Have Bike Will Travel

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If you were to distill mechanized transportation down to its core essentials, you’d end up with something like the dirt bike – or its road-legal cousin, the dual-sport. Both are essentially the same bike, with the distinction being the dual sport has a headlight, turn signals and brake light – items easily added to a dirt bike so as to make it road-legal.

Neither are impeded by the absence of roads, which is part of their appeal. You can ride them across fields, up trails and through creeks. They can take you places not even the most lifted and geared-down 4×4 can go because a dirt bike or dual sport isn’t much wider than you are – except through the handlebars and they can be wriggled through tight spots such as two trees on either side of a trail.

Can’t do that with a 4×4.

And you can’t drag a 4×4 through a bad spot. Not without a winch and some other rig to do the dragging. But you (literally) can drag a bike through – or out of – a tough spot. Because a dirt bike/dual sport typically weighs less than 300 pounds.

That’s not all you can do, either.

Put another way, there’s not much you need to do – and here we come to the elemental virtue of the dirt bike/dual sport motorcycle. Most of them are powered by a single cylinder engine so there’s just one spark plug that occasionally needs to be changed and (typically) 2 quarts of oil once or twice a year. The simplest of them don’t have cooling systems, per se – being cooled by the airflow over the engine rather than liquid coolant flowing through a radiator. So long as you keep the engine’s cooling fins free of caked-on mud and keep the oil topped off, the engine should always run cool enough.

Until the last several years, most did not have computers. Instead, they had carburetors. These are simple, mechanical fuel-metering devices that don’t require a computer – or electronics of any kind – as electronic fuel injection does. There is no electric fuel pump, either as it’s not needed. The gas is fed to the carb by gravity, with a manual valve to turn the flow off and on. There is thus much less to go wrong – and it is much easier to figure out what’s wrong, when the bike’s not running right. If there’s gas in the tank – and it’s not bad – and the spark plug sparks then you’ve isolated the problem to the carb, which is easily fixed.

Because there’s very little to fix.

Which also means there’s very little that could go wrong in the first place, which is perhaps the greatest virtue of simplicity when it comes to mechanical things. The same is true of the rest of the bike, including its ignition system, which consists chiefly of a coil to fire the plug and the wire that goes from the coil to the plug. Most dirt bikes/dual sports don’t have starters. They have kickers. You start the bike – by turning the engine over, yourself.

You can even change tires – yourself – with some basic hand tools. (While it’s possible to change a four-wheeled vehicle’s tires by hand, it is not easy and it is doubtful you’d be able to do it out in the woods, without specialized tools.)

But – given the times – the small-engined dirt bike/dual-sport’s chief virtue is how far it can take you on very little fuel.

A dirt bike/dual sport with a 250 cc single cylinder engine will generally go about 80-100 miles on a gallon of gas. And they are capable of reaching and maintaining highway speeds (though if fitted with off-road tires, the tires will wear out fast if you ride on the highway; the upside is the tires are cheap relative to tires for cars and never mind 4x4s.)

Some of the smaller cc bikes can go even farther on a gallon of fuel.

Nothing on four wheels can match the range-per-gallon of a small-engined dirt bike or dual sport. And if the cost of a gallon of gas triples, the only way you’ll be able to afford to travel 80-100 miles (except by foot) may be via a dirt bike or dual sport.

Put another way: If you don’t already live within walking distance of a city, a dirt bike or dual sport may be the only way to avoid being herded into a city by the forces congealing to do exactly that to most of us – by rendering the cost of driving too expensive for most of us and by restricting how far and how often we can drive by tethering our vehicles to electrical cords that are in turn tethered to a single, centralized power source over which we have no control.

A dirt bike/dual sport bike cuts that cord. And a dirt bike or dual sport cannot be remotely controlled or tracked because it isn’t “connected,” as all new vehicles are (not just the battery-powered devices, either).

And unlike almost anything on four wheels, a dirt bike/dual sport can usually be paid for in cash at the time of purchase because it doesn’t take much cash to buy one. Even brand new, few cost more than about $7,000 and that’s on the high end. Used ones cost half that or less, which means almost anyone can afford one.

