Harley Sportster Project: Adventure Tourer Planning

For folks not following on Instagram, I brought home a new (to me) motorcycle a couple of weeks ago. “Charlotte” is a 2006 Harley-Davidson Sportster 883 Custom with about 9,000 miles on the clock. For anyone that followed the Dirtster Project stories, it goes without saying I have a soft spot for Evolution engine Harleys. I wrote a bit about leaving “the cruiser life” when I started lusting after the Triumph Tiger. My perspective on my “preferred” riding experience remains the same, however, I believe I’ve become a bit more “self-aware” over the last 6 odd years.

On any day of the week, if I’m riding the Scrambler to work, commuting across Dayton, through a decade-old construction zone, and playing a little fast and loose with traffic laws. I know better, but I’m apparently too childish to change, or simply fall prey to my frustration and emotions regarding inattentive drivers, and nonsense traffic patterns. With that, several solid seasons of maintaining dirt bikes has worn down my patience. I obviously know my Triumph inside and out, and after replacing clutch packs, sight glasses, wheel bearings, and who knows what else, I’d much rather be riding than wrenching.

What if I could buy a motorcycle that’s about as needy as a car? All I need to do is buy oil, gas, and tires? Hydraulicly adjusted valves, belt drive, and slow-wearing tires? Sure, that sounds good about now. Unlike the sanitized cabin of a car, what if I could feel like I was going fast when I’m actually going slow? Having driven a “Deuce-n-a-half” while working for Uncle Sam, there’s something to be said for being “actively engaged” in the driving process. Here’s the thing, you only have so much attention you can devote to anything. The more raw and “stimulating” the experience, the less attention you can focus on something else. A rubber mount Sportster shakes and vibrates at idle. The carburetor adds a very specific “character” to the riding experience, at least that’s what I like to call it when it’s coughing in protest of the low temperatures. Three paragraphs to say, I want to embrace a more “relaxed” riding experience on the street… at least for a while.

Current State of Affairs

Being a 16-year-old used motorcycle, Charlotte has no shortage of aftermarket parts and previous owner “modifications”. Forward controls were stock on the 883 custom, it also has drag bars, no front turn signals, speedometer hood, fender accents, custom rear brake light, special license plate bracket, a leather tank “accent”, custom grips, and other chrome odds and ends. Horses for courses… I want to return this bike to stock form (less forward controls) as much as financially prudent.

Ergos

The forward controls with drag bars really irritate my back. That’s one of the reasons I started to outgrow the Speedmaster. Unfortunately, the reach from the Harley seat to the bars is especially long, making it more uncomfortable. I’m hoping a cheap bar swap to something closer to stock fixes this. While shipped from the factory with forward controls, I’ve been looking around at all kinds of online flea markets in search of mid controls for this model. Aside from an ironing board seat, I was really happy with the cockpit ergos on the Dirtster, I could see that being a possible solution long-term, but I’m going to get these bars swapped for cheap asap and see if that makes it more ridable in the meantime. Mid controls, despite being used are gonna set me back almost $200.

Suspension

This is where my vision for this bike has divergent ends. As one could imagine, one of Harley-Davidson’s current challenges is that they’re known for emphasis on form over function. The “Sport” has been systematically removed from the “Sportster” over the decades as “slammed” suspension and loud pipes seemed to take priority over “rideability”. That said, the “lowered” rear shocks, and I suspect, softer or lower front forks mean I don’t ride this bike nearly as fast as her British stablemate. That does accomplish my intent to “enjoy the experience” a bit more, but functionally I want to get some progressive 13-inch shocks on the back of this bike straight away. As I said, the best I can tell, the front end looks like it’s sitting lower in the 5-inch stroke when I sit on it than I believe it should. I don’t know for sure, but it may have a set of lowering springs in it, it’s likely long overdue for a fork service. Either way, I may spend the Benjamin it will take to drop some fresh progressive springs into the forks along with new fluid.

Luggage

Top boxes are the ugliest thing you can do to a motorcycle while simultaneously the most functional. I love the function of a tail bag on a cruiser. I have the intention of commuting on this street bike as much as possible, and I hate, excuse me, “loathe” wearing a backpack, so I need a solid place to put my lunch and a change of clothes on this Sporty right now. It currently has one of those leather “tool roll” type bags zip-tied to the bar riser, which works for a garage door opener, but here’s a shocker, it’s ugly as sin to my eyes. I’m on the fence about how long I want to preserve the “form” of this machine. I say that as I keep a tank bag on the Scrambler almost permanently now. The leather fringe “accent” the previous owner put on the tank is fugly, and it’s glued down to the tank. I started to pull it off, but I’m not sure just yet how to remove the soft glue and I have a strong suspicion it’s hiding a scratch in the paint. Ultimately I want it off the tank and I’ll put down a piece of clear vinyl to protect the tank and drop a tank bag on it for long weekends.

Wind Protection

Long-time readers know I’m not a big fan of windshields. With the drag bars, I can ride on the highway without a windshield pretty easily… but there’s no way I’m tolerating this setup for long. Once I have mid-controls installed, I expect I’ll feel a lot more pressure on my arms and chest and I’ll be looking for a solution. Per my go-to, I’m likely to buy or fabricate a flyscreen for the Sporty. Dart makes a great screen, unfortunately, they don’t seem to offer the larger Marlin screen for the Sportster. It’s entirely possible the standard screen will work just fine, it’s obviously been quite functional on the Scrambler for tens of thousands of miles at this point, but we’ll see if the ergos work out on the Sporty.

Long-Term Vision

For right now I want a bare-bones commuter and weekend motorcycle. I want to spend as much time as I can riding with my Dad, go see my Grandma, and generally have a bike that’s in the garage and ready to ride at any moment the mood strikes me. That said, long-term I want to build a utilitarian long-distance touring bike. Are there better solutions? Absolutely there are. Are they as simple as a carbureted Sportster? Perhaps; but few of them have hydraulicly adjusted valves. Oil changes can be done in a parking lot, belts can last up to a hundred thousand miles, and while carbs are finicky, with so few wires and sensors, it’s much easier to work on a carb’d bike when the time comes.

To be more specific, to build a comfortable touring machine, I want to upgrade the suspension, swap wheels out for better tire choices, find suitable luggage that makes living off the bike easier, and fine-tuning the ergonomics to ensure the bike is all-day comfortable for weeks at a time. Helping Jeff build Ripley The Dirtster offered a wealth of knowledge on both building a purpose-built Harley, but also in how to work on a motorcycle. The recent updates to Rosie the Scrambler were heavily influenced by my experience working with Jeff.

There’s no doubt that a “touring” motorcycle in my mind is an “Adventure Touring” motorcycle, but I don’t want to take it to the same level of off-road capability we did with Ripley. Five to six inches of Suspension travel will likely be plenty assuming the springy bits are set up properly for my weight and intended use. There are a myriad of front suspension options for the Sporty, from Ohlins and Andreani fork cartridges, Traxxion Dynamics Damper rods, emulators, and springs, and who knows what else. Progressive makes a (non-adjustable) fork cartridge kit as cheap as $250 for the sporty, while a set of fully adjustable Andreani kit is around $700. Ideally, I’d lean toward an adjustable solution, but Rosie’s spring damper forks have worked well so far. On the back end, the story is the same. 13.5” rear shocks are under $400 if I’m not picky; inversely I can spend a pretty penny on piggyback shocks from multiple brands that are close to two grand. I want to be able to firmly put my feet on the ground, especially if I’m on the road for a week at a time, so ride height is important, but my biggest concerns are comfort and ergonomics, the 2 inches of shock travel I have now is laughably bad.

Speaking of “adventure touring”, I’m on the fence about having the wheels re-laced with dual 17’s for better street rubber, or springing for more ADV-friendly 19”/17” buns. Right now the Sporty is wearing a 21” front wheel and a 16” rear. The 21” front has lots of cruiser and dirt tire options, but that 16” rear is pretty limiting if I want sport-touring rubber. I bring up all of this because for as thrifty as cruiser tires can be long-term (I got like 16,000 miles out of a rear tire on my Speedmaster), they generally suck in the rain and cold. I may try out a set of Pirelli Night Dragons and so on to see how those shake out, but I have a strong suspicion that long-term I’ll be trading the stock rear wheel for a spoked wheel and have them re-laced with more ADV oriented wheel sizes.

Luggage is a whole new conversation; I’m generally a proponent of soft luggage, especially for adventure and off-road riding. That said, I admit I’m interested in having lockable luggage for a bike that I expect to see spend most of its life on pavement. Considering it’s a Harley, the solutions are virtually infinite, from lockable HD replica hard bags to ultra-utilitarian hard panniers from Tusk or Givi. Fiberglass replica Harley “bags” would match the aesthetics better, but might prove a bit delicate if I find myself burning down a dirt road in Utah. I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Ultimately I see a blend of the “Burly Scrambler” and my Triumph. Right now I want to keep the belt drive for functionality, but I want the best tire options I can get to burn up the pavement rain or shine. Similar to Rosie, I expect to see Charlotte experience an evolution in form and function over time. I think the ultimate goal will be a V-twin Scrambler with bags, 15″ rear shocks, cartridge forks, heated grips, mid controls, comfort seal, upright ergos, and a dashboard full of navigation tools. I don’t think I’ll be an Iron Butt Rally competitor, but I’d like the machine to be capable of such a feat.

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Triumph Scrambler Project: Stage 4 Upgrades

Somewhere in late 2020, I started writing this update on the status of Rosie the Scrambler and it “got lost in the move”. At any rate, a buddy of mine asked me the other day if I planned on posting something that covered all the stuff I’ve done to the Scrambler since I’ve had it. As I’m publishing a library of “scrammy knowledge” here on the blog, it seemed fitting to post that update here first.

Springy Bits

Somewhere during “3 months to slow the spread” a buddy sent me a screenshot of A&J Cycles selling a suspension kit for the 865 Scrambler. Considering I hadn’t driven my Jeep in months, the wife didn’t seem too upset about me spending saved gas money on a suspension upgrade I’d been putting off for years. I’d put something like 66,000 miles on the Hagon 2810 shocks and they were pretty much tapped at that point. For folks interested, I have advised elsewhere and will continue to say, I wouldn’t buy the 2810s again. They were a good shock for $375, but I would scrape together another $150 and buy a better set for your Triumph twin if given the opportunity.

Anywho, A&J was selling a set of Ohlins S36 TR538 twin shocks, Ohlins fork springs, Free Spirit +30mm travel kit, and Ohlins fork pre-load adjusters for a bundled price. The parts were gently used for like 500 miles or less so I jumped on them. I’d been wanting to add the extra travel to the front forks for a long time, essentially giving the front end of the bike 6″ of overall travel. Equating that at the back of the machine is still a bit elusive, but at the moment, the new Swedish shocks add a little extra over stock, along with increasing the overall length to balance out the gains in the front. The bike handles better on the road and also gains a significant lean angle now that the entire bike is an inch taller.

After the upgrade, the bike leaned over on the kickstand significantly. I drilled a hole in the foot of the stand and bolted a 1″ piece of Delrin rod to the bottom of the foot to get the bike back to a more acceptable lean angle. There are more elegant solutions for this problem, but the “puck” on the bottom of the kickstand also serves as a wider footprint to avoid sinking in the mud.

