DUAL-SPORT DINOSAURS

Un­plug­ging for a week­end on sim­ple sin­gles

Motorcyclist - - Front Page - BY ZACK COURTS PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY SPENSER ROBERT

FOR MOST OF HU­MAN HIS­TORY, THE WORD “TECH­NOL­OGY” HAS BEEN

iden­ti­fied with progress. An ax made of metal in­stead of stone makes life eas­ier and bet­ter. Just like re­frig­er­a­tion or power steer­ing. It’s only in the past few decades that the sci­en­tific and in­dus­trial pro­cesses we’ve in­vented have cre­ated so much progress that it’s some­times too much. All of the ad­vance­ment has cre­ated a so­cial con­struct that is, for the first time, seen neg­a­tively. And so in­stead of bask­ing in the mod­ern world, we yearn to un­plug and dis­con­nect.

For many of us, mo­tor­cy­cles are that con­duit to sim­ple joy and our own med­i­ta­tive state, but at the same time, they have ad­vanced into stag­ger­ing com­plex­ity. This is the age of $20,000 dirt bikes, af­ter all. Not just fuel in­jec­tion and cruise con­trol, but cor­ner­ing head­lights, ad­justable wind­screens, heated seats, and shock preload ad­just­ment with the click of a but­ton. Fear no dirt road, as long as you have a friend to help you pick it up and a sav­ings ac­count for the re­pair costs. If you spend any time lis­ten­ing to the puffed-up coastal elites at mag­a­zines, it’s easy to for­get that un­com­pli­cated ma­chines still ex­ist, but they do. Brand-new, even, for less than $7,000.

This trio is a proper blast from the past. The ven­er­a­ble KLR650 from Kawasaki, first in­tro­duced dur­ing the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion, along with Honda’s XR650L and Suzuki’s DR650S, which de­buted in the early 1990s. And they feel like it. Three 100mm bores mated to five-speed trans­mis­sions. No liq­uid-crys­tal dis­plays, no lightemit­ting diodes, no fuel in­jec­tion. They are uniquely un­so­phis­ti­cated in this day and age, and the far­ther you get from our mod­ern world, the more at home they feel.

We’ll get to how these ma­chines took on the mul­ti­day frolic through the woods, but it’s pru­dent to men­tion their street chops. To no­body’s sur­prise, the Kawasaki is far and away the most com­fort­able of the three, from the wide and comfy seat to the fair­ing that blocks wind and weather. Sim­i­larly ob­vi­ous is that the Honda and the Suzuki feel less like ADVS and more like big dirt bikes. Along with the very tall seats (es­pe­cially the 37-inch XR perch), the rid­ing po­si­tions are sur­pris­ingly com­pact— lots of ground clear­ance means high foot­pegs, and the han­dle­bars are rolled back in the rider’s lap.

Even if the mul­ti­lane slab is a slog, 650cc of tug­boat thrust means there’s enough power to get out of the way of traf­fic and, in the case of the KLR, trun­dle along in­def­i­nitely as long as you’re not in a hurry. The Suzuki’s en­gine is much smoother than the Honda, but the seat is worse on the DR. Then again, there’s no sense in com­plain­ing about the lack of re­fine­ment. That’s the whole point. The glass-half-full out­look is that there’s noth­ing to dis­tract you in the cock­pit. On the XR and DR, the brake line runs right across your field of vi­sion, ob­scur­ing what lit­tle info is avail­able on the hi­lar­i­ously small dashes. There’s not much ac­tion ex­cept a few jit­tery speedo nee­dles and the KLR’S wild flour­ish of ex­trav­a­gance, a tachome­ter.

Point them the right way through sub­ur­bia and the road will fall apart. We climbed up and away from the city, div­ing in and out of conif­er­ous woods on di­lap­i­dated fire roads, past aban­doned camp­sites, and peered over reser­voirs in the dis­tance. The bikes skipped along, geri­atric gazelles of the back­woods— com­fort­able in the sur­round­ings but not fast. Wa­ter­proof boots were tested at creek cross­ings. Gra­nola bars were eaten in the shade, and our phones stub­bornly pro­claimed “no ser­vice.” Dual-sport thumper heaven.

