By Surj Gish, with Fish & Max Klein
Photography: Surj Gish
This story starts, as our stories so often do, with some trash-talking ‘round CityBike’s lavish World Headquarters in Oakland’s rarified Crack District. I’m talking to the Honorable Nick Haris, Western States rep for the American Motorcyclist Association, and he’s telling me how he’s thinking of buying a Gold Wing. I laugh and make some dumb joke about his impending Wing-curious retirement, but not much later he tells me he’s taken his curiosity further than most dare and has a line on a well-equipped Gold Wing, a former press bike, for a “good price.” I tell him if he gets the Wing, we’ll go for a real ride together, as long as he promises not to get us lost.
The good price turns out to be too good to pass up, and Nick’s bluff is called. He buys the Wing, and I ask Honda for a longer-than-usual loan of a Wing for CityBike. The crew starts thinking of ways to stack up miles, none of which involve spooning on set of TKCs, surprisingly.
I’m sure American Honda would prefer we detail exactly how our bike was equipped, and that one guy that keeps emailing about how we’re not spec-y enough will be fuming at this point, but I’m not going to get into the minutia. We had the one with everything but the air bag. I know this because Nick looked it over and told me so, that it was just like his, probably right around the time he was thanking his lucky stars that his newly-purchased, former press bike hadn’t been ridden by CityBike, although according to what I’ve heard and seen, there are some less-talented, worse offenders currently masquerading as motojournalists.
Anyway, this “everything but airbag (and girl)” status makes it—I think—a “2017 Gold Wing Audio Comfort Navi XM ABS” model, and that bitchin’ black and blue paintwork adds a thousand bux to the “base” price of that level, making the MSRP a marketing friendly “under thirty thousand” $29,979.
If you’re inclined to push your purchase price over thirty thousand, there are myriad accessories available, most of them reasonably priced, from a $59.95 saddlebag cooler to a $37.95 12v accessory socket. Ok, that one’s not that reasonably priced, and goddamnit, for under thirty thousand, Honda should really include a power port. Although, an accessory socket for Honda’s own Rebel 500 is $12 more.
The usual suspects are available: chrome, lights, and so on—but our Audio Comfort Navi XM ABS model came well-equipped for the road, and the things we really wanted weren’t available from Honda: Bluetooth, a modern GPS, and uh… louder pipes? Just kidding, fuck that noise. We would like an electronically on-the-fly adjustable windscreen, though. This pull over, flip the levers, herky-jerky the screen up business is for the birds.
We could write pages about where Honda’s segment-defining maxi-tourer fits into motorcycle culture, and of course “the industry,” and what its existence says about American motorcyclists, and indeed, Americans in general. We’re not going to do that, though we’re happy to “discuss it offline” if you’d like to meet up some time, gentle reader.
While many riders, gifted with a multitude of 100% accurate preconceived notions, tend to write off the Wing as a “someday, maybe” alternative to a Harley, to be washed and waxed frequently in one’s waning years, in reality the bike is so much more.
Pull the bodywork off, and you see the motorcycle equivalent of a real-deal body-on-frame heavy-duty truck. The frame is massive, as is the engine. If that’s not enough for you, stick your head under the right sidecase and get a load of that rear brake—it looks like you could swap it into service on an F250 and not be hurtin’ too bad.
The dash—and it’s real dash, not a “dash” the way we talk about gauges on other bikes, could have been lifted from a Honda Accord. The bodywork even feels automotive—if you’ve taken a bumper cover off a modern car, you know the flexy, rubbery feeling I’m talking about. The front of the Wing, the panel below the windscreen—it feels like that, not the usual crispy, plastic-y feel of motorcycle body panels.
All that automotive-ness adds up to serious poundage—Honda quotes 904 to 933 pounds wet. Good thing there’s a phenomenal flat-six to push this thing around.
We were all surprised and inspired by the Wing’s motivation. It hauls ass, in layman’s terms. Even better, it handles unbelievably well, not just for a bike its size, but for a bike. Period. The faster you ride, the better it gets.
It reminds me of a mid-90s E320 Cabriolet I acquired years ago in trade for a Special Edition Speed Triple. That car started feeling really good at 85-90 MPH, and the first time I rode our Wing I thought the same thing. It’s hefty, sure, but it just hunkers down in the corners at high speed and sticks.
It’s an amazing motorcycle, and I don’t mean amazing in the breathless, meaningless way that modern managers seem to feel compelled to utilize when describing their mediocre-ass employees these days. I mean actually amazing. Stellar, even.
