Alone In Death Valley On A 636 lbs Motorcycle

Travel -


Yamaha Super Tenere

“You really shouldn’t be in the wilderness alone with no phone reception,” read the text from my not-a-girlfriend. But I didn’t get that until the next afternoon, back in Lone Pine, gassing up for the ride home. That’s because there really is no cell reception in this remote northern corner of Death Valley National Park. “The most remote location in California,” there’s no water, no pavement and, most importantly, no people in Saline Valley either. A perfect destination then for an impromptu bit of wanderlust on a Friday afternoon. Especially when there’s a knobby-equipped Yamaha Super Tenere calling your name.

Love at first sight?

I hated the SuperTen when I first rode it. There, I said it. Coming off the essentially perfect V-Strom 650 about a month ago, I was underwhelmed by the Yamaha’s weight, gawky looks, limited comfort, compromised handling and rough engine. Sure, it was torquey, pulling hard from just 3,000 rpm, but, in fast-moving LA traffic, the engine ran out of steam too soon, redlining at just 7,800 rpm and power noticeably tapering off just above 7k in a vibey mess. To make it worse, the engine sounds more like a paint shaker than a big, powerful twin; all mechanical clatter and no exhaust or intake notes.

Riding in LA is an odd mix of very high speed highway riding in which you need to be both aggressive and precise flying through crazy traffic, then very low speed splitting through gridlocked surface streets. Again, aggressive and precise, just in slow motion. To do all this well, I need to trust that I can put a motorcycle where I need it, with maybe an inch’s tolerance; both at 95 mph and 5 mph. I need the bike to do that while cornering, braking, accelerating and trickling along slipping the clutch and dragging the back brake.

In these conditions, I just couldn’t trust the SuperTen not to be an inch too far to the left or to pick itself up and go the split second I needed it to. In high-speed corners, it struggled to recover from changes in direction, such as changing lanes while leant way over to pick a line through cars. Switch from the right lane to the left and back again, while over more than 30 degrees, and the bike wants to continue going rather than return to holding the corner’s line. Worse, the pegs drag seriously early. Like three or four times a day early. Blame the weight — according to our friends at Motorcycle-USA, 636lbs with a full, 6-gallon tank and with boxes. 575lbs officially.

Because of that, I was prepared to dismiss the SuperTen as just a big tourer disguised as an ADV bike. A slower, taller FJR. Then I rode it the hour and a half up to Wheeler Gorge for a friend’s birthday camping trip. On that FJR, I’d have cruised up the 101 at a steady 85mph; fast enough to make progress, slow enough to dodge CHP. It turns out that 85 is sort of a watershed speed for the SuperTen. It’s not that it won’t go faster — I’ve seen close to 130 — but that cruising at a steady speed for a long period of time becomes distinctly unrelaxed. At 80mph, you’re in a robust, smooth rev range just above 4,000rpm. At 85, you’re close to 4,500, at which the engine becomes rough and feels like it’s working a tad too hard. Wind management over the big, adjustable wind screen, even in its tallest setting, become turbulent at 85 too. At least for my 6-foot, two-inch frame.

So the SuperTen isn’t perfect for city riding and isn’t a great tourer either. What the hell is it?

A month later.

Then, two weeks or so ago, I spent an entirely unnecessary 3 hours at Del Amo Motorsports getting the Bridgestone Battlewings swapped for knobby Continental TKC80s. When you see big ADV bikes jumping and sliding and generally doing dirt things in videos and catalogs and press shots, they’re not on the road rubber they come with stock, but these Continentals. We fitted them in preparation for shooting the first episode of our new show.

Equipped with ABS and really, really good, switchable traction control, I didn’t need to worry about the knobbies’ reduced grip on the road. Braking was still just a matter of grabbing as much lever as needed and accelerating out of corners, hard, was still just a matter of grabbing as much twist grip as needed. Sure, the bike wanders over California’s oxymoronic (or just moronic) rain grooves and braking distances in the wet were massively increased, but for hardcore dirt rubber, they’re more capable on the paved stuff than you’d think or really need.