Get­ting frisky and pre­tend­ing a me­an­der­ing, washed-out dirt road is a stage of the Baja 1000 is delu­sional, and also the most fun on the XR650L. It might have some­thing to do with Honda’s Baja pedi­gree. The 11 inches of sus­pen­sion travel and the light­est weight (342 pounds full of gas) make the XR a ca­pa­ble off-roader. It’s oddly un­com­fort­able to stand on the pegs—prob­a­bly be­cause of the han­dle­bar, which is, of course, an easy fix. It’s no KTM 350EXC, but it’ll brap and saunter pretty grace­fully over just about any­thing with the right at­ti­tude. A long in­seam will help.

The KLR is the sen­si­ble un­cle of the group. Drive it into too deep a hole or catch flight and it will quickly re­mind you that, by gum, it’s an older fella whose knees aren’t what they used to be. To put a finer point on it, the KLR weighs al­most 90 pounds more than the XR, rides 5 inches closer to the ground, and it car­ries more than dou­ble the fuel (6.1 gal­lons to the XR’S 2.8). The Kawasaki is liq­uid-cooled but loosely strung. There wasn’t any­thing the KLR couldn’t do, it just needed a lit­tle more time on oc­ca­sion.

Suzuki’s DR650S falls some­where in the mid­dle, in specs and in feel. It’s about 20 pounds heav­ier than the XR, and with 10.4 inches of ground clear­ance, it falls right be­tween the other two bikes. Tech­ni­cally, the seat is a quar­ter-inch lower than the KLR— even so, Suzuki was quick to point out that there’s a low­er­ing kit avail­able. Prac­ti­cally, it feels a lot more like the XR, but smoother and more wel­com­ing. As one tester put it, this is lit­er­ally his grand­fa­ther’s dual-sport bike. And, to that point, it makes the plank of a seat even more per­plex­ing. The Suzuki can be goaded

into long wheel­ies and power slides in the dirt, and all the while it feels solid and ready for more. The more road-ori­ented tires seem to hint at the DR’S des­tiny, and maybe even all of these ma­chines.

We thrashed them through pud­dles and over rock gar­dens, down sandy sin­gle-track, and along twisty tar­mac in the moun­tains. Maybe it’s the testers in us, but the lit­eral use of the bikes al­ways felt over­shad­owed by what they rep­re­sent. The grease mon­key in the group pointed out the real tool kits, tucked in a ny­lon satchel some­where in­side each of the bikes. Ar­chaic, sure, but it starts to soften the crit­i­cism of curb weight and pulling choke ca­bles. The chivalry of be­ing pre­pared to take off wheels or pull a spark plug is lost on mod­ern bikes. Kids these days, all they care about is their screens.

We never in­tended to rank these bikes, frankly. Be­cause 35 horse­power and 30 pound-feet of torque is the same no mat­ter where in Japan it’s from, and the few hun­dred bucks vari­ance in price is triv­ial. In the end, the all-mil­len­nial crew of testers on this ride were sim­ply too over­come with love for the KLR. The ask­ing price of $6,699 seems high un­til you con­sider the as­tound­ing ca­pa­bil­ity— it’s $150 less for the DR and $200 more for the XR, in­ci­den­tally. The Kawasaki’s leg­end is sturdy and proud, even among the Youtube gen­er­a­tion (go ahead and search for “which dual sport mo­tor­cy­cle is right for you” and lis­ten to the man in the ban­dana). All of these bikes are as sim­ple as a ham­mer and just as re­li­able, so why the KLR?

Be­ing more ac­com­mo­dat­ing than two dirt bikes isn’t say­ing much, but scram­bling over ev­ery­thing else that we threw at it is ad­mirable and down­right lik­able. Did it bot­tom out a few times? You bet it did—and it didn’t miss a beat. Did it stall on a steep climb? Hell no. It feels like the Earth will stop and ro­tate the other di­rec­tion be­fore a KLR stalls. Even if the rider’s dig­nity is lost pad­dling through a river or up a rut, there is a cos­mic force that keeps the KLR’S en­gine lug­ging and chug­ging. Just enough tech­nol­ogy to pull you along, no more. In the end, it’s prob­a­bly not the ca­pa­bil­ity but the ver­sa­til­ity of the Kawasaki that al­ways shat­ters our ex­pec­ta­tions—it can plod along will­ingly over al­most any sur­face, free­way to mud bog.

The air-cooled duo is lov­able too, but some­how less ap­peal­ing by be­ing more fo­cused. Be­ing re­ally good at one thing is what new bikes do best, so this lot needs to be care­ful not to get type­cast into a role where there’s a younger, more hand­some face at the ready. The XR and DR are like ath­letic, mid­dleaged dads. Gray in the tem­ples and faces weath­ered, but still in good enough shape to whoop your ass on the trail. And yet, even though the KLR is un­de­ni­ably over­weight and dorky, it some­how al­ways holds its own. It’s al­most as im­prob­a­ble as be­ing on a show­room floor at this age.

