Buying a motorcycle is so complicated it’s a wonder it happens at all.
First, one must balance spatial, spiritual, and physical concerns. How will this bike fit into my lifestyle? How does it complement my other bikes? Does it clash with my current wardrobe? What will I wear if not my denim vests?
Answers do not come easy.
But, once you get the itch for a new bike, there’s no not scratching it. But what style of bike to buy? After many beer-fueled debates on what constitutes a perfect Midwestern riding stable, it was decided: I needed a dirt-worthy machine. I had been using dirt strictly as something to set up camp in. If I was going to sharpen my riding skills, I needed something capable off-road.
I didn’t grow up riding dirt bikes, so I was starting with little experience and insight about where to begin. From what I could tell, dirt riders generally come in two varieties. There’s the skinny, young, prone-to-dressing-in-neon, truck- or van-owning type. They own dirt bikes. Or there’s the 200-pound (fat), gainfully employed (old), prone-to-wearing-matching-suits and owns-an-SUV type. Those guys get an adventure bike.
I fell squarely in the adventure bike demo.
Perhaps it was the dozens (or was it hundreds? thousands?) of Triumph Tiger features on Common Tread, but that was the first bike that came to mind. I figured it would gobble up the 200 miles standing between my garage and rural Wisconsin and once I hit dirt it would turn into a wild trail ripper capable of flinging me into distant corners of uncharted forests. Now that it was decided, I just had to find one.
Insult and injury
I took to Craigslist and began insulting Tiger owners across the country with lowball offers. One finally stuck. It was a 2013 800XC and in my budget. It was beat to hell, but mechanically sound. I hopped on a plane, forked over some cash, and rode it 1,000 miles home. The bike handled highway beautifully. The triple engine purred like a dream and I felt great about my new purchase.
When I got back to Chicago, I crammed the bike into my crowded parking space and began plotting my first adventure. I chose what I thought, at the time, was a brilliant first off-road route: the 600-mile Trans-Wisconsin Adventure Trail. The trail, not so charmingly referred to as “the T.W.A.T.,” begins in a small border town in Illinois and ends at the edge of Lake Superior in Wisconsin. It's a mix of gravel, deep sand, rocks, streams, and washouts. Perfect! A group email was sent and soon there was a pool of riders ready to go make history in the rural Midwest.
There's always one (several) riders who wait until the last minute to prepare for a ride. On this ride, that was me, buoyed by my confidence in the new machine. I waited until the morning of the ride to get ready, and by getting ready I mean tying a bunch of shit onto the bike: hard cases, soft cases, photo equipment, camping gear, beverages, and three days’ worth of snacks. I threw on my new matching adventure suit, swung my leg over what must have now been 1,000 pounds of bike and junk, and headed off to meet the group.
Part of the charm, and the horror, of riding motorcycles, is meeting (and then trying to keep up with) riders far more experienced than you. This group was no exception. On the top of our skill pyramid was a guy on a fully kitted thumper with tons of amateur dirt racing experience. At the bottom was a guy in gym shoes on a Yamaha Super Ténéré with street rubber. I was right above him.
Riding dirty (and nervous)
The group met up in a small town. The gym shoe guy had a few beers (it was 9 a.m.) and we headed off. The T.W.A.T. begins through rural Wisconsin, switching from pavement, gravel, fire lanes, trails, rocks and light sand. For the genre, the Tiger is relatively light at 475 pounds. But as soon as I hit the first patch of sand I felt like I was riding a bronco. The bike that had swept me smoothly across the country on the highway was now frantically skittering across the trail. The first stretch was fast, tense, and out of control.
It wasn’t even noon yet and I was tired. I felt like I was riding for the very first time. I would hesitate in corners and take turns too wide. At one point, I blew a corner so bad I rode straight into a dense cornfield and completely vanished, only to reappear a few seconds later, Field of Dreams style, launching out of the stalks. (The guys got a good laugh out of that one.)
By the end of the day I was exhausted. Gym shoe guy passed out. I set up camp and wondered why people do this for fun. It was, by far, the worst day of riding I had ever had (including my crashes). Why? It was no fun! I just never relaxed. I knew I had to find my mojo the next day.
The next morning, I crawled out of my tent and got a few tips from fellow riders like, “just let the bike do its thing” and “muscle into the corners” and “hey dumbass, the reason your bike won’t start is because your kickstand is down!” I took the advice that I could but the ride never got easier. When I got rained and frozen out of the last leg, I slabbed it back home to Chicago, defeated.
A few days later, under the guise of reporting, but mainly looking for moral support, I called Jim Hyde, owner of RawHyde Adventures and big-bike training guru, and asked for some insight on what went so wrong.
“Very few people ride well, and correctly, by teaching themselves,” he told me. Hyde explained it to me like this. “The reason it’s frustrating is because you are riding nervously. You don’t understand the dynamics of how the bike is going to perform. So, you are riding nervously. It gets fun the minute you relax.”
That’s the thing. I never relaxed. That Zen-like bliss that has kept me glued to motorcycles in the first place had been replaced with white-knuckled, butt-cheek-clenching anxiety. For me, "adventure" would have to be found elsewhere.
When in doubt go to Indiana
A few months later, a pal over at Cycle World invited me to tag along on a weekend trip to Badlands Off-Road Park for a dirtbag’s version of How Stella Got Her Groove Back. It’s 800 acres of dunes, woods, quarries, mud and off-road craziness, plus an MX track.
I rode the Tiger down, unloaded all my camping gear, and then hit a patch of deep sand to see if riding with a lighter, unloaded bike, might help my confidence. The bike squirmed and squirreled just as badly as it did on the T.W.A.T. It was just as tense and exhausting, and worse yet, pointless, as there was no destination. I wobbled the Tiger back to camp, cursing the bike and my lack of riding skills.
Tired of my bad mood, a buddy lent me his KTM 450 EXC, a beautiful four-stroke enduro about half the weight of the Tiger. And then it happened. With a timid twist of the throttle, I was off! In minutes, everything I knew about riding came back to me. Staying in a low gear and twisting the throttle resolved almost everything the terrain threw at me. It felt like the right tool for the job, and the dirt, for the first time, became fun. Within a few hours, I was making laps on the MX track, something I can't imagine ever doing with the Tiger. My adventure was found.
Why, why, why?
I still would love to take Jim Hyde’s class out in Colorado, which at $1,400 seems like a steal for a lifetime of knowledge. But, as a practical matter (which I guess is a phrase that doesn’t make much sense when it comes to motorcycling in the first place), I don't understand the popularity of big adventure bikes.
When I think of my Tiger as a sport-ish tourer, I love it. But, without training, what’s the appeal of taking these massive, expensive bikes off-road? What am I missing? The barrier to learning to ride these big bikes seem awfully high. On a dirt bike, I was trying to lock up the rear tire within a few hours and I was able to get a feel for it pretty easily. On my Tiger, I’m still not sure of the quickest way to turn ABS off and positive I’ve never locked up the back tire on purpose.
All this pretty clearly leaves me with two choices. I need to take a RawHyde course and learn to tame this Tiger, or, if that fails, I need to find someone who wants to trade a dirt bike, some neon gear and a trailer for a lightly used Triumph.