Pegs

After the suspension upgrade, I took the Scrammy to Red River Scramble 2020. While blasting around contrary creek below Lago Linda Hideaway, I cut a corner a little too close and my left peg had a run-in with a healthy log. I kept the bike up and enjoyed the rest of the day, but my foot was a bit sore for the next week and I swore the bike felt funny. When I got home I realized I’d bent the aluminum mounting point in the Joker Machine pegs I’d installed back in phase 2.

Up to this point, I was actually sharpening the teeth on the Joker Machine pegs every so often as they were wearing down with use. I was actually thinking about replacing them when the universe intervened. I had my eye on the SW-Motech pegs, however, due to supply chain issues I couldn’t find them anywhere. Fortunately, I stumbled on Pivot-Pegz while googling alternatives. Originally I wasn’t a big fan of Pivot-Pegz; I felt like they would be unnerving as your feet rotate forwards and backward with the bike for like 15 degrees or something. After riding my buddy Krey’s CRF450L with pivot pegz, I was sold. In the end, the Pivot Pegz struck me as higher quality and better looking than what was offered from SW-Motech for Triumph twins, and the price was the same so it turned out to be a win-win. That also combined with the fact the Pivot Pegz are a shade higher than the stock or Joker Machine pegs which adds just a hair more ground clearance.

Bars

I’ve hated the chrome bars on the Scrambler since day one. After endless winter riding and living outside the chrome was starting to rust, and there’s no doubt the steel was heavy. I don’t even recall the circumstances, but I had an ADV-rider thread pinned with compatible bars sizes so I was already primed when the time came to pull the trigger. While I hated the chrome, I had always liked the stock bar dimensions, so I wanted to stay as close to that as I could. Ultimately I went with the Pro-Taper ATV high bend. The stock bars were 7/8″ and both sets of risers I have are also 7/8″ so I skipped out on the “far-bar” options, while I do prefer those over the traditional crossbar. The crossbar makes it slightly more difficult to mount your phone on the bars and so on, but it’s a worthy compromise at this stage.

Beefier Handguards

When I mounted the Tiger 800 handguards on the Scrambler, lots of wisdom on the internet said “that cheap plastic won’t protect your bike in a fall!”
While that proved partially correct, I know many tiger owners with significant slides where those handguards protected their bike just fine. Ultimately I wanted harder wrap-around protection that would be more robust against tree limbs and whatnot as my eyes were on taking the Scrambler deeper into the woods. The fact I lost the threaded bar ends of the stock bars also made this decision easy.

I was looking for a good set of Acerbis handguards but wasn’t entirely sure the fitment was going to be right so I decided to be “cheap” and buy a set of generic Tusk handguards. The universal fitment proved to be “one size fits most”, which left a bit to be desired initially. I took the aluminum guards to work, put them in a vice, heated them with a propane torch, and added a 10-degree bend at the end of the forward mounting point and now they fit great. Easy peasy.

Front Sprocket Cover

Way back when, I said I wanted to remove dead weight from the bike. There are no less than 4 retail options for replacement front sprocket covers for air-cooled Triumph twins on the market right now. Several of which leave the front open, which will naturally lead to chain lube and grime baking on the engine case. Rosie’s paint is far from factory finish at this stage, but I still don’t want to bake oil on the case if I can help it.

In the search for a suitable front sprocket cover, I had an inkling to make my own. Low and behold, a used front sprocket cover was available on eBay for $12. That’s over $100 cheaper than anything available from a retail store.

When the cover arrived, I dunked it into the solvent tank at work to get all the road grime and grease out of it. Fortunately, that also helped to remove some of the ungodly silver rattle-can paint adorned to it. Unfortunately, that revealed the ugly red rattle-can treatment it received beforehand. I took some “fine-line” tape and drew a line on the cover for where I wanted to cut loose the excess casting material and headed over to the band saw. With some patience and a lot of cutting and grinding, I got the cover down to an acceptable shape. Because I’m a stickler for originality, I decided to add a few “lightening” holes to the cover before final sand and paint. I put the cover in the blast booth to remove the ridiculous red in preparation for a fresh coat of black paint. To my surprise, some of the original black powder coat was still there. 4 coats of semi-gloss primer and it was ready for installation. I cut the cover in a manner that actually excluded the 5th mounting hole at the bottom. I wasn’t sure if that screw had any bearing on the subsequent cover, so I found a shorter bolt to take up its stead, painted it black, and plugged it in.

De-Chroming

Since I was already spending my lunch break in the shop, I decided it was time to remove the rusted chrome from the throttle body covers, along with applying a permanent coat of black paint to the headlight grill. I mentioned from day one I wanted to remove as much chrome as possible from the bike, and after enduring the Ride-365 challenge, the throttle body covers looked awful. Since I was already spraying the new sprocket cover, it was easy to toss these parts in the blast booth and give them a refresh. The anodized coating on the skid plate was also fading after thousands of miles of punishment from road grit and gravel. I decided to blast the skid plate as well, and instead of painting it, I liked the look of naked aluminum so I left it. Hopefully it holds up.

Rox Risers

Back in stage 1, I installed a set of 30mm bar risers from SW-Motech. Those have been good risers and comfortable for many years, but after the sale of the CRF250L, I retained the +50mm Rox Risers for use on the Scrambler. Ultimately, even with risers, my hand position is too close to my feet and I find myself jammed up over the tank when things get aggressive. To open the riding space, I’ve installed the Rox risers so I can rotate the bars forward for ADV riding, but also closer to the rider when I expect to spend days in the saddle. This of course creates another problem…

Brake Lines

While I’ve yet to ascertain the exact cause, I’ve spent a great deal of time fussing with the rear brake caliper on this bike. I don’t know if it’s loaded with dirt too often, neglected, or corroded after 80,000 miles, but the rear caliper sticks from time to time in after a rushed evening of fixing it in the dark, I foolishly forgot to re-apply a critical zip-tie that held the rear brake line down to the swingarm. Said brake line was subsequently smashed in the rear shock in the ride that followed and I’ve unfortunately been riding that way every since.

Per my comments above about rox risers, after adding 30mm of travel to the front forks and another 20mm of bar rise from where it was, the front brake line was totally tapped. Since I was already replacing the back brake line, I sprung for a new set of Spiegler Brake lines with an additional 3″ of length for the front. Installation was pretty straightforward, and tips to Spiegler, the rotation clamp and a pair of channel locks makes it super convenient to remove twist from the brake lines. That was definitely a tricky part of installing the rear brake relocation with the stock line years ago.

Front Fender

After installing the “fenda extenda” years ago, I was pretty happy with the front fender. Despite internet comments about mud being caked and stuck in low fenders on ADV bikes, I’m pretty aware of the fact that if most of these fat bikes are in mud and clay of that caliber… a low fender is losing altitude in the priorities list.

However… subtlety is not exactly my strong suit. When I started entertaining the idea of racing the Scrambler in the KXCR Adventure Class, I wondered if a high fender would be prudent… and if nothing else, look cool. I looked over the front forks for a bit and grabbed one of the three extra dirt bike fenders laying around in the garage and realized bending a bracket to adapt a dirt bike fender that would mount to existing holes for the rectifier would be pretty simple.

A piece of scrap metal and a $22 fender in hand (2015 KTM 350 XCf-w), installation and look turned out almost exactly what I had in mind. Admittedly the modern fender is a bit angular from the side, but weight and function is pretty much a wash. I now need to fashion a good oil cooler guard to prevent tray rocks from being problematic, and a “fender skirt” may be required, but thus far I’m happy with the result.

Rear Fender

I don’t know if I’ve hated the rear fender from go… (I did) but I know I’ve never liked the taillight assembly. This whole modification process was kicked off mid-winter when I pulled a piece of cardboard and laser-cut polycarbonate out of the drawer. With the help of a friend, I fabricated the plastic fender delete plate years ago but never got around to finishing it. A piece of plastic and a tail light bracket would be lighter and easy to install. Unfortunately, per my previous comments, I’ve always been concerned about wearing excess mud from deleting the fender. After the dirtbike front fender idea started taking shape, I debated the purchase of a rear dirt bike fender, considering replacement plastics are nearly all cheaper than plastic replica Triumph fenders or deletion kits.

Surfing the web I liked the look of the 2004 Suzuki RM125 rear fender so I decided to take a $25 gamble and buy one. The evening it showed up I immediately tore it out of the plastic to check the fit. I was shocked to find this plastic fender fit almost identically to the stock fender, but with an outward sweep instead of following the wheel contour. I drilled some holes in the fender to hold it in place with the stock fasteners and started bending a cardboard bracket to hold the taillight and indicators. The dirtbike fender had some excess plastic intended for rigidity and to be hidden behind the rest of the dirtbike plastics and airbox. I took a razor blade and trimmed the excess plastic and sanded the contour ever so slightly to make it smooth. Some metric fasteners and some blue Loctite and it was time to figure out how to make a tail light…

Light Emitting Diodes

Per my comments about the taillights, I’ve never liked any of the lights on this bike. The stock signals are stupid big, the ones the first owner mounted were subtle but riddled with Chinesium and aluminum oxide. The headlight sucks, but more on that later… So it was finally time to spend a few bucks and get this mess under control. Per my comments about the new tail fender, I bought a low-profile brake light and cheap LED indicators to replace the stockers (still Chinese… but plastic). A co-worker hooked me up with a piece of aircraft aluminum and I went to work with the bandsaw, a vice, and a hammer and made a bracket based on my cardboard template. Some black paint and a few more bolts and the lights fit as intended.

Wiring the new lights was naturally the next problem. The stock tail light assembly had specific connectors that didn’t match the equipment I bought. I debated with myself for a while, trying to decide if I wanted to cut the factory loom or not. As “old” as this bike is on the odometer, I took out a pair of dikes and cut the spaceship taillight loose, and got to work with my soldering iron.

The new tail section isn’t show quality by any means, but it’s functional and dramatically “better looking” in my eyes than the factory fender and adornments. With the new high fender, the straight rear “tail” matches the lines nicely and some marginal weight reduction to boot.

Exhaust

This is actually a Tarantino entry, at some point in 2018, I saw a friend install a set of Volkswagen Beetle exhaust tips on his Scrambler. I asked him about the make and model and ordered a set from Amazon myself. It was like a $35 investment but shaves like 14 pounds off the rear end of the bike. The weight loss is obviously a huge perk, especially after I had to have a co-worker tig weld the exhaust hanger a while back. On the flip side, the VW tips make the Scrambler extremely, arguably obnoxiously, loud. If you’re into loud pipes, it’s a solid choice considering the money. That said, I may bomb around town with the lighter exhaust for a while, but I typically go back to the TORs when I know I’m spending long days in the saddle.

What’s Next?

At this stage, I’ve accomplished nearly everything I had in my head about building an ADV bike out of a Scrambler. I admit I’m not 100% satisfied with the exhaust since the stock pipes are still a bit heavy and the VW pipes, while saving 14-pounds, are exceptionally loud. I hate the stock headlight, but I’m still a bit hesitant to shell out $500 for the LED unit I want, compounded by the fact I’m afraid all the wires won’t fit well in the tiny 5-3/4-inch headlight bowl. And lastly, I would really like to ditch the heavy, chrome, dented wheels for some purpose-built aluminum hoops, but that’s an $800 inventment, minimum. With 80,000 miles on the clock, another $2000-3000 in parts seems a little excessive… but can you put a price on your dream bike? Considering everything this bike has done and has still yet to do… it’s a perplexing question indeed.

