Opinion: Retro-Dakar bikes are pure cosplay – and I love it

Photo: Ducati

Unlike CMG’s own Lawrence Hacking, most of us are never going to compete in the Dakar Rally. Thankfully, however, with the spate of new vaguely retro-looking Dakar-style adventure bikes, motorcycle brands have paved the way for the average rider to live out their Dakar fantasies even in downtown traffic. These are not your typically ugly, alien-looking ADV machines.

Late last year, for example, Ducati launched the DesertX, a modern liquid-cooled V-twin, “styled after classic big-bore rally raid bikes of the 1980s and 1990s.” As we noted when the bike was unveiled, it is – on paper at least – a proper offroader with a 21-inch front wheel and 250 mm of ground clearance. More importantly, it’s very, very pretty. This is what it looks like when Ducati doubles down on the success of the Scrambler Desert Sled. That machine starts at $14,095 in Canada while the DesertX – which is 14 kg heavier at 223 kg wet, but makes 37 more horsepower – costs just under $20,000 before you start adding tasty options. Dakar fantasies don’t exactly come cheap.

Photo: MV Agusta

Clearly, there’s a strong demand for such bikes, as evidenced by the fact MV Agusta reportedly took in 15,000 pre-orders for its new Lucky Explorer line of ADV bikes, which were also unveiled last year. Looking at the brand’s Instagram it’s clear the marketing people want to play up the Dakar connection, frequently posting photos of the (impossibly cool) Edi Orioli aboard his early-1990s Cagiva Elefant. MV owns the Cagiva brand, and it looks like they intend to make the most of it.

If spy photos are to be believed, BMW has finally read the room and is about to hop aboard the retro-Dakar bandwagon too. The current R nineT Urban G/S is largely a styling exercise that doesn’t really deserve to wear the GS name (if you ask me) but the next-generation model spied in development shows a 21-inch front wheel and around 250 mm of suspension travel at each end. It should be as close as you can get to Gaston Rahier’s 1985 BMW R 80 GS Dakar-winning bike without having to put up with a 1980s BMW.

For those in an altogether higher tax bracket, there is the hand-built Walt Siegl L’Avventura. “I designed the bike so it is light, with a powerful engine to do long trips with full off-road capabilities. Visually, I wanted to lend an ’80s/’90s aggressive rally look without giving up a bit of elegance,” Siegl wrote. He built the first one in 2017, which puts him way ahead of the trend, as you’d expect from such an esteemed custom-bike builder.

Also on-trend is Husqvarna’s much-anticipated Norden 901 adventure bike, which has a distinctly retro-future look. I’d also throw the new Yamaha Tenere 700 World Raid into the same category as these machines even though it’s a decidedly modern-looking take on the Dakar-wannabe bike.

Photo: Yamaha

The “why now” question is an interesting one. It’s no secret ADV bikes make great do-it-all machines. And, there’s no doubt these stylish Dakar-style ADV bikes will be highly profitable for manufacturers, just like SUVs are in the automotive world. (There’s a similar retro-offroad trend happening in the SUV market too, with models like the Ford Bronco, Hummer, and Land Rover Defender all recently being resurrected by their respective brands.) Sales of dual-purpose motorcycles – a category that includes ADV bikes – boomed during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, according to data from the Motorcycle and Moped Industry Council of Canada. This year, sales are off to their best-ever start since at least 2016.

Study after study shows that more people have been spending an increasing amount of time inside watching TV. It’s little wonder the outdoors seems more appealing than ever. See also: the immense popularity of outdoorsy “gorpcore” fashion brands like The North Face and Arc’teryx. (I’m sitting here in my kitchen wearing a Patagonia fleece typing on my laptop.)

Photo: Husqvarna

Like outdoorsy fashion and rugged SUVs, all of these new retro-Dakar ADV bikes let city-dwelling, comfort-loving indoorsy types (like yours truly) play dress-up as our favourite rally-racing heroes. It’s cosplay, in other words, the motorcycle equivalent of going to the Comicon convention in full Batman regalia. And you know what? Who cares! If it feels good, go for it. No judgement here. Some riders will use these bikes to compete in amateur rally races, and more power to them. For less-confident riders – also yours truly – sitting upright astride these ADV machines, high off the ground, gripping their wide handlebars, the mere feeling that one could ride out of the office parking lot and into the Sahara Desert is enough. It’s nice to keep the fantasy alive. Me? I’m just happy motorcycle manufacturers have finally made it possible to get all the advantages and capabilities of an ADV bike in a package that actually looks good for a change. Long live the Dakar-wannabes.

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