Seeking the Sport in Sport Touring

The wet concrete look courtesy of the Alcan Highway
(click photo to enlarge)

While my 2005 Alaska Adventure gave the touring aspects of my Honda ST1300 a thorough shakedown and revealed a superbly designed motorcycle, the sporting aspects of this machine were left largely untested by that trip. The Alaska Highway and the paved roads throughout Alaska consist of one straight road after the next. The scenery was extraordinary but we sure didn’t get to do any mountain riding. I’ve ridden my ST up to Windy Ridge in the Mt. St. Helens National Monument in Washington State several times, a serious twisty fest indeed, but this ride yields only a mere glimmer of the ST1300’s sporting potential. There are just too many variables and constraints for my brain to manage on a backcountry road like that to allow for a proper exploration of what this bike can do while leaned over and ridden hard. Besides, as I get older, a voice in my head keeps telling me to ease up, lay off the throttle and enjoy the ride. Anyway, I have played on enough highway ramps and backcountry roads to recognize that this bike has a lot more to offer if given a chance. The only place that is going to happen safely and enjoyably is at a motorcycle track day at Pacific Raceways, the local racetrack in the Puget Sound area.

The ST1300’s V4 engine
(click photo to enlarge)

It’s been said that the new ST was designed by Honda’s sport bike engineers. This certainly sounds good in motorcycle reviews but come on, this is a 700+ pound bike. Yes, as any ST1300 owner will tell you, that weight magically disappears immediately upon twisting the throttle. But really, just how sporting can such a heavy bike be? Well, let’s strip off the luggage, tape up the lights, empty the pockets of tools, disc lock and other odds and ends and find out. Prior to this, all my track time has been with Reg Pridmore who offers track time combined with top notch classroom instruction. But he’s abandoned the Pacific Northwest since 2005 due to a lack of attendees. Fortunately, I’ve learned about NESBA, a non-profit organization with a good reputation for safety and fun. NESBA requires bikes to display numbers so I’ve chosen 823, my birthday, which I’ve printed off the old LaserJet at home and taped on.

I arrive at 7 AM to find a full roster of serious riders. The vast majority of machines are sport bikes and most of the riders have come equipped with tents, tools, tire warmers, generators and trailers. Walking around the paddock reveals a fascinating variety of makes, models, engine configurations, and a zillion modifications from down and dirty to exotic and stylish. I could easily spend all day taking pictures and interviewing the riders but they, like me, are here to ride.

There are 3 rider groups: beginner/intro, intermediate and advanced. Each group gets only 20 minutes of track time per hour unlike Pridmore where it’s 20 minutes on track and 20 minutes in the classroom, over and over, all day. I’m not sure at first how much I’ll like being off the track for 40 minutes each hour but it isn’t long before I settle in like everyone else and spend my paddock time reading, relaxing, conversing, and tinkering. This recovery period means that I don’t end utterly exhausted by the mid-afternoon like I have at Pridmore events. In fact, I actually think my best run of the day is the last one where it feels really good as it all comes together. Of course, that could be an illusion. The track does play games with our brains by warping our sense of time and so many of the riders employ a lap timer. I might give that a try the next time out so I can accurately gauge my progress.

The NESBA Rider’s Manual, mandatory reading before getting out on the track, describes a very thorough tech inspection. So I do a careful checking of the ST and give it a right proper cleaning. Showing up on the ST will garner us a fair amount of attention so we’ve got to look ship shape. I line up for tech inspection and the rider’s bike before me is getting a top to bottom going over by 3 NESBA techs. “Your rear brake is a bit mushy. You may have some air in the line. You better bleed that before getting on the track.” Jesus! If they tell me that, I’ll have to leave the track and head for the Honda shop. But most of these riders look very capable mechanically and have loads of tools under their tents. How cool! Anyway, a tech inspector turns around and see me standing next to my ST. His face lights up and he exclaims enthusiastically, “Wow! You brought a real bike to track day! We’re always saying people should bring real bikes. How wonderful!” He gives the ST a quick visual scan and slaps a tech inspection sticker on the front fender to show we’ve passed. Guess I’ll have to bring Stanky, my 1977 CB750F2, if I want a lot of free technical advice.

I’ve opted to run in the Intermediate group as the beginner group will be way too slow and the advanced group way too fast. For my first run, I fall right in behind a NESBA control rider. He takes one look at me and then rips off down the straightaway. I know the drill. When I showed up at Pridmore on my Couch Rocket, (Honda GoldWing 1800), and chose to run in the fast B group, the control rider really put me to the test to make sure I was in the correct group. So I stick to this guy like a Blue Angel wingman. Throughout the first lap, he keeps turning around to see if I’m still there and his consistent body language indicates that he’s repeatedly surprised that he hasn’t shaken me. Hah! It just inspires me even more to put on a good show for him. At the end of our 20 minute session, he waves me over to talk. I think I’ve done a proper job but I’m a smidge apprehensive nonetheless. “Great lines! Nicely done!” Thumbs up! Ok. I’ve earned my place. To further validate that, I get pulled over after the second run by a different control rider and paid a similar compliment. After that, they leave me be to play.

