What bike should I choose for [insert big adventure here]? I think I’ve seen this question asked about 40,000 times across forums and Facebook groups by all levels of adventurers.
And the answers are always the same. The BMW GS boxers have been tried and proven by countless round-the-world travelers. The KTM Adventure models are capable of riding any terrain you could ever need to ride. The Kawasaki KLR650 is inexpensive and easy to source parts for, even in the undeveloped world. All of those choices will get the job done.
But something so many people neglect to ask themselves as they go down the generic checklist of ADV bike wants and needs is simply this: Is the bike fun? Does the engine excite me? Does the handling make me giggle? What kind of bike do I like to ride?
It’s easy to get so caught up in the ADV image and forget that there’s no right way to go about it all. When you’re going to be living off a motorcycle, day in and day out, whether it’s weeks, months, or years, what you need more than anything is for that bike to put a big smile on your face every time you ride it. You need to love that bike at least as much as you might love your spouse. Because sometimes, in long-term travel, that bike is the only thing that will be familiar, and the only thing that feels right, pleasant, and comfortable. It’s not all fun and games on the road, but your bike still can be.
So for me, as a road racer and corner junkie, when I decided I wanted to take a few years to ride across the country, to Alaska, Panama, and beyond, I chose the Yamaha FZ-07 (MT-07): a lightweight naked sport bike that has made me grin for 70,000 miles of twisty mountains, long highways, trails, and forest service roads in both the developed and undeveloped world.
I test rode a lot of bikes before I knew it had to be the FZ. Choosing the bike that made my heart flutter instead of one with all the features had some advantages and disadvantages, but here’s why I did it anyways.
If the FZ fits...
Let’s start with the obvious one: size. Myself being about five feet, six inches tall and 130 pounds with a barely 30-inch inseam, adventure bikes like the Triumph Tiger or the Yamaha Super Ténéré felt completely unwieldy. I literally sat on a Super Ténéré on its kickstand, and both of my feet were dangling off the ground. Yes, I know lots of shorter riders have managed to make giant bikes work by jumping off the side or leaning the bike on one leg. And there are techniques that are supposed to help small people lift their 600-pound behemoths when they inevitably drop them.
But, quite frankly, I didn’t want to have to deal with that. I’m not a big person. I’m not very strong. And I was leaving on my adventure alone, planning to camp in the back country without any dirt-riding experience to fall back on. The last thing I should have to be intimidated by is my own vehicle. If I dropped one of those bikes while I was far from help or cell service, I was going to be walking across the country from there.
So instead of trying to jump through hoops to manage a bike that was too big to let me feel confident and comfortable, I simply decided to just, well, get a smaller bike.
At 399 pounds wet and with a 32-inch seat height (which was even lower when weighed down by luggage), the FZ-07 is a bike I can both pick up and flat foot. Fully loaded with everything I could think of, it still came in weighing less than a BMW R1250GS weighed dry. Being able to touch the ground with both feet helped a ton when the ground was uneven or unstable or I had to stop on an incline. And with about 70 horsepower, I was also able to rip up roads at speed for long distances, where simply getting a smaller displacement dual-sport wouldn’t have sufficed. It gave me confidence that I would be fine no matter what I might encounter on the road.
But what about off-road?
So obviously part of the appeal of an ADV bike is those huge, 19-inch front tires that can theoretically roll over any obstacle you might encounter. You can jump logs! You can climb boulders!
But this is where you need to ask yourself what kind of riding you actually plan to do. Realistically, how many people who ride a 600-pound bike are using it to jump logs? How many of them are riding gnarly, rocky single-track? If that’s actually the kind of riding you want to do, an ADV isn’t the best tool for that job, either.
If you can manage that kind of terrain on your Africa Twin, more power to you. But I knew for myself, given my experience in the dirt (or complete lack thereof), I was more likely to stick to easier dirt and gravel fire roads that could be conquered by your average Subaru. And the FZ with dual-sport tires on its 17-inch rims accomplished that just fine. It managed rocks, ruts, and even some sand here and there. I slept in the Canadian wilderness, hunted down dispersed camping in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, plowed through the non-roads of Honduras, and stared down the Darian Gap at the end of the road in Panama. Save a tall speed bump (¡Viva topes!) in the not-so-engineered roads of rural Mexico, I never had an issue with the FZ-07’s ground clearance.
Wait! But the fuel range!
Another advantage of an adventure bike is the size of the gas tanks. The FZ-07, conversely, only has a 3.7-gallon tank (Only about 3.3 of which is actually usable, according to the games of Gas Light Chicken I lost.) On average, it gets something like 50 miles to the gallon when fully loaded. More if I’m conservative. Slightly less when I’m… uh… not so conservative.
On paper, it seemed small and limiting.
Fortunately, in a world where everyone uses vehicles, this limited range never ended up being a problem. The furthest stretch I ever came across with no available gasoline was about 200 miles in Mexico. But mounting a two-liter gas can to my hard cases comfortably got me through even that.
Storage and protection?
When I bought the bike, ironically at a BMW dealer out of Long Beach, California, it had 700 miles on the clock and was bone stock (other than the Akropovič full-system exhaust that the original owner apparently considered a sport-bike-life necessity). The salesmen were probably a touch confused when I walked in looking for a long distance ADV bike and walked out with the little Yamaha trade-in.
Since the FZ isn’t in any way designed for this kind of riding, I’ll admit I had to make some modifications. I added hard cases for storage, some crash bars and fork sliders, a wind screen, and upgraded the stock torture device that they called a seat. I picked up a pair of dual-sport tires in the form of the Shinko 705s, one of the few 80/20 tires that came in sport bike sizes. I built my own radiator guard and headlight grill with some pliers and a few dollars' worth of chicken wire from Home Depot. All in, my zombie apocalypse FZ need about $1,500 worth of luggage and protection.
But at a much more modest starting price than the purpose-built ADV bikes on the showroom floor, that seemed like a small disadvantage in order to have the bike I wanted instead of the bike that made sense. The extra 60 liters of storage room was plenty. The crash protection performed flawlessly in the (ahem — several) instances where I needed it, and having gotten used to the thrill of the wind on a racetrack, I enjoyed the ergonomics and air flow.
And for reliability? Well, after 70,000 miles and only having to replace the chain, sprockets, and fork seals, I can’t complain. It takes some effort to kill a Yamaha.
So what’s my point in all this?
You don’t need as much as you think you do.
I’m not trying to insult big adventure bikes or tell you to go buy a sport bike for your adventuring needs if that’s not your thing. But if you’re like me and the “real” ADV offerings aren't inspiring confidence or fitting the riding style you enjoy, there are plenty of other options that can also take you wherever you want to go.
Maybe the right adventure bike for you is a Harley Wide Glide. Maybe it’s a Yamaha TW200 or a Kawasaki ZX-6R. Maybe the right bike for you is the one that’s already sitting in your garage, waiting to be ridden into the great unknown.