Monday, March 25, 2013

"See a Need, Fill a Need"

When my daughter Kylie was born, my wife and I suddenly found that our video collection changed from "The Matrix" and "I, Robot" to "Finding Nemo" and "Monsters, Inc." This wasn't all bad; I actually enjoyed many of the movies that we bought for our daughter. I particularly enjoyed "Robots," in which the main character, Rodney, learns that the best way to be successful is, "See a need, fill a need." That is, if you find a niche market that nobody is filling, rather than whine about it, do something yourself to fill that need. To that end, I have recently found myself wondering if I am alone in wishing for a motorcycle that no one seems to make?

I love "adventure" motorcycling. Long before I earned my motorcycle endorsement, I was drawn to the brawny look of BMW's GS series motorcycles. Those bikes just looked like they could handle any kind of terrain that the rider threw at them. However, when I began seriously looking for a ride myself back in 2009, I was somewhat disappointed with the specs of the Beemers. The G650GS seemed to be too short, and I was concerned about the vibes from a single-cylinder engine for the long-haul rides I wanted to make. The 1200GS was just too much, in just about every respect -- too heavy, too big, two expensive, and too complex. It is a technological tour-de-force with electrically adjustable everything, but I really didn't want to find myself stuck halfway up the Haul Road with an electronically adjustable suspension that wouldn't adjust out of a freeway setting. Furthermore, I read a lot of criticism about the maintenance costs of the bike. The F800GS looked to be much more reasonable, but it was still basically a street bike in hiking boots :) Yamaha had not yet introduced the Super Tenere Stateside, but even if they had, it had some of the same problems as the big Beemer -- too big and too expensive (although by all reports, it's an exceptionally good bike).

Suzuki and Kawasaki were a little closer to what I wanted with the DR650 and KLR650, respectively. These two bikes were the opposite end of the spectrum from the bigger BMW bikes. Small and roughly 400 pounds, wet, with for-real dirt bike suspensions, these were both very capable bikes. Unfortunately, they were also very underpowered thumpers, and like the G650GS, I was concerned about being able to comfortably ride the highways for long distances. Yes, people have ridden very long distances on both of these bikes -- far longer than I have ridden, in fact -- but neither the Suzuki nor the Kawasaki are ideal for long stretches of slab.

Consequently, I ended up buying my V-Strom 650, which in truth has proven to be a pretty good bike for my riding style. However, as good as it is, it could be...well, better. For one thing, even though it's a tall bike, ground clearance isn't great for off-road adventures. I've high-centered on rocks a couple of times -- fortunately, my skidplate protected the oil pan and exhaust pipes -- even though I've never taken it truly "off-road." Furthermore, the cast aluminum wheels are less than ideal for an "Adventure" bike, especially since the front is only nineteen inches in diameter, rather than twenty-one as found on most *really* dirt-worthy bikes (DR650, KLR650, KTM990 Adv, etc.). Even worse, the Strom is rather top-heavy, as well as just plain heavy. It's fine once you are moving on pavement, but it's tippy enough that it just gets uncomfortable on sketchy terrain like mud or steep, rough, rocky roads. And even though I've never had much of a problem picking it up on those few times (only three!) that I've dropped it, I can see how it would be tough to right on steep, rugged terrain (or mud), especially if fully kitted out for a multi-day trip. Finally, the suspension is adequate, but not great. I've bottomed out the front forks on a gravel road(!) at about 35MPH, and while you can adjust preload, you cannot adjust rebound or compression damping. The suspension could be greatly improved with some help from Race-Tech Suspension if one were willing to throw enough money at it, but you would still have a top-heavy bike without sufficient suspension travel or ground clearance.

The Wee-Strom is good, but like the F800GS, it's really just a gussied-up street bike. What I really want is a lighter V-Twin with spoked wheels (21 inch up front, 17 in the rear), and a longer, higher quality, adjustable suspension. About the closest thing that I am aware of that exists today is Triumph's 800XC. Honestly, if that bike had been available in 2010 when I bought my Wee, I'd probably be a Triumph rider today. However, even the Triumph's suspension isn't quite up to dirt bike standards (220mm travel front, vs. 300mm for several of the KTM models I've scoped out lately), and it's only five pounds lighter than my DL650K9.

All of which brings me to my main point. Am I just a one-off? Are most riders content with the line in the sand between true street-legal, off-road bikes (KTM690 Enduro, DR650, KLR650) and street bikes with dirt-bike pretensions like the BMW GS series, the V-Stroms, and even the Triumph 800XC? Or are there others who would like to have a twin-cylinder dirt bike that is comfortable enough to ride 500-1000 miles on the slab, but light and manageable to take well off the beaten path when the asphalt ends? Something like the KTM 690 Enduro or Husqvarna TR650 Terra with the V-Strom 650's engine would be great.

If only I had the skills to build a bike from scratch...

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