Off Road riding on an Adventure bike: Like Trail riding but better?

So you’ve bought yourself an shiny new adventure bike and bucking the trend of owners across the globe, you’ve decided to take it on an off-road adventure.  But is it just a question of loading up the kit and heading off into the sunset – just like trail riding but with heaps more power and storage?  Or is all that additional bulk going to make things an entirely different experience?

The answer might not be what the manufacturers want you to believe. Prepare for some inconvenient truths ….

IT'S NOT A DIRT BIKE

Now here’s a bombshell to start with! No matter how aggressively styled and Dakar inspired your adventure bike might be, it is not a dirt bike. If it were, it would have a small, light and powerful single cylinder engine, a sleek and clutter-free chassis and weight close to 120kg fully fuelled and ready to. No adventure bike on the market hits those three balls – sorry, not one.

NO MATTER WHAT THE MARKETING SPIN, THIS CAN’T DO THE SAME AS A DIRT BIKE. Image BMW

But once you embrace this and work with what you’ve got, an adventure bikes can deliver similar, if different fun! Forget those marketing images images of  stylish riders powering effortlessly through vast Saharan dunes and get a tad more real  – you’re not that guy and it’s unlikely you are going to be doing anything remotely close …

THIS IS NOT YOU – GET OVER IT. Image M Chytka / KTM

DAMAGE IS INEVITABLE

IT’S BEAUTIFUL NOW, BUT IT WON’T STAY LIKE THAT IF YOU HEAD OFF ROAD

OK so if you have made the decision to take your new toy onto the rough stuff, you have to wise up to the reality. Even if you keep it upright all day, it will get dirty, it will get scratched and it will get damaged – period.

Now for dirt bike riders this may come as no surprise, they’re used to a bit of munching trail in the course of a day’s riding and like nothing more! But don’t forget dirt bikes are built for abuse. Drop a KTMEXC250 and there will be little sign of damage once you pick it up – the same will not necessarily the same for an Africa Twin or a Triumph Tiger 1200. And if you are new to off-road riding and particularly to doing it on a big bike, then you will fall off more than you might imagine or indeed want. Adding protection such as bark busters, engine and frame bars and a sump guard before you take to the dirt can help, but not necessarily prevent damage

Perhaps just as importantly, you also have to accept that as most adventure bikes will never go off-road, then the damage you inflict on it will devalue the bike come resale time compared to a tarmac only bike.

Omelettes and eggs comes to mind …

THE HEAVY, HEAVY MONSTER SOUND

OK so this may be stating a point already made in the opening salvo, but it’s worth restating. Why? Because on the road, that 200 plus kilos is largely unnoticeable – with massive brakes and road based rubber, great balance and slippery ergonomics your bike handles and stops perfectly – it’s a fantastic piece of engineering.

However once out on the dirt, every pound of that bulk is attempting to do things you don’t want it to do. From pushing the front in the corners to trying to get itself stuck in deep mud, adventure bikes like to make life tricky. Imagine trying to control two trail bikes at the same time – that’s the kind of deal here.

ADVENTURE BIKES – RUGGED, IMPRESSIVE AND QUITE HEAVY. Image Triumph

And when you do drop it, you have to pick al that bulk back up again. If you doubt that this will be a problem, look at how many different techniques and instructional videos there are about how to pick up an adventure bike. Are there any on how to pick up a trail bike?

No – Go figure.

HOW HIGH CAN YOU GO?

GETTING ONTO LOADED ADVENTURE BIKES CAN BE HARD WORK

Again. this may seem an obvious one, but the tall seat height on most adventure bikes can be a real issue. OK it’s the same on a conventional dirt bike, but because you expend far less effort actually riding lighter bikes, then slinging your leg over the seat doesn’t seem as much effort. Tackle some tricky going and / or fall off a couple of times and each time that damn seat seems to get higher.

Factor in any luggage or back rack that make swinging your leg less possible and getting on and off your bike is a major consideration.

MOMENTUM IS YOUR FRIEND

As any seasoned dirt monkey will tell you, maintaining momemtum when you are off the tarmac is a skill you will need time and time again. Yes it would be great if you looked stylish and glamorous as you clear the rocky climb feet up without a single dab, but the reality is that as long as you keep moving and get to the top, how it looks and how much you flailed round your legs to get there matters not one jot.

On an adventure bike this is doubly true – keeping that motorcycle moving is really important as the additional weight makes restarting in slippery surfaces much harder. If you decide to take on a tricky climb, commit fully to it and try to visualise yourself at the top rather than lying under the bike in pain – Positive Mental Attitude can pay off big time!

