Unplugging for a weekend on simple singles
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.