Given the times – especially the ones just ahead – it might prove to be the case that not having one is what many of us can’t afford to risk.

. . .

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38 COMMENTS

  1. Another choice is the Beta 390 RR-S, essentially a street legal dirt bike. Nothing street legal comes close to matching it’s off road capabilities. The cons: expensive and high seat height. It’s not for everyone, but if you want the best off road bike that you can ride on single track, it’s a good choice.

  2. After reading the comments, some info:
    The latest KLR650 is now injected and liquid cooled (has always been liquid cooled), but they have been around forever, so tons used. Personally, not one of my fav’s and I owned one. Called a multi-tool, decent at everything but great at nothing.
    The DR650S and XR650L are both still carb’d and air-cooled. Same personal notes though, have owned them. These two are quite a bit lighter than the KLR650 too.
    All of them are still very popular with lots of aftermarket support.
    Certainly, all smaller models as well are very good. Depends what you want to do.

    For those interested in something different, Triumph just bucked their normal high-end trends and came out with the 400X they are calling a scrambler. Single, but injected so not high on Eric’s list. $5600, hard to beat. Road work is very good. It pulls well all the way to 70mph+. It’s most happy 60 and under though with no wind protection. Dirt roads no issue with decent ground clearance and protection relative. Run it up mountain single track? No. I just got one and am enjoying it. 400lbs, so a little heavier than most discussed here.

    • Which did you like better, the DR650S or the XR650L?

      I’ve had a DR650 before, I liked it, but it lacked a ‘something’ about it which I can’t recall. I’m often attracted to the Honda, the no radiator & hoses is most appealing, too. One less thing to maintain or burst.

      Unless a person spends a bunch of time in slow moving stop & go traffic, I would never pick liquid cooled over air cooled. Besides heavy traffic, is there another reason to have liquid cooled? Maybe, desert conditions? Any other?

      • Tough one Helot. DR is a better street bike, XR is a better dirt bike. DR lower seat, XR very high. The XR’s taller seat parlay’s into higher ground clearance, etc….
        DR heavier, xR lighter. The best answer is to go see and sit on them, and to ride them gives you the answer.
        Liquid cooled actually does a lot. Performance. liquid cooled bikes can control piston clearance, oil temps, etc…. way better than air cooled. For example the 650’s above have 35hp, and my much smaller 400X Triumph has 40HP. My high perf. ktm 250 4-stroke also has 40hp, but at a much lower service interval (they measure tolerances in fractions of the others above). Some will say that lower HP to size ratio means it will last longer which is mostly true. Doesn’t work for me, I never wear them out (except the 250).
        We all are very fortunate to have so many bike options to get what you want, enjoy, at almost any price point. And if you pick a popular historical name brand/model will always be able to sell it with high resale values. You can not say that about most asian brands/models. (always check if parts are avail from last years model is the tell).
        Hope this helps.

  3. Hey, any new bike recommendations? Someone siggested Kawasaki KLR650, like your thoughts on it and other options

    • Hi Carmelo,

      It’s hard to go wrong with the KLR650; it’s been around for – literally – decades and is very tough and reliable. It is not the most “advanced” bike – by a long shot – but that is arguably its chief virtue. It is a little heavy for off-roading but for trail riding it’s great and it has the “legs” for highway riding, too.

      • Hey Eric, thanks for the reply back first of all

        Don’t need “advanced”, just need tough and reliable, plus seeing it’s new, warranty in the meantime can’t hurt. Definitely gotta learn, then I’ll look into one

    • Greeting I have a 06 Wee Strom, and granted it’s injected, I have nothing bad to say about it. It’s the last year where you can drill out and bypass the tiny internal high pressure fuel filter. And then adapt a huge cheap outboard car filter into a longer external rubber HP fuel line. It’s a tad light on the suspension and has a thin gas tank. But weighs 418lbs and is a blast. And if your not happy with the performance than simply swap the 3.0 bar fuel pressure regulator with either a 3.2 or the full Busa 3.5. I happened to blindly install the 3.5 that came in a cheap pump kit. And thought what in the world just happened as it’s like adding a turbo. I removed it and went back to the 3.0 as I figured it was going to take out the cat. Overall the Wee is a fantastic bike.

