Feature – The Large vs Small Adventure Bike Debate

Across the adventure motorcycling world there is without doubt a rather aggressive and deep debate wholly surrounding bike size. It’s an interesting debate, where both sides of the argument have valid points. It’s also a debate we believe is much  need of fleshing out. Mostly because we don’t feel half the arguments are true.

On one side of the fence sits the small bike community where big, modern adventure bikes are condemned as too frumpy, difficult to ride, impossible to fix, electronically complex, too expensive and something ‘you don’t get the same experience on man!’ On the other side are the mass of big bike buyers, the R 1200 GS, F 800’s, KTM 1290’s, 1190’s or what ever else, ridden by a bunch of people who may or may not have joined the crowd due to Charley Boorman and who frankly couldn’t give a damn. Particularly about small un-sophisticated, old rat bikes. They love their bike and they feel the adventure bike ‘thing’ whether or not they stop work to attack the Darian Gap.

The internet however, the world in which Brake Magazine lives, is filled with both sides of the argument and much in between. It’s full of people enriching their lives with adventure on all types of bikes and at least some of their spare time espousing their perspective on what makes their bike best.

To flesh out the finer points of the debate we took on Nathan Millward, an Englishman who quite impressively used an extremely modest budget and an ex-Australian postal service Honda CT110 to ride from Sydney to London via the Himalayas. That decidedly epic trip was followed up by another equally impressive New York to Alaska endeavor, all conducted at the high and intense speeds that 7hp brings.

When finding someone to counter that argument, things don’t come much more influential than a master of crossing countries on oversized, overweight machines; eight time Dakar rally finisher Simon Pavey. As well as his eight Dakar’s, he’s ridden big bikes anywhere and everywhere, and knows more about the potential of a big bike than pretty much anyone else, watching 1000 customers each year smash BMW’s into the ground at his Off Road Skills school.

In our attempt to come to a fair and balanced conclusion we thought there’d be little better way than to take both of Nathan’s own bikes: his globetrotting Honda CT 110 and his indomitable day-to-day ride, an R 1200 GS. We took both on all manner of roads and trails, before letting both men punch out the pros and cons of both styles of bike. Admittedly they’re at extreme ends of the scale but through his remarkable efforts on the little postman’s tool Nathan exaggerates the points you’ll find to more or less a degree on every bike further up the ladder towards the bigger, more complex modern bikes. It’s a fantastic comparison and a very real one designed to make you think and join the debate…

The Positives and Negatives of a small bike

You don’t need speed, you don’t need luxury you just need something that’s going to take day in and day out abuse and if it does go wrong you can kind of lash it together  – Nathan Millward

Simon: “It’s funny, I suppose that’s the first thing. Because it’s so small, so ‘ditsy’ its kind of humorous.  But I don’t think it’s an easy bike to ride. It’s obviously an easy bike to make move along but riding it isn’t easy in more challenging places. The idea that you can just get on it and almost point and shoot makes it easy. Because the throttle is so soft, lazy and easy to use if you’ve got to turn a bike around and go in the other direction that kind of stuff if you’re not a confident motorcyclist is doable.

“We kind of found that if you’re in a difficult place and you’re a confident motorcycle rider it doesn’t actually make that much difference what you’re on. It just is in a hard place if you can’t ride so well. That manageability is its only good feature in my view.

“One of the points Nathan makes is the bike feels reliable but to me it didn’t feel tough. I know it’s bullet proof but it survives because you ride it unstressed. Nathan rode it across the world cautiously and yet the one day he tried a few things a bit harder a lot of things bent on that bike. And it feels like that to me when you’re riding it. I was scared down the simple trails, scared all the time to get a puncture on it whereas you never get that feeling on the bigger bike. You never feel like you’re going to break something or puncture something just through riding. That stuff might happen if you crash but as we know from the Off Road school those big bikes are made strong, they put up with a hell of a lot. It’s a great point Nathan makes, that you can get it repaired anywhere but it almost feels like you might need to, to be able to ride it anywhere.

“For me riding this bike on anything other than a B-road or farm track was boring, dull and difficult because it does a maximum 40mph. Sometimes we were following a car down a B-road and you have to work the thing so hard to keep up with a car going down a B-road, you have to be on the throttle hard but covering the brakes because if the car stops you’re not going to. It kind of defeats the object of being on a bike for me if it’s harder work, boring and more dangerous. Whereas on the big bike you’re looking round at the countryside, enjoying what’s going on. If a car stops in front of you on a big modern bike you can stop so easily and that makes it ten times safer.”

