Back to basics: Touring on a $1,000 Suzuki Savage

Photos: Zac Kurylyk
Title Photo: Ron Kierstead

On the weekend before last, I got back to basics. I bought a motorcycle for $1,000, strapped on a duffel bag, and hit the road.

Over the years, you’ve read a lot of motorcycle touring stories in CMG. They usually start the same way: “We picked up such-and-such a touring bike, rode the wheels off it, and it was great.”

But last weekend, I wanted to ride over to the Canadian Superbike races in Shubenacadie, NS. I live in Saint John, NB, the rear end of the east coast. There are no manufacturers’ press fleets here, full of bikes to borrow. Instead, I went and bought my father-in-law’s 1996 Suzuki Savage. Hours later, I was on my way down the twisties.

I didn’t buy the Savage out of any particular love for the bike; it’s an air-cooled single-cylinder cruiser, without even a tach or a tripmeter. Its main redeeming qualities were that it was cheap, it was light, and it hadn’t seen hard use: my father-in-law, who’d bought it to learn how to ride, put barely any miles on it the last couple of years. It was running, it had new rubber, and that was good enough for me.

The Old Ways Are Best

There are a lot of ways to get out of Saint John: the coastal route through Fundy National Park, the cruiser-friendly Rt. 102 up the river, the soul-crushing Rt. 1 four-laner. I chose to start down Rt. 845, which winds up the St. John River until you hit Hampton, where it sends you through gentle, rolling farmland with mild curves on Rt. 121. These are the old farm roads, the ones originally cut by settlers, forgotten today by tourists and DOT paving crews.

Taking a route like this has consequences, both good and bad. It’s a longer trip than the highway route and you’re going to find it harder to find gas, since rural decay long ago forced most mom-and-pop stations out of business. But the scenery grabs your attention when the road doesn’t, and most cagers aren’t in a hurry — get caught behind a slow-moving farm truck and there’s a 50/50 chance the driver (middle-aged or older, in these parts) will pull over and let you by. If not, well, you can always blow past them on the straights. Just wait for a chance to pass, if you want to keep it on the boil.

I took a break from the back road ramblings in Petitcodiac, where I hit the highway, and stayed there until Amherst. One of the crappiest things about riding in New Brunswick is that there’s no good backroad route around Moncton. The best thing is to hit the superslab once you get close to town, and put Atlantic Canada’s wannabe Sin City into your rearview as soon as possible.

Beyond this signpost is some of the best street riding in eastern Canada, as long as your suspension is up to it, and you don’t get the willies from riding on deserted wilderness highways.

New Scotland’s Finest Roads

Leaving Amherst, I headed down towards Advocate Harbour on Rt. 209. Now, my choice of a motorcycle started to catch up to me. The 21-year-old bike isn’t built for handling bad pavement at speed, so I dialed the throttle back to reduce the wear and tear on my bike, and on my body.

There were advantages to the slower speed: a hawk burst from the trees as I rode by, and I got to watch it fly off towards the horizon. As I drew nearer to Advocate, I could enjoy the smell of salt water and the cool sea breeze cutting inland, instead of only focusing on the next curve. The Savage didn’t quite live up to its name, but it did offer its own pace, a pace I’m familiar with from my early days of bombing around Prince Edward Island on UJMs with questionable reliability.

But on this trip, the bike was getting the job done. In the few hours I had between purchasing it and hitting the road, I’d done a quick appraisal of the most likely trouble spots, and addressed them. That meant adjusting the drive belt tension, changing the oil, putting hose clamps on the air boot and airing up the tires. I hadn’t done much else, yet the bike seemed to be holding up, despite its constant vibration. It was a bit down at the heels, but it got the job done.

