Which Adventure Bike Do I Buy?

By Chris “Adventure Guy” Vandelaar

Photos by Chris Vandelaar

I’m in the market for an adventure bike. Ever fun. I get to select one of the many machines within my modest budget of $10-11K…. about one third of the cost to buy a new state-of-the-art, fully farkled machine with luggage and all of the creature comforts us adventure bike riders have come to expect.

The used market pays very little for all the extras you put on your bike; finding one that’s already been farkled properly is a bonus. Finding one that’s been farkled poorly, especially electrically, can, and likely will, be, at some point, a disaster. Not to mention you’ll have to live out your relationship with this bike dealing with all its short comings.

It is a relationship, like any other. You could be sitting there drinking coffee one day when all of a sudden: “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU HAND GUARDS AREN’T REAL BARK BUSTERS!” or “YOUR SINGLE-TEMPERATURE HEATED GRIPS REALLY BOTHER ME. I CAN’T LIVE LIKE THIS.”

Sub-par equipment will wear on you… it will me, but I’ve been called fussy (among other things). Sure, you can change things out and buy new but my Dutch heritage doesn’t allow that sort of behaviour.

Let’s list the bikes available near me: Beemers, KTM’s, Husqvarnas, Triumphs, Ducatis, and the all Japanese ones, in no particular order: Suzuki, Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha.

I have ridden many of these machines and owned a 2013 Yamaha Super Tenere. If you know anything about these bikes, you’ll know the Tenere weighs in at a hefty 560lbs — the chubby, athletic kid in gym class. I liked this bike but never loved it.

According to the reviews, the “Super 10r “as it’s known, is not a class leader in any of the areas we typically read about in reviews — horsepower, toque, weight, comfort on road, ability off road, after market parts availability, etc.. The 10r is a good second or third in many of these categories and has a decent used market, and the prices are reasonable at around the $10-13k range for a good bike that’s a few years old with some good shit attached.

I have nothing bad to say about the bike. I didn’t hate anything about it. It was good at everything I asked it to do, except pick itself up. Its appearance was robust and suave with a great stance, excellent styling (in my opinion). It was really a beautiful machine with the superb fit and finish we expect from Yamaha. It was well made, well put together, and pretty easy to work on.

The 1200cc parallel twin, a reliable and beefy mill spouting 115-ish Hp and 65 foot pounds of torque. Enough for anything. Those number easily increased with a bit of tuning but kept to these modest numbers by Yamaha for emissions control purposes.

On road, an easy to ride machine, stable at any speed it would get to. Off road, a juggernaut at speed, but surprisingly nimble at lower speeds with good balance. It was okay in trails and its weight kept it firmly planted on gravel roads. As I said, a good bike but rather boring… which is, I guess, what one might want when traveling endlessly for days or weeks on end. Reliable, no surprises, offering you the ability to travel and see the sights without the worry of a breakdown or being able to find service, should the need arise…. not that it ever would. It’s Japanese.

I gambled on this bike having bought it without ever riding it. I’m a believer that whatever bike you buy will need to be made to suit you and your riding style. Me, 220lbs on a good day, 6’1″ (without heels) and an average off road rider with some dirt bike experience over my lifetime.

I have no regrets about my Tenere, but I was not crushed when I lost it in an unexpected deep water crossing event which was luckily covered by insurance. Thus began my search for replacement bike. That was a year ago…. I’ve been searching and researching ever since…… It’s true what they say: “You just need five bikes, and the cash to support them!

Over the past long year of not having a motorcycle with dirt tires, I have created a list of things that I expect from my fine new steed. For your reading pleasure, I’ve put them in the following order of importance:

1.     Weight — My new machine has to be more agile and nimble. Looking at stock numbers for weight, the following must be considered: you’re going to add a bunch of necessary crap if you’re going travel on a big dirt bike. Crash bars. Get a 500+ lb bike in anything sloppy when it’s loaded with camping gear. When the bike gets away from you you’ll want to just let it fall before you throw out your back. Save your back for when you need to pick this big prick up! A skid plate. Not uncommon to find a fallen log when you’re on a closed access road. If this were included in the spec weight, that would be an added bonus.

2.     Displacement – I have an obsession to keep my new bike in the sub-1000cc range. Mostly due to point #1. Sure, everyone loves horsepower and torques are fun too — the more the better! But, if your goal is being “adventurey,” then why do you need a drag bike? Very few people in this world can actually handle the power these bike have to offer in the trails. The off-road capabilities of this bike are what matters to me, and I’m willing to give up the deep roar of huge displacement on the highway to get this…. it’s the highways I want to avoid! Furthermore, 65+ ft/lbs of torques are unusable in all but the most perfect off road conditions. Zero to hospital in 2 seconds flat. WITH AN AIRLIFT! Who doesn’t love a helicopter [bill]!?

