Adventure Bikes | ADV 4 Ways

450, 650, 800, 1200: Which one's right for you?

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Karel Kramer

If you opened the magazine and flipped straight to this story instead of unclogging those rain gutters, worming the cat, earning a living or some actual productive societal function, you’re either knee-deep in this all-surface adventure shtick or dreaming about it. You’ve read everything there is to read about Helge Pedersen: 'round the world in 10 years and 220,000 miles on an R80G/S. You watched Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman take the longish 20,000-mile way from London to New York, via France, Germany, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Canada and a good chunk of the continental United States on kitted BMW R1150GS Adventures in 2004. You have their 15,000-mile '07 sequel on DVD: John 'O Groats, Scotland to Cape Town, South Africa in 85 days on a fresh pair of R1200GS Adventures, just for the fun of it. Fun?

Sure. Few of you and none of us have 85 vacation days or a BBC-sized travel budget, but once you give in to that first question, the second one remains the same whether the adventure in question is 250,000 miles long or 250: What to ride? BMW came up with the first bike designed to act like a garageful, a.k.a. the unlikely R80G/S Boxer, subsequently ridden around the world by the aforementioned Mr. Pedersen. And while other makers have carved off variously sized slices of the adventure pie since then, BMW still sells more—and some argue, better—of these motorcycles than anybody else.

Many of you—and all of us—have strong opinions on that subject. Ewan, Charlie and yours truly prefer heading off into the great wide-open on BMW’s big R1200GS Adventure. Editor in Chieftain Brian Catterson prefers the manageable, mid-sized F800GS. Aaron Frank, estimable inseam-challenged captain of Motorcyclist’s Milwaukee Desk, prefers the more down-to-earth G650GS. For Road Test Editor and outlaw mountain-biker Ari Henning, there’s the Husqvarna TE449: a domesticated dirtbike with lights and license plate. Carry on baggage: wallet, iPhone, toothbrush and maybe some dental floss.

The accounting department scotched Tierra del Fuego, so we settled on an economical yet revealing path to enlightenment. Call it the long way…up: El Segundo, California, to Big Bear Lake via the most enlightening assortment of surface streets, four-lane freeways and deliciously twisted mountain roads Google Earth has to offer. After that, a full day of dirt; from smooth, fast logging roads and scenic forest bunny trails to the sort of narrow, rocky manifestation of single-track evil our trail boss/photographer/off-road expert Karel Kramer rides for fun. We didn’t circumnavigate the globe, cross the International Dateline or dine on anything more exotic than carne asada and chilled local microbrew. We did get out of the office for three days and learn a few things about what works where. With any luck at all, you will, too.

WORDS: Ari Henning
HUSQVARNA TE449
Dirt-Based and Proud Of It

Exploring the labyrinth of trails in the Big Bear backcountry can either be enjoyable or terrifying. It all depends on your choice of equipment. On Husqvarna’s TE449, it’s downright exciting. The Husqvarna isn’t just a long-travel streetbike with suggestive styling and acceptable fireroad manners; it’s a bona fide dirtbike with the minimum legal accoutrements needed to span the paved bits between trailheads. It suits the geography of Big Bear—or any other small town surrounded by accessible wilderness—perfectly.

How did a Husky make it into this mix? Previously owned by MV Agusta, née Cagiva, the formerly Swedish company was bought by BMW in 2007. After struggling to find a foothold for their G450X enduro in the competitive off-road market, the Germans discontinued that bike in favor of their subsidiary’s already-established TE449. The Husqvarna was pretty well sorted, but the engineers shoehorned their 450cc engine into the Husky’s chassis to make it their own, and created an excellent all-surface exploratory machine in the process.

Navigating tight trails and cleaning loose climbs and descents is a mainstay of my repertoire—but only on a mountain bike! With limited motorized off-road experience, I naturally gravitated toward the lightweight Husky rather than the titanic Adventure and its GS siblings. Tricky terrain is no match for the TE’s low center of gravity, sub-300-lb. wet weight and tractable power. Its capabilities are easy to exploit and it’s willing to take you wherever you want to go, assuming you’re tall enough to swing a leg over the 37-inch-high seat.

For any rider with more than a mild appetite for dirt, the BMWs are too much of a compromise. Then again, for fanatical off-roaders, the Husky is a compromise as well. In order to meet emissions regulations, the TE has been pretty severely restricted. Thankfully the bike comes with a de-restriction kit in the crate (for dedicated off-road use) that should liven it up a bit. As delivered the Husky lacks the snap of its motocross siblings, but its power is evenly spread across the rev range. You can lug it or scream it; the engine works well both ways.

On loose, rocky trails the motor’s gentle power delivery gives good traction and steady forward motion, not roosts and slides. Getting the front wheel up onto an obstacle takes a tug on the bars, but even so the TE feels like a toy compared to the other three bikes in this group, which is exactly what you want when you’re airing off stumps and planing through rock gardens and streams.

