BIG DIRT

Three paths to ad­ven­ture com­pared in the wilds of Utah

Cycle World - - Contents - By Justin Dawes

Ev­ery­where is ar­guably a good place to ride a mo­tor­cy­cle. But for go­ing on a big dirt ad­ven­ture, Utah ranks as one of the finest places on Earth. World-class scenery that in­cludes five stun­ning na­tional parks is con­nected by dirt roads and trail sys­tems that take rid­ers from desert to alpine for­est. The vast ex­panses avail­able make ad­ven­ture bikes the log­i­cal choice be­cause they of­fer the power, com­fort, and range that al­low a well-equipped rider to take it all in. It also makes Utah a great place to put ad­ven­ture bikes to the test.

We sought the off-road-lean­ing mid­dle ground in ad­ven­ture ma­chines—the Honda Africa Twin Ad­ven­ture Sports DCT, KTM 1090 Ad­ven­ture R, and Tri­umph Tiger 800 Xcx—rea­son­ing that 650cc sin­gles don’t have the legs we were af­ter, and larger ad­ven­ture bikes wouldn’t be able to at­tack the tech­ni­cal ter­rain we wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence. We’d hoped to in­clude the new BMW F 850 GS, but it won’t be avail­able un­til later this year (we are also look­ing for­ward to the forth­com­ing KTM 790 Ad­ven­ture R and Yamaha Ténéré 700). So it would be three ma­chines with sim­i­lar in­tent but us­ing dif­fer­ing en­gine con­fig­u­ra­tion, sus­pen­sion spec­i­fi­ca­tion, and trans­mis­sion type.

One thing would be the same: tires. Only the KTM 1090 Ad­ven­ture R is equipped stock with dirt-wor­thy, Con­ti­nen­tal TKC80 rub­ber. The Africa Twin is fit­ted with Bridge­stone A41 tires, which are great street-fo­cused ad­ven­ture tires but not meant for hard­core dirt duty. Same story with the Tiger 800 Xcx—it rolls off the show­room floor with sim­i­larly road-bi­ased Bridge­stone Bat­tle Wings. Both bikes were fit­ted with TKC80S in order to un­lock the off-road po­ten­tial within.

We headed for Dixie Na­tional For­est in south­ern Utah to launch our rugged trio. The test­ing area would vary in al­ti­tude from 4,500 to 7,500 feet, and we worked to avoid paved roads when­ever pos­si­ble. No lug­gage al­lowed. No bulky tex­tile suits. Back­packs, En­duro jack­ets, and mo­tocross boots only.

With ride modes, ABS, and trac­tion-con­trol set­tings di­aled in for dirt, we set out. The Tiger took the first win here with an easy-to-nav­i­gate menu sys­tem on the only TFT dash in the group. Off-road Pro mode turns off trac­tion con­trol and rear ABS, and is se­lected with a five-way thumb joy­stick. The Africa Twin is fairly easy to ad­just as well, at least for the basics. Big dash buttons turn off rear-wheel ABS and switch the bike to Gravel mode. Nav­i­gat­ing its LCD dash is not as easy as on the Tri­umph, but once you get used to the Honda sys­tem, rear wheel­spin can be ad­justed and the dual-clutch trans­mis­sion set­tings can be cus­tom­ized. The KTM sys­tem is just as dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate as the Honda’s, re­quir­ing the user to shuf­fle through a cou­ple of menu screens with mul­ti­ple long and short presses on the four-but­ton pad. It’s a sys­tem from 2014 and feels older than that.

Func­tion­al­ity of trac­tion con­trol and ABS on the trail is an­other story. Yes, ad­ven­ture takes many forms, but it’s not usu­ally had just star­ing at a dash pok­ing buttons. Aim­ing our head­lights up the first fast, flow­ing fire road, the Dual Clutch Trans­mis­sion Africa Twin was far more en­ter­tain­ing than one might ex­pect from an “au­to­matic.” Af­ter a few miles, it be­came sec­ond na­ture to time the down­shift with your left thumb to back the rear end

into a cor­ner, and then power-slide on the way out. The front ABS works well in the dirt, but it does in­ter­vene a hair sooner than ex­pe­ri­enced rid­ers might pre­fer. Les­s­ex­pe­ri­enced rid­ers might pre­fer this in­ter­ven­tion over a po­ten­tial con­cus­sion.

