A Bike to Take You to the Far Ends of the Earth, or the Supermarket
BY the laws of probability, you wouldn’t expect many Timbuktu-bound motorcyclists to begin their world tours from your local Starbucks parking lot. But that’s where you’re likely to see their circumnavigation-ready machines, just about any Sunday morning, in just about any blue-state suburb from Scituate, Mass., to Santa Monica, Calif.
Collectively known as adventure bikes, these motorcycles evince a Euro-butch aesthetic that slots somewhere between an espresso machine, an oil refinery and a mountain bike.
Square aluminum luggage boxes seem designed for foam-swaddled Hasselblads. Steel-tube crash guards run security for engines, headlights and taillights. And handlebars hold the latest in GPS tech, the better to find the next water source in a lonely trek across the Atacama desert.
These bikes look ready to powerslide the Siberian Road of Bones, ford Chile’s Bio-Bio River or go mano-a-horn with an enraged Namibian rhino.
In reality, their riders are probably lawyers, creative directors and investment bankers, headed out for nothing more exotic than Sunday breakfast.
A life-threatening breakfast, to be sure, including eggs with actual yolks, caffeinated coffee and even pork-based cured meats. But any extraordinary riding skill or high-stakes route-finding will focus on getting back to the gated community in time for Briana Scurry’s 1:30 soccer kickoff. Though these bikes are theoretically engineered for hard-hitting off-road exploration, only a tiny percentage will ever go more than a few miles off-piste. As any real dirt-bike rider knows, the next-to-last thing you want while traversing real mud, sand, rocks or water is a sharp-edged, $20,000, 500-pound motorcycle. The last thing you want is to find yourself alone, trapped underneath one.
As with Cialis, divers’ watches and submarine-launched thermonuclear devices, it is not necessarily what you do with what you have, it’s what you — and others — imagine you could do that counts.
For years, BMW Motorrad’s best-selling model was the R 1200 GS, a Panzer-like beast that makes a Hummer H2 look like a Chrysler Town & Country. The GS’s success did not go unnoticed, with other manufacturers introducing their own translations. Yamaha has its Super Ténéré 1200. Ducati has its 1200 Multistrada. Suzuki has its V-Stroms. KTM has its own Dakar Rally-winning model, the 990 Adventure. Triumph has the Tiger 1050 and 800. BMW has even copied itself, creating a smaller, lighter GS model, the F 800 GS.
The motorcycle industry, like the pornography and military industries, owes its existence to the proposition that nobody ever went broke overestimating Americans’ ability to value fantasy over reality. Superbikes are built for road racing, which most of their proud owners will never do. Stripped-down, chopped-out Harleys were created by rough, independent gearheads. So now millions of rugged individuals roar through cities in great herds, wearing the same clothes and riding the same bikes to the same places.
So it is with adventure bikes. You want the bike that can go anywhere, even if there’s no real chance you’ll actually go there. But unlike choppers and road racers, adventure bikes work really well at what real riders really do: ride around in comfort at near-legal speeds, on standard-issue asphalt. Their upright, motocross-style riding stance is easy on older riders’ knees and wrists, their generous seats accommodate older riders’ generous seats and their ample luggage space allows taking along both belt and suspenders.
Every great movement has a creation story, and the origins of the adventure-bike phenomenon were authentic enough. The Dakar Rally, which began in 1978, is a long, often deadly, off-road race for cars, motorcycles and even trucks that originally started in Paris, crossed the Mediterranean by ship, wandered through the Sahara and finished in Senegal.
BMW Motorcycles first won the event in 1981, with a modified version of its twin-cylinder R 80 GS, a bike designed to be capable on both asphalt and dirt. BMW won again in 1983, 1984 and 1985, and built the commemorative R 80 GS Paris Dakar for the 1985 model year. Adapted for long, fast runs, it featured tall suspension, a single orange-upholstered seat and an oversized 8.4-gallon fuel tank.
In 1984 I rode an early-production R 80 GS Paris-Dakar from Munich, over the Austrian and Italian Alps to Genoa, and then ferried it across the Mediterranean to Tunisia. I navigated the Atlas Mountains, slept in a cave in Matmata, crossed the rainbow-colored mineral pools of the Chott el-Jerid and transited the causeway to the Isle of Djerba.
Which all sounds pretty rugged, if you don’t know that I did this as a part of an Edelweiss Bike Travel tour. We had guides ready to fix our flats (thanks, Josef), a chase truck carrying our luggage, hotel rooms most nights and red wine every night. And next to me were riders with not-ready-for-Africa machinery, including a Kawasaki KZ 550 street bike and a chrome-studded Yamaha Virago cruiser.
The Dakar Rally still rallies. But it doesn’t go to Dakar. It doesn’t even go to Africa. Terrified by terrorists in Mauritania, its organizers transplanted it to South America years ago.
Which seems symmetric. Like all these motorcycles that will never adventure where their adventurous names suggest, even the race that inspired them all doesn’t go where its name says it goes.
By DEXTER FORD
Last edited by Seeya; 09-04-2013 at 10:02 AM.