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Common Tread

The $1,000 adventure bike revisited

Feb 13, 2019

A year ago, Spurgeon tested the limits of a $1,000 adventure bike at the Pine Barrens 500 rally. 

His results? “Our thousand-dollar, sandblasting steeds provided more smiles, more giggles, more back-patting moments of triumph than we had the right to expect. We laughed, passed guys on big bikes, ate ice cream, explored nature, enjoyed our friends, and made new ones.” That sounds nice, but these tough little dual-sports only had to make it through three days of riding for that story. (In fairness, that’s three days in the hands of Spurg and Kamrad…)

So, reader, let’s say you went and bought yourself that $1,000 adventure bike like Spurgie suggested. Would it hold up? What’s it like to live with? What problems could you expect? I can answer all these questions because I actually bought the 2001 Suzuki DR-Z250 from that story and rode it for the past year. Here’s what happens when you follow Spurgeon Dunbar’s advice.

2001 Suzuki DR-Z 250
Throw time and money at an old Suzuki dirt bike, and this is what you get. Photo by Andy Greaser.

Assessing the damage

Was the spring in my step from the new-to-me bike or the new lightness of my wallet? Safely in my garage after a test ride and a blast with the hose, I looked over the poor DR-Z to plan my first steps. The brake fluid was cooked, the carb constantly stuck open, and those Shinko 705s had to go before I touched dirt. A coworker’s take-off TKC80s made an excellent first investment at $75 for the pair. My second purchase was a factory service manual for $25.

2001 Suzuki DR-Z250
The DR-Z's been through several sets of handguards. My favorites so far are these Acerbis X Factory guards in Suzuki yellow. Photo by Andy Greaser.

Like many beater motorcycles, the DR-Z came with a box of spare parts to raid as I tuned up my new purchase. I’d scored a stainless rear brake line, new EBC pads, an MSR rear sprocket, Protaper grips, a bolt kit, and a new battery. The chain was toast, so I grabbed a new one, plus a Supersprox front sprocket to complete the refresh.

2001 Suzuki DR-Z250
If you haven't messed with carburetors, small dual-sports are a good way to get started. They typically only have one, and the carb should be easy to access. Photo by Andy Greaser.

The wheels got new bearings from All Balls, the oil and filter were changed, and I flushed the brake fluid. A new spark plug and coil were also installed. After cleaning and re-oiling the air filter, these consumables added up to around $90. Some thoughtful designer at Suzuki put grease fittings all over the rear suspension linkage, so I topped those off to keep everything happy. Next up: the inevitable carb troubleshooting. I delayed the job with a quick fix just to get riding. The throat of the carburetor is easy to access after pulling the left side panel and removing the air filter. A few shots of carb cleaner to the slide solved most of the sticking issues, though I pulled the carb for a proper rebuild not long after. I should have done this sooner.

I discovered that a previous owner had installed the carb's accelerator pump wrong, which wasn't doing my 250 any favors. When you open the throttle on a carb like this Mikuni TM28, a special assembly sprays extra fuel into the intake for snappier response. The system relies on a return spring to push the pump back into position for the next squirt of fuel. I found that spring installed backwards, preventing the pump from doing its job. Assembling the carb correctly made a big difference in the DR-Z's performance, and I'd vanquished the sticking throttle problems Spurgeon had to deal with at the Pine Barrens. 

2001 DR-Z250
This frame guard also protects the rear master cylinder. Photo by Andy Greaser.

There is very little support for the DR-Z250 here in America. The bike was much more popular in Japan and Australia, so I looked around to see what used parts they had. Frame guards from B&B Off Road Engineering, an aftermarket exhaust tip, and OEM Suzuki handguards were surprisingly cheap to import at around $50 for the lot.

For a finishing touch to my dual-sport, I bought a set of el-cheapo bar end mirrors. I ditched the bar end parts and just clamped the mirrors directly to the handlebar inboard of the grips; they do a great job of providing visibility on the street. I went on to crash the DR-Z off road many times without breaking them, and even if I did, they’re so inexpensive that I don’t really care. Some unwanted turn signals scored for free at the office were also added to help the street-legal cause. I refuse to replace them until they actually stop working.

2001 Suzuki DR-Z250
Super basic tool kit stays with the bike. Photo by Andy Greaser.

Assembling a basic tool bag was my last little project. Fuses, wire, zip ties, a T-handle with three sockets, and a tire pressure gauge take up almost no space while covering most of the basics for the street. A larger kit rides along for dirt.

Yikes. There’s more to a $1,000 adventure bike than $1,000. That’s just the amount of money you pay to make it your problem! At least I’d counted on the additional expenses. Time to ride.

2001 Suzuki DR-Z250
Best part of the new universal speedometer? It goes up to 160! Photo by Andy Greaser.

Was it worth it?

Oh yeah. I kept the DR-Z street-legal, so most of my early rides with the bike were on the road. It took me right back to my early days of dual-sport riding on an old Honda XL250. Thankfully, a six-speed transmission makes riding over 60 mph fairly civil. Low-buck wind protection (a Ninja 500 windscreen zip-tied to the fork) helps, too, for longer rides. Several thousand miles revealed no new quirks or problems. The DR-Z needs 91 octane, but it just sips it around town. Luckily, my 2001 model came stock with the desirable-for-this-bike Mikuni TM28. And the DOHC, four-valve single will cruise along all day without breaking a sweat... or 70 mph, I learned after eventually installing a Baja Designs speedometer.

