A few opening ramblings…
First off, I currently ride a well-worn Suzuki V-Strom 650. The Strom is the first motorbike I ever purchased, and all its scars prove it helped me learn how to ride (at least that’s what I tell myself!). My V-Strom model is the older generation, not the more off pavement-oriented XT models the OEM started producing in 2015. I will list some of the things I used to beef up my older Strom model from an excellent street-oriented ride to a true ADV beast. I’m sorry, I have to say it… The only gripe I have on the new models is why did they change the headlight configuration?! It was unique! Everyone could tell a V-Strom by the look in its eyes when it was coming at you, those tall, pointy, side-by-side, angry bug-like eyes. They changed them to an over-under configuration along with a new extended beak, which both look similar to a few other ADV bikes…but I digress, back to my initial subject.
Truthfully just about any bike can be modified to make it more ADV-friendly. I ride a Wee and love it so that is my subject, but you can substitute any bike in there that you want (Wee is a weird nickname that V-Strom owners of the 650 kind came up with – I think because it is so fun you can’t help but yell “Wwweeee” whenever you ride it). Also to note, most people think of the V-Strom line as a glorified ADV bike, more of a street bike that you can also take on the occasional forest service road. If you look at the Spec Sheet compared to some of the more dirt-oriented ADV bikes, it’s hard to argue against that point. To name a couple, wheel travel and ground clearance limitations of the Wee make it harder when tackling the path less traveled, but not impossible.
So, what exactly is a cojone?
Arguably the most important things required to take a larger ADV bike on rugged terrain are your brains, your brawn, and your cojones (of the male or female version). I have played and coached a variety of sports and I can say that there is no way that I would have walked off the street into those activities and expected to be successful. As with any skill set you have to study the physics behind it, learn the techniques, and practice. Watching YouTubers and reading articles will only get you so far, taking an official class with a reputable company can be worth its weight in gold. A close second to taking an official course is partnering up with an experienced and patient riding buddy. Making sure that riding buddy knows what he/she is talking about can be a crap shoot but watching those videos and reading as many articles as possible should give you a good idea, along with how they carry themselves. If you are lucky enough to have started at a younger age on dirt bikes or dual sports, your experience will definitely transition into the ADV style. Finally, the more you do it, the better you will become: experience gained is wisdom earned.
ADV’ing is hard work so having a solid exercise routine is paramount. When the going gets tough you will enjoy the experience much more (and so will your riding buddies) if you don’t collapse out of exhaustion from picking up your downed bike multiple times which will definitely happen when you first start out, but more on that later. Plenty of articles out there on different workout styles but some combination of cardio, balance, and strength routines will come in handy. Personally, I like to throw in street bicycling, mountain biking, and dual sporting with my Husqvarna TE310 for a little cross training.
The other aspect of muscle would be practicing techniques. When you have split seconds to decide which line to take, muscle memory will help you pilot that bike through, over, or around the obstacle successfully. Take the time throughout the year and especially at the beginning of the season to work on ADV-oriented techniques such as slow maneuvers, balancing, weighting, power turns, skids, riding/powering over or through small obstacles, etc. I am lucky to have a few practice areas close to home that I can utilize but always take the time when I am out on the ride to consciously practice maneuvers. Your cojones will grow as you become a smarter and stronger rider, but make sure your cojones stay in check. Sometimes not attempting that log jump or river crossing is the right thing to do.
With studying, practicing, gaining muscle memory, and beefing up your endurance you will enjoy the hardships and use them as a learning experience fueling the next attempt at a difficult line. A couple years ago, I attended the Stolen Pig Rally down in the Hatfield-McCoy area of southern West Virginia. Not the first time I’ve ridden the Wee on ATV trails but my first time riding in the mud. I don’t mean a mud bog here and there, I’m talking a brown sloppy ribbon flowing for miles through the Appalachians.
