Why Adventure-Touring Bikes Are So Popular

When the going gets tough..or we hope that someday it might…

Dual-Sport/Adventure Bikes

Adventure Bikes on the Road

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.

Dual-Sport/Adventure Bikes

Adventure Bikes Off-Road

Dual-Sport/Adventure Bikes

Off-Roading of Adventure Bikes

And a good thing, too. We crossed a swollen river that would have drowned the KTM’s low-mounted battery and knocked the flat-sided bike over in the powerful current. As it was, I could hardly hang on to the Suzuki. Long story short, the KTM would still be down there, with some confused Mexican teen on a remote rancho trying to get the water out of the hydro-locked cylinders.

There probably are plenty of Paris-Dakar-quality enduro riders who could have made this trip just fine on the 950, but I ain’t one of them. At my skill level—and mere 6-foot-1-inch height—smaller is always better when the trail turns gnarly.

Real world-class adventure touring, of course, can also include some very long rides on half-decent roads through the middle of nowhere, and here’s where the big, honking Twins (and now Triumph Triples) come in. Comfort, speed and headwind-crushing power can be wonderful things. You have to look at the map first. On some trips, big bikes are best, but this wasn’t one of them. Generally, I’d rather be saddled with a bike that’s a little too small on the occasional boring road than to drop a big one in the middle of a river.

Which brings up tallness. Why are most adventure tourers so tall? No one knows. Perhaps it's to accommodate the five percent of expert owners who can use all that suspension travel, but half the guys in my local motorcycle club won't even sit on my Ulysses because they're afraid of dropping it in the parking lot. One member, Mike McSherry, just won a brand-new R1200GS Adventure in a drawing, and—despite being a BMW collector and great dirt rider—he's got it sold before he even picks it up. Too tall. I suspect that about two inches of the total seat height on modern adventure tourers can be attributed to a romantic image of rugged world travel.

But I may be treading on delicate ground here, because romance is a big part of why many of us choose a particular motorcycle. Only our most stolid (crushingly dull) citizens buy motorcycles purely for daily transportation with no dreams of all the adventures in speed or exploration they might inspire. And few human dreams are more potent than the belief that we might go anywhere.

When you look at an adventure-touring bike in a showroom, you see more than just machinery (or, in some cases, the $20K price tag dangling from the handlebars, sans hard cases and skidplate). You also see the Alcan Highway, the emptiness of Patagonia or a road to the ruins at Machu Picchu. And if you’re Ewan McGregor or Charley Boorman, you might see a road across Siberia, where you get to pick your big, heavy bike up out of the mud, over and over again. Those two guys should get some kind of medal, not only for selling a million adventure-touring bikes but just for persistence.

Someone once described adventure as “nothing but a badly planned vacation,” and McGregor and Boorman proved that all the planning in the world doesn’t protect you from the realities of weather and distance and human whim. But then, I don’t think they wanted to be protected from anything. And we don’t, either. If we did, we wouldn’t be reading about adventure-touring motorcycles.

Or looking at a map of Peru—as I am right now—to see exactly where Machu Picchu is. And how it’s spelled.