Vasquez Rocks with a Kawasaki Vulcan S

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Editor’s Note: Kawasaki’s Vulcan S cruiser has been around since 2015, so when I got my hands on one for a few weeks, I wasn’t particularly interested in doing a typical review that just spits out figures about horsepower and weight. I’ve mentioned several times in the past that I’m not a big fan of the riding posture that comes about with forward controls, but after just a few days with the Vulcan S I was so pleased with the bike (especially the motor) that I thought it was even worth sharing with a friend of mine who’s not a feet-forward guy, either.

So I tossed the keys to my vintage-sportbike-loving buddy Aaron Schasse – you may remember him from a recent story he did about a Ramming Speed Classic Track Day. Here’s what he thought of the Vulcan S:

Vasquez Rocks with a Kawasaki Vulcan S
by Aaron Schasse

Southern California is home to many visual treats of historical interest – it’s one of the reasons I love riding here so much. One place I had yet to visit was the famous Vasquez Rocks, just 45 miles north of Los Angeles. Famous for what, you ask? Well, there are several stories one could tell about this pile of rocks in the desert. One such tale lets you know how the landmark got its name: a Mexican bandito named Tiburcio Vásquez decided to make the area his hideout for several years, though he was eventually apprehended and executed for his crimes. A geologist (or your chatty high school science teacher) would regale you with a 15 million year story of uplift, volcanism and erosion following the collision of the North American and Pacific tectonic plates which ultimately formed impressive, jagged fins. Film buffs will talk about Star Trek, Bill & Ted, Blazing Saddles, Dante’s Peak, and too many TV episodes, music videos and commercials to name. The rocks’ proximity to Hollywood has made them a prime “random desolate landscape” location.

THE VASQUEZ ROCKS SET THE BACKDROP FOR 9 EPISODES OF STAR TREK.

“Let’s ride,” I told Abhi, “to Vasquez Rocks for sunrise tomorrow. We can hike to the top.” To which he responded, “I’ll bring beer.” Our crippled friend Nathan May, who suffers from FOMO in addition to an ACL and meniscus tear (he’s in recovery from recent knee surgery), got word of our plan and saw an opportunity for some DIY physical therapy.
“I’ll bring my camera gear and drone.” Nathan said.
To which I replied, “Aren’t you healing? We plan to hike.”
“Ahh, yea. Haha!” was more or less his response.
These are the people I’ve chosen to surround myself with. Sorry, Mom.

So we planned to meet at 4:30am. This would give us an hour to reach Vasquez and another 20 minutes to hike from the gate to the top, with enough time for us to witness the daily solar spectacle from atop the famous rocks.

July was Kawasaki Month at Bike-urious and Abhi had amassed a stable of press bikes for us to play with, er.. review. “You’re a sportbike rider. You should ride the Vulcan S, it’s a cruiser with a Kawasaki Ninja motor.” Abhi suggested. Hmm, a feet-forward 650 cruiser…not my first choice, but I am a good sport. The Vulcan S has been around awhile, so a full bike review isn’t necessary. Instead, this is a story about our mini-adventure.

The Kawasaki Vulcan S. I FIND THE CHOICE OF A SUBTLER EXHAUST AND REAR SHOCK PLACEMENT INTERESTING. I’M ALSO A FAN OF THE HEADLIGHT. WHAT’S YOUR TAKE ON THIS DESIGN?

The Ride.
4:30am is a special time – any person awake at this hour has a reason to be. Believe me when I say that my brain was not functioning for the 4 mile ride to Abhi’s apartment where we had planned to meet. Lucky for me there was virtually no traffic to avoid. None of us spoke much before hitting the road. Another special attribute of 4:30am – it’s too early to talk.

The Vulcan’s tires hummed against the slab as we merged onto the 14 freeway, leaving the city behind. It was calm as we rode east, and I began to see the faint glow of dawn arriving. My Japanese cruiser produced very little vibration or noise, the “soul” so typical of most bikes in the class. I was quick to notice that Kawi has aimed to set themselves apart from the pack, while still retaining the look and seating position. My boots rode out in front of me as I cruised. As a sport bike rider, I can’t say that I agree with this position. It reminded me of winter toboggan sledding as a kid in Wisconsin. The whole family fit on one sled and you always had your feet resting on the lap of the person in front of you. The toboggan provided zero comfort, it was simply a thin sheet of material riding over packed snow and every bump along the way down would bounce each family member in turn, like a mini catapult. The Vulcan’s saddle was fairly comfortable, but a similar catapult effect was at play. With my legs stretched out in front, each bump along the way was transferred straight to my torso, and my body lifted completely off the seat a number of times on the ride to Vasquez. I was getting air, which was terrifying. I guess it’s something you just have to get used to.

Who named this place? Calling it a “Natural Area” makes me question the claim, like when I read “Natural Flavor” on packaging. Also, this photo is proof of our early arrival.

When we arrived, the gate was still locked. The three of us spent a few minutes contemplating the pros and cons of skirting the gate and entering the park illegally with the bikes, (after 8 AM the gates are open to cars and bikes alike, before 8 AM the rocks must be accessed by foot) but ultimately we decided to just leave the bikes behind and avoid any legal complications. Our goal was to catch sunrise from atop a dramatic 150 ft tall slice of sandstone – the icon of Vasquez.

A still frame from Nathan’s drone. The rocks provided a stunning view of the sunrise. Photo: Nathan May

The hike to the top was steep but simple, considering I was not recovering from recent knee surgery. Nathan surprised us and was somehow able to scale the precipice, albeit at a slow and steady hobble. Had we placed bets prior, I would have lost my money.