Putting more Adventure into Moto Adventurer

Triumph Scrambler Project: Planning

Triumph Scrambler Project: Stage 1

Triumph Scrambler Project: Stage 2

Triumph Scrambler Project: Stage 3

Triumph Scrambler Project: Rally Planning

Ride 365 Challenge: Aftermath

Posted in Triumph Scrambler Project | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Kuhl Silencr Kargo Pants: Post-ride Hiking Attire

I know what you’re thinking, “Drew, isn’t this a motorcycle blog?”
Why yes, yes it is, but hang with me here. While I’ve proven to myself that I’m capable of riding year-round, there’s no doubt I much prefer hiking in the winter months to suffering through boring rides on the freeway in frigid temperatures. Moreover, if you’re the “adventure moto-camping” sort, these hiking pants are right up your alley.

Long-time followers, both here and on Instagram, know that I love exploring the backwoods as much as I enjoy riding (both if I can get it). In other interest of transparency, Kuhl found Moto Adventurer and reached out to me about potentially reviewing a pair of their hiking pants. Per my comments above, assuming everyone was willing to wait for the end of the season, I wasn’t opposed to testing out some hiking gear in the finest Kentucky briar patches. Kuhl sent me this pair of pants and asked me quote, “We’d like you to write a genuine review, with pros and cons, when you field-test the products.”

Prior to this review, my experience with hiking pants has been mostly jeans and a duffel bag full of mil-spec cargo pants. I may not have a lot of experience with modern retail hike-wear, but I can shamelessly say I’ve successfully destroyed tactical clothing all across the globe. Hopefully, that means I know a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t.

The Look


Straight away I noticed the riveted details, subdued embroidery, and stitched logos. For folks unfamiliar, “rip-stop” material has a very distinct look and texture. As a veteran, it’s an unmistakable fabric. The Army issued me “winter” and summer-weight uniforms, and the rip-stop “waffle” pattern made it easy to pull the more comfortable summer-weight uniforms out of my wall locker.

Kuhl offers the Silencr Kargo pant in Kahki, “carbon” grey, and an earthy “Dark Roast”. As a victim of dichromacy (red-green color deficiency), my closet tends to be mostly of shades of black, white, and grey. Kuhl sent me a set of “Dark Roast” pants to test, and I admit, that color has grown on me to the point I think I prefer it among the three.

The Feel


At 5’10”, 180 pounds I am the “average Joe”. I typically wear 34×32 jeans and in “Army sizing” I’m “medium-regular”. These Kuhl pants fit true to size. After looking at photos online I was a little concerned they may be a little more form-fitting than I like, but I was pleasantly surprised. The lightweight “Flex-fabric” moves with you, isn’t tight nor constrains movement. Ideal for hiking as one would imagine.

Putting the pants on for the first time I was relieved to see the use of a “through” button as a waist closure. Uncle Sam has me conditioned to old-school sewn buttons, but more modern pants have used riveted buttons. Those more modern “snaps” are great until they’re exposed to the elements; dirt and dust get into the button and they won’t “unsnap” which typically leads to the destruction of the button and a calamity in the backcountry. Kuhl on the other hand uses a more modern snap that can shed sand, grit, and corrosion without getting stuck.

After years of tearing the crotch out of “Mil-Spec” tactical pants when stepping over logs, I’m pleased to see that Kuhl accommodates movement with “gusseted crotch” stitching and paneling. The pant legs include articulated knee stitching that makes walking and climbing over obstacles more comfortable. The belt loops are wider with more reinforcement than I’m accustomed to. The pockets are made from comfortable stretch fabric, and the cargo pockets are closed with hidden snaps in lieu of velcro (I despise velcro closures thanks to the ACU blunder). The ankles also have a cinching feature if you want to make sure critters don’t climb up your trousers.

The Result


Through mid to late fall, I spent time in the woods taking photos of cross-country racing, climbing hills, wading through thorn bushes, and tiptoeing through briar patches in these pants. Today when I’m headed into the garage, I reach for an old pair of Army service trousers to cover in grease and destroy, but when I’m headed anywhere else, I reach for these Silencr pants. They fit correctly, they’re lightweight, have cargo pockets, and make it easy to move in the woods or are just comfortable to sit and watch a movie on the couch. The rip-stop fabric makes it easy to brush off “hitchhikers”, they’re tough enough to not tear when snagged by thorny rose bushes and are lightweight enough to keep you cool when you start breaking a sweat.

Ultimately I think these are great 3-season pants for folks that want to enjoy hiking, camping, and “adventuring”. The lightweight fabric is great for combating the weather and it fits perfectly. However, I admit I’m concerned about wearing out the seat or the knees if I spend too much time sliding around on sharp surfaces. The fabric resists being torn by the bluegrass briars just fine, but if you’re going to climb around on logs and boulders, I’m concerned you could tatter them prematurely. That said, I have yet to wear the seat out of mine, I’m just saying it’s a “lightweight” fabric, if you’re going to be hard on the material, you may want to consider Kuhl’s Destroyr or Klash pants.

Would I buy another set?


Admittedly I’m a thrifty dude. That said I’m going to be hard-pressed to not buy a second set, especially for winter. As I said, the Silencr will be good for spring-summer-fall, but I’m concerned they’ll be a little too thin for January and February locally unless you’re keeping your heart rate up. I reached out to Kuhl to see what winter-weight pants they suggested; so I’ll be keeping my eye out for the Destroyr as winter approaches later this year. For folks interested, the Silencr pants list for $99 retail. The typical camo tactical pants I normally wear will set you back anywhere from $45 to $70. Considering the features, fabric, and fitment, to me they’re worth the money. My Levi 569s will cost me $70 at this point, and they definitely aren’t made like they used to me.

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What’s a Dual-Sport Motorcycle? Part 2

In the previous edition of “What’s a Dual-Sport motorcycle?” I outlined some ground rules and essentially drew a circle around the bikes I feel fit squarely in the segment. While talking to motorcyclists that are considering the purchase of a new dual-sport, I find that many are still unfamiliar with the breadth of models available, moreover the divide in both cost and capability between the bikes at both extremes of the range. 

With that in mind, I want to describe the various sub-categories of dual-sport motorcycles in more detail. I also want to highlight some of the models available from rarer brands. If you have the patience, I’m gonna take a deep dive into the specifications of various models. Lastly, I think there’s a demand for a motorcycle squarely in the middle of the segment that I don’t think currently exists from any of the manufacturers.

What Dual-Sports are currently for sale

I full-well understand you can get on the internet and find a deal on a gently used Suzuki DR350. Considering that many older dual-sport motorcycles were built from cast iron, there’s an infinite list of reliable “street and trail” motorcycles available on the used market. In the interest of discussing current trends in the market, combined with a little pandering to folks that prefer to buy new or “barely used”, I am going to focus on models that are currently in showrooms or bikes that were for sale from the factory in the last couple years.

Considering that criteria, I’ve created a list of 24 motorcycles that fit my definition of “Dual-Sport”. I have decided to omit the new Husqvarnas in this case because they are incredibly close to the offerings from KTM. For folks that are very active in that sub-category, I can appreciate there are nuance differences between a KTM 690 and the Husky 701, but on the stat sheet, they are arguably identical and likely chasing the same customer. 

Recent Model Year Dual-Sports:

  • 2022 KTM 350 EXC-f
  • 2022 KTM 500 EXC-f
  • 2021 KTM 690 Enduro R
  • 2020 Yamaha WR250R
  • 2020 Yamaha XT250
  • 2020 Suzuki DR-200S
  • 2022 Suzuki DR-Z400S
  • 2022 Suzuki DR650
  • 2021 Kawasaki KLX230
  • 2021 Kawasaki KLX300
  • 2021 Kawasaki KLR650
  • 2021 Honda CRF300L
  • 2021 Honda CRF300L Rally
  • 2021 Honda CRF450RL
  • 2021 Honda XR650L
  • 2021 Beta 500 RR-S
  • 2021 Beta 430 RR-S
  • 2021 Beta 390 RR-S
  • 2021 Beta 350 RR-S
  • 2021 SWM RS 500 R
  • 2021 SWM RS 300 R
  • 2021 SWM Super Dual 600
  • 2021 Zero FX ZF3.6
  • 2021 AJP PR7

Old School Dual Sports

Honda Photo

While I’m not going to pretend I’m a motorcycle historian, I feel safe making the accusation that the XR650L, DR650, DR200, and XT250 are the ancestors of many of the motorcycles on this list. Successor to the XR600 (kind of), the XR650L was released in the early 90’s and is virtually unchanged today. Like the other bikes in the sub-segment, the XR represents a reliable, Japanese, air-cooled powerplant, with long-travel suspension, reasonable maintenance intervals (for the era), and simplicity. I have a strong suspicion that these models are short for this world. However, if you’re not concerned about fuel injection, upside-down suspension, liquid cooling, and performance, this subgroup gives you a lot of bike for not a lot of money. Moreover, aside from its weight, the XR650L still scores very high in this category as far as capability, assuming you’re prepared to wrestle the 350-ish pounds; but more about that later.  

Race bikes with plates

I mentioned this group of bikes repetitively in the previous article. In recent years I’ve seen more street-legal off-road models being offered, namely Honda’s CRF450L. Beta offers all four of their 4-stroke off-road race bikes in street-legal trim levels. KTM has cut their 250cc offering in recent years, but their 350 and 500 enduro models are offered in “EXC-f” DOT compliant variants here in the US. SWM also makes two street-legal off-road motorcycles, but I’ll get into that brand a little more in a minute. 

Most of the models in this group are European, and all of the big-brand models have an off-road only equivalent elsewhere in their lineup. It goes without saying, these bikes are intended for primarily off-road use, having road-going accouterments so you can legally use public roads to connect trails. It’s not to say that bikes like the KTM 500 are incapable of being a “go anywhere” dual-sport. The point is that these bikes emphasize performance at the cost of maintenance. These are unquestionably the most capable motorcycles in the segment, but that capability comes at a price. 

Low Maintenance Machines

The most modern of the Japanese subset of dual-sports represents the antithesis to “Race bikes with plates”. Many of these bikes are the evolution of “trail bikes” that have road-legal equipment. Long-time readers know my experience with the CRF250L. Needless to say, that bike brought me to this segment and even following its sale, I still find myself most at home in this sub-set of bikes at this stage in life. Bikes like the 250L have given way to the new CRF300L (and Rally) but trace their roots back to the CRF230L, which hearken back to the XR models of yesteryear. Kawasaki offers the new KLX300, successor to the KLX250, but also the new KLX230 which is a road-legal version of their trail bike. Arguably encroaching on the adventure segment, the KLR 650 returned from a short hiatus in 2021 with some modernization, mainly fuel injection. With a 6-gallon gas tank and almost 8,000 miles between oil changes, the KLR is the touring king of the dual-sport segment. An orange antagonist to the KLR, the KTM 690 Enduro R brings buckets of performance to this segment at the price of about 350 pounds. The 690 stands atop this list with the most horsepower, has respectable suspension, and only needs fresh oil every 6,000 miles. The 690 also commands the highest asking price, just barely edging out the KTM 5-hundo. 

Rare Birds

After patrolling the internet and asking Instagram what everyone’s favorite dual-sport is, I discovered a few “fringe” brands or unexpected entries to the segment. 