I’ve got the adjustable seat all the way down and forward for maximum weight on the front end, just like I do on the street. Despite the extra legroom provided when the seat is higher, I don’t like how the front tire feels floaty and disconnected with the pavement. The tires were replaced after right after Alaska and barely used since then so they’re nice and fresh. This will be a good test of the Dunlop D220’s capabilities. I’ve got the tires at the factory recommended settings: 42 PSI front and rear. I think about lowering the tire pressure as is recommended for sport bikes on the track but then I remember what Fred Willink, one of Pridmore’s instructors, said about the GL1800 Wing on the track, based on his own GL1800 experience. “A bike that heavy isn’t going anywhere.” He was right about the Wing and it’s also true about the ST1300. At no time do I experience a lack of grip, no matter how far we are leaned over, and the tire feedback is always smooth and low key.

Ok. So what’s it like to run the ST wide open on the track? I’d have to sum it up with a rating of very satisfying. It is truly is a world class sport touring machine. While I was quickly able to outride the sporting capabilities of the new GoldWing and literally grind the footpegs off, the new ST is a perfect combination of power, handling and stability with plenty of clearance. I barely grind the left footpeg curb feeler, no more than a nut on the ST, and the right side is untouched. Here are my general observations from a full day at the track:

  • The fuel injection is very smooth, as good as finely balanced carbs.
  • The big V4’s 118 ponies are extremely accessible. The ample torque kicks in very early on the tachometer and the power band is a mile wide. Keeping the motor redlined and on the boil is an absolute blast and the engine braking is so good that I use the brakes merely as a supplement.
  • Not surprisingly, first gear is geared way too low for entering turn 3A, a tight right hander at the bottom of a hill. By the time I’ve slowed down enough to get into 1st without slamming into the rev limiter, I’m damn near stopped. Even downshifting into second gear can cause the back end to break a smidge loose but nothing compared to the wild dance the big Wing would do in protest. Instead of revving the motor before downshifting like I have in the past on prior bikes, I try keeping the throttle on without rolling off as suggested by Pridmore and company. This is very suitable for the upper gears but downshifting to second gear will probably need some revving to smooth it out. Future track outings will provide time to experiment.
  • The ST’s rev limiter is gentle and doesn’t always kick in at the indicated point on the tach. In comparison, the 1800 Wing’s limiter felt like 3 of the 6 spark plugs had been instantly teleported out of the engine block. It was always harsh and startling when it kicked in but not so on the ST.
  • I have always beefed up the front springs on every Honda I’ve owned to reduce excessive fork dive but I’m not seeing a need to do so on the ST. For non-adjustable forks, Honda sure came up with a good, all around configuration. They are neither stiff nor soft. Tom Wicken, my Honda dealer, suggests that the linked brakes also contribute to the lack of fork dive since the bike squats very smoothly vs. pitching forward. I suspect that with future track outings, as I get more confident with the ST, I may start overpowering the fork springs. We shall see.
  • I run with the rear suspension jacked up all the way on the street so there’s nothing to change on the track. It functions smoothly and predictably in all the turns but uncompresses a bit too forcibly on a couple of dips on the straightaway, enough to lift my tush off the saddle. Maybe a fully adjustable Works Performance unit for Christmas would be a nice upgrade.
  • In the turns, I settle into weighting the inside foot peg, placing the ball of my foot on the peg to keep my toe from dragging, shifting the inside butt cheek off the seat and pointing my knee into the turn. No need for anything more involved that that. I remind myself to relax my grip on handlebars now and then and it all adds up to be an effective technique. Next time out in July 2006, I’ve got two days in a row with NESBA to refine it.
  • I can only comfortably achieve 125 mph on the straightaway. At 130, there is just too much turbulence. I’m thinking of removing the windscreen next time and just running with the fairing to see if that produces a cleaner airstream. I also learn that my iPod AirClick remote control is not rated for such speeds. The remote control, the only thing I didn’t strip off the bike before entering the track, is ripped out of its velcro handlebar holder once I hit 125 mph, never to be seen again. (What was I thinking? Maybe a little Megadeth during the afternoon runs?)

Between runs, back in the paddock, a neighboring Ducati rider compliments me on how well I pilot my large bike around the track. Gazing at my ride with an air of bewilderment, he asks me, “Is that the new GoldWing?” Shaking my head, I chuckle and ask him if he pays any attention whatsoever to bikes other than Ducatis. “Nope.” “I didn’t think so.” I reply. — Scott Bruce Duncan */:-)

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