The Perfect Adventure Bike, or The Perfect Adventure Attitude?
In this post, I look at the much-debated question of which machine is best for a long road trip. It’s probably one for the motoqueros amongst Horca Moto’s readership, but perhaps there is a lesson here for others about life in general….
It is one of motorcycling’s perennial questions: “What is the perfect adventure bike?” Asked and answered from many differing angles, it is a favourite on biker forums, in magazines and no doubt in many a pub and bar around the world. So to celebrate hitting the 40,000km mark on the roads and dirt tracks of South America, I’ve decided to don my flack jacket, raise my head above the parapet and throw my hat into this well-trodden ring.
Firstly, let’s get clear on semantics. ‘Adventure biking’ can mean many things to many people, which can muddy the waters of the discussion. Here, I am talking about ‘overlanding’ – a long road trip through foreign lands, and furthermore one which seeks out remote places along the back roads and dirt tracks wherever possible.
Let me start by asking you a question of those of you planning a long ride through South America, Siberia or elsewhere. Are you going on a bike trip, or are you going to travel on a bike? The difference in phraseology is subtle, but the difference in philosophy is big. If the soul of the trip is built around the bike, then which bike you ride will have much more impact on the experience. If, however, the moto is simply your mode of transport, choosing your machine is less of an issue. So when you decide to ride, get clear on what you are aspiring to do – you might save yourself a lot of unnecessary agonising over which machine you need to buy. I’ve met people who sit at both extremes of this spectrum; some who only want to ride, ride, ride and others who are happy on a local Chinese 200. However most of us, I suspect, sit somewhere between the two.
The ‘perfect bike’ debate usually revolves around factors such as comfort, tank size and range, reliability, off-road and on-road handling, access to spares, field-maintainability, service internals and the like. The pros and cons of air-cooled verses liquid-cooled, EFI verses carbs, mainstream Japanese verses niche European get batted back and forth. Some zealots will stake there lives on a particular bike being ‘the one’. Others will sagely point out that the choice of any bike will always involve compromise and the ‘perfect bike’ can never actually exist. And still more will rightly observe that when choosing the best bike for someone, we must consider three key factors together – the bike, the rider’s skill, and the terrain on which the bike will be used. The bike itself cannot be considered in isolation. But for me, the most important ingredient of all is nearly always missing – and that is the rider’s attitude.
It is rider attitude that makes the statement, “You can have an adventure on any bike” true. And of course, the impact of attitude isn’t unique to riding a moto – it applies to everything in life. If in your mind something is good enough, then it is. When my former girlfriend bought a 10-year old Fiat Uno to learn to drive in, I surprised myself when I started doing long motorway runs in it, choosing to leave my 3.2 litre Audi in the garage to save on fuel. Why did I surprise myself? Because after years behind the wheel of an A3, I realised that 75mph was ample, the lack of a CD player could be overcome by using my iPod and the ineffective heater could be overlooked if I wore an extra jersey. It is about changing attitude – adjusting expectations, recalibrating. And when you actually go ahead and do it, you realise it is no big deal. Remember, humans are very adaptable creatures.
This isn’t simply theory. Over the twenty months I’ve been on the road here in South America, I’ve seen it in action time and time again. My girlfriend and riding partner is a perfect case in point. We have ridden the length of Peru and Ecuador together, on asphalt and dirt, through mountain and jungle. I’m on an upgraded 660 Tenere with EFI, bags of power, a 23-litre tank, Ohlins suspension, heated grips and a whole lot more. She is on a stock Suzuki DR200 – and she’s loving it. She’s set her psychological dials to match the Suzuki’s performance, so she needs nothing more.
When we rode one of the most demanding sections of the trip thus far – through the Peruvian highlands in the rainy season on dirt – we met a local motoquero as we waited together at some roadworks. He was travelling across the country on a 250cc Chinese street bike, wearing a pair of wellington boots and an old windbreaker. When the road opened, he was soon out of sight ahead of us. We caught up with him later when he was stopped beside the road, out of fuel. I gave him a two litre top-up and then never saw him again, despite encountering three major fords further up the road. He clearly negotiated them and the rest of the dirt road without much problem; yet he was on the most ‘unadventure bike’ you could imagine.
