www.ADVrider.com is very much the home of pictorial adventure riding blogs and stories and this winter there has been a plethora of great blogs on ADVrider related to off-the-beaten-track real moto adventuring in Mongolia and Siberia, all from great rides by guys in 2013.
For riders thinking of their own trips, don’t just take my word on how to pack, what to ride, and what kind of real world adventures you can have out there, see what other people are doing too.
And for riders who just love seeing stories and pictures from riding adventures in Siberia and Mongolia (I am absolutely one of those myself) ….
The Sibirsky Extreme officially endorsed winter 2013-2014 approved Adventure Motorcycling reading list (not comprehensive and in no order of awesomeness):
3) British rider Wesley on his first ever adventure on a DRZ 400. Wesley learned to ride just before he set off, so for novice riders his experiences will be particularly valuable. Seeking adventure he went through Chechnya and Dagestan on his way to Central Asia. http://www.advrider.com/forums/showthread.php?t=934709
5) German Steffen on a BMW G650 X-Challenge (who is currently way behind in his blogging) rode through Kazakhstan, the Altai, Mongolia and Tajikistan. While he hasn’t got there with his blogs yet, I have seen the pics from Mongolia and Tajikistan and they are excellent. http://www.advrider.com/forums/showthread.php?t=943080
When I look at the most common selection of bikes going into the Sibirsky Extreme part of the world, taking on the BAM Road, Old Summer Road etc, usually after blasting through Mongolia, there are three models that stand out as the most commonly used and in my view, they are three of the most logical bikes to take for those challenges. The KTM 690, the BMW G650 X-Challenge and the Suzuki DRZ400. The latter two are not made any more (or at least availble in Europe), so I will begin a look at suggested adventure bikes for this part of the world with the only one of the three that still is in production, the KTM 690. Continue reading →
Adventure Bike Selection Myths and Old Wives Tales
In the previous post on bike selection I looked at weight and how it is the single most critical part of adventure motorcycle selection, and how 90% of riders end up with a bike that’s much too heavy for their first real adventure ride into the likes of Siberia or Mongolia. Having debunked the “I need an obese bike” myth, we will look at other adventure bike selection criteria, and see if we can’t debunk a few more adventure bike selection myths. In particular we are going to look at carbs, fuel injection, reliability, and air cooled vs water cooled engines.
Fuel injection is one of those topics that has the old guard screaming “no no no, never go adventure motorcycling on a fuel injected bike. You can’t rebuild a broken fuel injector or fix the electronic black box (ECU) that drives it in the middle of Mongolia, whereas you can rebuild a carburetor.” And to be fair, they are kinda right with the facts. And yet wrong with their conclusions. Why?
Fuel injection is simply the most simple, reliable and efficient way to get fuel into an engine. Mission critical machines like submarines and single engine light aircraft use fuel injection – demonstrating the extreme reliability of FI as a system for getting fuel into an engine. Those who rail against fuel injection often do so claiming its some sort of new fangled technology. Fuel injection was first used in an aircraft engine in 1902- YES 111 years ago. Fuel Injection is about as modern as the late Queen Mother! Direct injection has been around since 1925. In the second world war, Merlin powered Spitfires were upgraded to fuel injection (under the name Pressure Carburetor) because the engines would cut out in dives and negative G situations (engines cutting out in the middle of a dogfight with an angry fuel injected ME109 on your tail has to be the ultimate benchmark in unreliability). Alfa Romeo developed electronic fuel injection for cars in 1940. Sterling Moss won the F1 season in 1955 in a fuel injected Mercedes. EFI went into mass production automobiles in the US in 1958.
So FI is new? High tech? No.
EFI is many times more reliable than a carb. The failure rate among modern ECUs or actual injectors is near zero. The argument that ECUs can’t be fixed by the side of the road is rendered mute by the complete absence of ECU failures, even on the most brutal of adventure rides. I had a long discussion with adventure motorcycling legend Chris Scott some years ago and despite us racking our brains over an entire pub lunch session, neither of us could recall ever knowing first hand of an ECU failure stopping an adventure bike trip.
As for injector reliability … My previous car was a 1994 V8, in which I racked up 250,000 miles. It had 8 fuel injectors. Not once did I have to touch, service, tweak, adjust, clean or do anything to any one of the injectors that collectively logged two million injector miles. In complete contrast, my cousin has a 1970s car with triple carburetors. Every month he is in the garage balancing his carbs, cleaning the carbs, after just a handful of miles. The idea that his triple carbs could go a quarter of a million miles in perfect balance and reliability without ever being touched is so far removed from reality (and even possibility) that it might as well be in a fairy tale that has the car turning into a pumpkin at midnight. And yet that level of reliability is absolute reality with EFI.
The fuel injector itself is the pinnacle of simplicity; A system with almost no moving parts. Compare a diagram of a fuel injector with a carburetor (see below) and you will see why the fuel injection requires no maintenance, while the carburetor requires a lot. And if it needs a lot of maintenance, it’s not reliable. Simple.