Back to the Nick ‘n’ Surj ride, which we’d started calling Geezers on Gold Wings. In truth, neither Nick nor I are really geezers, but it’s part of the joke. We decided to ride north, with Fish accompanying us on the infraction-inducing Indian Chieftain, hit Highway 36 and the Black Lightning Motorcycle Cafe before splitting up on the way into Oregon. I’d visit some of CityBike’s biggest fans, also known as my family, and Nick would go… uh… be an old guy on a Gold Wing, I guess. We’d then reconnect in Oregon and make our way back to Sweet Home California.
And that’s what we did. I won’t bore you with the details of all the Sena conversations, like the “Oh shit, oh shit!” in Eureka, where a Chippie at an intersection somehow missed or ignored Fish’s rolling burnout on the Chieftain, or the “Oh shit, oh shit!” on one of the tight sections of 36, where Fish dragged the Wing’s underthings in such a way that Nick was actually worried for a second or two.
But in a nutshell, here’s how the Gold Wing rulez:
- If you run into literal tornadoes of bugs in lake country, you can duck behind the screen and not care, laughing about those Harley guys at the last gas station, their faces so coated with bug guts it looked like stubble.
- If you take off on your own for an unsanctioned top speed run, minus salt flats, and somehow fail to notice the CHP truck parked in plain sight halfway across the valley you’ve been blazing across for a couple miles before you pass him, you may get a bit of a break on your documented speed, because “You look like a nice enough fella.”
- If you ride up the coast in the early morning, you won’t care about the fog and mist and cold because it can’t touch you.
And here’s how it droolz:
- At this price, the tech needs some updating. Compared to the other über-tourer, BMW’s K1600 series, it’s kinda old-timey. Bluetooth, a modern GPS that is easier to deal with when underway, and an electronically adjustable windscreen would do wonders for… well, for our bitching. And that’d be good for everyone.
- It only gets 35 MPG, meaning that the 6.6 gallon tank will hypothetically get you over 200 miles of range—but this is one bike that’s comfortable enough that bitching about range isn’t total bullshit.
- It kinda sucks in deep sand.
It’s not like these “issues” kept us from riding the Wing hither and yon. We put so many miles on it that I’m a little surprised Honda is still taking my calls.
We’d be remiss—as we often are—if we didn’t mention the “competition,” which is 1. big Harleys and Indians, 2. BMW’s K1600s, and 3. maybe Yamaha’s new “transcontinental touring” Star Venture.
The reality is that all these motorcycles have more modern tech and creature comforts, so if Bluetooth is critical for you, the venerable Gold Wing is out. But I’ve done big miles on all of these other bikes, except for the new Yamaha (stay tuned!) and I’m hard-pressed to say that I’d choose any of them over the Wing if I was going to disappear for a few thousand miles. Or days.
I really like Indian’s Roadmaster. But its riding position, and the riding positions of the MoCo heavyweight tourers I’ve ridden, don’t even come close to the functional neutrality of the Gold Wing—hands down the most comfortable, usable cockpit I’ve experienced. The K1600, like the Wing, is an amazing motorcycle. But it’s not as confidence-inspiring in the twisties as the Wing. The Yamaha? We’ll see.
So what’s the conclusion here? Well, if I win the lottery, I’m definitely buying a Gold Wing. But that’s true of roughly 43% of currently-produced motorcycles.
How about this? If the 2018 Gold Wing has an electronically adjustable windscreen and a modern, integrated GPS, you guys are gonna see a GS, a 900SS, and a bunch of dirtbikes and guitars in the CityBike classifieds.
Fish: Hoon Wing
At this point in my CityBike career, I’ve firmly established myself as the resident hoon. It’s a title I carry with pride, for sure, and my heart swells a bit every Editor Surj sends me a photo and accompanying text message, like “Think you can launch a bike off this freeway ramp?”
My burgeoning rep-hoon-tation does make it hard to be taken seriously at times, like when I want to talk about long distance comfort or fuel economy. I’ve also learned that I’m not really allowed to comment on tire wear.
The upside is that I now have a duty to see what kind of trouble each bike we ride is capable of getting in to (and—hopefully— out of).
My initial plan for the Gold Wing was to use it as sensible transport to one of my off-road races in Texas. When that race was canceled, I did what any sensible motojournalist would, and headed for the canyons.
After picking up the Wing from American Honda in SoCal, the first stop was obviously the infamous “snake” section of Mulholland Drive. Poor planner that I am, I headed out there on a weekday, passenger aboard. I gained a new perspective on our lane widths up here in the Bay Area—we actually do have it pretty good. Regardless of the cramped spaces, managing the 900+ pounds of Wing in traffic was not nearly the daunting task I expected it would be. There is a larger amount of skill and effort required to hustle the bike around, but I never found myself in a situation where the size or weight was overwhelming.
Like Surj and Max, the one thing that did rub me the wrong way was the radio and nav setup. Since I was in a foreign land of sorts, I did find the onboard GPS to be helpful. The screen is nicely sized, placed for easy viewing, and has a useful display arrangement with the ability to split and deliver other information as well.