IT’S A TRICKY CLIMB, BUT WITH MOMENTUM YOU CAN DO IT

MOMENTUM IS YOUR ENEMY

Now this might sound odd given our last point, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true! The additional bulk of a bigger bike means that it carries a lot of momentum all the time. On the uphills, that’s a good thing but going down hills and going into corners – not so much!

PROFESSIONAL RIDERS LIKE LAIA SAINZ MAKE IT LOOK EASY – IT IS NOT. Image KTM

Getting the most of the bike means that you need to be thinking and planning ahead vastly more than you ever need to on a trail or enduro bike. Braking needs to be done when you are upright and in a straight line and well before the bend for maximum effect, and downhills need to be treated with much more caution than on a smaller bike –  if the bike starts to run away with you a world of pain or damage or both is never far away.

FANCY A PROPER ADVENTURE

RIDE EXPEDITIONS RUN EXCEPTIONAL MOTORCYCLE TOURS IN AMAZING LOCATIONS FROM SOUTH AFRICA TO VIETNAM. IT"S ALL WE DO AND WE DO IT REALLY, REALLY WELL

STAND WHEN YOU CAN

Conventional wisdom for riding off-road tells you to stand all the time. Doing so lowers the centre of gravity, keeps the bike more stable and allows the bike to move about beneath you while you focus ahead. Now theoretically riding on bigger bikes should not change the rules, and for really experienced riders it doesn’t.

But for us mere mortals, standing on a big bike takes a lot more bravery, mainly because if the bike starts to topple, by the time you’ve sat down and put your legs out to steady the bike, it will be already heading to the ground and you are not going to stop 200kg with a dab.

GET ON THE PEGS, SON

So it’s maybe wise to head for a compromise situation – stand on the easier faster bits to start with, and don’t worry too much in the nadgery, muddy, steep and mucky stuff. Better to paddle a bit and stay upright than risk disaster.

Over time you might become as good as Mark Coma, but it’s not worth putting yourself into one ….

DRESS TO IMPRESS

OK so the stuff you wear on the road isn’t going to be the same as you need on the road – it’s similar but not the same – OK? That means that if you are serious about taking on a bit of dirty fun, then you need to invest in kit that is going to keep you safe and injury free. A full run down of suitable kit is covered on another blog here, but as a bare minimum you should be looking at good off-road focussed boots that firmly support your ankle and have soles strong enough to make standing comfortable and some kind of CE approved padding on your knees, elbows and shoulders. Buy an off road jacket and trousers and the protection  may be already in there, and unlike the other way round, proper adventure riding kit is usually pretty good on the road – suddenly that Klim Jacket and kecks seem like a bargain …

ADVENTURE KIT FOR ADVENTURES - SIMPLE

UNICORNS DON'T EXIST

Your tyres need to reflect how you are going to use the bike they are on. That’s why your new adventure bike came with ‘dual sport’ tyres with a heavy bias to road use – maybe 80 / 20 or even 90 /10. Once you decide to take the bike off-road for longer trips then you are going to have to change the rubber, but how far you go will be entirely where you want the compromise to be – on the road or off.

For maximum grip and confidence on the dirt, you are going to need proper off-road tyres – they will hook up in the mud, hold the lines in the corners and generally make life peachy. Until you return to the tarmac.  With so little contact points all those big tall knobbies vastly reduce the bike’s stability on the road – there’s no way they can offer the same grip with so much less rubber on the road than an equivalent road tyre.

EVEN GOOD TYRES CAN’T DO TWO JOBS EQUALLY WELL

The more off-road based your tyres, the slower you’ll need to go on the road to keep yourself sunny side up. The more road based your tyres, the slower you’ll be able to go on the dirt –  but as dirt tends to hurt less than tarmac, that’s worth considering.

A tyre that does both equally well is a unicorn and we all know how common those are. Do your research and make your pick –  just don’t ask advice on a FB group or forum ….

PACK LIGHT - REAL LIGHT

If you are taking on an long trip multi day trip with large sections of off-roads action, you need to be super frugal on your packing. It’s almost a case of piling up what you intend to take and then seeing whether you can manage with half the amount.

KEEP IT LIGHT AND OUT OF THE WAY – YOU’LL BE GLAD WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH

Why so? Because every kilo that you can save is going to be a kilo less that you need to lift when the bike goes down. This is not rocket science people …

Not only this but if you bag feels heavy when you unstrap it and lift it from the back of the bike, imaging what it’s doing to the handling. 20 kg of luggage way out back almost a metre away from the bike’s centre of gravity is not the ideal situation.