A headlight, taillight and other legally necessary electronics let the TE449 roll on blacktop, but if your planned route involves pavement—especially if it’s the faster, four-lane variety—you’re in for an uncomfortable ride. The hard, narrow seat threatens to cleave you in two and the engine vibrates to the point of pain, and then, mercifully, numbness. Cruising at 50 mph or below will avoid the worst of it, as well as keep the single-disc front brake within its effective operating range. The Husky carries 2.2 gallons of gas under its seat, but the payload needs to be replenished every 100 miles or so, and more frequently in the dirt.

Riding along the meandering, lakeshore road after an afternoon in the dirt, I’m convinced I couldn’t have chosen a better partner for this adventure. It might have something to do with the 12-pack I’ve got balanced on the tank for the post-ride "debriefing," but I think the TE449 is the ideal bike for Big Bear. It’s capable of getting you where you need to go around town and then getting you away from it all when the desire strikes you. No wonder we saw so many dual-sport bikes around town.

WORDS: Aaron Frank
BMW G650GS
My First Adventure Bike

The sawed-off BMW G650GS looks positively runty alongside its mantis-legged siblings, which explains why it’s the only bike left when I’m the last one out of our condo at Snow Summit Resort. We’re headed for California Forest Road 3N10—the notorious John Bull Trail—and no one wants to tackle that dried-up scratch of Satan’s own singletrack on adventure touring’s “girlfriend bike.”

Except me. With the inseam of a 12-year-old girl and almost zero off-road experience, I’m a perfect match for the G-sport. Measuring just 30.7 inches between street and seat (or 29.5 inches with the factory-installed low-suspension option), the G650GS undercuts the next closest bike, the F800GS, by a full 4 inches. And with an impossible-to-stall 652cc single delivering 44 lb.-ft. of obedient torque, it couldn’t be easier to paddle-foot up a dry creek paved with baby-heads. Did I choose this bike, or did it choose me?

Restyled for 2011 with sharper creases and BMW’s signature high-beam-wart asymmetrical headlights, the sway-backed G650GS “looks like a Shetland pony with a birth defect,” Carrithers says. I prefer to think of it as a Muppet—grotesque yet cuddly, and friendly enough for even a complete dirt-noob like me. This is confirmed after Commander Kramer, our sadistic trail captain/photographer, leads our misfit band of ADVers up a gnarly singletrack lined with spiny acacia bushes on the left and a 100-foot drop to the right. I grit my teeth and pray to David Knight, while the G650GS just plows over, around and through every obstacle in its path like some unstoppable Teutonic garden tractor.

Keep the rear Conti Twinduro knobby spinning and the 19-inch cast front wheel pointed mostly forward, and the G650GS will go anywhere the Husqvarna TE449 can go—and many places the Clydesdale-class R1200GS can’t. An underseat fuel tank and 423-lb. curb weight keep the littlest GS on-line better than the taller, lighter, more-easily-deflected Husky, at least until you bottom the soft, non-adjustable Sachs fork. A smooth clutch, perfect injection and plenty of flywheel makes this Thumper easy to ride at a walking pace, and the cradle frame even doubles as a (very necessary) bash guard. Give it enough time and inertia and this Little Adventure Bike That Could can take you just about anywhere off-road.

It’s not bad on-road, either, though the compact size cramps anyone shopping from the Big & Tall section of the Aerostich catalog. Ergos are upright and a bit tight, especially between the pegs and the forward-sloping seat, though an available, 2-inch-taller accessory saddle provides some relief. With just 48 horsepower on tap, acceleration is more Prius than Porsche, and despite a counterbalancer the little single still gets too busy beyond 75 mph. Can’t argue with 55 mpg, however, and handling is neutral and surprisingly agile when climbing the Angeles Crest at a don’t-upset-the-LEOs pace, even with knobs. It could do with a bit more cornering clearance, though.

Don’t be fooled by the girlfriend’s-bike rep: The G650GS is a genuine adventure bike. If I had to choose one of these four to circle the globe, this would be it. At just $8400 complete with switchable ABS and heated handgrips, the G650GS costs less than half as much as BMW’s alpha Adventure bike. But economics aren’t the only reason the majority of motorcycles sold around the world—especially in the over-crowded, under-paved Third World—are small-displacement singles. I’ve had the “pleasure” of exploring the French Alps on an R1200GS, and after a long day tiptoeing down medieval alleys and negotiating endless toe-scraping hairpins, even levering the big Boxer off its kickstand is exhausting. For dodging pedestrians in downtown Dehli or avoiding ox-carts outside Phuket—never mind the John Bull Trail—the lighter, lower, easier-to-manage G650GS would be my choice 10 times out of 10.

