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Common Tread

One man's lifelong search for the unicorn of motorcycles

Feb 22, 2019

“The unicorn is a rare, mythical creature. In folklore, it possess magical powers. It can bring you everything you desire. But it is said that only a virgin can capture one.” — Unknown

OK, I’m no virgin when it comes to motorcycles. I’ve probably owned more bikes than socks — more than 90 bikes over the years, and I have an abysmal financial situation to show for it. But that hasn’t stopped me from decades of relentless searching, testing and trading for the perfect all-around mount — the Unicorn of Motorcycles.

Hopefully you will benefit from my search. You’ll be spared years of disappointment, heartache and expense. You’ll know what works, what doesn’t and why. And you may even be able to capture your own unicorn — especially because it may finally be on the horizon, only a few months away. So please read on.

The quest for the unicorn began long ago

The quest started right after a July 1971 Saturday afternoon at the movies. That amazing, inspirational film “On Any Sunday” changed our lives and filled us with dreams of the perfect ride, starting a boom in motorcycle sales. The next day after seeing that film, my friend Lenny bought a BSA Victor with his mother’s credit card while I cleaned out my meager grass cutting and snow shoveling savings account to buy the Kawasaki 175 Bushwacker in the photo below.

Kawasaki Bushwacker
Mowing grass and shoveling snow amassed the funds to buy this Kawasaki Bushwacker, and the quest began. Photo by Greg Dziuba.

We rode those bikes everywhere around a small, rural, upstate New York town, including straight up the college ski hill and into a vast state forest about 20 miles away. Before long, the notion of a go-everywhere — especially where you don’t belong and aren’t allowed — bike started catching on. Soon there were some big do-it-all British singles in our group and my little Bushwacker could barely keep up. So kick-starting a big British single in the mud, on the side of a hill, became an essential life skill. For a brief, naïve moment, I thought my Triumph Trophy was the last bike I would ever need.

Turn the page and I was riding in Hawaii at the Kaneohe Marine Corps base and on the wild boar trails near Schofield Barracks and the Kolekole Pass. Here, the tight, slippery jungle trails favored first an Ossa Pioneer and then a Yamaha DT175. Both barely street-legal enough to make it past the MPs at the gate with our military I.D.s and light enough to do some real single-track. The distances to the trails were short, so lighter and smaller was a big advantage. I guess my Hawaiian unicorn was more of a mountain goat.

Zero DSR
There were many detours away from the quest for the unicorn, ranging from old Nortons back in the day to a modern Zero DSR. Photo by Greg Dziuba.

Later, new geography and circumstances made a Honda XL250 the best option for passing the tech inspection on our New England dual-sport rides. Eventually the 250 got traded for a Yamaha XT350 and then a 600, as rides like the 100-mile-a-day Durty Dabber Ride in Mill Hall, Pennsylvania, became a regular event. Then Suzuki came out with the DR350 and it was the bike of choice for our many dual-sport rides, which included roads, forest trails and even some hair-raising “hero sections” that required low-end grunt and lots of forgiveness.

For at least one or two years, the DR350 was my unicorn. Until my brother bought a Suzuki DR-Z400S and showed me what it could do during an amazing ride at the Leon Dube Trail Ride in New Hampshire. We thought we were doing well, until we watched as Malcolm Smith and The Wolfman played in the Rock Garden on their Huskys and our jaws dropped in awe. But for us, the DR-Zs did a good job, as long as the road sections were short-ish, and even now they still have a loyal following as good, basic bullet-proof all-arounders.

DR-Z400S
The Suzuki DR-Z400S came along and for a while it seemed to be the solution. Photo by Greg Dziuba.

Many modifications and upgrades later, I was riding my DR-Z when Lenny passed me like I was standing still on his new KTM 300 XC. After we switched, it was obvious that the DR-Z was no match for a real dirt bike. But the KTM couldn’t carry a plate or do road work, and never would. Back to square one.