Get minimal and pack light.

KEEP IT CENTRAL

BOX FRESH KTM 990 ADVENTURE WITH LUGGAGE ON THE REAR RACK . Image H Mitterbauer / KTM

This fits well with the premise of going light. The more places you have to pack stuff, the more you are going to pack and the more weight you’ll be carrying. Bolt on those aluminium suitcases either side of your scoot and they’ll be packed to the gunwhales within seconds. OK so the weight is nice and low, but it’s still weight dragging the bike down. This is not a great plan.

The other reason for avoiding big side luggage is that it will restrict your riding, both in the trails that you can tackle and how you ride the bike – getting your leg stuck under an aluminium box is not going to help your day.

If your going to be on sweeping gravel roads from dawn to dusk, maybe this isn’t a problem, but once the trails head for the woodwork, having everything in behind you will avoid some tricky and painful situations.

Take a look at the bikes in out two Hard Alpi Tour galleries – almost every one has left the panniers behind and loaded centrally. This is not a coincidence.

SOFT LUGGAGE IS A GOOD OFF-ROAD OPTION

Leave the massive Hepco and Becker kit for the road trips or transcontinental adventures and keep your off road luggage to lightweight soft luggage that you can keep close to the bike, crashes well and won’t pin you to the floor.

You’ll thank us for this …

SPEED BUBBLE

YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BE DOING MUCH OF THIS. Image M Chytka / KTM

OK so going fast on a enduro bike needs a bit of skill, but let’s not over egg the pudding – modern dirt bikes are really easy to use off-road. Whether you chose a smooth fuel injected two-stroke or a plug and play thumper, the combination of fantastically flexible power, stunningly good suspension and perfect balance mean that even the most ham-fisted goon can look pretty good on the dirt.

But that’s not the case for adventure bikes – getting your hustle on a machine that’s over 200 kg and tops more than 150bhp requires skill, poise and some big cahunas. That’s not just because there’s so much more to control, it’s because if it goes wrong it gets really messy, painful and expensive. Build your speed as you build your confidence, take advice from experienced riders that can walk the walk, don’r ride alone until your are very confident in your abilities and don’t over-ride in order to catch up with more competent riders – you’ll learn nothing on the ground and less in hospital …

Adventure bikes can be great fun off-road, but make no mistake –  they are much, much harder work than trail bikes!

NEXT STOP - THE DAKAR. Image Triumph

OK so that’s all for now – hopefully this gives you some things to bear in mind before you break your off-road virginity.

If we’ve left anything out, let us know

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This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Great article, says it like it is !.
    First thing that strikes you is that dabbing the ground with your foot makes very little difference to the ride but feels like an amputation at the ankle.
    Second thing is that because the bike is so much heavier than you, shifting your body weight doesn’t have the desired effect on traction.
    Third is hurtling down a steep dirt road/track with a switchback at the bottom is just terrifying… can’t stop, cant turn! Instead of drifting through the corner, you may find yourself doing a controlled fishtail.

    Having said that. The general riding position is comfortable. Plenty of place to pack stuff and it has long legs to cover distance.

    1. Thanks Jeff – glad you took some information away with you and thanks for your additional points – all three are true!

      Julian

  2. I’m just wondering if the weight difference of these adventure bikes becomes less of a sticking point as the overall weight gets above 200kg? My KTM Freeride feels way lighter than my mate’s WR450 but my DRZ400 with the big tank doesn’t feel that much heavier than the Yammie, even though the weight difference is greater than between it and the Kato. Always wanted a Tenere 660 to replace the DRZ but as it’s over the 200kg mark anyway would say the Africa Twin’s extra 30kg be that much more noticeable?

    1. Hi Jimbo

      The weight isn’t an issue until it gets technical and then every kilo tends to work against you. Drop it and 230kg feels much more than 200 kg …

      Julian

  3. Excellent. Great to read an article that says it as it is. And wish that more of us pay heed, having myself fallen into the ‘trap’ of claims by the fancy adventure motorcycle manufacturers; & bought myself progressively bigger bikes; First the Tiger 800xrx, then Explorer 1200xc & now the R1200 GSA rallye. Whilst I don’t blame the manufacturers & these bikes are truly wonderful machines; my two cents is this; that trying to ride these heavy bikes has a retarding effect on ones learning & skills curve rather than enhancing as one would presume. The weight & the associated challenges & the fear reduces the ability to push the envelope which is so very necessary to learn & acquire off-road or trail riding skills. Basically these big bikes don’t forgive and trying to train/conquer off road challenges on them as a rookie pilot is ..well not the way to go about it. Yes the companies would have you believe otherwise with all those training courses but it ain’t so!
    Funnily enough, personally I realised this only recently on a visit to Goa, where I rented a 150 cc scooter, not wanting to ride the heavy GSA in & around the beautiful narrow lanes of the seaside destination. And the revelation occurred!
    I love my big bike but theres been a big trade off for sure! 🙂

    1. Thanks Aditya – small is often far better than big! Get yourself a lightweight enduro / trail bike or up your skills on the adventure bike to avoid disaster …

      Julian

  4. This is an excellent article.

    It is a matter of picking the right tool for the job and using it properly.

