In Southern California gas reached $5 a gallon in the recent round of increases. And while it is now down to about $4.40 a gallon for premium, it’s still no bargain; and there is nothing in place to stop it from being any price oil companies deem appropriate. In light of this, many are looking for high mileage alternatives. Hybrids are one, but two (and three) wheeled vehicles have been around for centuries and are still a great alternative transportation. Granted, age, weather, topography may dictate whether a bike is right for you or not, however, there aren’t many that use a car that couldn’t benefit from being on a bike.

I made the switch from car to bike as primary transportation years ago; when I need a car, I rent one, or call a cab, zip car or other alternative. The cost of simply using a car when I want or need one instead of owning one all the time and using a bike as primary transportation is far less than when I owned a Nissan Xterra or Oldsmobile Intrigue (my last two cars). Now, I ride an Aprilia Mana 850 as my main bike. It’s the ultimate commuter bike; an 850cc, automatic, storage where the gas tank used to be, it’s great. It seats two fine, but it’s a naked street bike design, meaning more of a sportsbike look which means the passenger is leaning all up against you during the ride. This, of course, can be fun if you have someone you like back there, and if they’re a casual acquaintance they’ll be a closer one after one bump.

As I and America ages, the seating position, the leaning forward, can get to be a bit much for longer trips. I’ve taken Manny (the Aprilia) to San Francisco (about 600 miles) several times and now discovered that he’s fine for commuting and trips of 200 miles or so, but not the most comfortable for longer distances. So, other bikes were to be explored.

First up was the Victory Hammer S. Victory is quite an American company and American story. They started in Iowa in 1998 by Polaris Industries, as a direct competitor to Harley Davidson; a role they are fitting quite well. I first encountered VIctory at the International Motorcycle Show (a traveling bike show) and wanted to get on one. Victory sent over the Hammer S and say no more, this street bike rider suddenly was hooked on a “muscle cruiser.”

Stylish from every angle this bike, while not really made for a passenger, is perfect for someone looking for American made power, style and class. For those that need the specs, they are impressive: 106 cu in (1,740 cc) engine produces 97 hp (72 kW) and 113 lb·ft (153 N·m) torque; Engine: four-stroke 50° V-Twin; Fuel capacity: 4.5 US gal (17 l; 3.7 imp gal); Fuel System: Electronic Fuel Injection with dual 45mm throttle body.

Primary Drive: Gear drive with torque compensator; Transmission: six-speed constant mesh; and Final Drive: Carbon Fiber Reinforced Belt. What that means is plenty of power to spare wrapped around a chassis style and seating position destined to please. It’s not a “first” bike by any means at 1700cc and longs to be opened up on the road. On my way to see my nephew Jake in Temecula (about 90 miles from Long Beach, CA of open road) the bike got up to 100 so easily I had to restrain the beast several times. The seating position and handle bars gave these 50 year old bones just the position they needed to not tire or grow achy and the candy-apple red tank and details along with extra-wide back tire cut a figure on the road that made heads turn! This bike is worth a ride if you want power, style, a comfortable seated position and American-made power outside of the omnipresent Harley Davidson.

Next up was the Ducati Diavel. Ducatis are fast. They are made to be fast. They are one of the unrivaled champions of motorcycle racing and their street bikes are so high performance that unless one lives in Europe where you can open them up they are almost, note I said almost, too much. Enter the Diavel.

Sexy from the word go, smaller, uniquely shaped with a saddle type seat, the Diavel was an incredible ride that meets or exceeds the quality expected from Ducati. Diavel is a cruiser, Ducati’s second model, the first being the Indiana made from 1986-1990. The demos for the bike appear to be riders over 50 and women, according to Wikipedia, which fits. It’s my first Ducati experience, I’ll be 50 and I hated parting with it. First of all, it looks good. To those that love the way a motorcycle looks (hey, people love cars, tea pots, etc), this bike’s compact style, lines and overall naked chasis puts it out front when looking for a cruiser.