      Happy trails,
      DD

  4. Last Saturday, I got the new Honda XR150L, a 149cc dual sport, and yesterday I transported the bike on a hitch style motorcycle carrier and parked near O’Brien Or. I took the power line roads down into the Monkey Creek drainage and did some I did some frighting sheer cliff trail riding on the Old Gasquet Highway in Northern California.

    If I went off the sheer edge it would of been certain doom – and no way to retrieve the bike if I survived. The dual sport stock tires did slip out on the dry gravel a few times keeping down in 2nd and third gear much of the time and going down hill in the switchbacks was a bit testy for traction and lane control. But I am sure some kid with a real dirt bike would laugh at some amateur driving some underpowered bike.

    —————

    I print out CalTopo maps whenever I hike a new area (click on Forest Service on Base Layers – for a good looking map)

    https://caltopo.com/map.html#ll=41.95499,-123.82427&z=14&b=f16a

    ————–

    The Smith River in that area is crystal clear drinkable water, and in the summer when it is warm enough you can actually get in it, as it is freezing cold usually – the water is coming out of untouched wild areas. I try to go for a dip even in the winter months if the sun is out, there is always a moment in any day where the conditions are just right to get in and get purified. I usually do this upon completing a hike and then I make a nice hot cup of coffee with my little Coleman bottle stove.

    On the way back to Obrien I went full throttle and was doing 55 mph going up grade (most impressive for such a small bike with my weight) up the twists and turns on the infamous Redwood Hwy 199. That was the first time in my life I had to lean into the turns and that was also unnerving since the traffic goes like hell, in both directions and I was wearing a long sleeved shirt, jeans, tennis shoes for trail riding not highway speeds.

    Apparently many people who buy a new sports car in the Bay Area go up the coast 101, then drive to Grants Pass on 199, and they want to test out their new car cornering capabilities on that road. Plus California drivers are typically obnoxious a-holes anyways. Two years ago I was driving my old Geo Metro with low compression on one cylinder and behind me was a brand new Corvette (with dealer plates) which was very unhappy with my tortoise pace – and I pulled over as soon as I could, laughing as he roared by. But I care not as I know most people are idiots with too much money and time on their hands. There they go, blasting by the Redwood groves – biggest trees on our planet – don’t even stop or care. They are out of tune with Nature and every vibe in my world.

    The Redwoods are all along the NorCal coast, and pictures do no justice for the size of these giant trees. Lucky for us, people with foresight got organized to save the old growth groves before they were all logged. Riding a motorcycle through them is sheer magic – a must do thing in your lifetime. If you do plan a trip, do it when it is not raining, as it rains most of the year in that area.

    • I was able to calculate my first mpg, got 107.7 mpg, just 0.909 gallons with 98 miles. I used this resource to find non-ethanol fuel – as Honda manual says use 91 octane.

      https://www.pure-gas.org/

      91 octane cost me $5.91 per gallon.

      Just remember, gasoline prices are artificial, all around the world gas is usually much cheaper than the USA.

      Search for the webpage “CNN Global Gasoline Prices”

      Caracas Venezuela is still only $0.12, 12 cents a gallon. No wonder why Dick Cheney wanted to invade. In order to secure freedom, we must kick ass and take their gas.

  5. I have a 2012 XT 250 that I love! It replaced my Rambo bike(1980 XT250, like in the movie) that I was getting tired of kick starting cause no ACL. I have pretty much always owned a dual sport of some type and have to say they are the best! Selling my two other street bikes (08 HD and 69 Triumph) but will keep the XT as long as I can ride. It is at my new spot down the road from you Eric, Woolwine. BTW the greaseman runs around my current locale in the summer months because boating, Edgewater MD. He’s still a character when I see him which has been awhile.

  6. Place a three inch by 3/8ths angle iron five feet long up in your trussed rafters in your garage, secure the block and tackle, you can suspend your bike to gain some space.

    Be like a mobile, has to done aesthically.

    Plus, you will have a block and tackle to pull an engine.

  7. I’ve thought about this as well. I’d probably stay at 250 size engine – enough power to get out on at least the two lane roads but still light and simple for buzzing around in the hills behind the house. Also storage, a slim profile means easier storage in the garage or shed.

