We say goodbye to the ul­ti­mate pi­o­neer­ing ad­ven­ture mo­tor­cy­cle – the Yamaha XT

Motorcycle News (UK) - - This Week in Mcn - By Andy David­son MCN STAFF WRITER

Yamaha’s XT may be go­ing, but it won’t be for­got­ten. It’s 40 years since the XT500 changed the mo­tor­cy­cling land­scape and, in var­i­ous guises, it’s been the bike many have cho­sen to ride around the world. Here, we pay trib­ute to the many awe­some in­car­na­tions of the Yamaha and let those whose lives have been changed by it, tell their tales.

The Yamaha XT500 set the world on fire in 1976. It was the first of its kind; a big four-stroke sin­gle, a desert racer and rally bike, which any­one could own. The Ja­panese loved it and the Amer­i­cans craved it. And once Cyril Neveu won the first Dakar Rally on one in 1979, and again in 1980, Europe went crazy over it too. Im­ages of the XT fly­ing across vast ex­panses of African desert, pi­loted by tough, dusty-faced men sealed the deal.

This was a proper desert rac­ing ma­chine that you could un­der­stand and fix your­self. It set the stan­dard and pi­o­neered the big en­duro craze. And once BMW took the next Dakar win in ’81 with their flat-twin GS, Yamaha set to work on a more rally-fo­cused XT, re­leas­ing the Ténéré in ’83. Sales rock­eted; in the 10 years after its re- lease, Yamaha sold around 61,000 bikes in Europe alone. Ev­ery­one wanted a slice of the Paris-dakar pie and the ad­ven­ture bike cat­e­gory was born.

But times have changed. Big­ger is now bet­ter and elec­tron­i­cally-con­trolled be­he­moths with huge power out­puts and even huger pan­niers at­tract all the at­ten­tion, even if their ac­tual off-road ad­ven­ture ca­pa­bil­i­ties are harder to ac­cess.

But the sin­gle-cylin­der XT has car­ried on qui­etly in the back­ground, cross­ing con­ti­nents with­out fuss. Over­shad­owed by big­ger, more pow­er­ful ma­chin­ery, the XT’S desert rac­ing roots have long since been for­got­ten. Now, though, Euro­pean reg­u­la­tions spell the end of the mighty XT sin­gle-cylin­der’s blood­line. Here, we pay ho­mage to the ma­chine that took the first Dakar rac­ers across the Sa­hara and sparked a pas­sion for ad­ven­ture in hun­dreds of thou­sands of mo­tor­cy­clists.

‘Im­ages of the XT pi­loted by tough, dusty-faced men sealed the deal’

The plan was to lead 20 rid­ers 4659 miles from Lon­don to Timbuktu, turn round and ride the same dis­tance back again. But some­how we were stuck un­der a ve­randa, sweat­ing, a few miles from the fin­ish line.

A mi­nor vi­o­la­tion en­ter­ing Timbuktu meant our pass­ports and keys had been con­fis­cated by the mil­i­tary. We were stranded in diplo­matic limbo, un­able to re­turn and at the mercy of our ab­duc­tors – un­til I was even­tu­ally sum­moned to the com­man­der’s bar­racks, deep in the desert. A quick chat and £600 later and we were off again on the fi­nal ride to Timbuktu.

The expedition was fraught with dif­fi­cul­ties; my orig­i­nal crew aban­doned the project two days be­fore the start and a last minute re­place­ment team saved the expedition from im­plod­ing. Mid­way, our truck got stuck on the banks of the River Niger, sink­ing up to its belly in mud – tak­ing an en­tire night of dig­ging to free it be­fore the tide came in. Not an easy feat, con­sid­er­ing it’s in the dark that drugs and arms are rou­tinely smug­gled vast dis­tances by camel trains across the Sa­hara.

In Mau­ri­ta­nia, the mas­sive fleet of ser­vice ve­hi­cles sup­port­ing the Dakar’s last trek across Africa were head­ing north, the race can­celled due to armed rob­bers hav­ing gunned down a French fam­ily in a town we were about to pass through. Light­ning doesn’t of­ten strike twice – we hoped.

Mau­ri­ta­nia was tough. The dry heat was hard work. Dogs lay curled in the dirt against cor­ners of build­ings. The saviour of grey tar­mac had long since dis­ap­peared and bikes con­tin­u­ously crashed in the sand as we bat­tled with the fi­nal 200km.

But de­spite all of the dif­fi­cul­ties we faced, the XT never failed me. In­stead it was the one thing I could de­pend on in a trip fraught with un­cer­tain­ties.

Bike after bike crashed as rid­ers wres­tled with their heavy, over­loaded machines. But my XT was nim­ble, lighter un­der­foot and per­fect for sim­pli­fy­ing a dif­fi­cult cross­ing. Other bikes be­gan to over­heat, ca­bles broke and over-de­vel­oped tech­nol­ogy be­gan to fry and fail in the heat. But again, the XT, with its un­nerv­ing re­li­a­bil­ity has far less to go wrong, with no com­pli­cated elec­tron­ics. It was built to be a bit of a don­key, geared up to take you wher­ever you want to go with min­i­mum fuss. It skimmed across the desert like it’s been do­ing since the late ’70s. The thump-thump from its cylin­der still pow­er­ing away through the sand.

‘Bike after bike crashed, but my XT was nim­ble... per­fect for sim­pli­fy­ing a dif­fi­cult cross­ing’

Nick says: “Timbuktu is like go­ing back to the Mid­dle Ages. Don­keys with carts stroll along dusty roads filled with mosques and schools made out of straw and mud. Ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity stopped the Dakar from go­ing near there and after three suc­cess­ful ex­pe­di­tions and sev­eral be­head­ings in the main square; I was warned not to go back too. Now peo­ple can’t freely travel there. My XT was just about the last bike ever to reach this mys­ti­cal city, which, steeped as it was in mythol­ogy, was thought for many years to not ac­tu­ally ex­ist.”

The XT’S desert dom­i­nance cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of the bike-buy­ing pub­lic


Jean-claude Olivier on the XT500 in the first Paris-dakar Rally

Lon­don to Timbuktu on the XT. So easy you can do it with no hands. Sort of.

With so lit­tle to go wrong with it, the XT was a per­fect desert work­horse


com­tor­cy­cle­news. Watch high­lights of Nick and his XT en route to Timbuktu

The roads and routes were tricky, but the XT was solid


Its desert her­itage gave Nick’s XT an ad­van­tage on African sand

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