Turning to The Light Side – The Argument for Lightweight Overlanding

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In my recent post, ‘The Perfect Bike of the Perfect Adventure Attitude’, I touched on my personal philosophy of ‘Light is Might.’ After another round of mud, river-crossings and nearly losing my bike down a steep and crumbling roadside drop-off, I feel compelled to expand my thoughts on this topic – not to preach, but to share some ideas. As I said before, I believe in ‘each to their own’ – this is just my personal view on how I like to ride.

Firstly, let me lay down the foundations. I see the ‘right bike equation’ being composed of three variables: the bike design and capability; the pilot’s skill and riding preferences; and the terrain on which the bike is ridden. Just like the time-distance-velocity equation, change one part and the others will also shift. Everyone’s equation is different. I cannot therefore make a blanket statement that heavy bikes are the wrong choice for off-road, as every rider’s off-road skills differ. After all, Fabrizio Meoni won the Dakar in 2002 on a KTM 950; and I have seen a few riders handle a 1200cc ‘adventure bike’ on the dirt better than I could ride a 250cc on the same terrain.

Except for a weekend with the Yamaha Off-Road Experience team, my off-road skills have been learnt on the gravel and dirt tracks of South America. I can handle my Tenere fully-loaded pretty well now on the dirt roads, but I lack the skills to negotiate the really technical stuff on a 230kg loaded bike. As for the ‘terrain’ part of my personal equation, I will always look for a dirt track instead of tarmac. I’m happiest when I’m riding lonely backroads through the mountains, fording streams and never sure what the road ahead will throw up. For me, that’s adventure. So that is where I am coming from when I put forward the lightweight philosophy – because lightweight is best for my level of skill and the terrain I choose to ride.

So based on this equation, you might assume that the benefits of a lightweight machine do not apply to either a) a rider who has no intention to tackle difficult terrain, or b) and skilled off-road rider who can handle a big bike comfortably in the dirt. But here is the twist – overlanding isn’t simply about riding your machine along a chosen route, be that asphalt, gravel or loose dirt. Many other situations – some discretionary, others unavoidable – come into play, which are more easily (and sometimes safely) tackled on a lightweight machine.  Perhaps you could summarise these situations as ‘the technical stuff’ in between the riding.

I have collated a long list of these situations over the last 40,000km here in South America, mostly from personal experience. Let’s look at some of those which I categorise as ‘unavoidable’.

When we rode through Peru’s central highlands in the rainy season, mostly on asphalt, our path was frequently blocked by rockfalls, landslides and mudslides. Some of the mountain streams crossing the roads had swollen into wide and fast-flowing rivers. The way forward for cars and trucks was well and truly blocked, but we got through – on a couple of occasions, only just on the Tenere. (See video below). The 110kg Suzuki, however, just bounced across or through it all.

Just a few days ago, we were stopped at some roadworks. The road was closed for five more hours as newly-laid tarmac set. With no food, little water and two more hours riding after they opened the road to reach a place to stay, we convinced those in charge to let us proceed – on the agreement that we would drive on the dirt beside the new tarmac. I nearly said farewell to my bike when I tried to circumvent the tarmac on the outside of a tight ascending hairpin bend. The inner bend was too difficult for the Tenere – but once again the DR200 cheerfully skipped round the inside.

When my progress up Ruta 40 was blocked by fifty kilometres of thick mud, it took four of us, assisted by a earth ramp, to get my Tenere in the back of a pick-up. When Pau crashed her DR200 in the Atacama Desert after hitting sand (on an otherwise pretty good road), two of us simply lifted it into a similar pickup. Had it been the Tenere needing a piggyback on that occasion, we would have been looking at a long night in the desert awaiting help.

A golden rule for overlanders is to park the moto overnight somewhere secure. This frequently means a hostel lobby or garden, requiring the bike to be ridden up steep steps or eased through narrow doors. Trying to manoeuvre a 200kg bike in tight spaces such as these isn’t as easy as you think. Getting it out the next morning is sometimes even harder.