The Tiger 800 XCX was the least en­joy­able play­ing on the edge of trac­tion, both on the gas and on the brakes. On the low­est trac­tion-con­trol set­ting, the Tiger’s elec­tronic power mod­u­la­tion was choppy as we tried to groove on these slip­pery, dry moun­tain roads, mak­ing the bike dif­fi­cult to slide smoothly. With the TC dis­abled in Off-road Pro mode, rider con­trol ruled, and in sec­ond and third gear, all was OK if the throt­tle was used with pre­ci­sion. In the oc­ca­sional first-gear cor­ner, the rear snapped out too quickly in (its now lower-ra­tio) first gear. Brak­ing hard on soft, loose dirt in­vokes ABS sooner than on the other two bikes. Back it down a notch or two, and the Tri­umph is a com­pe­tent ac­com­plice.

The KTM is king when the speeds are high and the dirt is loose. Off-road mode knocks down the 1090 R’s out­put to a dirt-friendly 110 hp and mod­u­lates the ride by- wire throt­tle bodies for the smoothest trac­tion con­trol of the trio. Crack the throt­tle, and the rear end steps out smoothly and just hangs there. It’s bet­ter than you are. Same with the Off-road ABS; only when the front tire has com­pletely lost trac­tion will you feel the ABS kick in. Any of these bikes will get you there com­pe­tently on a dirt road, es­pe­cially with knob­bies. But to re­ally charge, the KTM is the one with the head­room. The 1090’s bal­ance and feed­back makes it feel like an ex­ten­sion of your body, and even if you’re rid­ing with the wheels out of line all the time, there is al­ways this magic feel­ing of con­trol

as you surf your in­tended arc on these im­per­fect sur­faces.

Shoot­ing off from the man­i­cured fire roads are the best bits of rid­ing one can ex­pe­ri­ence in Utah. Two-track trails reach out in all di­rec­tions con­nect­ing to epic look­outs above Utah’s fa­mous or­ange and red hoodoos, to val­leys fed by bub­bling creeks, and to cold, dark vol­canic lava-tube caves. The rocks, ruts, and tree roots lit­ter­ing these two-track trails put the long-travel sus­pen­sion of the trio to the test. Con­trolled damp­ing with solid bot­tom­ing re­sis­tance is key here—one wrong bounce will send you ca­reen­ing into a tree or off a cliff.

Both the Ad­ven­ture and Tiger are fit­ted with fully ad­justable WP Sus­pen­sion, but that’s where the sim­i­lar­i­ties end. The Africa Twin, mean­while, is sus­pended with fully ad­justable Showa units. This was a close bat­tle be­tween two, with a third strug­gling to per­form at the same level and speed.

“No lug­gage al­lowed. No bulky tex­tile suits. Back­packs, En­duro jack­ets, and mo­tocross boots only.”

KTM’S 43mm WP fork and a PDS (Pro­gres­sive Damp­ing Sys­tem) link­age­less shock help the 1090 feel like a du­al­sport bike over small ob­sta­cles and jumps. But if you carry too much speed into a big G-out, the re­al­ity that this is still a liter-class, 535-pound ad­ven­ture bike jolts you back to re­al­ity as you en­vi­sion get­ting tossed over the bars. Thank­fully, while the hit can be se­vere, it’s con­trolled and fairly drama-free. The best of the trio.

As ex­cep­tional as the KTM sus­pen­sion is, the Showa sys­tem on the Africa Twin Ad­ven­ture Sports is not far be­hind. This fork and shock are an up­grade over the stan­dard Africa Twin, and give you 9.9 inches of travel at the front and 9.4 inches at the rear, ap­prox­i­mately three-quar­ters of an inch more than the stan­dard. The com­pres­sion damp­ing and spring rate feel a tad softer than the KTM’S. It is more sup­ple and for­giv­ing at slower speeds and in choppy bumps, glid­ing over small ob­sta­cles that can jolt the rider on the KTM. This al­lows the rider to sit down more of­ten and con­serve en­ergy. On the other hand, the Africa Twin is less com­posed when pound­ing through whoops and G-outs. Over­all, the Africa Twin is highly ca­pa­ble for a 556-pound ad­ven­ture ma­chine. If not for the KTM, it would be easy to think it’s per­fect.

