Hwy 2 connects what Los Angeles used to be with what it is today, cutting a confused line through dozens of disparate neighborhoods as it climbs from the Santa Monica coast to the high desert, past seven-figure homes and the glowing edges of the Sunset Strip. On the way, it brushes through the vestiges of California’s mid-century space race history in the San Fernando Valley. Finally, it climbs over the mountains to the distant and conveniently displaced desert of Victorville and Palmdale, where acre after acre of new Lockheed hangars and vast fulfillment centers are kept politely displaced from the glitz of the city. And in the middle of Hwy 2, there’s mile after mile of what Los Angeles was at first: sage, oak, chaparral, and hardscrabble hillsides—and some of the best twisting roads you’ll find anywhere.
The place where Hwy 2 ascends into the mountains and takes up the name Angeles Crest Hwy is the weekend haunt of fast riders, cruisers, and yahoos alike. It’s also the home of the famous Newcomb’s Ranch roadhouse. When it’s not crawling with weekend traffic, it’s a terrific place to ride. At its best, it’s heaven for a sport touring machine. Take a thoroughbred sportbike and you’ll rattle your teeth out on the holed and cracked asphalt. Take a versatile adventure bike and you’ll wonder if you can’t squeeze just a little more fun out of the knobbies. If you’re lucky, it’s a place for the 2021 Yamaha Tracer 9 GT.
The Touring Treatment
Since its debut in 2015 as the FJ-09, Yamaha’s sport tourer has been a more polished and dignified alternative to its edgy—sometimes lunatic—stablemate, the MT-09. The two machines have always shared the same brilliant inline-triple powerplant and the same stiff frame. But from the beginning, the sport touring treatment has taken the edge off of the cheap and charming wheelie-happy naked bike. You can see the difference in the civilizing effect of the bike’s longer swingarm, in addition to its comfortable architecture, upright posture, and wind protection.
For the 2021 Tracer 9 GT, Yamaha leaned hard on that dignified reputation. The company imagined the bike as a professional traveler. This traveler meets or exceeds expectations and arrives unruffled. It’s adaptable, can change plans on a whim, and isn’t put off by a little rain or cold. The professional traveler is very likable—but not especially memorable. We’ll get to that. First, a rude reminder that we’re riding into the coolest autumn of the rest of our lives.
This year, a wildfire crossed over the mighty Sierra mountains for the first time in written history. Just days later, another apocalyptic blaze did it again. With massive thunderheads and a public holiday looming, the feds announced that 17 of California’s 20 national forests would close at midnight, including the very forest we were in. Public works crews lurched into action, and bit by bit, started to close the gates to Hwy 2 behind us. An agonizing decision for countless campers, a pain in the neck for thousands more commuters. But we had a stroke of good luck as we climbed the highway ever closer to the vast atomic-looking cumulus formations—traffic had tapered to a quiet trickle. Angeles Crest Hwy was all ours.
Technology Comes for the Tracer
With touring off the table, there’s no better way to assure the Tracer holds up the sport end of the equation. And it doesn’t disappoint. The fundamental cocktail of competence is unchanged from its earliest iterations: a great engine, a stiff chassis, some sticky tires, and trusty brakes. But the updates thrust the Tracer 9 GT vigorously toward the state of the art.
Yamaha’s freshly redesigned 890cc CP3 engine, shared with the MT-09, is still one of the most thrilling powerplants in powersports. It hurries riders toward the core appeal of motorcycling; that unique ability to bind together and thrill so many of your senses simultaneously. The engine accompanies a big application of throttle with a wide-mouthed gulp of induction noise and thinks nothing of rocking the bike back on the rear tire, with just the slightest glimpse of daylight under the front. It’s fat with torque. You can feel it in the middle of the powerband, always ready to sling you out of a big sweeper or pick you up out of a hairpin.
But where earlier iterations of Yamaha’s 900cc sport tourer had rough edges, the 2021 version is polished and accommodating. The fueling is textbook perfect, which suits the buttoned-down character of the Tracer’s ride. It encourages good posture like a piano teacher. Upright. Prim and proper. You take corners like a highway patrol officer, and with all your weight squarely on the saddle, it’s damned rapid too. Perfectly collected until you hear the chalkboard skritch of conservative peg feelers tattling on your pace.