The fact that any of these bikes are for sale feels like a mir­a­cle in its own way. The KLR has seen the most up­dates, and that’s ar­guably why it fits into this Juras­sic niche more grace­fully than the oth­ers, but it’s still a hack­saw in a land of power tools. For con­text, think about the gen­uinely in­no­va­tive, in­ter­est­ing, and pop­u­lar ma­chines that this group have out­lasted. A Yamaha GTS1000, or Du­cati Street­fighter, or the Honda Hawk—all try­ing to be some kind of ul­ti­mate, and there­fore tram­pled in the march of progress. It’s easy to laugh at spin­ning a knob to re­set the bar­rel-type trip me­ter, but hey, it worked 20 years ago, and it’ll prob­a­bly work 20 years from now.

These an­ti­quated dual-sports are to­tally out­gunned in ev­ery cat­e­gory ex­cept one: sim­plic­ity. They have been thump­ing along for decades at 46 miles per gal­lon, and with ev­ery year that passes, it be­comes more likely that they’ll be back for an­other trip around the sun. Case in point, among the many fea­tures that these ma­chines do not have, a clock is one. It’s quaint, and an al­le­gory for these bikes in that they are obliv­i­ous to the march of time and able to trans­port us to an era where rid­ing pants and jeans were the same thing. But it’s also a mes­sage to any and all of us liv­ing life on two wheels. Time is our friend, but a dead­line can be the en­emy. A stone ax might not be fancy, but it will get the job done.

The road un­coiled it­self, dump­ing onto a long, knife­point straight, a tar­mac scar across the Utah desert. Open range spilled out on both sides, low, drab scrub and sun­set sand run­ning to meet a pale morn­ing sky. It was the kind of beau­ti­ful that fills your lungs and sus­tains you through in­ter­minable days in front of a com­puter screen, and I was rip­ping through the heart of it on a bass-boat­green Kawasaki Ninja H2 SX SE. Some­where to my west, Editor-in-chief Chris Can­tle was do­ing the same, pin­ning a Kawasaki Jet Ski Ul­tra 310R, blast­ing down Lake Pow­ell in an at­tempt to beat me to the Wah­weap Ma­rina. It was al­ready turn­ing warm, the cat­tle bed­ding down in what­ever shade they could find. At least, that’s what I was hop­ing as I gapped the throt­tle, let­ting the H2 SX SE and its 197 horse­power reach out and pull that hori­zon closer, the speedome­ter stretch­ing wide.

I’d never crossed a cat­tle guard at that speed, and my mind had just enough time to con­struct a few fair­ingscat­ter­ing sce­nar­ios be­fore the bike blitzed over the metal bars, the tires play­ing a frac­tion of a ray-gun buzz be­fore land­ing back on solid pave­ment. The grips had barely stopped shak­ing when I snapped open the throt­tle again, the su­per­charger plead­ing in lament or en­cour­age­ment, the speedome­ter a blur of dig­its. I wasn’t rac­ing Editor-in-chief Chris Can­tle. I’d squared off against this desert and the worst bits of my­self.

Lake Pow­ell is the West at its most Amer­i­can. When the U.S. Bu­reau of Recla­ma­tion fin­ished the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, it all but stopped the Colorado River, turn­ing the mag­nif­i­cent and twisting sand­stone gorge into one of the largest fresh­wa­ter reser­voirs in the United States. By wa­ter, it’s 140 miles from the launch at Hite, Utah, at the north­ern end to the Wah­weap Ma­rina down south in Ari­zona. The lake sprawls out over the desert, fill­ing the snake-spine path carved by the Colorado over the course of a few mil­lion years. The vas­cu­lar trib­u­taries stretch out into the dust, which is why it’s 250 miles from one end to the other by road.

The wa­ger was sim­ple: I said I could make it from Hite to Wah­weap by land be­fore Can­tle could do the same by wa­ter. He said I couldn’t. He was bet­ting on 110 ad­di­tional miles, most of which threaded through the wellpo­liced Hopi and Navajo Na­tion Reser­va­tions. Throw in a few small towns, stop­lights, at least one fuel stop, and lines of am­bling tourists mar­veling at Mon­u­ment Val­ley, and there was scant chance of main­tain­ing a de­cent av­er­age speed.

