Thinking About a Dual Sport
I'm starting to look around for a dual sport motorcycle. Our corner of NW Montana is proper farm and ranch country. The peer pressure to own some form of off-road sport vehicle can be, at times, crushing. I grew up riding farm bikes around the endless canal roads surrounding my grandparent's Eastern Washington farm. Those were some of my fondest memories as a kid. When I say "fondest", I mean, like, way more fun than winning a state title in baseball. Back then, I would spend whole days on Grandpa's 1975 Honda Trail 90, Uncle Terry's late '80s DR 250, Ulfwengren's original 3-wheeler, and Becker's unkillable RM125. Grass trails, dusty roads, gravel, alfalfa fields - everything was in play.
The BMW R80G/S (c. 1982) is considered by many to be the original dual sport bike.
The "dual sport" bike seems the right choice for me today. Dual sports have both on-road and off-road capabilities. You can put a license plate on them or you can drive them deep into the mountains. Twenty-five years ago we called these "enduros", back when the term dual sport wasn't really a thing. This class of bikes falls in between the raw, screaming motocross bikes seen launching ramps and sliding around dirt-berm tracks (i.e., KTM 250 SF-X) and the much larger, more comfortable "adventure touring" bikes that can take you literally around the world (i.e., see the movie Long Way Around). Nearly everything on a dual sport can be upgraded, improved, or otherwise modified. While I personally have little interest in bike mods, a lot of serious riders really get into swapping out and adding cool new parts and accessories ("mods", "farkles") to improve their bikes. Ah, the quest for the perfect motorcycle is never ending.
As a young rider, I never really pushed my luck, though I had my share of wrecks. Dozens in fact, but never a serious injury. Being kids, we stuck to the grassy orchard trails of the Island and the dusty tractor paths of Connell. I recall low siding under a taught wire fence on the CT 90. Flying over the bars after hitting an aluminum standpipe at speed. Watching my friend launch full speed into the canal when he mistook the shift lever for the brake. Spraying Gumout in my eye and countless other flops and endos.
My worst mishap was the time I got spun up in a mess of loose barb wire someone chucked into a dry ditch I happened to cross while traversing the Bailey place near Mesa. I spent the entire afternoon in 100 deg temps and a cloud of choking dust unspooling yards of that wire from both axles and the sprocket. It was so tangled up, I couldn't move the bike two feet. Having no tools with me, I went to work with bare hands, bending the individual strands of wire back and forth until each broke free. If worked 4" at a time. Try that sometime. By the time I jerked the last strand free, my finger tips were trashed, but the bike kicked over and I rode it home no worse for wear, though I was a bit late for dinner. I was 12 years old and it was a benchmark event in my young life, one that convinced me that I could do "impossible" things given a little gumption and enough daylight.
What I Want in a Dual Sport Motorcycle
- A reasonably-priced, used bike for which I will pay cash
- Not obscenely heavy (350 lbs or less); full-sized touring bikes are ridiculous
- A reliable, proven design with a straightforward maintenance schedule (i.e., a Japanese bike)
- My usage will likely be 80% road and 20% trail
- Must be able to ride 200 highway miles in a day without feeling tortured
- Must withstand tip overs without crushing a bunch of goofy plastic cladding, thus a "dirt bike"
- Not looking to modify cosmetics much - maybe Bark Busters, a better seat, and panniers
- Happy to compromise speed, suspension, and gearing for other factors (price, condition)
- Prefer fuel injection and electric start, but its not a deal breaker
- I want one bike that does it all well enough, one that I can ride anywhere, trouble-free for many years
Option #1: YAMAHA XT 250 ($2000-$4000 used, $5400 new)
The XT is a true farm bike - slow, comfy, reliable, simple. The EFI and electric start are the only modern features on it. It offers really good ground clearance, reliability, and light weight. Basically, this bike fills the niche that the Honda Trail 90 did back in the '70s. That is, changing irrigation lines, running parts to and from the barn, and delivering paychecks to the field crew on Friday. Its the perfect no-nonsense grocery-getter, but I shudder to think how my ass would feel after a 350-mile trip to the Columbia Basin. At $5300 off the showroom floor, XTs certainly remain in demand with the agricultural crowd, which is actually not a surprise in this neck of the woods. A 45-year old Trail 90 will still run you $1500. The XT is the lowest-performing bike on my list. Nevertheless, its made the list, while WR, KLX, XR, XL, TW, TTR, BMW, and KTM models did not. If my neighbor was getting rid of a well cared for XT that had been squirreled away in a barn for the past decade, I'd happily pay him what he asked for it.
Category: Off-road and back road oriented
YAMAHA XT 250
Option #2: Honda CRF 250 L Rally ($5300 used, $6200 new)
The Rally is a new model from Honda. It is one of a growing class of "light adventure" bikes that is based on their proven CRF250L, but offers some of the good looks and modern technology of the up-scale flagship of Honda's line, the Africa Twin. Simplicity, cost, and lower weight of the 250cc class is attracting both new riders and older riders. The small adventure touring bike is a hot spot for innovation for the Big 5 manufacturers right now (Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Yamaha, BMW).