Our first day on the Buffalo Mountain trails I struggled that heavy Wee up the mountain in several inches of mud with multiple brown water holes thrown in for good measure. The bike hit the ground at least six times, once on purpose due to cross rutting. I knew what I was getting into and had a big smile on my face throughout the whole experience. At the first exit point my riding buddy Brian on his Suzuki DRZ400 and I made the decision that the smart thing to do was bail on the trail, head back to the Rally for lunch, and take on the easier “Don McCoy Loop” through Kentucky. Sweaty, muddy, and fatigued we returned to camp as I rehashed the morning’s ride and thought about what I had learned. The next day with slightly dryer conditions, we completed a large loop on Buffalo Mountain and I successfully piloted the Wee through the remaining muddy and rutty patches without dropping the bike. Lesson learned.
Draining the bank accounts…
To get my Wee further off the beaten path the first few things that helped clear out the checking account were crash bars, reinforced hand guards, and adjustable mirrors. My riding buddy Gabe on his BMW F650GS and I took a trip down to Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest a couple years after I started riding. The bike took a nap on a graveled forest service road and my naked Wee took a beating. Dinged up paint, a broken turn signal, a cracked OEM plastic hand guard, and a bent-up mirror had me scouring the interwebs for a little protection.
Fast forward a few years and Gabe witnessed another gravel nap on a ride in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest but this time with the appropriate crash protection there was no damage to the bike. The reinforced Barkbusters hand guard took a bit of a scrape, the Touratech adjustable mirror adjusted itself away from the ground, and we had to yank the Givi crash bar out a bit but otherwise the bike was fine. Both bike dives happened in gravel but under different circumstances… a couple more lessons in the books.
A Wee and a KLR walk into a bar…
My riding buddy Brian and his Kawasaki KLR 650 were in the lead heading down one of the many drivable trails in Sproul State Forest, Pennsylvania. Not for the faint of heart, this stretch of madness was full of rocks, loose and embedded, of various size as well as other obstacles from ruts to downed tree branches. The tinks and the dinks kept coming as rocks clanged against my Happy-Trail skid plate, around my Touratech off-road fender, and off my S-W Motech radiator guard. Then suddenly, a loud clang from the skid plate rattled through the frame of the bike and into my hands… “Oohhh that’s gonna leave a mark”. Before heading to the next drivable trail, a quick look did not reveal any major issues except for mud covered headlights, which is an added benefit from the shorter stature of the off-road fender. Once home a closer look showed a large dent in the skid plate directly below a cracked and bent rear bracket. Brian knows what happens when you ride a V-Strom 1000 down that particular stretch of trail without a skid plate, engines tend to not like extra holes.
The ability to keep your feet comfortably planted on the pegs when you are riding is also a good thing. The OEM pegs have a thin profile and a rubber cover. These are great for street riding but not as comfortable when you need to stand for extended periods, as many ADV rides entail. The smaller diameter of the peg puts a lot of pressure on a small section of your foot which quickly becomes uncomfortable and adds to rider fatigue. When that rubber gets a bit wet it tends to get slippery too.
One of my earlier rides down through Wayne National Forest in southeast Ohio I found myself making a few water crossings with creeks swollen from the spring thaw. The deep rapidly flowing water pushed my foot right off the rubber and I awkwardly completed the crossing to the other bank wobbling on one leg. On another trip with wet and muddy conditions near Hocking Hills in Ohio, my foot slipped off the peg, but that time I could not keep the bike upright. After that experience, I laid down a couple bucks for a set of Pivot Pegz Mark 3’s. The wider, horseshoe shaped pegs tilt forward and backward making for easier shifting and braking along with a more comfortable ride on and off pavement as compared to the OEM setup. The multi-directional grip pattern of the teethed metal peg has also helped plant my foot on the bike through plenty of wet and muddy conditions since.