There are further disadvantages with carburetors. They are gravity fed. They do not operate well at awkward angles. And (in the absence of a fuel pump – which is most cases) they need to have the ALL of the bikes fuel stored higher than the carburetor. Having the fuel high and the carburetor low has two disadvantages for adventure bikes. Firstly the higher than necessary centre of mass that an overlanding fuel load (often 20-30 kgs including the tank) implies when it is located high on the bike rather than low, and secondly a low carburetor, which due to breathing holes means the bikes ability to ford water crossings is very much reduced vs a fuel injected bike which relies on air intake alone as its determinant of fording depth. The ideal design outcome for an adventure motorcycle is to have the fuel low (for weight distribution) and the induction and air intake high (for water fording) … carburetors tend to lead to the exact opposite.
When it comes to motorcycles, there is often one weak link in the fuel injection system, and that is the fuel pump. Some manufacturers do unfortunately have a reputation for putting into the field less than reliable fuel pumps. The flip side to this is that EFI fuel pumps do not need to be vehicle specific as most modern vehicles (bikes or small cars) run similar volume and pressure fuel pumps. That means replacing an EFI fuel pump on the road needs only the location of the nearest auto parts store. Or better still, a reliable car pump can be fitted prior to the journey. In any case, it is hardly a disadvantage over carbs, as I have on several occasions come across bikers broken down in Mongolia and Siberia, needing new parts made for the carburetors. Carb needles, lost jets etc …
Ultimately, I am a believer in empirical evidence as the ultimate determinator of fact vs fiction. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, single engined piston aircraft and helicopters run fuel injection; mission critical applications. So lets look at adventure motorcycles operating in remote areas – areas where you do not want to have breakdowns, and Extreme Siberia is great examples of such remote areas where the consequences of breaking down are far greater than they are in the Dolomites or Eastern Turkey – it’s the closest we adventure bikers get to mission critical requirements. Over 75% of bikes doing the Old Summer Road or BAM Road are fuel injected – and that percentage increases every year. Despite me being in close contact with most of the adventurers to see this part of the world, not once have I heard of a fuel injection related problem during an adventure ride in Extreme Siberia. In the most demanding adventure motorcycling conditions imaginable, EFI and its ECU friend have totally demonstrated their reliability in that challenging environment, across many brands (BMW, KTM, Yamaha).
Further, there are a myriad of benefits from fuel injection. Considerably greater efficiency is one. That not only saves you money, but more importantly for adventure motorcyclists, reduces fuel load and increases range. A fuel injected bike operates trouble free as altitudes vary. In contrast, carbed bikes can get sluggish and run rich at high altitudes, often seeing fuel efficiency drop dramatically, a fuel injected bike actually increases efficiency as altitude increases. Fuel injected bikes are less likely to ping/pink, and can run on lower octane fuel at far higher compression ratios than carbed bikes. Further, fuel injectors are not subject to icing as indeed carburetors are, in cool moist conditions. Carb icing can occur anywhere above 25% humidity, and between 0 and +25C, as the chart below demonstrates. In high altitude terrain, the combination of carb icing and rich running multiplies the advantages of fuel injection.
All in all, the carb vs EFI debate reminds me of similar arguments from the old guard a few decades ago of points vs CDI ignition. “A CDI is a black box” they yelled. “If it breaks, we can’t service it”. Well time has shown pretty conclusively, that while yes, you can’t really service a CDI box that’s broken, the reality is they don’t break. Therefore it’s a correct point that has absolutely no real world value – just as we see in the EFI vs carb argument.
I have never come across a stranded adventurer with a broken CDI unit, BUT, I have come across a stranded adventurer, stuck in Ulaan Baatar for almost a month, while a replacement distributor rotor had to be shipped out from the UK at great expense. You can’t always fix broken old style parts. They too sometimes need to be shipped out, and as it happens, much more often than computerised control units.
Air Cooled vs Water Cooled:
A similar debate can sometimes be heard from the old guard insisting that air cooled engines are more reliable than water cooled. The logic behind the argument goes along the lines that adding a water pump and a radiator to the bike is an additional system that can go wrong and particularly the radiator is subject to trip-stopping stone damage. The empirical evidence, however, simply doesn’t stack up on that theory. I have done 150,000 km (95,000 miles) on my G650X, a water cooled bike with a very flimsy radiator, and ridden it mainly over some of the most hostile motorcycling terrain on earth; I have dropped the bike at least 50 times, crashed it into rocks at speed, destroyed rims, broken my ribs, bent subframes, twisted swingarms and yet, no radiator problems. My good friend Terry Brown, another veteran adventurer with a similar motorcycle, similarly brutal adventure experience, and running the same radiator, did, after 110,000 km (70,000 miles) finally get a small radiator leak on the BAM Road last year. But it was fixed within 20 minutes with epoxy metal. Between us, over a quarter of a million adventure kilometres (neither of us use the bikes for anything but adventure riding) using a thin, non-durable radiator, and the only problem was a 20 minute delay. Never in my life have I heard of any adventure trip having to be cancelled due to a holed radiator.
On the other side of the coin, the advantages of a water cooled engine are huge. As the engine operates in a much narrower temperature band, the tolerances can be much closer to ideal. The power and efficiency of the engine is much higher. This leads to much lower engine weight for a given amount of power. It leads to much lower fuel consumption (and therefore lower fuel weight needed to be carried) for a given amount of power. There is no reason backed up by real world evidence, to say that air cooled bikes the most logical choice for adventure riding. It’s another great adventure motorcycling myth.