The bike has the ability to transform the trip. – Nathan Millward.

Nathan: “The positive about that bike [Honda] was that it made it possible. The budget I had, the knowledge, the expertise, the time frame, that bike made that bike trip possible. It would have been harder to find a better bike given that I had three days of planning, five grand of budget and no mechanical knowledge. 23,000 miles with a rounded sump bolt to show for it. It didn’t need brake pads, chain, it didn’t need anything.

“I think that’s a point: if you start with a bike that’s bullet proof and is never going to cause you problems that’s half your headache already gone. And another thing, if you start with a bike that’s not going to give you problems and if it does give you problems it’s easy to fix.

“That Sydney to London route is where you need reliability and dependability. You don’t need speed, you don’t need luxury, you just need something that’s going to take day in and day out abuse and if it does go wrong you can kind of lash it together. Those were two routes that are brutal for bikes because a lot of countries you’ve not got good services, bike mechanics or much infrastructure to rely on so you just need something that’s going to last.

“Fuel efficiency is good, the carnet was 950 dollars where a big expensive bike is thousands more. I was looking at 100 miles per gallon so I could survive on a tenner a day for fuel, food and accommodation if I needed to. It depends who you are, how much money you’ve got and where you are and how much time you’ve got. I could do 300 miles a day comfortably, 400 if I needed to..

“It weights hardly anything so you can put it on boats and people aren’t going to think you’re rich because you’re on a worse bike than most of them. And you got to be prepared to lose it, to write it off. If it’s gone it’s gone and that’s not the end of the world.

“I think if I’d been on a GS in the outback or in Kazakhstan or somewhere I’d have been doing 100mph when that bike’s comfortable maximum speed was 40mph. It forced me to slow down. That helps you see the places and meet the people because of the speed but also because I had to take different roads you perhaps wouldn’t if you had more speed. I went into Detroit through the ghetto streets because I couldn’t take the Interstate but that turned out to be much more interesting. If you haven’t got any self-restraint like me then a bike that restricts your speed keeps you safe and sane.

“To everyone else when you’re on a bike like that you seem vulnerable, especially in places like America, they were wondering what they could do to help. I think people can see the challenge, see what you’re trying to do and want to help more. I don’t know if that’s the same of a bigger more expensive bike.

“I never set out to make my trip easy and when it got easy I made it harder. It was never easy riding that bike but I got pleasure in the difficulties and challenge. The challenge of going over the Himalayas where you’ve got to get off and push because you haven’t got enough power, the challenge of going across the Australian outback or American Midwest where you’re battling with every truck that goes past.”

“The bike is irrelevant in a way, each bike poses its own problems: there are times when a GS is fun and the riding’s better but there’ll be times when you can’t get tyres for it. You might need a part, brake down and that’s no fun. If you’ve got loads of time and money it’s no stress but it could be a huge hindrance. It could fall and injure you. That ain’t going to happen with the little bike.

“If you’re alone in the middle of the world and on a meager budget you just need something reliable. The fun of riding is second to knowing every morning that bike’s going to start and not let you down. The guy I met in Pakistan on a GS who said if anything major happened on his bike it was game over. His trip depended on his bike. My trip didn’t depend on my bike, my bike enabled that trip to happen. It’s not the perfect bike but there is no perfect bike. It’s alright spending a shit load of money of a nice bike but it bulks up every other cost.

The positives and negatives of a big bike

Once you get your head around those bigger bikes they are totally able to do as difficult a terrain as you’re able to do. The limit is your riding experience. –  Simon Pavey

Nathan: “In many ways the bike isn’t important and I think if the bike has become the big discussion point that’s almost the wrong way of looking at it. It’s just a tool for the job.

The negatives of the big bike are as straightforward as the positive of the small bike: it costs more and if something big goes wrong it is more difficult to fix and more expensive. BMW’s dealer network is pretty extensive but that’s not always the case with all manufacturers.

One point to make is that not everyone is comfortable taking their bike off-road and if the bike is a big, expensive one they’re going to fancy it even less. It’s definitely a thing that changes depending on where in the world you live. Many people in Oz are used to riding bikes off-road more and don’t think twice about it but in the UK people are a lot more cautious. That’s why a lot of people don’t take a GS off-road even near their home because they don’t want to run the risk of binning a very expensive machine.