Center stands can be a nice addition to any bike. They help make chain maintenance or tire repairs easier, especially on the side of the trail. They can also lower the clearance of your bike and the tang can become a hazard that can catch your leg (I still have a lump where that sucker caught me at the Touratech Rally East a few years back). Each person would need to weigh the pros and cons and decide on which route to take. On a trip out West with my buddy Shane, we had the opportunity to test our trailside repair skills on his Suzuki DR650 and had made different decisions on the need for a center stand.
We were dropping into the desert out of Kaibab National Forest on a section of the Arizona Backcountry Discovery Route when I heard a disgruntled Shane over the Sena Bluetooth intercom. He reported that his bike was handling weird and there was a loud clanging noise coming from the rear. When he came to a stop, we could see a V-shaped metal spike protruding from his rear tire. “Hhhmmm, that’s not supposed to be there!” My bike has a center stand, his does not, so we grabbed several flat rocks and set his DR on top of them (much easier with his lighter bike!). After scavenging through his gear he couldn’t find his spare tubes. Not to worry, even though my Wee runs tubeless I always carry a set of tubes along with a tubeless repair kit. We removed the rear wheel, broke the bead with my Motion Pro BeadPro’s, and pulled one edge of the rubber over the rim. After yanking out the old tube and stuffing in the larger tube we plopped the tire back over the rim. My Dynaplug mini air compressor made short work of pumping it up then we slapped the rear wheel back into place and continued our journey.
Keep the Rubber Side Down!
Arguably the most important tool for the bike when talking ADV riding is the tire. The appropriate moto-shoes will help you run farther down the path, where the terrain gets more interesting. I was new to motorbiking when I picked up the V-Strom so my concentration was on street riding. A set of Michelin Anakee III’s were a perfect match for my first big trip with Gabe and his GS down to the Tail of the Dragon and the Back of the Dragon, with a few forest service roads thrown in for good measure. The Heidenau K60 Scouts helped me conquer increasingly rugged terrain as my off-pavement skills improved along with the help of ADV-specific training from Pine Barrens Adventure Camp. The Mitas E-07+ was a perfect match for my Mid-Atlantic Backcountry Discovery Route trip, all said and done covering 2000+ miles of sweet Appalachian terrain (on a round trip with various paved and unpaved conditions). My western trip with Shane called for another upgrade in rubber as I conquered Colorado’s Alpine Loop, which included six mountain passes on a set of Mitas E-07 Dakars. Shinko 804/805 Big Blocks helped me search for Sasquatch on a few rough Jeep trails in Wayne National Forest near Marietta, Ohio and then again at the Wailin’ Wayne Weekend rally on the Monday Creek OHV trails near Nelsonville. Ideally, if you are going to head off pavement you should look for at least a 50-50 tire (street-dirt). The further off the beaten path, the more that ratio should slide to the right.
Hard or soft? Another hot topic question…
I started with OEM hard cases on the Strom. They helped me not have to pick the bike up as far whenever we went over and helped protect the contents (again, reference Boone picture above). After beating on them through my newbie years, one of the cases no longer locks and I have to use a Rok strap to keep it closed (yep, I will still use them on rare occasion). I picked up a set of Nelson Rigg Adventure Dry Saddlebags recently and they have worked great keeping my stuff dry even in torrential downpours. They have also stood up very well when the bike gets horizontal.
Generally, when travelling through populated areas the hard cases are better at providing security as you can lock them and not worry about anything walking off. The soft bags are definitely better if you will be running through more challenging terrain as they will not smash your leg up if the bike goes down and they will take a bit more of a beating. With either set-up, there is plenty of space for camping equipment and supplies to last as long as you need to live on the road. A bonus of having a rack system is the protection offered to the rear of the bike. I’m pretty sure the rack has saved me from major exhaust damage on several occasions.
F.A.R.K.L.E. – Fancy Accessory Really Kool Likely Expensive
The items and farkles I list are the products I landed on, there are many options out there that can work better, worse, or just as good. Each rider will have to decide what is important for him or her to add and how much cash he or she will want to throw down. A few other miscellaneous items to consider that I’ve picked up are handlebar risers, kickstand foot enlarger, and a DrySpec tube/bottle.
