I officially started my South America bike trip around two weeks ago. I’ve been in Uruguay for over two months now, but after far too much waiting my bike arrived at the end of April, and the official trip is now underway.
I’m riding a 2017 KTM 1090 Adventure R. After much research on the perfect bike for the trip, one thing was clear. A KTM of just about any kind was a terrible idea. Yet here I am.
What Didn’t Happen
The 1090 was definitely not my first choice. It was this.
The Yamaha Tenere 700. This was perfect. A tried and tested engine. Lightweight. Dirt oriented. It was more comfortable than an enduro machine but was touted as far more dirt oriented than the Super 10. I had a Super 10. One sad day, I crashed it badly enough that it flipped over twice and bent the frame. Yet I was still able to ride it 250km home. I was sold on Yamaha’s reliability.
The problem is Yamaha still hasn’t released the damn thing. The bike may be available in South Africa later in 2019. Maybe. Even if it was, I considered the risk of purchasing a first generation bike in its first year of release too high. Despite all the testing on Yamaha’s part, once the product is released into the market people will almost certainly find new faults. Maybe enough to initiate a recall. I didn’t want those problems in a foreign country.
Naturally my other bike of choice was this
Unlike Yamaha, KTM announced the 790 and actually released it. They are in short supply in South Africa, but they are at dealers now. Still, the problem was getting a first generation bike in its first year of production. So that dream died.
Criteria For A RTW Bike
Conventional wisdom is best here. Get a simple, reliable, lightweight, preferably single cylinder bike like a DR650, KLR650, or similar. In no way am I arguing with that. It’s just not what I wanted. Here’s my thinking:
- The bike must be at least a twin. Why? Because after riding a single for 10 hours, all I want is for the vibration to stop. I had a KLR650. I think the most I did was around 750km in one day. It was not fun. I ended the day with a migraine. So if I’m going to be using the bike indefinitely as my primary means of transport, I wanted to be riding something more pleasant.
- Ground clearance and suspension needed to be excellent. This still left many choices but eliminated options like the VStrom.
- Weight is a big concern. There were no good choices here. Big adventure bikes are heavy. The lightweight options like the KTM 690, DR650, etc are all singles. If you’re going for a twin, the best you can do is select the least objectionable option.
- Simplicity. Here as well there were no great options. Pretty much every bike has complex electrical systems these days.
- Age. An old Africa Twin is simpler than a new Africa Twin and has sufficient power. Similarly a KTM950 is simpler than a 1090. At some point, obtaining parts for older bikes becomes problematic. My thinking was a relatively new bike is less likely to give problems than an older bike so firstly, it’s unlikely I would need to replace parts as often and secondly, if I did need to replace parts, they should be easier to order.
- It needs to be fun. Why would I pick a bike I don’t like?
After much homework online, as well as observing problems typically experienced by guys I knew locally, my offering were:
These bikes are masterfully engineered. My biggest concern was price. The cost of the initial motorcycle was high, but so was your value for money so that didn’t bother me too much. My real concern was maintenance costs down the road and of all the popular brands, BMW was routinely the most expensive to fix and maintain, even more so than KTM. Additionally, BMW parts were far too expensive for my liking. This is all based on what I read online. Of course your mileage may vary.
If I went the BMW route, I would have chosen the F800. Relatively lightweight, 18-21 wheels, simpler than the 1200, more dirt oriented, and an engine with no personality. The power delivery was so damn linear. That’s great technically, but it really lacked the fun factor.
Too many people I know have experienced odd problems with their bikes that were generally easily fixed, but that often required they take the bike into a dealer to fix. The problems varied and included things like parts coming loose, and the engine not turning over because of problems with the ignition system.
I’ve never ridden one, but from what I hear the Tiger 800 is an excellent bike, and those who own them swear by them. Often, they swear by them from their couches because the bike isn’t working well on the day but they also swear it will be fixed by tomorrow. So I’d be happy to own a Triumph, just closer to home.
