One man’s idea of the perfect sport-touring motorcycle

Mark Morel on the road

Mark Morel built his own vision of the perfect sport-touring motorcycle.

What comes to mind if I say the words “custom motorcycle?” Maybe a themed cruiser where form always trumps function, sitting on a bike show pedestal. Maybe a lowered sportbike gleaming with custom paint and neon lights.

Mark Morel’s bike wouldn’t get a second look (at least not an admiring one) from the people who love those kinds of customs. But in many ways it represents the essence of customization. It is one individual’s vision of the ideal bike, with all the work done by the owner’s hands. But instead of going for the perfect look, Morel aimed for a personal ideal in terms of function. 

Mark Morel

Mark Morel and his heavily customized Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R.

Morel modified his 2004 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R in stages with the goal of building the perfect (for him, at least) sport-touring motorcycle. The sport-touring segment is a difficult one to pin down, because each rider has a different idea of how much sport and how much touring should be emphasized, and a focus on one usually involves compromise with the other. For the sport-oriented riders, a set of soft saddlebags on a Ninja ZX-6R works. For others, anything less than a Concours14 with its electrically adjustable windscreen, locking saddlebags, shaft drive and upright ergonomics is not only uncomfortable, it’s downright uncivilized.

Morel loved his ZX-10R. He has two others he uses for track days. He’d even done 500-mile days on the bike. But little by little he began modifying it to make it better suited for long-distance riding, doing all the work himself.

“I really love the power this bike has and the light weight,” Morel says. “I just wanted to be able to do more miles comfortably and still have that high-horsepower adrenaline rush.”

Mount Hood

Morel converted his ZX-10R from a sport bike to a long-distance-capable machine for an 8,000-mile tour that included this photo op in front of Mount Hood.

The modifications kicked into high gear in 2012 when he and a friend decided to ride from their homes in Ohio to the Motorcycle Sport Touring Association rally in Avon, Colorado, then continue on to the West Coast and swing into the Canadian Rockies on the way home. The trip would eventually last most of a month and 8,000 miles.

“Once I knew I was going out west, that’s when I went with the full-blown thing,” Morel says. “I thought of getting a different bike. But I know I like this bike. I’m familiar with it. I feel like I’d be safest on a bike I’m familiar with.”

The modifications are so extensive, it helps to divide them into three areas: comfort, luggage and electronics.

Making the Ninja ZX-10R more comfortable

An LSL handlebar conversion kit replaced the clip-ons for a more upright riding position. Homemade brackets and spacers lowered the footpegs about an inch for more legroom. Morel had already modified several seats for himself and friends, so he used that experience to reshape the foam on the stock seat and then he inserted a gel pad. He adds a sheepskin for longer rides. But the biggest job was creating better wind protection for touring.

fairing extension

There’s nothing orthodox about the look of the fairing extension Morel made by hand, but it’s about function, not form.

Morel works for the U.S. Postal Service and spent 17 years delivering mail. His route included a body shop, and he’d hang around there on his lunch break, picking up new skills, from welding to fiberglass work. He bought a second set of bodywork and began experimenting with different shapes. He eventually made his own mold and built a fiberglass extension that bolts to the original fairing using the mirror mounting locations. The taller, wider fairing and a trimmed windscreen from a ZX-11 give him a calm bubble of air around his chest and upper arms.

He did similar modifications to create wind protection for his hands, using off-road handguards and making new fiberglass shapes to fit the ZX-10R.

Adding luggage to a Ninja ZX-10R

panniers and top box

Homemade brackets allowed the use of locking, removable, waterproof luggage.

Morel wanted locking, weather-tight luggage that he could easily remove. He started by buying a second passenger seat and removing the seating to convert it to a mounting point for the rear top box and the brackets for the saddlebags. Morel put his welding and metal-bending skills to a severe test in making the curved brackets for mounting the saddlebags, since there was no off-the-shelf solution to fit.

rear view

The panniers and top box provide lots of storage capacity but still tuck as tightly as possible to keep the overall width manageable.

The top box stays on the bike most of the time, but the saddlebags and brackets are used only on trips. The saddlebags pop off instantly with the key, as usual. But by removing two bolts on each side, Morel can also remove the side brackets, quickly converting the bike to a one-bag setup. Plus, since the top box attaches to the passenger seat and he has a stock passenger seat, in seconds he can (and has) switched the bike to carry a passenger.

Electrical modifications for the road

phone charger

Among other electrical modifications, Morel added the ability to keep his phone charged while storing it in a waterproof compartment.

To handle additional electronics on tour, Morel wired in a fuse block with three outputs. Switched circuits are used to power his heated gear and the heated handgrips. An unswitched circuit has a USB outlet that he uses to charge his smartphone. There’s a cubbyhole inside his fairing that stays dry, even in the rain, and he tucks his phone in there, connected to the charger. There are also outlets on the dash for his GPS and for the voltmeter he added to keep track of how much electricity the gear is drawing.

This is one custom you won’t see being polished at a bike show. But you just might see it on the road, probably a long one leading to some tasty, twisty riding, with a solo rider comfortably tucked into the cocoon of his own personal notion of the perfect sport-touring motorcycle.

This article was originally published in Accelerate magazine in 2014.