Two days on fire roads up by Lake Hughes, with the video crew requesting pass after pass after pass after pass through what I’d dubbed “the scary water crossing” were spent with wide eyes and my stomach in my throat. But, by the end of them, I was nearing something approaching confidence in the bike off-road. At least enough confidence to decide that a solo trip down a sketchy dirt road in the most isolated wilderness in California was a good idea.

The road there.

Wrapping up work on Friday afternoon, I suddenly realized, for the first time in months, that I had no plans for the weekend. No show shoots, no photo shoots or feature stories to do for HFL. No friend or life commitments. Great, I thought, I’d sleep in, maybe drink a couple beers with some buddies, and generally take it pretty easy. Much needed after what, so far, is one of the busiest, most overworked years I’ve had. It was then that I had a crisis of identity. Was I the kind of person who spends weekends aimlessly drifting from one bar to the next? The kind of person who sleeps in past 9? Or am I the kind of person who does things, scary things, and is better for it? Tired of playing at adventure with a chase truck, friends and film crew, always safe in the knowledge that everything would turn out OK, I decided it’s the latter, so I threw some random assortment of camping gear into the SuperTen’s boxes, strapped a bag to the pillion seat and hit the road at 7:30pm. Dinner along the way, then I’d arrive in Lone Pine, up 395 between the High Sierras and Death Valley, around 11, stay in some crappy motel, buy some food first thing in the morning then head into the park for a full day’s riding, then a solid night’s sleep some place quiet.

Packing it in.

Attention motorcycle designers: please go out to your company’s garage and take a look at the SuperTen evaluation unit sitting there. See those panniers? Copy them. They’re spacious, yet narrow. They mount very securely, yet need only seconds to take on and off. They’re easy to carry off the bike, they’re completely waterproof and, if you aren’t set on packing that big wool blanket that keeps you unnecessarily cozy at night, they’ll fit a weekend’s worth of camping gear too. Fitted, the total bike package remains narrower than the handlebars, meaning lane splitting remains possible. We’re looking at you here Suzuki, and the very wide boxes you fit to the V-Strom 650 that make it wider than a small passenger car.

We also applaud Yamaha for its efforts at French/Japanese collaboration, but manufacturing the bike’s key — paired to the luggage — out of cheese was a bad decision nonetheless. You’ll bend it the first time you try and open the luggage, then spend every subsequent encounter with those or the ignition lock hands quivering in panic, trying not to break the damn thing. Maybe not the best way to manage man/machine interaction on a bike capable of taking you a long way from the nearest locksmith. We’d suggest metal next time.

That aside, the Tenere’s exposed subframe, multiple bungee points, huge grab rails and rear rack make strapping stuff to it incredibly simple. This is an exceedingly practical motorcycle if you need to carry large loads securely.

Saline Valley Road.

Down the 190 from Lone Pine, then turn onto the dirt road that leads off into the mountains. Bikers and drivers thinking they’re having an adventure, while sticking to the pavement, are invariably overcome by fits of camaraderie, each one stopping or slowing to ask if I’m OK as I air down the tires and pee on a shrub. Yes, yes, I wave at them, I’m fine and no I don’t need your help. Can’t you see that’s the whole point? I should have stopped over the next rise.

Continue Reading: Alone In Death Valley On A 636 lbs Motorcycle >>

  • Yuri

    Well done, a pleasure to read.

  • Kirill

    Great read. Can’t wait til these are super cheap on the used market in a coupe of years (hopefully).

  • PenguinScotty

    Great read, thanks for that. Seems like you greatly enjoyed it out there!

    I would LOVE to see a test of the KTM 990 Adventure (R), to see what you guys think of it.

    • Wes Siler

      Check out the left most feature box way up at the top of the page.

      • Grant Ray

        Actually, the bike I rode was the standard 990, not the 990 Adventure R. I don’t think KTM has one in the Press Fleet right now.

        • Wes Siler

          I don’t think there is an R anymore, what was the R is the 2012 ADV that you have.