In a way, it was a good representation of the area I was riding through. At the Irving station in Advocate Harbour, the Jeep owner in front of me at the pumps was missing the cap to his jerry can, so he stuffed a rag in the spout to make do. Inside, the gas jockey asked me to go back into the parking lot to tell him how much gas I’d rung up — they didn’t have a remote pump reader inside the building. In the backwater communities of Atlantic Canada, you make do, or do without. This bike belonged here.

You can ride forever on Rt. 209 without seeing another soul. But if you get off your bike, prepare to be devoured by bugs.

Leaving Advocate Harbour, the road turned into the best string of twisties I know of in Atlantic Canada. I focused on the road, avoiding as much broken pavement as possible, keeping the chassis settled to carry a few extra klicks through the corners.

It was fun, but tiring; by the time I got to Parrsboro, the sun was low and I’d been on the road about six hours.

That’s a long time aboard a thumper, and it was my first real trip of the year. I wasn’t in shape for touring. I could feel fatigue starting to catch up to me. Riding was now a series of decisions, an ongoing balance of risk vs. reward. Did I want to show up at Shubenacadie before dark, taking the gamble of riding quickly when I wasn’t as sharp as I should be? I settled on a compromise between speed and safety, vowing to return to this route someday when I was less tired, to enjoy it properly.

The road had straightened out a bit by the time I reach Economy anyway, and the trees pushing up to the pavement were replaced by farmland and coastal views, so it was a little easier to relax as the sun touched the horizon.

My luggage system might not have been the priciest adventure bags on the market, but the old army surplus duffel bag was surprisingly convenient.

Homeward bound

After the races ended Sunday, I squeezed in a quick ride down Rt. 357, through Musquodoboit Harbour, then stayed at my brother’s place in Halifax overnight. I headed home Monday morning, taking the four-lane all the way back, except for a minor detour through the Wentworth Valley to avoid the tolls and tedium of the Cobequid Pass. The long, boring grades of the Pass are no fun on a modern bike; on an old beater, they’re even worse, and there’s no scenery to make it worthwhile. I’ll take the slightly slower pace on Rt. 4 any day, and besides, it gave me a chance to stop for ice cream and beat the heat.

After a weekend off the bike, my cramped body folded into its riding position much more easily. It was all about making distance now, not enjoying the ride.

You could argue a scaled-down single-cylinder cruiser is an even worse choice for highway riding than it is for backroad rambling, but this is how I started out. My first forays off-Island as a kid were on underpowered Japanese low-riders, with the trips frequently ending in mechanical disaster, due to a lack of knowledge and money.

It seemed I might have left those days behind me; I kept an eye on the oil level and added a dram as needed, but the one-lunger continued to power on trouble-free.

The sights along Nova Scotia’s coastal routes make the slower pace worth it.

I was talking to one of my long-time riding buddies just before I left about the difference on trips like this from when I was a kid. Back then, pretty much every journey was a trip into uncertainty, of unfamiliar roads and unfamiliar bike problems. Just surviving a trip was a feat in itself.

When I bought the Savage, I was hoping to bring back just a bit of that excitement, the thrill of taking on the world with limited resources when I started riding. But in the years since, I’ve built up a lot of knowledge and experience, which are the two greatest resources any motorcyclist can acquire. And when I rolled into my driveway and my little girl came out for a hug, I realized the new thrill is not of discovery, but of passing on that knowledge.

15 thoughts on “Back to basics: Touring on a $1,000 Suzuki Savage”

  1. A very enjoyable read. Yes, a newer and more expensive bike might have been more comfortable, and easier to ride, but for many young folks, buying a $20,000 tourer is about as likely as winning a Powerball jackpot, so the “more modestly priced” bike is their only real choice. My first scoot was an old H-D, a 61″ Knucklehead that cost $175. Needless to say, compared to a modern bike, it came up short in a lot of areas, but it *was* a motorcycle, and while it lacked speed, handling, braking and reliability, it sure provided a bunch of good memories.