I went with Touratech 30 mm risers that let me stand more comfortably and with less fatigue due to the upright riding position. Another thing I did when adding the risers was to point the clutch and brake levers slightly down to accommodate comfortable hand and forearm positioning in either the standing or sitting position. My S-W Motech foot enlarger helps keep the kickstand from planting into the ground when I must park in the softer surfaces of trails or campsites. A DrySpec tube and bottle comes in handy to carry extra gas when the distance between fuel stops is beyond the range of the Wee or as gas for my camping stove. If I’m riding where there are plenty of gas stops or I’m not planning on cooking, the tube can also be used to carry various items such as extra tools, gear, chain lube/cleaner, etc. Gabe actually rigged his own tool carrier using PVC pipe and twist off caps. Either way it’s always handy to have a little extra space.
I have a list of items on a spreadsheet that I consult before planning for a ride. Depending on the type and length of the ride including the potential overnight accommodations (rustic or modern), I will pick my pack accordingly. Some items always make the cut and they include a small-customized first aid kit with blood loss control (quick clot pads and a tourniquet), extra Rok straps, duct/electrical tape, customized tool roll (including small vice grips), tire repair items, a mini jump starter, and various sized zip ties. If I’m planning on hitting the trail I will also carry a collapsible shovel to help get me out of any sticky situations (FYI, I’ve had to use it twice so far, which is definitely not a testament of skill). I will also bring my BestRest Motorcycle Recovery System if I end up getting the bike in a place where I can’t dig or muscle it out. I may not need these items but maybe one of my riding buddies or a random stranger will. And just like the wise and noble Angus MacGyver, sometimes you will have to use those items in weird and unusual ways.
Riding Gear… oh boy
This rabbit hole is probably its own article so I will just throw down a few points. I generally have three base set-ups. I have a cool weather setup, a warm weather setup, and a trail riding setup. Full-length textile pants and jacket with quality lightweight armor such as D3O are the best cool weather gear. Perfect when used with base layers to take you down into the 30’s of winter or up to the 60’s of spring/fall with lighter under gear and open vents. Mesh pants and jacket with armor are great for the warm weather riding of late spring to early fall. The trail riding setup includes beefier armor, something more like a dirt bike or dual sport style, and in-the-boot mesh pants. It is the same premise for gloves as far as padding and variations of thickness. The armor and selection of gear can be interchangeable between each set up depending on the weather and type of riding. Something else to keep in mind in reference to weather, some items can include rain protection but there are rain covers out there that can go over your gear (i.e. rain jackets designed to fit over your riding gear).
Helmet and boots are probably the most important items for your body. I have both an ADV helmet (geared more towards the street side) and an off-road helmet (better ventilation for when you are working hard). I can choose depending on the type of ride. Same goes with the boots, if the planned ride is aggressive then the beefy off-road boots are used. If you are on a budget then I recommend your helmet and boots are the place to not skimp. Foot/lower leg and head wounds (including eyes so don’t forget goggles with that off-road helmet) are common and providing the best protection here will give you a better chance at avoiding, or at least minimizing, injury.
Safety in numbers, even from a distance!
Something to consider, especially if you plan on riding alone, is to let people know where you are going and having a way to get in touch with someone when cell service is sparse or non-existent. I pre-plan a majority of my rides and track out routes using Google My Maps that I then load to my Garmin 64st GPS. I will drop a route down along with a bunch of different POIs such as camping locations, gas stations, weird roadside attractions, scenic vistas, etc. (but I do leave room in there to explore). Before I jump on my iron steed and ride into the sunset, I will email my route plan to the wife so she has a general idea of where I will be playing.
