“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 7,800rpm 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 95mph and 5mph. 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-ass 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 shit, scary shit, 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 blanky 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 retardedly 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.
Saline Valley Road hasn’t had anything approaching maintenance in what looks like decades and gains its “road” descriptor not so much from its resemblance to other entities bearing that name, but because, within what is a national park, you are allowed to operate a motor vehicle on it. Through a valley that has more Joshua Trees in it than Joshua Tree, it deteriorates from something you still, occasionally, see spots of pavement clinging to, to a washed out, sandy mess. At least until it begins winding through a ravine up to the top of the Inyos, where it then alternates between half mile stretches covered inches deep in baseball-sized, loose rocks and occasional patches of firmly packed soil. It’s on these that you can stop, take off your helmet, and think about how easy this would be on a nice, light dual-sport.
That’s not to say that the SuperTen isn’t capable. Nearly every component on it is designed to work in harmony in pursuit of one goal: masking that huge weight.
The radiator is side-mounted, allowing the engine to be pushed forward as close to the front wheel as possible, which has the added benefit of creating a very, very long swingarm. The benefit? Lots of weight over the front wheel keeps it planted while the rear is free to slide.
Slide, you say? But this bike has traction control! Yep, and it’s been designed to facilitate off-road riding with controlled slides in place of of a total cancellation of fun. Level 1, with the most intervention, was fine for me, Level 2 should work better for faster riders.
You can switch off ABS by putting the SuperTen on its center stand and starting it in first gear, with the tire spinning. But I left it on. On a big, heavy bike like this, it’s nice to know you’re not going to wash out the front tire. All that momentum would make it very hard to catch. With the help of ABS though, I was able to easily modulate my speed on steep descents using both the front and rear brake and even come to some pretty sharp stops on loose surfaces.
All that weight isn’t carried down low, like on a BMW R1200GS. Instead, the center of gravity feels like it’s relatively high and far forward. More like a scaled up dirt bike than a Nazi Krader designed to look like one. That much weight high up initially feels very intimidating, especially when coming to a stop on a non-level surface or attempting to push the bike around over anything uneven. But get on the gas, stand on the pegs and put some effort through the bars and you’re rewarded with a bike that turns incredibly quickly on the dirt.
All that is aided by, for a stock Japanese motorcycle, incredibly high quality, full-adjustable, positively posh suspension capable of soaking up anything that I could hamfistedly throw at it.
That gearing that felt too low on the highway? Off-road, it’ll deliver immediate torque even sub-2,000rpm. A place I initially found myself quite often before discovering the confidence to plow through obstacles at speed. That engine that felt vibey on the highway? The parallel-twin’s 270-degree firing order delivers two close-together power pulses, separated by a long pause. Looking at a microsecond level, that gap in power pulses allows the tire to regain traction between each one. Not quite a big single, but close enough. That questionable high-speed road handling? Rugged surety over loose surfaces, even loaded down with boxes and a bag full of camping gear and water.
The end result is a motorcycle that’s way, way more capable than you’re going to be able to give it credit for without riding it in conditions like these. A rutted, loose climb full of obstacles with a shear drop off into oblivion on one side? No biggie, just gas it on up, the bike will do the hard work for you. A steep descent around a tight hairpin covered in loose sand, again with a precipitous drop on the outside? Drag some back brake on the way in, look where you want to go and you’ll be fine. A stretch of road covered deeply in baseball sized rocks and bordered with big, sharp boulders? Just point where you want to go and keep that gas on. Again, I’m not some old hand at dirt riding, I’ve really only been doing it for a year or so. The SuperTen makes me a much bigger hero than I am in real life.
25 or 30 miles into Saline Valley lies the junction with Ube Hebe road and my camping site — down in a soft, sandy wash, out of the wind — of choice. I park the bike, take off the boxes and set up camp down in the ravine, out of site, leaving the SuperTen parked on a nice bit of level, firm ground up above. I only saw one truck on the way in, but during an afternoon spent reading and working on my sun tan, two groups of dual sport riders pass. The sentiments of the first rider to pull up echo those of every single rider to follow, struggling through the loose rocks to do so. “Holy shit, what the fuck is that thing doing out here?!” It actually took some convincing that I wasn’t suffering from sun stroke or a case of the crazies and to leave me the fuck alone. The biggest bike I saw all day was a KTM 525.
A windy night.
As the afternoon wore on and the sun beating down relentlessly on the dry lake bed on the valley floor caused the air there to rise rapidly, the wind sweeping down from the Inyos got stronger and stronger. Until, just before sunset, it was gusting at what felt like 60 or 70mph. Enough to kick up violent dust devils down my wash and raise a massive dust storm that enveloped the entirety of the lake bed, rising miles into the sky. Lacking anything to prop the bike against or tether it to, I instead faced it 3/4 of the way into the wind, with the gusts pushing it to the left side and rear, the best direction for side stand stability. I didn’t dare put it on the center stand, there’s just no way it would have stayed upright. Actually, I was convinced it’d blow over on the side stand too, but by some miracle, it stayed up right all night long.
An AltRider footprint means you can actually use the sidestand off-road.
Laying in my new Poler Man tent, watching the sides heave in under the gusts, I was convinced it’d end up spending the night sleeping in the Aerostich Roadcrafter, huddled behind a rock somewhere. There was no way a tent, any tent, could stand up to this wind. But, come a suddenly still morning, there it was. No rips, no tears, no damage. Enough room inside for me and all my gear too. Didn’t want to leave a helmet or anything outside for fear it’d blow away.
A return to civilization.
Up with the sun to escape the valley before the winds really pick up again. I knew I could handle the road, but doing so in a 70mph crosswind, a long way from nowhere, could have proved fatal. I’m stupid coming out here alone, but not that stupid. It’s amazing how transformative the knowledge that you can do something can be. Sections taken yesterday at 20mph in first gear get switched into 2nd and 30mph. Even 4th gear in places. By 9am, I’ve passed a group of riders on 250s and 450s, struggling over terrain I’m now, at least by my standards, flying through. Remember to air back up out of site of pavement, I sail past the permanent “Road Closed” sign — there to absolve the Parks department of liability — and back towards the civilized world. By the time I’ve gassed up, informed the not-a-girlfriend I’m alive and enjoyed a free cup of coffee, the wind’s picked back up to a steady blast. So it’s back down 395, the 14 and the 5, canted over at 15 degrees to hold a straight line, passing lines of bewildered drivers and a group of GS riders whose bikes look conspicuously shiny next to the now broken-in SuperTen.
Now, having taken the big Yamaha way beyond my own limits, if nowhere near its own, I understand it a lot better as a motorcycle. It’s not some shiny exercise in ridiculousness, masquerading as a dirt bike to make touring riders feel better about themselves, it’s an honest-to-god dirt bike that can tour and commute and do all that stuff too. It overcomes its weight with clever design — the engine in the right place, weight distribution and swingarm — then boosts that fundamental capability with technology tailored for the dirt.
On the way back from a shoot the other day, Grant, Sean MacDonald and I had a conversation about how weird we felt around city folk after doing incredible stuff in the outdoors. Writing this now, sitting in a fashionable cafe in Hollywood, there’s nothing to tell any of the pretty girls or girlie dudes sitting around me that I’m any different. Except the huge tank parked outside, wearing knobbies and covered head-to-toe in Death Valley’s dust. Knowing it’s out there, just waiting for adventure, is a special feeling. Any motorcycle that can evoke that feeling just by its mere presence, even out of site, is pretty special. Fuck yeah, Yamaha Super Tenere.