Dull red light illuminates the blacksmith's face as he pulls a glowing iron rod from the forge. Scaly impurities scatter as the smith hammers the rod into a horseshoe shape. He sets it down and the red glow fades. Now a customer walks into the shop. Before the smith can warn him, the customer picks up the horseshoe and, screaming in pain, drops it. Chuckling, the blacksmith says, "Hot, isn't it?" The customer replies, "Nope, just doesn't take me long to look at a horseshoe." My grandfather told me that joke. Around a thousand times.
Which brings me, roundly, to today's trendy adventure bikes and whether or not, like this month's cover story suggests, these bikes have any business venturing off road. These massive monster bikes seem like the business, all mil-spec looking and sinister. They bristle with Leatherman-like utility and rugged styling. But there's a huge gulf between a motorcycle that looks good parked on dirt and one that's actually good to ride on dirt.
It doesn't take long to figure out if a motorcycle will be enjoyable off road—and I don't mean smooth gravel roads. Most any motorcycle will do fine on those, even full-dress tourers. I mean trails marked "4-wheel drive only." The kind of trails that are littered with broken parts and spray-painted signs warning you to "Turn Back Now!" with helpful red arrows directing the faint-hearted where to exit.
The fastest way to determine whether your ADV might double as a decent dirt bike is to run an index finger down the right side of its spec sheet. Scan past engine configuration, ABS, or traction-control modes. Ignore wheelbase, load capacity, and alternator output. Those features and figures, while helpful, are only secondary to this discussion.
Keep moving down the list until your finger rests on the weight figure, for here lies the nut of the matter. Find a bike with a dry weight south of 300 pounds, and hills will magically flatten before you. Deep sand will morph into asphalt, and birds will tweet jolly adventure tunes as you playfully splash your way through hub-deep mud.
Choose one that weighs in on the far side of 500 pounds, however, and every off-road ride will be an adventure—and not in the way those brochures promise. Hills will be better left uncrested—nothing to see up there, street-scrambler man, just keep moving along. Deep sand will become a paddle-walking, calorie-burning stress test. Birds will shake their feathered heads in silent disbelief as you auger your electronically adjustable windscreen straight into that mud puddle.
Lacking ready access to a spec chart, certain cosmetic details can help rookies separate legit ridge-runners from pavement poseurs. Any bike with more than one cylinder is not a dirt bike. Plastic chin fairing? Not made for dirt. Get down on your knees—see an oil cooler directly in the flight path of any rocks kicked up by the front tire? Yep, not a dirt bike.
Here's an easy off road-worthiness test you can perform at your local dealership: Push the bike in question to a soft, grassy spot, retract the sidestand, and gently lean the bike away from you. Now let go and listen for any parts breaking. (Tell them you read about it in Motorcyclist!)
This is not to suggest that well-ridden adventure bikes can't get through the tough stuff. Hell, I read advrider.com same as everybody else, so I know they can. But I've also read plenty of stories of amateur adventurers abandoning their megabikes after routine tumbles.
To me, dirt riding should be challenging and fun—not a desperate wrestling match between man and a whole lot of machine. Lighter motorcycles will always be better in the dirt, and no amount of high-tech electronics or sophisticated suspension control can overcome an inherent, 250-pound disadvantage. Sure, a strong, skilled rider can take an ADV bike anywhere, but when it comes to the rest of us, it might be wiser to let go of the horseshoe.