Rid­ing the Suzuki V-strom 650XT in Death Val­ley

Cycle World - - Contents - By BARRY HATH­AWAY

Back in 1849, the for­got­ten soul who gave Death Val­ley its name es­caped that god­for­saken desert with fewer men in his party than he started with. In the years since, in­fer­nal heat and scarce water have killed quite a few more. My buddy Jeb Scol­man and I hoped that with a cou­ple of modern ma­chines and some gaso­line we could do bet­ter.

We fig­ured that the di­verse to­pog­ra­phy of the Panamint re­gion would be the per­fect place to test the 2017 Suzuki V-strom 650XT to an­swer the ques­tion: Can $2,300 worth of tires and ac­ces­sories (pri­mar­ily from Twisted Throttle) trans­form a beloved bud­get mid­dleweight into a work­able, or at least en­joy­able, desert ex­plor­ing ma­chine? Three days of dunes, salt flats, jagged boul­ders, steep canyons, and sandy washes should help us find out.

“Work­able” and “en­joy­able” are two words sel­dom at­tached to the at­tempts to mine fame and for­tune from that bleak, beau­ti­ful ex­panse. The stone ru­ins and rust­ing ma­chin­ery that dot the land­scape are mon­u­ments to hard­ship, heart­break, and greed. We chose our Oc­to­ber dates care­fully to avoid the val­ley’s in­fa­mous heat.

Sum­mer months have seen tem­per­a­tures climb above 130 de­grees Fahren­heit.

De­spite a his­tor­i­cal de­sign brief that’s put the V-strom in the all-as­phalt category, the end user has uti­lized both 650 and 1000 ver­sions to see the un­paved world. With the 650 XT’S gold-an­odized wire-spoke wheels and fuzzy vi­sions of a Dakar-like sil­hou­ette, we pushed be­yond the ex­pected ter­rain; Suzuki’s 650XT mar­ket­ing ma­te­rial al­ways says “road.” There is a “trail” or “dirt” to be found.

But we let ad­ven­ture be our guide. And Surprise Canyon lived up to its name when I high-cen­tered the Suzuki on a foot-tall gravel berm. Jeb’s 2007 Husq­varna TE510 had no such lim­i­ta­tions, but with 5 inches of ground clear­ance at the SW Motech skid plate and less under sus­pen­sion com­pres­sion, the V-strom’s biggest short­com­ing showed it­self early.

Miles of trails with all man­ner of loose quartzite, dolomite, lime­stone, and basaltic lavas proved in­fin­itely more chal­leng­ing on the V-strom than the feath­er­weight Husky. The Suzuki weighs 476 pounds be­fore mod­i­fi­ca­tions and without lug­gage, and its more street-ori­ented ground clear­ance de­manded that I choose my line care­fully. My oil fil­ter hung low, like a ripe plum wait­ing to be picked. Back at the of­fice, a CW ed­i­tor had eyed my new bash plate (to help pro­tect said oil fil­ter) and of­fered, “As long as you don’t hit any­thing, you should be fine.” At the front, this unit bolts to the en­gine cases.

As with any big ad­ven­ture bike, things can go pear­shaped quickly. So I con­cen­trated, work­ing, sweat­ing, and struggling to man­age the weight through a 3-mile stretch of what seemed like highly tech­ni­cal rid­ing to me. At the end, I needed to rest. Jeb pulled along­side. “This is work,” I hollered. “I’m just rid­ing,” he laughed, and throt­tled away. It’s no surprise the ex­pe­ri­ences on the two bikes couldn’t have been more dif­fer­ent. Jeb romped play­fully over any ter­rain and went where he wanted, his mind and mo­tor­cy­cle me­an­der­ing freely. I planned, plot­ted, and some­times bashed over rough stuff, my speed kept

Just south of Eureka Dunes, things heated up at the base of Steel Pass. The craggy canyon closed in on us, and an oner­ous rocky climb ap­peared. I looked back at Jeb. Steam hissed from his bike. A rock had holed the ra­di­a­tor, and coolant dripped to the ground. The trip changed. It was time to make only good de­ci­sions. Jeb spoke mostly in ex­ple­tives as we walked 100 yards up the canyon to spy four more gnarly climbs over wa­ter­melon-size sharp rocks. It would be the worst-case sce­nario for the Husky’s cool­ing, and a night­mare on the heavy Suzuki.