The penalty for choosing air cooled engines is weight … weight of engine required to produce an equivalent amount of power and weight of extra fuel required to offer the same range as the more efficient water cooled EFI engines. In a 60-65 hp bike, the net weight penalty is often going to be 25-40 kgs. An example might be comparing a (66 hp / 66 Nm) KTM 690 engine with a BMW R100 air cooled boxer engine (60 hp / 73 Nm). The KTM engine plus gearbox weighs 39 kgs, vs 70 kgs for the R100 equivalent. The adventuring range offered by 25 litres of fuel on a 690 (65 mpg) would require 38 litres on a R100 (43 mpg). 31 extra kgs in the engine plus 9 kgs extra fuel load … thus the penalty to generate 60-65 hp in an air cooled, carbed bike is 40 kgs. As we mentioned last week, avoiding an overweight bike is the most important rule in adventure bike selection. 40 kgs is often the difference between people loving Mongolia (or the BAM) and struggling miserably with it.
If we look at whats available around the globe in 2013 in terms of deliberately and specifically light bikes, we could compare the 2013 edition of the Honda XR650L with the CCM GP450. Both potential adventure bikes, specifically designed to be lightweight, both producing around 40-43 hp. The Honda has a carburetor and air cooling. The CCM has EFI and water cooling. As is, the CCM is 130 kgs vs 146 for the Honda. But that’s not a fair comparison. The CCM has large fuel tanks and a fairing for adventure travel. Fit those items to the Honda and the difference is around 20 kgs – plus a few more kgs for the additional fuel load fuel the 650 would need to carry match the range of the EFI 450. On this basis, you can see that the penalty for using carbs and air cooling, even for a 40-45 hp light adventure bike is still going to be around between 15-25 kgs.
So, in summary: I am NOT telling you that you cant use carbs or air cooled bikes for adventure motorcycling – because of course you can. There are plenty of guys who have done amazing rides on air cooled carbed bikes. But what I am telling you is that water cooling and EFI is superior – in a myriad of ways. What I am telling you is a fear or water cooling and EFI is irrational, illogical, adds weight to your bike and reduces flexibility from your adventures. What I am telling you is don’t listen to anyone who insists air cooled is better for adventure riding – it isn’t. Don’t listen to anyone who insists carburetors are better for adventure riding – they aren’t. By all means, ride air cooled and/or carbed bikes if you like them – I know and respect several guys who do. But none of those guys kid themselves that they are using superior systems. They just happen to like those particular bikes that the air cooling and carbs are attached to, and know they are paying a weight penalty for their choice; a choice which they also know is not one of logic, but one of passion.
The reality is most of the bikes doing tough, challenging, adventure riding in Siberia and Mongolia in 2013 are both water cooled and fuel injected. It’s time to put to bed, once and for all, prehistoric ideas about cooling and induction that have prejudiced the adventure motorcycling world since those theories were born in the 1980s.
If you are trying to choose a rational logical adventure bike, then you should absolutely be considering fuel injection and water cooling. In my opinion, it should be the default starting position. Combined with the weight article last month, that now has me recommending single cylinder bikes, sub 165 kgs dry, preferably with water cooling and EFI.
More of the brutally rationalist Sibirsky Extreme Adventure Bike Selection Guide to come in future weeks …
An interesting post script …
At the end of 1998, the management of BMW’s Motorcycle Division decided to run “boxers” in rallying in order to have a means of comparing two alternative design concepts – The air cooled carbed bike (boxer) vs the water cooled bike (Rotax 650). A well-known specialist company, HPN, was asked to develop a competitive rallying version of the air cooled boxer for BMW as a prototype and fitted it with Bing carburetors. They built the BMW R900RR. It competed in the 1999 Dakar directly against BMWs F650RR. While the R900RR was developed with factory help and factory money, the F650RR was developed mostly privately. BMW were putting their own considerable money behind the boxer, in a concerted drive for success for their flagship engine design.
In rally trim, the R900RR produced 90hp, and weighed 190kg dry. The F650RR produced 75 hp and weighed 168 kgs dry. In absolute power terms, the boxer was superior. In torque terms, the boxer was superior. In power to weight terms, the boxer was superior. The one clear advantage the F650 had going for it was absolute weight. The 22 kg advantage of the F650 (without fuel – even more of an advantage with fuel) helped it win the 1999 Dakar, against its more powerful stablemate, with the boxer ultimately coming in 4th.
The following year, 2000, the two BMW bikes squared off against each other one last time. The old guard represented by the R900RR and the new, by the F650RR. Yet again the F650 proved 1999 was no fluke and again finished ahead of the boxer. And yet again the F650RR won the Dakar overall.
At that point, faced with the inability of its favoured air cooled engine design to compete with modern water cooled alternatives, BMW effectively gave up on the Dakar. Instead, they shifted all their racing efforts and attention to the Boxer Cup, where BMW could promote their air cooled boxer engine free from water cooled comparisons.
At long last, we have the trailer clip for the upcoming Sibirsky Extreme Trail DVD. There are many more months of editing still to go, but I hope to have something ready in the new year. As always, it will be available exclusively at www.Adventure-Spec.com.
Mapping an offroad trail from the EU to Magadan, the Sibirsky Extreme crew set out on adventure motorcycles, from the Poland-Ukraine border, in May 2012, with a plan to spend over 3 months on the road.