Rides get longer, the unicorn grows bigger

As our trail rides became longer and we did some early versions of adventure rides, Kawasaki KLR650s started showing up, being ridden long and hard while we were buzzing along on our little 400s. It was trade-in time again, and after installing a Progressive Suspension Kit, the KLRs could mostly keep up on back roads and two-tracks, just as long as they weren’t being asked to do highway and tight single-tracks for very long. There, a big, heavy single showed its limitations. Never mind, we swore we’d never trade in our trusty KLRs. But after the first event we rode in the deep sugar-sand of the Jersey Pine Barrens on those 650s, we stopped by a Yamaha dealer and bought two excellent Yamaha TT-R250s, which could be fitted with a Baja Kit and pass inspection for the street. Now we had to have at least two bikes and a van — but still no unicorn.

Then one morning on a tough rocky trail in the Blue Ridge of Virginia, we saw something quite amazing. Coming up a steep, rocky hill was a big guy on a bigger bike. I didn’t think he was going to make it, but he clearly had some skills. So when he pulled up on a very muddy BMW R 1150 GS it was hard not to be impressed. It got even better when he told us he lived in New York City and had camped at Delaware Water Gap the night before, about 250 miles away.

BMW R 1200 GS in the mountains
It's amazing where some people go on a big BMW. Photo by Bill Dragoo.

That bike was loaded down with big panniers, a tent and even a small folding chair. This must be the unicorn, I thought. The perfect do-it-all bike. So my brother and I loaded up our KLRs and TT-Rs for a trade on two Low Frame R 1200 GSs.

Are we there yet?

Let’s agree that the definition of the motorcycle unicorn is different for everyone. But those BMW 1200s ticked a lot of boxes. Long distance? No problem. Highways, tight bumpy back roads, two-tracks and even smooth single-tracks were all in their wheelhouse. For me, being somewhat vertically challenged, the availability of a Low Frame option made a big difference. OK, 520 pounds isn’t ideal. But what else can do everything a GS can do? Maybe a KTM Super Adventure or an Africa Twin? Both perhaps more suitable to extra-large humans and wide open spaces. What now? What next?

Answer: Maybe a Suzuki V-Strom 650? Turns out a used GS is a valuable trade-in commodity. So the recent photo you see here of my brother and me with our two “WeeStroms” soon became the next chapter of the quest.

Suzuki V-Strom 650
The author and his brother, Walt, with their Suzuki V-Strom 650s. Could this be the unicorn? Photo by Greg Dziuba.

That summer, we started off on a 1,000-plus-mile adventure up to Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, with as many New England dirt roads and two-tracks on the way as we could find. Full camping gear aboard, we cruised up the Taconic State Parkway in New York for the first three or four hours at 65 mph in comfort. No problem. Then into Vermont to meet up with some local friends on BMW 650s who knew the dirt roads and two-tracks heading north. Again, no problem and some really great riding. Could the V-Strom finally be the unicorn?

Defining the unicorn

One night around a campfire deep in the Nova Scotia woods, the inevitable debate began about how to define the unicorn. After extensive arguments, inspired by a few Saranac Pale Ales, here’s what we finally agreed upon: The unicorn is a twin-cylinder motorcycle between 650 and 850 cc. It weighs no more than 400 to 450 pounds. It has available seat height options between 32 and 35 inches. It has good, but not intrusive wind protection, engine protection and adequate luggage options. It has at least 250 miles of range. Chain or shaft final drive. An extensive catalog of available accessories. It must be just as comfortable and competent on a good, long road as it is on a seductive single-track — and everything in between.

Problem: No one makes that unicorn.

KTM 790 Adventure R
Could the KTM 790 Adventure R finally be the unicorn? We'll find out soon. KTM photo.

Until now! This may be the great news I promised you earlier. Now, there are three new bikes that potentially meet all or most of those standards. The new 2019 BMW F 850 GS Adventure ticks most of those boxes. The 2020 Yamaha T7 also looks promising. But — wait for it — it looks like the 2019 KTM 790 Adventure, still untested, may have all the requirements covered. Could it be true?

After 40 years and more than 90 bikes — including dozens of Harleys, Nortons, Triumphs, a Ducati and even a Zero that were not part of this particular quest — I have to accept that the search may never end. But there's still a chance one of these new bikes could finally be the unicorn. If so?

The sun will shine, the birds will sing and at long last, the unicorns will romp!