WORDS: Tim Carrithers
BMW R1200GS Adventure
Bigger and Better, 97 Percent of the Time

An obedient BMW PR droid once told me that riding a big GS means you’re never on the wrong bike. Never say never. But 97 percent of the time, that’s the truth. Make peace with the fact that it’s big enough to generate gravity and weighs as much as a mature Right Whale’s testicles. The Adventure can do things Newton’s laws of motion and good sense say it can’t.

Patterned after the graceful, flowing aesthetic of an offshore oil rig, this XXL masterpiece of functional design covers 340 miles between fuel stops—at least 100 more than the average overstuffed luxury-touring barge. And for anyone with enough inseam or a stepladder, the GS is just as comfortable. It’s not the obvious choice for track days. Not wearing Continental Twinduro quasi-knobbies anyway: mandatory for semi-gnarly off-road sections and not half-bad on the street. Shod with relatively appropriate rubber, it’s capable of horrifying velocities on twisty pavement. Especially the crumbling, cratered kind, long since abandoned by law enforcement and road-repair crews. Come Monday morning, it’s like rolling to work in a 75-ton Königstiger tank. People get out of your way.

This is Gelände/Strasse: German for having it all, most of the time. Anything smaller is just a more accessible rung on the ladder to an 1170cc, horizontally opposed destination. They’re cute, and plenty good enough if you can’t deal with The Real Deal for some reason. Some are very nice. Nicer for that 3 percent of the ride where riding a motorcycle slightly smaller than one of Jupiter’s moons seems like a monumentally big mistake

At 7700 feet of elevation on a 95-degree day, halfway up a loose, narrow, boulder-strewn climb pioneered by a sadistic mountain goat with no sense of direction, it becomes increasingly clear that I’m on the wrong bike. Only a Husqvarna TE449 strapped to the rack could’ve made it right. Barring that, maintain just enough momentum to traverse scree-covered inclines without kissing nearby boulders too hard and Das Boot does better than Isaac Newton or self-preservation might predict.

Speed is not your friend here. Not on the two-wheeled sequel to Battlestar Galactica. Throttle/clutch control is, along with choosing the sort of line that maintains precious forward motion. Starting off after stalling leaves you in a psychological/physiological hole, along with that small meteor crater the rear wheel buried itself in. And don’t even think about tipping over unless you can right a capsized refrigerator full of Spaten lager on the side of a mountain in mid-summer heat. Alone.

A standard R1200GS might have been enough. The Adventure is bigger, heavier and, at $20,495, at least a couple grand more expensive, making it too much for most people most of the time. That’s how it looked to me before this trip. But after dealing with everything from four lanes of traffic-choked San Diego Freeway to black-diamond single-track and everything in between, the maximum GS is just about right. Stout crash bars, cross-spoke wire wheels and that 8.7-gallon gas tank can make the difference between riding out of the wilderness and being hauled out in the bed of a sympathetic 4x4. Longer electronically controlled suspension travel, a lower low gear and sportier steering geometry just might keep you from tipping over in the first place.

It all adds up to a motorcycle that crushes the three flavors of GS Lite that wouldn’t exist without the Boxer’s 31 years of showroom success. So? No motorcycle is perfect for everybody everywhere all the time, but as far as I’m concerned, this one comes closer than anything else 97 percent of the time.

WORDS: Brian Catterson
BMW F800GS
Balanced, Not Compromised

I suspected we were in trouble when I came across a mountain biker pushing his bike uphill. Sent down the trail to scout the feasibility of our four adventure-touring motorcycles making it through, I paused at the top of a downhill so steep and nasty, it looked like a black-diamond ski run, moguls and all. I asked the cyclist how long it went on like this. “Not too much farther,” he replied. “This is the worst of it.”

I wasn’t worried myself: No matter how gnarly the way, I knew I could make it on my BMW F800GS. Yes, it’s a big bike by off-road standards, but it has that most important of all traits: balance.

Introduced in 2008, the F800GS is BMW’s olive-branch offering to those intimidated by the flagship R1200GS’s size, weight or cost. Thus instead of a German-made Boxer twin, the 800 is equipped with a parallel-twin manufactured by Rotax in Austria. Other cost-saving measures include a conventional chain drive and telescopic fork in lieu of the 1200’s Paralever and Telelever.

As one who started racing motocross as a teenager (and never stopped), I put a premium on an adventure bike’s off-road capabilities. Yet it still has to get to and from the trailhead. Dual-sport singles are great in the dirt, but are too “busy” on the street. And while a big twin like the R1200GS can go coast to coast on one breath, it’s little more than a two-wheeled Jeep in the forest. (Read: bull in a china shop.)

