Baptism can befall you in the most unexpected places. The moment the light bulb struck me like ice and I realized I was pulling my BMW F 850 GS with 24 snowy turns. Adventure bikes by and large have become incredibly capable, but as I understand it, they still have their limits. So when I brought my to the edge, I realized it was time to make an addition to the stable.
As a recent transfer to Colorado from Washington, D.C., my concept of an adventure ride was tested by fire. To the east, my GS was no stranger to dirt and swamp, but the trails I knew by heart required tedious highway walks to embark on an off-road route that would hardly make me sweat. By the time I moved, I probably could have chosen the best line on Trunk Road with my eyes closed.
Then I moved west and started cutting teeth on every mountain pass and trail I could follow. My stubborn determination (encouraged by the unusually late winter) led me to the Saxon Mountain Road on my lonely frosty morning strewn with fresh snow. The trail in question is gaining 3,000 feet vertically through eight miles of rocky narrow terrain and has earned a reputation as an expert-level trail for local jeep drivers. As I climbed down the road, the rock gardens became larger and the snow cover between the toddler’s heads became deeper.
Reaching the top without much trouble, I decided to plan an alternative descent. Going back on the rocky path was not very attractive, so I found a more restrained way back to the city. The road I chose was wide and smooth as I wandered along the aspens over a softly piled layer of light snow. But as I carried the impetus up the small slope, a hidden layer of ice from the stream stream unceremoniously descended from me. The slippery material was as wide as the road, and reminded me of how heavy a 500-pound adventure motorcycle is when it is in a horizontal position. To get into a steady position and lift the GS, I had to pull it down until I was off the ice.
After this test was over, I grabbed the clutch lever and felt it fall into the handle again. The lever, being one piece, broke off right at the turning point. I also broke the basic rule of adventure riding by going out alone and now found myself on top of a mountain with a critically broken part. Luckily, I was still able to move the bike to neutral, and with an aggressive throttle arm and a shake of the switch the bike jerked forward. Everything seemed fine until it was time to climb the short but steep section full of snow-covered tracks. About halfway through I lost momentum when my rear tire burst into the snow cover and pushed out, sending the bike back to the ground. The multitude of colorful language soon gave way to exhaustion. In the end, I nursed the bike back on two dozen clutches without a clutch, but I’m surprised I didn’t have to call for help to get off the mountain.
Time to reevaluate
While my GS saw its share of technical terrain, the remoteness of driving in the Rockies gave me a rough reminder of what could go wrong. The difficulty of such a large bicycle is a difficulty that can lead to costly accidents, and the energy needed to get out of difficult situations can lead to a catastrophe in the air. It’s time to think about something smaller.
Immersed in the dual sports market, I came across many options and several fantastic bikes. With everything from two-stroke motorcycles with fuel injection to fire-breathing motorcycles, there is a bike that meets any requirements. My main considerations were weight, street rolling and reliability. I don’t own any four-wheeled vehicle, so a dual sport that could comfortably take me to the tracks was key. Despite the strong second-hand motorcycle market in general, in the middle of winter I still found some fantastic deals on the KTM 525s and Yamaha WRF450s, but my dirt-riding friends warned me to stay away from a bike that would be smaller enjoyable on the highway. Their minimal oil capacity, high-performance components and transmission designed for the tracks are likely to be a maintenance nightmare. I’m not too proud to admit that with my amateur twisting skills the concept of checking the valve, measured in hours, is too difficult for the stomach.
It was this need for balance that led me to the Suzuki DR-Z400S, a motorcycle that has graced the industry with its presence since 2000. It has won the cult of fans with its unwavering reliability and tremendous adaptability to the spare market. It has changed little, but that means there is a well-established list of modifications that owners make to fix problems or tweak its performance. With hair over 300 pounds wet, the DR-Z isn’t as light as its more modern competitors, but it feels lighter compared to my GS. A carburetor engine with a capacity of 400 cc really manages in terms of power. It has enough torque to easily lift the front wheel into the sky and it will spin on the highway all day without shaking your teeth out of your skull.
What’s more, maintenance intervals are more in line with typical street bikes, alleviating the fear of smashing the cylinder head in the midst of a land adventure. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the DR-Z comes complete with a fully adjustable front suspension, a luxury that is surprisingly missing in my F 850 GS. I was considering other options, such as the Honda XR400, but I was spoiled by the starters. While I appreciate the usefulness of a kickstarter in a water lock accident, there are other ways to handle this event, and I was much more concerned that a bike with just a kickstart will quickly become obsolete on the trails. Also, while the air-cooled XR is lighter, liquid cooling is a huge benefit when navigating low-speed terrain.
Given the DR-Z’s presence in the market for more than two decades, racers have found many ways to customize them. While DR-Z enthusiasts with an itchy arm of the conscious throttle to upgrade the FCR carburetor, I have to say that the regular unit of the Mikuni CV has its merits. It probably won’t get you in the hole, but the carburetor at a constant speed provides a stable and linear throttle response. The bike will stretch from the stop sign in second gear without even blinking. And at ever-changing altitudes on the roads of Colorado, the Mikuni vacuum significantly reduces the energy supply. My acquaintance with the motorcycle took place on a vintage Honda, and the curse of the old carburetors left an unpleasant aftertaste in my mouth. But this motorcycle completely changed me. It comes to life as fast as an EFI bike, even at sub-zero temperatures.
While motorcycle-ready and serial dual sports are ready to race, rally-ready definitely have their place, with more performance comes and more service. The more horsepower you get from the engine, the more load you put on all other aspects of the transmission. I was drawn to the DR-Z for its inviolability, a bike that could be killed and removed wet without worrying that I would have to think about rebuilding the top annually.
This bike promotes a riding style that opens my eyes to a change of pace from what I’m used to. If you are used to the comfort and speed of a modern bike, you tend to look for the upper limits of its capabilities. Sitting on the DR-Z was like going back to the essence of a motorcycle. You focus less on the bike itself and are more aware of what is around you. Instead of rushing to the horizon, you appreciate what is within it. Without unnecessary cheating or fancy gadgets and a distraction-relieving dash, you’ll be left with a distilled open road experience.
The durability of the proven dual sport combined with parts that cost well below the typical BMW price tag has made me approach new adventures with less excitement. No longer riding a bike with MSRP balancing in the car, I was inspired to take on bigger problems without fear of falling and breaking an item that costs as much as renting.
The first DR-Z test took place the next morning after I put on it my first license plate in Colorado. Denver woke up from a few inches of freshly fallen snow and showed no signs of stopping. I had to drive all over town to the RevZilla showroom, and with a quick suffocation the DR-Z was ready to go. The predictable torque and happiness of dragging made the bike an absolute joy in powder. Following the alleys in an attempt to make fresh tracks, I was thrilled to see the bike ride along with the aplomb in conditions that would damage the GS. Conditions that would have been scary became fun when I stopped making donuts on the deserted streets. The DR-Z tracked straight and sat down, but when things inevitably settled down, he was nimble enough to glide and allow me to confidently put my foot down. Despite the conditions, I got to work earlier and came with a new love for motorcycles.
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but sometimes you don’t have to. All the power in the world will not do you much good if you spend most of the day balancing between first and second gear. In this era of tumultuous innovation and technological prowess there is something to be said for the ease of lighting an old dinosaur and riding on it until the wheels come off.