The goal: To map an offroad trail route all the way from the edge of the European Union, across Eurasia to the Pacific Ocean at Magadan. The planned route took in Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Siberia and involved riders from the UK, Holland, US and Norway as they took on challenges as diverse as the steppes of Russia, the mountains of the Altai, the grasslands of Mongolia and the pinnacles of Siberian adventure challenges, the BAM Road and the Road of Bones – Old Summer Road.
This video is a trailer for the DVD that resulted from the trip, currently being put together, with an anticipated release of early 2014. The DVD will be available exclusively at www.adventure-spec.com
Some stick to the old maxim that any bike is an adventure bike. Any bike can take you anywhere. A recent conversation with Austin Vince found us in complete agreement. That maxim is bollocks. That maxim worked in the 1980s and 1990s when Adventure Motorcycling was crossing continents like Africa or South America. When routes were undocumented, even main “highways” unpaved and uncertain, and mystery was around every corner. Back in those days, when the term “Adventure Motorcycling” was born, a trans-continental motorcycle journey inherently consisted of both travel to exotic places and the adventure of expedition motorcycling to actually get there. This is epitomised by the journeys of people like Chris Scott, Grant & Susan Johnson, Helge Pedersen, Eric & Gail Haws, and others. This complete intertwining of these two elements that make up “Adventure Motorcycling” of exotic motorcycle travel and expedition riding can be seen in the Austin Vince film, Terra Circa, where the exotic travel goal of riding across Russia to Vladivostok was inextricably linked to the need to ride across what the team christened, the “Zilov Gap” – several hundred kilometres of swamp – on nothing more than unmaintained railway service tracks.
These days Adventure Riding has moved on, as the roads have become paved, as the mystery around each corner has evaporated due to the explosion of information available on the internet. That has caused a split in direction amongst Adventure Motorcyclists. While the majority now focus exclusively on “motorcycle travel” as being the key to Adventure Motorcycling (thus the proliferation of 250 kg “Adventure” bikes that are not suitable for the likes of mud, sand or other adventurous terrain beyond well maintained, graded, gravel roads), many, including myself, believe that some degree of expedition riding is still fundamental to the idea of “Adventure Motorcycling”, as was the case in the past. These days riding to Vladivostok is simply a matter of getting on the all asphalted Trans-Siberian Highway, and following the endless procession of 40 ton, 18 wheel freight lorries, or your GPS voice commands, and around two weeks after leaving Moscow you will arrive at Vladivostok. Is that Adventure Motorcycling in 2013? Is “Adventure Motorcycling” really an appropriate name for that? You can do it on a scooter, on a Goldwing, or anything in between. That’s an experience and an endeavour almost completely unrelated to the “Adventure Motorcycling” experienced on the same route in 2001 by the Terra Circa team and highlights how advances in both technology and road building have meant that many Adventure Motorcyclists of today now seek riding challenges beyond the main routes in order to maintain that need for real adventure riding. Austin Vince himself has shown how the need to seek out more exotic routes is essential to his own sense of Adventure Motorcycling, when for his soon to be released film, Mondo Sahara, he sought out rarely visited inland corners of Mauritania for the Saharan expedition. Mondo Sahara is thus true to the spirit of Adventure Motorcycling, a combination of both elements; exotic destinations and expedition riding.
For me at least, Adventure Motorcycling now does not mean domestic off road riding, nor riding to adventurous sounding far away foreign cities on asphalt major highways, alongside tourist coaches full of elderly German and Japanese tourists. For me, the getting away from it all feeling of Adventure Motorcycling means actual adventurous riding in adventurous places. For that more purist approach to Adventure Motorcycling, a more rigorous and demanding evaluation of potential motorcycles (Adventure Bikes) is needed.
Recently BMW has changed its definition of “Adventure Bikes” to include (for the very first time) bikes less than 1000cc. Unfortunately they have still not managed to build an “Adventure” branded bike that weighs less than 200 kgs dry. The F800 GS Adventure has landed – and its a tank.
I get asked what do I think of certain bikes all the time so it makes sense to share some thoughts.
The dry weight of the outgoing standard R1200GS is 203 kgs. The dry weight of the F800 Adventure is the same. Its supposed to be a lighter bike – a middle weight bike. It isnt. If 200 kgs is a big adventure bike then middle weight bikes should be sub 180 kgs dry. I cant see how anyone can consider a 229 kg wet weight bike (without luggage) anything but a big / heavy bike.
The problem is when you look closely at an F800, you struggle to find any evidence on the bike have BMW designers been weight conscious. If BMW had put a little effort into weight reduction the bike could easily be 25 -30 kgs lighter
Manufacturers make a lot of effort to reduce weight on track replica bikes, on MX bikes and on proper enduro bikes. But they dont make any effort on adventure bikes. And if the adventure bike buying public don’t demand lighter adventure bikes, the manufacturers never will bother making any effort to reduce the weight of them.
