One Bike Is Not Enough
by Thomas Day
One sad outcome of my first trip to Alaska was the discovery that my “Theory of the Universal Motorcycle” has fatal flaws. I’m not giving up hope, but hope has suffered an injury (and I suffered more than one). I have to admit that I haven’t always been a One Bike Guy (OBG), but I have always wanted to be. When I raced dirt bikes, I rarely owned more than one bike for any longer than it took to sell the old bike (not counting my wife’s motorcycle). I used the same motorcycle for motocross, cross country, observed trials, enduros, and rode it to work on the rare days that I didn’t have to travel. Needless to say, I didn’t do all that well, competitively, on that one bike, but I had fun. For a bit, I owned a race bike and a trials bike. For some reason, I didn’t do much with either for that brief period.
One of my goals in life is to never be one of those guys with a garage full of unridden motorcycles. In the same way I’ve avoided hoarding a useless pile of Star Bores dolls, baseball cards, or closets full of worthless obsolete computers, I don’t want to go out of my way to mark my territory as “geek.” Let’s face it, Jay Leno and all those other rich boys with their monster garages full of machines are geeks. They are every bit as nerdy and laughable as ma ma’s boys who fill their bedrooms with dolls and space ships. Being rich doesn’t make you immune from also being foolish, it just makes the joke more expensive.
When I first took up street riding, I also owned a dual purpose bike. After a few years, I realized that I could do anything on the DP bike that I did on the street bike. So I sold the street bike and commuted around Southern California on a 1986 Yamaha XT350 for four years and 40,000 miles. When I graduated college (after 25 years of night school), I bought myself a street bike (a 1983 Yamaha XTZ550) for a graduation present. But I mostly kept riding the XT350 for another year, until I moved to Colorado and found myself doing a lot more long weekend trips into the mountains. My solution, in 1993, was to buy a universal motorcycle; the Yamaha 850 TDM, a motorcycle that was as comfortable on dirt roads as it was on the pavement. That’s not to say it was perfect for either application, but it was really good on the street, and reasonably good on dirt roads. Being a 500 pound 850, it wasn’t a nimble, off-road adventure bike, but with work, I could wrestle it to go where I wanted to go. If you consider that my first official dirt bike was a 1971 350cc Kawasaki Bighorn, which was almost as heavy as the TDM, with way less suspension and a totally nutty motor, the TDM seems like a pretty serviceable dirt bike. With that history behind me, I convinced myself that the TDM was my Universal Motorcycle. The theory held up pretty well in practice for almost seven years.
From that, I moved to the SV650, a much lighter, less suspended, easier to maintain street bike that I proceeded to tweak toward dual purpose use. When Suzuki introduced the V-Strom 650 in 2004, I thought I’d found my dream bike. It has been, mostly, the perfect bike for a OBG. It’s a terrific touring bike; stable, comfortable, efficient (usually about 50mpg), reliable, and reasonably well suspended. It’s a pretty good adventure touring bike, if still having the TDM’s weight drawback and limited suspension. It is an excellent commuting bike; nimble, comfortable (again), able to pack luggage and equipment, and quick (reasonable acceleration and great brakes).
The V-Strom is a big bike, though. The weight, width, and height combine to make a bike that’s not much fun on deep sand or gravel. The V-Strom has a much wider profile than the TDM, and that creates a really big-butted vehicle when you add luggage. The V-Strom is complicated, with fuel injection, water-cooling, and electronic everything else, so field repairs are doubtful. From my low-cost (“cheap”:) perspective, the V-Strom is expensive. Crashing the V-Strom on a remote backroad will result in at least $400-500 in plastic damage, alone. Backroading the V-Strom cost me lots of expensive driveline parts—chains & sprockets—and wore out other expensive bits at an accelerated rate.
As a tune-up for the 2,500 miles of dirt roads that I’d be enjoying on my way to and from Alaska, I put in some time riding my V-Strom with the local Dual Purpose guys. The V-Strom did ok, but it was always more work than fun to get the bike through the tougher sections. I just avoided the really tough sections, because I knew I didn’t have the strength or skill to maneuver the big bike through deep sand or mud. I suspected that would be a problem in Alaska, and it turned out to be.
Then, there is the challenge factor. Before I left for Alaska, I heard a lot of silly stuff from folks who claimed that 650cc wasn’t enough motor for a serious tour. When I was a kid, a 650 was a huge motor and I’m still unsure that I have a need for 120mph in any practical application. I heard the same silly crap about my XT350 in California, and that bike was more than enough for the San Diego Freeway’s average 5mph rush hour speeds, and it kept up just fine on those rare moments when the freeway was actually “free.” Back in my younger days, I used to put in a 150-200 mile day on a ISDT Rickman 125, on really rugged terrain, in remote parts of the Nebraska sand hills. Now, I’m thinking that a really long tour on a 250cc bike would be an even better adventure than what I had on a “little” 650. Like governments and businesses, I believe smaller is better.
I’ve missed my XT350 since the day I sold it, and have been looking for a replacement for the past few years. A cheap replacement. I stumbled on a 2000 Kawasaki KL250 Super Sherpa through the Dual Purpose, group and bought it in July. It has been my main bike ever since. I can keep up with freeway traffic on the 250, but it’s a lot more fun to ride though neighborhoods and in the country. It gets double the V-Strom’s mileage, just short of 100mpg, and has a 170-200 mile range (about 50 short of the V-Strom’s maximum range). The KL250 starts easily, with a little choke (even on hot days), and is not much more hassle to extract from the garage than a bicycle. For any trip that doesn’t require major luggage capacity, choosing which bike to ride has become a no-brainer; it’s always the 250.
The more I ride it, the more I think about riding it some distance. Before the season is over, I am thinking about taking the 250 to the Apostle Islands. Maybe next year, I’ll ride the little Sherpa to Kansas or Alaska or somewhere totally new to me. Editor Wanchena rode a 250 scooter on the Minnesota 1000 and he’s much larger than me. I’d have to fix the seat, before long distances would be practical, Japan is still unable to figure out seat foam. Tires are another problem; the bike came with knobbies, which are worthless for road work. Once the seat and tires are sorted out, the rest of the bike would be comfortable enough for at least 250-300 mile days. I, on the other hand, would need to lose some weight, get stronger, and work on my mechanical skills to be able to take a little bike into the wilderness. I can’t think of anything bad about meeting any of those goals. Back in the 1970’s, an Australian rode a Hodaka 100cc 2-stroke around that continent, more than 10,000 miles. He carried a spare motor on his back, if I remember that story. I’m going to start watching eBay for a spare motor right now.
Of course, if I end up doing all my riding on the 250, why do I need the V-Strom? One 300 mile ride to Duluth and back reminded me of how much fun the V-Strom is to put into motion. It’s a completely different riding experience than the KL250, and fun in a completely different way. In August, I added a scooter to the garage stable. It’s my wife’s bike, but I (of course) have to ride it to make sure it’s safe, right? The scooter is practical, easy to ride, a lot of fun, and insanely easy to work on. Nope, my One Bike Theory is blown.