A day out in the hills of Powys with Yamaha’s Ténéré Experience got us thinking about how big trailies relate to the rest of dirt biking. Similar, but different. If you've not tried one yet, here's what you're missing...

It was a weird sensation - like stepping through the wardrobe into CS Lewis’ Narnia. We’d hopped onto Super Ténérés in the yard at Geraint Jones’ farm in Glyn Hafren, Powys, (home of Yamaha’s Ténéré Experience), then gently followed the wee tarmac road that climbs into the sweet-scented pine forest, and five minutes later popped out into the middle of a vast landscape. Mountainous, with ribbons of white water of streams trailing down to feed still, deep, reservoirs, heather and bracken colouring the slopes in muted greens and browns. And all of it seemingly empty. We stopped and cut the engines - all you could hear was the wind.

Not that you couldn’t reach this place using an enduro or trail bike. The point being, if you did that you might not absorb it so readily. An enduro bike likes to be ridden in an enthusiastic manner, it is a competition bike at heart, so it’s at its best when being fired along the tracks at some speed. Even on a trail bike you might be willed to search out the nearest tricky climb. But on a big 1200cc adventure you’re more inclined to slow it all down and reflect on the majesty. You’re appreciating the ride, and you’ll still be finding challenge on the trails guiding 250 kilos of machinery with some accuracy, but you’re equally appreciating the nature…

Big Rigs

The comparison of dirtbike to adventure bike is probably much like a car to an articulated lorry. You’ve got very similar controls, the theory is very much the same, only the execution is very different. Having lived by the maxim ‘light is right’ for so many years it is something to discover that there is joy in riding something so very big off-road. But there are conversion factors you have to take into account if you’re not going to end the experience injuring yourself or damaging the bike. There’s plenty of literature available on adventure riding techniques - we’ll not go over them in detail here - but we are interested in how your average dirt rider makes the conversion. So together with Dylan Jones, former BEC championship contender and now three years a guide on these big adventures, we’re taking a look at differences. And we’ve come up with five fundamental lessons you need to take onboard before going big on the big bikes...

Lesson one: Consider the size

‘The first thing you have think about is that you’re riding something which weighs almost two-and-a-half times the weight of an average enduro bike,’ explains Dylan.

It’s a simple statement but it is fundamentally important. Yes, one Super Ténéré is the equivalent of two-and-a-half 200EXCs. So when you’re attempting to hustle the big bike along the trails you have to bear that in mind. It means you are extremely unlikely to be able to lighten, let alone lift, the front enough to float it over a ditch or a log. You’ll do no more than lengthen your arms in trying to do so. So you have to ride through things you would otherwise fly right over.

And, consequent to that, you have to consider the impacts your front rim will take if you hit a ditch, a log or a rock ledge with any speed. On an enduro bike you’ll probably bounce over, with the adventure bike you’ll just smash that rim into the shape of a 50p coin. It’s happened to us, buckling the rim on an HP2 hitting no more than a 4in ledge - albeit at speed. And we’ve witnessed it happen to others, too - a few years back on a GS Trophy event in South Africa, Brit journo Warren Pole lost control of his F800GS at speed and bounced down a gravel road. The weight of the bike meant the rims were all but pulled off the hubs! So, you have to take the weight issue seriously.

Lesson two: Consider the speed

‘Once you’ve got used to the weight you have to consider that everything has to be done slower,’ continues Dylan.

Naturally, on the road an adventure bike can be much faster than an enduro machine, silly fast if you like. A BMW R1200GS will lick along at 120mph, no problem. The latest KTM 1190R Adventure, with 150bhp, will go even faster. Only remember on certain adventure bikes, (generally older models with with wire spoked wheels) you may be riding on tubes, not tubeless tyres, and if these puncture it can have catastrophic consequences. Also, if you’re riding on dual-purpose tyres there can be a lower speed recommendation, something like 160km/h (100mph). Even with this in mind, on tarmac an adventure bike races away from the enduro, even in the turns.