If we consider an F800 vs X-challenge (144 kgs dry – and a good base adventure bike I know well), I would recommend beginning by reading these thoughts from Steve Royset, a man who not only owns both, but has done proper off road adventuring on both the F800GS and the XC (each bike for at least 3 months across Siberia and Latin America) – With that experience of both bikes I know of no-one more qualified to give a balanced, objective comparison on real world adventuring on those two bikes:
“I used my big and heavy F800GS on this trip to BAM and ROB and it was possible to get the big and heavy bike through there. BUT on the other hand, it would be MUCH easier and MUCH more fun if I had brought a lighter bike more tailored for this kind of adventure riding. I was riding with 4 BMW G650X bikes on this journey and I saw how much easier they handled their bikes than me. I actually thought that it was more about riding skills than about the bikes itself. The stage II of my journey from US, through Central America and to South America I bought myself a BMW G650X challenge with the hotrod tank and prepped up with the Magadan softbags. Oh man what a difference when you get off the road. This bike is just so much lighter and handles so easy compared to the F800GS (Which is just slightly heavier than the Sertao(?)). One person in our group had a F800GS and I saw that he had the same kind of struggle offroad which I had with mine. Now with my XC it was just so much more fun going offroad and I could keep more in control and balance on the dirtroads. On the asphalt roads the F800GS gives you more comfort and power, but while offroading this is a huge difference.”
The same author, owner and adventurer on both bikes, in another post in an answer to a question about comparing the two as adventure bikes, wrote this:
“F800 vs XC: I see that for light offroading, easy dirt roads and mostly staying on asphalt – the F800GS is a more comfortable and powerfull bike which handles that quite well. I feel it is a bit on the heavy side and I dropped my bike from time to time. Fore more offroading I simply want a bike that are as light as possible. On the paper there is about 50-60 kilos (?) on the XC and F800 which really makes a difference. The XC is also quite narrow and has good ground clearance. Ground clearance is like on a offroad car a good thing. The XC is just much easier to handle in every means. So if I were to plan the same trip again I would choose XC. I feel that the offroad capabillities in the XC is more important than the better street performance the F800 gives you. I usually don’t go much faster than 120 km/h over long distances anyway”
Bear in mind he was referring to the F800GS … the new F800Adventure is 15-20 kgs heavier again!
Earlier this year, BMW provided a couple of F800GS Adventures to well known German adventurer, BMW offroad instructor, and friend of mine, Joe Dakar, to ride offroad from Germany to Magadan, planning to follow the offroad Sibirsky Extreme Trail we developed last year as closely as possible. The idea was a proof of concept as a go-anywhere adventure bike type ride. The idea was to show the F800GS Adventure can take you to all the challenging adventure locations you could possibly want to go. I had spoken extensively with Joe before the trip and gladly shared my trails with him in the hope of a successful duplication of our adventure last year. Unfortunately largely due to the weight of the bikes, it just wasn’t possible.
From the first day in the Ukraine, the bikes, even in the hands of a highly skilled off road instructor, were not really suitable for following our offroad trails across Ukraine and so the bikes ended up taking the asphalt roads across Ukraine, Western Russia and Kazakhstan. By the time the bikes got the the legendary BAM Road, the attempt to duplicate our X-Challenge based ride last year had ground to a halt after one of the bikes plunged off a bridge. Both riders received injuries from falls in the final few days of the ill-fated attempt that ultimately incapacitated the ride. Even with the backing of a major manufacturer in BMW, new factory prepared bikes, and in the hands of a skilled off road instructor with over a decade of motorcycle adventure experience thrown in as well, which is Joe, AND bearing in mind the bikes bypassed 90% of the offroad route in favour of asphalt across Ukraine, Western Russia and Kazakhstan, it was a bridge too far on a 300 kg fully loaded bike (230 kgs wet, plus 2 metal boxes (10 kgs), luggage frames and assorted Touratech accessories (10 kgs), plus 5 main containers of luggage – two metal boxes worth, plus 3 ortlieb roll bags, each of which contains an avge 10 kgs of stuff).
Another great example of the realisation that the F800GS is not what it purports to be – a middleweight adventure bike – and how weight matters, can be found in the travel experiences of Ben Myburgh, a young, mechanically savvy (and physically big and strong) rider from the US, who headed to the Old Summer Road on an F800GS in 2011. He began with an extensive blog titled Round the World F800GS preparation. It details Ben’s fantastic efforts to put together what he believed would be a suitable RTW machine. It culminated in this photo in May 2011 immediately prior to departure:
On the Road of Bones, Ben met up and rode with a Japanese rider on a DR650, with soft luggage, perhaps 50-60 kgs lighter all up. Bear in mind that Ben is a big, physically strong young lad with loads of prior off-road experience, having been into rallies and off road riding from a very young age. Here’s what Ben said about his small Japanese riding companion:
“he is cheating… he is on a DRZ – 650 with very small baggage… he just bounces thru everything while I hit everything! With my whole bike clanging around I could tell I brought the wrong bike for the job…”
As soon as Ben had landed back in the US, he prepared to take up again his extensive bike preparation thread, and the first post was from the moderator informing the readers that Ben was changing the name of the thread to “F800GS goes on a diet”. Then Ben detailed the aspects of the bike he found deficient on his RTW adventure ride and that he was going to change. 17 inch “road sized” rear wheel would be changed to an 18 inch “off road” sized wheel. The poor forks would be swapped out for better suspension. Hard luggage would be changed for lighter and more flexible soft luggage. But the overriding goal of them all was to strip the bike down to achieve a dry weight of 160 kgs (350 lbs). Ben never achieved that target and so now rides a modified KTM 525.