Speedy Working Motorcycles (the before mentioned SWM) is an Italian motorcycle manufacturer that inherited the intellectual property from Husqvarna when the brand was purchased by KTM. Today KTM builds bikes with white plastics labeled Husqvarna with the same powerplants and major components, leaving the legacy engine designs to the owners of the before mentioned intellectual property. While I don’t know a whole lot about the pre-2014 era motorcycles, I’m under the impression that the bikes offered today by SWM are very similar. Moreover, at least on paper, these bikes are very capable. SWM offers a 300 and 500 enduro model, both street legal, along with a 600cc model that competes with the DR650 and KTM 690 in stats and intended consumer.

AJP Photo

Considering what I just said about SWM, AJP is a Portuguese company that specializes in custom motorcycles. AJP has several bikes in the Enduro and supermoto segments along with the street-legal PR7. The PR7 is somewhat analogous to the KTM 690 and the KLR; performance-oriented like the 690 with premium suspension, but also has a full rally fairing for folks that are more interested in long-distance dual-sporting. Like SWM, the PR7 is powered by the pre-2014 Husqvarna TE630 engine, but with a frame bespoke to AJP. An argument could be made that the PR7 is a factory-made rally bike aimed at mortal motorcyclists like myself. Alternatively, the PR7 is perhaps the most advanced adventure motorcycle on the market; weighing 365 pounds, with 10 inches of suspension travel, carrying 4.5 gallons of gas, the PR7 barely edges out of the T7 at $11,500. Not a bad deal to change oil every 3,000 miles. 

Zero photo

While better known for their electric street bikes, Zero also offers a dual-sport model in a few different trims. With no engine to service, electric motorcycles prove to be an interesting answer to the dual-sport question. Assuming the electrics prove to be hardy enough, and range isn’t a deal-breaker, the Zero FX has comparable suspension travel to the older 250-ish models, with none of the mechanical fussing. Also, among race bikes, a $9500 price tag isn’t shabby considering you’ll never change oil or check valves; after a chain conversion, you can just buy tires and ride.

The nerdiest of all stat sheet racing

When folks started naming their favorite dual-sport motorcycles I started a list. Being a nerdy engineer I put that list into excel so I could sort by brand. Naturally, I couldn’t help myself, so I started populating weights and prices. This led to including performance statistics from the manufacturer’s website. Being a stickler for maintenance, I looked up the oil change intervals in all of the owner’s manuals. When you can see the entire segment and compare each model against the other by simply sorting based on specification, it’s interesting to see how each of them stack up. Again, my fascination with the numbers got the better of me as I decided there must be some kind of “rating system” I could apply to each machine. I scored each specification in order from 1-24 in Olympic format (equal scores make a tie, i.e. all 4 Beta models have identical suspension travel). 

Click HERE to download this spreadsheet

The categories were weight, rear-wheel horsepower, engine compression, maintenance interval, transmission (5-speed vs 6-speed), price, suspension travel, suspension adjustability, ground clearance, and fuel capacity. When added together, ultimately the motorcycles with the lowest score made for the “highest performance” bikes considering the averages. This became more interesting when the scores are adjusted for price. 

When sorting strictly on performance, the KTM and Beta 500s reign supreme with premium suspension, thoroughbred engines, and big horsepower. Interestingly enough, the old XR650L comes in 4th despite being 30 years old. That low compression, long-travel suspension, and 650cc lump still does well despite the weight. When adjusted for cost the Big Red Pig moves to the top considering you get nearly equivalent performance (on paper), but at nearly half the cost ($6,999). This becomes more interesting when you see the Honda CRF300L Rally move up to 3rd place with its 8,000-mile oil change interval and 3-and-a-half gallon gas tank. Even more surprising to me was that with no transmission, engine braking, or engine maintenance, the Zero FX lands in 4th place. I knew after comparing stat sheets against the CRF250L that Zero’s “dual-sport” was very close in capability to my former 250cc Japanese multi-tool, but the latest model boasts respectable weight savings and reasonable suspension considering its clear street bias. While range is most certainly a concern with riders likely to find themselves well away from civilization, for urban dual-sport riders, the Zero FX seems like an easy motorcycle to live with, at least on paper. 

My scoring system is of course not without flaws. Weight and suspension travel seem like clear delineations when stat-sheet racing, but engine compression is subjective. As far as race bikes are concerned, power, weight, and suspension are key, but in the dual-sport range, I feel the metric shifts more toward reliability, ease of ownership, and flexibility between on-road and off-road performance. I chose engine compression as a quantitative statistic to represent engine stress, reliability, along with “tendency to flameout”. For folks unfamiliar, the 4-stroke thoroughbreds like the KTM 350 and CRF450L require a great deal of clutch work to avoid “stalling” at low speeds. Many have suggested an aftermarket ECU is absolutely critical for dual-sport riding on the CRF450L. Based on my own experience, I don’t want one because the flameout issue is so prevalent despite modifications (EveRide and I agree). Fuel capacity also doesn’t equate to overall range, which I think is more important. Unfortunately, those numbers are more ambiguous in this category considering usage varies so widely, thus forcing me to use capacity as an empirical measurement. 

Ultimately, these are the categories I chose as they’re most applicable to me. Things like “seat height” would also be relevant, as would subjective categories such as “comfort”, “wind protection”, and “highway vibrations”. I welcome criticism and most certainly conversation on these stats and other ways to slice the segment. Ultimately this spreadsheet proved to be more thought-provoking than I ever could have imagined. The thought of building a race-capable ADV bike out of a CRF300L was born from this exercise; as was locating an AJP dealer. 

There’s a bike missing from this line-up

Back in August, I handed off my 250L to a new owner. While I never fell in love with that bike like Rosie the Scrambler, I was no doubt in love with what that bike was capable of. Unfortunately, that motorcycle needed another inch of suspension travel and ground clearance, probably another 5-ish horsepower, and at least 20 pounds of weight reductive measures.

After compiling all of the statistics for the 24 bikes on this list, I couldn’t resist looking at the averages for each of the performance stats. Even with 4 Beta motorcycles weighing down the “race bike” end of the scales, I was still surprised by the results. 307 Pounds, 33 HP, 11.4 to 1 compression ratio, oil change intervals every 3500 miles, 6-speed transmission, 10.3 inches of suspension travel, 2.8-gallon gas tank, for the “low price” of $8,000. 

I would argue, “average” does not define “the middle” of the dual-sport category. Considering the CRF300L Rally does so well when adjusted for price, and the CRF300L not too far behind, I started writing down the stats for my “dual-sport unicorn” if I could have one. Starting with weight, if the new 300L is 309 pounds, the KTM 500 weighs 259, and the CRF450L is 291 pounds, is it possible to put a street-focused engine in a new frame to achieve a 291-pound road-ready weight? 291 pounds is a hefty race bike, but an ultra-light multi-tool by comparison. While I love the 35 horsepower of my KTM 350, there’s no doubt I don’t come close to using all of it. After years on the CRF250L, I think 27 ponies is totally reasonable. Considering I want to get back to using regular unleaded, 10.7:1 compression ratio is ideal. As I said, 10-inches of suspension travel is a must, along with a 6-speed transmission, and since the 250L would easily do 90 miles on a tank, 2.4 gallons of gas will get the job done fine. Lastly, while I loved not having to change oil every 8,000 miles, it was $25 and I did it multiple times a season, so reducing that frequency to 3,000 miles for oil and 6,000 miles to check valves is very reasonable in the shadow of the Euro-machines. 

When I plugged the unicorn into the stat sheet and tallied up the scores, with a $7,600 price tag, this unicorn bike rose to second from the top of the list for “best bike per dollar”. Naturally, I don’t speak for everyone, but among 50-50 dual-sport riders, I feel many complain about the weight of the Japanese models, grouse about their lack of power, but are more than happy with how much abuse they can handle and still get back in the ring.

Obviously, there’s a massive difference between a bike on paper and riding a motorcycle. All the stat sheet racing in the world doesn’t make for a signature on a sales contract. That aside, this mythical dual-sport creature I’ve described is my “wish-list” for what I want from my next do-all machine. Considering the “average” stats, anecdotal comments, and “internet wisdom”, I suspect I’m not alone. It would be incredible to see Yamaha drop a WR350R on the market in the near future and check all of these boxes for us. 

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Racing Dirtbikes: Reflections on Cross-Country Racing

  • 13 Hare Scrambles
  • 1 Enduro
  • 3 Racing Series
  • 4,300 miles of driving
  • 65 hours behind the wheel
  • 30 hours in the woods
  • Nearly 1,000 miles of off-road riding
  • 4 savage mudders
  • 2 Second places finishes
  • 4th Place finish for KXCR B Open Class
  • 22nd Overall PM Racer in the series

Humbled

I vividly remember my dad sitting me down as a kid and explaining to me, “there’s always someone better than you.” There’s always going to be some kid that hits a baseball better or runs faster, that’s just how life works. If you think you’re hot stuff. If you’re confident you can ride circles around everyone you know in town, sign up to race a local off-road riding series… and get humbled. 

Two years ago when I signed up to ride my first off-road race, I thought I knew how to ride a motorcycle. I rapidly discovered I didn’t know shit. Even racing in C class, there were lots of folks with superior skills to mine. Moving up to ride in the “PM class”, those A-class riders feel untouchable from where I’m at. Moreover, even if we’re all having a great day, a little moisture on the ground tends to bring us all to the edge of skill level and endurance. You may be racing other humans, but as I’ve written elsewhere, you’re racing nature and yourself more than anything. Along with that, show me the best racers in the world, given an unlimited amount of time, nature will always prevail. “Embracing the suck” is much easier said than done, but when it’s over, those moments are the most memorable.

Test Your Metal

For many of us, public failure is an experience we want to avoid. Wearing mismatched socks, getting toilet paper stuck to your shoes, and dumping your motorcycle in the parking lot tend to induce feelings of embarrassment. Unfortunately, that aspect of human nature can also prevent us from taking risks; which in turn tends to prevent us from experiencing life’s greatest “highs”.

Public ridicule, embarrassment and shame are obviously things we all want to avoid. What many of us don’t realize, is that much of those “expectations” are in our heads. Falling off your motorcycle off-road sucks, but you know what? We’ve all fallen off a motorcycle; we didn’t exit the womb as professional motorcycle riders. The vast majority of us had to practice to avoid public calamity… and like the fight against nature, if you follow the best riders long enough, you’ll witness their mistakes and discover they too are mortal.  

I say all of that to say, if you’re into motorcycling as a self-improvement project, you should give racing a try, regardless of your age. Yes, there are inherent risks to racing, as with all rewarding activities in life. That said, I’ve never learned so much, so fast, and found such a welcoming community as I’ve discovered in racing. 

Discover a New Family

I’ve spent no less than 24 months in a designated “combat zone”. If I’ve learned nothing else from my time in those places, I’ve learned that mutual suffering builds bonds. Why am I encouraging you to race if it involves suffering? “Suffering” is a matter of perspective; to the American teenager, the internet being down for two days is suffering. To GI Joe, digging a hole in the dirt to bury a wire in a 110°F heat, that might be suffering. To a motorcyclist, sitting on the starting line as the skies open up on a 50°F day is suffering. All of these things are “hard” but sufferable. What you don’t immediately realize is that there are others enduring misery with you.

Over time, the stories of this shared suffering builds relationships as you laugh about the struggles and absurdity. Together, we’re humbled by nature and competition each passing Sunday, and that mutual suffering builds unbreakable bonds and lasting relationships. Folks welcome newcomers with open arms because we’ve all realized, racing is “hard”, but “showing up”, knowing it’s cold, it may rain, and worse, you might not even finish, is actually the hardest part. 