He wasn’t concerned about tank capacity and range; he was happy to pullover and wait for someone to come along with some spare gas. And judging by his happy-go-lucky disposition, I’d guess he would deal with a breakdown (inevitable on a cheap Chinese moto at some point) with the same sanguine attitude. When his butt gets a bit numb on the unforgiving seat, I suspect he just stops for ten minutes. And when 50kph is the best his machine can do on the steep inclines at 3500m, he probably just gives himself extra time to get to his destination and enjoys the scenery a bit more.
So maybe we get ourselves a bit too tied up in knots in the quest for the perfect, of even the best, adventure moto. I have a sneaking suspicion that if you forced every GSA 1200 rider you met to dismount, shed a bit of luggage and then get on a 250cc Honda Tornado for the rest of his trip, at least half of them would be having a ball after a week.
But having said all that, I do have a view on what I think are the three most important characteristics for a moto, if you want to go beyond the asphalt. Firstly, you have to be able to ride your chosen mount comfortably off-road; that might be a KTM 990 or a XT225 Serow, depending on the rider. Secondly, your must be able to pick up your bike, loaded, alone; if you can’t, you’ll fear dropping it which in turn will stop you from exploring those magical, lonely routes which (for me) define these trips. And thirdly, it needs to be reliable. I’ve ridden some dirt roads through the mountains and not encountered another person for 300km; doubting my machine’s reliability would have denied me such a stunning ride.
For me, ‘Light is Might’. And the lighter, the better. Having ridden both my Tenere and my girlfriend’s Suzuki through mud slides, fast-flowing gravelly fords and rockfalls blocking our route, and having put the Suzuki in the back of a pickup with one other person (it took four to do the same thing with my Tenere and my chum’s 1150 in Patagonia), I’ve learnt this lesson from experience. I may change my mind after a long trip on a light and less powerful bike; but for now, lightweight is the direction I want to go in.
All that said, I accept this whole subject is a case of ‘each to their own’. If you like the ‘big bike’ feel, or are travelling two-up or are a seriously competent dirt rider, a GS1200 or V-Strom may be your chosen mount. Me? I love my Tenere, but she is a bit heavy. Until Yamaha give us a WR450R, I’m eyeing up the new CCM GP450. If the engine proves to be reliable, then for me we might be getting closer to the mythical perfect adventure bike.
Very well written essay!
Why not start a thread on ADV Rider or HUBB? … on ADV they usually turn into brand loyal zealots shit slinging and guys who’ve never really done 3rd world travel telling you how to travel cause they rode from
Texas up to Utah and back and spent 10 days on the road.
If you post up on HUBB … you find a more informed and polite crowd with more travelers from MANY countries who’ve “been there, done that”. But these “which bike” discussions are really old hat stuff … and fact is … only novices really give a shit about any of it.
Most of us are well beyond this, have owned dozens of bikes and done a bit of travel.
(I’ve owned over 50 bikes … since age 13) But new bikes DO interest me … and I still keep an eye on what’s developing. I worked as a Moto journo for 20 years in San Francisco. (City Bike Magazine)
The one thing you touched on that is relevant (IMO) is the ATTITUDE question. I’ve seen lots of very enthusiastic and hopeful new travelers turn nasty and depressed, becoming quite xenaphobic after time on the road in a foreign country. Most don’t speak the language and believe everyone is out to rip them off. Foreign travel does not suit everyone … and when things don’t go well some become despondent and surly.
In my 7 years in Latin America I saw this a few times. Many just got back on the plane.
Anyway, I’d bet you’d see Much more response if you start a thread on HUBB or ADV Rider.
San Rafael, CA USA
Sam Manicom wrote a good piece on ADVMoto’s website a couple of months back on this very subject: http://adventuremotorcycle.com/spotlight/21-spotlight/riders/391-riders-you-can-never-be-fully-prepared-so-dont-try-to-be-new. I tend to agree with you – the wrong attitude to the place and the people amongst whom you are travelling seems to negate the most important aspect of the experience.
