Understandably, newcomers to dual sport adventure riding often spend lots of time agonizing over the choice of their first adventure bike. I know I did. It’s an important decision, to be sure, made more difficult by the broad range of capabilities available in dual sport adventure motorcycles. Think about it – dual sport adventure motorcycles range from 250 pound street-legal race bikes (the KTM 500EXC) to 600 pound “adventure” bikes (the Yamaha Super Tenere). I will tell you that there is a VAST difference in the capabilities of a 250 lb. race bike and a 600 lb. adventure bike. If you pick the wrong bike for the type of riding you will be doing you, and the motorcycle, will be unhappy.
What is a newcomer to do? My first piece of advice is to begin by determining what kind of riding you will really be doing. Remember when I said you need to determine your definition of dual sport adventure riding? Well, the choice of which motorcycle to buy is 100% dependent on your answer to “what is dual sport adventure riding?” If you define dual sport adventure riding as “riding tight woods and a little bit of pavement” then a 250 pound street-legal race bike is what you are looking for. They are great for off-road riding (no surprise there) but are more than a bit lacking when it comes to the pavement. Sure they will do it but they aren’t even close to being comfortable or competent while doing so.
If you decide that dual sport adventure riding is “riding long distances on a mix of pavement and dirt” then you should select one of the many big adventure bikes. But make no mistake about it – a 500 pound “adventure” bike is not a dirt bike. I don’t care what the magazines and marketing folks say – don’t believe the hype. Yes, you can ride a ginormous adventure bike on easy dirt roads but that’s about the extent of it. You really aren’t going to ride a 500 pound motorcycle on serious dirt, at least not regularly. They are just too big and heavy for even moderately difficult dirt riding, they are too heavy to pick up by yourself when you drop them (and you will drop them), and the cost of repairing all the stuff that breaks when they are dropped can be staggering to a guy on a budget. That’s why research shows that less than 20% of adventure bikes are ever ridden off-pavement.
Yet both of these types of bikes fit into the category of “dual sport adventure bikes”. What are we to do? If you know what type of riding you will mostly be doing then the choice becomes a lot easier because you can start eliminating motorcycles from consideration. If you fail to figure it out before you buy your first bike you will surely figure it out afterwards. And it’s a crap shoot as to whether your first bike will meet your needs or not.
I’m an Adventure Rider – I ride everything
Many new riders don’t want to be limited to the type of riding they can do. Like me, they want the perfect, do-everything motorcycle that they can ride on serious dirt one day and 1000 miles of pavement the next. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that motorcycle doesn’t exist and never will. The characteristics that make a bike good in the dirt – light weight, large wheels, knobby tires, long travel suspension, high fenders, rearward biased weight distribution, light flywheel, and so on – are the opposite characteristics of what make a bike good on pavement – heavy weight (for more stability in the wind), smaller wheels, street tires, short travel suspension, low fenders, windscreen, and so on. So, any bike designed to ride both dirt and pavement is necessarily a compromise. Any bike that excels off-road is going to make you suffer while attempting long distance pavement riding. Any bike that effortlessly handles high speed, high mileage pavement riding is going to perform poorly off-road.
Manufacturers understand this and consequently make choices that bias their motorcycles toward more dirt or more street. That’s why there are both 250 lb. and 500 lb. dual sport adventure bikes. Manufacturers build the 250 lb. bike for one segment of the dual sport adventure market and the 500 lb. bike for another segment. All dual sport adventure bikes are a compromise in one way or the other. Even a bike that arguably was designed for 50% pavement and 50% dirt, like the Suzuki DR650, is a compromise.
Once you arrive at the point where you have a pretty good idea of the type of riding you most prefer then you can get serious about picking a bike to best meet your needs. To help refine the choice I find it useful to sub-categorize dual sport adventure bikes based on capabilities and characteristics. The three categories are:
- Street-legal dirt bikes
- Dual sport bikes
- Adventure bikes
Street-legal dirt bikes
These are basically dirt bikes that have just enough stuff on them to make them street-legal. Bikes like the KTM 350 EXC-F, KTM 500 EXC, and Husqvarna TE449 are in this category. Generally these bikes weigh much less than 300 lbs., don’t have a true sub-frame, and don’t have any real creature comforts to make them tolerable for riding pavement. They really are serious dirt bikes with a headlight, taillight, and blinkers.
Street-legal dirt bikes are best at what you probably imagine they are best at – riding off road. If you mostly ride trails or off-road, and only ride pavement to get from the end of one trail to the beginning of the next, then this is the type of bike you want sitting in your garage.
Do riders press them into duty as dual sport adventure bikes? Absolutely. Check on advrider.com and you can find the reports. But just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it. It’s no different than trying to convert one of the dual sport class of bikes into a street-legal dirt bike. Guys do it but it often costs a lot of money and the results aren’t usually particularly good.
Dual sport bikes
Dual sport motorcycles are the Chevy El Caminos of the dual sport adventure world. Or the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Or even the Swiss Army knife. Choose whichever analogy works best for you. They are 50/50 motorcycles; capable of being ridden in moderately difficult dirt or ridden on a ‘Round the World journey. The Kawasaki KLR650, Suzuki DR650, Honda XR650L, and KTM 690 all reside in this category.
