Kawasaki Versys Pacific Coast Tour

July 28, 2011
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

The plan was simple: Snag a fully decked out touring motorcycle and ride home from Southern California to Oregon. Nothing special, mind you, just the latest and greatest that the industry had to offer – a premier touring platform, replete with all the usual bells and whistles.

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Our editor needed to scratch his touring itch with a near 1000-mile ride home from Southern California. He wanted a full touring bike, what he got was the Kawasaki Versys. See how things went in our Kawasaki Versys Coastal Run Video.

Something in the 1600-1800cc engine range would be peachy, as long as it churned out so much torque, in such a smooth manner and on a touring platform so refined that the greatest challenge riding home would be not getting lulled to sleep at 100 mph.

Instead, I got a Kawasaki Versys.

Sometimes foiled plans make for the best fun, and after a 900-mile blitz home on the Versys, I’m happy to report the little Kawasaki Twin exceeded expectations.

The impromptu bike loan request came on short notice. My mind would deteriorate if I was once again required to drive from MCUSA’s Irvine, California office to its Medford, Oregon HQ. I know every shack and burger joint on the I-5 from Coalinga to Corning a little too well. This time I needed to unkink my mind with a coast run, on a bike, and fast.

We phoned around with our modest request: A bike loan, of indefinite length, with an immediate pickup date… When Kawasaki hinted a Versys might be had, we snapped it up. Packing consisted of culling a full suitcase into a single backpack (Chrome Yalta) and a top-case bag (Coretech). The tall stack looked a bit dodgy bungeed on the Versys’ passenger pillion, but it held firm enough, so I thumbed the starter and aimed north for Santa Monica.

Morro Rock makes for a good break spot on a long riding day.
Once the Versys scouted Morro Rock, the boring parts were over and its was time for the winding bliss of the PCH.

The hyped up disaster of Carmageddon had infused a sense of urgency during departure. Judging from the traffic signs and media warnings, something just short of the Rapture was sure to descend on LA when Caltrans crews shut down I-405 that evening. SHUT DOWN THE 405! For a couple hours my hayseed country boy sensibilities took hold, I had to split from the big city pronto.

Fears of Carmageddon, however, proved overblown as the LA freeways were curiously traffic free in anticipation. I headed to the Pacific Coast Highway on Sunset Boulevard, fittingly just as the sun set over the Pacific. Leaving the dank, smog-ridden basin of LA in my rear view mirrors, by the time the PCH meandered through Malibu, the Versys bombed along quite happy in the dark. Our ride was enhanced by the ethereal marine fog and the silence of barren roads. When my iPod, blasting through the integrated speakers in my Schuberth C3 helmet, started to play the Beach Boys Pet Sounds Album, well, I had no choice but to keep riding well into the night and fully bask in the eerie total California-ness of the moment.

Awaking the next morning we hewed north through Santa Barbara on Highway 101. The West Coast’s main north/south costal artery, at times the 101 follows the old Mission Trail – El Camino Real. As the 101 swerves inland, at San Luis Obispo we broke west on Highway 1 to Morro Bay. Making a pit stop at Morro Rock, we resumed our northbound trek, eager to get the less invigorating riding terrain behind us.

View done through the marine layer descending Santa Rosa Creed Road outside of Cambria.
Californias Big Sur coast line. One of the many magnificent panoramas found on Highway 1.
We rushed north to cross the Golden Gate before nightfall.
The Kawasaki Versys took in all the sights on our coastal tour, from the inland hills overlooking Cambria (top) to the ocean vistas of Big Sur (middle) and iconic Golden Gate (bottom).

The PCH remains an all-time favorite route, but discovering new favorites was also on the agenda, with some side road scampering planned. The first detour was a backroad approach to Cambria, so a handful of miles north of Morro Bay we turned inland on Old Creek Road. The twisting road featured plenty of elevation changes and curves, even if the surface was a bit choppy. Crossing Highway 46 the Kawasaki followed the even more exciting Santa Rosa Creek Road. The Versys slashed its way through a mixture of tight bumpy curves and more wide-open pastoral scenery, descending through the marine layer to Cambria.