Nathan hiking to the top less than 4 weeks after knee surgery. When this photo was taken I was convinced Abhi and I would be carrying him back down. The man was on crutches the day prior. Photo: Abhi Eswarappa

Selfie from the top of Vasquez Rocks. Photo: Abhi Eswarappa

After flying the drone, snapping some photos and enjoying the view, we all agreed that breakfast was in order. Nathan wanted still photos of me riding near the rocks but we had 1.5 hours to kill before the gates opened so we shuffled down to flat earth and walked back to our bikes. I suggested we ride to the historic Saugus Cafe, famous for being super old (and also the only thing open within 25 miles). The hike had woken us up and now we were too hungry to mind the speed limit. Nathan and Abhi immediately took advantage of the empty back roads and despite producing a modest 55 horses, I had no trouble keeping up with Abhi on a BMW R nineT Urban GS, and Nathan, riding a Suzuki V-Strom 1000. The Vulcan borrows its 649cc parallel twin motor from the Ninja 650 but some minor changes to the cam profiles, ECU, intake, and exhaust have been implemented for better response lower in the rev range. The flywheel is also 28% heavier, which makes the entire drivetrain smoother.

Despite the heavier flywheel, I was able to wring out the motor to almost 10,000 rpm. With just over 45 lb-ft of torque at 6,600 rpm, this little machine really moved. The torque on this bike was spread well, too. I felt fairly even power up to the redline. The bike felt small because it was low to the ground (ground clearance is 5.1″ and seat height is 27.8″), but being so low actually made cornering really fun, and I was moving quick! It wouldn’t be wise to publish my top speed…suffice it to say, it was much faster than expected.

I love old 24hr diners. The Saugus did not disappoint. Photo: Nathan May

We pulled up to the cafe and noticed a group of touring bikes parked out front – always a good sign. Before we had a chance to park our bikes the riders began exiting the cafe. They were part of the Southern California Motorcycling Association (SCMA) on a morning ride, and sure enough, one of the riders recognized Abhi from a BMW group ride years prior in Death Valley. We wished them safe travels and snapped a few obligatory pics before being seated at the Saugus Cafe’s most unique table.

SCMA riders passing through on one of their tours of the country.

Our table was a matrix of vintage local advertisements. Some even included pager numbers!

A closer look at the table art. Only one table at the Saugus was covered with ads from the 80s, and we were lucky enough to be seated there.

Our food came out fast, the portions were heaping and the weak coffee was bottomless, just as expected. It was perfect. The Saugus has a storied history itself, dating back to 1886. Back in those early days the cafe was located inside the train station across the street. Had the original Saugus Eating House opened 11 years earlier, Tiburcio Vásquez might have eaten his last meal here.

Tiburcio Vásquez admitted he was an outlaw, but denied ever killing anyone. He was hanged on March 19, 1875. He was 39 years old and was widely known for his fantastic hair choices. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

As we left, Abhi spotted a crowd just behind the cafe. Turns out they were racing RC cars on a dirt track. We sat and watched a few laps, another new experience for me. I was impressed by how quick the cars were, and how much air they got off the jumps. It didn’t take long for us to notice the rising temperature though, and soon we were back on the road to Vasquez to finish the photo shoot.

An RC course behind the Saugus Cafe.

Entering the park on our bikes felt rogue, even though it was completely legal. A short dirt road led us back to the pinnacle where we had started our morning, at the base of which were two sizable dirt lots. Already the heat was becoming unbearable, so the three of us hunkered in the shade of a rock pile to discuss angles, lighting and best options for getting good shots of the Vulcan before we melted in the sun. It felt 20 degrees cooler in the shade, and with my stomach full of Saugus, I had a strong urge to siesta right there. However, our mission was clear: take pictures and return home safe. I begrudgingly hopped back onto the saddle to take a dozen or so low speed laps around the rocks and past Nathan’s camera. The mercury was hovering around 100 at this point, and even though I was maneuvering at slow speed with very little airflow to help cool the engine, the Vulcan’s liquid cooling system did its job.

Because the bike is so low, I had no trouble making tight turns in the dirt and backpedaling to maneuver into place for the camera. Based on my experience, I would not hesitate to call this a “rider-friendly” bike. To that end, Kawasaki has adopted the defunct Burger King slogan we all grew up with and applied it to the Vulcan S as their “Ergo Fit” concept, allowing riders of all sizes the opportunity to customize their purchase to a perfect fit. Kudos to Kawi for thinking progressively and helping to evolve motorcycling to be more inclusive. For younger fans of forward controls, I feel the Vulcan S would make a perfect first bike option.

Cruising through Vasquez Rocks. Click here to check out Nathan’s photos. Photo: Nathan May

We ran into Sunday traffic coming back on the 405 freeway, which is the worst kind of traffic. Lots of weekend warriors, tourists, and general idiots were clogging the road so naturally, we split lanes. I was following the group, and at one point I saw nothing but brake lights to my left, right AND up the middle. Another motorcyclist had blocked the center lane and I had nowhere to go so I gave the ABS brakes on the Vulcan a real world test. The brakes on this bike are impressive. They worked when I needed them most, and the experience has me shopping for a newer bike with ABS…I can say for certain that my 1983 Honda CB1100F would have been sliding, not stopping, in the same situation. Good call, Kawasaki, for making ABS a $400 option on the Vulcan S.

All in all, my experience with this bike was positive. I don’t think I’ll ever be a “foot-forward” rider, but if I were I would definitely consider a bike like this over others. With an impressively low $7,099 sticker price ($7,499 w/ABS) and of course the pesky $360 destination charge, the Vulcan S is in a league of its own in the class.

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