3.     Off road capability — This one is on my list now because, aside from dirt bikes, which I’ve always loved, these machines can be pigs in the dirt, let alone mud. I need good suspension, to absorb the weight of my three guts — the one up front and the ones on each side of my back. Having longer-travel suspension may just be that saving grace, so when it goes wrong I don’t dislocate a hip.

4.     Traveling – Sure, I’m always looking for the dirt, however, my travels thus far have taught me that it’s sometimes worthwhile to blast down the highway for a day or two in order to get to the good stuff. The bike needs to be comfortable enough that I can ride it for 8-12 hours without wearing myself out by the time I get to said “good stuff.” It needs a frame size that will allow me to sit relaxed and not be all cramped up. I’ll put luggage in this category too. When traveling, good luggage is a must. It’s convenient to be able to lock your stuff on your bike so lunch can be just that…. lunch. Not playing Sherpa to get the world’s best pulled pork. I always fall for a sign that says that. Until now, I’ve always had hard, lockable luggage but I have to admit, I am intrigued by the soft luggage available from manufacturers like Giant Loop. In any case, the luggage has to be able to not only hold all your crap securely, but withstand the potential fall WHEN the bike goes down, because, IT WILL! Nothing like zip tying on a 30 or 40lb pannier in the middle of nowhere and expecting it to stay on while you get yourself out of the middle of nowhere.

Another sub-category of traveling is comforts. Part of the ability to travel for days is to not underestimate the effects of 120km/h winds, a sore ass and cold hands for hours on end. That stuff is tiring. A good windscreen, heated grips, hand guards and an aftermarket or modified seat are typically the four first things I look at. These are not to be underestimated. I am not one of those put up and shut ups. My ass hurts? It’s likely you’ll hear about it. Simple survival.

5.     Reliability and Service — This is a big one, although, in my case, I wrench most of my own stuff and I’m a believer in preventative maintenance. I’m not OCD but also don’t like surprises. Paying a bit of attention to your bike can prevent most of the things you might experience on a trip. Nothing like traveling with a numb-nuts who hoped that that squeaky wheel bearing would “get better or at least get through this last 4000 km” adventure that you, he, and the rest of your gang had planned. It’s not like bearing wear causes an exponential heat increase leading to sudden and catastrophic failure or anything! My gang has an agreement for multi-day excursions: If your bike breaks down, we get you to the nearest place for service and we’ll see you later! Technology offers us the ability to communicate and find one another leaving the option for that friend to catch up or meet up later once the breakdown is remedied. Anyway, a good service network is important, none the less.

Okay, list complete. Now, what bikes are fitting into my matrix of decision? IS there a bike that fits all of my criteria? Do I look for that perfect all-in-one machine or do I buy something and build it into what I need?

There are some good options for this. A Honda CB500x has incredible aftermarket potential with companies like Rally Raid offering complete suspension and wheel kits to beef up the low-priced entry-range machine turning into a very capable adventure bike.

Google “CBX Rally Raid” if you want to know what I’m talking about or Jenny Morgan from the UK who has been riding one of the bikes back and forth across the U.S. for the last few years. I’ve met Jenny a few times and her philosophies on the CB are spot on, in my opinion: Start with a lightweight machine from Honda. Ultimate reliability and a service network around the world that is second to none. Replace all the lesser bits that you get with a stock Honda, like wheels, suspension, luggage and other bits, to create a super-reliable, off road capable machine with good suspension and all bits and shits to fit you.

Sounds great, right? Well, as mentioned, my 6’2 (in adventure boots) frame leaves me pretty cramped up on this little frame although the stock bike itself with its 500cc parallel twin just rips it. Enough power for anything, a quick blast down a major highway at a (lets call it) “spirited pace” with still enough power to accelerate more for passing that Michigan plate driving slowly in the fast lane. Easily enough power and smooth enough that it doesn’t make a milk shake out of your man parts.

This bike was perfect in every way but size. I bought one anyway. It’s now my wife’s. It’s perfect for her 5’6″ frame and at $3900 (CAD) for a 2013 with 12k km, impossible to beat, economically. I’ve seen reviews declaring this bike to be possibly the bike of the decade! Do I believe this? Well, it sure holds high in my ranking. Also from Honda, the Africa Twin. A bike that is just starting to show up on the used market. Still over my budget and many having Honda luggage don’t like it and the weight, at 500lbs, a decent weight but still a lot. This is without crash bars, a decent skid plate and flimsy little foot pegs. Add 50 lbs!.

Offerings from Kawasaki and Suzuki? The legendarily simple and bulletproof Kawasaki. KLR 650 is just too rough of a machine for my sensitive self to spend days on. The kids can handle it, but not me.

Enter the Versys. Neither get me going. Suzuki V-Strom in 650 or 1000. I’ve ridden the 1000. This is a very nice all around bike. It’s amazing on the highway with an almost unusable sixth gear unless travelling at warp 4. That’s my way of saying it’s fast AF on the highway! The V-Strom that I rode, 2009, was not much to speak of off road. With an engine from a street bike, the oil filter perched right out front behind the front tire, I just can’t fathom that. Nice bike to ride, super on gravel roads but left a bit to be desired off road. Fit and finish, not quite to my liking. Newer ones might be better. Let’s hope.