At 487 lbs. full of gas—100 lbs. lighter than an R1200GS Adventure and just 40 lbs. heavier than a G650GS—the 800 isn’t too, too big for the trail. Nor is it too small for the highway: While Ari and Aaron were hating life on their v-v-vibrating s-s-singles, counting the minutes till the next gas stop, I was happily tootling along at 70 mph in my mid-sized twin’s sweet spot. Range wasn’t a worry, given the 800’s 4.2 gallons of gas at 50-plus miles per, monitored via an onboard trip computer. And when the trail narrowed and Tim got that look in his eyes, afraid he might shear off one of his horizontally opposed cylinders, I just kept on keeping on, confident my 9.6 inches of ground clearance would carry me through. Granted, we didn’t tackle any AA single-track trails, and pulled an about-face once after Karel failed to make it up a steep hill on his Husqvarna TE630. Discretion … valor … yeah.

On the street, the 800 can’t be beat. Roomy, comfortable, speedy and long-legged, it made the ride to and from Big Bear a treat. Its softly sprung fork bottomed whenever I pulled hard on the double-disc brakes, but worked great for soaking up whoops. Likewise, its 21-inch front tire felt a little sketchy in the twisties, but performed markedly better than the 19s on the bigger and smaller GSs off-road, especially when outfitted with Continental’s excellent TKC-80 knobbies. I’m not saying the 800 wouldn’t have been able to do what it did on its stock Pirelli Scorpion Trail tires, but I would have been a lot less confident!

Like the 1200, the 800 makes smooth, tractable power that doesn’t overwhelm the rear tire in slippery conditions. It doesn’t have any high-tech stability or traction controls, but with just 75 horsepower on tap, it doesn’t really need it. Just remember to switch off the ABS if you tackle anything more challenging than a fireroad—and consider turning around if you come across a mountain biker pushing his bike uphill.

WORDS: Ari Henning
PHOTO: Continental
Continental TKC-80 Twinduro Tires
On the Right Footing

You wouldn’t climb a mountain in tennis shoes, and we weren’t about to take our four adventure bikes off-road wearing their original-equipment dual-purpose tires. Taking a cue from the Bavarians (who offer Continental TKC-80s on the BMW R1200GS Adventure) and legions of devoted adventure riders, we swapped out the tires on our R1200GS, F800GS, G650GS and TE449 for Continental’s acclaimed TKC-80 Twinduro knobbies.

The Twinduros are some of Conti’s best-selling tires, and for good reason. The 60/40 percent on/off-road split is just about ideal for most adventure riders, and traction and handling are exemplary on any terrain. Scrubbing-in the tires took a little longer than usual, but once broken-in the TKCs offered surprisingly good grip as we wound our way up and over the Angeles Crest Highway. You feel some squirm at turn-in as you transition across the large tread blocks, but once leaned over the tires hold a line nicely. Push it a little harder and the Twinduros start squirming again, indicating that you’re approaching their limit. The smaller footprint of the F800’s and TE449’s narrow 21-inch front tires made those bikes feel noticeably less steady.

Crumbling pavement, gravel roads, hard-packed fireroads and rock-strewn single-track trails were all handled equally well by the Twinduros. The TKCs seemed ideally suited to our heavy adventure bikes and their smooth power delivery, resulting in very few incidents of unintentional loss of traction. Our tires still looked pretty decent after our three-day flog, and diehards say they’re good for 3000 to 5000 miles, depending on the bike and terrain. If you ride your adventure bike on equal parts pavement and dirt, the TKCs are the way to go. Front tires are offered in 19- and 21-inch sizes starting at $125, while rears come in 17-, 18- and 19-inch diameters starting at $135. Visit www.conti-moto.com for more information.

End of the Road
If you skipped ahead to see which bike wins, go back to the beginning. Even our little adventure is more complicated than that. As those who’ve read four different takes on the same three-day adventure already know, this isn’t that kind of comparison. Which one works best? That depends on who you are, where you’re going and how much dough you’re willing to spend getting there.

Short on cash, physical stature and riding experience? Aaron’s G650GS wins. The loyal Muppet goes almost anywhere its more capable brothers can, making up for its slower pace with a more accessible seat height and sticker price. If pure off-road performance trumps every other criterion on your checklist, Ari’s Husqvarna trumps any other bike here. Spiritual successor to BMW’s late G450X, it’s light, nimble and powerful enough to literally dust the others. Pavement travel is an exercise in frustration and pain management, so stick to the dirt and no worries.

For most adventures and adventurers, Brian’s F800GS strikes the best balance between on- and off-road competence. Never too big or too small unless you are, it’s the most acceptable compromise on all counts and the closest thing to an actual winner here if you insist on that sort of thing. Carrithers’ Big Adventure is too big for half of what we did. But play by its rules with a healthy respect for all that mass and the maximum Boxer will take you places: farther, faster and more reliably than any other motorcycle on the planet. If you really are planning to circumnavigate the globe, look no further.

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