Have you ever taken a sport bike up into the canyon to take photos, ride really fast and when you were done get handed the keys to a large cruiser and sent on your way? Me neither. Not until Ultimate MotorCycling Editor Don Williams wrapped up our sport bike photoshoot last week and sent me home on a Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom. To say this was akin to culture shock is an understatement, especially with me in full leathers and road racing gear.
Naturally, the first thing my lizard-brain did was to ensure that I engaged the full-power Veloce fuel injection map, shunning the Tourismo (touring) and Pioggia (rain) settings. That was my first mistake because in Veloce mode this Guzzi can be a handful, if not a bit brutal in lower gears and close terrain. With 87 ft/lbs of torque, most of which is on tap from just off idle, and with 97 horsepower, this beast will stretch your arms and challenge your handling skills with its limited cornering clearances.
Working my way out of Stunt Road in the Santa Monica Mountains could not have been more different and challenging than on my way in. Trust me, this was not the friendliest introduction one might have with a new friend but things got better.
Somehow, in 40 plus years of riding, I have never ridden a single Moto Guzzi motorcycle. I have seen many and known a bit about them but they were never on the radar of this dyed-in-the-wool ’60s Triumph guy. I will leave all the historical and technical facts to Editor Williams in his June 2013 review of the 2013 Moto Guzzi 1400 California Touring, as well as other reviews of the bike on this website, and focus more on the impressions this large cruiser made on me.
It appears really big and attracts a lot of attention wherever it’s parked. Available in Mercury Gray, our test model was the glossy Basalt Black with trim in chrome and billet for a look that impresses everyone. The headlight surround and inlaid LED taillights are only two of the many parts that make this bike unique. Fit and finish are excellent and the element of art within engineering is highly evident. I’ve made more new acquaintances with this bike than any in recent memory.
I’ll admit that at first I didn’t appreciate so much power with little commensurate cornering ability. It was only after I put aside my preconceived notions and switched not only into Tourismo mode but cruiser-mentality, that I found the sweetness that this bike can dish out.
For example, the Custom likes to go straight and I mean that in the best ways. It just eats up the pavement with a firm neutrality, provided said pavement is smooth. Given the fairly stiff rear suspension settings (preload and rebound adjustable) necessary to harness this, claimed, 701 pound behemoth and allow it to hustle through turns results in a, sometimes, jarring ride over road blemishes. Find your kidney belt and wear it if you intend to ride fast, but I digress. If you ride the Custom as it is designed to be ridden, you will be rewarded with a steady, effortless pace that makes going straight fun. I’m not kidding, as it is that smooth.
When the road gets curvy a moderate pace is best and you will enjoy effortlessly perfect arcs through the apexes with nary a squiggle or wallow and a planted feeling. It holds its line, carves the turn and rarely is upset by bumps. You can even crank it out of the turns but mind the plastic undersides of the floorboards.
This Guzzi is a handful at parking lot pace, but once up to speed it steers more with his bottom than with the handlebars. Small shifts in weight set the bike on its path and inputs to the fairly wide bars are very light. The Custom handles as well as the geometry of the frame and steering might suggest, meaning that if the pace is right, this bike offers real, European-bred handling, even at this weight and 66.3-inch wheelbase.
Riding freeways on the Custom model without a windscreen has its limitations but the ride is tight and great fun. Twist the torque handle and we rocket up the on-ramp to 80 mph in seconds and just feast on the power and controlled smoothness. The Custom can go like this all day long especially owing to the comfortable bucket seat and amenities like cruise control, traction control, floorboards and rocker shift lever. The transmission shifts smoothly and the long lever more than offsets the slightly stiff action. The hydraulic clutch operation is fairly stiff and requires a strong hand.
In my 500-mile test I favored riding our back country roads. Even the twisties weren’t a problem when ridden at a respectful pace, but the best were those long, fruit grove dotted straights mixed with undulating curves that seem to go on forever. In 4th and 5th gears, between 45 and 65 mph, this Euro mega-cruiser is in its happy place and you will be too.
Wick it up a little more and the Custom will respond instantly. It is capable of a pretty spirited ride as long as the pilot accepts the limitations set forth. During the test I averaged 35 mpg and, with the 5.4-gallon fuel tank, the range is respectable.
I won’t describe all the functions of the trip computer as it is full-featured. Fueling is good at all speeds and the throttle-by-wire control allows three-level traction control as well as cruise control. One limit on the cruise is that there is no accelerate/resume/coast function and all you can do is engage it at whatever the speed you are traveling. If you want to slow down or speed up you must press the button to disengage then set it again when next you want it. Not optimal but better than nothing, I suppose.
As for the TC, its effect is like cutting ignition and varies widely from rarely intruding to intruding at every bump in many curves. I used the least intrusive (1 of 3) and saw little of the warning light.
I found the Moto Guzzi 1400 California Custom to be an engaging, likeable cruiser capable of operating in a wide range of settings. It challenges you to ride it the way it wants to be ridden and rewards with a world-class experience. Once accustomed to its personality, I suggest you switch back to Veloce mode and put an even bigger smile on your face.
– Helmet: Schuberth C3 Pro
– Pants: AGV Sport
– Gloves: RevIt
– Boots: Chippewa
Photography by Don Williams