There are 3 riders that have ridden the Road of Bones’s Old Summer Road section on F800GSs, Tomas Holman, Ben Myburgh, and Steve Royset. All three of them took immediate action regarding weight after their rides. Ben Myburgh as detailed above, tried to strip his bike down to 160 kgs dry before ending up with a single cylinder KTM. Tomas Holman and Steve Royset had bought 144 kg X-Challenges within a month of getting back to the western world. Three out of three ended up losing over 40 kgs in bike weight. That’s the unanimous voice of experience talking. That the result of what you learn on your first real adventure ride.
If we move away from the 200 kg F800 GS / GSA in particular and consider weight in general, the ultimate conclusions don’t change.
A further interesting observation related to weight from a rider riding around the world on a KTM 690 (138 kgs dry) at the moment. He was last month in the stunning scenery of Tajikistan …
“Soon after the tunnel I met a guy from Germany on a brand new BMW 1200. I told him about the tunnel and the southern route along the Pamir. He said he would skip the southern route because he is not confident in his ability with this heavy bike. I wanted to ask him why? Why have a big bike if it will limit your trip?”
To me this is one of the ultimate questions that I see people who are new to Adventure Motorcycling failing to ask themselves. Certainly there are some very skilled riders for whom a big bike will not limit their choice of routes. But they are a tiny minority in the world of adventure riders. For the rest (98+%) of us mortals, we need to seriously consider weight.
You should not be limiting your adventure because of your choice of a heavy bike. If a person limits their adventure because of the weight of their bike, then the adventure itself was not their priority. Maybe image is? Maybe something else? (not that there is anything wrong with that)
My experience when it comes to bike selection, gear selection, tyre selection etc …. is you should plan for the toughest parts of your trip. If a guy is riding from London to Cameroon, across the Sahara, the experienced man will not select his bike, his tyres, his luggage as to what will work best on the motorways of Europe. If the hardest part of that planned trip is the dunes of the Sahara, then he needs his choices to first and foremost, be compatible with that. Any adventure bike for a given trip is a compromise. But … The selection criteria you should compromise the least, are those required for the hardest parts of the trip. A wise choice is not an even compromise between all aspects of your trip, its a compromise heavily biased towards the hardest parts of your trip.
You should plan (and select gear) for the toughest parts of the adventure you want to have. Any bike, any luggage, any tyres can deal with the easy stuff …
Here are more observations related to bike weight from another adventurer a few weeks ago in Mongolia:
“I stayed at the Oasis in Ulaanbaatar and tryed to find out the road conditions by talking to other bikers who came via the south route.
A guy,who hasn’t ridden a bike for years,did it on a XT250 and discribed it as pure fun.
Others on XT660 described it as challenging but O.K.
Then there were two guys on BMW 1200 GS Adventure who ended up on a truck.”
Whats clear from those observations is that the amount of fun the riders had was totally (and inversely) connected to the weight of the bikes.
Here’s another comment from last year and Mongolia – written from the perspective of a different guy on a KTM 690 (138 kg dry):
“After a few hours we saw some bikes approaching (we’d seen nothing for hours) and realised it was a couple of overlanders. We pulled over together and said our hellos.
This was a couple of German guys … on their mighty behemoths[Yamaha 1200 Super Tenere and BMW 1150 GSA], with every bolt-on goodie you could imagine. The guys had some English so they asked us what lay ahead and when we told them of the mud and crossings they had the look of seriously worried men. They were traveling at about 40kph (25mph) as the bikes were so heavy they daren’t go much faster.” [the author was travelling in a group of mostly 650cc BMWs and KTMs at over twice those speeds]“These guys were having their holiday ruined by the amount of kit they’d brought to make their holiday better. they were seriously worried.
The guy on the Super Ten looked at our setups and the nearest bike and said ” I want that bike!”
Take heed anyone planning a first trip.”
Another adventurer, writing from Ulaan Baatar just days ago, whose 1200 GSA was too heavy for the job and ultimately arrived into the Mongolian capital, ALSO on the back of a truck (It seems the most common way for 1200s to arrive in UB these days) had this to say:
Don’t do Mongolia on a fully loaded 1200 if it is raining… its a nightmare
The reality is, as soon as you get off the asphalt, weight is a very very important issue. Lose 40 – 50 – 60 kgs and its a totally different experience, as the guy comparing his experiences between the F800 and the XC pointed out. Or as the guy comparing the amount of fun riders arriving in UB had on a 250 vs a 650 vs a 1200. The difference between suffering / enduring somewhere like Mongolia and really enjoying it, is 40-50-60 kgs in bike weight.