What I like about the BM, and the reason why I bought it, is because it is the best bike in that field I think. It’s got a proven record and having ridden all the other bikes I think the GS is the best. Reliable, strong, not too powerful but still fast. It’s probably the best road bike you can buy as an all-rounder. Comfortable, fast enough, you can pack it up well and it carries a pillion comfortably, it’s good value too. If I was going to use a GS to ride around the world I’d leave all the electronics off I could and leave it bog standard. Don’t need it.”

I don’t think bikes are any harder or easier to fix because they’re modern. I really dispute that. I remember the days when you had bikes with points and condensers.

Simon: “A big point for me is the GS, like other big adventure bikes, is very capable. On a big trip you’re always going to have lots of miles to cover and these bikes aren’t making you tired on those bits. So you’re fresh to enjoy the more interesting bits, the more technically challenging bits. And once you get your head around those bigger bikes they are totally able to do as difficult a terrain as you’re able to do. The limit is your riding experience and we see it week in, week out at the Off Road school, people turn up thinking they can’t ride a 1200GS and quickly realise with some guidance they can take that bike anywhere their ability can take any motorbike. The limit is getting better on a bike because they’re so good now, so capable.

“For me too the idea that a smaller, slower bike brings a slower pace of riding and more appreciation of the world isn’t true. I think it’s actually the opposite. On the small bike I was always having to work so hard and worrying about not being able to stop. Whereas on the big bike actually I’m totally relaxed going dead slow on a small track or B-road looking around. Then when you get on a boring bit of A-road or motorway you can be relaxed at 70mph and cover the ground. On a big bike you’re not tired going faster but on a little bike I find it tiring to go along at its higher speed.

“I also dispute the idea that old, simple bikes are better. I don’t think bikes are any harder or easier to fix because they’re modern. I really dispute that. I remember the days when you had bikes with points and condensers and to be honest you had to adjust those points, you had to replace them all the time. Condensers always failed so you had to carry a condenser. For me if I’m going around the world now on a modern big bike with electronic fuel injection it’s a totally different mindset. I don’t have to carry points, condenser, sandpaper, a file and all that stuff if I want to do that now. You only need a bit of basic knowledge of how electronic connectors work and there’s nothing major that goes wrong, it’s only ever dirt or water in a connector. If something goes wrong with a wire you just need to understand which wire and where. It’s just a little bit of different understanding. If back in the day you didn’t understand points and condensers it’s no different to not understanding a throttle position sensor. In fact it’s simpler. When I was a kid you just accepted that you’d be adjusting points half way through the day or a flywheel key fell off and the magneto fell on the ground. It’s just how it was. You got better at fixing bikes because you had to. Things are better now.

“My experience isn’t on such long trips as Nathan but I know from the shorter trips we’ve done or I know what I would do is to travel light because I want to enjoy the riding wherever I go to. So I’m not going to turn my bike into a house. I’m going to travel light and I trust the GS to be reliable and let me do that. I think we’re spoiled these days with the reliability of bikes. I think any bike made within the last fifteen years is going to be super-durable and reliable. Stuff’s always going to happen to someone, somewhere. Things break but as a general rule stuff is solid. The older generation DR, XR, KLR or whatever are still to my mind in the current generation of well-made, reliable bikes. They just a different type of bike to a GS. From our side of things, we obviously have massive experience with the GS. When it changed to the latest water-cooled generation 1200, from the mechanical side of those bikes, the difference was a step-up. The very latest generation of bikes are so much more reliable and they’re the ones everyone’s looking at going ‘oooh, I don’t like the idea of electronics, I’m scared of it.’ But I can promise you the latest generation, which is the most high-tech and the most feared, is the one we’ve had to do the least maintenance and the least work to. I know people won’t believe me as I’m saying it as a BMW-supported school but I just think all manufacturers are so good at evolving bikes now, put so much more testing into a bike now before it’s released to the public. They put millions of hours into those bikes now before they go into the market place whereas before I’m sure they didn’t. 20 years ago they built something they thought was ok and they got it out as quick as they could.”

Conclusion

It’s all a matter of perspective, clearly both bikes have their place. Any bike has its place of course and one of the beauties of motorcycling is that on any day you can go out and have an adventure. You don’t need this or that type of machine with these tyres and that many panniers or a pre-2000 single-cylinder something or other. Part of the deal with travelling is you find your own route, you can go your own way (cue Fleetwood Mac) emotionally, make your own mistakes and certainly do what floats your boat. That includes the bike. For Millward, by his own admission, “one bike suited me then, one bike suits me know. No bike is right or wrong.”