Back north we went, into the deep sand at the foot of the dunes. Our heads filled with the new un­cer­tain­ties and the ur­gency that only a leak­ing ra­di­a­tor in the desert can pro­vide, but we came upon a car­a­van of cool, old dudes in cool, old Toy­ota 4x4s. They were ex­pe­ri­enced, they were pre­pared, and they had pour-in stop-leak. It plugged the hole in Jeb’s ra­di­a­tor almost in­stantly.

Our by­pass route added 50 miles, which seemed like a lot more as the sun got lower and we won­dered about re­main­ing fuel range. At the Wau­coba Sa­line Road turn off, my gauge read half a tank, but with the odome­ter in­op­er­a­ble as a result of pulling the ABS fuse, I be­gan to worry. Four miles down the road, my gut was churn­ing. in check by me­chan­i­cal sym­pa­thy and street-tuned sus­pen­sion. It was an ex­er­cise in try­ing to keep grape­fruit-size rocks from end­ing my ride. Suc­cess­fully nav­i­gat­ing slow, tech­ni­cal climbs or de­scents over large boul­ders was aided by the ex­cel­lent TKC 80 tires and the XT’S strong, wire-spoke alu­minum rims. But an oc­ca­sional re­sound­ing thunk! to the bash plate proved in­evitable and ul­ti­mately lead to crack­ing in the case around the mount­ing bolts.

The fast, smooth, and twisty gravel was where I had my re­venge. I could un­cork the Suzuki, wind­ing close to red­line in sec­ond or third gear be­fore brak­ing and back­ing the bike into tight turns. The anti-lock brakes on the V-strom can’t be turned off, but re­mov­ing the ABS fuse is an ex­cel­lent work­around. Crankshaft Junc­tion to Jack­ass Flats was a blur—fast and fun. Not off-road, mind you, just a good dirt road. The Suzuki was in its el­e­ment.

We needed truth. So we stopped, I opened the tank and did the old slosh test. There was far less fuel than the op­ti­mistic gauge im­plied. We never would have made it. In­stead, we turned and rode 25 miles to Big Pine for fuel.

The road to and from Big Pine is twisty and almost en­tirely paved. Here, the V-strom shone, eat­ing up 40 miles of sport tour­ing right in the mid­dle of a desert ad­ven­ture. Com­fort, wind pro­tec­tion, smooth­ness, ease of han­dling, even on these chunky knobby tires, made easy work.

Jeb was forced to fall in line as the sun dipped. His head­light glim­mered like a can­dle com­pared with the Suzuki’s daz­zling af­ter­mar­ket De­nali lights on high beam, which provided more than enough il­lu­mi­na­tion for the both of us. Our di­ver­sion meant that we spent a full two hours rid­ing in the dark to get back to base camp.

Were there times when Jeb left me in the dust be­cause of the V-strom’s lim­i­ta­tions? Yes, but I didn’t see that Husky in my mir­rors when I was pound­ing through those paved twisties to Big Pine. Would it have been smart for me to persevere over rocky Steel Pass? Prob­a­bly not, but the Suzuki was a ton of fun on the fast, smooth Sa­line Hot Springs road. The V-strom’s lim­i­ta­tions off-road are real, and the bike proved to be too much for a novice dirt rider to truly en­joy on any­thing much rougher than a gravel road. But work­ing within those pa­ram­e­ters, there’s a healthy amount of fun and ad­ven­ture avail­able to the en­thu­si­ast who doesn’t de­mand rally-level dirt com­pe­tence. The 650XT emerged from three glo­ri­ous days ex­plor­ing Death Val­ley without skip­ping a beat, and be­ing able to then hop on the high­way and cruise at 75 mph all the way home is a win­ning com­bi­na­tion for plenty of rid­ers. It’s no dirt bike, but that might be the best thing about it.

ABOVE: V-strom 645cc V-twin makes for fun in the sand. OP­PO­SITE TOP: Dirt bike and Ad­ven­ture bike, a still life. OP­PO­SITE BOT­TOM: Is this the light of heaven upon us?

OP­PO­SITE: Rusty equip­ment is part of the ad­ven­ture in Death Val­ley and Panamint. En­gine-mounted skid plate had its mo­ments. ABOVE: Ideal ad­ven­ture rid­ing and rus­tic signs to guide your path to free­dom.

TOP: Tat­tered his­tory pasted to the wall looks a lot like today. ABOVE: Two dif­fer­ent tools to ex­plore—both go far in dif­fer­ent ways. One makes for a great daily ride and ur­ban-es­cape de­vice, no trailer re­quired.

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