          • Grant Ray

            There’s totally still an R edition in the lineup. I’m riding the standard model in Dakar blue.

            • PenguinScotty

              Thanks a lot for the link. I’m along time lurker, but just recently signed up.

              KTM still makes the R, but from what i can see, if it really is the new Dakar edition, what you had right there is the power of the R version paired with the ABS from the standard model. Personally, my favorite version. I don’t think that the Dakar has the same Suspension as the R, though.

              Regardless, greatly enjoyed the read and thanks again. Makes information gathering a lot easier!

  • ike6116

    I remember when HFL was based in NY they used to pride themselves on not writing glowing reviews of every motorcycle. Since the SoCal move positive reviews are WAY up. You’re even vacillating on previous hatred, WHAT IS THIS?!

    Bring back the edge! ;)

    • Mark D [EX500]

      It’s hard to be a cynical jaded bastard when you live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, it seems.

      • Ceolwulf

        But it’s what we pay them for!

    • Wes Siler

      Check out my T100 review from last month if you want negative.

      • damien

        Yeah, adv bikes can now do no wrong, but the city lifestyle bikes get shit on! haha. California living…

        *and of course, now I want an adv bike too.

        • Scott-jay

          Then HFL is successful to some degree: it’s nurtured want.


    Now would be a good time to repost the link to that insane superten hooning vid from way back.

    You should get a crazy expensive satellite phone to “review” for the next time you want to try something stupid. Glad yr not dead.

  • Campisi

    The kind of person who sleeps in past 9?

    Hey, I resemble that remark…

    Enjoyed the write-up, but if I wanted a dirt-capable machine that isn’t very good on the highway and has a rough engine, why wouldn’t I be better off with an XR650L or a KLR650? They’re more than capable of commuting and on-road duties, despite not being polished for the task, and most likely cheaper than the Super Tenere.

    • ike6116

      That is a solid question and I often don’t agree with anything that advocates KLR ownership.

    • Wes Siler

      Have fun riding that XR on the highway for four hours and the KLR has bargain basement parts that limit its ability pretty much everywhere.

      • Campisi

        Point, our XL600R (slightly different beast, but pretty close) needed a 40-tooth sprocket to be any good on the highway.

        What’s a good option for something like a Super Tenere that isn’t so chunky? Surely there’s an option out there that does mostly the same stuff but doesn’t have its own gravitational pull.

    • Eben

      Well, the KLR has traction control (not enough power to break the rear loose) and anti-lock brakes (seriously, those things don’t work), so you’re half way there. And if it’s not very good on the freeway? Who the fuck cares? Why choose a motorcycle based on how well it does in the least enjoyable place you can ride a motorcycle?

      • ike6116

        ABS works btw.

        • Eben

          I meant that the KLR brakes (pre-08, anyway) are so bad that it’s nearly impossible to lock them on dry pavement, making them anti-lock brakes, of a sort.

      • Campisi

        I was just pointing out that the Super Tenere sounded in my mind like a heavier and more expensive XL or KLR that still wasn’t very good on the highway, an impression that Mr. Siler happily pointed out wasn’t quite the case. I personally am in no danger of being a KLRer anytime soon; I don’t even think they sell them here.

  • Damien Loisy

    Great article. Also can’t wait for them to show up on the used market.

  • resonance

    so you realy liked it then, too bad im only 5’10 and that monster is too big.

    on a side note, you recomend that tent? i need a smallish tent for moto camping and it seems like the right fit.


    • R.Sallee (Ninja 250)

      I’m 5′ 10″ too. Sat on a Super Ten at the local dealer and was surprised how compact it feels. Definitely not too big for you unless you’re all neck.

      Cool article.

      • resonance

        maybe i jsut have short legs!! i think my inseam is about 29inches, by my quick ruler measurement…

        or maybe i was sittin on it on the centre stand, cant really remember clearly

        • Kevin

          I have a 29″ inseam as well. These adv bikes are at the limit of my reach, but I make do on the Multistrada with the standard seat.