Looking at other bikes in the market, I’ve ridden all the BMW’s and a couple Triumph Tigers, both the 800 and the 1200 — Both of these are amazing. The 800 again a bit too small for me in the long run, I think, but power delivery is incredible from the inline 3 cylinder. Just awesome.

The 1200 XC Explorer, absolutely at the top of my list. This bike, until last, week was the nicest bike I have ever thrown a leg over. It is comfortable, fast as hell, and the most linear throttle control I’ve ever seen. Triumph nailed the calibration and mapping of this drive-by-wire accelerator system. Just the best, in my opinion. I’d love to try their newest model. I saw one last winter at the Toronto dealers’ show, sat on it, and it was even more comfortable with the addition of a gel seat (for my candy ass). This machine, still a beast I’m sure.

You may have caught me a sentence or two ago: “Until last week,” I said. Last week, I was fortunate enough to ride a 2018 BMW GS1200 with the recently upgraded to liquid cooled horizontally opposed boxer engine. With its soft seat, upright position and LED display panel that’s like a TV on your motorcycle, this machine is currently at the top of my list.

Both the Tiger and the GS are so far out of my price range, that I’ve stopped looking them up. The used market for these is increasingly competitive, too, with the increasing popularity of adventure riding, these bikes, if priced reasonably, don’t last long. Tigers don’t exist in my budget range and the only GS’s I can afford are getting up there in mileage. Been there done that with older BMW’s. It’s been fun, Beemer, but you’re off my list.

Okay, back to reality. $10-11k is my budget. Where does this leave me? A bike that keeps popping up are the older KTM 990’s. The 990 was replaced in 2013 with the 1090 and later added to the line, the 1190 and 1290…. beasts!

The 990’s were produced until 2012, with earlier models having a few known issues, I was not able to find much negative reporting on the later 2011 or 12 models. If bad news travels 4 times farther and faster than good news, as they say, one or two negative comments on the forums and in the reviews is likely a very good sign.

Let’s look at the specs on this machine: 114hp and 75ft/lb of torque! Okay, busted. That’s out of order but I still like power! Weighing in at 460lbs… this is by far the lightest bike in this category with most of these machines being well over the 500lb mark. BMW GS at 504 lbs and the Triumph Tiger at 540, the KTM is looking like it’s hit my weight criteria with a home run!

What else is on my list? Displacement: 999cc, within spec. Off road capability. Do I even need to talk about this? It’s a KTM. Notoriously owning the off road environments around the world. With its 21″ front tire, 2″ taller than the other bikes in its class, this is motocross territory. The KTM will perform off road. Next is traveling.

Okay, according to the reviews, the KTM’s are one of the lower scorers in this category. Apparently, the 21-inch front wheel makes it less maneuverable on the road and the firm suspension a bit unforgiving for long periods of time. Remember, off road capability was high on my list, we can’t have it all, can we?

Luggage and other comforts, many of these bikes are listed with Hepco Becker luggage. Certainly, from what I’ve read, a leader in quality gear but from what I’ve seen so far, this stuff seemed a little heavy to me, but I’d be willing to try it out. Seats? who cares? Gotta buy a proper seat for every bike made before 2016 anyway. Nobody likes a 2×4 in the twasn’t.

Lastly on my list was reliability and service. This was last because, in my opinion, they’re all good nowadays. KTM’s are probably the most talked about for service as they can be, apparently, difficult to work on, tough to get parts for and possibly unreliable. The only point of which I take to heart is the difficulty of getting parts. Is this a chance I’m willing to take? Yes. The age of the bike to me suggests there are many of them around now and that a good network of users and parts supply have been established. Relying solely on the manufacturer is not going to be a necessity as it would with a newer machine.

Difficulty to work on the bike? I’m not concerned. I have an advanced technical background and enjoy the work. As previously mentioned, I’m a firm believer in preventative maintenance and stories I’ve heard often have a back story about the stupid f’n bike left me stranded after I did all the no maintenance for all those years. I’m not scared of arguably one of the best bikes out there for handling rough conditions. They’re just not as popular around here.

There are many choices, anything without a warranty is a risk… even the warranty is pointless if your bike lets you down and ruins a big trip. Like I said, they’re all good and they all have some bad stories. I think that’s part of the adventure…. Let’s hope not.

Ultimately, a blast through some great trails with the ability to feel the freedoms of adventure riding, like camping wherever you want and getting those great places that cars just can’t go… and the speed at which hikers just don’t understand are all the things we look for. Whatever bike we ride can take us on an adventure, on road, or off. For now, my old road-bound BMW RT will continue to reliably and smoothly get me around, but my hopes are that adventure, off road, are not too far off for me. Did I mention that we should all just have five bikes?

I feel like I’m much closer to making my decision. The only question left is, which adventure bike do I buy…?

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned, Chris has made a purchase!