Aside from style, it’s got a Testastretta L-Twin Cylinider, four valves per cylinder at 1198cc and at its size, it’s got so much power to spare speeds double posted American speed limits should be no problem (except, of course, for the law and safety’s sake. But if zombie mutants on bikes were chasing you, this is a perfect getaway bike). It’s liquid cooled and got a wet clutch. That’s important to Ducati Riders. Some have a dry clutch, which makes a signature sound when the bike idles. That sound is not here on the Diavel.

This is the bike sport’s bike riders will turn to as they age, and the bike younger women and men will get for performance and style. It’s fast, it’s sexy, smaller, more nimble, it is the “cruiser” for sports bike riders that need to transition for whatever reason.

Another nice ride is an Adventure Sport bike, think cruiser on steroids for cross country travel. In Ireland I rode a BMW 1200 Adventure across the country and loved the ride. The bike is high up, upright seating for both passenter and driver, lots of room for passengers and side cases, it’s, well, a BMW. Enter the Stelvio from Moto Guzzi (a division of Aprilia/Piaggio/Vespa). Named for the famous Stelvio Pass in the Italian Alps which boasts over 80 hairpin turns (where the bike was tested and designed) this bike is high performance, high style, a big beast that commands the road. It comes standard with ABS, auto traction, aluminum side bags, hand guards…it’s every bit the bike the BMW is. This is a traveling bike, a bike made to go great distances in comfort. Not the comfort of say a giant cruiser like the Honda Xwing, but the comfort of an adventure bike made for open highways or even dirt roads; whatever one encounters on their trek this bike can handle be it across America, Northern Africa, Europe, the Stelvio will deliver the performance, comfort and ruggedness such a trip warrants.

And while each of these bikes has their own charm, allure, pluses and would be a great addition to any garage, there can be no doubt the bike I’ve had the most fun on this summer and now fall is the Kawasaki Vulcan Vaquero, or Big Blue as I named him.

I could write an entire column on this bike. It’s big, yes, a a little heavy (curb weight of 800 plus pounds) but for cruising around, with a passenger, on a bike that will turn heads and deliver power, space and comfort, this is it.

The dashboard looks like a car’s. It features a radio, iPod access wired right in, a stereo that knows the speed you’re going and adjust the volume accordingly (so you don’t pull up next to someone or a place and have blaring music), the bike even has cruise control. The seat is roomy, even for someone my size, and with the passenger bar put on you can take a friend for a ride and barely know they’re there. The side bags each hold a full bag of groceries and while this is not necessarily an “around town” bike (it LOVES the open road) having it in the garage has made trips down to Laguna Beach, over the bridges to Palos Verdes, down to San Diego, out to Temecula or up to San Francisco the height of cool and pleasurable. The power, again 1700cc, is to spare and the road stability makes cornering or straight aways equally as easy. It’s a cruiser, through and through but also so stylish people stopped at red lights ask what it is.

It runs a little hot in traffic, but is liquid cooled so no worries there. Getting back on my Aprilia afterwards is like switching from an Escalade to a Fiat 500; but don’t let the Vulcan fool you, it can split traffic or corner with the best of them. I may feel like I’m cheating on Manny, but I love this bike. It’s big and comfy. Did I mention Big?

The truth is, each model I tried this summer had something unique to offer. All the bikes I mentioned are under $20k and get great mileage. Biking, with the proper gear (I wear all AlpineStars for gear and Shoei helmets, is safer than ever and motorcycles are a REAL available solution to cutting traveling expenses. Not to mention, they are great fun.

Cruisers are a style of bike that suit young and old, but if you are getting a little up there, say over 40, and want comfort and a stylish ride, there are many options out there. These are a few of the best and one will suit your needs for sure. Always ride safely, wear proper gear, and before getting on any bike or scooter be sure you take an approved course from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation at a location near you .

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