It feels a bit like we are pick­ing on the Tiger 800 XCX in this dirt-ori­ented com­par­i­son since it didn’t han­dle the same level of hus­tle through this tech­ni­cal ter­rain. The bike made it through ev­ery­thing Utah could throw at it, but it was at a less-ag­gres­sive pace. By no means were we sim­ply sight­see­ing, but turn­ing it up to 11 on the KTM wasn’t an op­tion. The 43mm WP fork of­fers 8.7 inches of travel, and damp­ing con­trol is nearly equal to the KTM’S, just with slightly less bot­tom­ing re­sis­tance. Rear-sus­pen­sion ac­tion is the let­down in rough stuff. At higher speeds, the WP shock and ris­ing-rate link­age are less com­pli­ant on sharp hits and caused the rear to de­flect, re­duc­ing the for­ward drive and con­trol as it skipped side to side.

When an op­por­tu­nity to break free of paths trav­eled by four-wheel con­veyances presents it­self in Utah, you had bet­ter have a bike ca­pa­ble of tack­ling some se­ri­ous sin­gle track. Some­times flow­ing and smooth, and other times choppy and tight, this epic Utah sin­gle track is the ul­ti­mate test of a bike’s dirt wor­thi­ness. Here, weight

be­came a real con­sid­er­a­tion, but it was more about per­ceived weight on the trail that would be the true mea­sure of these gi­ant dirt bikes. Toss­ing them side to side while muscling through trees on a 2-foot-wide rib­bon of earth il­lus­trates just how amaz­ing this class of ad­ven­ture mo­tor­cy­cles re­ally is. Rang­ing from 507 pounds for the Tiger to 556 pounds for the Honda (mea­sured with­out fuel on the

CW scale), the heft of these ma­chines melts away as you stand on the pegs to at­tack the trail. The Tri­umph feels the light­est, mostly be­cause of its smaller size, while the KTM is sig­nif­i­cantly lighter on its feet than the Africa Twin.

Utah is vast—big spa­ces with big fea­tures. Moun­tain­tops peek over the hori­zon and chal­lenge you to sum­mit them. Sun-soaked val­leys and canyons stretch far­ther than your eye can see. You need fuel range out here, and you need the power to pull those moun­tains closer. This is where mul­ti­cylin­der ad­ven­ture ma­chines make the most sense. The Tiger is pow­ered by an 800cc in-line triple, the Africa Twin by a 998cc par­al­lel twin, and the KTM by a 1,050cc 75-de­gree V-twin. These con­fig­u­ra­tions and var­ied tun­ing pro­duce com­pletely dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters in power de­liv­ery, sound, and over­all fun.

The triple pow­er­ing the Tri­umph is an amaz­ing en­gine with a sonorous growl, but more im­por­tant, its flat torque curve makes for an en­gine that is con­trol­lable and con­fi­dence in­spir­ing in the dirt. En­gine re­sponse is snappy, and with the TC off in first gear, the rear end can get squir­relly, but ev­ery­where else the rear tire and your wrist

are con­nected by some tele­pathic magic. There is a solid rush as the en­gine revs to red­line, but it is never fran­tic or over­whelm­ing at speed. It’s a mar­velous en­gine, but some­times we wish it had the brute strength of the KTM.

With a claimed 125 hp, the 1,050cc V-twin that pro­pels the KTM is the stand­out in the group. While it might not have the same lov­able sound and char­ac­ter of the Tiger, the ex­tra power and a stonk­ing de­liv­ery gives the rider a more raw, vis­ceral ex­pe­ri­ence. At the same time, out­put and re­sponse can be di­aled back to a lower level in rain or off-road mode. It has no ri­val in this con­test.

