After “where are you going?” perhaps the second most important questions is “what are you going on?” As a bit of a petrol head, the latter question is almost as exciting as the former. As a man more indecisive than Hamlet, the latter has also caused no small amount of head scratching and sleepless nights. This post will hopefully shed light on our final choice of bike or camel in the case of the travellers gone before us on the Silk Roads; the brick-like Honda XR 400R. I’m not sure that the qualities of a brick have ever been used to promote a motorbike but in this case I think it works as you will hopefully soon agree. Before we begin, this is a very personal choice and some quite personal ramblings of a man who can be quite opinionated. Do not take my critique as infallible and please do not be offended if you ride a bike that we have discounted.
First of all, we are riding separate bikes. No doubt there will be enough bickering through the course of our travels, never mind fighting over who gets to ride a beautiful, twisting mountain pass or who has to stay sober and ride home from the pub in Tashkent if we were to ride two-up.
With that in mind it was important to find bikes that would be suitable for our route and suit both of us in terms of dimensions, power, off-road ability etc. Easier said than done picking such bikes given that the variation in riding terrain we would be encountering between Glasgow and Beijing is equally matched by Lottie and my difference in height, strength and confidence. Further to these challenges, we agreed that we would be mad to not take the same bike in order to cut down on spares/tools/bike knowledge required.
So we needed to choose one bike that had the following credentials;
- Affordable – we want to have some money to spend on sheep testicles and fake sunglasses
- Reliable – we don’t want to break down before leaving Blighty (no Ducati then)
- Simple – I like mechanics which I can fix, not electronics
- Capable off-road – we want our ability rather than the bikes to be the limiting factor
- Lightweight – the mantra of gear junkies around the world, no matter their hobby
- Size – nothing massive as Lottie has stumpy legs
- Availability – we’re not importing any foreign exotica
- Kudos – it has to be something we want to ride everyday
So with all that in mind the process of elimination began. Let’s make one thing clear, a big 1200cc BMW GS did not satisfy any of these criteria and certainly not in our hands. They’re expensive, as simple as quantum mechanics, need a crane to pick up and bigger than a Bactrian camel. Above all though it’s a BMW GS and neither of us want one even though we will happily admit being big fans of Ewan and Charlie. Other potential suitors such as KTM’s, Honda Africa Twins, Big Yamahas, Husqvarnas, Triumphs etc were all ruled out for various reasons related to the above criteria, which left only the following serious contenders; Yamaha XT660, BMW f650, Suzuki DRZ-400, Honda XR400R.
Yamaha XT660 – The first bike I test rode was the XT660 Tenere which despite my initial fondness of, unfortunately left me quite disappointed. It felt plasticy, showy and underpowered although I put a fair amount of the power issue down to it being my first ride on a single-cylinder ‘thumper’ and therefore my inability to find all of the power available. Immediately after though, I sped away on a XT660R and surprisingly had a much more enjoyable ride. It felt simpler, more fun and put a much bigger smile on my face. Ultimately though affordable examples are hard to come by and we would prefer something even lighter and more mechanically simple.
BMW f650 – the quintessential overland adventure bike, it had to make our shortlist even if we wanted to avoid becoming more Motorrad men. Plentiful, renowned for its great Rotax engine, easily accessorised for travel and very comfortable on most terrains, on paper this is a great bike for us. However, on riding a very good example, in great condition, which was being keenly sold, we were both left feeling that although we could ride this bike, and it would be grand, neither of us really wanted to. It seemed too safe, too easy, too cliché and just not very exciting. At the end of the day, an adventure of this scale deserves to be done on the bike of our dreams. We have come to realise that the bike of our dreams doesn’t actually exist as every bike is compromised to some degree, but compromising on the fun factor was something that we weren’t prepared to do and in reality this bike was not anything like our dreams.
Suzuki DRZ-400 – A very capable bike used to traverse carparks and continents alike with limited fuss and maximum fun. Simple, reliable, cheap, lightweight and found throughout the UK in its super-motard guise with slick tyres, customised rims and expensive loud exhausts. This bike would make us a fantastic adventure motorbike but we chose otherwise for a few small reasons. The first was it’s a Suzuki and everybody knows that Hondas are better. This is certainly the case when it comes to the off-road capabilities of the bike where numerous reviews credit the Honda XR400 as the better bike once off tarmac (which we intend to do as much as possible). The second was its simplicity. As a bike with a water cooled engine and electronics (albeit very limited), these are just more things to go wrong, or be broken by our ineptitude, and most likely somewhere where we really couldn’t afford them to go wrong. The added weight of the water-cooling, starter motor and battery make the DRZ heavier than its Honda rival (which is void of any of these ‘luxuries’) which was its third strike. Despite the compromise in power, we chose 400cc bikes for their reduced weight and size compared to their 600cc big brothers. Compromising on an electric start should save us further weight and reduce complexity but hopefully this won’t be a compromise too far in making us fear the rigmarole of kick-starting our bikes every time we start, fall off, stall at the lights etc….
Honda XR400R – And so to our eventual winner and mount of choice for our ride east to the home of the Bactrian camel. This bike has Paris-Dakar pedigree, a supposedly bulletproof (fingers crossed) air-cooled 400cc engine from the time of the dinosaurs and is as simple as brick. Thankfully, as it is found across the planet, it is as plentiful as bricks and a good low mileage example can be bought for not much more than a few pallets of bricks. It’s brick-like simplicity in not having a single modern luxury, also makes it the lightest bike that we considered which in turn keeps it fun to ride, easy to man-handle and hopefully rather fuel efficient. You may have noticed that the XR is quickly rattling through all of our required on-paper credentials. Off-paper it was equally as impressive. The first time we saw one we were both excited and equally terrified by its aggressive stance, knobbly tyres and tall seat height. On starting, the thumper engine was allowed to box bare-fisted by an un-muffled exhaust which made a noise destined to annoy the neighbours. I felt like a thug every time I twisted the throttle and used the bottom end grunt to race past unsuspecting fellow motorists, exhaust barking loudly as I did so. On riding, it put a grin on my face so big that my dazzlers were brighter than the admittedly very modest headlight. On finishing the test ride I wanted to get straight back on it again and go for a longer ride. Most importantly though, it’s a Honda and no-more needs to be said after that.
So with the Kudos box checked and some concerns over our ability to kick-start it and fit some electrical accessories answered, our decision was made and we commenced our hunt for our would-be adventure mules. Alan from just down the road near Edinburgh, supplied us with our first stallion and at the time of writing, we are currently on the look-out for another.
It feels good to have made this decision and eventually be committing to the adventure. For readers considering the same predicaments we hope this has been useful. No doubt not many will actually read this and of those that do, most will disagree. However, it is important to remember that any bike can make an adventure bike if it allows you to seek out and enjoy your own unexplored corners. The smiles of folks who relish the weekend escape beyond the M25 on their BMW GS is probably similar to that of Nick Sanders as he rides around the world on his Yamaha R1 sportsbike. It’s the getting out and doing it which matters most so from now on, we shall try to not worry about finding the perfect bike, as this does not actually exist and instead focus on enjoying our adventure on our bikes to the max. Let’s just hope the lack of starter button isn’t a compromise too far and somewhat limit our enjoyment….