Adventure-Tourer Comparo

ad*ven*ture n. 1. a. An undertaking or enterprise of a hazardous nature. b. An undertaking of a questionable nature, especially one involving intervention in another states' affairs. 2. An unusual or exciting experience. 3. Participation in hazardous or ex

Photography by Joe Bonnello

Dirty Pretty ThingsWinter monsoons had carved the driveway of Jim Hyde's 42 Bar Ranch into a bigger challenge than most of these bikes will ever face. We, however, would become quite familiar with even bigger challenges over the next two days. Jim's RawHyde Adventures (see sidebar page 104) puts together all manner of luxury off-road excursions for fans of these two-wheel behemoths who are also aficionados of haute cuisine, warm beds and hot showers. He'd invited us to sample all of the above, promising to aim us at some scenic, non-lethal terrain the next day. Having secured the photographic services of Mr. Joe Bonnello, we were prepared (or so we thought) to meet our fate.

Before leaving the pavement on any motorcycle with roughly the same mass and disposition of an adult grizzly bear, say to yourself, "This is not a dirtbike." Now say it again. Provoked by some inopportune combination of speed, terrain and bad judgment, any of these bruisers can ruin a perfectly good femur, simultaneously financing your orthopedic surgeon's summer vacation in Aruba. Real-deal knobbies--Continental TKC80s are an excellent choice--will drastically improve these bikes' off-road handling. But in the interest of science and street traction, we stuck with standard rubber: Michelin's Anakee on the BMW and Triumph, Bridgestone Trail Wings on the V-Strom and Pirelli Scorpions on the KTM.

Roughly 25 feet after mashing the KTM's six-speed into low gear, the 950 becomes the most confidence-inspiring off-roader in this quartet. No surprise there. It's lighter, stronger and rides on real dirt-spec WP suspension. Arriving at the top of a mountain first, the KTM pilot's biggest challenge is finding something to do until the others show up. Still, discretion is valor on these things. It's best to take your time. Think observed trials, not motocross. Precision, not feckless bravado. At that rate, the BMW is a corner or three behind its Teutonic colleague. Despite its extra mass and a Telelever front end that isn't as compliant or communicative as the KTM's inverted WP fork, the 84-horse Boxer does a credible Panzer impersonation, laying down usable power from 2000 rpm and chugging through essentially anything the Michelins can get hold of. Switching off the ABS helps, but the GS's front brake is touchy; strictly a one-finger proposition in the dirt. The KTM's brakes are less powerful but more effective and much less scary. The 91-horsepower Suzuki suffers from cantankerous low-rpm throttle response, softish suspension and slippery-when-wet rubber-covered pegs. Some distance behind, the Tiger just suffers. With even softer suspension, slipperier-when-wet rubber-covered pegs and a peakier power delivery, it's an unhappy cat on the rough stuff.

Going the Extra MileBefore Interstate 5 was just a gleam in some paving contractor's eye, Model T Fords, Packard sedans and lumbering chain-drive Mac trucks took the Ridge Route from Castaic to Gorman. With 599 corners plus Dead Man's Curve--conveniently located directly above a spot soon known as the Junk Yard--any trip on this 20-foot-wide snake of pavement was an adventure. Some 90 years after it opened, there's plenty of adventure left in the 30 remaining miles. Riddled with craters and choked in spots to handlebar-width by mudslides, the surface alternates between scabs of ancient blacktop and the even-more-antique concrete underneath. It's enough to rattle a car or a regular streetbike to pieces, but these beasts eat it up. The Triumph seems happier carving between boulders in the gravel-strewn corners.

Pulling up to regroup at a particularly magnificent overlook, you can almost see it, miles off to the east: Willow Springs International Raceway, home of the newly constructed Horse Thief Mile circuit. We could have just strafed a few unsuspecting canyon roads, but how much fun would that be? Horse Thief Mile is what happens when Keith Code, Eddie Lawson and pro-rally legend Rod Millen cram 11 corners into a single mile of pavement. Draped on the hill overlooking Willow's familiar 2.5-mile road course, it could have been called the Rollercoaster Mile. Aside from 1500 feet of straight and level pavement, you're either hammering up one hill or down another into mostly blind, decreasing-radius corners on billiard-table-smooth pavement. Yeeooowww!

On public roads, the performance crown comes down to the KTM's omnipotent power/weight ratio versus the BMW's rock-solid chassis and brick-wall brakes. With no cops, cars, dogs, ice-cream trucks, bumps or puddles of ATF to keep speeds down, it's basically the same story. The Adventure wins the dragrace out of every corner but pitches forward on its long-travel suspension, braking crazily into the next one. Wound between 6000 and 7000 rpm, the GS is still five horses down on the lighter Austrian. Its better brakes, zero front-end dive and superior cornering manners make up some of the difference, but not quite enough.

At Horse Thief, the Suzuki gets the best of its customary battle with the Tiger. Cranking in maximum spring-preload at both ends keeps the V-Strom chassis settled in all but the fastest two corners. The Suzuki's pegs drag sooner, and its standard Bridgestones begin losing their grip earlier than the Triumph's Michelins. Keep the Tiger spinning near 9000 rpm and stay smooth on the brakes and it's capable of a respectably sporty clip. Still, Hinkley's 955cc triple can't quite match Hamamatsu's 996cc twin lunging from such tight corners, especially when it's pushing a heavier package. With better tires and brakes, the V-Strom could be right up there with the pricier Europeans.

At the end of the day, conclusions emerge amidst cooling engines and cold beers. To select the perfect adventurer, you need to choose the adventure you have in mind...and how adventurous your check-writing hand feels today. If it's more about dirt than street and you're not kidding about the Van Zyl's Pass next year--the steepest, rockiest mountain trail in South Africa--then the KTM is a slam-dunk. But if you're riding from L.A. to New York and then catching a flight to Cape Town, the BMW's pavement capabilities, ABS and assorted accoutrements seal the deal if you can part with the $15,490 admission price.

If price is more important than accoutrements, ABS or traveling on unimproved surfaces, it comes down to a choice between the Suzuki and the Triumph. The V-Strom's $8999 sticker price--$1500 less than the Tiger's--cinches that deal for us, making it one of the last true steals in anyone's showroom. It's a great all-arounder.

But if you're pinning our ears back for the absolute king of adventure, toss another beer over here and go with the GS. BMW invented this category more than a quarter-century ago, funneling engineering R&D into it when nobody else cared. It's motorcycling's answer to the Swiss Army Knife. Ride it to work today, to Telluride tomorrow and Dakar next summer.

On the GS, adventure is anywhere you haven't been yet. And that, as far as we're concerned, is the whole idea.

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