The Road to Damascus…. on a Scrambler
‘You can have an adventure on any bike”. It’s a well-used mantra, but mention ‘adventure motorbiking’ or even moto-touring these days and most riders, it seems, think big. In fact, the marketing strategies of some motorcycle manufacturers over the last ten years or so have convinced many that a bike isn’t an ‘adventure bike’ unless is tops 200 kilograms with at least 800cc, and ideally a whole lot more.
Big means a relaxed riding position, tucked in behind a tall screen. Big means the capacity to carry a significant load – in excess of 100 litres with ease. Big means comfortable cruising for hours. It also means long range, since big bikes can have big fuel tanks. Big means powerful engines. In many cases, big also means lots of clever electronics to make your ride safer and smoother. For most riders, it seems bigger is better.
I am, to some degree, guilty of putting this philosophy into practice. I rode around South America on a 660 Tenere – by no means the biggest in terms of engine size, but it’s very tall and sports a large chassis, capable of carrying substantial loads. It’s upright and very comfortable for many hours in the saddle. And yes, it ticks all the boxes for what perceived wisdom believes an adventure bike should have: a large fuel tank, wind protection, long suspension travel with excellent ground clearance, a strong sub-frame, a highly reliable and relatively simple engine, and an all-up weight which allows a rider to pick the bike up – just – when it has been dropped. I also ride a Triumph Tiger 800 when in UK – smaller than the 1200s out there but still a big bike. And I love both machines.
Given this personal benchmark, I was unsure how a 1500 mile journey of motorway, winding mountain roads and everything in between would pan out aboard a Ducati Scrambler. Set against the criteria I just listed, which the Tenere fulfils so well, this bike seems to qualify as the consumate anti-adventure bike; the tank is small (13.5 litres), it has no wind protection, the suspension is agricultural, ground clearance is limited, and it’s just so small – surely the riding position will be cramped and where will the luggage go?
Not all my doubts were allayed when I got to ride it. With careful selection of luggage I had about 80 litres of bag space on the bike and still enough room to sit comfortably, but the riding position did indeed feel cramped compared to my other mounts. Moving the bars forward helped. It felt a little unnatural for me to be so close to the ground and indeed so close to the front wheel. However, the further I rode the more used to the Scrambler I became. The Comfort Seat from the Ducati parts catalogue lived up to its name and the addition of a small fly screen made a huge difference at high speeds. The long drive north up the motorway was far less an ordeal than I had expected.
Big bike syndrome was well and truly on display in the Highlands. With the summer struggling valiantly on into September and the midge season coming to an end, there were a significant number of motorbikes on the road – many from countries beyond our shores. The twisting and relatively traffic-free roads inevitably attracted a fair share of sports bikes, and during the two weeks I saw examples of most bikes including Goldwings and custom choppers, but the big ‘adventure bikes’ were the most ubiquitous. And yes, I am mainly talking about the GS 1200, inevitably.
By the time we reached Glen Coe I was thoroughly dialed into the Scrambler. It is so easy to ride; balanced, planted, yet very agile. The engine has if faults – Ducati still haven’t resolved the throttle’s snatchiness in first and second and I found the fuelling under 4000 revs to be far from smooth – but it is lively and responsive if you keep it in the higher rev ranges. The more miles we rode, especially on the single track roads through the mountains and along the coast, the more natural riding the diminutive Ducati felt.
We were there to explore, not to ride from A to B. Curiosity led us down numerous side roads, nearly always ending in a u-turn. Looking for photo opportunities or lunch spots saw us riding over verges, up banks and along paths. Low, lightweight and with an impressively tight turning circle, it was a breeze on the Scrambler.
After three or four days, I was enjoying this bike so much that I no was longer giving its characteristics much thought – I was just riding it. So my ‘road to Damascus’ moment caught me by surprise, coming out of nowhere. It just hit me….
Why (and how) have we got so obsessed with big bikes, when a small bike like the Scrambler can do it all yet with so much more ease, simplicity and fun?
It struck me as so obvious – almost too obvious. So I went through it in my head to see what I was missing. This bike is fast, comfortable, able to cruise at 90mph on the motorway and dance through corners on the narrow mountain roads; it would also be great around town. I was carrying 80 litres of gear on the bike without noticing it was there. I could ride it over moderately rough ground, turn it on a pinhead and manoeuvre it in tight spots with ease. It looks great, sounds great and is very cool. The tank is a bit small but good enough for about 140 miles. So no red flags there. I then cross-referenced with the 3000 miles I ridden the Tiger this summer – perhaps this would highlight flaws in my new, enlightened view. Still nothing flagged up.
