PM test drive: dual to the death

  • The most powerful bike in our test, the KTM 450 EXC, has torque to burn. Image credit: Nathaniel Welch
  • PM test drive: dual to the death
  • Four members of the PM test team take turns sampling a range of dual-sport bikes on Death Valley"â„¢s Artist"â„¢s Drive. Above, the full group takes in a vista that includes the lower 48 states"â„¢ highest and lowest points.
  • Suzuki DR-Z400S
  • Honda CRF230L
  • Kawasaki KLX250S
  • Yamaha XT250
  • KTM 450 EXC
Date:30 September 2009 Tags:, , , ,

Five guys, five new dual-sport bikes and three days in death valley.

Watch out for the decreasing-radius hairpin turns when you’re blasting down Death Valley’s Titus Canyon. I’m the lead rider in our group of five, my helmet and hands buzzing from the KTM’s torquey 449 cm³ four-stroke. Every twist of this serpentine, dusty trail hides a surprise, and any hamfisted moves with the throttle could mean a side trip into the unforgiving brush – perhaps worse.

Suddenly, the trail snakes abruptly to the right; I barely make the turn and drift wide into the soft, sandy shoulder as the prickly branches of the desert sagebrush graze my legs. Whew.

Death Valley is notoriously unforgiving. It’s remote, dry and, yes, very hot – 56,6 degrees Celsius is the record temperature. There’s good reason automotive engineers arrive here every summer for hot-weather testing in camouflaged prototypes. If the air conditioning works in Death Valley, it works anywhere.

As inhospitable as this place may be, its topography is like an amusement park for hikers, campers and gearheads looking to get a little dirty. This 1,3 million hectare national park on the California-Nevada border has trails ideally suited to our mission: testing dual-sport motorcycles.

Dual-sport bikes are like the crossover SUVs of the motorcycle world. They are off-road bikes toned down and made legal for road use. Since weight is the enemy of off-road riding, they are all “thumpers” – torque-rich, single-cylinder machines that conservatively sip fuel. In America, they’ve become popular bikes for commuting. In fact, last year, that country’s dual-sport segment grew 23 per cent – impressive when one considers that the US motorcycle market as a whole declined by 3,3 per cent.

Our group of riders rambles into Death Valley National Park and convenes at the rustic Furnace Creek Ranch one early spring weekend to kick up some dirt. Our skill levels are as diverse as the bikes we’re testing. The Honda CRF230L and Yamaha XT250 represent the popular entry-level class. The Kawasaki KLX250S and Suzuki DR-Z400S are two consecutive upward steps in capability. Finally, at the extreme end of the performance envelope sits the KTM 450 EXC, a race-ready dirt rocket.

Professional tester Danny Coe has blasted each one down the quarter-mile at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California, before we arrive in Death Valley. So we have an idea which ones will take a more experienced hand. Our guest rider has spent a large part of his life on two wheels. Joining our team for this three-day trail test is part-time motorcycle rider and full-time MythBuster Jamie Hyneman. Jamie gravitates right to the fi re-breathing KTM – it became his favourite steed on this trip.

Rocky roads
The trails of Death Valley radiate outward like a pinwheel from our Furnace Creek home base. Dual-sport bikes don’t have to be hauled to the trailhead like a dedicated dirt machine. You just saddle up and ride. And to get in a full day of riding, we begin at the coldest part – early morning.

The stunning, snow-covered Panamint Range is a welcome distraction from the chill. Still, a 48 km asphalt ride reminds us that these bikes do have some drawbacks. There is no bodywork to shield you from the wind. The seats pack all the comfort of a park bench. And the knobbly tyres put little rubber on the tarmac. So these bikes certainly aren’t cushy cruisers. But it’s that upright riding position that makes dual-sport bikes so manoeuvrable – and perfect for the dirt.

The packed gravel road leading to Titus Canyon drops into an ever-narrowing switchback canyon. The road itself is mild. A rental car could make it – very slowly. But at the speed we’re going, the constant washboard bumps would probably shake a car dashboard into a pile of crumbled plastic.

These bikes have suspension travel to spare, so they soak up the ridges and allow us to race through to more challenging terrain. All of these bikes occasionally spit fist-size rocks. But when you’re dressed in a suit of armoured Alpinestars gear, as we are, you’re nearly bulletproof. Down in the canyon, as we slice between the high rock walls, the Honda and Yamaha ease us back into the sport. Just about anyone can throw a leg over these bikes; the learning curve is short. But dirt riding requires a subtle touch. It’s tempting to stiffen your arm muscles and make small, frantic steering corrections. Not only will you wake up the next morning with sore shoulders, but these bikes won’t respond well to this kind of riding style.

