Size Matters

Story by David Booth//
November 17 2020

I am, frankly, the luckiest guy on earth. This being Motorcycle Mojo’s touring issue, it is chock-a-block of far-flung destinations visited and remote corners of the Earth adventured. With the exception of the Far East and Australia, I have visited many of them – most, if you expand the definitions of “destination” and “adventure” to include similar ports of calls and journeys. For a boy from Nowhere, Northern Quebec, whose childhood dream was to just make it to Ontario, it’s been one helluva ride.

I say that not to boast – okay, just a little – but rather establish the bona fides in what I am going to say next: the biggest mistake made by two-wheeled adventure seekers when they set out into foreign territories is renting/buying/borrowing too big a bike. And, as expected, that miscalculation is transferring our bigger-is-better mentality to arenas where that mantra simply doesn’t hold.

My first experience with this phenomenon was on a tour of Mexico’s famed Baja Peninsula (and, yes, all you old-timers, I got to visit Mike’s Sky Ranch) with a gentleman named Chris Haines. Haines was a Baja racer of some repute – he’s won his class in the Baja 1000 15 times! – a vocation he morphed into leading guided tours that essentially emulate the famed Baja 1000.

Being a coward, I opted for the smallest dirt bike Haines recommended, Kawasaki’s truly amazing KLX250. The three gentlemen I shared the tour with – forever remembered in my hippocampus as Larry, Curly and Moe – chose much larger 650s. By the end of the second day, one of them had ended in hospital – and, from personal experience, I can tell you that you really don’t want to test Third World medical systems – another had quit the tour and the third continually retarded our progress despite riding the most powerful bike in the group.

And it’s not a mistake made by just beginners. I have been lucky enough to join the elite of motorcycle journalists on a number of BMW GS-related adventures – Morocco’s Atlas Mountains and the deserts of Namibia being the most incredible. Based on my past experience, I was one of the only ones who opted for BMW’s lesser GS, the F700/800/850 (fellow Mojoer and the eminently sensible Costa Mouzouris being the only other), most of my fellow journalists – who really should know better – choosing 1150/1200/1250 GSes.

Inevitably, almost to a man (and the occasional woman), they regretted their choices. Big boxers may indeed boast more power, better suspension and superior electronics, but when you’re so tired that you’re literally seeing in black-and-white – picking up 270 kg of lardy flat twin 10 or 15 times in a day will do that to you – you will (take my word on this) beg for a lighter motorcycle, no matter how crude or underpowered. I have literally seen motorcycle journalists – experts all, supposedly – lay a big 1250 on its side and sit in a sand wash until someone came to rescue them.

The lesson here is that if your route involves serious off-roading, you want the smallest motorcycle that can make the journey. Yamaha’s new 700 Ténéré and KTM’s 790 Adventure R look to capitalize on the market, but if you really want the ultimate go-anywhere, do-anything tool, Kawasaki’s KLR650 should not be ignored.

Nor do you have to go dirt-donking to make this mistake. In my estimation, the ultimate on-road destination in the world is the Swiss/Italian Alps. Riding the serpentine passes in this region – home of the famed Stelvio Pass as well as the lesser-known but even more exciting Neufenen, Susten and Grimsel passes – is a fantasy come true. The switchbacks are endless, the pavement billiard table-smooth and the local constabulary won’t even blink if you drag a foot peg.
And it’s no place for a sport bike. Understandably, the most popular motorcycles are adventure tourers, the big GS coming into its own here. Superbikes with clip-ons are rare, usually ridden by out-of-touch numpties yet to figure out that narrow handlebars and restricted turning radii are not fun when you’re spending most of your time in first gear.

Even here, lighter is better. Yes, I know that if you’re taking milady along as passenger, you need as much cargo volume as you can get. But even then – and please take my word on this – you’ll want the lightest option with the lowest seat possible. I once spent a week in the Alps with She Who Needs Three Types of Hair Conditioner aboard a K1600 and, as fine a motorcycle as it may be, even Herself insisted we needn’t ride anything that big again. Indeed, while speed is not the essence of alpine touring – okay, not the whole essence –worth noting is the weapon of choice for the locals is a single-lung 690 Duke. That might not be practical for two-up touring, but take that as an indication of how tight these roads really are.

In fact, in all my years of motorcycle touring abroad, I have never once wished I had a heavier, more powerful motorcycle. Yes, there are limits to this “tread lightly” mantra – a Rebel 300 isn’t going to pass muster on a German autobahn – but, nonetheless, my advice is that when trying to choose a bike for your next adventure, let curb-weight specifications be your guide.

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