Nathan makes a strong case for the smaller, ratty bike and cost is a huge factor. His case against more expensive bikes is a strong one: why would you want to pay more for the bike and to travel if it only brings more risk?

Simon on the other hand makes strong arguments against the cheaper bikes which might well be easily repaired but feels like they need to be easily repairable if they are so capable of breaking.

One huge point Simon makes which we find hard not to back-up is to dispel the myth that older bikes are more reliable while modern electronic-laden machines aren’t to be trusted: “I was pretty much the first rider to take a fuel injected bike to Dakar and everyone thought I was mad. I’ve done a lot of riding and racing on modern technology bikes and my argument is people are scared of those technological changes but they are usually made because it’s better, because it’s more reliable and you don’t have to fix it all the time. When I was first riding and racing we used to carry

so much stuff with us all the time because we had to. Bikes were always breaking. Nowadays you don’t. You can happily go racing with nothing. Your expectation is the opposite to what it used to be.”

Reliability on a well maintained bike is kind of null and void. Plenty of motorcycles run through hundreds of thousands of miles with regular servicing. Keep on top of your maintenance, keep up the services and any bike really should get you around the world baring bad luck or a crash. Certainly the dealer network around the world for BMW,Triumph and many other manufacturers is growing and becoming less of an issue. The ability to fix a problem on a cheap four-stroke single cylinder bike yourself by a roadside outweighs needing to find a dealer and pay him a shed full of dollars to right a wrong.

The arguments about loss of cost is an obvious and unavoidable fact. Smaller and lighter is better when it comes to crating a bike up or paying the carne and this is a strong factor in favour of dropping down the weight/cost biking ladder. A bigger bike costs more to ship across continental waters, tax or insure.

Another strong point both Simon and Nathan touch on is the notion you have to be able to afford your bike. It’s a logical part of the equation: you have to be able to afford the cost of the bike and accept it and the associated costs of moving it around the world are part and parcel of the trip. If you can’t afford to throw away that cost you shouldn’t be doing it or you should be doing it on a bike you can afford. Which is Nathan’s sole reason behind the Posty bike.

The two riders we chose to speak to about the whole notion of which bike is best are from completely different perspectives. On one hand Nathan was on a bit of an emotional discovery but also quite clearly after the challenge of the adventure on his small machine. Simon equally clearly is in it for the enjoyment and challenge of the ride more than anything else. It does very much depend on your perspective on why you want a challenge like riding across America or the Himalayas. Do you want to ride bikes where no-one or as fewer people as possible have been before or are you interested in cracking out the Pacific Highway because of it’s status? Different strokes for different folk.

A huge point we’d make through our own experience and through talking to Nathan and Simon is that bigger bikes are far more capable than many people believe. You may not need telling this already but the R1200GS, KTM’s Super Adventure, the 1190 KTM, Triumphs XC800, the    Tenere bothers are able to go places you don’t expect they can. More than that the best of them can do it with feel, skill, balance and a level of control that makes your life easy. The limit in your riding not these perceived behemoths.

We’re not going to tell you a hugely expensive KTM Super Adventure is the best round world travel bike. But it could be. There’s little you can say to convince us that the clutch of big ADV bikes around can’t do everything you’d want a motorcycle to do.

But there’s no question Nathan’s Postal bike did everything he needed it to do and some. If you can only afford 50mph then that’s what you’re travelling on. The experience is what it is, whatever your steed. But what’s best? Surely it’s time to put to bed the idea that big capacity, electronically gifted machines are some kind of a no-no. The world’s our oyster and so is the motorcycling spectrum.

Want to learn to ride off road like Si Pavey? Then why not check out his company Off Road Skills and their collection of training courses and adventures by clicking here.

Interested to read about Nathan Millward’s epic RTW adventures? Click here to view his books. 

 

Crafted By

Jonathan Pearson
Former Features Editor

JP is a master of many tricks. Working as a bike journalist, he's been testing, analysing and writing about on and off-road motorcycles for various UK magazines, both as a staffer and a freelance journalist, since the nineties. Testing everything from Valentino Rossi’s MotoGP bike through sportsbikes, commuter bikes and, of course many, many miles on adventure bikes. JP has also spent much of his life competing at up to International level in trials, enduro, extreme enduro, circuit racing and hillclimbing. He also instructs at the Off Road Skills motorcycle training school, coaching and encouraging people in the ways of riding adventure bikes. Also a fan of vegetables and sea products.

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