Alone In Death Valley On A 636 lbs Motorcycle

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Category: Travel

“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.

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