The bummer? You have to hear the voice guidance through the on-board stereo if you don’t have a wired headset. Nothing announces your arrival at an intersection like 80 watts per channel of “now turn left.” In addition to that, the head unit doesn’t lend itself to external media inputs. There’s a USB port in the topcase but I don’t usually carry a memory stick loaded with Slayer—I tend to stream music on my phone. I was forced to live with terrestrial radio, which meant that NPR was played at the highest volumes I could stand.
As an added bonus, the radio’s audio would cut out when the GPS was giving voice guidance, even if I had the voice muted. I missed valuable moments of Fresh Air because of this.
Luckily, what the Wing lacks in modern on-board entertainment capabilities, it more than makes up for in fun factor. Seriously.
I planned to wind my way to The Snake via Highway 1 and Malibu Canyon Road. I chose Latigo Canyon by looking for the windy-est road on Google maps, and I think I hit the jackpot. Tuesday morning found the road to be traffic-free, and I was able to give the Wing a thorough flogging.
I must disclose that I was riding two-up, but the Wing’s push-button adjustable preload made this a non-issue. The bike has a turn in that truly needs to be experienced, and lean angles are very surprising given the bike’s appearance. Transitions are smooth and predictable, and the brakes are fantastic.
In standard Fish fashion (Fish-ion? Fission?) I found myself carrying way too much speed for the decreasing radius switchbacks, but the brakes made short work of shedding that inertia. Corner after corner, the Wing would just take whatever I threw at it. No signs of brake fade, no invasive electronic nannies saying no. Just effortless fun.
The engine deserves its own paragraph of praise. I’m usually not a fan of ultra-linear power delivery, as “linear” usually goes hand-in-hand with “boring.” While, yes, the Wing’s power delivery is kind of boring, it’s also rapid and strangely invigorating. I frequently lost sight of the two-bikes-worth curb weight, and that’s due in part to the jet-like thrust the engine provides. “Funner,” peakier, gruntier power delivery would likely highlight the heft and bulk of the bike. As is, the Sport Couch™ minimizes its impact on the rider. Corner exit power is phenomenal, it can power wheelie, and triple-digit speeds are easily attainable and almost laughable, except to Surj and the Lassen County officers of the California Highway Patrol.
I also learned of a syndrome that can apparently be transmitted to other non-Wing riders in your proximity: Wing Rage™. While giving the Wing the beans in several different canyons both north and south, I would come upon, and often pass, sportbike riders. Riding etiquette on public roads is always variable, but anecdotal evidence suggests that being passed by a Sport Couch tends to inspire riders to push beyond their comfort zone. One particular 600cc sportbike rider nearly crashed due to his refusal to accept that the Sport Couch had caught up to him and was, in fact, traveling faster than him.
Wing Rage is real—don’t let it happen to you.
Back home, living with the Wing on a daily basis is a reasonable proposition. The weight and size do become more apparent when you have to move it to access your work space, like I do. The reverse function is great, but you have to condition yourself to remember to use it. It also requires the engine be running, so you have to start the bike, engage reverse, and re-park it. Not really high-effort, but it does make me enjoy the fact that my other bikes are substantially easier to just push outside.
I also forget about that minor pain in the ass completely when I stuff a week’s worth of groceries into the Wing’s factory storage compartments.
As Surj says, we all had some preconceived notions of what the Wing would be, but the reality is that it’s much more than just a mile-absorbing RV, an elderly person’s tourer. The chassis is very good—the bike is capable of long, easy freeway cruising but just as easily can transition to Wing Rage-inducing switchback duty.
As someone who enjoys utilizing “improper” equipment for various tasks, the Wing made me grin with its propensity for surprising people with its capabilities.
While I have had more fun in specific activities with other bikes, few—if any—have been as consistently enjoyable as our time with the Wing was. From enjoying NPR in traffic (with the occasional Dead Kennedys track thrown in, thanks to the USB stick) to sitting in the luxuriously heated rear seat with the cruise control set, to overcooking a corner, dragging a crash bar and using the engine to correct my lack of talent, the Sport Couch continuously made me smile. And all the while, it was ready to justify its existence by transporting people and goods almost anywhere I needed to go.
So the next time you see a Wing in a parking lot, take a second look. Pay attention to the ground pegs, the slightly-grained tires, and the minor bluing on the brake rotors. Sport Couches are real.
Max Takes The Wing Home By Way Of Vegas, Baby
When I found out we’d have “our” Wing for two months, I knew I was gonna want to slap some miles on the beast. At first, I had plans to head up to Canada, as Saskatoon is fun to say. Then I thought I might go visit my mom in Florida, but between Editor Surj riding the Wing, round two of the AFM season, and my mom gallivanting about on the open ocean, that was not meant to be.