Another great item to consider is the Spot Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger or a similar device. I use the Spot on just about all of my rides. Along with the messaging function, it also tracks my location in real time and throws down a pinpoint every 2.5 minutes. The points load to my account on their website and I can share access to it with the family. It is not a 2-way communicator but it does allow customized messages that I can email and/or text to whomever I want. I set up one message to state I am heading out, one that says I am done riding for the day, and one that lets people know that I am not hurt but need someone to come to my last known location to help me out (breakdown, out of gas, etc.).
Get yourself into some real hot water? The SOS button is set up to call in the cavalry when the going truly gets tough. The Spot people link up with the local search and rescue, giving them your last GPS coordinates, so they can come and find you. In any case, if you are out there and nobody hears from you for a while your people will have your last known location. This way, they can get someone out to find you if you do not have the ability to work the Spot tracker. No matter how you look at it, having GPS messaging and tracking capabilities are a solid peace of mind for both my family and me.
Maintenance, a dirty job that needs done…
A quick note on maintenance, keep on top of it. If you are handy, do it yourself (definitely cheaper). If not, know when to ask a buddy for help or when to call in the professionals. Since I am no mechanic, I bought the Haynes Manual for my Strom. I will reference it when troubleshooting or attempting a maintenance item that I am not 100% familiar with performing. YouTube and OEM specific discussion boards can also come in handy as other references. Hard riding will mean you may need a quicker turnaround on routine maintenance items such as oil changes, air filter changes, wheel bearings, chain and sprocket replacements, brake pads, brake fluid, etc. You will also need tools customized to your particular brand of bike (i.e. standard vs. metric).
Attitude is everything…
Regardless of all that stuff above, if you want to take an ADV bike off pavement you must have a willingness to fall and a positive attitude. You have to be willing to push the limits of your bike and your skills. If you don’t believe in your head and in your cojones that you can do something then do yourself a favor and don’t even attempt it, you will fail. You have to believe that you can do something and visualize victory if you want to succeed. But guess what, sometimes you will still falter. The key is that you have to have the attitude that everything is a learning experience that will eventually make you a better rider.
People join the ADV community for the sense of adventure as well as to challenge themselves physically and mentally. It is not easy and not everyone can do it or wants to, to each his/her own. The only way to find out if you can is to take the plunge and give it a try. Stay positive, pay more attention to the small victories over the bad stuff and learn from your own mistakes (and from the mistakes of others). That being said, you should perform an after action report after each ride, what went well and what didn’t. Do the good stuff again and again (muscle memory comes from repetition). Learn something from what didn’t and make adjustments for it the next time.
There is an inherent risk in riding an ADV bike off-pavement; it is a matter of personal preference for the risk versus reward. Do not be fooled, there is a potential risk for damage to your bike or your person. If you do not think the risks are worth it or if you do not want to risk getting your bike a little dinged up, then stay on the easygoing forest service roads or the tarmac. If you do take the risk you have to be prepared to have rough days, you have to be prepared to pick your bike up a few times, and you have to be prepared for adversity. The reward for making it through the adversity will lift your soul. Who needs therapy when you have two wheels, regardless of where they take you. However, there is nothing like taking your ADV bike where few others dare to tread.
Wee-Strom: Street Bike or True ADV?
So, what is the answer to that question? For me, the answer is both. The mighty Wee is excellent for short- or long-haul Adventure Touring with its comfortable upright riding position and amazing handling. Load it up with farkles and you can drag those pegs on any of those excellently twisty pavers out there, ride comfortably on the interstate, and pull up looking cool at any Starbucks. Throw down a few bucks on appropriate off-road extras and veer off that twisty tarmac onto the less travelled dirt and gravel roads with confidence. Oh wait, what’s that, a trail over there? Oh yeah, let’s go…
Disclaimer: I am no expert, I still make mistakes, I get myself in sticky situations, but I enjoy the hell out of every experience and try to learn as much as I can to help me improve my skills. I think you are doing something wrong if you are not actively trying to challenge yourself and learn something every time you are out there…
A shorter version of this article was originally posted to the Bike Bandit Blog in October 2018.
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