Web Exclusive: Cruising Northern California and Beyond, Kawasaki-style


If there’s two things that’ll get my attention, it’s a good dirt track race and a chance to take a ride through a part of the country I’ve never seen. Toss in a comfortable cruiser with a big motor, some good company and a corporate credit card, and I’m all yours. Ah, Kawasaki, you know my weaknesses all too well. Ostensibly, Team Green brought me to Calistoga CA, so I could experience the 2010 Vulcan Nomad’s prowess over a variety of terrain, but the aptly-named Good Times people also saw to it that I (along with a few fellow journos) were amply rested and well-entertained by scoring us tickets for the Calistoga Dirt Track National.

Let me tell you this my friends, I’ve seen a lot of Nationals in my day (from both sides of the fence), and this was one of the best ever. Hopefully, the event will become a fixture on the tour, so if there’s any chance of going, get on your bike and git. You can thank me later.

After soaking in some top-notch racing, we departed beautiful downtown Calistoga- "the cork in the Napa wine bottle", as the town’s website terms it - neither bright nor early the next morning, and headed for Cambria, where we’d be spending that night.

In all candor I hadn’t even sat on the Nomad until we rolled out of the Calistoga Inn’s parking lot, and I purposely didn’t read Bartels’ road test of the Vulcan 1700 LT before I left, in part because I didn’t want to carry any preconceived notions into the ride. Rather than rehash the road test, I can tell you that my impressions and experiences jibed with its conclusions. So much so that my notes appeared to be lifted directly from the test (and I hardly ever do that anymore).

Granted, the Nomad and the LT aren’t identical. The Nomad is equipped with hard lockable bags, cruise control and other amenities, like a luggage rack and crash bars, but as far as the basic running gear and performance characteristics are concerned, they’re both cut from the same stylish cloth.

In case you missed that particular issue here’s the short version; the Vulcan does steer a bit lightly, it handles well, and is always predictable. It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to get the thing turning, which is great when the road turns twisty as it did on the Santa Rosa Creek road section of the ride (for those of you that haven’t had the pleasure, it's a writhing stretch that connects the town of Calistoga to Route 46).

The power delivery of the 1700cc mill caught me completely by surprise. Initially I thought it was all about low-end grunt, and there’s more than enough of that; what I didn’t realize until I’d spent time in the saddle was how rev-happy the thing was. Unlike the majority of V-twin cruiser engines, this thing thrives on rpm and seemed happiest at the upper end of the scale - so much so, that the top two gears of the six-speed transmission feel largely superfluous. Speaking of the tranny, it does have a somewhat industrial feel to it. Of course, those little round levers are being asked to transmit a goodly amount of torque, and I presume the flywheels in the thing are as big as dinner plates, so a slightly clunky gear change is to be expected.

After Santa Rosa, we hit the 101, which finally let me try out the Kwacker's 6th gear. Frankly, unless you’re looking at the sunny side of 80, it's way too tall, and even fifth is high. We then picked up Rt. 46 again and headed for the James Dean Memorial. In all honesty I’m not a big Dean fan; the characters he played were a little too introspective and moody for me, though I’ll certainly admit he might have had a stellar career had he not wadded up his Porsche about 800 yards up the road from the memorial. Still, visiting the shrine made for a nice break in the action.

The next test of character (and make no mistake, that’s exactly what it was for me), was Route 58. We rode the section from Shandon down to Rt. 33 near Taft, and I have to tell you that in over forty years of riding I’ve never been as baffled by a section of road (or even a section of no road) as I was by that godforsaken piece of tarmac. The problem was a series of rollercoaster- like whoops that went on for what seemed like several miles. As I’d crest one slope, the bike in front of me would disappear from sight down the far side of the hill. At first I just trusted in faith, as I was fairly sure the road didn’t make any abrupt turns but after a mile or so the constant up and down and the sensation of floating over the crest had me on edge, and no matter how hard I tried, I kept backing off the throttle when the bike got light; this let the bike in front gap me, so I’d have to gas it even harder up the next hill to keep up, which in turn caused the bike to get even lighter at the top. It was fun at first, but soon became nerve- wracking, and I was just as happy when the hills ended and the road turned twisty.

We took a lunch break in Taft, a gritty place hard by the oil fields that’s fallen on hard times. The Mexican food was the best I’ve ever had though, and I’m willing to bet the folks hanging on out there are as hard as nails; hopefully the area will rebound before it dries up and blows away. At Taft we broke up - while the rest of the party opted to head home, Kawasaki’s Jon Rall thought it’d be criminal if I didn’t get to ride through Quail Canyon to Frazier Park, so that’s exactly what he and I did. Photo-man extraordinaire “the Fonz” tagged along - i'm sure just to see if he could get a photo of me wadding up the Vulcan.

For the most part, we had the road to ourselves and Jon was absolutely right, it was the high point of the trip both figuratively and literally. For a born-and-bred East coast boy, the trip through the Los Padres National Forest was simply unreal. New England is beautiful but it’s small, and the vistas here were unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. To call them grand is to damn with faint praise, but I honestly don’t know how to put it in words.

Unfortunately, reality intruded when we dropped ourselves onto the I-5 super slab for the blast back to Kawasaki’s Irvine HQ. The less said about this portion of the trip the better. I’m not used to heavy traffic, and I’m really not used to threading a large cruiser through rush hour in LA. At one point Rall waved me over and suggested I get a little more aggressive with the throttle or we were going to be ticketed for obstructing traffic. So be it; for the next fifty miles, I kept the Vulcan in fourth gear and a few feet off Jon’s rear fender. I discovered two things - first, the Vulcan really was happier in 4th gear than 5th or 6th, even at 80 miles per hour, and second, Rall was right; L.A. traffic was a lot easier to deal with when you rode like your life depended on it, which it obviously did, but I’ve got to tell you I was damn happy when we reached our exit.

I’ve had some time to sort the trip out now and reached some conclusions. Foremost is that the Kawasaki Vulcan Nomad 1700 makes an excellent touring platform, especially for guys like me that just want a good basic motorcycle and can do without things like factory-installed iPod stations and on-board GPSs. It also works really well as an around-town bike; it's easy to maneuver at low speed, and while it’s not exactly a cut-and-thrust type of bike in traffic, its light feel and generous low end grunt let you get away with a lot more of those shenanigans than you’d think. Riding the Nomad across the Golden Gate and through downtown San Francisco was a treat, not only because I’d never done it before, but also because the bike was just so easy to use in traffic.

My only real criticism of it after nearly 1,000 miles in two days is that it’s somewhat over-geared (but that’s why it’s called overdrive isn’t it?) That being said, if Kawasaki rearranged the ratios, or simply deleted the sixth gear, which is at best an over-over drive, I don’t think anyone would complain, and if they need someone to test that particular theory, which of course would only be valid if the test were conducted under exactly the same conditions as the original test, then I’d be glad to help out.