When I camp beside the road, which in Chile and Argentina was sometimes a necessity, I will always strive to get the bike and the tent out of sight from the road. It’s a security thing – I don’t want passers-by or locals knowing I’m there. This has often meant gingerly picking my way over a boulder-stewn and sandy riverbed, or riding half a kilometre across a rough plain or hillside to find cover. I can’t remember how many times I’ve dropped my bike in such situations. At the end of a long day’s riding, with the light fading, this is a real sense of humour test.

For me, these are all compelling reasons to ‘go light’. However, I can’t help feeling that we don’t need to focus on these specific examples, because to me the lightweight philosophy is so obvious. If you want what I consider real adventure on a motorbike – exploring unmapped backroads, hunting out the dirt, taking on the challenge of mud and rivers – riding a bike heavier that 160kg is completely counter-intuitive. When I was a soldier, we didn’t go out on patrol across difficult ground expecting contact with the enemy carrying large, heavy packs. Mountaineers don’t carry a pair of suitcases up Everest. Why should motorcycling be any different?

To some degree, I blame the motorcycle industry. Through their marketing strategies, we have been duped into thinking adventure biking needs a 250kg machine with 1200cc motor inside. Take the ‘Extreme Adventure Test’ (on YouTube) conducted by the UK’s Motorcycle News in 2012. After reasonably stating that, “The real design brief for an adventure bike is that it will take you and your kit wherever you want to go, whether that is touring Scotland or navigating your way across the Sahara Desert,” they then chose to test, “what are regarded as the four best adventure bikes.” – the BMW R1200GSA, the Triumph Tiger Explorer, Yamaha’s Super Tenere and the KTM 990. How have we reached the point where a major motorcycle publication considers these heavyweights to be the best ‘adventure bikes’?  As I proposed in my earlier post, you can have an adventure on any bike if you have the right mindset.

The problem is compounded by the current lack of decent lightweight adventure bikes out there. You can count them almost on one hand, and they all need modifying to some degree – the DR650, a KTM 690, Yamaha’s WR250R if you don’t mind a small engine, the DRZ400, and the old classic, KTM’s 640 (no mods needed there!)… Any others? Hopefully CCM’s GP450 will be a hit – and then the other major manufacturers may reverse the trend and give us more choice in the lightweight category.

So just to reiterate before I sign off, I’m not saying we should all be riding riding 450s. And I’m not saying that adventure only starts when the pavement stops. I’m merely sharing my personal views on the subject. Some of the big ‘adventure bikes’ are great machines and are fit for the purpose they are designed for (which, as Stan Watt in MCN’s ‘Extreme Adventure Test’ tells us and the other riders demonstrate, is not off-road – less the KTM 990). I just happen to have got a lightweight bee in my bonnet at the moment. So please, all you Beemer riders, it’s nothing personal!

Related Posts: I introduce this topic in an earlier post – The Perfect Adventure Bike, or The Perfect Adventure Attitude?

15 Comments on Turning to The Light Side – The Argument for Lightweight Overlanding

  1. Another great blog Paul, spot on, I couldn’t agree with you more. In particular how the industry has moulded the market to suit themselves: I was speaking to the head of BMW Motorbikes UK earlier this year about this very subject and he just couldn’t see any market for a light weight ADV bike no matter how I pitched it to him!

    Light is might, light is right!!

  2. Excellent write up Paul, if you factor price into the equation then the Tenere really does score some points. A good sub 10,000 mile one can be had any day of the week for less than 4 grand here in the UK. That is powerful persuasion. Try finding a KTM 690 enduro for that.
    Louis on the loose is also a testament to light weight. Do you really need to go more than 60 mph?
    I think the thing to do is to match your adventure to your equipment, sounds to me like you are exploring the more off road adventure and hence erring towards a light weight machine.
    I have been down the KTM 640 adventure route and I just couldn’t rely on that engine, sold it for the Tenere.
    My son also has a Tenere and we are off to Scotland for a1700 mile blast to John O’Groats in July, and the Tenere can cope with the motorway way better than the massively viby 640.
    I like you am torn between light weight and the Tenere. I guess there is no perfect answer, other than to stay within the capabilities of what ever machine you have.
    Now, hard or soft luggage!!!

    • Hey Simon. I rode a 640 for twenty minutes on tarmac once and I don’t exhaggerate when I say my hands still buzzing after half an hour!! Sure could handle the off-road though!