These roadblocks didn’t stop me from doing some good old American-style sightseeing on the now CityBike-proven tourer. But with my flight time limited to a couple days at the tail end of our time with the Wing, I had to plan my route carefully.
My final plan involved a pre-dawn takeoff toward glorious Tonopah, Nevada. I mapped a route on 88 to 395 to 208 to 95 so I could visit the totally not creepy Clown Motel. From there, I figured I’d crash at a friend’s house in Las Vegas for the night and use his place as a jumping-off point for a run to the Grand Canyon, before heading west to Oxnard to GP Suspension. I’d then surrender the bike to American Honda in Torrance, CA, a couple days later.
Leaving the Bay Area before sunrise meant that the Gold Wing’s ample windscreen and heated seat and grips were welcome help in squelching the early summer chill. As I floated over Carson Pass—where there was fresh snow on the ground—toasting my hands and ass, I really appreciated just how warm this Wing can keep its rider. I figured there was no way all that wind protection was ever going to get old, that I’d always going to be glad to have it…
Then the temps got out of the seventies.
By the time I stopped for a couple photos outside the totally not haunted Clown Motel, I was dreaming of trading the wind protection and heated bits for a bucket of ice water and a dozen of CityBike’s legion of bikini-clad, mostly female fans, each with her own bucket of ice water. Or his. The ice water is the key thing, really.
Because the giant windscreen, uh, screened so much wind, getting any sort of cooling breeze was next to impossible. Even though I was in my light ‘Stich, the amount of sweat I was producing can only be described as torrential—and it was only in the low nineties at this point in the trip.
After creating new nightmares, I rolled out of Tonopah in what felt like the general direction of the surface of the sun. In addition to the rising temperatures, after about 400 miles I noticed that my knees were a little sore. I’m not saying I was woefully uncomfortable, but I could see a little limping and some old man noises in my near future. The slight discomfort turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I discovered that standing up on the pegs not only relieved the aches brought on by Father Time, but also put me in enough open air to cool off a bit from Mother Nature’s hot breath.
I hit Vegas around sunset after logging just over 600 miles and settled in for the night. I’d heard the Grand Canyon was a good day trip from Vegas, and Google was kind enough to give me choices for routes to both the north and south rims. They were both about the same distance away, so I decided to take the northern route out and the southern route back.
Here’s where those of you that understand geography are laughing pretty hard at me.
After four-ish hours and about 250 miles I hit the North Rim and reflected on just how awesome the Gold Wing is. The Gold Wing is basically the good version of what happens when you park an Accord in Oakland overnight—you get it back missing two wheels, with no doors. While it is a massive hunk of metal with slightly antiquated technology (No Bluetooth? Really?) it corners very well, especially considering its weight, and the power is impressive in every gear, making driving out of corners effortless. Even adding a passenger does not phase the Wing, and why should it?
I punched the Hoover Dam into the GPS as a reference point and was thoroughly confused that the bike was trying to direct me back the way that I’d come. I wrote it off as “GPS wonkiness” and pressed on without question. After all, the GPS tried to guide me over a closed pass earlier in the trip.
I really should have questioned it.
As some of you may know, they still have not built a bridge from the North to the South Rim, and for whatever reason there is not a rim road… and taking the southern route back added on four hours and 210 miles to my trip—a few more thanks to my “where does this road go” detours.
Instead of a comfortable nine hour, 520 mile day, I somehow stuck myself with fourteen-plus hours and just shy of 800 miles in the saddle… in the Arizona Desert.
Remember how I was complaining about my knees? That tall-guy discomfort and the lack of airflow remain my only real complaints about the Gold Wing.
I found myself standing up for five miles at a time, much to the confusion of the truckers I passed at eye level. Normally, standing up on a street bike is caused by a numbing of my taint, but the Gold Wing’s seat is downright plush. And supportive. In other words, comfortable for the long haul.
Because of what many have called my lack of basic common sense, I ended up back in Vegas sometime in the wee hours of the morning, which completely fubared my plan of leaving for LA sometime in the wee hours of the morning.
Instead, I’d be plodding through the desert in triple digit temps—103 if you believe the giant thermometer in the appropriately named city of Baker, 109 if you’re more trusting of the Gold Wing’s gauge.
I put close to 1,800 miles on the Wing in four days. I hit all the tourist spots: the Clown Motel, Las Vegas, The Grand Canyon, part of Route 66, a Cracker Barrel… all the spots. If I had the chance I wouldn’t change a moment of it, except for planning the trip for a time of year when the Arizona desert might be slightly less hellish. The Gold Wing is a high-performance couch on wheels—with reverse—and if it was not for the heat I would have done another 1,800 miles.
This story originally appeared in our September 2017 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.