Adventure Motorcycles - Do it in the dirt

There were 250 motorcycles on the starting line for the 29th Dakar Rally this past January 6th. For the rest of us, riding 5403 miles from Portugal to Senegal in two weeks is a pipe dream. We don't have the time. According to the World Tourism Organization, the average American gets 13 vacation days per year. Italians get 42. Even the Japanese take 25. It's tough enough to book the couch long enough to watch Dakar highlights on OLN. Tangible first-person adventures usually get stuffed between Friday afternoon and Sunday night. Forget Paris to Dakar. For beleaguered Southern Californian wage slaves, it's Perris to Ducor if we're lucky.

So what if Mauritania isn't on the agenda? Is the big-bore mega-enduro a viable option to the normal streetbike? Nothing else in the buyer's guide offers more broadband riding capability, even for those who think Cyril Despres is a forward for the Detroit Red Wings. For the purposes of this exercise, we assembled a cross-section of the breed with Buell's XB12X Ulysses parked closest to the pavement, BMW's R1200GS Adventure farthest away and the new fuel-injected KTM 990 Adventure somewhere between.

BMW R1200gs Adventure

Unquestioned King Of The Perpetual Road Trip

Yes, Virginia, it's big.

Not quite big enough to carry the Buell on its rack like a space-saver spare, but close. For those finding themselves less than 6 feet tall or without a stepladder, the GS-like Mt. Everest and Chinese scorpion kabobs-is something you have to read about. Even with the requisite 34-inch inseam, sitting eye-to-eye with Chevy Tahoe drivers takes some getting used to. Cue first gear with the usual clunk and the squirmy slow-speed steering and incessant howl from the knobby tires instills the second and third thoughts. This is not a motorcycle for the squeamish, or anyone who thinks BMW's regular 544-pound R1200GS is already a bit much.

With its 8.7-gallon fuel payload, more substantial fairing and luggage rack plus a prophylactic perimeter of crash bars and cylinder-head protection-don't leave the cul-de-sac without 'em-the Adventure weighs in at a daunting 581 lbs. with a full tank of super unleaded. That's roughly equivalent to 2.5 Honda CRF450R motocross bikes. But as long as you've got the legs for it, the GS is a lot more manageable than its off-road accoutrements lead you to believe.

Climbing into the saddle-2 inches taller than that standard GS thanks to more than 8 inches of Telelever/Paralever suspension travel at either end-reveals the roomiest, most refined cockpit of this trio. The 1170cc Boxer-twin is well-mannered enough. Still, that first trip around the block can be disconcerting if you're unaccustomed to the squirmy feel of knobbies on pavement. The optional Metzeler Karoos provide adequate grip on the street, but only just. Wet grip is a bit sketchy, and they inspire more anxiety than confidence whilst heeled over in a fast bend. Factor in incessant tire howl above 40 mph and we'd opt for an Adventure shod with less-aggro rubber until it's time to play dirty.

Though relatively ponderous and not nearly as quick as the lighter KTM, a carefully ridden Adventure can maintain a brisk back-road clip. Brakes are excellent (even without the optional $1040 ABS) and it's stable as a red-brick outhouse, but the BMW's various concessions to off-road efficiency tend to encourage a more restrained pace on Racer Road. For that matter, unless you're planning regular excursions into the outback, the basic R1200GS is a much better streetbike for $1900 less.

On the other foot, the Adventure can deal with just about anything short of glare ice or quicksand if you can. And while it's more workmanlike than uninspiring, the big Boxer pulls convincingly from idle to 7000 rpm. Slightly shorter overall gearing makes the engine spin a bit faster-nice on a muddy logging road but mildly annoying after 12 hours on I-5. Thankfully, the rest of the GS cabin is first-class. The firm, nicely shaped seat is all-day comfortable, and that adjustable windscreen punches a mercifully calm hole in the oncoming atmosphere, even in the rain. With BMW's phenomenal GPS III navigation system (see sidebar, page 59) and a fuel tank capable of putting an honest 400 miles between fill-ups, getting lost is impossible, running out of fuel is highly improbable and the crooked dotted lines on the map that go nowhere in particular are irresistible.