      • Wes Siler

        Remember that the seat adjusts a little over an inch in height.

  • Archer

    Sat phone Wes. Cheap insurance when you decide to hang your life on the cheapest 10 yen Denso part in the bike.

    • Gene

      An ELT is probably better, as you can keep it on you for a panic button if you break an ankle or something. Being an Ocala farm boy, I know how deep the shit can get only a couple miles from civilization when all the dominoes fall wrong.

    • Wes Siler

      I’ll probably get a Spot or something soon. The point is sorta to be on your own though.

      • JVictor75

        Definitely get a Spot then. Nobody would be ABLE to bother you by calling – it only works one way(if you get the cheapest model).

        Better yet, what am I thinking? Why not contact them directly and see if you guys can get a couple of evaluation models?

        Coverage from Hell For Leather, your occasional foray into, and the new YouTube/Drive streaming video content site would be a hell of a free advertisement plug for them.

        Just sayin’

        • Wes Siler

          Yeah, that’d probably be smart. We’ll see if I can find 5 free minutes to dig up some PR contact details this week.

  • rvfrules

    Nice writeup, good to see a reviewer actually taking the time to ride the bike as Yamaha intended. Was surprised to read that the engine felt so rough. My TDM900 has basically a smaller version of the same motor and it’s very smooth even at high speeds.

    • Penguin

      WHAT? The TeeDeeuMMM 900 engine is based on the Yam XTZ750 engine, that engine is probably one of the best engines Yamaha ever made. The 1200 Twin is a very very different engine.

      I had a Original 1991 Super Ten and Did about 40,000 miles on it – Rain, Shine and lots of mud. The thing was built like a tank and it’s nice to see that the new one is like it in more than just name. That was the first motorcycle that I really fell for and I still miss the old boggle eyed brute.

      I’m not surprised that it really is that good off-road, If you want a treat then try the Tenere 660, that thing is the real deal in the dirt and damn cheap too – Paint it orange and put the 3 magic letters on the side and you could charge £2000 more for it. It’s probably the only reason you couldn’t justify spending the extra on the price of the 1200 because the 660 is that damn good.

      • rvfrules

        I didn’t realize Yamaha reinvented the wheel when they made a 300cc bigger 270° parallel twin other than making it work with a shaft drive. Got a link that highlights the differences?

        • Penguin

          Nothing worth reading but If you check out the Super Tenere owners forum they have loads of information, handy for TDM owners too, nice guys to boot. The new one doesn’t even have the 5 valve head, apart from the fact that they are both DOHC parallel twins they are very different.

          It seems weird to me too that although the TDM is still in production the two engines are completely different. Probably just a short amount of time before there is a TDM 1200 which is going to be pretty badass. Hell if we are going down that road what about a TRX 1200, that thing would be absoluty epic – like a Japanese HP2 Sport.

          • rvfrules

            Since the XT1200Z came out I’ve been waiting for Yamaha to release a TDM1200 based on the same powertrain. Odd that it’s taking so long when it should be a relatively easy project in terms of R&D. Ditto for a tourer based on the VMax…

  • markbvt

    Great article, and not the first time I’ve read that the Super Ten is way better offroad than it seems like it should be. I’d really like to see you guys do a shootout between the Super Ten, R1200GS, Tiger Explorer, 990 Adventure, and even the Tiger 800XC and F800GS, focusing on how they handle these types of offroad conditions. Clearly no one’s going to buy a big ADV bike for gnarly trail riding, but where they excel is multi-day trips in places like this, or the Trans-Lab, or the Dempster Highway. Some will just excel a little more than others, and it would be interesting to get the perspective of riders who are experienced on the street but are not longtime dirtybike guys.

    Meanwhile, Wes, you’ve ridden the XC and the F800GS previously… how would you sum them up compared with the Super Ten?

    • Wes Siler

      Tiger 800 XC is best on the road. SuperTen feels better off (more low down torque, TC/ABS actually helps). F800GS and R1200GS are great, but not as good as either of the above.