Know Your Motorcycle

It’s one thing to have a motorcycle for a long time and know its character. It’s something else to push the motorcycle to its limits, know its capabilities, and spend hours keeping the machine running to the best of your ability. There’s nothing like riding a high-performance machine in the environment it was intended for. Unfortunately, performance comes at a cost, and in the world of off-road, it means hours dedicated to replacing and refurbishing parts and consumables that wear out. I’m of the mindset that this is arguably the worst part of racing. I enjoy wrenching on bikes, but it doesn’t hold a candle to riding bikes. Even when the weather stinks, riding is better than working, but waiting on a necessary part or breaking a bolt really drains the fun from riding. 

All that said, it’s incredibly rewarding knowing that you’ve invested the time in keeping your bike in working order when you cross that finish line on Sunday. You might be the last bike that finished that day, but it’s very likely, someone else is getting a DNF (did not finish) because of a mechanical failure. There’s a sense of accomplishment in that, moreover, you gain an understanding of what maintenance activities are critical and when they’re not. When can a chain go one more round, and when that sprocket needs replaced, less you get stranded on the trail with a derailed chain. It takes a lot of work to keep the bike going, but over time it’s one less worry in your mind when you’re sitting on the starting line. 

Believe in Yourself

There’s a famous line from Rocky Balboa that I absolutely love:

“It’s not about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward.” 

It’s a cliche movie line when you live in reality, but it goes through your mind when you’re picking your bike up for the fifth time. If you don’t try, you’ll never fail; but if you never try, you’ll never know what you’re capable of. It’s unlikely I will ever be a professional motorcycle racer at this stage in life. However, after two seasons of off-road racing, I have skills today I wouldn’t have gained if I didn’t try racing. After racing, I still find intimidating obstacles out on the trail, but I now know that I have tried and failed, and tried and succeeded in the past. This has made me more willing to tackle more difficult trails as the rewards are worth the effort and things feel achievable. Believe in yourself. We’ve all started from zero, we’ve all fallen over, many of us have thrown in the towel, but the reward is climbing back on the bike eventually and ultimately conquering our fears. 

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What’s a Dual-Sport Motorcycle?

You’ve probably heard the expressions “enduro” or “Street & Trail” in the past, but today I suspect most folks use the word “dual-sport” to describe a motorcycle that’s intended for use both on and off the pavement. On and off-road riding? Sure my Scrambler does that; but does that make my Scrambler a dual-sport motorcycle? Well, I suppose it depends on who you ask. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

This is the KLR 650. To many, the KLR is the king of all dual sports. Ask around, any motorcyclist with any off-road chops has heard of the KLR; Many will suggest that, along with cockroaches, KLRs will inherit the earth after our mass extinction. Forged in some ancient dwarven cave, the KLR is powered by a single-cylinder, 650cc lump. Climbing up to the seat, you’ll notice plush suspension, assuming you didn’t fall over because you can’t touch the ground. Below the front fender, there’s a run-of-the-mill 21-inch hoop shod with some flavor of knobby-ish tires, and because it’s a KLR, there’s a milk crate hiding about somewhere. For a little over six-grand, this juggernaut could be yours.

Let’s look at the opposite end of the spectrum for a moment, shall we? Here’s the KTM 350 EXC-f. This top-of-the-line motorcycle from Austria is probably as close as you can get to flat-out race bike while still saying “Why yes officer, here’s my license and registration.” Tipping the scales around 250 pounds, this bike is only a few bills and a “DOT light kit” away from the starting line at the local hare scramble.

To some, these two bikes may look the same, to others the differences are evident. To me, these motorcycles are lightyears apart; one’s a race bike with a plate, the other arguably an adventure motorcycle. That said, when you look at each manufacturer’s website, you’ll find them labeled as “Dual-Sports”.

So what’s a dual-sport?

At a minimum, off-road riding capability and the necessary equipment to make the motorcycle street-legal. In most U.S. States, that means headlight, tail light, indicators, mirrors, horn, a street motorcycle title, along with plate and tag.

By that definition, the Tenere 700, my Scrambler, and the TW200 would all be dual-sports. A Harley Sporter with a determined rider could be a dual-sport for that matter. Should dual-sports be lightweight? Do they need specific wheels or tires to be categorized as a dual-sport? What makes a motorcycle off-road capable? The KTM 390 Adventure and the Kawasaki Versys 300X are both lighter than the KLR, are they also dual-sports? Perhaps this “street and trail” expression needs a little more definition.

If appointed dictator for life, I would say a Dual-Sport is:

A single-cylinder motorcycle designed for off-road use, with 21″ front wheel, and comes fitted with street-legal equipment and sold with a street title from the factory.

By that definition, despite its off-road capability, the multi-cylinder Versys 300 is out. Like the Versys, the 390 Adventure is sporting a 19″ front wheel, even worse, it has cast wheels, which is another reason I put it firmly in the Adventure category. Bikes like the Tenere 700 and the KTM 890 Adventure R start encroaching on the specifications and capabilities of the KLR. Both bikes tip the scales shockingly close to the 2021 KLR, and both have 21-inch spoked wheels out front. However, in both cases, these bikes are sporting twin-cylinder engines, and for as much as I love them, they’re still designed for more pavement than trail use.

That same metric will also exclude a perennial favorite, unfortunately. If you go to Yamaha’s website under dual-sport, you’ll find the ever revered TW-200. Like Suzuki’s VanVan200, the “TeeDub” is a micro motorcycle that is far more capable than most could ever imagine. If not for riding the TW through my favorite parts of the Danial Boone Backcountry Byway, I wouldn’t even be writing this article right now. Folks have ridden the mighty TeeDub across the country. A beast of burden that’s well prepared to be loaded with camping gear or hauling a deer out of the woods. All that said, with its 14-inch rear wheel and balloon tires, I would wager to say the TW200 was designed as a “farm bike”, a more useful answer to the mini-bike, than it was intended for modern public (American) roads.

Despite said exclusions, the Royal Enfield Himalayan still fits the necessary criteria to be a Dual-Sport, even with its heft and limited suspension travel. With that in mind, perhaps I’ll add another qualifying statement to this definition. To fall under the umbrella of dual-sport, the motorcycle should be capable of finishing a hare scramble. While I still suspect the 890 Adventure or the TW200 could accomplish such a feat in the right hands, most of us mortals agree, it would be a futile attempt on our part.

What kind of dual-sport motorcycles are there?

We can split hairs all day, but despite my attempt to narrow the definition, there’s still a massive gap between the lightest, heaviest, cheapest, and most expensive motorcycles under this multi-purpose tent.

Folks come in all flavors, but I find dual-sport riders typically come from former racers and off-road riders, or street riders that are dipping their toe into “woods riding”. As a result, I typically sub-categorize the dual-sport segment into two groups: Dirt bikes with plates, and leggy street bikes.

Long-time readers know all about the CRF250L I owned for 10,000 miles. While not as capable as Yamaha’s WR250R, I wager to say that the Japanese 250cc dual sports are the heart of the segment. The 250L would set you back around five grand new. It had 9-inches of suspension travel, tipped the scales just over 300 pounds, and asked that you change the oil every 8,000 miles. It was a lazy street bike, but could carve a corner with the best of them. It was a capable dirt bike, but certainly on the portly side. Jack of all trades, master of none is unquestionably its mantra.

Now let’s take a look at KTM’s 350 XCf-w. Kailub Russel rode XC version of this bike to go on to win the AMA Grand National CrossCountry series in 2020. I imagine it looks familiar, as KTM offers virtually the exact same bike with factory DOT equipment, and a sticker that says “EXC-f”. Like the race bike, the street-legal EXC weighs 65 pounds less than the CRF250L, needs an oil change every 500 miles, and will set you back an additional $6,000 over the little red pig.

In the middle of this field are bikes like the DR200 and KLX230. Both of these bikes will get you through the woods without a lot a fussing; maybe some lifting, and cussing, but they will gladly take the flogging and ask for more the next day. Moreover, when you’re hustling along the pavement, you’ll be whistling in your helmet, albeit not breaking traffic laws, but you certainly won’t be changing oil at the end of the trip, maybe not even after the next one. Those race bikes, on the other hand, will pull dank whoolies, cross logs with ease, and unabashedly tear up singletrack, whilst vibrating the fillings out of your skull on the pavement and will likely need a refill of the dino juice Sunday evening.

Speaking plainly, while I’ve been specific and deliberate to draw a fine line in the sand about what constitutes a dual-sport, the range of bikes that fall into that circle is vast. Between weight, suspension travel, horsepower, comfort, and price, there’s a massive chasm between the big-bore 650s designed in the 90s, versus the most modern street-legal European race machines. It’s also easy to suggest that the antiquated 650s are the closest to the adventure category considering weight and street manners, while the European bikes parody their race-ready brethren, the capabilities and price vary wildly across the field.

What’s a Dual-Sport for?

Ultimately I think the dual-sport segment grew out of the need for street legal equipment to connect the trails. As more and more backroads became paved, and the distance between trails became greater, street-legal off-road machines gained better and better road manners. Similar to how street motorcycles found off-road chops to define the adventure segment, bikes like the DRZ-400 and the WR250R have defined the dual-sport segment with equal capabilities as both commuters and off-road explorers. That I think is the epitome of what makes a dual-sport a dual-sport; definitions aside, the ability to ride on-road and off-road equally. Capable of tackling single track, while also capable of crossing the country… mind you, not in a hurry.

Stay tuned for an in-depth trip down the rabbit hole looking at every bike in this segment…

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Shinko Off-road Tires: Longterm Review

At the beginning of this year, I contacted Shinko Tires about their off-road offerings. Since I had plans to compete all season in Kentucky Cross-Country Racing (KXCR), Shinko sent me 3 tires to test. Full disclosure, Shinko didn’t ask me to publish any particular content, use any specific language, or even link back to their website. The words that you read here are all mine, Shinko only asked that I ride and test the tires and share my thoughts on my channels. Moreover, as the season progressed, I purchased, with my own money, 3 additional tires, coincidentally Shinko branded buns. With the housekeeping details out of the way, let’s talk about some “tars”.

216MX (Extreme Offroad/Enduro/Desert tire)

90/90-21 & 90/100-21 (DOT & FIM)

Last year I ran the Michelin Starcross 5 medium for the entire season. Comparing the 216 to the Starcross 5, I felt more confidence under heavy breaking and as advertised, felt like the 216MX fatty “danced” a lot less in the endless wet roots found on the KXCR courses. This season, the fatty front has seen 8 Cross-Country (XC) races in the Bluegrass state. I took a peek at the hour meter yesterday and realized this tire has been on the Husky for 46 hours. After all the rocks and nonsense around KXCR’s training facility (“The Holler”) in Clay City (KY), and Dayton Dirt Riders, I’m retiring this 216 after the next race. The rocks have finally started taking a toll on the knobs after nearly a full race season. Despite some tearing, I was surprised to find that the breaking edges of the knobs still look sharp considering how long they’ve been mounted. After consulting the Shinko website, I discovered that these tires are actually DOT; I had no idea prior to this writing. While I am concerned about these knobs flexing on the twisty pavement of the Kentucky backroads, at some point I may buy a full set of the 216s for my Dual-Sport to see how they hold up to featherweight adventure riding.

