My search for the "perfect" dual sport bike (a.k.a., the revolving garage door)
A lot of people have asked me which dual sport bike I think is the best. That's an impossible question to answer... simply because it's going to be different for every person. And what may be right for that person today will likely change after spending some time on the trails. Every rider's abilities, objectives and intent will continually evolve.
What I can share is my personal experience with a slew of different motorcycles over the past 15+ years of dual sport riding. So here's my story...
Fortunately, I was born into a motorcycle-riding family. My dad spent many weekends tearing up the Idaho trails on his 125cc Kawasaki F6. As you can see from the pics below, this is definitely where I got the jumping bug. Some of my fondest memories growing up were of the entire family heading up to the hills for a weekend of camping and riding.
My first bike was an El Gato 50 -- a Spanish-made bike that my dad picked up for a song. After quickly outgrowing that bike, I moved up to a Hodaka Dirt Squirt 100. It only made about 3 horsepower and had pretty weak suspension, but I still had a blast on that thing. Then came my first real motorcycle -- a 1984 Kawasaki KDX 200. At age 14, I was in motorcycle heaven.
The trusty KDX got me through high school, and then it was time to leave home for college. After undergrad came grad school and after that came the search for a good career. A few years passed without me owning a motorcycle - and I was itching to get back into it.
My first bike as an adult was an '89 Yamaha TT350. (My wife bought it used in 1992 as a graduation gift for me.) Solid power, decent suspension and a bullet-proof motor. The only problem was, I didn't have a truck or trailer. So the first thing I did was install a brake light switch, a mirror and a bicycle horn (the minimum requirements to make a dirt bike street legal in Arizona). My first dual sport bike was born.
The TT was a ton of fun -- I spent many weekends exploring the dirt trails outside of Phoenix. But a nasty fall left me on crutches, and the job situation wasn't that great. So after a couple of years it had to go.
In 1999, I was getting the itch to ride again (and finally had a better salary rolling in), so it was time to shop for a new dual sport. I can't tell you how many hours I spent going through brochures and visiting dealers. (Keep in mind, the Internet wasn't yet in full swing, so there were no online sources of information for DS bikes. Talk about the dark ages...) I finally narrowed my choices to either the Suzuki DR650 or the KLR 650. Given my background of riding true dirt bikes, I opted for the lighter DR650.
The DR was a great bike to get me back into dual sporting. It could handle all the off-road trails I wanted to explore and felt decent on the highway as well. This was when I really got into riding. Every single week, I was out there exploring new trails and loving every second of it. But the more I rode, the more I started noticing the bike's limitations -- especially the suspension. When you start really pushing it off-road, the DR's forks are just too soft to keep up. So I had two choices... do some mods to the bike or look for a different dual sport.
After making a list of all the mods I wanted to do to the DR (and adding up all the costs), I started looking around at other DS bikes out there. While visiting one of the local Honda dealers, I saw this strange-looking customer's bike parked out front. It had a huge tank, a killer-looking mini-fairing and some serious components on it. It was my first look at the KTM 640 Adventure... and I wanted one.
I found out where the local KTM dealer was located, and found a brand new 2001 640 Adv sitting on the showroom floor. Man, was that thing pretty. But with a price tag north of $8k, it was considerably more expensive than other bikes I was considering. That's when the justification started... (Let's see, if I buy a new XR650R and install a bigger tank, better forks, skid plate, etc., etc., it's almost as expensive as the KTM. Right? Right?) Somehow, I convinced myself and (even more importantly) my wife. I finally had the "perfect" dual sport bike.
A couple of blissful years went by, and I really grew to love the 640 Adventure. However, there were some weak spots to this "perfect" bike... vibrations were noticeable on the highway (at one point, one of my handguards fell off while riding due to the bolts vibrating out) and the seat was a real torture device. But otherwise, my 640 was fantastic.
Then came the news... KTM was releasing a new twin-cylinder dual sport based largely on the Dakar-winning LC8 rally bike. That certainly got the mental wheels a-spinnin'. Suddenly, the 640 was looking grossly underpowered. (Even though to that point, I thought it had plenty of power.) But it was already too late... I had to have a 950. After all... it had great suspension, 98 hp, a rally heritage, 98 hp, a good sized tank and 98 hp. It was the "perfect" dual sport bike. Given my propensity for off-road riding, I really wanted the S-model with the taller suspension. Unfortunately, the only one I could find was in St. Louis. A few phone calls later, a brand new 950 Adventure S was on its way to Phoenix.
Once the pretty new 950 arrived, I sold the 640 and spent the next couple of years riding the hell out of the big orange twin. It was everything I had hoped it would be. But then my riding preferences started to evolve once again. I was doing fewer rides that involved long stretches of highway and more rides that included plenty of single track. I needed a lighter bike that was better suited for true off-road riding.
At the time, KTM's 525 EXC was an outstanding enduro, but it wasn't really set up for dual sport riding. Then came the idea to turn an '05 525 into the "perfect" dual sport bike. The 525 DS project was born.
About the time I had the 525 set up just the way I wanted, a buddy convinced me to try motocross riding. I tried my best to resist, claiming that I was too old for that "kid's" sport. But he was persistent, and it didn't take long before I was hooked and hitting the local track on a regular basis.
My dual sport rides were getting few and far between, and I decided to sell the 525. But while my thirst for dirt was quenched with the motocross bikes, I still longed to head out on some longer rides that involved a good deal of pavement. So at the time, it seemed a BMW 1200GS would be the "perfect" dual sport bike for me. Sure enough, I found a great deal on a used '05 GS and had a great time exploring some of Arizona's byways.
The GS was one of the best bikes I've ever ridden on the street. It could hang with sportbikes and had Goldwing-esque levels of comfort for all-day rides. But it was a lot of work in the dirt. In fact, during the 1.5 years I owned it, I only took it off-road twice.
It turns out that the desire to head out on dual sport rides never really leaves you. And it wasn't long before I was jonesing for another dual sport that had a good mix of on and off-road capability. The search began with me checking out KTM's new 690 Enduro (which replaced the 640 line of bikes) and the BMW X-Challenge. But I then came across an ad on ADVrider for a KTM 950 Super Enduro that was set up perfectly. It had an auxiliary tank for longer rides, a seat mod for more comfort, a small windshield and racks for saddlebags. Oh, and let's not forget about 98 hp (in a package that's 40 lbs. lighter than my previous 950.) It was the "perfect" dual sport bike.
So here I am, waiting for a shipping company to deliver my new, perfect bike. At least until the next one comes along.
More pics will be posted after the beast arrives...
The bottom line is... I've had a lot of fun riding every single bike I've owned -- even the crappy ones. So it's not as much about what you're riding as you might think. It's really about getting out there and enjoying the ride.
*For those wondering what ATGATT means... it's All The Gear, All The Time. That means you never ride without proper safety equipment like helmet, boots, gloves, etc.