I’ve considered posting a RR on ADV Rider and the HUBB (I use both for info as I travel), but I don’t think I want to commit to running one and dealing with all the questions / feedback. Seems like a big commitment to me, and I’d rather concentrate on making my blog posts good. I’ve put my last video on both websites. I’m trusting that the people who are interested in the blog will eventually find it. And if I’m honest, I don’t want or need people telling me I’ve got the wrong tires of should be using a different grade of oil!!!!!
I’m not suggesting you post a ride report. You’re correct, too much maintenance for that. What I would do is simply post your Essay … As Is … in the “Which Bike” forum on HUBB. You’re done. Just let it ride, see what responses you get. It’s SO WELL written, you should share it! Respond when you have time or feel like it.
I too like the CCM 450 (Kymco motor left over from still born BMW dirt bike). But think about it: what % of times did you really encounter World Enduro type conditions in your travels? Is a full on race bike really the answer? I’d much rather have your more comfortable Tenere’ and just struggle through those RARE tough or unmakeable sections. I’m thinking that in 90% of conditions your Tenere’ trumps the tiny 450. (more comfort, more room, more reliable, less maintenance)
The CCM is untested over the long haul. I wish them all the best … but they’ve lost me already as
the $12,000 USD price is way over my (and most) budget.
I’m pretty pleased with my “old boiler” DR650. It’s now past 55,000 miles (NOT kms) with 4 Baja & Mexico trips done. It’s beyond simple, nearly maintenance free as any bike can be. It’s cheap and easy to modify to be better. I guess I’m one of those nutty Zealots on the DR. (not as bad as those crazy KLR guys!) Since I already owned a KLR, XR-650L, KTM 640 and several other XR Hondas (XR250, XR400, XL600R, XR600R) I have some back ground on dual sports. Rode a ’92 XT600E in Baja … in ’92.
The DR650 is a fair compromise, similar to your Tenere but about 60 lbs. lighter weight. With it’s Ohlins shock and revalved forks my DR650 is not bad off road. It’s no enduro race bike but performs better than you’d imagine. It’s GREAT on highway, (very low vibes) very sporty on twisty roads and can cruise at 75 mph ALL DAY. It never overheats (Oil cooler) and can be packed up heavy if required.
One knock on the DR650 is MPG … only 50 mpg … less if pulling hard through deep sand or jamming into a strong head wind. Check out the – HUGE – DR650 thread on ADV Rider … can 15 million viewers be wrong? 😉 (biggest bike thread on ALL of ADV Rider)
Ahhh, I get ya!! I think I’ll do that, on the HUBB.
I was actually thinking of KLR owners when mentioning the zealots, but you were one of them too!!!! I really like the DR650. I’ve met several riders on them over here. And after my experiences with Paulina’s DR200, I’d happily take one on a long trip.
I hear you ref CCM v Tenere. Common sense says stick with the Ten. I know her well now, and she has been superb. And yeah you’re right, those tricky situations where a light bike wins are relatively infrequent. Problem is, I’m getting an itch about the CCM, and also I want to be able to take the panniers off and go enjoy the deserts and the rocky mountain tracks more. I’m being swayed by the perspective that bikes should be fun, not practical!!! I’m going to ask CCM if I can use one for a couple of days when I go home to see family in July, then I’ll make the call.
Great article Paul as always. I’ve had a test ride on the CCM GP 450 – stunning bike and stand alone out there in the lightweight class for the title of mythical best adventure bike and probably in the direction where the industry (rightly) is headed.
I suspect Honda will bring out a new middleweight ‘baby’ Africa twin soon which we’ll all buy and will dominate the class. Until then, it’s probably the KTM 690 Enduro R in Adventure Spec with Rally Raid EVO2 tanks.