  8. How the hell do you do it? I wasn’t even considering a bike, and now I’m perusing the local ads!

    Thanks a lot, Eric!

  9. I just purchased a brand new 2024 Honda XR150L from our local dealer a week ago. Street legal, quiet as a mouse and carbureted as Eric mentioned. No computer anything. Just like the old days. Price was 4k OTD.
    So far getting 90 mpg. Added accessories: windshield $60, skid plate $99, matching white luggage rear trunk with passenger backrest $60. Matching Honda hand protectors for those chilly days $60. So for about $4300 I own a fully loaded bullet-proof Mad Max machine that can carry two people plus gear into the Apocalypse.. 😎

    The best part is, taking it out on adventures is a blast right now. It’s something we enjoy everyday anyway.

  10. “And if the cost of a gallon of gas triples, the only way you’ll be able to afford to travel 80-100 miles (except by foot) may be via a dirt bike or dual sport.”

    Just like the Third World.

    I agree with everything Eric has written about the utility, simplicity, and freedom of a light single-cylinder motorcycle, but the flip side is that, along with the bicycle, it is standard transportation in impoverished Third World countries for those same reasons.

    In other words, what made America great was affordable cars and fifty cent gasoline, not cramming six kids and your mother in law on a 100cc bike like in Bangladesh.

    The other drawback of a dirt bike is that it’s not ideal transportation in snow or forty degree pouring rain.

  11. I know some folks who have BMW dual sport bikes and love them. You sit just right, most anyone can ride them, and though pricey to buy and maintain, are quite economical.

  12. ‘the [great] virtue of simplicity when it comes to mechanical things’ — eric

    This is elemental. All of us have had the experience of a vehicle failing to run — something that used to happen more often than now.

    If it’s a simple vehicle and you’re mechanically minded, chances are you can fix it yourself. If the battery is dead and it’s manual shift, aim it downhill and pop the clutch. If it still don’t start, diagnose why there’s no spark or no fuel. This was our after-school vocational training as teenagers.

    In contemporary transportation appliances, the batteries [two of them, my ASS], the ignition and fuel delivery are all controlled by chips in black boxes, as are all the controls. You’ll need a code reader to even start diagnosing, and some codes can’t fixed except by the dealer. I loathe this shit. I don’t want it, and won’t buy it.

    It is unacceptable that people who want simple, non-computer controlled, unconnected vehicles are limited to vintage vehicles and dirt bikes. The next generation of automotive innovators may emerge from the Third World, where regulations aren’t as comprehensive and crushing as in the Land of the Unfree.

  13. I’ve got a 650 street bike and while not the lightest out there it at least can get decent fuel economy. Depending on what I need I use it for shopping also.

    One problem I do have is I that I have 3 vintage cars and very limited parking. So do I sell my factory big block Monte Carlo that I’ve had since just after high scrool or hold on to it?

    I have no real mechanical problems with it, money issues or an actual dislike of the car other than parking issues. Body, paint and mechanical is very good. My garage was never built to easily drive two cars in and out of. So to park the Monte I have to drive it in, jack it up and put it on rollers and push it side ways and park it against the far wall. This then lets me fit in my 650 and a vintage sport sedan.

    I also have a vintage Camaro, which if all else fails I can rent space from the shop that would let me need to only park one of the hot rods at a time at my place in the non winter time.

    Off topic but I’m just wondering what the community’s advice is?

    • Hi Landru,

      I think it would be better to keep the Monte as it has history for you that’s irreplaceable. It’s also valuable in its own right and that value is not likely to decrease. I have a suggestion that might solve this problem and it’s one I’m considering myself for essentially the same reason (crowded garage):

      How about keeping the bike in the house?

      I’ve got a place in my office, which is near the front door. I just need to get a ramp to be able to easily roll the bike in and out of the house. The one I’m thinking of putting in the house is my ’75 S1 250 – because it’s beautiful to look at and I’d be able to look at all the time if it were parked just three feet in front of my desk!

