Two and a half years ago, I started riding. Not long after, I got bit by the dual sport bug, having been sent a thread to a Ride Report on http://www.ADVRider.com, the de facto Adventure Riding web forum. Six months later, I finally purchased my first dual sport motorcycle, a 1996 Suzuki DR650SE. I picked the DR650 because of its size, weight, durability/reliability, and availability on the used market.
The DR650 has quite a following on ADVRider; the thread dedicated to it has over 70,000 posts going back about five years. Anything you could ever want to know about it is in that thread. Most popular ADV/Dual Sport bikes have similar threads, though the DR650, I believe, is the most active of them all.
After getting the bike and adding some more accessories to it (referred to as, “farkles”), I started exploring the various forest roads near Salem, Oregon, where I lived at the time (and do again now — that’s another story in and of itself). It didn’t take long to figure out a few things. First, the bike was too tall, and second, despite being the lightest of the big-bore dual sport motorcycles, it’s still pretty heavy, and quite a bear to pick up when you drop it.
After moving to Southern California for work a few months later, I attended an ADVRider rally in Death Valley the following March. This was my rude awakening. I learned just how “fish out of water” I was. Dirt riding is totally unlike street riding, and when you’re new to it, being on a big bike like the DR650 is enough to make you want to say to hell with it and go back to street riding.
Once I got home from that trip, I decided I needed a smaller bike. I had no intention of replacing my trusty DR. It’s an awesome bike that I doubt I will ever get rid of. I wanted something smaller to ride on more technical trails, and lighter so I could learn how to ride in dirt.
I ended up picking the Kawasaki KLX250S. I wanted an inexpensive, relatively lightweight, and small bike that still had something resembling respectable power. Well, I got two out of those three points with the KLX. Sort of.
The KLX is a tall bike with a 35″ seat height. I have a 29″ inseam, so do the math. For the record, the DR650 also has a 35″ seat height when stock. I managed to lower it 2-1/2″ using factory suspension adjustments and a set of “dog bones” (lowering links) on the rear shock. But the KLX has no such suspension adjustment options. I added a 1″ lowering link set, which made a slight difference. I knew I had to get it lower. And I knew it needed a better seat, since the stock seat is awful. I had a custom seat made by Bill Mayer Saddles in Ojai, California. I rode the bike out to their shop and waited while it was custom made. The upside is they were able to cut the seat height down by almost three inches. This made all the difference, and I got a much more comfortable seat in the process. No, you do not want to know how much it cost.
So now the KLX sat about an inch lower overall than the DR650, by my estimates. I would have liked one more inch, but it wasn’t practical without having the rear shock rebuilt, and that wasn’t in the budget. Besides, it would compromise ground clearance too much.
With all that done, and other farkles such as hand guards (to protect the levers), a skid plate, and a rack (for carrying stuff), I was set. A friend I made during the Death Valley trip was nice enough to take me out and start showing me the ropes of dirt riding. I did a fair amount of chickening out in some of the stuff he would try to take me on, but I got through other parts of it. It’s a matter of working up the nerve, doing it, and gaining confidence from it. He and I rode off and on for the next few months, and I got lots of good practice.
Then in November, I went back to Death Valley again. I made the mistake of trying to follow some very experienced riders on the first day I got there, and got thoroughly frustrated when I kept dumping the bike on a rocky uphill. I let them know I was giving up, and went back to camp. For the next few days, I stuck to easier trails.
Fast forward about six months to the next year’s Death Valley trip in March (2012). I put a fresh set of knobby tires on the KLX, along with a larger gas tank and a jet kit. The tires made an enormous improvement in how the bike handled. The stock tires were just garbage. They were fine on pavement, but on the dirt, forget it. It’s no wonder I was having trouble! I did several rides that were pretty challenging and did very well. I was finally learning and gaining confidence!
So here we are, present day. What I’ve learned is this: If you want to get into dual sport riding, keep in mind that you really should start with a smaller bike, with a seat height you can deal with, that is light enough for you to pick up when you drop it. And you will drop it. Repeatedly. It’s a part of the learning process.
Keep in mind, though, that these smaller bikes, such as the KLX250S and its bretheren — the Suzuki DR200, the Yamaha XT225 or XT250, the Yamaha WR250R, etc., are all SLOW motorcycles. We’re talking 12-18 hp or thereabouts. On dirt, that is plenty of power. It’s fun. On pavement, it’s painfully slow. You will get beat by pretty much every car on the road. And heaven help you if you try to go on the freeway.
If having a smaller bike isn’t in the budget, and you just want something capable of going off-road, that’s still workable. The learning curve will be much slower, but you’ll still learn. Just don’t try to take it off the pavement by yourself at first.. because again, you will need to be able to pick it up if you drop it. And you can drop it on a fire road just as easily as something more challenging.
Riding a motorcycle on dirt is like riding a cow wearing rollerskates. At least that’s what it feels like at first. You feel like you’re riding on marbles. The bike won’t feel at all, “planted,” like it does on asphalt. The front wheel will dart about depending on the surface you’re on. The rear end may feel like it could jump out from under you at any moment (it won’t, necessarily, but it may feel that way). Only with time will you gain the confidence to understand what you’re feeling so that it’s not nerve-wracking all the time.
I’ll do another post later with more specifics on dirt riding; for now I just wanted to give a realistic introduction for those who are considering getting into dual sport riding.
Unless you’re made of money, odds are you’ll be looking at used bikes. What are some good ones to consider? Here’s my short list:
- Suzuki DR650SE
- Kawasaki KLR650
- BMW G650GS
- Suzuki V-Strom DL650
As mentioned at the start of this post, it’s the lightest of all the big-bore (meaning 650cc or larger) dual sports, at 366 lbs wet (meaning full of fuel and other fluids). It’s air-cooled, which means simpler maintenance.
The KLR650 is more popular than the DR650, probably because of marketing. It’s a heavier bike, unfortunately. Kawasaki claims 440 lbs wet, but I have a friend with one, and with a full tank of gas, his weighed in at 475 lbs, and his only accessories were a skidplate and crashbars. The older KLR650′s (pre-2008) weigh about 30 lbs less, but aren’t nearly as attractive.
This is BMW’s version of the DR650. It’s still heavy (440 lbs wet), but it’s a single-cylinder just like the DR650 and KLR650. It’s a decently capable machine, and has more modern features like fuel injection.
Suzuki V-Strom DL650
This bike is more of a street bike than a dual-sport, but many people do successfully take them off-road. It weighs about 470 lbs wet. It has a 650cc V-Twin motor, which makes more power than any of the aforementioned bikes, and will be by far the most comfortable for long distances on pavement. But it’s also by far the least capable off-road. I personally wouldn’t take one of these onto anything more challenging than a fire road. Still, it’s a great bike. There is also a 1000cc version, weighing about 40 lbs more, but making about 50% more power.
That’s it for now. Any questions? Please post in the comments.