Five best motorcycles of 2014

This year almost all major motorcycle makers unwrapped new bikes, often at lower prices, with more features

Has there ever been a better time to ride motorcycles? Not since I started riding.

The year just past was filled with fantastic bike reveals. Almost all the major manufacturers unwrapped new machines, often at lower prices, with more features, than last year.

Japanese motorcycle makers were most aggressive on pricing. Honda fielded an impressive line of new and returning bikes, while Kawasaki and Yamaha ended the year with their stunning H2 and FJ-09 entries for 2015.

The Europeans continued to make the best of the high-end machines, with new offerings from BMW, Ducati, Aprilia and Triumph setting standards for performance and quality.

Equally impressive, though, were the American manufacturers. Polaris-owned Indian Motorcycles rolled out its small-statured Scout, following Harley-Davidson's release of its small-bore Street 500 and Street 750.

The electric motorcycle segment continued to improve, as Harley premiered its LiveWire concept bike and Santa Cruz-based Zero refined its SR and FX models.

Here are my favorite five for the year:

BMW GS1200: This may be the best all-round motorcycle ever built. Skeptics concerned about the company's first air- and water-cooled boxer engine were soon converted by the increased horsepower and torque. I was impressed by the handling, smooth power, advanced tech specs and remarkable practicality of the GS1200 and its more rugged counterpart, the GS1200 Adventure. Around town or across Alaska, this is the year's best bike.

Ducati Monster 821: I've yet to meet a Ducati I don't like (though the Diavel came close). I love the Multistrada line. I really love the Hypermotard and Hyperstrada. But I really, really loved the new Monster. Ducati's new Testastretta engine puts out 112 horsepower and 66 pound-feet of torque on a lithe and lively frame that hits the pavement at a wet weight of 450 pounds. Easy to ride, suitable for anything short of all-day touring, this is the best Monster yet.

Harley-Davidson LiveWire: As far as electric bikes go, my heart belongs to Zero. I loved its 2014 SR and FX, and am really looking forward to the improved 2015 models. But I still got more pure enjoyment out of Harley's electric motorcycle than on most of the other bikes I rode this year. Sleek, smart-looking and silent, the LiveWire didn't smoke, rattle or roar like a Harley, and that's part of what made it special. I'm hoping the company figures out a way to extend the short riding range and get it to market soon.

Triumph Tiger Explorer XC / Aprilia Caponord: It's a tie, but I can explain. Neither Triumph nor Aprilia has been celebrated for excellence in the sport touring or adventure space, but both companies have quietly made excellent machines that are legitimate alternatives to the dominant BMW GS, KTM Adventure and Ducati Multistrada lines. Although neither may have the off-road capacity of a GS Adventure or the KTM, both are light, nimble, long-distance-comfortable and great fun to ride. They were two unexpected pleasures of 2014.

Indian Scout: Though I really enjoyed the newly reborn Indian Chief and Chieftain road hogs, I didn't expect much from the Scout. It looked like a low-cost, lower-quality, entry-level Indian, designed to lure people to the brand but not likely to impress them much once they got there. I was wrong. The Scout is powerful, well-made, accessible even for amateurs, and an exciting around-town ride. It's also the most affordable bike on this list, by far, with base models beginning at just over $10,000. It seems weird to consider a 1200cc-motorcycle a starter bike, but this might be the best one on the market for the future cruiser or bagger crowd.

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