Off-road, it’s generally a reversal. On the Ténéré Experience we were mostly riding rocks and stone-based trails, and there was no way that we wanted to race along these at speed - the weight of the bike defeats you. You slam into every rock and the suspension won’t cope with the weight being thrust through it. On technical going, you don’t ride like an enduro rider, you ride trials style.

‘You really have to pick your way,’ says Dylan. ‘And the lines are very different to an enduro. You are constantly considering the lack of ground clearance, so unless you can carry a little momentum to float off a rock-step then you have to consider an alternative line. Typically you have to ride in the bottom of the ruts - you’re looking for the well-worn route. For all but the most skilled riders, fancy stuff is almost physically impossible.’

However, adventure bikes are typically faster than an enduro on gravel. Not that this is necessarily a good thing. The speeds you can achieve, and how quickly you can reach them, can be incredibly deceptive. The scenery can come towards you at an alarming rate and the issue with speed on gravel is not achieving it, any monkey can twist a throttle, it’s scrubbing-it-off. Slowing down on gravel is a difficult matter indeed.

The adventure bike does hold an advantage (in part) due to its weight pushing the tyres into the gravel, though this is countered by carrying far more momentum. Think back to our comparison between a car and an 18-wheeler. Yep, fast speeds on gravel on a big bike is a game of Russian roulette. Stopping is the one issue, the other is hitting the deep wash-out you didn’t see - again the weight, creating a huge kinetic force means the crashes will be seriously big.

In fact speed is the biggest single factor enduro riders need to appreciate when making the conversion to adventure bikes. There’s stuff that your experience will make very achievable for you, but you may not be so understanding of the consequences when doing it on an adventure bike. Modern adventure bikes can more than replicate the speed of big-bore Dakar racers of the past, and big speed on big bikes off-road is really no safer today than it was then. It might be big but it’s not always clever...

Lesson three: Consider the tyres

Adventure tyres make FIM enduro tyres look positively aggressive. Their design is again limited by the weight issue. They need to be robust to take the weight, and to take the power too. If you had a conventional knobbly on the rear of one of these it would be ripped to shreds in seconds. So the knobbly pattern is much broader and way more shallow, not even 10mm deep. Even made like this they can sometimes last barely much more than 1000-2000 miles, or just a couple of days, if ridden aggressively on the trails.

The sizes are far from ideal for the dirt, too. Some big adventures, like KTM’s 1190R, do still have 21in fronts and 18in rears, but most come with a 19/17in combination and usually with wide rims. This, combined with shallow knob patterns and almost always a front tyre with a scarily rounded profile, means they struggle with side grip, and with any grip at all on slick surfaces.

Dylan: ‘That’s another reason to use the ruts, they hold the tyres. Even venturing onto the central grass strip left by 4x4s in the lanes can cause you to fall if you’re not on the ball. The front tyres just push and if the weight shifts too much then you’re down!’

Lesson four: Rider aids do help

Enduro teaches self-reliance. You learn that when the front skids on the brakes then you release the brake. If the back spins-up under acceleration then you typically hook into it with some body weighting, using the sideways trajectory to finish off a turn. You probably grandstand a bit too…

Lock the front on an adventure and, as Dylan alluded to earlier, it’s all too easy to headbutt the ground. The weight, and geometry, means that the front-end tucks far more readily than on an enduro. You need to be ready for that. It’s why many riding schools teach you how to ride a big trailie (in a straight line) with the front locked-up.

With over 100bhp at the rear wheel a bit of wheelspin can become a LOT of wheelspin very quickly. Get a 250-kilo adventure too sideways and things get nasty. We’ve seen a Cagiva Canyon (with Ducati 900 motor) get crossed-up on a forest road, then dig-in, flicking the rider off and flinging itself up the track. There was probably 100 metres from the first dig to where the bike ended up in the bushes. You have to respect them.