2001 Suzuki DR-Z250
The Suzuki was the perfect size for my first ADV event at Conserve the Ride. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

For all its virtues, the DR-Z is not an ideal road bike. It wants the woods, and the local trails just weren't enough for it. In the spirit of Spurgeon’s article, I decided I’d take the DR-Z to my first ADV event at Conserve the Ride. I was confident that it'd carry me through the weekend with a fuel bottle, my tire changing kit, and extra zip ties.

The DR-Z was exactly the bike I needed for the weekend's adventure. This dirt rookie was well served by the DR-Z’s manageable power, light weight, and forgiving character. The $1,000(ish) bike never flinched. Even the turn signals refused to break. By the end, I was taking on more options than I was skipping, and that felt pretty good. I’ll admit, doing those options on a 250 dual-sport was cheating on a course designed for big Tigers, GSes, and Ténérés, but all I really wanted was to try ADV riding on the cheap. By that standard, the trip was an undisputed success. I managed the whole event on a motorcycle that cost a bit more than what some riders spend on auxiliary lights. Yet another win for the DR-Z.

2001 DR-Z250
Joe ended up winning... by not crashing. Photo by George Armenante.

It seemed the bike was up for anything, so when RevZilla’s flat-track day rolled around, you’d better believe I brought the sturdy yellow Zuk. I’d never tried flat-track before, and the DR-Z turned out to be a perfect starter machine once again. Track prep consisted of taping the lights and zip-tying the front brake lever back to the hand guard so I couldn’t accidentally pull it in the heat of the moment. My technique improved lap after lap, and I was having a great time racing Joe Zito before I ran out of talent and ate clay. Oh well. The DR-Z started right back up as expected. The wipeout only wrecked a hand guard, the handlebar, the speedometer mount, and a brake pressure switch. Or so I thought.

The weekend after flat track, I took the DR-Z out for its first trip since the crash. I made it 15 miles before things went… awry. The problems started with backfiring and intermittent ignition. Then the bike shut down entirely for a while, only to start up again as though nothing had happened. When my brother frantically beeped to point out my smoking wiring harness, I knew the future was uncertain for the $1,000 special. We pulled over to investigate.

Still smoldering, the wiring was beyond saving. The bike ran, horribly, with the ignition off and the key out. Uh oh. Then it didn’t run at all. The DR-Z was down.

But not out. Unplugging a few connections and removing the starter solenoid fuse got me back on the road after a few kicks! Even with torched wiring, the Suzuki refused to leave me stranded. A postmortem revealed that an internal failure in the starter solenoid had caused the smoky destruction. A shop in Honolulu had a new old stock DR-Z250 harness that they’d ship me for $85, and a replacement solenoid was another $18. I replaced the harness, tested all the connections, and hit the starter. Bam. The DR-Z was back. I can’t say for sure that the flat-track crash caused the solenoid to fail, but who knows? Who cares? My bike just keeps going.

2001 Suzuki DR-Z250
The 250 must be cut from the same durable cloth as the legendary DR-Z400. Photo by Johnny Greaser.

So, was it really worth it? 

For me, absolutely. The DR-Z250 was an inexpensive way to hit the trail, try ADV, and have a laugh at flat-track, all with one machine that doubles as a backup street bike. Keep in mind that I don’t mind wrenching on my own stuff. As Spurgeon wrote: “Is this solution going to work for everyone? No way. If you’re not mechanically inclined, a $1,000 used motorcycle could potentially leave you frustrated. If you have long distances to travel, these particular bikes will leave you saddle sore. But if you're looking to dip your toe into the world of two wheels without a huge investment… these bikes will get you into the club.”

2001 DR-Z250
Rip around town, then take a side trail. The DR-Z doesn't care. Photo by Andy Greaser.

The DR-Z needed attention for sure, and paying someone to do all the work would add up to more than the bike was worth, in my opinion. Not everyone is comfortable with rebuilding their brakes or doing wheel bearings. Taking the bike somewhere for that wiring harness fix would have cost way more than $100, even at an independent shop. And little stuff, like realizing a previous owner rebuilt the pumper carb so that it couldn’t pump at all, would just be a headache for those new to being their own mechanic. Now, if you have an experienced friend who's willing to help, or a desire to learn on your own, this idea might just be for you.

I have to say, my example has proven to be robust and easy to fix. It’s all the dual-sport I need at this point. I’m already planning to spoon those Shinko 705s back on for yet another new experience at NJMP’s kart track. Ultimately, my $1,000 adventure bike delivered more than just ADV riding. It’ll try any adventure I’m up for, as long as that adventure doesn’t involve highway speeds!

2001 DR-Z250
Off to the next trail. Photo by Johnny Greaser.

For most people, however, I’d like to suggest a $2,000 or $3,000 adventure motorcycle. You can get something far newer, more reliable, and better supported in the American aftermarket, like a Kawasaki KLX250S. In the end, I spent more than I probably should have on this project when I could have saved up for something nicer. 

But this is the beauty of the $1,000 adventure bike: It's $1,000, so go ahead and try those new experiences. Smash it up a little bit in the process. It's OK! Getting out there is what matters, and the $1,000 (to $3,000) adventure bike is about as affordable as motorcycling gets. And really, I couldn't be happier with the Suzuki, considering its price and performance. I'll probably sell it in a year, get something faster... and wish I had it back.