Those thrills come easily in motorcycling, though. Where the Tracer 9 GT really shines is in shattering your ideas about what you can buy for $ 14,899. Even after a $ 1,800 price jump on last year’s bike, the spec sheet is a shocker.
The Tracer 9 GT comes equipped with an excellent up/down quickshifter. Heated grips get 10 levels of adjustment, while the windscreen gets another 10 levels of adjustability. The seat gets two options, adjusting without tools from 31.9 inches to 32.5. Those locking hard cases? They come on the bike. So does a slipper clutch. And cruise control. And two-mode KYB suspension that isn’t just adjustable but also adaptive, using solenoids to electronically tweak suspension damping in nearly real time.
Dive into the electronics and you’ll find hardware derived from Yamaha’s R1—just smaller and lighter. It gets cornering-ABS, powered by a six-axis inertial measurement unit (IMU), and supplementary cornering LED headlights that flick on and shine deeper into curves as you lay the bike into them. Four selectable throttle response maps allow for fine tuning or accommodating the weather. The traction, slide, and wheelie controls are all similarly adjustable. Yamaha’s digital throttle, revised for this machine, is finally razor-sharp, accurate, and predictable.
The Competitive Set
Yamaha has gone all-in on the Tracer because it has to. Every manufacturer under the sun has a claim on the sport touring class. Ducati is typical, attacking your interest from two angles with differently compelling machines, the Multistrada V2 and the SuperSport. BMW, not to be outdone, has three. Suzuki will happily sell you nine variations of the V-Strom and still has time to nudge you toward the sparkly new and charmingly named GSX-S1000GT+. With its exclusively road-going mandate, the Yamaha Tracer 9 GT has to hold its own against everything from a $ 12,000 Moto Guzzi V85 TT to the utterly excessive but entirely delightful Kawasaki H2 SX SE, which covers the same core competency for a swoon-inducing $ 25,500.
On value and performance, the Yamaha is hard to beat. But it’s not perfect. For a start, it’s not pretty. The goldfish cheeks are accented by headlights mounted in the lower fairing, giving the bike a perpetual lopsided wink in daytime running. Two color schemes, the black-and-purple Liquid Metal and the bright cheery Redline, will leave some customers sidelined. The two electronic 3.5-inch color TFT touch screens make brilliant use of space, but you can’t unsee the dorky shape of a snorkeling mask staring back at you. The factory luggage is excellent, but a hair too shallow to hold some common touring helmets.
Complaints fell by the wayside, though, as the tall fairing of the Tracer parted thick petrichor like the bow of a tanker. Soon thick, fat raindrops pelted the windscreen and the roads took on an oily sheen. The slippery conditions slacked our pace and justified a trip through the Yamaha’s menus. The Tracer kept shining. It was still deft and accurate with the throttle input softened, the traction control turned up, and the electronic damping set to the more plush A2 mode. When the rain eased and the pace picked up again, the A2 was a keeper. A1 accommodates smoother roads than Hwy 2.
The Tracer 9 GT leaves nothing undone, nothing on the table. But there’s still some faint sniff of something missing. A little wildness the first iterations of the Yamaha sport tourer had that made it stick just a little deeper in your memory. That’s Yamaha’s professional traveler. The same polish that makes the Tracer so roundly excellent is what makes it just a little hard to lust over. Without a nervous hum of mischief it’s terrific, but it is not transcendent. The machines that cement their legend leave you with something to talk about. Just a little coarseness.
Deep down, that bike is in the Tracer 9 GT. Somewhere under the too-muffled exhaust and purple plastic is a sport tourer with the soul of a hooligan. That’s the bike we’re dying to ride.
2021 Yamaha Tracer 9 GT
+ tremendous value, literally turn-key touring, 10-position heated grips, adjustability
– factory side cases should fit every full-face helmet, love-it-or-leave-it styling, muffled sound
Distributor Yamaha Motorsports
MSRP $ 14,899
Engine liquid-cooled, 4-valve, 3-cylinder, DOHC
Power 115hp @10,000rpm; 69lb-ft @7,000rpm
Transmission 6-speed, multiplate, slip/assist wet clutch
Wet Weight 485lbs, claimed
Seat Height 31.9in/32.5in
Fuel Capacity 5gal
Fuel Consumption 49mpg, claimed
Fuel Grade premium
Color Liquid Metal, Redline