      • Hi Eric. It’s safe to say my house is older than dirt. Parts of it date to just after the Civil War, stone foundation, log floor beams, rock and rubble filled walls on post and beam construction. That also means the W650 won’t fit through the doorways. The root cellar is the home of everything from canned food, spiders, centipedes and what have you.

        I’ve thought about a ShelterLogic garages that tractor Supply sells. The only problem is the covering falls apart after a couple years, their ugly and I’ve got a small lot.

        I suspect that once the Camaro is finished (about a couple months away) I’ll have more “fun”. I’ve got less of a history with the Camaro but it’s fully restored and you can eat off the frame and floor. I also had it converted to a M20 and AM/ FM factory radio.

        • Get a wood built shed, not metal, store the bike in there. If you have use for a utility trailer get a fully enclosed one and store the bike in that.

          I converted a 8×12 garden shed into Harley storage years ago in always damp Western WA, 12 years in the chrome still looked new no pits. I have a 12×16 shed here in Central WA semi arid climate and again the latest Harley looks new 6 years later.

          The key is moisture control in both situations for winter I used/use an electric plug in boat dehumidifier. They are slim enough to slide under the bike’s engine & transmission keeping all the metal slightly warmer than the surrounding air. A breathable dust cover helps this effect. Add a battery tender your golden for long term storage.

          • Thanks for the advice Sparkey. I’m up to 5 wood sheds, 2 are small and hold less than a cord. Another shed holds car parts, kindling, small engines, gardening tools and plywood/ lumber.

            As for the bike come the off season I pull the battery and put it inside on a battery tender. All the shiny parts of the bike are hosed down in WD40. It takes about 4 hours in spring to clean it though.

            I’ve also considered adding a car port on the side of the garage though.

    • Dunno if it’s good advise or not: when I lived in The City in a townhouse with no garage I kept my bike under a weather resistant cover. I didn’t have any mice problems, but mice can be anywhere. I don’t recall there ever being any condensation problems storing it that way.
      …Or, buy & setup an inexpensive plastic or metal or wood shed next to your garage?

  14. There’s a learning curve and skill required to ride one.

    Which is why they must be eliminated.

    They allow for one to travel further into the woods or into nature than possible on foot.

    Which is why they must be eliminated.

    They are easily modified.

    Which is why they must be eliminated.

    The granola crowd is annoyed by the sound of the engine… and some riders enjoy engine noise, spending money on straight pipes to “let the engine breathe” so that it gets to hearing destruction levels.

    Which is why they must be eliminated.

    They are great for teaching kids about basic mechanical devices outside of the classroom.

    Which is why they must be eliminated.

    They are quick punishment for violation of the law (of nature), without judgement or legislation.

    Which is why they must be eliminated.

    They’re a great family activity thanks to the levering action of lightweight ICE engines.

    Which is why they must be eliminated.

    They’re a whole lot of fun for not a lot of money.

    Which is why they must be eliminated.

    • Honda offers their Rebel with an automatic, cruise control and anti-lock brakes now. It just feels like cheating.

  15. Two, good air cooled dual sport bikes are the Suzuki DR650 and the Honda XR650L. The Honda is so tough that it’s completed in the Baja 1000!

    • Amen, Mark!

      I’ve owned several dirt/dual sports, including an XR200, XL250 and XL500 (Honda) and a Kaw KL250, which I stupidly sold a few years ago, just before I got divorced. I am actively looking for a 250 cc dual sport for all the reasons mentioned in the article.

    • I own a Suzuki DR650. Owing to the long travel of the rear suspension, it has a tall seat height that feels uncomfortable to me, even at 6′-01″. It is also heavy compared to the 250 cc class bikes Eric is writing about.

      So while I admire the DR650’s thumper simplicity, overall it’s a bit taller and heavier than what I’d really like just for messing around in the woods.

      • I mentioned the DR650 because it splits the difference between the Kawasaki KLR650 and the Honda XR650L. The KLR, particularly in its later models, is a street bike that can go off-road. OTOH, the Honda is a big dirt bike with lights; it has just enough to make it street legal. The DR650 can easily do both; it can easily travel on or off-road.

      • A riding buddy has a couple of a DR400’s. Smaller than the 650 and larger than the 250. Pretty darn good set up for street duty as well.

        DD

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