The dual sport class of motorcycles weigh between 300 – 425 lbs and basically split the difference between street-legal dirt bikes and adventure bikes, sharing characteristics of both. For example dual sport bikes have 21 inch front tires for better handling in the dirt than adventure bikes but they are much heavier than street-legal dirt bikes making them less capable in the dirt. Their seats are wider than a dirt bike seat for better comfort but not as wide or comfortable as an adventure bike seat. They may have a small fairing or windscreen or one can easily be added for some wind protection but they have much less protection from the elements than the stock fairings found on adventure bikes. They have a sub-frame allowing them to carry modest amounts of gear and luggage but the sub-frames are not as robust as those found on adventure bikes. In other words, these bikes are compromised in many ways in order to make them as versatile as possible. They can be ridden on pretty much any road, just at a slower pace. They are slower in the dirt than a dirt bike and slower on the highway than an adventure bike. So why would someone ride one? Because they are worlds better in the dirt than an adventure bike and on pavement they are far superior to a dirt bike. They are as close to a do-everything bike as is available today.
The best fit for these bikes, in my opinion, is as a “road” bike. Dirt roads, gravel roads, and paved roads are where these bikes excel. (Note that a dirt road is still a road; it’s not off-road no matter how many times I hear otherwise. If you want to personally experience the distinction between “dirt road” and “off-road”, enter an enduro or cross country race. You will quickly discover that there is a big difference between dirt road riding and off-road riding.) Where these bikes don’t do well is out at the margin, on serious off-road terrain (and serious 4 wheel drive roads) and on freeways. Sure you can ride them off-road but their weight can quickly make it more work than fun. And, yes, you can ride them at 80 mph on a freeway but it won’t be enjoyable or relaxing for you or the bike. You can ride pavement all day long on one of these bikes if you are content to ride at about 60 – 70mph. Every mile per hour above this geometrically increases the discomfort factor.
Adventure bikes get all the love. The magazines drool over them, raving that they are the “best all-around bikes on the planet”, “can be ridden anywhere” and other such mischaracterizations. Glossy color advertisements show studly adventurers posing with them in remote, exotic locales. Ewin and Charlie rode two of them all the way around the planet and then the length of the planet to the southern tip of Africa. Adventure riders can’t get enough of them – when a guy decides he wants to be an adventure rider the first bike he often looks at is one of these.
The truth of the matter is a bit different; these bikes are fantastic touring motorcycles that can also be ridden on easy dirt. They aren’t dirt bikes. Heck, they aren’t even good dual sport bikes. They are adventure touring bikes, best suited for pavement riding and easy, dry, gravel roads. They don’t do well in mud, sand, silt, ruts, grass, off-camber, moist, or rocky conditions. If you want to circle the globe on paved roads, this is your bike. If you want to circle the globe on dirt roads, select another bike. Even Ewan and Charlie abandoned the more difficult dirt riding during the Long Way ‘Round because their bikes were too heavy.
Don’t take my comments to mean that I don’t like adventure bikes – I love them. They really are wonderful bikes. I just don’t agree with the portrayal of them as “go-anywhere” bikes because I think it does a disservice to riders new to the dual sport adventure world. As fantastic as they are, please don’t have any illusions that they are anything more than touring bikes with the ability to ride on easy, well-maintained, dry, non-paved roads.
Adventure bikes are so popular that most of the manufacturers sell one or more. The most popular models are from BMW, Triumph, Yamaha, and Suzuki. BMW makes the GS series (1200, 800, and 650). Triumph sells three models – 800, 800XC, and 1200. The Super Tenere is Yamaha’s version while Suzuki has two models – the 1000 V-Strom and the 650 V-Strom.
I can’t decide
If you can’t figure out exactly what type of dual sport adventure rider you are going to be or you are clinging to the idea of buying a single “do-everything” bike, then there is no need to agonize over the choice of which bike to buy. My second piece of advice is to stop obsessing over which bike is best and just buy a used bike from the dual sport class. Pick a model – it doesn’t really matter which one – and then shop around until you find a used one in good shape at a fair price. Buy it. Ride it for six months or so. At that point you will know what type of riding most appeals to you. You will have figured out if you prefer to ride mostly dirt, a mix of dirt and pavement, or mostly pavement. At that point you will know if the bike you are riding meets those needs. If it does, great! Life is good. If it doesn’t then you can sell it for about what you paid for it (assuming you’ve taken care of it, haven’t wrecked it, and haven’t added a ton of modifications to it). You aren’t married to the bike and you aren’t required to keep it for life. If it doesn’t meet your needs sell it and buy one that does. No harm, no foul.
This option doesn’t work nearly as well if you decide to purchase a brand new motorcycle. No bike is more expensive than a new one. Plus, a stock motorcycle won’t have the farkles (modifications) that you are going to want and/or need – things like luggage, larger gas tanks, aluminum skid plates, bark busters, rear rack, bar risers, windscreen, and so on. If you pick the wrong bike and decide to sell it you are going to take a beating due to depreciation. Not only will the bike devalue as soon as you take possession of it you will also not get back anywhere near what you paid for all those farkles.
The “buy any bike and ride it for 6 months” strategy only works with used bikes.
The perfect bike
So, which bike is best? What is the perfect dual sport adventure bike? As you now know, there isn’t a “best” bike. There is a best bike for you and how you ride but it won’t be the best bike for the next guy and how he rides.
Personally, I think you need three bikes, one from each category. You need a street-legal dirt bike for your hardcore off-road antics, a dual sport bike to ride on multi-day adventures, and an adventure bike to ride on long distance adventures to Alaska and Tierra del Fuego. If you can’t afford three, or your wife will divorce you if she comes home and finds multiple bikes sitting in the garage, then you have a hard choice to make. If you already know how and where you are going to ride, the choice is a little easier. Pick a bike from the category that best matches your intended use. If you aren’t sure, then buy a good used dual sport bike and be done with it. You’ll know in six months or so if you need to make a change.