You Guys Did What?! | COOK'S CORNER

Making the decision to test big adventure-touring rigs and their ability to go “anywhere.”

Almost certainly you’ve thumbed to this page to see what kind of nut job allowed a bunch of punk kids to take ADV machines more valuable than a lot of cars so deep into technical off-road conditions that they came back with scars and dents, leaks and limps. The bikes, I mean.

Well, I’m definitely that kind of nut job. But the thinking behind this month’s cover story is pretty defensible. Makers of big adventure-touring rigs—under the now-familiar ADV shorthand—tout their ability to go “anywhere.” That’s in quotes because each brand’s definition is different. For BMW and KTM, the word is used literally. Because of aggressive factory development, participation in racing, and scores of owners willing to push the limits, these companies know how to build in real off-road capabilities despite the presence of conveniences like cruise control, heated grips, and more electronics than the space shuttle. Sometimes, though, the appearance of a 600-pound machine able to navigate boulder gardens or slithery single tracks is just that, an appearance.

For us, there’s no better way to learn the truth than test, in this case on serious dirt roads and trails, with serious dirt-ready knobby tires fitted to each—the fantastic, if somewhat short-lived, Continental TKC 80. We went to the trouble because it’s important to take a testbike out of its comfort zone. That’s where you learn something.

Your roadside protection plan isn’t much good when you’re 20 miles from the nearest paved road. If you’re going adventuring off the beaten path, you better be prepared for anything—like hammering a bent rim back into shape with a rock.

Fact is, each of the four contestants this month make great streetbikes and embody the reason I think ADV machines are so popular today: They’re comfortable because of roomy ergonomics and long-travel suspension. Where today’s cruisers are long and low, and today’s sportbikes are stubby and committed, the ADVs have taken over the role of do-everything streetbike, something that the long-lost “standard” used to do. Just as SUVs became the offspring-hauling station wagon of the past decade, today’s ADV machines have morphed into versatile, tough-looking transportation with an attitude.

As we found in our testing, not all attitudes are backed up by actual muscle. (In case you haven’t read the cover story yet, I’ll say this: Warning, spoilers ahead!) For example, the Triumph and the Yamaha revealed their street bias by plunging through their suspension travel and dragging hard parts when the pace got a little frisky. All the while the BMW and the KTM kept asking for more. The performance differential was much greater than we expected. So, the Explorer and Super T are junk? Not at all. But to determine which of the many ADV (and ADV pretender) machines is best for you requires us to discover limitations.

Stop to consider your own needs and abilities. How much dirt riding do you do now? How would that change with a big ADV machine in your fleet? Can you really make the time for a month-long vacation to travel the Continental Divide or wade into some tropical jungle? Remember that the true purpose of ADV travel is to get to the night’s destination in one piece, with the bike as close to one piece as possible. Go slow enough and any of these machines will do the job. That may be enough for you.

The crucial difference is what I think of as margin. Plunking along a smooth fire road at a relaxed pace won’t dramatically tax any of these four machines, but you’ll be closer to the maximum of what the Triumph or Yamaha are capable of. Misjudge terrain or get in over your head and you might find that your lack of skill coincides with the bike’s lack of prowess in an uncomfortable way. Our top two picks represent bikes that are probably better than you are off road. Which, if you exercise some judgment, is the way to have it.

Your roadside protection plan isn’t much good when you’re 20 miles from the nearest paved road. If you’re going adventuring off the beaten path, you better be prepared for anything—like hammering a bent rim back into shape with a rock.