Most great innovations happened by accident. Penicillin was discovered because of contaminated medical equipment. Atomic weapons were made possible because a scientist was trying to recreate clouds in a glass jar. It’s all so romantic. But product innovation is no less serendipitous. And so, it’s thanks to a bizarre combination of salesmanship and the Nazi’s need for lebensraum that we can officially call 2015 The Year The Adventure Motorcycle Took Over The World.
Modern motorcycle product planning is a tedious affair. Dozens of experts compile trends and sales data, which are presented to a committee and the executive, before being distilled into a brief that is passed on to the research and development team.
The designers and engineers who actually make the motorcycle, typically smile appreciatively, nod and promptly ignore most it. They know that the committee’s lack of technical knowledge has resulted in several conflicting demands, while simultaneously generating heated political infighting among the planners. The resulting motorcycles are subsequently mild derivatives of the models they replace, pleasing everyone, but advancing the breed at a glacial pace at the same time.
But once in a while, a new machine emerges that challenges so completely our understanding of motorcycling that it invents a new class. Rarer still, one of these innovations occasionally becomes a runaway commercial success.
The Adventure bike, sometimes referred to by cognoscenti as an ADV, is one such star. Born out of a combination of desperation and technical incompetence, it has grown into the all singing, all dancing superstar category of motorcycling. And as of this year, the ADV has officially taken over as the Universal Motorcycle, the generic type that informs newcomers of the baseline, of what a motorcycle should be.
Described as a go-anywhere, do-anything machine, the ADV bike is a little hard to define, but it generally means long travel suspension, off-road wheels and tires, and lots of accessories designed to make long distance travel as comfortable as possible, in any road conditions.
They have also been described as the SUV of two wheels, an epithet that is accurate in many respects as, like most family SUVs, most ADV bikes look tough but aren’t, and actually cannot handle serious off road use. Eager to harness the new genre’s success, many manufacturers have stretched the definition to include roadsters with jacked up suspension.
But the goal is to suggest that a lot of exciting adventure possibilities (hence the name) are just waiting down the road. Should the mood strike you, your ADV bike will happily whisk you away from your office job in a business park to a rutted mountain pass in Chile, where you’ll cook wild animals in the company of rugged locals beside a campfire.
Like the superbike that dominated the markets until the recession, these extreme machines promise the user a taste of a fantasy life lived by daring individuals seen only in magazines and on television. Unlike the superbike, an ADV motorcycle can reasonably deliver on that promise, which is why it has become so dominant.
People have ridden off-road on motorcycles totally inappropriate to the task since the motorcycle came into existence. What makes the ADV phenomenon so fascinating is how from the wrong beginning, design and technology have evolved the beast into what can genuinely be called the best all around motorcycle configuration yet conceived.
The Eastern Front
During the second world war, Nazi Germany invaded Russia with the help of scouts aboard BMW and Zündapp sidecar outfits. These crude and heavy motorcycles had luggage, knobby tires and were tasked with traversing country that most contemporary motorcyclists wouldn’t even dare to walk. While being shot at. In sub-zero temperatures.
Those early ADV bikes did well and thanks to the spoils of war, were widely copied.
The off-road genre went elsewhere in the post war years, generally evolving towards the lightest, most nimble machine technology would allow. But in 1980 BMW brought back the heavyweight dual sport motorcycle with the R80 GS.
The company was bleeding money with motorcycles that were a decade behind the Japanese in technology whilst simultaneously costing twice as much, so the brand had to do something. The GS letters stood for the German words for off-road/street, suggesting that it could handle both. Despite being based around the obsolete R80 street bike motor, the bike was robust, and performed well enough to win the gruelling Paris-Dakar rally. Four times.
Later years brought a “Dakar” model to the commercial market with day-glo yellow crash bars and Bedouin Dakar race stickers. The newer editions were heavier and more expensive, designed to lure in customers who liked the rugged look but wanted comfort. BMW hit pay dirt with the complete redesign in 1994: the R1100 GS. Described by contemporary British motorcycle journalists as one of the ugliest motorcycles ever made, they none the less fell in love with its outrageous ability to go very fast, effortlessly, just about anywhere.
Superbike magazine editor John Cantlie described going wide on a highway exit ramp at “unsafe” speeds, noting that where any other motorcycle would have ended in a crash, the big GS just bumped over the concrete curb and stopped in the grass berm once the brakes were applied. He called the bike “Unflappable”, perhaps presaging BMWs future GS slogan “Unstoppable” by at least a ten years.
The surprise 2004 hit TV series The Long Way Round highlighted actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman as they traveled around the globe on a pair of GSs (aided by two fully equipped support trucks and a camera crew in pursuit). The stunning images of middle-aged men with families, riding the barren wastes of Siberia did more to sell not only the BMW GS, but the ADV genre, than any amount of marketing by the manufacturers could have done.
