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.