The GS made a clean transition from street to dirt, performing admirably well in both environments.
The GS perhaps makes the most contented transition from pavement to dirt, proving plenty comfy on the highway while being startlingly capable off-road.
"I was actually surprised by how well the BMW performed in the dirt portions of our journey," says BC. "I found it a little heavy in the real tight technical sections and the wide front tire was a slight disadvantage in the loamy terrain, but aside from the KTM, it was untouchable on the fast hard-packed sections. I actually found the speedo reading 80 mph down one of the dirt roads and the bike felt as comfortable as if it were on pavement."
At the other end of the spectrum was the hefty Aprilia. Its low seat isn't good for dirt riding, and standing up also feels awkward. Its softer suspension works okay in most off-road situations, but there'll be no double-jumping on this behemoth. And just when I was becoming comfortable on the Caponord during a two-track off-road section, an unseen bump caused the 'Nord to be sent into a major tankslapper, further shaking my confidence. We appreciated its ample steering lock (Hello, Buell?) during tight conditions, but some of us wondered if its dry-sump oil tank on the engine's right side might be vulnerable in a crash.
The Duc's performance out on the loose stuff was better than expected. It even outran a feisty cow that looked at Duke and saw red.
Partway along the ride to the ranch, I finally pried the Multistrada out of Kenny's tight grip to test its dirt-ability. The Duc, at a tank-empty weight of 465 pounds (with its luggage mounts but without bags), is practically the lightest bike in the group. The thin KTM scaled in at 461 pounds, but that was before we mounted its saddlebag brackets. While we're on the topic, the 1200cc air-cooled Buell and BMW, along with the 1000cc liquid-cooled Suzuki, all weigh within 10 pounds of each other.
But let's get back to the MTS, which at first seems like a Duc out of water on these roads. However, its lack of mass and a reasonably low seat height allows a rider to have more confidence than expected, even if its plastic fairing pieces rattle over bumps. And once the wonderfully adjustable Ohlins suspenders had some of its compression damping reduced, its wheels tracked over bumps with aplomb.
I was on board the Multi when coming up on a small group of cows near the roadside. "Aw, look how cute that heifer is," I thought as it trotted beside the road. Then, suddenly, it broke into a full gallop and veered toward the road with the determination of USC Trojan defensive end Frostee Rucker trying to angle off Texas Longhorn QB Vince Young in the last seconds of the Rose Bowl. I had to pin it to outrun my pursuer, just getting to the "end zone" before getting creamed.
The KTM Adventure was the hands-down boss out on the dirt. Tom Lavine, our trusted photog and least-experienced dirt rider, got a boost of confidence behind the controls of the big Katoom.
While the Ducati was a surprise performer off-road, there is no doubt which bike was king. The 950 Adventure has so much dirt-worthiness built in that it feels like you're cheating.
"It is heads above the competition when it comes to riding in the dirt," Hutch states categorically. "The bike is a super-sized enduro that leaves the other bikes in this test sucking its dust anytime you take the road less traveled."
This was perhaps best exemplified on a tricky rock-infested downhill section, when our off-road newbie Lavine was aboard the Ulysses. Sensing his fear from our vantage point at the bottom, Kenny blasted up the hill on the KTM for a bike swap. Lavine's trepidation was greatly reduced when he saw the lanky orange bomber crest the hill, its tallness not intimidating for the six-foot-three photog. "Ooh la la," raved the GS owner, "that KTM is so confidence inspiring in the dirt!"
The Ulysses, despite Lavine's reservations, was better in the dirt than expected from a bike with a 17-inch front wheel. It has a tractor-like powerband to help claw through the loose stuff, and the chassis feels direct and solid. However, it is also less amenable to quick line changes and is reluctant to respond to body steering. Its front Dunlop's stiff carcass (basically a D218 with a different tread pattern) transmits road shock through the bars, the latter of which are placed a tad too low for comfortable stand-up trail riding.
The Ulysses surprised us with its dirt abilities. Its wide and comfortable seat proved a bit rangy for our shorter testers.
One other note about the Ulysses, specifically for those short on inseam: Buell says the Uly's seat sits 33.1 inches above the ground, though that measurement was produced with a rider aboard - perhaps a very heavy rider. I buy 32-inch inseam pants for my five-foot-eight frame, but the Buell's wide seat prevented my legs from accessing the ground simultaneously with both feet. In contrast, the Duc that allowed both my feet to touch ground is rated at 33.5 inches. (Buell offers an optional seat claimed to be 2 inches lower, but when I sampled one I still was unable to flat-foot the Ulysses.)
This situation precipitated a minor bit of ugliness when I swung my torso to the right side of the seat after kicking up the sidestand. At the height of the bike's swing to the right I was unable to reach the ground, and when my right foot made contact with the gravely road it slipped - and the bike kept leaning until it fell over. The Uly's Hepco & Becker saddlebag got scuffed, but the bike was otherwise unscathed.
It wouldn't be the last instance a bike in this group would spend some time rubber-side up.