Considering the diverse conditions I see here in southern Ohio and Appalachian Kentucky, the guys at Shinko thought it best to send me a front tire intended for enduro and extreme off-road terrain. Shinko sent the 216MX tire in both the “Chubby” 90/90-21 and the 90/100-21 “Fat Tire”. Historically I’ve run a 90/90-21 front tire on both my CRF250L, so I chose to run the “Fatty” 216MX for this year’s XC racing season. According to Shinko, the 90/100 “fat tire” has a “fuller” profile to avoid deflection through rocks, over roots and other obstacles.

I’ve loved the 216s to the point I will be hesitant to try something new for racing. After all of this time, I think the biggest downfall has been “tire flex” at low pressure. This, like so many other things, is a combination of factors. I run ultra-heavy-duty tubes. Folks that run tubliss, bibs, or traditional “heavy-duty” tubes will likely encounter different behavior from the same tire. Because I run tubes, I try not to get below 8 PSI when racing, with the exception of serious mudders. incidentally, I was running the 90/90-21 216 MX at the John Vincent mudder this year and stopped to let more air out of the tires during the first lap. Unbeknownst to me, I apparently let virtually all the air out of the front. With the ultra-heavy-duty tube and a rim-lock, the front wheel felt really low, but never felt flat, despite having no air in it the next morning. The 216 obviously does a great job of clearing mud, and under “normal” circumstances feels great (in my unsophisticated hands), and only struggles in the worst conditions. Having run both, the 90 and 100 width tires, the 90 definitely feels a bit more “twitchy” by comparison, especially on the slick stuff. I have no empirical evidence, but I suspect the “fatty” also flexes a bit more and helps clear the treads.

520 Dual Compound (Intermediate to Hard Terrain Tire)

120/100-18 (Not for Highway Service)


When discussing the Kentucky terrain conditions, Shinko recommended the 525, however, because of supply chain limitations at the time, they suggested I give the 520 Dual Compound tire a try. The Husqvarna’s manual calls for a 110/100-18 size rear tire, however, Shinko sent a 120/100-18. Long-time followers know, I have no qualms with trying various tire sizes, so this was a no-brainer for me. Moreover, I suspect a lot of folks run 120 width tires for trail and cross-country riding (more on that in a minute).

The 520 was my first experience with a “hybrid” soft compound off-road tire. As anyone that knows me will tell you, if I see a rocky creekbed or a boulder field… I’m hitting those lines with the dirt bike. With that, Dayton Dirt Riders has a rule, they don’t cut trees. If a tree falls, you go over, or you go around; that’s the way it is. Between rock ledges, river rock creekbeds, and endless logs, the 520 was well at home at my in my favorite riding areas.

Beyond enduro obstacles, my mind was blown by the way the 520 put power to the ground. In the fluffy loamy soil, the 520 tractored up the Appalachian foothills in “The Holler” with gusto. I could definitely feel the traction improvement considering the combination of the wider profile and the softer compound that could spread out over the dirt.

As the racing season proceeded, the 520 was forced to face off against the dreaded Kentucky Clay. “The Holler” in, aptly named, Clay City is kind of KXCR’s “home track”, like Dayton Dirt Riders, the clay soil is baked all summer by the sun until it’s hard as a rock or it’s ground to moon dust by the races. When it rains, the top surface of the clay holds onto the water, and yet the rain won’t penetrate the deeper levels of soil, which turns the course into a skating rink. This unfortunately is where I finally started to experience the limitation of the 520DC. As long as the rear tire had enough wheel speed to stay clean, things were pretty good. If I slowed down, the more compact knobs would become loaded. Clay is obviously a challenge for all off-road tires, so I blame my skill level much more than the tire. That said, I do feel like the softer knobs would flex and fold on the hard clay instead of dig like a traditional compound tire, but more on that than a second.


525 Hybrid Cheater (intermediate terrain Enduro/Extreme single-track)


110/100-18(Not for Highway Service)

After the first 5 rounds of XC racing, I noticed a lot of tread wear on the 520. Being a directional tire, I decided it was time for something new. Considering several of my racing buddies run the 525 Hybrid Cheater, it seemed like the natural successor to the 520.

Shinko says the 525 Hybrid “Cheater” is intended for intermediate terrain, enduro, and extreme single track. Like the 520, the 525 “cheater” is a softer compound for more tire flex. The 525 has lines square knobs, unlike the directional chevron patterns seen on the 520. The 525 knobs are also spaced further apart for more efficient cleaning; which was the biggest reason I chose it.

After 5 additional XC races through the Bluegrass and 1 in Ohio, I was happier with how the 525 handled the Miami River clay and avoided being loaded up on the race track. Like the 520DC, the softer compound really shined in the rocky hill climbs and creek beds.

Inversely, the limitation of the 525 appears to be tread life, and while not a severe as the 520DC (which feels softer, but I don’t have a durometer to check), the 525 knobs also felt like they fold on the polished clay. Tread life obviously has a lot to do with the hamfistedness of the rider. At the same time, one would expect a soft compound tire to struggle with longevity. In addition, per my comments above, 110/100-18 is the prescribed tire size for my two-stroke. After experiencing the 120 width tire, the wider tire definitely felt more confidence-inspiring, both in power delivery and cornering. Compared to the 520DC, I felt like the 525 had more wheelspin in the corners and hills climbs after the track had been beaten down over a few laps.

To test my theory about knob “folding”, long-term I want to try a standard compound 525 with a 120 width and see how I like it. I have a strong suspicion, despite my interest in the Shinko 546, the wider, traditional rubber 525 may be the best all-around solution for the highly variable terrain I ride.

504/505 Hard Terrain Tire


80/100-21 Front & 110/100-18 Rear (Not for Highway Service)

As the summer progressed, Red River Scramble was rapidly approaching. For first-time readers, 5 years ago a bunch of Instagrammers meeting for pizza and adventure riding turned into an annual rally near Red River Gorge, Kentucky. Between pre-rally reconnaissance rides and 4 days of the toughest dual-sport routes I know, I wanted the gnarliest off-road tires I could get my hands on, but still strong enough to permit me to ride like a hooligan on the pavement.

Again, I went back to look over Shinko’s offerings. Shinko sells the 244 and 804/805 tires, but I felt that neither of those DOT offerings would be ideal for a lightweight dual-sport and the copious mud and sand I see in the gorge. While not DOT approved, I landed on the Shinko 505 after seeing several friends run that tire at previous events. I was concerned the front knobs might not be firm enough to handle braking on pavement, but in the interest of “science” ordered the matching 504 anyway.

From sandstone ledges, bottomless Jeep pits, rocks, creekbed sand washes, and The Holler in “Clay City”, I couldn’t be happier with the 504/505. After five days of riding like a moron off-road and on-road, the front knobs still look like new, and the rear knobs aren’t half worn. The leading edge of the rear tire is beat up from some wheel spin on the rocks and braking on asphalt, but after 30 minutes with the “knobby knife”, they’re sharped up and ready for more.

The tight knob pattern of the 505 naturally struggles in the sticky mud and clay, so wheel speed is critical. That said, if the trail is dryer than it is wet, or you’re in the sandy loam of the gorge area, the 505 puts down solid traction. Having seen the 505 on the trail in the past, I was most impressed with the performance of the front. I expected those knobs to be fully loaded with clay and mud at the first sight of damp trail. The only time I really struggled was the swampy section of The Holler known as “no man’s land”. The 504/505 combo was so good, I want to take them to a race during the dry season to see how they fare.

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Dirt Bike Tales: First Half of KXCR 2021

“Pain, anguish, adversity, struggle, exhaustion, defeat, financial stress, maintenance nightmares… growth, adventure, challenges, community, accomplishment, satisfaction.”

Something I wrote on Instagram a few days ago. Since my departure from the military, I’ve never had such a passion for something, nor have I been punished so severely for that passion, as I have with motorcycles. The highest highs and the lowest lows, “embrace the suck” is a strange rhyme that I hear a few days after a gnarly mudder and the fever sets in again…

I apologize for my absence here on the blog. Aside from extremely heavy doses of “life”, this season I’m trying to make every round of Kentucky Cross-Country Racing if I can. With that, I’m also helping KXCR publish recap videos for the series. Each round I record footage of the morning races, drone shots of the property, and shoot my afternoon race from the saddle for as long as the battery will last.

I’ve been working toward better and better video content over the last few years, and support KXCR has been a great exercise to help hone those skills. Even if you’re not into motorcycle racing, I’d politely ask that you go over to KXCR’s YouTube channel and take a peek at this year’s teasers. Needless to say, I’d love to hear feedback here and on the channel (note: the round 4 video is my favorite thus far).

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Hare Scrambling 101: Your First Cross-Country Race

So you bought a dirt bike after some nagging from your riding buddies? You’ve noticed photos on Instagram of your friends crossing logs and splashing through the mud with numbers on their helmets. Suddenly you’re feeling more and more curious about this whole racing thing, but you don’t know who to ask or where to start?

Last spring I bought a race bike and spent the year competing in a full season of local cross country races (hare scrambles). I’m obviously not a pro, but here’s a year’s worth of lessons I’ve learned, most of which, the hard way.

What’s a Hare Scramble?

Short Answer:

An off-road motorcycle race of varying distance and time where competitors ride laps around a marked course through wooded or other rough natural terrains.

Long Answer:

Unlike the wide-open, well-manicured tracks and jumps of motocross, by contrast, Cross-Country races traverse a more rugged track laid out through the woods. Race organizers walk and mark a track with arrows and remove minimal obstacles to make the course as challenging as they see fit for their given series. Courses may be immaculate, sweeping double track through the woods, or tight technical single track through rock gardens, over logs, through muddy creeks, and everything in between.

To start the race, competitors line up in rows based on their skill level. Faster riders start in the front rows, slower riders toward the back. With this setup, racers are directly competing against other racers in their class, but must also navigate traffic from the rest of the competitors on the course at the same time. Most local series have a “trail rider” class for people that want to pay a few bucks to ride the course but don’t want to compete for points.

To start the race, the announcer will give the first row of competitors a 10-second warning, after which the flagman waves the green flag. The officials will repeat this process until all the rows are released onto the track. From there, competitors will complete as many laps around the course as possible until the time has expired or the leader has completed the predetermined number of laps.

Why should I start racing?

I make a lot of jokes, but the cliche rings true, “Dirt bikes. The most fun you’ll ever have hurting yourself”.
Racing isn’t for everyone, and despite my jokes, while a possible threat, pain is not a requirement for racing. For those of us with a competitive spirit, or anyone that’s always looking for more opportunities to challenge themselves, racing a dirt bike is tough to beat.

Race weekend is also a family affair. Lots of folks roll in the night before, unpack the RV, start a fire, and camp out. Mom, dad and the kids may all be racing in their own classes. At the same time, as you meet the same people weekend after weekend, you start realizing you’ve also built a racing family. You may be competing against the same people every round, but you’re still fist-bumping your biggest rival at the finish line, even if you don’t finish first.

Here on the east coast, public riding locations are a bit scarce and often mean a long drive to reach. Racing in the local off-road series means getting access to exclusive trails on private property. A given race series may return to the same property each year, but will also cut a new course to keep things interesting and preserve the land.

I will never minimize the value of taking riding classes or getting a coach. With that, I cannot overstate the fact that racing teaches riding skills at an exponential rate. Certainly, you can learn bad habits, however, by watching people that are faster than you, you’ll discover new ways to overcome obstacles. Moreover, as stated elsewhere, the eagerness to conserve energy almost forces you to learn to ride better because you’re simply tired of feeling exhausted.

What do I need to get started?

