There’s a technique to riding in sand, which Clinton Smout taught us last year at his school near Horseshoe Valley. You have to stand up, lean back to take the weight off the front wheel, hold the bars lightly “as if you have an egg between the grips and your fingers,” and maintain a steady throttle. And trust in the Lord.
This is easier said than done. I yelled it out a few times to Andrew and Dan as we hit long slippery sections, and I heard them calling “whoooooooaaaaaahhh!” and “arrrrrrrrrghhhh!” over our Sena intercoms. I stayed at the back of the three of us, because they had knobbies and my Kawasaki Versys-X 300 did not.
The Versys-X 300 is not intended for serious off-roading. As David Booth wrote in his recent review of the bike for Psycho Canada magazine, “the occasional gravel road and the lightest of trails are the 300’s limits, its primary off-road ability being, again, its relatively light weight.”
Since when have we ever cared about Psycho Canada’s advice at CMG? Bring on the dirt!
We were all riding Kawasakis, heading up to Bancroft and Wilno on cottage roads and the Hastings Trail before turning south to our homes at Cobourg, Ontario. This was a two-day weekend ride: we started Saturday morning from a cottage near Haliburton and worked our way over and up on whatever trails we could find, staying over that night with friends at another cottage in the middle of nowhere.
The Versys-X was probably the most comfortable machine. It was immaculately clean when I collected it from Kawasaki’s Toronto office and almost as clean by the time we puttered up to the first cottage on Friday night. Dan’s 2009 KLX250 was not in the least bit clean, and neither was Dan’s 2000 KLR650, which Andrew was riding. I had no problem watching them go ahead and check out the depth of puddles and mud.
The Versys-X was first to become a casualty, though, when the licence plate and bracket fell off somewhere along the bumpy cottage road just as the Friday evening dusk was settling in. This did not inspire confidence in the bike. We found it the next morning, off to one side in the long grass, and rode to a marina to find some serious bolts for keeping it attached. Dan had the tool kit that was carried on the KLR. He’s the organized one, but we were worried when he showed us the rubber gloves he also brought along. Very worried.
The Versys-X is comfortable because it’s fairly tall for such a small displacement. The seat height is 815 mm, which can be bumped further to 840 mm with an optional Ergo-Fit seat. The engine is pretty much identical to the engine in the sport bike, which means it likes, and needs, the crap revved out of it all day long. “Don’t worry about riding near the redline – it won’t harm the bike,” said the Nice Man from Kawasaki when I collected it, so I didn’t.
This wasn’t really an issue on the road, where it pretty much wrings itself out at around 130 km/h, peaking at 39 hp just shy of the 12,000 rpm redline, but it was much more of an issue on the trails. Pulling up a steep hill and giving it a bit more wellie, I’m just not used to having to drop three gears to get the revs over 6,000 rpm before there’s any pull.
On the secondary dirt roads heading up toward Bancroft, Dan went ahead on the 250 because he was slowest, so we kept to his speed of around 90-to-100 km/h. Andrew and I swapped places back and forth, but he was generally content to bring up the rear on the big KLR. His knobbies had some bite to them but when we found trails that might be a short cut, the heavy bike needed wrestling around the rocks. That’s okay – Andrew’s a big fella who was just happy not to be destroying his Honda Varadero, so he took it for the team.
We forgot the paper maps, so we only had what directions we could pinch together from our phones and GPS units, when there was a signal. We got lost pretty quickly, but met a bunch of riders on ATVs who told us where to go. Literally. They were well equipped with wife-beaters, smokes, travellers, and not a helmet among them, but we were happy to listen to their advice, which took us up a rocky hill and then through a long, deep, mysterious puddle along the trail.
Andrew went first – the sacrificial cart-horse. Dan went second. I watched and took photos. I’m not stupid. We had no idea what was under the water and the smooth tires of the Versys-X would be its downfall in slippery mud. But it was worse than that – logs and branches and a corduroy bottom to the long puddle. Andrew dropped his bike 30 feet in. Dan had a good laugh, then dropped his bike 20 feet in. I kept taking photos and then we doubled back to find another trail through.
The cruelty was that the ATV guys probably barely spilled their travellers in that puddle, wodging their fat asses against the broad seats of the four-wheelers, powering on the throttle with the push of a pudgy thumb as the tires chewed their way through. We never saw them again. Bastards.
WHAT ABOUT THE VERSYS-X 300?
There’s not a lot of suspension travel on the Versys-X: 130 mm for the front tubes and 148 mm for the rear. This wasn’t really a problem for the trails, though it was clearly not enough to prevent the banging around on the cottage road that shook off the licence plate. Dan was much more confident on the little 250 and I envied him until I actually rode the skittery thing for a short while. That front windshield above the headlight? It looks good from a distance, but Dan made it from a waste bin he bought at Wal-Mart.