As the tarmac goes from bad to worse and then disappears altogether, longer-travel suspension, shorter gearing and knobby tires make perfect sense so long as you remember that 581-lb. dirtbike is an oxymoron of genuinely epic proportions. Unless your name is Jimmy Lewis or Jonah Street, speed is not your friend. So relax. Take your time. Plan ahead and the GS will traverse the sort of terrain that should be impassable to more than a quarter-ton of motorcycle. Power is perfect for that sort of thing, seamless and linear with no peaks or valleys to encourage anything but reassuring traction when the terra isn't especially firma. The single-plate dry clutch suffers an astounding amount of abuse before it starts slipping. There's sufficient ground clearance to keep from customizing the armored undercarriage on obstinate bits of terrain. And when it tips over-as opposed to if-all those cool-looking guards mean you can pick Humpty up and ride on again. Since unloading at speed would form a terrestrial impact crater clearly visible from space, don't.

The GS is a tool built for the job of putting vast quantities of real estate in its rear-view mirrors without letting the quality or even the existence of paved roads or gas stations get in the way. Strap on some camping gear and you'll never need motel reservations either. Some of what makes it better at that than anything makes it work harder to be a mainstream street machine, but in the end there are plenty of those and only one R1200GS Adventure.

Buell XB12X Ulysses

Weirdness For The Real World

The Buell doesn't look like a typical adventure-tourer because it isn't. From its single 375mm inside-out front brake rotor to its belt final drive to its air-cooled, made-in-Milwaukee engine, the Ulysses defines atypical. In this crowd, that means it's a sport-tourer that's capable of touring on badly paved roads or roads with no pavement at all. The '07-spec lower seat and less dirt-friendly Pirelli Scorpion Sync tires skew this latest version closer to the pavement, which is fine if that's where you find yourself most of the time anyway. There's nothing remotely typical on this unique fuel-in-frame, oil-in-swingarm ber Harley. Nothing here but the essentials for covering mostly paved ground in surprising comfort without wasting time. Just don't rush U-turns. This one needs more room than most.

Erik Buell's most practical, comfortable creation is also the most effective member of the XB line. Just ride the thing-you'll be pleasantly surprised. The 17-inch wheels, roomy riding position and relaxed response to rider inputs make the Ulysses a rapid road bike. There's no ABS or linked-brake trickery, just the sort of solid feedback from both ends that makes such electronic intervention largely unnecessary. And speaking of solid, the new seat provides a comfortably firm foundation for long-distance travel, despite less distance between your right thigh and the hot rear cylinder. Suspension is solid as well.

The 43mm Showa fork will dial-in nicely to most conditions a wandering explorer is likely to encounter. Our only complaint is aggressive braking blows through most of the 6.5 inches of travel, leaving little to soak up the bumps. Coupled with a firm, top-of-the-stroke ride from the rear end, there's a pronounced tail-high feel some of us weren't crazy about. It's best to get your braking done while upright and then ease off the binders en route to your appointment with Mr. Apex. Relatively relaxed steering geometry keeps the Ulysses from standing up and running wide while trail braking, as its sportier brethren were wont to do when they came with Dunlops. Just get somewhere near the apex, wind in a fistful of throttle and shift between 3000 and 6000 rpm. There's little to be gained from winding the engine tighter than that, though the Sportster- derived, 45-degree V-twin will spin a bit beyond 7000 rpm if you insist.

Suspension is adequate off-road, if a bit overtaxed in genuinely rough stuff. Sport-touring ergonomics feel a bit out of place as well when you're standing up on those streetbike footpegs that suddenly feel further aft than they should be. The good news: They also shift weight to the rear tire and aid in its valiant quest for traction, which is nice because the new Pirellis are a step backward from the '06-spec Dunlop D616s when it comes to playing dirty. Take your time and the Ulysses behaves far better than you'd expect.

The 84-horse, 1203cc Thunderstorm twin between the XB-X's frame spars is capable of remarkably rapid forward progress on any surface, though the process is more natural on paved ones. Where its relaxed cadence is less engaging than the other two bikes, its heavy flywheel buffers the big bangs nicely. Crisp throttle response above 2500 rpm means you always get the amount of thrust you've ordered. With a little practice, that means passable Chris Carr impressions on groomed stretches of fire road.

On the highway the Ulyssess settles comfortably into its 75-mph sweet spot, thanks to Buell's patented vibration-canceling Uniplanar engine mounts and an overdrive fifth gear. There's a taller windscreen at the top of our wish list. Beyond that, XB12X ergos are about perfect for commuting, sporty touring and all (paved) points in between. The 4.4 gallons of unleaded that live in those frame rails can last nearly 200 miles in cruse mode if you're careful. When you factor in long-distance accommodations that are a better windscreen short of the BMW's and large-if somewhat American Tourister-esque-hard bags, the Ulysses is a wonderful place to reel in a 1000-mile weekend.

