the position' the experience was nowhere near as torturous as I thought it was going to be. The limited tank range means fuel stops have to be carefully planned, but the big plus was always going to be when the GSX-R600 came into its own on the twisty gorge roads, where I could fully appreciate the awesome induction noise this bike makes.

Gorge yourself: arsing about in the Ardèche

The Gorges de l'Ardèche and the D290 that follows it run west-east from Vallon-Pont-d'Arc to St-Martin-d'Ardèche in central southern France, about 20 miles north west of Orange. The Gorge itself is spectacular, but the D290 is pretty damn good too, around 20 miles or so of snaking undulating, twisting, well surfaced road running along the north side of the river Ardèche. Just mind the tourists. And the tour coaches. And the cyclists. And the hordes of local and foreign bikers there for exactly the same reason you are.

SPECS - SUZUKI GSX-R600 K6

TYPE - SUPERSPORTS
PRODUCTION DATE - 2006
PRICE NEW - £6799
ENGINE CAPACITY - 599cc
POWER - 106bhp@11,150rpm
TORQUE - 43.4lb.ft11,400rpm   
WEIGHT - 161kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 810mm   
FUEL CAPACITY - 16.5L   
TOP SPEED - 153.2mph
0-60     - n/a
TANK RANGE - 110miles