Alone In Death Valley On A 636 lbs Motorcycle


Category: Travel

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.

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