Life on bikes

The best adventure bike is probably not an adventure bike

After a lifetime on sports bikes, the Editor of Biker & Bike has decided he needs an adventure bike. So naturally, he asked around to find out what is the best adventure bike. He didn’t get the answer he was expecting.

I’ll be honest, I was going to buy an adventure bike. Despite coming up with the whole idea of ‘You don’t need to have an adventure bike to go on adventures’ I’ve been desperate to own one for a while.

I’ve been hunting for a dirt cheap BMW F650GS – the original single-cylinder thumper, for months. It’s that or I beg the bank for yet another bike loan and go for the bigger Triumph Tiger 800. The first will be semi-useful if I want to do a bit of genuine off-roading, the latter will be a Euro mile-muncher when I don’t want to take my R1.

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I know full well you don’t need anything more than a 250cc bike, with a bit of clearance for potential off-roading and overloading, because I’ve spent the Summer watching a mate on Facebook tour Spain and Portugal on a YBR 250. With a matching one for his missus, it looked like they used tarmac roads roughly never but had maximum fun always: https://www.facebook.com/pg/250adventures/photos/

So I asked Phil, the 250-riding adventurer, what he thinks of the requirement for a big adventure bike for going off-piste. He’s a blunt bloke:

“On the road, the difference between bikes can be much of a muchness. To a degree, as long as they are comfortable, cruise at a decent speed and handle well, they will do the job. The problem I have with adventure bikes is their off-road ability on paper vs in practice.

what is the best adventure bike
©Phil Young – Adventure trip addict Phil Young started out on a 125 before upgrading to a 250

“Yes they have the suspension and the clearance, they can have the tyres and decent crash protection, but they are just too heavy. A quarter of a ton is a big chunk of bike to pick up by yourself. The golden rule of off-road is to make the bike do the work, but these big adventure bikes can sap all the energy out of you just keeping them balanced. After a tumble or two, tiredness can really set in fast. Something like a GS is also far too powerful for anything beyond a wide open dirt road. With 90+ lbs of torque available, spinning up the rear is far too easy. ”

Good points. So he does not need an Adventure from the likes of BMW, Triumph or KTM.

“My girlfriend and I both ride enduro, giving us a decent skill set for off-road riding, which comes in handy when we often take our adventure bikes off-road. We don’t own ‘adventure bikes’… our adventure bikes are a bit pants on paper really… We both ride the no thrills, 20bhp Yamaha YBR 250 and have ridden them all over the UK and a lot of Europe.

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“We find them great for an all-rounder. They are light (160kg fully wet) and easy to manage off-road, they have ample speed for road use, and the non-intimidating 20bhp makes it great for off-road use because they are so forgiving. You can spin up a rear and gain control, unlike a more powerful and heavy bike which will spit you off. The suspension is ample for the types of trails you would do on an adventure type tour/ride and clearance isn’t an issue with a little wheelie, another easy off-road technique when you only have 20bhp to work with.

what is the best adventure bike
©Phil Young – Do you really need anything bigger than a 250cc to go touring?

“We aren’t high earners, so the fact that we can manage Spain and back for £200 each in fuel and change a chain and sprockets for £35 is great as well. There is a whole host of benefits to these small bikes – being able to do most jobs on the roadside with a handful of tools is a big bonus when touring but because they are so basic, they don’t ever go wrong (but if they did it would be an easy fix!).

He’s making complete sense, and the budget angle is convincing.

Nobody knows this better than Jacqui Furneaux, author of the superb Hit The Road Jaq. On a minuscule budget, she bought an Enfield for travelling around India and Pakistan, often going off-road on a whim just to see where she would end up. Bitten by wanderlust, she then carried on in the same way for another seven years around Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, East Timor, New Zealand, and Australia, before hopping over the Pacific to cover a good chunk of South and Central America. On a 500cc Enfield Bullet…

So it’s clear you don’t need fancy suspension, ABS, cruise control and all the other gizmos the high-end so-called adventure bikes come with. But, adventure rides are not just about going off-road. There are also great distances to cover on tarmac too.

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I turned to Kev Turner, travel motorcycling author and contributor to Biker & Bike. He’s famous for riding to Moscow, and other places, on a perfectly unreasonably Kawasaki Ninja ZX6R. That’s right, not even the 900cc one.

Being a journo, he whipped up an article-long response, which you can read here, but the gist of it is; “The joy that comes from hurling a sports bike along the Route Napoleon, down through the Pyrenees, deep into the Norwegian mountains, or through Latvian back roads flanked by deep forests, is unique to that kind of machine.

“That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the benefits of a big adventure bike: better visibility, off-road capability, better storage, larger tank, and the ability to slot right in among every other BMW and KTM at service stops.

bike to go on adventures
© Kevin Turner – Packed and ready for another (really) long-distance blat

“In truth, if I were heading down to Africa or deep into the Mongolian outback I wouldn’t take the Kawasaki; I’m no masochist, and there are limitations to the madness.”

And there he nails it. You can indeed do a big trip on practically any bike, even a monkey bike (but not a Grom, you don’t want to be laughed at), but whatever you choose is almost certainly going to be a compromise at some point. Even though we’ve called BMW’s R1200 GS ‘the Range Rover of bikes‘ elsewhere, Phil is almost certainly right in that it is not a great all-rounder.

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What is the best adventure bike? There may be no such thing, which means your choice of bike for adventuring, given that any bike can go on an adventure, should be based on your main priority. Great off-road OR great on the roads; big enough to carry everything in comfort OR small enough to be highly manoeuvrable and easy to take anywhere.

So for me, I maybe need to wave goodbye to the idea of the baby GS or Tiger and try and find myself a super comfy Honda Cub with a cross-plane engine implant, knobblies and full Touratech panniers.

Phil made a fair bit of sense, so we asked him to expand on his view in the best bike for an adventure.

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The Author

Ian Malone

Ian Malone

Ian is the Editor and a co-founder of Biker & Bike.

He is obsessed about bikes to the point that he often starts conversations with new people by saying, "Please don't get me onto the subject of bikes. We'll be here all day."

Inevitably, the next question asked is nearly always, "What bike have you got, then?"

He owns five bikes right now:

'78 Kawasaki Z650
'97 Triumph Daytona 955i
'11 Triumph Tiger 800
'09 Yamaha R1
'88 Suzuki TS125X

At any one time, only two of these bikes are ever working, as you can read about on our blog.