Kawasaki was kind enough to level the play­ing field, lend­ing us the mighty H2 SX SE, the com­pany’s su­per­charged, 197-hp, 1,000cc sport-tourer. The ma­chine seems made for this con­test. It’s sta­ble at speed and ma­neu­ver­able enough to tackle the coiled pave­ment that slinks down off the plateau north of Mex­i­can Hat into the val­ley below. A 4.5-gal­lon tank pro­vides a range of at least 135 miles un­der ag­gres­sive rid­ing. It’s also rel­a­tively com­fort­able— per­fect for spend­ing a few hours in the sad­dle. I liked my odds.

Can­tle made it easy on him­self, se­cur­ing a su­per­charged Kawasaki of his own—the Jet Ski Ul­tra 310R. With more than 300 hp, it has a gov­erned top speed of 68 mph. It also has a cav­ernous 21-gal­lon fuel tank, which it needs be­cause at full tilt, it emp­ties in about an hour. That meant at least two fuel stops, crawl­ing through no-wake zones, and con­tend­ing with slow ma­rina pumps, where all the horse­power in the uni­verse is flat worth­less.

I’d square off against this desert and the worst bits of my­self.

The race started a month ago, the two of us sand­bag­ging ev­ery chance we got. Nei­ther of us is the los­ing sort, nor are we so honor­able as to keep from putting a thumb on the scale should the op­por­tu­nity present it­self. Can­tle would prat­tle on about un­nav­i­ga­ble canyons, rough wa­ter, and fuel star­va­tion be­tween mari­nas. I would re­mind him how much far­ther I had to travel, mak­ing a show of how I planned to weld the speedome­ter to the speed limit to save fuel.

We were still at it when we ar­rived at Hite. The only thing miss­ing was the lake. The wa­ter was low. Weeds popped through the sur­face here and there. Runoff from Rocky Moun­tain snowmelt swells the Colorado and helps re­store the lake in June and July, but that was a month away. It would only take one rock sucked into the 310R’s im­peller to leave Can­tle and the boat stranded.

We de­cided to reroute to Halls Cross­ing, ef­fec­tively the north­ern­most land­ing on the lake this time of year. My ride would be about the same. Can­tle’s would be 40 miles shorter. As a com­pro­mise, we picked a buoy 20 miles up­stream. He’d ride north, round the buoy, and head south again. The 310R bobbed in the wa­ter, the H2 SX SE gleamed in the sun, and we stood be­tween the two, shak­ing hands. Can­tle grinned like a cat that had in­vited a mouse to din­ner. The sec­ond we let go, we bolted to our ma­chines.

There was no way to pre­dict who would come out on top, but I’d stacked the deck in my fa­vor the best I could. I stripped the bags from the bike, re­duc­ing drag in the hopes of im­prov­ing my fuel econ­omy. This thing would be won or lost in the num­ber of stops I had to make. My plan was to rip the first 100 miles wide open, tear across that empty desert as quick as my nerves would al­low, top off the tank in Mex­i­can Hat, and hy­per­mile the bike the rest of the way.

It seemed so log­i­cal, an easy sci­ence ex­per­i­ment, but as the road opened up away from the ma­rina and I cracked the throt­tle in anger for the first time, the H2 SX SE snapped to­ward the hori­zon. It sounded like the fu­ture, the su­per­charger in­hal­ing in an elec­tric yawn, a crescendo that ended in the chat­ter of a waste gate with each shift. You’re al­ways flirt­ing with death on a mo­tor­cy­cle. On this ma­chine, bl­itz­ing across that open range with my chin on the tank and the road pin­point­ing to the edge of the Earth, I’d walked into death’s bed­room with a bot­tle and a wink, the imp on my shoul­der whis­per­ing sweetly, “We aren’t built for los­ing.”

Nav­i­ga­tion turned out to be eas­ier on Can­tle than he thought it would be. The Ski’s hood was dec­o­rated in turns—right at this buoy, left at that one—but the wa­ter was smooth and the lake was broad. He rounded mile marker 117 wide open, the Ski sling­ing an ec­static par­a­bola be­fore set­tling south. The dead-end in­lets and canyons flashed by on both sides. He was cov­er­ing ground, punch­ing through cool pock­ets of air swept out of the shad­ows, rac­ing across small, choppy waves whipped up by a source­less wind. They snapped him up out of his seat and re­minded him

The imp on my shoul­der whis­per­ing sweetly, “We aren’t built for los­ing.”

that at any time he could go sprawl­ing across the wa­ter, the sur­face solid as ce­ment at that speed.