I had a Super 10. The bike was amazing. I was also hugely impressed by Yamaha’s reliability and their customer service, at least at the dealership I used, was superb.
I just didn’t want another Super 10. I really wanted to 700, but they really screwed up on delivery of that bike. Had they released it a year prior, I would have been their first customer for the 2019 model.
I did test rides both on and offroad of the Africa Twin manual and DCT bikes. The DCT was a shock. It is so damn good! Honda dealerships around Cape Town arranged for a weekend away where the bikes could be tested and about 50 people attended I think. Everybody was curious about the DCT, but nobody took it seriously. By the end of the weekend, I doubt anyone would have minded riding the DCT version of the bike. Hats off to Honda.
Offroad, the bike felt amazing. The riding position, power delivery, handling, suspension, all felt brilliant. At very low speeds, I suddenly became very aware that I was riding a heavy bike. My perception may have been skewed since at the time, my bike of choice was a Yamaha WR450F modified to run as a lightweight ADV bike. Offroad, it would easily run circles around any big adventure bike, but that’s also hardly a fair comparison. Regardless, the Africa Twin was the best big adventure bike I had ridden offroad up to that point. I planned on buying one.
Then I rode the bike on tar and what a disappointment. I hated the 21 inch front wheel. I could feel it when I changed lanes. The impressive power delivery from dirt riding felt lackluster on the freeway. In traffic, the front nosedived if I hit the brakes too hard. None of these were problems, just disappointments. The bike I loved in the dirt simply wasn’t fun on tar. I didn’t buy one.
Suzuki and Kawasaki
The VStrom looks fugly, the newer models less so. While I’m sure the bike is very capable offroad, everything about it suggests it was made more as a daily city run around bike, with some touring and light offroading capabilities. It’s just not what I wanted.
I would love if Kawasaki released a more dirt oriented version of the Versys. From the homework I did, the Versys has the potential to be a great ADV bike, but for now it’s more of an on road tourer capable of riding some easy service roads. Again, not what I wanted.
They have a reputation for making the best offroad bikes. They have a reputation for being expensive. They do not have a reputation for reliability.
Still, it was part of my homework so I took both the 1290 Super Adventure R and 1090 Adventure R for a test ride. The 790 was my bike of choice but it had not even been officially released yet.
The 1290 was ok. It was big. The engine had lots of power, but in a very boring way. It felt like it had more power for the sake of having more, rather than for any real purpose. The LED screen looked amazing, but who focuses on the screen when you’re riding? So the novelty quickly wore off. By quickly I mean within 10 minutes. And they did something odd with the fuel tank. Standing felt weird.
The 1090 was something else. It felt more nimble. It had more than enough power. Lots of people complain about the outdated user interface but it didn’t bother me at all. The suspension felt great. Sitting and riding felt great. Standing and riding felt great. It felt like a big dirt bike. No other big ADV bike I’d ridden before felt like a dirt bike. It certainly didn’t look like a dirt bike, and there was no confusing it for a dirt bike when considering the weight. But for me, it just felt right. It was as if the engineers from KTM found a test rider my height (1.89m) and designed the bike based on his feedback. It was the best ADV bike I had ever ridden.
And The Winner Is …
The KTM 1090. Duh. I said so right at the top of this article. There are tons of reasons purchasing one was a bad idea. It’s only marginally cheaper than the BMW to maintain. Dealerships are much harder to come by, especially as you go further south in South America. The bikes are complicated to work on, relatively speaking. KTM does not have a great track record when it comes to reliability though I must say, the 2017 KTM 1090 Adventure R seems to have very few problems overall. And it’s a pain to lift once it falls down, even more difficult than the Super 10 which was over 30kg heavier.
But it’s my only bike. And it puts a smile on my face like no other big ADV bike ever did. So screw it, I’m crossing my fingers and making the unpopular choice. Because I love riding that bike!