      Except it’s weight, I can’t fault the Ten. And let’s face it, I’ve got this far on it and nothing has yet forced me to turn back. It’s just I could have done it a lot easier on a light machine and probably had a bit more fun in the process. One factor I didn’t include in the post was overlanding doesn’t need to be only driving from A to B with all your gear. I’ve been itching to stop, unload and go for a burn around the dunes in the Peruvian desert. That’s where a ligthweight 450 would be a dream.

      There is still a bit of me that thinks I should just upgrade the front forks to WP with the Off-The-Road triple clamp and stick with what I know. She’s been bullet proof so far.

  3. ciro bocanegra // 17/06/2014 at 5:47 pm // Reply

    Hola Paul. Si hubiese estado el Lima, con mucho gusto guardaría tu motocicleta. Por el momento me encuentro trabajando y viviendo en Arequipa. Si se podría aqui si te podria servir con mucho gusto. Un abrazo Ciro.

  4. A good write-up, Paul – it all makes perfect (and common) sense! So perhaps we’ll see you back in S. America with a somewhat lighter machine after the summer break?!

    • Mark, I’ll be riding up to Bolton to test ride a CCM 450. Then I’ve just got to decide if I can afford to ship the Tenere home and fly the CCM out there!! Painful decison, as it’ll probably mean selling my Triumph.

  5. Sounds like that’s a decision wrought with pain and pleasure in about equal measures….assuming you find the CCM meets your ideal adventure bike criteria, that is – it’ll be interesting to hear your thoughts on this, in particular in vis-à-vis the Tenere. But as decisions go, not a bad one to have to make! All this talk of relative lightness has reminded me there’s an old DR400Z festering at the back of my garage, unused for years – you may have just prompted me to re-commission it for a bit of green laning!

  6. I think the dr200 might be the best round the world bike. It’s parts are available everywhere. It’s cheap to buy and run. It’s good enough to do a 100kmh. What more do you want? Chuck out half your shi t you don’t need and its fine to carry it all.

    And it might blend in so you don’t look like a space martian

    • Carlos, the DR has been great. When we got it for Pau I wondered if it would be under-powered, but now I don’t think it is. 100kph is max, most of the time we barely exceed 70kph as we wind our way through the backroads of the Andes.

      The only weak point of the bike has been the triple clamp. Every time she gets dropped, even from a stand still, the tool kit comes out to realign the front wheel. Otherwise, a great little machine.

  7. Well said.
    We’ve just spent 5 months in SA on $1500 Honda 125s.
    Spot on regarding camping, and bringing the bikes in lodgings. I would hate stairs on a 1200, and we often needed the bikes to fit through a door.
    If I had my time again, it would be on a DR, CTX or AG 200. Tough, reliable, simple and hold luggage well.

    • Rob, when you think you’re doing well on a crappy section of dirt, and then see the locals ride past you on an AG200, two up without helmets, as if they are on asphalt, you can’t help wondering why you need anything else!!!

  8. whoah this blog is wonderful i like reading your articles.
    Stay up the great work! You recognize, many individuals are looking
    round for this info, you could aid them greatly.

  9. Aaaahhh, thank you, thank you. All the topics shared here are suddenly reminded to my memory. I experienced them all, when crossing most of the African continent on my old and trusty Super Tenere 750. All the Honda CR valved-fork, Ohlins shock, my old motocross technique and throttle could not prevent the bike bouncing left and right in rutted, sandy tracks. The desperation and sometimes fear when fatigue prevents us to put the bike on its wheels alone. Lighter, lighter…the feel of a light, crisp, powerful dirt bike off the road… but the great, round, powerful and comfy character of a twin cylinder on long fast roads. Compromise, compromise ! I’ve been contemplating the 660 Tenere for several years… How to make really lighter, apart from changing the exhaust ? All of this questioning and thinking, for me is part of the pleasure. Thanks for sharing all of this. All the best.

    • I’m a happy blogger if something I write sparks happy memories of life on the road! Will there ever be a perfect all-round overland bike? I hear rumoors Yamaha will be replacing the 660 Tenere with something using their 700 Triple. Maybe this will be the machine…..

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  2. Practicing What I Preach: Turning to The Light Side – Finally – HORCAMOTO

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