      990 ADV is in a whole ‘nother class. It’s where our money would, and likely will, go.

      • Kevin

        880 mm seat height? Do I need to be reminded that I am not 6’2″ with a 34″ inseam? Effing Germans.

        Eff it all to hell sometimes.

        • Kevin

          Or Austrians even, same difference.

          • Wes Siler

            Axis of altitude?

            • Kevin

              Or as others have said: “Bikes designed by tall Germans, for tall Germans.”

  • Brian

    Poler Man Tent – I’m a bit skeptical of a $170 tent made by hipsters…If REI doesn’t sell it, must not be any good

    • Wes Siler

      Well, I’ve used a tent or two in my life and I don’t really like REI products.

      The Man is a little bigger than my Sierra Designs Lightyear, so I wouldn’t want to backpack with it (honestly, I’ve stopped carrying a tent at all half the time). But, that extra space is nice if you can pack it. Quality is up there with the best.

    • kidchampion

      I like Poler. Why hate them because they ride motorcycles, skate, and seem to hang out with hot girls? REI is a supermarket for people who want to buy things that make them feel outdoorsy, without ever leaving their shopping center.

    • Grant Ray

      Brian, REI is Wal-Mart for mass-produced outdoor lifestyle brands. Quality has nothing to do with it. You should seek out an independent store and take a look at the boatloads of extremely well-made products by companies that exist using a different business model than large-scale corporate mass-manufacturing.

  • Jeromy

    I firmly believe that Gonzo Journalism makes for the best motorcycle reviews, and this article is a strong case for my point.

  • tpnewsk


  • Daniel

    This is why I subscribe! Thanks for the good read, Wes.

  • JVictor75

    Wes’s not-a-girlfriend shall henceforth be known as “NaG”. I decided (and just thought it up, honestly.)

    • Wes Siler

      You’re toeing the line with your witty acronym.

      • JVictor75

        I meant no disrespect Wes, honestly. Just wanted to draw your attention to it is all.

        • Wes Siler

          Ha, that was the NaG.

  • Justin

    None of these bikes have any dirt ability. My 1.0kg/mm bt-16 clad unfaired F3 can do 99% of what they can do and what it can do it will do better because it weights nearly 150-200lbs less in actual bike weight, and is a good 10+lbs down in unsprung weight. That extra weight will KILL you dirt biking, especially if the tires can grip.

    • Jesse

      PICS, MAN! Me and my touring-F3 demands them.

      • Justin

        No pics, I was riding :) I’m buying a CBR250R new from Scott Dunleavy tommorow(one of my heros) and I will spare no expense (but not throw money at it) to make it the fastest street bike you will ever ride. I rode my f2/f3 4 miles on cake sand out of pismo, because the damned thing is telepathinc and weighs between 325 and 400 lbs (why weight it, you know if it’s too heavy) with a full tank of gas and I KNOW MY BIKE.

  • mugget

    Awesome! Taking off by myself into the wilderness for a few days… I wish…

    I’m sure I’ll get around to it one of these days. Probably sooner rather than later the way all these adventure articles keep popping up.

  • holdingfast

    awesome read, thanks!
    that poler stuff looks nice.. but dammit wes now i need a tent asap.

    • Wes Siler

      Thanks. I’m a poler convert, their stuff is really nicely designed, well made and affordable. Camped in the tent again on Friday night, I love it.

  • Eric

    Dude..never dropped it on the whole ride?

    • Wes Siler

      Nope :)

  • Lou

    Hey Wes…late to the party on this one. Just saw this. Prepare to laugh at me, but I dig this sort of bike and looking to get into tourer/commuter in and out of manhattan to my place upstate but ride…and here’s the funny part…around manhattan everyday.(maybe I could just go OVER the cars.) Checked out the SupTen at a dealer and was oddly drawn to it…and the price as it undercuts the comp by thousands. Crazy for NYC traffic…?

  • Stanford Roach

    Hey man. Fun read. Going on vacation in May. I was thinking about a trip like this!