A long long time ago in a country far far away, Obi Wan Kenobi and his Ewok looking sidekick rode their Millennium Falcon sized motorcycles to the far reaches of Russia and beyond. The monstrosity of a motorcycle they rode was the BMW R1150GS Adventure and the motorcycle market was never the same.

Disclaimer: I blitzed the entire Star Wars Saga and saw the new one twice, hence the ridiculous references. You will be happy to know that they will not continue below.

The 1150GS’s production was halted in 2005 and the R1200GS was introduced, getting even bigger, heavier and with more power. Since then the Big ADV phenomenon has swept North America and Europe with 550lbs + dry weight ADV bikes flooding the market. In fact, in 2012 Cycle World called the R1200GS “the most successful motorcycle in the last two-and-a-half decades”. The big Beemer is not alone, every manufacturer is offering up a beefy ADV bike. The Yamaha Super Tenere, Triumph 1200 XC, KTM 1190, V-Strom 1000 and the list goes on. So what makes the bikes so successful and why shouldn’t you buy one?

Image Is Everything

While the Long Way series was hugely popular and in my opinion very entertaining and worth watching if you haven’t already, it may very well be responsible for the current mid-life crisis fad. Lawyers and accountants everywhere began looking out their office window and dreaming of a round-the-world adventure, the gypsy life, exploring the world and its culture in the saddle of a shiny new BMW. But not just that, the bike in their dream has knobbies and it is riding through the Sahara desert. It all sounds pretty romantic doesn’t it? But $25,000 and a few years later these big ADV bikes have not seen the coffee bean farms of Columbia; but rather have become quite familiar with the transient looking gal working as a “barista” at the local Starbucks.

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The bikes are the flag bearers for “escaping the norm” and becoming a “citizen of the world”. On the surface nothing says “hardcore moto-traveler” like a big ADV bike farkled to the nines. They look rugged and utilitarian and are sold as off-road machines. They have long suspension, big power plants, good clearance, and big tires. The issue = relatively speaking, they suck off-road.

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The Cost

The average rider simply cannot afford one. A R1200GSA starts at just under $17k and it does not end there. Farkles like crashbars, lighting, luggage and your gear can add another 5k in a heartbeat, especially when buying top of the line products seems to be mandatory for big ADV bikes. For that price you could buy 3 new KLRs and outfit them nicely. You could get a green one, a black one and a camo one and ride them depending on what mood you were in. Or you could open your own motorcycle tour company. Or you could by a brand new DR650 and a brand new FJ-09 and have money for a nice winter vacation. You get the picture. There are however cheaper options like the new V-Strom 1000 Adv which comes in at 14k and includes with some nice extras.

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Going on an Adventure?

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One of the best ride reports I have seen was by Xpat on ADVrider called African Safari (Prague to Cape Town), the narrative and pictures are phenomenal and I encourage you to read it and leave a comment. The RR, which remains to be completed, chronicles his solo trip in 2005/06 on his almost new GSA1150 through countries like Syria, Sudan, Tanzania, and eventually arriving in Cape Town, where he now calls home. Throughout the story he laments his bike choice. In fact, the whole thing starts with an introduction including him saying:

“The trip would have been much more fun on a 640 Adv, XT600, or DR650 to mention bikes available at the time, and of course riding using soft luggage”.

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He had everything the motorcycle industry wants you to believe you need for a proper adventure: a big expensive ADV bike, hard luggage, and even branded gear. However, when the riding gets tough he wants to “downgrade” his bike more badly than wanting a cold beer in a hot, dry Muslim country. And this isn’t someone riding in extreme off road conditions; this is someone on an true Adventure in every sense of the word. He travels on tarmac, dirt roads, and sand. The heavy, complicated and luxurious big ADV bike simply did not meet his needs.

Off-Roading & Dual Sport

“We have bumped into this guy going in opposite direction - I think he was actually South African. Even though he seemed to battle a bit with the heat, I cannot tell you how much envious I was of his set-up - this is how proper bike should look like and be set-up for this type of adventure (except for the helmet, I now only use open face helmet as it makes for much better comfort and contact with locals)“ – Xpat, African Safari (Prague to Cape Town).

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Riding a big ADV bike off-road takes a huge amount of skill and physical strength. For the average rider looking to explore aggressive off-road trails; the Big ADV will leave you exhausted and possibly with a big repair bill at the end of it all.

Somehow Dual Sport bikes got wrapped into this whole mess. DS bikes like the DR650, KLR650, and XR650 all got lumped into the same pile of “Adventure Bike” despite being different in every way possible than the bikes that coined the ADV phase. These bikes are the ones that are actually capable of Adventure.

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“about 60 km of this in Kenya heat has a way to highlight really clearly that GS is not an off road motorcycle” - Xpat

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Conclusion

The progression of ADV bikes continues to trend towards on-road touring. I am not saying these bikes are bad, not at all. They offer all day comfort via great ergonomics like upright seating, cool designs, and can be very fast and fun to ride on road and well-kept gravel routes. The case against these big berthas is simple…. Not As Advertised.

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So before buying yourself that big ADV bike and enrolling in the BMW Off-Road Academy, ask yourself what kind of riding will you really be doing? Perhaps it is a 650cc Dual Sport that you need for your off-road adventures, or a Yamaha FJ09 or Kawasaki Versys to pound the pavement with?


Photo Creds: Xpat on ADVrider used with permission. Thanks Martin.