KTM 990 Adventure

Your Basic High-Speed All-Surface Austrian SupersportWhat sort of persona lurks behind all that orange plastic? Here's a clue: BMW may have been there first, but with a half-dozen wins since 2001, KTM owns the Dakar Rally now. Never mind the key to said ownership is now a 357-lb., 654cc single and not this 999cc twin, which is a bored and stroked, fuel-injected rendering of the 2003 950 Adventure that put the Austrian works squarely in this game.

Cashing in on that North African cache and that of its successful dirtbikes, KTM's brand of adventure is going anywhere very, very quickly. When the corporate motto is Ready to Race, that's what you do. BMW may have invented the broadest little niche in motorcycling, but KTM has put a sharper edge on it. And though the Adventure looks little changed from the slab-sided original, the '07 news lurks underneath.

This latest iteration of the 75-degree LC8 V-twin that first won Dakar under the late Fabrizio Meoni in 2002 gets new 101.0 x 62.4mm cylinders this year, along with matching forged pistons. A set of 48mm Keihin throttle bodies succeed the 950 twin's 43mm carburetors. Adventure-spec porting and cam profiles soften power delivery a bit from 990 Superduke spec. The other bit of mechanical news is a standard two-channel Bosch/Brembo ABS unit under the seat-front and rear circuits act independently from each other, buffering the triple discs when necessary. And when it isn't, a switch in the cockpit restores the brakes to pure manual control.

All that stuff makes the 990 some 9 pounds heavier than its predecessor. But even at 516 lbs. with a full 5.8-gallon payload in its twin fuel tanks, the KTM is 64 lbs. lighter than the BMW. And with a seat more than 2 inches nearer the pavement, it's more accessible to humans of average height. (The more dirt-worthy 990 S is on par with the GS Adventure, thanks to an additional 1.8 inches of suspension travel.) Though it's plenty roomy, the KTM's ergonomic package is somewhat less so than the BMW's. Sitting there surrounded by vast slabs of orange plastic with a 21-inch front wheel leading the way, the 990 feels like a dirtbike with an overactive pituitary gland because that's what it is. It's a bit rough around the edges for $13,998, and KTM's function-first approach is short on niceties-filling two separate fuel tanks every 200 miles or so seems like a pain to us-but serious adventurers could care less about such things.

We, however, got a bit leery about heading for the middle of nowhere after the horrifying tool-steel-fingernails-on-a-blackboard graunch our bike made about every third time we started it. Though it never stopped forward progress, the 990's starter gear was evidently having an ongoing argument with its driven counterpart. Otherwise, the EFI makes the starting process instantaneous. Initial throttle response is a bit too quick; the carbureted version was smoother around town. And though the rear circuit usurps braking control too early for us, the new ABS system is otherwise excellent.

Though power tapers off once the tach needle is within 500 rpm of redline, the latest LC8 revs much quicker than the bigger twins. Handling is quicker as well, making the 990 the most agile companion on urbane adventures and beyond. Shod with more street-friendly rubber, the GS can keep the KTM in its sights on a twisty road, but only just. There's more pitch from the KTM's orthodox WP suspension bits when you're hard on the brakes or throttle, but even the pavement-oriented Buell can't drive out of corners with anything like the 990's ferocity. The gap back to the BMW and Buell can change after said pavement peters out, but if speed is the game, the KTM wins.

That harsh transition on or off the throttle combined with the stock Pirelli MT90 A/T tires made the 100-foot cliffs marking our favorite rocky goat trails more of a pucker than they should have been. Still, the KTM is quicker and more intuitive than the BMW's Goliath, regardless of how many dirt miles are under your kidney belt. But after an hour's worth of the inevitable four-lane reentry to civilization, the KTM's seat foam assumes all the consistency and resilience of compressed Wonder Bread. After 2 hours on the seat pan you're negotiating terms of surrender with the GS pilot, who isn't happy with the 990's relatively skimpy fuel range or fairing protection either. And where are the bleedin' heated grips?

Depending upon your personal pain/frustration threshold, details like that might seem insignificant in the showroom but turn into a big deal when you're a few hundred miles away from anything resembling a warm bed. But if blacktop is a necessary evil and you're only covering enough of the stuff to connect the perfect trails, lever a set of Continental TKC80 knobbies onto the KTM's rims and you'll live happily ever after.