The Africa Twin en­gine gets the job done and is nearly as fast on the trail as the KTM, de­spite 25 per­cent less peak power. But it’s vanilla, which in a lot of ways is great—as long as rocky road isn’t avail­able. The ex­perts among our test­ing group ex­pected the DCT trans­mis­sion to be a detri­ment to the Africa Twin on hard trails, but in most in­stances, this wasn’t the case. DCT is now a vi­able and at­trac­tive op­tion, even for more-se­ri­ous off-road rid­ing. Only in the tight­est of sit­u­a­tions did we miss a tra­di­tional clutch. With­out a clutch lever, you lose the con­fi­dence that comes from mod­u­lat­ing the clutch against the brakes or giv­ing the lever a quick snap to lift the front wheel over ob­sta­cles. Work­ing the throt­tle against the brakes is an al­ter­na­tive, but it is more dif­fi­cult and not as smooth, and there’s no good op­tion for loft­ing the wheel.

Er­gonomics is a mixed bag with this group. The KTM has the most nat­u­ral feel for those ac­cus­tomed to dirt

bikes, with a nar­row (ish) tank and seat and a com­fort­able stand­ing po­si­tion. The Africa Twin also felt mar­velous while stand­ing and would ri­val the KTM if not for the new 6.7-gal­lon tank. Its width doesn’t al­low the rider to move for­ward over the tank with­out stand­ing bow-legged. Both the KTM and Honda have tow­er­ing seat heights that top 35 inches. Plac­ing two feet on the ground is eas­ier for more rid­ers on the Tri­umph, even in the “tall” 33.9-inch po­si­tion (low is 33.1 inches). The cock­pit is also more com­pact and works much bet­ter for smaller rid­ers. We give the Tiger the win here for over­all com­fort and a con­fi­dence-in­spir­ing seat height.

As the sun dipped be­hind red and or­ange cliffs, we had al­ready sorted out the rank­ings. For the big dual-sport life that is mid­size ad­ven­ture mo­tor­cy­cles, the KTM 1090 Ad­ven­ture R is the clear-cut win­ner. Ex­cel­lent power, sharp han­dling, and well-sorted sus­pen­sion check enough boxes to give it the nod. The Africa Twin is just a tick off the KTM. It’s a lit­tle heav­ier, a lit­tle slower, and a lit­tle taller. Its less-ag­gres­sive power de­liv­ery and com­pli­ant sus­pen­sion make it a great choice for those who don’t want to win ev­ery spe­cial stage on the way to the next na­tional park. It also of­fers some­thing the oth­ers don’t: DCT. The Tri­umph is a lit­tle more refined than the com­pe­ti­tion with a fan­tas­tic TFT dash and cruise con­trol. It has an en­gine with won­der­ful power out­put and is mu­sic to your ears—the bike also fits most body types bet­ter. But sus­pen­sion per­for­mance is mas­sively im­por­tant when putting in big miles in the dirt, and the Tiger’s harsh rear shock was just off the mark.

The real win­ner here is the rider look­ing for a ma­chine that is ca­pa­ble of de­vour­ing miles of a mixed ter­rain while also go­ing nearly any­where a full-on dirt bike can go. There are no other mo­tor­cy­cles that ex­pand the mean­ing of rid­ing “ev­ery­where” than mid­size ad­ven­ture ma­chines.

LEFT: Blast­ing down two-track trails is what mid­size ad­ven­ture mo­tor­cy­cles are made for.

BE­LOW: Con­ti­nen­tal TKC 80 tires were fit­ted to the Honda and Tri­umph for trac­tion par­ity.

RIGHT: Brak­ing power and feel are ex­cel­lent from all three bikes. Per­for­mance dif­fer­ences come in the ap­pli­ca­tion of off-road ABS set­tings.

ABOVE: Smaller rid­ers will find the Tiger 800 XCX eas­ier to throw around than the KTM or Honda. OP­PO­SITE TOP: Honda’s du­al­clutch trans­mis­sion worked well on fast, open ter­rain but made slow, tech­ni­cal rid­ing more dif­fi­cult. OP­PO­SITE BOT­TOM: Stun­ning scenery and epic trails are around ev­ery bend in Utah’s Dixie Na­tional For­est.

OP­PO­SITE: At speed on fast fire roads, the KTM’S off-road trac­tion-con­trol set­tings bested the Honda and Tri­umph with smooth, seam­less man­age­ment of the rear tire. ABOVE: Raw yet con­trol­lable power, ex­cel­lent sus­pen­sion, and well-sorted rider aids earned the KTM 1090 Ad­ven­ture R a unan­i­mous de­ci­sion as the best mid­size ad­ven­ture mo­tor­cy­cle.

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