First-timers on the PCH should opt for a visit to San Simeon’s Hearst Castle, just north of Cambria, and roadside gawking of the Elephant seals and lighthouses is popular too. I was content to motor further north for our favorite stretch of the PCH, the scenic majesty of Big Sur. Here the two-lane highway narrows to hug the cliffs of the Pacific Coast, rewarding riders with breathtaking panoramas.

Big Sur is also a popular tourist destination too, which means the road can bog down. We’d scored less congestion on the weekday, and miraculously Big Sur was less cluttered with the RV rentals that typically litter the PCH. Plus the Versys Twin had plenty of snap to dispatch slow pokes as opportunity presented.

Monterey makes for an excellent waypoint for the touring rider, but we were on a brisk schedule and needed to cross the Golden Gate Bridge before nightfall. Navigating the congestion of the Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz, we stuck with the PCH up through San Francisco.

The sun was setting upon approach to SF but light lingered for our crossing of the Golden Gate. Bay Area residents may grow accustomed to the international red suspension bridge as a backdrop, but it’s a magnificent sight for visitors to behold. Crossing it still stirs a sense of wonder.

North of the Bay I reined the Kawasaki at Santa Rosa for the evening. Time constraints nixed our hoped for agenda of the PCH all the way back home, instead we’d have to bolt back on the familiar I-5 up through the final stretch. But not before we’d checked off another backroad byway.

The junction of State Routes 128 and 253 at Boonville  California.
The canopy of Californias State Route 128  one of our new riding favorites.
California State Route 128 (below) proved a terrific ride, the road intersecting another great route in SR 253 at Boonville.

The route headed west on California State Route 128. The destination was Boonville, a place on the map for which I’ve always harbored curiosity. The small town nestled in the Anderson Valley is known for its regional dialect of Boontling, a peculiar hodgepodge of nonsensical English and other linguistic inputs. SR 128 was a “bahl road to pike” with its canopy of shade, numerous curves and pristine surfacing. The only road we rate higher on our entire journey was the pathway out of town, SR253, which boasts an even smoother surface and higher speed sweeping corners. The view as it drops into the Russian River drainage is hard to beat too.

Knocking off most of the morning hours with our Boonville detour, we’d hardwired a new favorite byway in our cerebral road map. But it was time to make tracks, so Highway 20, itself a fun, though congested, route, traced a path back to the old familiar I-5.

The Interstate wasn’t as despairing as we’d thought, however, as a motorcycle seems to make everything alright in the world. A deadline had us speeding along at 75 mph, drafting around semis and mindless, fastlane-hogging morons on the freeway. Climbing through the Siskiyou Mountains those final miles home, as I’ve done countless times before, was made enjoyable thanks to my mode of transport. Strange how a steering wheel and cage can transform travel into a chore, while riding makes the same road vibrant and fun.

Arriving home, on time, I hopped off the Versys and reflected on the journey. All told the little Kwakker held up just fine! We like to champion the affordable and practical in motorcycling, and a bike like the Versys excels in this regard. Plenty fast and sporting for the street, its versatility makes it a noble all-rounder.

Small bike and big tree. The Kawasaki Versys continues to serve in the Motorcycle USA stable, making more play rides and commutes in our Southern Oregon offices.

Not that the Versys is without its shortcomings. The notchy transmission registered complaints. And we’ll gripe about its wind screen too, which delivered too much turbulence and corresponding helmet buffeting. Contrarian colleagues at the MCUSA HQ have also since complained about the Versys riding comfort, but these plaintiff whines fall deaf on my ears. Once I ratcheted down the luggage and squeezed behind the controls, I was ensconced in my happy space as the odometer climbed. True enough I found myself standing on the pegs a lot, particularly on the freeway, as the ergonomics from the seat down can get cramped on long-haul trucking. But the tallish bar and upright stance suited my tastes overall, despite the Versys being a small motorcycle.

The best judge of the Versys touring capabilities was that after 900 plus miles, on a wide array of terrain, I was none the worse for wear. The only disappointment was that I hadn’t found excuses to stretch my mind-clearing tour another day or two. Fortunately, the Versys has since served as a commuter and play ride mount – with a second, shorter coastal journey also in the books.

Now that the Versys has migrated north, we’re curious to see what else it will handle, so it’s become an Adventure-Touring project. Check back to Motorcycle USA for updates on our Versys project bike.