    My 07 1200 GS is great for taking my kids on adventure rides, even loaded down with luggage (I do have Ohlins front/rear that I adjust for the added weight). That said, I have to be VERY mindful of what I am riding, where I am riding, the conditions in which I am riding, and the fact that I have one of my kids on board. When the odds of dropping the bike start to go up, I have to be sensible and realistic. It can be a challenge if riding into parts unknown. This is where the internet is such an awesome tool. I am often able to get local knowledge of roads I want to ride from other riders that have already ridden them. This has paid off many many times over the years. Even then, there are times where I have to make that call and turn around and find another route.

    My GS is not a dirt bike. Yet, it is still a very capable bike and a LOT of fun, both on pavement and off. Here in East Texas, I get to ride it in deep sand occasionally, which I happen to enjoy (as does my son, but not my daughters). Tires make a HUGE difference on these bikes. I’ve tried many over the years and have finally settled on a TKC 80 front with either a TKC 80 rear or a Shinko 805 rear (considerably cheaper and about 85% the same performance). I have no issues with these tires on pavement at any “reasonable” speeds, even in twisty goodness like The Smoky Mountains, The Ozarks, or SW Colorado. I slow down a bit in the rain, but I’ve never experienced any unexpected behavior from them. When I plan a ride that I know will be more pavement biased with mild dirt, I mount up the Heidnau K60s.

    Training REALLY does help. Riding these big bikes is not exactly the same as a dirt bike even though many of the skills are the same. It is more a change in mindset than skills per se. You definitely have to do a LOT more thinking ahead and planning how you want to get through challenging sections. Packing light does make a difference. I run with a hard tail bag most of the time, especially if one of my kids is riding with me. But I keep it packed light.

    The image here is from a trip with my oldest daughter through Southern Utah and SW Colorado when she was 11. It was about 60-70% dirt. One side bag for her stuff, one for mine, and the tail for tools and other misc stuff.

    http://www.twtex.com/linkfiles/090916-Utah/P1080768.jpg

    I have a KTM 530 EXC for the more technical adventure riding when I get to leave the kids at home.

    Riding a big bike has also taught me that when it does go down, there usually is no harm in letting it sit there for a bit while your adrenaline surge fades. Try to pick it up too quickly while that adrenaline is still pumping and you can hurt yourself. It is far better to let your buddies laugh and take their pictures… especially if the group rule is that those that laugh and take pictures have to help with the lifting 😉 It also doesn’t hurt to spend a few moments considering the bike’s position relative to the terrain and how best to lift it, which might even mean moving it a bit first or even digging some dirt out strategically to make it easier. I used to carry one of those folding army shovels when I rode my 1150 GS.

    My riding buddies and I have taken to trailering to a destination, like Ouray, CO., and taking two bikes each. We each have big adventure bikes and smaller bikes. We alternate between the small and big bikes throughout the week. This allows us to challenge ourselves on the small bikes, then have a “relaxing” day on the big bikes. We’ve found this really helps with the cumulative fatigue over a week of harder daily riding if we only ride the small bikes. Yeah, we’re all 50+ now 😛 This has worked great in places like Moab, SW Colorado, Arkansas, and North Carolina.

    One thing you left out is the wisdom of carrying good tools! I have seen rides ruined and saved because of the lack or presence of good tools and the ability to use them properly. Obviously, the ability to repair flats is a big one. But, so is knowing how to take care of a bike that may have been submerged during a water crossing. Something as simple as not being able to remove the spark plug can end a ride, and not always in a convenient location. A small can of WD-40 or starter spray can do wonders for getting a flooded engine brought back to life! Tools may be required to effect repairs in the event of a dropped bike or accident. Of course this applies to big and small bikes alike, but for some reason it seems to get ignored more often when people are on the big bikes.

    1. Thanks for your comments Scott – it’s great to have feedback and find out about our readers. Maybe you should come ride with us?

      Julian

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