I lost all of my mo­men­tum where 261 tum­bles to­ward Mex­i­can Hat. The pave­ment had turned to tat­ters, bro­ken or ab­sent al­to­gether and strewn through with gravel mar­bles on an in­tense grade. For 3 miles, the speedome­ter never made it past 15 mph. I could feel the time stretch­ing out ahead of me. I could see Can­tle’s grin­ning face wait­ing for me at the ramp. When the road re­turned to its for­mer self, I let the H2 SX SE eat, feed­ing its four fu­ri­ous cylin­ders with all the air and fuel I could find.

The desert was a blur at the edge of my eyes, a streak of earth tones. When I stopped for gas, I’d cov­ered 100 miles in an hour and 15 min­utes. I didn’t get off the bike, I just ran the pump from the seat, filled the tank to the brim, slammed my vi­sor down, and lit off again. I couldn’t have been stopped for more than three min­utes. I had 150 miles to go. If I was very care­ful, I wouldn’t have to stop for fuel again. I might have a chance.

Can­tle wasn’t so quick at Bull­frog Ma­rina. There’s a long no-wake zone, and he was stuck strolling along at 5 mph. He spent a pre­cious minute search­ing for 91 oc­tane and knew that in that time I had cov­ered a mile, maybe two. He was there for nearly half an hour, the vic­tim of com­puter trou­ble. For once in the years we’ve known each other, luck gave me the sly smile and shoved a stick in his spokes.

This thing would come down to fuel. From Mex­i­can Hat on, I fused my­self with the tank, re­fus­ing to in­ter­rupt the air as it slid around the bike, let­ting the ver­te­brae at the base of my skull burn. I was danc­ing a fine line be­tween main­tain­ing a pace, max­i­miz­ing my fuel econ­omy, and avoid­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with the lo­cal law. I drafted any­thing and ev­ery­thing. I passed loaf­ing RVS and tour buses, eyed on­com­ing cars for the tell­tale glint of a light bar. One stop and I’d be sunk, stuck eat­ing crow from Can­tle for the rest of my days.

He was back to hus­tling, the 310R guz­zling fuel as it sprinted down the lake. His stop at Dan­gling Rope was quicker, but it still takes time to pour 20 gal­lons. A lit­tle doubt shone in his mind. This might be closer than he thought. Hell if he was go­ing to give me an inch, though. He rode hard, push­ing him­self more than the ma­chine. It was the rollers that caused all the trou­ble, long-for­got­ten boat wakes left echo­ing around the canyons. They were hard to spot, even with po­lar­ized glass, and sent his ass and el­bows fly­ing, the boat bang­ing off its lim­iter as the hull went air­borne.

I blitzed through Page, snag­ging only one stop­light. De­spite it be­ing Fri­day af­ter­noon, the en­trance gate at Wah­weap was empty. I cruised straight through, held fast to the park’s speed limit, and spot­ted the boat ramp. There at the end sat a Jet Ski, small from my van­tage. My heart fell through my boots and bounced off the pave­ment. I was noth­ing but a long stream of curses un­til I got closer and saw the truth. It wasn’t Can­tle. I’d beaten him by nearly 10 min­utes.

It could have gone ei­ther way. One traf­fic stop on my end, one slightly quicker re­fuel on his, and it would have been Can­tle’s win. We wanted to swap ma­chines, to keep run­ning up the gor­geous canyons and across the empty plains, to bathe in the beauty of that place as long as we could. It’s a blas­phemy to blitz across that coun­try, so alien and per­fect. Bet­ter to go slowly and sa­vor it, to ap­pre­ci­ate the eons it took to carve a place so im­prob­a­ble, to pad­dle or pedal the thing. Maybe next time we will.

It’s easy to get dis­tracted think­ing about a dream ma­chine. In­stead, pon­der the place you want to go or the feel­ing you want to have af­ter sum­mit­ing what­ever per­sonal moun­tain stands in front of you. Then pick a steed to get you there and back.

With a fuel con­sump­tion rate ap­proach­ing 21 gal­lons per hour, the 300-hp Jet Ski Ul­tra 310R is the em­bod­i­ment of the old cliché: It can pass any­thing on the wa­ter but a fuel pump.

This wasn’t a case of the tor­toise and the hare, or even land ver­sus wa­ter. We were two blurs across the desert, both aimed at the same goal.

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