Dr Frazier Ponders A T Motorcycles

January 4, 2008
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
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Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

2008 Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide vs. 2008 Victory Vision Tour
Our adventure-touring expert circled the globe on this Kawasaki KLR650, but all sorts of two-wheeled machinery, big and small, have worn the badge of “adventure motorcycle.”

Adventure Motorcycle – Which One is the Best for Adventure Riding?

“Adventure riding is like the three-letter word that starts with S and ends with the letter X, it all takes place between your ears.” So said BMW owner Barry Prom when asked if his Adventure GS model was the best bike for adventure riding. That is sage advice for the wannabe adventure motorcycle traveler who needs a motorcycle to adventure with that must also fit within a limited budget.

After the newbie adventure rider has made the decision to move into the adventure-riding world, their learning curve has a steep angle to it. They have probably read some motorcycle travel books, whether fact or fiction, possibly watched some DVDs or videos, or been rapt by stories from their adventure riding friends. Something allowed them to be bitten by the adventure travel bug and they start to gather information on this unique and growing segment of the 21st century motorcycling world.

The new two-wheel adventurer may have taken another step and created a funky moniker or username like the “Flawless Fin” or the “Sweet Swede” to present a public persona. They may have registered as an Internet keyboard pounder on motorcycle travel and adventure bulletin boards to read about travels and bikes or post questions and their expert opinions about dream bikes and travels, some often posting as often as once a day for years. Some can even become adventure “keyboard tough guys who yap like little poodles” as one widely known vociferous adventure poster wrote. Maybe they have even gone so far as to park some money for their dream trip. The biggest question they will have, whether on the Net or off, and quite possibly the biggest expenditure, is which motorcycle is the best.

The motorcycle manufacturers offering adventure travel motorcycles obviously try to convince the potential buyer their product is best. They do this with advertising, promotional events and accessory options designed around the theme of motorcycle adventure travel, touting that their offerings are superior. There is nothing wrong with this business practice. The manufacturers are in business, trying to sell a product. If they have decided to enter the adventure motorcycling market segment it is their job and livelihood to push their product, whether it is a good one or not so good.

On the Internet there are numerous adventure motorcycling brand and model threads and websites for owners validating their purchases or expressing opinions on what motorcycle they feel is best. The reader can take or leave what they want out of this huge information flow. What sticks, what stays inside their head, or between the ears, is what usually determines which motorcycle is finally chosen.

My ‘round the world 1981 R80 G S  now on permanent display at BOB’s BMW Museum in Jessup  Maryland  where it rests next to a pristine R80 G S with no miles on it.
BMW has earned a reputation as a formidable adventure-touring platform. Dr. G’s round the world 1981 R80 G/S, is now on permanent display at BOB’s BMW Museum in Jessup, Maryland.

My personal philosophy on which bike is best has long been based upon my decision to not take any motorcycle into a third world country, or certain places in North America, that I can not afford to lose due to theft, fire, confiscation or mechanical disaster. The idea of having to pay $2,000 – $3,000 for towing my $25,000 non-starting adventure bike from the Yukon back to Anchorage, is a bad dream for me. The only thing close to adventure for me in that scene is the adrenal rush watching the money fly out of my wallet as my heart and breathing rates increase to blackout points. That kind of money equals a month on the road for me, longer if I can cut down on the sleeping and eating costs.

I am also skeptical of the adventure-touring accessories offered to help market a bike as an adventure tourer. One manufacturer accessorized plastic panniers and a top case, making them look like the real aluminum gear, and sold them at a premium price. Somewhere between their advertising conference rooms and the designer drawing boards, sturdiness was passed over for the look, that riding that takes place between the ears of the consumer. The top cases would come loose and quietly drop off the back of the motorcycle as the plastic rather than the metal hit the ground. The side pannier mounting system was designed for easy on/off but was made of plastic that easily broke when the box met the ground.

One owner of these plastic adventure accessories had his first lost top case replaced under manufacturer warranty after it took a walkabout with the precious belongings inside. The better-designed replacement mounting system worried him so much that he would secure the top case with bungee cords. When the second top case came loose the bungee cords saved it from silently disappearing. Unfortunately the cords allowed the unsecured top case to dangle in front of the exhaust pipe, resulting in the top case being severely melted and the inside contents cooked. What alerted the adventure rider to his top case coming loose was the smell of the smoking dried fish he had stored inside when he stopped for a traffic light. The dangling top case had also reflected so much heat that a large hole was burned in the rear of the left pannier. An accessory system that looked good between the ears proved to be a cooker for the owner. His cooked fish caused him to become known by the nickname, his personal nom de guerre por adventure, as BBQ.

My ’round the world BMW R80 G/S started with an initial purchase price, after selling some of the accessories, of about $1,500. That motorcycle now has somewhere around 240,000 miles on it and is currently “resting,” on permanent display in BOB’s BMW Museum in Jessup, Maryland. While I sometimes felt it was the ugly duckling when parked next to newer adventure motorcycles that cost 10 to 15 times the price, it became beautiful when I thought about its practicality and cost if lost, stolen, crashed or confiscated.

