Adventure bikes have taken over the market as a must-have model in every manufacturer’s line up. We have Bavarian minds at BMW to thank for launching the craze way back in 1980 with the first R80/GS, a funky gigantic dirt bike, or equally, a stripped-down street bike with few amenities.
Many of those involved in the industry at the time, including consumers, wondered what the hell BMW was playing at. If I want a dirt bike I’ll go buy something much lighter and more off-road worthy; if I want a street bike it needs to be more road-oriented than this minimalist lump.
But BMW carried on, selling 21,864 bikes in the first seven years of production. And something strange started to happen – people began to get it.
These days the buying public, with a healthy nudge in 2004 from Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman, embrace fervently the idea that a bike needs to be as at home going down to the local market as it is crossing Mongolia, and everything in between. The BMW GS is the best-selling BMW by far, and has been copied in some form by most manufacturers out there.
Adventure motorcycle devotees know who Ewan is, and not just because of his dazzling light saber work as he fails to turn young Anakin Skywalker away from the dark side. But how many know of Ted Simon? Ted did what Ewan and Charlie did times 10. Ted covered 64,000 miles on a 500cc Triumph Tiger from 1973 to 1977 riding through 45 countries and then writing the book “Jupiter’s Travels” detailing his journey.
If Ewan’s BMW R1150GS is antiquated compared to what is on offer today, Ted’s bike was positively Stone Age. Ewan did have fuel injection and ABS though, but today most mopeds have that at the very least. Big adventure bikes now come with multiple ride modes that adjust power, traction control and suspension. The most advanced have semi-active suspension that adjusts in real-time as the rider encounters different riding environments. They have ‘lean angle-sensitive ABS’ or electronics that takes into account lean angle as well as other factors during riding maneuvers. They have heated grips, heated seats, hot and cold running chamber maids and a host of other ‘must have’ features.
So the question is this, which is the better way? Old S’kool Triumph or New School Adventure that you will play merry heck getting fixed in downtown Nigeria? To find out, we took two bikes out for two days, encountering a combination of surfaces in early January in Arizona.
To represent the New we brought along a 2014 KTM 1190 Adventure with all of three miles on it, still smelling of cosmoline (or whatever they pack these things in) and nary a speck of dust to be seen. To represent the Old we used a ‘06 Triumph Scrambler with 8000 miles on the clock. I know, pretty effing new to represent Old, but hey, in the Triumph’s defense, it is carbureted, doesn’t have ABS and is based on a 1960s design. It’s main nod to modernity is electronic ignition and that’s about it.
In the interest of full disclosure, the Triumph has Hagon shocks on the rear and Progressive springs up front ’cause the stock stuff is utter junk. It also has a set of British Custom reverse cone shorty mufflers, not for performance as much as the obnoxious bikery sound and the weight savings. The stock can weighs as much as a small economy car.
On a mild Arizona winter Saturday, we rolled from the suburbs of Phoenix and headed for the twisties. If you have ever been to Phoenix you know the place is the living definition of urban blight. It goes on forever. We covered 50 miles of six-lane freeway before we even got to the beginning of something interesting. First point to KTM – the still pocket of air behind the windscreen was ever so much better than the unfettered windblast endured in the cockpit of the Triumph.
We finally reached Highway 88 out of Apache Junction and even then it was so crowded I might have been in rush hour traffic in any city anywhere. We fell in behind the Phoenix VW club, a couple of hundred lumbering classic VW’s with stickers in the rear windows saying things like “if it were meant to be fast it wouldn’t be shaped like a brick.”
Fellow tester Mark decided to be very European, South American, anywhere but law-abiding America and began passing whenever there was a line of sight long enough to make sure he wouldn’t get creamed by oncoming traffic, double yellow line be damned. Puckering up a bit because of the much lower bhp figures, I did my best to tag along on the Triumph. We got more than a few indignant horn blasts and folks saying we were number one with a hearty single finger wave.
We came to the scenic overlook for Apache Lake where the V-Dubs were parking for some sort of show-n-shine. It would have been fun to stop and look, but we didn’t have the best standing with this bunch, so with a loud blat of reverse cone muffler around the lineup, I shot up to cruising speed. Second point to New School – 150 bhp on tap allowed the KTM to rocket where the 60 bhp Triumph took some guts and a lot of planning during overtaking.
Now here is fun fact about Arizona pavement. The really intense sun for 10 months of the year is followed by almost freezing temps for two months, and it creates a humped bumped suspension test bar none. I would swear my Old S’kool mount had its tires on the ground only half the time, the rest of the time I was either launching off some frost heave or crashing back to earth readying for the next launch. Good stuff that. The KTM, while still bumping over this excuse for a paving job, was infinitely more composed and capable of much higher speeds. Another point to KTM.