As for the big 250 Kg (dry),1200cc behemoths, they’re the bike equivalent of doing the school run in a Range Rover – engineering masterpieces much like the steam locomotive was but the world has changed and true unsanitized ‘adventure’ off the beaten track becoming harder to find and requiring, more extreme and different tools. If you want to cross the Himalayas on the newly carpeted Karakoram Highway in a big gaggle of German tractors, with your other half on the back, then knock yourself out – but the aficionados will be up on the ridge line on the old road and you’ll be wishing your were with them, not the other way around. These bikes will be consigned to the museums and be extinct within a decade.
The adventure begins where the tarmac ends.
Hey Steve. I’m looking forward to getting on the CCM when I come home for 6 weeks in July – finally check out if it is indeed the bike for me.
I hear you ref the big machines. I’m cool if riders want to stay on the tarmac, but my main point is that here in S America for example (can’t comment on other places as I haven’t ridden them yet), you simply don’t have a choice sometimes. Dirt, rockfalls, seasonal fords, etc show up unexpectedly and if you’re on a 250kg monster, you’ll probably be doing an about turn. We’ve hit dirt unexpectedly in the middle of nowhere which would have terminated a beautiful ride and given us a long diversion back-tracking if we had been on bigger machines. Even if you’re a skilled rider who can handle the big machines in the dirt, crossing an unexpected rockfall blocking the road (check the vid at the end of this post https://horcamoto.com/2014/03/24/to-huaraz-through-mud-rocks-and-snow/) would require the skills of a champion trials bikers…..
Paul – thx for the reply. I’m definitely not a zealot and each to their own so long as you have realistic aims. For CCM, drop them an e-mail and book an extended test ride in advance. Alice Flook is the PR girl that takes the bookings and Austin Clews the owner/MD. Also if in Bristol direction when back there’s a couple of kindred spirits here (both Chinook/Merlin helicopter crew) planning a 2016 RTW who’d love to share a beer and compare notes on following the Dakar & your SA routes. Take it easy.
Hey Steve. I’ll definitely be heading up to Bolton when I’m back. I’ve been chatting to Austin and hope to take the bike out for a couple of days over the Lancashire hills. I spent five years at school up there, so I can throw in a trip down memory lane too!
Paul, details for e-mail for CCM for booking the test ride below;
Turn into Vale Street from Bury New Road, continue down the road and take your first right into the industrial estate, follow the signs to the CCM building
Any problems, call the office on 01204 544930
I’m with you, the KTM 690R with the Rally Raid Evo2 tanks, fairing etc. I want KTM to change the gearing on the bike, the gearing is too low at present, I also reckon they could do away with that cumbersome lattice frame and go more coventional, fuel tank up front, a better seat they simply hurt, but all things considered (too expensive have to fix that) the 690R is just about my perfect aide entire bike.
A good and thought provoking write up Paul. This is something we all think about. I agree in that a 400 is about the right size. 130kg for the bike is at the most would be ideal. I have not tried picking up my Tenere yet, perhaps I should try.
Picking up a fully loaded. Ten is doable – just. But at 4000m, if you don’t succeed the first time you need a 5 minute rest to get your breath back!!
Great post Paul. I don’t think you need be too concerned with donning a flak jacket; it’s a good contribution to the ‘which bike’ debate.
Steve’s point about the CCM (& yours) is well made. Been reading about it with interest. Great to see someone stepping outside the box a bit and aiming for a true lightweight adventure bike.
That said I’m a GSA driver (yup, I like ’em big, brutal, domineering and teutonic – bikes that is). For our forthcoming 1 year trip in the Americas we’re taking our GSA1200, ‘Dirty Bertie’. Yes it is big, and it is heavy but it’s also very comfortable, carries us two up with our camping gear, has more dirt and gravel track ability than it’s often credited with and importantly, suits my 6′ 4″, 34″ inside leg frame. I can pick it up on my own but only if I’ve had 3 Weetabix that morning and I take the panniers off first! (I joke with Jenny that’s why she’s coming with me on the back, to help pick Bertie up when he falls over and prevent me having a hernia).
I agree about attitude Paul and I often think in terms of ‘expectations’. Ours are that as we’re two up we won’t be able to do some of the more difficult stuff, especially wet mud, however our expectations are we’ll do what we can, go where we can, and take it as we go.