When the trip came to an end the Scramblers had to go back to Ducati’s home at Silverstone. A couple of days later I was back on the Tiger. It felt so different to the Scrambler, and on paper it should have been a better ride; the riding position felt so much more relaxed; the silky smooth triple pulled effortlessly at 2000rpm, when the Scrambler would have complained and demanded down shifting; the Tiger felt so much more planted and assured compared to the smaller bike’s coltish friskiness. But something was missing.
I couldn’t really put my finger on it. There was no one characteristic that could be identified; rather, it was something to do with the essence of motorcycling. Somehow, riding a small bike felt more pure, the experience more immediately accessible to the senses. Perhaps the way you can turn a small bike with just a flick of the hips makes it feels more connected to the rider – your partner in crime rather than a responsible guardian accompanying you on the ride. Maybe it is the wind in your face with no screen to tuck in behind. Maybe the closer proximity of the ground. I don’t know, and actually I don’t really care. The experience and the feeling are the only relevant metrics – and they needn’t be explained.
It has left me wanting more. For quite some time now I’ve contemplated the Scrambler, with modifications inevitably, as an ‘alternative adventure bike’. This trip has further persuaded me that this perhaps counter-intuitive idea can indeed work. Most people think motos of this style are second bikes – stable mates of the big serious machines, which only come out for a bit of fun or to commute around town. But remember, in our forefathers’ days these were the bikes they went on adventures with (think Che Guevara and The Motorcycle Diaries). We’ve been seduced and perhaps a little brainwashed by the big bike agenda. So maybe some of us need to reacquaint ourselves with these little guys.
In a following post, I’ll offer my initial thoughts on how the Scrambler might be modified to make it a better machine for long trips and adventures.
Hi Paul, I have been ‘plagued ‘ by similar thoughts lately….I love my Tenere dearly but occasionally wish for a little less weight and bulk!. However that weight can also be a bonus when your on open tarmac with powerful sidewinder and on the road it feels very ‘planted’…something I think the GS guys love. Today I took my XR650R for spin and ended up in confusion about the whole Adventure bike scenario. I took it for an Mot and in order to move it into the workshop I had to move it sideways…a case of lifting up the back of the XR and simply moving it.. on the Tenere it would have required a monumental heave!. I know you have ridden one but surely the ideal Adenture bike is the CCM 450……? Steve
I know what you mean, Steven.
I agree the weight of the Ten, especially when loaded up, really helps it sits down and stay planted, even in the rough stuff. The CCM is the opposite – so light that is doesn’t want to sit still! But my time on the Ducati has questioned the importance of being super planted. Even during the motorway slog where this stability factor comes into play most, I found myself riding differently. I didn’t want to be too planted – I was enjoying weaving from lane to lane by dipping my hips and playing a bit, and getting on the throttle for the overtakes. It broke up the monotony! I guess that is part of the main point I was making – on a small bike, the fun comes back. It’s a different riding experience.
I’m still undecided about the CCM. Discounting the question over engine reliability and access to spares, I’m still not sure I would could it for a ‘Big Trip’. After preaching the lightweight doctrine back when I was in S America, I found the CCM perhaps too like; I wasn’t confident that it would handle well with a full load needed for an extended overland trip. (It was fun to ride though.) There is of course a difference between ‘light’ and ‘small’. The CCM is very light but still quite tall. The Ducati is heavier by maybe 30kg but it’s low, and I think that is what made it so easy to handle. Feet fully planted and light enough, it was so easy to move around.
I should read up a bit on how people have found the CCM. I assume someone must have used it on an extended trip by now.
I took my GP450 to Morocco with 60 litres of luggage. Yes it was a joy to ride, but the leaking fuel tank (which the mechanic in Hassilabied couldn’t fix) and the failed battery (maybe due to the innovative lightweight battery) spoiled the experience. Following Paul’s experiences I’ve got an XT660Z ready for the trip over to the ‘Stans next year. Heavier maybe, but I’m looking forward to reliability.
I don’t think anyone can argue with the reliability of the Tenere. Mine continues to soldier on without missing a step. The more I reflect on my travels around S Am, especially now as I consider what bike to buy in Mexico, the more I appreciate the Ten’s reliability and how much hassle it potentially removed from my trip.