A mechanically sound off-road motorcycle, reliable bike transportation, some cash in your wallet, and a positive attitude.

You’ll also need to know where to go. Here in southwest Ohio, we have no less than three racing series to choose from (OXCR, IXCR, and KXCR). While not exactly local, there’s also the AMA Grand National Cross Country (GNCC) series here on the east coast (there are rounds in Indiana, West Virginia, and Ohio that I know of). Tapping some friends on the shoulder and some googling will undoubtedly lead you to a local series.

From there, spend some time going over your bike. Spend a few bucks to fix those nagging repairs you’ve been putting off. Get a fresh set of brake pads, and if you haven’t already make sure you have a good skid plate and some handguards. An investment in a good set of knobby tires is also a wise decision. If it’s dry, about any tires will do… if it’s muddy, that extra cash spent may mean the difference between making a hill climb and picking up your bike for the third time.

How do I prepare myself for racing?

I’ll repeat this until I’m blue in the face “The first rule of Zombieland is Cardio”. I started racing after adventure riding for a few years. It’s a diametrically different experience. To me, adventure riding meant riding hard trails, but it was almost always a group affair, and you’ll always end up taking a break somewhere. Racing means giving it everything you have until the clock stops. In my case, that’s riding flat out for 2 hours in Kentucky. You’re tired, and when you crash, you’re even more tired from picking up the bike. Exertion is cumulative, each time you drop the bike, the more tired you’ll be, and the more mistakes you’ll make because you’re exhausted. The more fit you are, the less you’re affected by pushing hard and picking up the bike, and most importantly the fewer mistakes you’ll make later.

That said, this isn’t a requirement. I sat on my butt a lot in 2019. I obviously didn’t finish well because I was tired, but still finished. I don’t recommend signing up for a gym membership before racing, give it a go and see if you like it, and use that as motivation to get in shape if you’re having a good time.

With that, there’s fit and there’s bike fit. Per my previous comments, the body wants to put in the least amount of effort possible. Cardio is good, but not at the expense of seat time. Riding the bike in hard conditions can simulate bike cardio and help teach you the skills necessary to keep the bike upright in bad conditions.

Attitude is Everything

Most of us mortals are highly unlikely to make the podium on day one. Racing is humbling. I thought I knew how to ride when I showed up at my first race. Boy was I wrong… A few turns in, I questioned if I’d finish at all. Riding home, I questioned if I’d ever race again. That evening I questioned if I had fun. After a week or so I realized I had a great time and couldn’t wait to do it again.

For some, staring defeat in the face is a motivator. They feel pushed to keep going, just to finish. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea, so don’t lose sight of what makes motorcycling “fun” for you. There’s nothing wrong with signing up to “trail ride” a race and just enjoying access to fresh singletrack you’d never get a chance to ride otherwise. Looking back at a few tracks I’ve raced, I wish I could have slowed down to enjoy the view. Most importantly, don’t sacrifice your body or your bike just to cross the finish line. Also, there are course marshalls all along the trail to help keep people moving along the track. I’ve seen course marshalls ride bikes up gnarly hill climbs for trail riders so folks can keep going.

What skills do I need?

This answer is going to vary for everyone. From my perspective, I struggle with starts, sharp turns at high speed, and generally staying on the bike. I find most people struggle with hills, both climbs, and steep descents, and especially what to do when they’re “stuck”. It’s worth your time to find a place to ride locally and practice all of these things. Get stuck on purpose, try obstacles you find intimidating, and work on improving your balance on and off the bike. Doing difficult things slowly will pay dividends later.

It would also behoove of you to know some basic maintenance on your bike. What to mess with when you’re having a hard time getting it started. Knowing how to fix a flat tire would also be a wise skill; not necessary for the first race, but it will likely make it more enjoyable if you get a flat, versus packing up a broken bike and going home. I also recommend you know what basic tools you need to work on your bike so you can bring some with you, including a few small tools while racing. I bent foot pedals, twisted front forks, and knocked handguards askew a lot in early races, that stuff is pretty annoying when you’re already struggling in a race. A set of vice grips, zip ties, and an Allen wrench can often get you out of a pinch.

What gear do I need?

You’ll get varying advice from everyone, but I’m firm on good moto boots, a helmet that fits correctly, a roost guard (chest protector), and shin/knee guards.

Goggles are another must. They come in all shapes and sizes and don’t forget the tear-offs. You’ll also want to practice wearing goggles with tear-offs in some crappy situations. If you’re not used to your goggles fogging, you’ll want to be prepared for that, it’s going to happen on race day.

I personally recommend elbow pads. Maybe I’m old, but I see a lot of racers skipping those. After busting my elbow on hardpack dirt that stung the next day, I’m glad I wore elbow pads.

Gloves is kind of a given, and there are a million to choose from. For typical motocross racing, I see a lot of folks wearing the motorcycle equivalent of Mechanix gloves. I personally pay a bit extra for a heavier set, which also includes a knuckle guard. I beat my hands up pretty good picking the bike up off rocks and whatnot, so it’s one less thing I want to worry about. Your mileage may vary.

I highly recommend you invest in a water bladder of some kind. After years in the desert, I wear a Camelbak religiously, but it really depends on how well you hydrate, fitness, and all that.

Lastly, you may want to bring an action camera. Most of us aren’t going to become professional YouTubers, but sometimes watching the race after the fact will show you where you made mistakes and can improve. The video might help you see better lines and what the faster riders are doing that you’re not. If nothing else, you and your friends can laugh at the carnage.

What’s the first race going to be like?

Here in southwest Ohio, I’m usually a two-hour drive from the closest race. I get up early, load the bike on the Jeep and head out with enough time to get gas, and take at least one break on the way there (be it breakfast or a necessary “pre-game pitstop”). Having been through this process a lot, I usually show up about an hour before the race starts. First go-round, I recommend you allot for as much time as possible (more on that in a second).

When you roll up to the entrance there will be a gate fee. Locally it’s like $10-20 (it may be per person; I’m always solo so I don’t know). I always ask the gate person where the registration booth is, you’ll be headed there first. You’ll likely notice a large number of RVs and Campers in the parking area. I try to find a spot that’s close to registration, or at least somewhere with firm ground and easy to get out of when it’s time to leave (I’ve raced a lot of mudders and seen people get stuck).

You’ll want to take your helmet up to registration as soon as you get parked. For your first race, you’ll pay a registration fee (~$40), and you’ll need to buy your race transponder (~$10). The transponder is a sticker that goes under your visor that keeps track of your laps when you ride through scoring. I also recommend “pre-registering” if you know you’re going to show up “rain or shine”, which lets you skip ahead in line, which may be exceptionally long depending on weather and time of year. Locally, registration will also give you “cheek” numbers for your helmet; these are used as a secondary method to keep track of how many laps you’ve done to make sure electronic scoring is accurate. Lastly, you’ll get a “row sticker” for the back of your helmet; this sticker will tell you where to line up at the start and is based on whatever “Class” you told registration you wanted to compete in.

Once you’re paid up, head back to your bike to get things prepped to ride. I always bleed my forks and check tire pressure before a race. A moto race stand isn’t necessarily required for this, but it sure makes the job easier. I typically start the bike and let it warm up some while I start getting dressed. I make sure my action Camera is working, fill my Camelbak, and packed with a few hand tools, then head over to the starting line.

Depending on how early you arrive, you may have time to watch some of the preceding races. I get kicks out of watching the PeeWees race, every time. A lot of those kids have more talent on a dirt bike than I ever will. You may also want to scope out the food truck, for a pre-race snack or to know where it is for some grub afterward.

As time gets closer, you’ll see other riders headed toward the start in droves, just in case you’re not sure where it is. You’ll see rows marked with big numbers and you line up with the rest of the folks competing in your class. I try to look over my bike one last time, make sure the gas is “on”, etc. I also take this time to stretch a little bit.

Eventually, you’ll hear the announcer talk about the course, some tips, and rules, and then they’ll play the national anthem. And then you wait. This is the worst part of the race for me. You’ll be standing in line, waiting for the race to start, anticipating what’s about to happen. That’s when nerves finally start getting to me. It’s obviously better now after many races, but I’m anxious every single time.

The announcer will say “10 seconds”, and the flagman will wave the green flag for the first row. Starts are typically “dead engine” starts, so you can kick start your engine as the first few rows take off, to make sure it’s still warm. The flagman will wave a red flag for everyone to shut down, and then the process repeats until every row is on the course.

A hot tip from my buddy Jake, “You can’t win the whole race in the first turn, but you can lose it all right there”. Remembering that I have to be at work the next day, I tend to hold back a bit to let the “hard-chargers” get upfront to bang bars and whatnot. Do what you feel comfortable with obviously. For me, hanging back means dealing with more traffic as the course tightens up, but it beats being run into.

From there, you go around the course as many times as you can until time runs out. As you reach scoring, you’ll see a flagman waving yellow “caution” to have everyone ride single file, slowly through the timing gate. They will also wave white and then the checkered flag depending on how many laps you get in (I’ve seen just checkers in the past).

You’ll be tired, you may be miserable, but hopefully smiling. Ideally, you’ll still finish, but even if you don’t, the course marshalls will help you get back to the finish (they have tow straps, tools, ATVs, and whatever it takes to keep riders safe and get them home). Regardless of how you finish, you should feel accomplished, most people stay home on Sunday, but you’re trying something “hard”. From here it’s the long ride home, and ideally… that’s when race fever sets in.

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Harley-Davidson Is Doing It Wrong

In recent days Harley-Davidson has trickled out more information about their new “Hard Wire” plan. While there is a lot that goes into this, including information consumers aren’t privy to, the plan in general sounds like “cut expenses, maximize margins, and concentrate on core products”.

From most other companies, that might be dabbling in markets outside their main customer base, I would say this strategy makes perfect sense (coming from a guy that’s never run a company). Unfortunately, Harley-Davidson has a very clear track record of NOT drifting away from its core products. Buell was closed, MV Agusta was sold, the V-rod was a one-off project, and I’m sure there are other stories akin to these.

So what’s the problem?

Harley-Davidson shareholders are unhappy with the company’s performance.

Why is this happening?

I’ve written about this before, but there is a myriad of reasons, and I suspect all of them are correct in one way or another. Harley’s are expensive in an age where wages have not kept up with inflation (allegedly). Boomer and Gen-X helicopter parents have given birth to a generation of tech-savvy, risk-averse children. Millennials want to have “experiences” and not accumulate “stuff”. Boats and motorcycles are no longer the status symbol of choice… and the list goes on.

As a guy born on the leading edge of the millennial generation, the son of a Harley owning baby boomer, in my mind there are a couple of obvious reasons this is happening:
Harley-Davidson has an image problem and only sells premium cruisers.

Translation: Until recently, Harley-Davidson commanded “premium” status but more recently began to signify the pinnacle of “Keeping up with the Joneses” in the Millennial eye, if not just “the bike my grandpa rode”. One could feasibly buy two new motorcycles for the price of one staple Harley-Davidson, each of which offering a wider range of riding capabilities.

Before I go any further, I want to clarify: I like Harley-Davidson motorcycles. I’ve never owned a Harley, but I have ridden many of them. For folks unfamiliar, my first “motorcycle” was a cruiser. I was a member of a military motorcycle club for a while and like to think I understand that demographic and what many cruiser owners enjoy about motorcycling. Cruisers are not currently high on the list of “how I like to motorcycle”, but I suspect they may be again someday.

