Smoke & Mirrors

I’ve been watching Tough Rides: China by Colin & Ryan Pile.  It’s the long way around China and a great introduction to a little known country, but it sometimes comes off as another thinly veiled BMW ad for adventure motorcycling.

The ride itself is indeed tough with the boys working their way through deserts, traffic and mudslides all the way to the base of Everest, but their bike troubles left me thinking about BIKE’s ride from the UK to Japan on a Suzuki V-Strom.  In that case the (relatively budget) Suzuki V-Strom managed to cross Europe and Asia (including the Pamir Highway and Mongolia) in fine fettle.  Bike’s 13,768 mile (22,160km) ride highlights just how tough Suzuki’s less famous adventure bike is.

In comparison to Bike’s bullet proof V-Strom, the new BMWs making the 18,000km circuit of China quickly develop character.  I just finished the episode where one of the bikes (after not starting in a previous episode), now needs a whole new clutch.  This got me thinking about another statistic.

The Consumer Reports reliability Rankings are pretty damning.  From a purely statistical point of view you’d be crazy not to buy a Japanese bike, adventure or otherwise.  If you want something American, get a Victory!  Want something European?  For goodness sakes, get a Triumph!  Ducati is more dependable than BMW yet the propeller heads from Bavaria still seem to be the darlings of the TV adventure motorcycling set.

I get the sense that this is a triumph of marketing over engineering, which is a real shame.  If every other motorcycle manufacturer took the same risks supporting epic rides we wouldn’t all be subject to this style before substance adventure-bike TV.

A while back I was reading a Cycle World article comparing the big BMW adventure bike to KTM’s Super Adventure.  The article ended with a litany of breakdowns on both machines.  It turns out taking 550+ pound, tech-heavy giant trailies off-road doesn’t end well unless you’re a magazine reporter riding a demo bike.  I guess they’re great bikes as long as you’re not pouring money into repairs yourself.

I got into Nick Sander’s Incredible Ride a while back.  Nick road the length of the Americas three times, two of them in just 46 days, on a Yamaha Super Ténéré.

That’s 50,000 miles (~85,000kms) through the bad gas of Central America, jungle, deserts, mountains all from north of the Arctic Circle almost to the Antarctic Circle.  The BigTen worked flawlessly and when they stripped the engine down after the fact the technicians were frankly astonished by how little wear there was.  Needless to say, it didn’t need the clutch replaced during that massive trip.

Honda is bragging on their new Africa Twin, a ‘true’ adventure bike.  At 500lbs it’s a bit lighter than the super-stylish yet very breakable BMWs & KTMs listed above, and if anyone could build a bike that wouldn’t break it would be Honda.  Yet even in this case I’m left wondering just how resilient any off-road capable bike north of five hundred pounds is going to be.

You’d think it would be impossible to build a big bike capable of managing this abuse – it’s a question of physics (mass vs. the violence of off-road riding), but Sanders’ Yamaha suggests it is possible, though you won’t see it on adventure bike TV.  Maybe bikes that work all the time make for bad TV.

There is a reason why you guys are having to figure out how to
install clutch plates in the middle of a trip….

An antidote to all of this is Austin Vince‘s various Mondos.  He seems to spend about the same amount of time repairing his ailing, ancient dual sport bikes but he isn’t wearing designer riding gear and he didn’t pay anything like the $15,000 that the two Canadian boys did for their new F800GS Adventures.  Vince probably spends less than that on a whole trip, including the cost of his bike.

Ultimately, much of the adventure bike genre is more concerned with style.  Like SUV drivers, most ADV riders seldom if ever venture off pavement so perhaps this post is suggesting something that doesn’t really matter.

COST x FAILURE RATE presents a pretty obvious conclusion.

But if you can buy a better built Japanese adventure bike for less (they all cost substantially less than the nearly $22k a BMW 1200GS Adventure costs), then why on earth wouldn’t you?

If you’re buying that GS to feel like Ewan & Charley then I suppose it’s all good if you enjoy the feeling you get from it, but if you’re actually interested in going off the beaten path and don’t have a sponsorship deal and a support crew, considering reliability before marketing seems like a no-brainer.