Alone In Death Valley On A 636 lbs Motorcycle

Travel -


Yamaha Super Tenere

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-2,000 rpm. 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.

Human encounters.

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 s*#t, what 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 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. Yeah, Yamaha Super Tenere.

  • 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!