Any rational decision must be made on the basis of a cost / benefit analysis. Compare a 690 KTM or 650 X-Challenge to a 1200 BMW/ 1190 KTM. The 690 / 650 has the power to cruise on asphalt highways all day long at 125-130 km/h. They produce around 60 – 65 hp as opposed to 125-150 hp on the larger bikes. They weigh about 75-80 kg less than the larger bikes. If you put a HP meter on the bigger bikes and worked out for how much of a trans Eurasia trip they are using more than say 65 hp, bearing in mind that in Russia and Kazakhstan highway speed limits are 90-100-110 km/h and strictly enforced, and to generate the big HP bikes need to be revving up towards their rpm limits, I think you would find less than 1% of the time on a typical trip across Ukraine / Russia / Kazakhstan / Mongolia horsepower in excess of 65 would be generated by the engines. Much less than 1% of the time. Tiny little bursts of no more than a few seconds duration scattered throughout the day. That’s the benefit … a few seconds here and there when accelerating. The cost for having that extra power available for use 1% of the time is 80 kgs in weight. That’s not 80 kgs 1% of the time … that’s a 80kg penalty 100% of the time. Every swamp, every mud patch, every river crossing, every sandy stretch. Every time on a transcontinental trip that you have to pick up the bike, that 80 kg penalty is there. Every time you have to push it across a river, that 80 kgs is there. Everytime you hit a patch of dunes, that 80 kgs is there. 99% of riders to Mongolia will NEVER use more than 65 hp ever. The penalty therefore is utterly pointless. That extra 80 kgs, once in real adventure territory, produces no gain for all but the finest riders, and that 80+kg penalty is more than enough, in many cases, to utterly ruin their experience. 99% of big adventure bike riders in Mongolia are paying a 80 kg penalty for something that offers them zero benefit in return. That weight penalty once in real adventure territory is so illogical from a cost / benefit analysis perspective that it’s at the point of being comical.
Rule number one in adventure bike selection is weight matters. Don’t listen to manufacturers, or marketing people – they have never done real adventure biking. They honestly DONT KNOW what an adventure bike needs. No adventure motorcycling designer, marketer, or motorcycle company senior exec has ever ridden around the world.
There is a dual illusion perpetuated by the industry, including magazines, that (1) experienced riders ride big adventure bikes and (2) riding a bigger adventure bike makes you more of a man.
The reality counterpunch to the first of those illusions is not surprisingly, exactly the opposite of the illusion. The more experienced an adventure rider, the lighter bike he is probably riding. Austin Vince, Chris Scott, Terry Brown, Mac Swinarski, Adam Lewis etc, all focus heavily on weight. These guys have been doing it for decades and are not obligated to any manufacturer or model. They get to choose their bikes and gear. Light bikes and soft luggage is the number one common theme among guys who have been doing it for years. So in fact, its almost only the naive Adventure Motorcycling first-timers or sponsored riders that take big bikes to the likes of Mongolia.
Adam Lewis has been riding around the world for 7 years now, non-stop. Like myself, he features in Robert Wicks / Haynes guide “Building the Ultimate Adventure Motorcycle“. Adam began on a 180 kg F650GS with metal boxes, he then changed to a 160 kg DR650, and more recently changed to a 135 kg DRZ400 with soft Magadan bags, on which he successfully rode the Western BAM and Road of Bones. Mac “MotoSiberia” Swinarski began on a 190 kg Honda Transalp, before changing to a 160 kg KTM 640 Adventure, and now does his adventure rides on a 115 kg KTM 400. I myself began on Honda Transalps, have tried a number of midweight bikes and even owned a 1200 Adventure for two years. Now, with 19 years of Mongolia and Siberia adventure experience behind me, my two bikes are the two lightest bikes I have ever owned. My 144 kg G650X-Challenge is my “big rig”, while I am preparing a 114 kg Husaberg 570 as my light adventure bike. This make a mockery of the notion that the more experienced adventure riders ride bigger bikes.
As for the second marketing myth, the reality is this … The bigger the adventure bike, the more impotent the rider becomes. The more he has to turn down interesting adventurous routes and is forced to take boring less scenic routes. The less ability he has to visit out of the way, rarely seen places (and isnt that what adventure motorcycling is all about?) The less appetite for adventurous riding he has. The slower and more pedestrian he rides. The more bruised and injured he gets, and the more likely he is to arrive in Ulaan Baatar on the back of a truck, rather than riding in with pride, having breezed across Mongolia. Have a look at the picture below … do you think this bike is ever going to be seen adventuring the BAM? No? Neither do I. The asphalt road in the bottom of the pic is a dead giveaway. The ridiculous weight of the bike has made the poor rider completely restricted as to how much adventure riding he is ever going to be able to do. As long as that’s his bike, he will never be able to get to the vast majority of the worlds great adventure riding routes.
How’s this for a question … look at the two massively overloaded bikes in the 2 pictures above. How many trans-continental journeys do you think the two owners made PRIOR to buying and equipping those bikes and setting out on their journeys? (Europe and North America obviously don’t count). How much adventure experience do you think those setups are based on? - Answers on the back of a postcard please ….
While Long Way Round is in many ways responsible for the boom not only for BMW GS sales, but the boom across the board in adventure motorcycling, it’s worth revisiting the lessons that can be learned from that journey. They key facts regarding bike selection for LWR are these: (1) The guys were adventure riding novices – they knew nothing about what they were trying to achieve or what might be the best tools for the job. (2) they took off from London on the heaviest bikes they could lay their hands on (1150GSA) and loaded them up to the hilt (approx 70 kgs luggage). [yet again note the theme; adventure novices on the heaviest bikes they could find.] (3) They only had two significant off road sections in the entire trip from London to New York – they were Mongolia and the Road of Bones (4) and this is the key point that many miss – they failed to complete EITHER of their two off road sections.
