A 600+ mile, two day, one-night camping trip with a mix of dirt, street, and highway seems like the perfect ride for an adventure bike, yet that wasn’t the bike I had in mind for the journey. Call me a contrarian, or just dumb, but I wanted to see how well a street-legal 500cc off-road bike could handle all of that riding.
Joe McKimmy, our art director and the guy I was trying to get to go with me on this trip, didn’t want anything to do with a skinny-seated, single cylinder, non-wind-protected bike on the pavement for that long. “How about you grab an adventure bike and we can see who has a better time,” I offered, playing to his love of heated grips, large motors, and aluminum panniers.
“Sure, but I can tell you right now that you are going to suffer,” Joe said.
The route we decided on would take us from our offices in Irvine to Lake Isabella in Kernville, taking us through tons of highway and dirt road, some trails, and the OHV riding area known as Jawbone Canyon. As for the bikes, we had the off-road performance-oriented dual sport Beta 500 RR-S, and for the adventure bike, the new Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin. Both bikes were kept completely stock other than the Honda getting Motoz Tractionator Adventure tires and Honda Genuine Accessories Panniers, and the Beta getting Kriega Overlander 30 soft bags and a Giant Loop Gas Bag.
Joe was able to take more stuff with him: extra tubes, tools, a sleeping bag, camera gear, a gallon water jug, clothes, a camping burner, a camp fuel bottle, a large thermos, cups, a tent, a sleeping pad, and some food with room to spare.
I only got a couple blankets, a one-liter fuel canister, a case of GoPro accessories, and a water bottle in the Kriegas, and the bags aren’t that easy to get on the bike since the Beta doesn’t have any racks or many anchor points, so I also had to wear a large backpack with tools, clothes, and other essentials. The advantage in traffic was a slimmer bike. Joe had a hard time splitting lanes; I could have left him in freeway grildlock… could have, but he had all the tubes and the tent we were sharing.
SoCal isn’t known for wet stuff falling out of the sky but it just so happened that as we embarked, Irvine was getting a freak drizzle of water. Not a downpour but any moisture is more than we are used to. It became clear that the bigger bike had an advantage in variable weather conditions. Joe relished the fact that he had a wind screen, heated grips, wider tires, fairings, and a specific rain riding mode that made the Africa Twin the safer and more comfortable choice at that moment. For me, as long as I avoided paint lines and used extra caution when turning and twisting the grip, the stock Michelin Enduro DOT knobbies on the wet road were surprisingly ridable.
Once the skies and traffic cleared, we had a long, smooth stretch of asphalt. The Africa Twin was right at home. The only real downside to the Honda on the freeway was that Joe was trying not to fall asleep!
Just because a bike has a license plate doesn’t mean that it was designed with highway miles in mind. Let’s be clear – the Beta 500 RR-S is a full-on dirt bike designed solely for off-road riding with just enough extra equipment to make it 50-state street legal. Extended time at 70 to 80 mph at almost full throttle isn’t what this bike wants to do, but it did it without complaint. I was in a full tuck praying that engine could take the kind of abuse I was dishing out and that the DOT marking on the bike’s knobbies was legit and that they weren’t going to shred randomly from the speed. Every time I passed a semi and got thrown to the other side of my lane by the wind wake, I could hear Joe’s voice in my head in an evil villain whisper… “You’re going to suffer.” I didn’t want to back it down and lose him; after all he had the tubes and the tent and our morning drizzle could have warned of evening rain.
The Beta’s translucent tank carries two gallons, which got me between 85 and 90 miles before the bike started to sputter and gulp for more fuel. It does have a fuel light that came on about 15 miles before the bike was completely out. Advantage to Joe? Suffering for me? Not really, since Joe stopped when I stopped even without the need. And if I ran out, guess who’d be acting as my fueling tanker? Perhaps I shouldn’t ridicule Joe for his patience to wait for me because I know patience is a virtue that Joe is isn’t especially virtuous with – just peek your head in the office when we’re getting the magazine out the door.
I did have to concede an additional point to Joe and his Africa Twin in the cargo capacity department because of how cold it got that night. Since the Beta’s luggage situation was so minimal (and because I naively believed that California camping wasn’t going to get that cold) I only had my blankets, not a sleeping bag. At about 40 degrees, I was absolutely freezing and I used my riding jacket as an extra “blanket.” Even then, I didn’t sleep a wink. Joe had his bed pad, sleeping bag, and pillow while kept having to fluff my extra shirt into a pillow and try not to shake too violently as to wake him up (not because I cared about his beauty rest, but because I didn’t want to hear the ‘I told you so’s).
The dirt road is really where an adventure bike and dual sport meet in the middle. When we say “dirt road” we are talking about Jeep roads, gravel roads, powerline roads… Any road that isn’t paved but that a four-wheel vehicle could make it down. While an ADV bike has a higher top speed on the pavement, you can only comfortably go so fast on the dirt, which is about the same for both dual sports and ADV bikes. On our particular ride, I would even give the advantage to the Beta since the dirt roads we spent a lot of time on had a few cross-grain edges and raised-road crossings that made Joe on the Honda slow down while I didn’t even hesitate.
There is no surprise that the Beta 500 RR-S was the overwhelming favorite once we got into even moderate trails and two-track. To ride comfortably and safely, the Africa Twin had to go much slower through whoops, up and down loose, rocky hills, and flat out couldn’t go down certain trails. Joe said that there were some sections of the dirt where he was white knuckling through, yet it was just the opposite for me. This was my chance to push the pace and make Joe scramble to keep up like I had to on the freeway. Another downside to those big bags on his bike was that they were bouncing around so much the rear of the Africa Twin looked like it was doing jumping jacks; there was suffering going on again, but the shoe was on the other foot. But my elation turned to dread has we came across a fence that wasn’t on the map and wasn’t there the last time Joe had come through. This turned the advantage to the machine with a seemingly endless supply of fuel and I had my fingers crossed that the fence wouldn’t last too long and/or my extra fuel would be enough.
Soon enough we reached a sand wash. It was deep and long and Joe hit the ground. Based on how quickly he got up and picked up the bike I think he was hoping that I didn’t see it, but I did. With the Beta there weren’t any issues and the 500ccs kept the bike easily on top of the soft wash. To be fair, I also had one get off, but I get to rub it in Joe’s face that it was also his and the Honda’s fault. He had suddenly veered out-of-control into my line and my evasive maneuvers pitched me off the bike. He maintains that if I were more aware that I would have been fine. I claim that when an out-of-control, five-hundred-pound motorcycle cuts me off suddenly with the rider desperately trying to stop the bike, said rider was going too fast for the sandy ditch he was crossing. So we both suffered a bit in the sand, even though I can pin the blame for it all on Joe.
And The Dumb One Is…
We both are. Well, at least according to one another. If I were to do this again, I would pick the Beta 500 RR-S again without hesitation, yet I would like to get slightly bigger panniers, a bigger tank, perhaps more 50/50 dirt/street tires, and a softer, wider seat. With those mods, I feel I could ride absolutely anywhere I wanted to go. Joe, on the other hand, would still pick the Africa Twin for the same ride, yet he does concede that if we were riding in a different state where you could ride dirt straight from your garage, he would pick a 500 dual sport as well. Therefore, that is one vote for the Africa Twin and one and a half for the Beta. As for the dumb one between Joe and I, I’d have to call it a tie. We picked these two very different bikes on purpose, and had a lot of fun riding together, but each bike limited the other. So my advice to you would be to talk your adventure bike friends into buying plated dual sport bikes. Joe’s advice would be the opposite, and how dumb is that?!