The best way to ride on this terrain is to guide the bikes and forget about small course corrections. It’s easier to stand and use your body weight to steer. Once you’re in a groove, the moves are graceful, satisfying and quite relaxing. Our group hits that mark as we close in on our lunch stop and glide past the rusty brown and slate-gray canyon walls. The KLX packs a surprisingly hefty punch. There’s a good balance between suspension travel and seat height. And the powerplant is more highly tuned than the other 250s here, so once you spin the motor to its 10 500 redline, hold on.

The deeper we go, the tighter the canyon gets. And nobody wants to let up. The big Suzuki and the KTM both have a wonderful overload of power. The Suzuki is equipped with slightly more street-oriented tyres. Yet the motor is ferocious, so lifting the front wheel is just a twist of the throttle away. But the KTM is really in another class. Even with the dirt-specific tyres, this bike effortlessly breaks traction, powerslides and sends up a sky-high roost of dirt. We quickly nickname it the Big Block.

For those of us with less experience, the KTM can be a bit intimidating. But Jamie can’t get enough of it. (By this time, the MythBuster has long since dispelled any doubts about his riding prowess – the man has serious off-road chops). The KTM is “a barrelful of monkeys”, he says, in one of those anachronisms that somehow sounds natural coming from under a handlebar moustache. “It gives me everything I can handle.”

We gun the bikes through the last of the switchbacks, dirt-track style, with the rear ends swinging wide. On the street these would be hooligan moves, but in the dirt, it’s just the right way to ride.

Tarmac ribbons
It takes a dip in Furnace Creek’s springfed pool to remove the day’s dusty fi lm. The next morning, we emerge fresh and ready to run the curvy pavement to 1 669 m Dante’s View. At the top, on this sparkling day, we could use a parka – it’s cold. We walk to the edge of the lookout and see both the highest and lowest places in the contiguous United States. Roughly 128 km to the west is 4 418 m Mount Whitney; on the valley floor, 86 m below sea level, the Badwater Basin spreads out like a chalk-white desert.

The chill melts away as our convoy snakes down to Badwater. On this billiard table-smooth two-laner, the smaller Honda and Yamaha struggle to maintain 110 km/h. The KTM has no such trouble. But oddly, the KTM’s saddle is not particularly wellsuited to… sitting. It’s rock-hard and narrow. The Suzuki, on the other hand, provides plenty of thrust and comfort – it’s the grand tourer of the group.

Badwater’s glowing white surface practically sears our eyeballs when we remove our helmets for a closer look. Nasa-strength sunblock wouldn’t have been enough. The basin is not unlike Bonneville – smooth and salty. But this is not a place for speed, unless you plan to compete in the Badwater Ultramarathon. We’ll pass. The temperature rises a tick over 32 degrees as we feel the crunch of the salty crust beneath our boots. That’s not Death Valley hot, but it’s uncomfortable able enough for us to mount up and seek relief.

Last man out
We have just enough daylight left to race out to the abandoned Inyo gold mine, a quick buzz up a 16 km trail. If we were crawling in a four-wheel drive, it would be dark by the time we arrived. Sometimes, two wheels are better than four. The last gold miners left about 70 years ago, but there’s still plenty of hardware strewn about. We spot a mineshaft up a steep, rocky trail and hop on the Yamaha. The XT250’s docile motor happily loafs along, allowing us to crawl up the treacherous hill. And the Yamaha’s low seat makes the precarious turnaround easy.

We fill up one last time at the petrol station next to the hotel bar. We have burned 76 litres in total – for five bikes – over 320 km of weekend exploring. Not bad. We park the bikes, dust ourselves off and head inside for a post-ride dinner.

The beer and steak taste so much better after a day out on the trail. Suddenly, midway through a pull of my second beer, the music dies. Power outage.

We can hear the howling wind and see the windows clouded with a thick, brown fog. “Nothing but a dust storm,” the bartender says. “But it’s the worst I’ve seen in a long time.” This is just the kind of unpredictability that makes the region such a bewitching place to ride. Still, there are times when Death Valley is best experienced from indoors. PM

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