A few years back, when SUVs suddenly seemed to be taking over the world, a friend of mine said, “Why are people buying those big, tall things instead of a normal car?”
I thought about it a minute and said, “Maybe they want to carry a canoe on the roof. Or carry five people in comfort, haul a beer cooler and tow a boat. All the things their big, old, standard rear-drive Chevy or Ford sedans used to do but with the added attraction of going through the snow.”
I suppose you could make a similar case for the rise of the adventure-touring motorcycle. These tall, industrial-looking devices do all the things that a standard, unadorned bike like my old Kawasaki KZ1000 used to do but with the added attraction of being able to blast down a dirt road without crashing in a cloud of dust. In an age of specialization, they’re something of a throwback to the basic virtues.
On an adventure-touring bike, you can sit up straight, ride comfortably two-up, carry luggage, stand up on the pegs to stretch your legs or just add a windshield that fits your personal height and climatic needs.
I was about to say that adventure-touring bikes have become the Jeep Wranglers of the motorcycle world, but that’s not quite true. Jeeps are relatively slow and ill-handling on pavement, while a BMW R1200GS or Ducati Multistrada 1200 S Sport can absolutely carve when the pavement gets twisty. They’re essentially sportbikes for riders who revel in peripheral vision.
Did I mention the word leverage yet?
Low bars and rearsets are wonderful things when you’re circulating at Road America or Willow Springs—or riding fast on a nice, smooth mountain road. But when the road gets iffy, some of us prefer wide handlebars. And we have a lot of iffy backroads here in Wisconsin. Our road crews love to surprise you with new tar and pea gravel, and I’ve yet to see a leak-proof manure spreader (or fail to smell one, for that matter). I’ve found, generally, that the less I know about the road ahead, the happier I am with my elbows out and my feet underneath me.
Which is probably why my last three or four “main bikes” have been adventure-tourers of some kind. I’ve owned two KTM 950 Adventures (one got crashed by a friend) and would probably still have the last one if we had a dealer within 100 miles. But for the past three years, my do-virtually-everything bike has been a 2009 Buell Ulysses. And I say “virtually” because I’ve never been tempted to take this bike on anything worse than a nicely graded gravel road.
For real back-country adventure, I’ve always defaulted immediately to a Suzuki DR650. Much lighter, simpler and more manageable. The KTM 950 was a far better dirtbike than the Buell, but even this got left behind in favor of the DR650 when I spent a week exploring the trails of Mexico’s Copper Canyon a few years back.