And a quick observation about Arizona’s silly speed laws. We’re talking about a state that believes everyone should be carrying a firearm and the government has no right to interfere in the lives of the ordinary citizen. There are probably more ‘Patriot Groups’ per capita here than there were in 1776 New England, yet the twistier the road gets, the lower the speed limit becomes. What could be fun at 55 mph gets turned down to 35 mph and the really windy bits are signed at 25 mph, what the heck? Talk about the nanny state…
After 25 miles or so of frost heave came the sign we were longing to see, “Pavement Ends 1000 Feet.” Yeah baby! Here comes the part where Old may just have a trick to show New. See, Old has a much lower seat height, it’s eminently possible to slide the bike, one foot on the ground to stabilize the front tire while allowing the back to drift out a couple of feet for dirt track style corner exits. We were looking at more than 20 miles of dirt road and were ready to get it!
Now, I have to say that if you are okay with riding a dirt road take a look at Highway 88 out of Apache Junction. Amazing Arizona-esque scenery, wide semi-graded dirt road, no really deep sand. We had us some fun; sliding and riding like we knew what we were doing even though it could be argued we don’t. At the end of 22 miles of dirt road it was again advantage KTM, though not as big a difference as the previous ones. Still the big Adventure just had more of everything, more power, more suspension compliance, more brake control. Dangit, I felt sure me and Old S’kool had something in the dirt.
We continued east from Roosevelt Lake (the end of the dirt) on Highway 180 for eight miles to a little cafe/gas stop. Next point to New, I had to gas up Old because my range was between 120 to 140 miles. New didn’t need any fuel.
We then took a left up Arizona Highway 288 towards Young, Arizona. Finally, on the unlined lane with only half blacktop, Old started ticking over. I was able to rail through the turns staying hard on the gas because there simply isn’t enough power to get into trouble with. Partial point Old.
This turned to dirt way up high and the temps were cold enough that the shady spots were coated in ice. That slowed down both Old and New. For true pucker power, nothing works on me quite as well as mud mixed with ice.
Young, Arizona is one of those one-of-a-kind towns. From both north and south there is muddy, icy dirt roads to navigate. There isn’t a single chain store, restaurant or bar in Young. The commercial endeavors are all locally owned, paint peeling, four-wheel drive pick-ups parked out front with rifles in racks. This is the true American west – folks that just want to be left alone and will happily share with the stranded traveler, just don’t tell them you’re from the government and you’re here to help.
The road in town is paved, but we faced more dirt as we exited north. Outside of town we were riding with snow piled high on both sides of the road, more ice, cold, my fingers and toes freezing. Another point to New – better air management kept Mark’s hands much warmer than mine. At this point I’m ready to whack him over the head with a shovel so I can ride in that still pocket of air, I was just missing the shovel.
We came to Highway 160 towards Payson and the loop back towards Phoenix. A quick note, if you want to get to Polly’s BBQ in Payson in time to eat, don’t arrive at 3:30PM, they’re sold out by then. Again the advantage goes to New as we blasted down the freeway, me hanging on grimly at 70 mph, wind trying to push me off the back of the bike. Mark blasted along, shielded, cushioned, cosseted, warm and an utter bastard as far as I’m concerned. He had to wait for me at turnings because he was quite content to bomb along 10 to 15 mph faster than I could.
We spent Sunday going to Cave Creek, Arizona and took a quick ride up to the local lake. This was a much shorter day and Mark’s lovely friend Claudia graced the back of Mark’s KTM. Another point for New – the KTM is much more comfortable for the pillion.
After looping around Bartlett Reservoir we headed back to Cave Creek for lunch. At least I got a bit of revenge because with Claudia on the back Mark couldn’t kick up as much dust as me. So I roost him a time or two just because I can. Cave Creek is only 17 miles from Phoenix and yet seemed to be the ‘big run’ for every Harley in Phoenix. The streets filled with men and women in black leather, thundering V-Twins and enough faux bikerism to recast the movie “Wild Hogs.” Luckily Mark and Claudia knew a place that just focuses on serving a good burger and doesn’t require Levis and leather to gain admittance.
At the end of the day New School kicks Old S’kool’s butt, big time. New just does everything better and not just by a little. Truth be told it often feels like light years have passed since the Triumph rolled off the assembly line.
There are a few places Old still rules though. One is that I knew I was on a ‘proper motorbike’ and the resulting experience is visceral. If it weren’t for Mark and either watching him or taking my turn on his KTM, I would never have known just how much I was missing and would have been quite content with my choice of bike.
The feeling of riding what my forebears rode, that connection to bikers through time makes Old a very rewarding experience as long as I don’t compare.
The other is the thumbs up that Old gets EVERYWHERE! Civilians in cars pull up next to me to look and gesture their approval. The hipster in black driving his killer 1960 Ford pick-up with a Meridian Triumph tied in the back gives me the ‘hey bro’ head nod as I ride by. Gas station attendants leave their booths to come over and talk to me about bikes. Chicks with full sleeve tattoos want to know if they can swing a leg over. In other words, if you weren’t the coolest kid in school Old makes you that, right away.
The final point in defense of Old is that Old is mechanically simpler. If I were going to ride through the third world simple is a lot easier to fix, just not as comfortable. In the end, I leave it to you to decide which attributes call to you the most. No matter what you decide it’s still travel on two wheels, and that is always cool.