‘Coming from enduro we didn’t immediately think we’d need ABS and traction control,’ explains Dylan, ‘but you soon realise they can make life a lot easier. The ABS on the Super Ténéré is very good, it doesn’t cut-in too early and from our experience we’d say 95% of the time it aids rather than hinders the rider.

‘And traction control, again for most people, helps. It certainly does with less-experienced riders because they haven’t got the finesse with the throttle control. Even me and Dad (Geraint) like it - it means we can get sideways intentionally but the traction control stops it going too far. We actually have more fun with it.’

Like many things, though, there are limitations. Riding a tricky trials-type uphill it was better without traction control, so you could spin the tyre slightly at the bottom to dig through the top layer of the soil and generate grip and better momentum. For slow-speed stuff, essentially…

And it’s worth noting that modern, sophisticated, rider aids work SO much better than those from even just a few years ago - ABS especially. Testing the front brake on the dirt, perhaps performing a few exploratory skids or slides early-on to find out how they react, will stand you in good stead. Barreling into a mountain hairpin is no time to discover that your brakes refuse to slow you down..!

Lesson five: The importance of your feet

Dylan: ‘From my point of view, I think its important to get people to put their feet down in the tricky going because the problem with these bikes is if you get them out of shape at a bit of an angle then you’re going over. So when it’s tricky - especially if you’re like me with short legs - it’s a good idea to get your feet down early because if it goes you can save it. Curiously, road riders can be afraid to put their feet down, where enduro riders can be quite relaxed about it - when we need to put our feet down we put them down.’

The feet-up/feet-down argument isn’t necessarily quite so clear cut, as taller riders will often find stood-up trials riding through tricky sections an advantage. You just need to recognise when it’s time to drop down into the seat and get your feet out - a lot earlier than you might on an enduro. As Dylan says, once the centre of gravity starts shifting away from directly above the tyre contact patch then these beasts will quickly start toppling and the weight and lack of grip from the tyres means they’re soon on their side.

That weight can be a real threat to your feet too, if you don’t get them clear quickly. Again, experience in the GS Trophy has seen quite a few riders suffer crush-type injuries to their feet where they trapped them under the bike in a crash or fall. While most adventure-specific boots look like a cross between a trials boot and a road boot - great for touring comfort rather than off-road protection - we prefer heavy-duty motocross boots for this job, simply for their sturdier build and armour. 250kg is a lot for an ankle to bear...

Being There

So you can see there are some considerations that come with adventure riding. It’s easy to under-estimate the job. It’s easy to get carried away. It’s easy to inadvertently have a big crash if you’re not aware of the limitations - both yours and the bike’s. It’s not like enduro, not even like trail. And yet it is incredibly rewarding, a fine challenge for a rider, still. And as a way of seeing the great outdoors, it’s very hard to beat.

‘You mostly enjoy being out ‘n’ about and seeing the scenery,’ confirms Dylan. ‘Of course, it doesn’t give the same buzz as riding an enduro because everything has to be done slower and you can’t ride some of the extreme stuff, but then again some trails that wouldn’t be very interesting on an enduro bike ARE very interesting on an adventure bike because it makes it that much more of a challenge. [The same could be said for certain events, too.]

‘Around here, in this part of Wales, we have some amazing riding for these bikes, too. There is so much media focus on round the world trips, or remote African expeditions and such, but its surprising how much good riding there is for big bikes here right on our own doorstep. More than enough to at least lift your skills to a very high standard before setting off on an intercontinental adventure.’

There are a lot of enduro riders already hooked on the big bike scene - you’ll find a Super Ten’ or a GS in their garage parked alongside the EXC - but there are many more who haven’t yet figured it out. Yeah, they’re missing a trick...

Following a catastrophic fire at The Yamaha Off-Road Experience in early 2017, the guys are thankfully now back in business. You can contact them at www.yamaha-offroad-experience.co.uk  for more details and costs etc... 

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