I’ve also gone through a phase of “Harley isn’t worth the money”, “I’d never buy a Harley”, “they’re not that good of a motorcycle” and (insert trope here) but have come full circle at this point. Motorcycles are tools, each of them does something different. A day on a motorcycle is better than a day at work, every time. What everyone likes best about motorcycles is very different, and the bikes moreso. This sentiment will mean more in the words that follow.

What do I think Harley-Davidson is doing?

According to the news, they’re cutting expenses, trying to maintain profits, and focusing on what they think they’re good at. This means concentrating on selling bikes with larger margins, eliminating low profit bikes, and most importantly, deliberately trimming the number of units built each year, limiting the supply in an attempt to prop up demand from a shrinking customer base.

All of that to say that I believe what they’re actually doing is trying to appear “profitable” to appease shareholders and strategically position the company for purchase by a larger company that can inject capital into the brand so that it can evolve and survive.

wired.com photo

All of this makes me think of when I first started looking at motorcycles. I didn’t want a bike that “everyone else had”, so I looked at Triumph and Indian motorcycles. The latter is of particular interest in this case because, at the time, dealers were scarce, prices were high, and I suspect the number of units sold each year was low.

I bring up the “King’s Mountain” Indian era because that is who I believe Harley-Davidson will become. If Harley-Davidson stays on this road, I believe they will become irrelevant. The Motor Company will become an American boutique brand offering a premium product for a niche market that appreciates that image and can afford to pay for it.

Now, if Harley received the correct injection of capital, perhaps it too could have the Cinderella story that Indian is currently experiencing. That said, while there are lots of Indian motorcycle dealers around the country now (my closest is an hour away), they too are still struggling with their identity. The FTR 1200 is a step in the right direction, but Indian is also a very slow-moving ship, selling primarily heavyweight cruisers, both in kilograms and pounds sterling. If they don’t get it in gear soon, they too will be facing similar financial hurdles.

It doesn’t have to go this way.

Where did Harley go wrong?

Someone sitting behind a desk, looking at financials did what they always do with publicly traded companies, they fired someone recommending they evolve and experience a fundamental change in values. They slashed every project that appeared unprofitable (that’s any research and development project as it by definition hasn’t realized any profits), asked what their best selling products are, who their primary customers are, and said “let’s focus on selling these products to those people”.

Amid the “stick to what we’re good at” conversation, people sitting behind desks missed out on some key strengths.

Marketing

Have you ever seen anyone with a Honda tattoo? I’m sure they’re out there, but I’ve never seen one. However, I’ve seen dozens of Harley-Davidson tattoos. People love what the Motor Company represents so much they permanently mark their own bodies with a logo. That’s marketing and brand loyalty that most brands would kill for.

Harley-Davidson is a marketing machine, like none other. Jensen Beeler of Asphalt & Rubber has said that HOG (Harley Owners Group) is a major topic of discussion in business school because it’s been so successful in keeping a customer base loyal to a brand. Say whatever you want about their motorcycles, how fast they go and how they sound, like “Kleenex” and “Coke” the word “Harley-Davidson” and “Motorcycle” are interchangeable for a lot of Americans.

Dealer Network

The best article I could find suggested that there are over 700 Harley-Davidson dealerships in the US; roughly 2 for every major metropolitan area. I can think of 3 right off hand here in Dayton; 4 more in Cincinnati 45 minutes away.

When shopping for a new bike, I hear many riders lament that they would purchase motorcycle brand “X”, but they don’t have a dealer in town and they worry about having problems with the bike. Aside from having a shop on every street corner, Harley-Davidson is also known for its stocked showrooms, merchandise, and proximity to the interstate. The orange and black showrooms are strategically located to dominate the attention of prospective riders and build a network that sets fear at ease with regards to getting parts and service.

Simplicity and Ease of Ownership

I have a Triumph twin that requires valve clearance checks every 12,000 miles. In the past, that meant I was tearing it apart twice a year. Do you know what would have been less work and cheaper? Buying a Sportster.

Akin to “they leak oil”, I often read comments to the effect of “unreliable” and “1930’s technology” when the latest Harley article is published. For whatever reason, people seem to think that push-rod engines are antiquated technology and shouldn’t be on motorcycles. I assume these comments are made by people that don’t adjust valve clearances every season. Again, engines are tools, for different jobs, and like all things, design features come at a cost. Two-strokes have double the power of four-strokes but also require top-end maintenance twice as often. Inversely two-stroke maintenance is cheap because the system is simpler, so which do you prefer? In the case of Harley-Davidson, their engines don’t spin very fast, are under-square (stroke is longer than bore diameter), and have push-rod valve trains. Straight-fours spin well over ten-thousand RPMs and make 200 horsepower, but have cam chains and manually adjusted “shim-under-bucket” valve tappets. Not to mention the painstaking process of removing the Tupperware and electronic gadgets necessary to get to the engine. Performance comes at a cost, not to mention, most of that performance cannot be realized at legal speeds. Longer stroke means gobs of torque, resistance to stalling, but pushrods limit RPMs and therefore truncate horsepower. However, pushrods with hydraulically adjusted valves means never opening an engine until it’s time for a major overhaul. Different strokes for different folks.

Infinite Customization

Look, neither studs and leather nor farkles and techno-wiz-bang-ery do much for me. However, that’s absolutely “a thing” for a large portion of the rider population, regardless of riding taste. The Starbucks brigade and the asphalt pirates both enjoy bolting stuff to their bikes and geeking out over it in the parking lot with their buds. More power to them. The selling point here is that if there’s something you want to do with your Harley, someone has tried it before, and someone is ready to sell you the parts to get it done. Want to slam your bagger or scramble your sporty? No problem. Moreover, this circles back to dealer network and market share, it’s less work to find “how-to” walkthroughs for wrenching on your Harley, and as I just said, part sourcing is infinitely easier and is likely right up the road.

So where is Harley now falling short?

First, if reduced supply is what is going to maintain demand and by extension profitability, then I expect dealers to close. That whole spiel about dealer network becomes a moot point. There’s an argument to be made that this was going to happen anyway. That’s certainly a possibility, and we can discuss that further at some point as well, but in the meantime, that’s a business plan with brand wounding potential. To the layman, news of dealers closing sounds just as bad as profit losses.

However, with regard to simplicity and ease of ownership, they may be maintaining that streak by focusing on high-margin touring bikes, but I suspect the new engine platform is radically different. The new revolution max engine appears to be an overhead cam design. This isn’t Harley’s first foray into DOHC architecture, the V-rod was a performance engine, and that’s actually why I’m concerned about this choice.

Under Levatich, “more roads to Harley-Davidson” felt like a branching out approach to bring more riders onto the brand and “100 new bikes” to offer models these new riders were interested in. The MoCo was already heading down that road when someone pulled on the reigns and suggested they trim expenses. These new platforms, like the Pan America, were already too far along to halt production. Harley suddenly seems very tight-lipped about “Bronx” and the host of other new models we expected to see at this point. This new engine platform is likely a radical departure from the push-rod big-bore V-twins that will continue to dominate the showroom. In a culture where folks have said “that’s not a real Harley”, I have a hard time believing the rank and file dealership staff is chomping at the bit to sell this new bike that Harley suddenly seems reluctant to talk about. Meanwhile, crusty Aerostich clad spacemen will suddenly be entering showrooms to see this new Pan America, adding a whole new customer demographic that is typically diametrically divergent from their “core customer base”.

What would I have done differently?

In short, use the marketing machine to promote the simplicity, reliability, and capability of the brand. Branch out into new riding segments, but focus on the strengths of the brand to differentiate, not imitate the motorcycles from the competition. Simultaneously, embrace the millennial mantra that a motorcycle is a vehicle to an experience.

Again, some folks may scoff at “Harley-Davidson reliability”. Initially, those people are not likely to be future customers. That’s okay, not everyone wants a certain type of motorcycle. However, when more and more people start seeing bikes like the Pan America in the wild, they see what the bike can do, and suddenly realize it’s a viable option for the kind of fun they are looking for. That’s the key, people must see it to believe it. People have seen leather and chrome for generations. That’s what Harley was selling, and what the majority of the American motorcycle population was looking for. The Bar & Shield needs to shift the marketing machine’s focus toward what Harley owners have known for a long time; having a Harley means simple maintenance, ease of ownership, and bikes that have character in spades.

I agree Harley-Davidson would be wise to slow down on loud pipes, copious chrome, and slammed suspension. However, I think evolutionary change is a better game plan for the brand than radical swings in product offerings. I fear the Harley faithful are confused by what the brand is doing and the naysayers still shy away from the “new” products they’re selling. However, as I’ve published elsewhere, if the brand embraces a scramblerized and “sportier” Sportster, it’s low effort from the engineering department and incremental change among the customer base. Aside from looming emissions standards, these are changes Harley and be doing now, not waiting on a new model release. With that, a cruiser chassis with an advanced new engine is unlikely to stir interest from non-traditional customers. However, a simple, reliable V-twin in a more neutral chassis could merge into a solid “standard” motorcycle, with the potential to become Harley’s Bonneville. At the same time, I’m not saying Harley shouldn’t evolve into more advanced technology, but as other brands are doing, new engine platforms must go into multiple chassis. I also think it’s important that a brand and its engineers don’t forget where they came from and abandon the entrenched strengths of the brand to reach new customers. Harley-Davidson needs to evolve, but it cannot wake up tomorrow and stop being Harley-Davidson.

While I certainly don’t speak for all Millennials, in general, I find most of my peers are value-focused shoppers. They already have the latest smartphones and televisions and frankly don’t need expensive infotainment and navigation systems. TFT dash and Apple CarPlay might be moves in the right direction, but where the bike is going to take them and who’s going to join them is the real kicker. To Harley’s credit, the marketing machine is already starting to move in this direction. Advertisements now include helmets and fully geared riders, along with a wider demographic.

With that, Adventure and off-road riding is obviously a growing segment, and there’s no reason Harley can’t throw their hat in that ring. Most importantly, you don’t need a $20,000 motorcycle to do it. A Sportster with some knobbies can do as much off-roading as a 1250 GS Adventure (ask me how I know ). Harley is right to get into the premium adventure market, but they would be foolish to abandon the younger crowd; a population that has less money to spend, but the youth to afford “bad decisions” in the name of “it makes for a good story”. Buying a simpler, more affordable Harley means more money for gas and tires, and more beers with their friends around the campfire, and wrenching in the garage because it’s feasible to do so. As folks get older, they shy away from risk but typically have more disposable income. That adventure touring motorcycle starts making a lot more sense, and the creature comforts that come with it.

Harley-Davidson might be wise to maintain its premium status. I won’t debate that, it’s a business decision for people with experience in “business”. Triumph made a hard shift in that direction in 2016 with the new Bonneville platform and subsequent models since. Best as I can tell, it’s working for them. However, selling a premium bike that’s not as expensive as a car, is also an option (again, the Triumph Street Twin).

Moreover, an expensive bike with “new” technology that still weighs a ton is a non-starter. If the bike is affordable, but maintaining the bike implies selling an organ, that reputation is going to get around and become another deal-breaker with a generation of future buyers. (I.e. the Ducati of a not so distant past). It’s essential that Harley-Davidson attract the attention of the Millennial generation now. If they wait until Millennials can afford premium touring machines, they’ll be confronted by the memories of “their dad’s bike”, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. That is why I’m concerned about this “5-year plan” the MoCo is on now, if they wait much longer, I fear the ship has sailed.

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