  2. I really enjoyed your trip report and the riders report on your ’96 Savage. It was well written with an easy going style and very informative. Thank you for your efforts.
    I’ve had quite a few LS650’s and still have 2 of them. One is my original ’96 Savage and the other an ’09 S40. The S40 is mostly stock but the ’96 is not at all, mechanically or visually. The engine is modified about as much as can be without getting into serious machining, and produces almost twice the original hp/torque. It ups the riding experience considerably.
    I was pleased to see that yours is also a ’96. With just replacing the stock muffler with a HD Dyna or Sportster muffler and rejecting the carb you can improve the power and riding experience noticeably. A good set of after market shocks that are an inch or two longer than stock will improve your comfort as well.
    Of course, if you want to look into all that can be done the comfort & ride can be raised a lot…just depends on how much you are willing to open your wallet.
    It is a great bike, not nearly the beginners bike as so often stated. Most of the riders on suzukisavage.com forum are folks with 20 or 30 or 40+ years of riding experience, and on multitudes of bikes or all sorts with the Savage/S40 being their favorite. It is inexpensive, light weight, easily maneuverable, relatively inexpensive to upgrade, and just down right fun.
    Ride safe.

    1. This bike has a Harley-Davidson muffler, but I don’t know if it’s a Dyna or Sportster can. I’ll have to look closer at it sometime. I don’t know if the carb was rejetted, but judging by the amount of decel pop, if it was done, it wasn’t done right.

      I have heard Intruder 800 shocks fit, but I don’t know if it’s really worth it. I’d like to try, but no point in trying to make the bike something it isn’t. I have a DR650 that I can ride if I want to go faster (if I ever put it back together).

  3. Hey Zac, great article. I was visiting my Mom in the Annapolis Valley last week, greatest province in Canada in the summer, although the back roads are getting very beat up and dangerous, many former street riders I talked to have switched to dirt. Lots of trails and good dirt riding areas. If I spend retirement summers in NS from Cowtown, I will probably do the same. Leave the road riding for the amazing back roads of BC and Washington state.

    1. If you think NS has bad roads, you should try NB …

      Dual sport is the way to go around here. Best of both worlds.

      1. Yes a Yamaha WR 250 R I think is the ticket. Enough power for the highway drone and super fun on trails. Maybe by the time I retire there with be a nice dual sport based on one of the excellent modern 450 engines available in dirt bikes. Free to dream. Cam

        1. A Dr-Z400 or even DR650 is really more suitable out here. Still tons of gravel that’s very doable on those machines, and they’re much more pleasant to ride to the farther-away destinations.

  4. But it’s a cruiser, all you could possibly have done is go to Starbucks, according to some of the Soapbox crowd.

  5. Great article Zac. Brought back some memories of my old Savage that I also purchased for $ 1,000 – many years ago at an estate auction – and gave it away a year later for 3x the price. I remember the decent build quality and very light, nimble, and balanced ride and handling. Slow as grass growing, but rather fun anyways.

      1. Rob and I talked to Ryca in years past, but they weren’t open to working with us then. Maybe now things have changed. I really like their Scrambler kit, but I also don’t want to turn the bike into a wannabe. I have an actual dual sport for that.

        1. The CS1 Is fantastic if you don’t mind all your weight on the bars. They weigh just 320lbs supposedly. By saying ‘working with us’ you meant you were going to build a RYCA with the cooperation of the company?

          1. Yeah, we approached them about doing a project, similar to what we’d just finished with the V-Strom at that time. They couldn’t afford to send us the parts, I think, and we couldn’t afford to buy them. Just one more more story killed by the bad economics in the industry.

            I think the CS2 Scrambler is pretty much everything I “need” in a motorcycle, except maybe the seat is uncomfortable. cs2 scrambler

  6. Great story! As a former owner of not one, but two Suzuki LS650’s in the 15 years since I started riding, I can attest to the fact that these little one-lung’ers are great fun and generally bullet-proof. Was delighted to see that the old ’96 in this piece was up to the task! Well done!

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