Will I be doing some more off road training before I go – yes. Am I happy with our choice of bike – yes. Would I take the GSA1200 if I was travelling on my own – no, I’d be on a lighter trail bike or an XT660Z like yours.
‘If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re probably right’
Hey Jim. You’ll have a blast on the Beemer. And I agree with you – two up with double the kit is better on a bigger bike. I wouldn’t want to go two up on the Tenere, though I’ve met some couples doing so.
There are thousands of miles of great ‘ripio’ out here which the bigger bikes can enjoy. You’ll just have to do a little more research on the occasions where the road ahead looks a bit dodgy. And if you find a ‘show stopper’ section, you just turn around – no big deal if you don’t allow yourself to see it as a problem. Back to the question of attitude, and it’s all part of the adventure, right?!
I can give you a pretty good readout of the dirt routes up the Andes (now I’m returning to Peru, I’ll ride even more of them). We can keep chatting and once you’ve ridden on some routes down South which I am familiar with, I can calculate which routes further north will suit you.
Paul, thanks for another interesting and thought provoking post! This is my first time to respond and it’s long overdue; I have enjoyed all aspects of your blog, from pure site-seeing through to articles like this one, with a significant technical bias.
It will be some time before my partner and I find the time, money and courage to embark on a trip to South America, but having the benefit or your experiences has been helpful and is doing a great job at motivating us to stop talking and to start acting.
We have been considering how much or how little off-road we want (we’re agreed a trip should be about seeing the countries and people, not merely bouncing across gravel) and what shape and size of bikes will be most versatile. One of our biggest consideration is our sizes, I am 6’5″ and my partner is a little over 5′ and finding bikes that will be up to the job, yet big and small enough for me and her to manage proficiently is going to be challenging.
If you or any of your followers have any suggestions for a smaller lady’s machine, they’d be most appreciated!
In the meantime, THANKS again for sharing your amazing journey!
Hal, that’s what I want to hear – less talking, more acting!!!
I will reply in full soon, but now we are walking out the door to tackle some back roads in Peru. But I can confidently say that Pau (5’4″ and 50kg) on a little DR200 has not diminished the experience with me on a 660 Ten. It’s a great little bike for small girls and can go anywhere. In fact, I’m intending to write a short review of it (I’ve ridden it a fair bit myself) to help people like you, looking for a bike for their other half.
More to follow…. P
Great article. It reminds me of a story I read perhaps 20 years ago in a moto magazine – I think Rider, but I can’t recall for sure.
A moto journalist attended the Australian press showing of a new bike, some kind of 750 standard. The rider checked the bike out, fired it up and rode it out of Sydney. After riding it around on a variety of roads, he pulled over to a rest stop perhaps an hour or two north of Sydney. He hopped off the 750cc, stood back, and appraised the bike in his mind.
He had always wanted to tour all the way around Australia on an epic road trip, but for one reason or another had never done. This was the bike, he thought to himself; finally I’ve found a motorcycle that is perfect for such a long and arduous trip of a few months on the road.
Just then, a small scooter, heavily laden with baggage, pulled into the rest stop beside him. The journalist was surprised, as he was miles from the nearest town, and this scooter looked too small to ride any distance on the highway. The rider jumped off and waved to him. She was a petite Japanese woman who spoke English half-decently.
When he talked with her, she told him she was riding around Australia on the little scooter – exactly the sort of trip he’d just been mulling over! He thought to himself that the bike was too small for the trip, but he wished her good luck on her long journey ahead.
“What do you mean?” she asked. “My trip is almost over – I’ve been riding for months and I’ve gone all the way around. I’ll be back in Sydney in an hour!”
I guess the moral of the story is that you can tour on any bike if you really want to make it happen.
Bruce. There were rumours going round last year when I was in Chile that an Irish guy was riding round the continent on a scooter. I was 90% sure he passed me going the other way when I was heading for San Pedro de Atacama. Still regret not turning round to check. I also passed an old Fiat 500 on a dirt road in Arg, and recently passed an old skool VW Campervan on a dirt track in Ecuador!!