So they only had two section of off road riding on their trip, and were unable to complete either of them. Why? Despite years of motorcycling experience, a young fit healthy body and special off road training, Ewan was crying in Mongolia at how difficult it was to ride the 330+ kg vehicle off road, through rivers, muddy sections etc. He wanted to get back to Russia almost as soon as he had entered Mongolia. Claudio ended up on a red Izh Planeta 5 and found the 160 kg bike a revelation in terms of ease – the primitive Russian road bike was indescribably better to ride offroad in Mongolia than the advanced, western 330kg BMW he told me at a dinner party a few years ago – and the only possible reason for that was the weight. Fortunately for Ewan, a rolled 4WD gave the team the excuse needed to bug out to Russia and get back on asphalt. On the Road of Bones, the constant struggle of walking 330 kg bikes through river crossings, dropping them and picking them up ultimately put out Charley Boorman’s back. That gave the team the excuse to throw the bikes on a truck for the remainder of the Old Summer Road.
It’s crystal clear that the weight of the bikes was the primary reason for the failure of the LWR project to complete either of its off road sections. If there is a lesson to be learned from LWR, its not that you should be on a massive adventure bike to ride Mongolia and the Road of Bones, but rather the exact opposite - the real lesson from LWR is only the naive first timer will take a massive adventure bike to Mongolia and the Road of Bones. They are totally inappropriate and completely the wrong machine for that job.(unless you specifically want to bring tears to a grown man’s eyes or fancy doing several days in the back of a truck)
That’s a look at real world evidence regarding motorcycle selection as it relates to adventure riding. The summary is both simple and compelling – the more experienced you become at motorcycle adventuring, the more seriously you will factor in weight in your bike selection decision. This is not a criticism of big adventure bikes or people that buy them. This is real world adventure information from a seasoned adventurer that has seen many people regret their bike choice, too late, well into their Mongolian or Siberian adventure. By learning this information up front, you can save time, money and disappointment by going straight to the position of an experienced adventurer, and take weight seriously from the beginning.
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There will be those who object to the opinions in this article. But they will not be able to counter the logic, or facts, or how the facts relate to adventure bike selection. Those who object to the conclusions in this article will object primarily on the basis that they don’t agree with my definition of Adventure Motorcycling. That’s not a counter argument. That response counters none of the recommendations or advice that’s been given in this article. Instead, all disagreeing with the definition (usually by saying Adventure Motorcycling should not be defined) typically offers us is effectively this “there can be no advice of any sort on adventure bike selection because we are incapable of offering up a definition of adventure motorcycling”. That simply takes us back to the maxim of any bike is an adventure bike, which also means there is no such thing as “an adventure bike”. Which is exactly why there is a shortage of guidance for sensible adventure bike selection. Because in order to provide adventure bike selection advice, you need to define what is meant by Adventure Motorcycling – at the very least, for the purposes of the advice. This article is specifically written to help those who do agree (to some degree or another) with my concept of Adventure Motorcycling (expressed at the top of the page), or for those who are planning trips with more than 100 miles of off road in them, with respect to the much neglected real world analysis of adventure bike selection criteria.
Sadly, until now, the only adventure motorcycle selection advice that has been offered to the adventure buying public (and I have seen this implied in several magazines) is very much misguided, and along the lines of the following: If you are new to adventure motorcycling, begin with something small like an F650 Dakar, then as you get more experience graduate to a mid weight, like an F800 / Triumph 800, then when you are a real player, you can ride one of the big heavyweights. Every assumption in that advice is wrong. Not only do riders go lighter as they get more experience, but ALL of those bikes are too heavy to start with. That type of advice is a total dis-service to budding adventure riders. Of course readers of that misplaced advice, being human, want to skip the earlier stages and look like a serious adventure motorcyclist from the beginning, so they just go straight to buying a obese adventure bike for their first adventure.
In total contrast, I am telling you that if you want to look like you know what you are doing from the beginning, if you want a better trip, if you want to not have to scale your pre-announced plans down as your trip progresses and you realise much of your ambitions will have to be bypassed, go straight to having a sub 165 kg adventure bike !!
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In my view, anything over 180 kg dry is a heavyweight. And they are not really suitable for the kind of riding I consider adventure riding, perhaps with the single exception of a KTM 950/990 in the hands of a very skilled rider. A middleweight adventure bike is between 135 and 180 kgs dry weight. Most popular single cylinder adventure bikes are in this weight range, including the DRZ400, KTM 690, BMW X-Challenge, KTM 640 Adventure, DR650, XT600, 3AJ Tenere etc. Anything below 135 kgs dry is a light adventure bike – that included WR250R, Husaberg 570, DR350, TTR250, Serow etc.
A single cylinder bike below 165 kg dry weight should be your starting point. If you are heading to Mongolia or the Sibirsky Extreme Zone north of the Trans Siberian Highway on anything else, you are either kidding yourself that you are going to enjoy it, or you are a rally standard rider. It may sound harsh, but anytime I see a 1200GSA or Super Tenere in Mongolia, I know straight away its a naive adventurer struggling on his first proper offroad adventure, and I can be sure of at least one thing – he will never go back there on the same bike ever again. If only he knew that before he went there …..
Stay tuned for more thoughts on adventure bike selection in coming weeks.