This year’s EICMA presented an industry that has surrendered completely to the ADV motorcycle. While until a few years ago, several major brands held out against the inevitable trend, this year every make from the big to the small offer several sizes of adventure models in their catalogues.
From the world’s number one manufacturer, Honda, you may choose from ADV bikes in four different engine displacements, with or without off-road wire wheels, and manual or semi-automatic gearboxes, ranging in price by as much as $15,000, spearheaded by the much hyped reintroduction of an Africa Twin (pictured below).
BMW, the self-styled leader of the ADV community, has ADV models available in almost all its engine platforms, with multiple trim levels to boot. KTM will sell you ADV models which can boast serious off-road capability and credibility gleaned from total domination of the Dakar off-road endurance races.
Even small, niche players are in the fold. India’s Royal Enfield, a brand that can legitimately claim to make authentic adventure motorcycles in the form of the five decades old Bullet, has been leaking images and press information about its forthcoming Himalayan ADV model for months. Meanwhile, a resurgent Benelli, and tiny importer CSC are showing off low-cost ADV models to enthusiastic crowds of consumers.
From all corners of the market, no matter how many vertical, off-road looking ADV inspired models flood in, the consumers cry “More! More!” It’s getting so that you can’t even buy yourself a good old fashioned standard motorcycle anymore.
Not so fast.
The rise of the Scrambler
The other surprising trend that refuses to listen to the pundits and die, is the resurrection of the scrambler. Similar to the ADV in that it promises occasional off-road fun, the modern scrambler delivers nothing of the kind. With high weight, low-cost suspension components and no more ground clearance than a normal naked roadster, the new scramblers are actually just entry-level, standard motorcycles dressed up for a 70’s retro night out on the town.
But they are selling, or at least they are selling the image of motorcycling, to the young demographic that every major brand is targeting.
The original scramblers were precisely the same as now, regular motorcycles with a few other modifications to help them cross rough country. They saw their heyday in the fifties and sixties, eventually evolving into lighter, two-stroke powered machines that bore less and less of a resemblance to their road going cousins, eventually becoming the modern motocrosser.
The scrambler disappeared quietly, nothing more than a footnote in motorcycle history, until Triumph launched a model they rather appropriately named the Scrambler in 2006. Based on their new, retro themed Bonneville, the Scrambler featured a high exhaust pipe, taller suspension, and knobby tires. It looked like the bike Steve McQueen jumped fences on in The Great Escape, which didn’t hurt its image.
Once again, the false promise. A 220 kg Triumph could no more leap over a 6′ barbed wire fence than could Ewan McGregor’s BMW cross Siberia without support crew and a man on a 200 cc Chinese copy of an MZ.
But like the ADV, the image is all that matters to most buyers. 2014’s sensation was the Ducati Scrambler (same name, which makes one wonder if the trademark lawyers were asleep). The internet exploded with videos of beautiful twenty-somethings riding lazily on sandy beach trails, while canary yellow shipping containers filled with a dazzling array of hipster-chic Scrambler merchandise populated motorcycle shows around the world.
This year, BMW, Benelli, and Moto Guzzi all launched scrambler versions of retro-looking motorcycles. Honda made a Grom-based scrambler concept, which to my eyes at least, was the signal that the scrambler theme has jumped the shark. Now the entire world will know that the only way to ride a motorcycle is to fit knobby tires and a surfboard to the side. But don’t put it on the side with the high-mounted scrambler exhaust pipe, because you’ll melt the fibreglass.
Jokes aside, the scrambler and the ADV share a quality that justify their commercial success. After literally decades where motorcycles were promoted as unsafe and uncomfortable, first by ridiculously fast superbikes, later by ridiculously unwieldy choppers, the general public reacted to the first cool looking bikes that they could enjoy riding without fear or hemorrhoids.
Modern scramblers and ADV motorcycles feature upright riding postures, easy to reach controls, look purposeful and are fun to ride at normal speeds. These are themes focused on attainable rider experience, travel and community, and will continue to grow motorcycling to the benefit of everyone.
It is ironic that all this has come by accident. But it really could not have been any other way, because if you asked any professional motorcycle industry R&D person the define the ideal motorcycle for practical every day use, it would not lead, in the case of the ADV, to a tall, heavy, expensive, large-capacity dual-sport with little weather protection.
Those early ADV motorcycles were fat and heavy because they needed to be indestructible to cope with the abusive nature of military necessity and the Paris-Dakar rally. They simply made do with the technology they had available to them. Of course today’s breed of entry-level ADV bikes can be had with low seat height, large protective fairings and reasonable weight and cost, but that has come thirty years after BMW re-spawned the genre.
The off-road style street motorcycle is the new standard. Whether it is the full dress ADV tourer, or the urban scrambler, 2015 represents the datum point when a one time trend hardened into a mainstream market reality.