The quality of the Versys-X was never in question though. The bike is very well put together – far better than you’d expect for something that costs $6,399. That price includes anti-lock brakes at the front. They can’t be turned off, as they can on most serious off-roaders, but I never felt a need to do this.
(Clinton Smout teaches that ABS is our friend, even in sand and dirt. It means you can use the front brake with confidence, instead of relying on the rear so you don’t lock the front. The only time you might want to lock the front is descending a very steep hill, when you let the bike slide down slowly on its non-rolling tire.)
Dan didn’t like the Versys-X when we swapped, however, because he couldn’t get used to the clutch. It’s an assist-and-slipper clutch, standard with the base price, and it’s so light that “we thought there was something wrong with it when we first felt it at the bike show,” said the Nice Man from Kawasaki. It’s true – it feels like nothing at all, as if the cable isn’t attached, and it can be difficult to gauge its bite.
You don’t really need to, of course, because the slipper part of it just slides all the plates into place without feeling that it needs to synchronize too much with the cogs, and I was quite happy with this. Dan’s KLX clutch lever is adjusted, however, so that there’s about a billionth of a millimetre of travel between fully disengaged and fully engaged. He likes it that way, for some strange reason, but it would not be a motorcycle for teaching somebody how to drive with a standard transmission. To each their own.
What does he know, anyway? At lunchtime, he wrung out his soaking socks and put plastic bags around his feet, inside his boots. He looked happy. During the week, he’s a lawyer who wears a suit and tie on the train into the city, but it’s the weekends that brings out the real man. Same thing for Andrew. During the week, he’s a surveyor who traipses through rivers and mud to plot survey points and on the weekend – oh…
TACKLING THE HASTINGS TRAIL
Puddles were one thing, but the sand of the Hastings Heritage Trail was quite another. It’s an old railway line that ran from Hastings, on Rice Lake, to Bancroft and beyond, and it’s mostly straight and wide. You need a permit to ride on it with a motorized vehicle and plenty of people do, but most of the people we saw gunning their way through were older couples on ATVs and side-by-sides. The four-wheelers outnumbered the two-wheelers many times over.
Those four-wheelers also would have no issues with the sand, but we’d be barreling along, happy below the 40 km/h speed limit, and then the front wheels would wash into sand holes. It’s possible that the smooth tires of the Versys-X actually helped with this because they made the front tire less grabby, but I didn’t really want to push it to find out.
As Clinton Smout says, the bike wants to go forwards – it doesn’t want to turn left or right unless you steer it that way. So have a light grip on the bars and let the bike steer for itself. If it gets tricky, you can also steer by standing up and applying weight to either footpeg, which will lean the bike in that direction without over-turning the front wheel, but for banging along on a straight trail, just trust the bike. And in the Lord.
On the Saturday, the weather was very hot and the trail was dusty, though recent rain helped keep the dust down and preserve the puddles. On the Sunday, the clouds closed in and the dust became mud. We crept away from our friends’ cottage – they would have awful hangovers later that morning – and set off into the drizzle. There was no point trying to keep the bikes clean, but that was okay. All three of them were now dirt bikes, after all.
Dan was happy because he could justify bringing the rubber gloves for keeping his hands dry under his leather gloves. Andrew and I were relieved – we’d slept nervously that night.
Sand, gravel, mud, water, and slippery tarmac: we rode through all of it. Andrew dropped the KLR just one more time, trying to see what was at the top of a hill on a hydro trail, and we pressed on through the muck. Stops were frequent thanks to the tiny tank of the KLX that was stretched to cover 100 kilometres, but that was okay. I filled up the 17-litre tank of the Versys-X at every second station.
HOW’D IT DO?
The Versys-X soaked up the bumps and slewed contentedly through the mire. My stuff stayed dry in the plastic panniers ($561.84 extra), though it would have been soaked if the bike was submerged in a puddle. That didn’t happen – the bike didn’t put a wheel wrong.
We made it home to Cobourg filthy but undamaged, which is quite the resolution for the new Kawasaki. Sure, I didn’t want to climb hydro trail hills or drop down into corduroy swamps, but the 175 kg bike could probably have managed it with chunkier tires. I didn’t really want to drop it, either, because the small plastic fairing around the engine would be tricky to repair and expensive to replace.
I kept up with my friends, though, and went everywhere I wanted to. And on the Monday morning, I blasted it clean with a powerwash and rode it into the city on Hwy. 401, engine screaming and comfortable all the way.