Mud on the rider’s backside show that the adventure touring motorcycle ejected the human pilot.
Durability is a prime factor in choosing an adventure motorcycle, as well as accessories. This rider survived a muddy get off, but the plastic mounts holding his pannier did not.

Other major factors in my choice for adventure bikes are simplicity and my personal ability to make repairs. When the motorcycle salesman is trying to sell me a new adventure bike and starts to talk about computers, ABS braking and wireless connections, my eyes glaze over and I turn off what is flowing into the space between my ears. That is the kinky stuff I am not into. What fills that space are statements like, “We’ve been making and selling this model for 20 years,” or “Spare parts won’t be a problem because everything you might need will fit in a shoe box.”

The motorcycle I used on my fourth ride around the world was a simple, inexpensive Kawasaki, the 650 KLR. Changes made to the motorcycle were of a personal nature, things that I had learned suit me and all accessories were reasonably priced and easily installed. That ’round the world ride can be read about in the Rider’s of Kawasaki Club magazine ACCELERATE by going to www.kawasaki.com/rok where you can follow it in the February – November 2007 issues. The thousands of dollars I saved by making the choice to take that motorcycle versus a high-end adventure tourer was used to make the trip.

My personal learning curve, and what was between my ears, on which motorcycle is the best started in the late 1960’s when I read about Danny Liska riding to South America from Alaska and saw some posters of him and his bike in the jungles. He used a BMW R60. The concept of adventure riding was for him an easy choice – take what was considered to be the most reliable motorcycle available. At the time I was riding a 1945 Indian Chief and a Honda 1963 CB77. I knew the Chief was not reliable. It was an adventure just to get across town on it. The Honda was reliable but small, only 305cc, and torturous to ride long distances. The adventure Liska was making said to me that the BMW was what I should buy if I wanted to do more than ride paved roads within the confines of the Lower 48 of North America. I bought a new BMW in 1969 and believed I could ride it to the ends of the earth.

Since then I have owned over 100 motorcycles and ridden or tested another 100. Roaming around the globe I started to look at what other adventurers, either real or wannabes, were using, comparing what I was on or liked to theirs. I discovered that there was really no reasonable limit on what could be spent for an adventure-riding bike. A custom built one could well surpass the price of an upscale automobile. I also learned that the rider using an $800 well-used step-through 50cc Yamaha was having as much of an adventure as was the rider on a $30,000, fully-accessorized BMW.

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I met Mark Hiekel, who had ridden there from Thailand, twice, on his Norton Commando. Not known or marketed as an adventure-tourer, the Norton had successfully beaten some of the ugliest roads in Southeast Asia. Hiekel sluffed off the hard roads and his 30 year-old bike successfully while completing the trip. He said his adventure really started when he realized his expensive German-made adventure touring tail pack had shaken open on a section of dirt road and he had lost the innards. Inside were packed his cell phone, replica Rolex watch and some cash. It was a bad adventure, bad luck or bad joss, for him, but a good day for those who found his belongings.

A Honda XLV  a street bike  converted into an adventure tourer with the addition of aluminum panniers.
A Honda XLV, a street bike, converted into an adventure tourer with the addition of aluminum panniers.

I have also noticed adventurers riding motorcycles not sold in America, like the Honda Africa Twin, and Yamaha Tenere. These bikes were modeled after Paris Dakar Rally winners, known for needing to be rugged and dependable, then produced in tamer versions for the adventure seekers.

Noteworthy too was the great number of street motorcycles that owners modified for adventure riding. This concept is how I happened to choose a 1983 Honda Silverwing to make a ride through South America. With my 63-year-young pillion on the back I wanted something that was comfortable for both of us. Also wanted was something that over time had proven to be close to bulletproof and mechanically sound. In case of an accident or the bike being stolen or confiscated, we both wanted something that would not break the bank account for our ’round the world ride, so the $1,500 Honda fit our budget. Our ’round the world adventure can be viewed at www.ultimategloberide.com.

Some will argue that because the Honda Silverwing was not marketed as an adventure tourer, we could not have had an adventure. These are most likely the keyboard pounders who fill their time with lurking and opining on various Internet sites. Both my pillion and I know we had an adventure while traveling by motorcycle in South America. She was robbed, and several times someone tried to steal my heart. We were faced with abandoning the trip and the motorcycle due to medical and economic problems, and several macho-driven truck pilots attempted to run us off the road. A couple of gun guys tried to separate us from our possessions and Customs officials did their best to throw bureaucratic road blocks in front of us. For her, having never been on a motorcycle before we started the project, and with Parkinson’s, every minute was an adventure or a nightmare, depending on how one defines adventure. We would respond to the naysayers, “Go out and do what we did, then come back and tell us because we did not have an adventure marketed motorcycle we did not have an adventure.”

And then we would both smile, knowing the posters probably have small libidos, a large void between their ears and could not understand that what Mr. Prom said about his BMW adventure motorcycle was a truism, not merely a small-minded opinion.

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