Dear Motorcycle Manufacturers: Please stop turning adventure bikes into SUVs.
Some readers might think that’s an odd request, but let’s take a trip down memory lane. Remember when the SUV craze kicked off in the 1990s, with O.J.’s Bronco and Arnold’s Hummer? The following years saw every carmaker jump on the bandwagon, with a growing emphasis on style and luxury over capability.
Initially, they were a hit; millions of North Americans bought the gas-guzzlers.
At this point, even luxury brands like Lincoln and Cadillac have SUVs in the lineup – a far cry from bare-bones vehicles like the Suzuki Samurai, or Jeep CJ-7. Carmakers have taken a utilitarian design, and morphed it into an obese grocery-getter with running boards and heated seats. Take a look at Hummer’s H3 for the current state of the SUV; it can hardly claim to be Sporty, or even Utilitarian.
Now, compare that decline to today’s ‘adventure’ bike trends.
For years, the adventure motorcycling dream has been sold through online forums and the odd dedicated magazine. It’s always the same basic message: Hop aboard your bike, strap on some luggage, and you can blast through the world’s wildest regions, regardless of inhospitable conditions. Sand? Mud? Water? Desert? It doesn’t matter – you can ride through it all on your adventure bike, meeting new people and cultures along the way.
Of course, there’s the reality that accompanies this pitch: While many riders are doing just this sort of thing, there are many other riders who buy adventure bikes and don’t take them any further than the local Tim Hortons.
It’s the SUV story playing out all over again and like the SUV’s spiral into uselessness, I blame those coffee-swilling wannabes for the current state of adventure motorcycles.
When adventure bikes first came out (think of BMW’s 1981 R80G/S, or maybe even Honda’s XL500 or Yamaha’s XT500), they were more porky than standard street-and-trail machines of the day, but they were an honest attempt at off-road travel.
They were lighter than most street machines, had more suspension travel, and not much in the way of easy-to-break bodywork. They didn’t offer much in the way of street amenities, but these bikes were raced at Dakar and rarely seen at the local java stop.
Compare that to the current crop of bikes carrying the adventure motorcycle label. Fairings are in, minimalist design is out. There’s a growing array of electronic gadgetry that would make a 1960s-era James Bond jealous.
Many even come with easily-broken cast wheels, instead of dirt-friendly spoked rims. And indeed, some even shun the minimum-for-off-road 19-inch front wheels in favour of a pair of sporty 17-inchers, shod in tires more at home on a track than a gravel road.
As a result, riders are riding much more comfortably on the street, but the adventure element is being reduced to marketing doublespeak.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with taking a powerful street-biased motor and adding long-travel suspension and luggage. However, slapping the adventure motorcycle label on that machine is a misnomer. A lot of modern adventure bikes are actually just sport touring machines with slightly longer suspension.
You could argue that’s not a big deal – after all, the beaten track pretty much circles the globe these days, and you can ride just about everywhere on pavement. But if that’s the case, why buy an adventure bike in the first place? The same traveling can be achieved on a Harley-Davidson, like Peter and Kay Forwood, or even an R1, like Sjaak Lucassen? Are cruisers and crotch rockets the same thing as adventure bikes?
There’s another slightly amusing side to this marketing spiel as well. When travelers arrive at those far-off exotic countries, what are most of the locals riding? Not big-bore duallies, that’s for sure. The majority of the globe’s two-wheeled tribe is running little 100-150 cc motorcycles, and in many cases, even scooters.
The point to all this jibber-jabber, is that motorcycle marketers and riders are actually missing the point. Adventure bikes used to have to earn their title by proving their capabilities, but as time has passed, the capabilities of those bikes have diminished, and been replaced by style and luxury.
They may be more powerful, more comfortable and showered with safety features, but guess what? You don’t need 120 hp, heated seats and traction control when you’re buried up to your axels in the sand. You need to be able to pull your bike out and keep moving.
I asked Austin Vince his thoughts on this issue. You might not have heard of Vince’s name before, but his classic adventure riding film Mondo Enduro (click here for the trailer!) was part of the inspiration for Charley Boorman and Ewan MacGregor’s Long Way Down and Long Way Round. You could arguably call Vince the godfather of modern adventure riding.
He didn’t slam today’s large adventure bikes, but here’s the wisdom he did share.
“If you gathered together the world’s greatest adventure motorcyclists, people who have done things that are truly impressive and inspirational, and then interviewed them all for two hours each … when asked, ‘What would you change about your trip if you could do it again?” not one of them will say: ‘I wish my bike had been bigger.’ ”
Vince knows what he’s talking about. He’s circled the globe on a Suzuki DR350. His wife, Lois Pryce, is also a well-known adventure rider. She took a Yamaha XT225 from Alaska to Argentina, and wrote a book about it.
The SUV car craze started to die out when the public realized that emperor had no clothes. Hopefully, motorcycle manufacturer’s don’t end up killing the fastest-growing two-wheeled culture the same way, by convincing everyone to buy fancy, powerful, luxurious bikes with less and less off-road capability … and then stay home to pay them off.