The Rally is a beautiful bike with trusted Honda build quality, a windscreen, some useful electronicals, EFI, and an electric start. Its reportedly soft suspension and typical dirt bike seat height don't bother me at all. The deal breaker, if there is one, is the sticker price and a distinct lack of used models currently available. I have to believe that in coming years every manufacturer will be making something similar to the CRF250L Rally, and perhaps doing it even better than Honda.
HONDA CRF 250 L RALLY
Option #3: DRZ 400 ($3000-$4000 used, $6700 new)
The DRZ is a bullet-proof and well-sized dirt bike. People love these tough little thumpers and there are quite a few for sale within a day's drive of my house. Yes, its got a carburetor, but its a good one. Yes, its just a 400, but its got a lot more grunt than the 250s and is nearly the same size. At 320 lbs., its a light-middleweight. Its hard to find much wrong with the dirt-loving DRZ, except for its ability to comfortably keep up with highway traffic. The right tires would be key to enjoying longer highway commutes. But even then...
Category: Off-road oriented
SUZUKI DR-Z 400
Option #4: SUZUKI DR 650 ($3000-$4500 used, $6600 new)
The DR 650 is a full-sized motorcycle, capable of just about anything. The venerable DR has been manufactured for decades and remains largely unchanged since its introduction in 1990. Its a simple, proven workhorse of a bike that can be improved with modifications (muffler, forks kit, seat, gauge cluster, doo-hickey, tank). Both significantly heavier and more powerful than the Rally and XT, it is also more stable and much more capable on the highway than the DR-Z. It is heavier than the 250cc and 400cc bikes, which is a strike against it, but still hangs in there around 350 lbs. Its got a carburetor and looks distinctly old school, but there are tons of them for sale and pricing is not a huge barrier. It needs the upgrades everyone recommends, lacks modern electronic gadgets, sits at a good height, and there are warehouses full of OEM and aftermarket parts available. Hard to find many faults with this bike other than its looks.
Category: Off-road and shorter-trips on-road
SUZUKI DR 650
Option #5: Kawasaki KLR 650 ($3000-$6000 used, $6600 new)
The tractor-like KLR, though renowned as the "do-it-all dual sport", has never caught my eye. In its most recent configuration it scores just shy of dorky. But there are hundreds of KLRs on the US market with many reasonably priced bikes available near my house. KLR owners gush about their KLRs - most of the time for good reasons. The bikes are a bit more road-oriented than others on this list, which, if I were honest, would probably suit me better than the more dirt-oriented bikes (insert sad face here). The bike is plenty torquey, speedy, and adequately suspended for my needs, despite what some might say. I feel like I may end up buying a used KLR, but if I do get one, I will a.) not be joining any of those dorky online forums, and b.) eventually upgrade to something a bit more refined with a soul.
KAWASAKI KLR 650
Option #6: Suzuki V-Strom 650 XT ($2500-$6500 used, $8500 new)
"I don't often travel the Alaska Highway, but when I do, I ride a V-Strom." This bike is gorgeous, capable, probably more machine than I will ever need, and a bit pricey. The V-Strom is a modern middleweight ADV with tons of great features, though Suzuki did make some compromises. Namely, the front fork, foot pegs, muffler, air filter location (beneath gas tank), and stock engine guard (plastic), but I can easily look past all of these shortcomings. Its hard to find a major fault with this bike, other than price, which is actually low in comparison to other models in its class. It is unlikely I would ever upgrade from this bike to something larger. The next step up would be the Triumph Tiger 800, which costs as much as my Tacoma. The V-Strom is tempting, but its pretty big and pretty spendy. For now, I'll just have to make due by sitting on the one in the showroom from time to time, twisting the grip, and making vroom-vroom noises as the salesman slowly shakes his head. Needless to say, this is by far the highest-performing, most road-oriented motorcycle on my list.
Category: "Soft road"
SUZUKI V-STROM 650 XT
Option #7: Honda CB500X ($5500 new)
A sensible choice in a perfect little package. The cost-saving compromises made at the factory are not deal breakers. Its Honda, after all, arguably the smartest vehicle manufacturer in the world. They make Acuras. The aftermarket Rally Raid kit can easily be installed to improve off-road handling - if you just can't stand it bone stock. But why would you do anything to change the CB500X? Its everything the V-Strom is not and the new model promises the needed upgrades. This is an absolute peach right off the assembly line.
Category: "Soft road"
HONDA CB 500 X
The Honda CRF250L Rally and the Suzuki DR650 are my two top picks, with the CB500X taking the bronze. All three are re road trip worthy, though a few upgrades might be needed to improve comfort. All have good gearboxes and great reputations for durability. One is a refined version of a proven dirt bike, another is a burly all-rounder with endless potential, the third is a perfect commuter. I'll save up for awhile before plucking mine off the lot and heading south to Ushuaia.
EveRide's 2019 Study
Recently, YouTube's dual sport spokesman, eveRide, compiled a long list of user opinions on their dual sport motorcycles. The study elicited feedback regarding on-road performance, off-road performance, and price. He included the following bikes in his Top 7 List of Dual Sports, 5 of which made my list as well:
Suzuki DR-Z 400
Suzuki DR 650
Suzuki DL 650 V-Strom
Kawasaki KLR 650
* I learned everything I know about motorcycles from CT90s, Jim Becker, and YouTube.