My wife and I just got back from riding in Peru for 6 weeks on two china 200cc motos. Day after day we kept saying to each other ‘these little bikes are SO MUCH fun!’. We had been through Peru (and the Americas) on two F800GSs and it was a lot of work on tricky conditions…
Being lost in the Andes for weeks on these china motos was the best ride I’ve ever had. Period.
Interesting & nicely written musing, El Forko. The ‘adventure’ scene certainly seems to have been much hyped-up over recent years, largely I think by those now making a living out of it. Not so long ago when there was no ‘adventure’ bike scene as such, one just took off on a relatively small & simple road or trail bike when 650cc was regarded as a big bike….the current raft of complex bikes and mind-boggling array of ‘must have’ accessories seems to have impingined on attitude, largely negatively IMO. Interestingly, there’s a lecture being given next week at Kent Uni by a Professor Samuele Marcora who will announce the results of his research into the physiological and psychological demands of adventure motorcycling! I’m going, not least because it’s free…..
Hey Mark. Just done three days riding through the most remote bit of Peru to date. The locals out there are ‘adventure riding’ every day on their Chinese 200s!!!
Could not agree more with the psychological sentiment behind ‘adventure’ and your observations about light is might. The former point put me in mind of Anais Nin’s; “we do not see things as they are, we see things as we are”. The scene (gusting industry) is heavily influenced by the GS style conquerer. The latter point reminded me that I started off in Africa on a Suzuki DR350 (with a guy called Chris Conroy!). Couple of PLCE pouches on the back and a 5 litre plastic container for petrol tied on with old tyre rubber. Perfect. Ride safe.
Folks, just an observation (and my flak jacket is over the back of the chair ready). The BMW GS (Conquerer?) always gets a good slating on discussions about ‘which bike’. So I wonder, those that deride it’s weight, cost, size, image etc, have you ever actually owned one? Just a teasing little thought – now I shall retreat into the safety of my slit trench 🙂
Oh, and we’ve got a couple of PLCE pouches slung over the tank – just wanna be sure we’re carrying the absolute max weight the bike can bear 🙂
Yes, we have 03 BMW GSs in the garage. They’re great for light/intermediate off-road riding but too heavy and too big for the gnarly stuff. We rode them from Canada to Argentina and many times we wished we had lighter & smaller bikes.
Got to put my hand up. Whenever I want to bad mouth big bikes, I always choose the 1200 despite never riding one. When I’m home in the summer, I’m going to book a test ride with the local Beemer dealer just to put that right! (I can’t really dis the Super Ten or the Tiger Explorer though, as I own a Yamaha and a Triumph!!)
I actually own an 1150GS! Here’s my website (www.themotojourney.com) so you can see it (and the enormous amount of luggage ; ) ) I can fit on it! Harry
Hey Harry, good Feb 14, 2014 article. Love the stats on the sales of GS’s. Now let me think, an 1150 huh. Well if Jenny and I have got an extra 50cc we surely must be able to fit even more weight on. I shall have to peruse the Touratech catalogue and see how much more we can strap to it – heavier than a tank, the only way to travel – a counter culture even ! 🙂
P.S. excellent site, many thanks, shall peruse it in detail later.
Thanks Jim or Jenny, great to hear back from you. I’ve just updated my site so v glad to hear your positive encouragement!
Reblogged this on Life on 2 Wheels (& other stuff) and commented:
This is one of the best articles I’ve read about motorcycle choices for serious travel.
Thanks, Motopsyco – and also thanks for reposting.
very good article. agree travel is about attitude of mind. the same applies to riding your chosen bike. whats right for you may not be for another. I prefer to ride a heavier bike. i take it everywhere. Is it sometimes tough? Yes. But would I change it? No.
If you’re open to different cultures, opinions, and religions…..then the wonderful world of travel is open for you to enjoy regardless of what you ride 😉
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That was an interesting read. Found your post while researching what bike to buy in Ecuador and leaning towards the dr200.