#315 Where the pavement ends

How a wire-wheel Tiger was the cure for a serious case of the off-road yips.

It started maybe 10 years ago. I’d be in the middle of a motorcycle tour, and wake with a sense of panic and foreboding: my pulse raced; the thought of breakfast made me gag; and I spent far longer in the porcelain room than normal.
This mood stayed until I loaded up the bike and set out on the road. Within a few miles, the gloom lifted, and my “normal” riding disposition (are any of us normal?) of cheerful cynicism returned. Knowing that my mom suffered mental issues (what I’m sure we’d now call PTSD) after the London blitzkrieg, I wondered if I wasn’t losing my grip too. Or succumbing to what the TV ads call “low T.” So I tried to keep track when the heebie-jeebies hit me: where I was; what I was riding, and where I was going. The results were…interesting—at least to me.
First factor was elevation. I’ve lived all of my life as a flatlander, and I know I don’t cope well with altitude. In Cuzco, Peru, at 3,600 metres, I didn’t sleep for five days: every time I dozed off, I’d lurch into wakefulness, gasping for air. Hypoxia isn’t good for brain function, I’m sure. Second factor was the bike. I’ve ridden everything from a Honda Cub to a Rocket 3, but I’ll confess I find some modern heavyweight cruisers intimidating. Bikes like Harley-Davidson’s Electra Glide Ultra Classic FLHTCU and Victory Vision, for example, with all that weight up high and (in the H-D’s case) attached to the handlebars. They’re fine on the highway, but pretty scary in a gravel parking lot—especially with a passenger.
So on a four-day tour based out of 3,000-metre high Frisco, Colorado and riding a fully-loaded (in every sense) Victory Cross-Country, my doom-ometer went into the red. But each day got better, and I learned to enjoy riding the hulking pantechnicon in Colorado’s high country.
But there was one more situation guaranteed to give me the shakes: off-road. I’m seriously jealous of riders who cut their two-wheel teeth on dirt bikes, as I’m sure Nancy Irwin did, learning to power-drift direction changes, wheelie through sand, and slide down muddy slopes with the back wheel locked. Apart from the occasional foray on gravel, I’d never ridden off-highway until my late 50s: perhaps I shouldn’t have started by wrestling a R1200GS Adventure the 300-odd kilometres from Williams, Arizona down to the Colorado River (and yes, you can do that—if, like BMW, you have permission from the Navajo), then on to the West Rim of the Grand Canyon. Let’s say it was a baptism of fire.
Now seriously traumatized, my next loose-surface outing was Baja, California. Six of us rode totally unsuitable bikes and carried way too much stuff. (When I pulled into Mike’s Sky Rancho on my laden ’91 Paris-Dakar, the cognoscenti on their 250s gawked at the big Clydesdale: “you rode that?”). Only three of us went down, though, and my tipover happened when one of the other guys ran into me in sand. We followed part of the Baja 1000 course, and the old coast “road” (it’s now paved) from San Felipe to Gonzaga Bay and on to Coco’s Corner. When we finally emerged on Federal Highway One, I got off the Beemer and kissed the tarmac!
Next came another press intro—BMW again, this time the F800GS. We rode over Geyser Pass on the Colorado-Utah border, mostly on hard pan with marbles in the corners, but a fair amount of dirt too. The F-bike’s ABS can only be disengaged on restarting the engine: if you forget (as I did), the default is “on.” So cresting a rise and seeing a sharp left turn, I stabbed the brake pedal to slow the bike, intending to slide the rear wheel. The ABS had other plans, and I plowed straight on, rolling gently into the berm…
It’s no secret that since Ewan & Charley’s Long Way Round, dirt cred is the new street cred. So planning a recent tour in the Revelstoke, BC area, I want to be suitably tooled up for the off-highway sections—BC 31 from Trout Lake to Kaslo, and the old logging road from Three Valley Gap to Mabel Lake. Enter magnanimous Triumph Canada boss Chris Ellis and the offer of a loaner Tiger 800 XCx. Mike Backen has the bike ready at Savage Cycle in Victoria and I set off. The Tiger is tangible evidence of how far dualsport bikes have come in the last 10 years or so.
The XCx is set up for off-highway riding, with wire-spoked wheels (21-inch at front), adjustable seat height, and capacious, waterproof aluminum boxes. And while the smaller numbers on the digital display are beyond my old eyes, just about every metric you’d ever need while underway is available. Surprisingly, the 800 looks bigger than the old 1050 Tiger, but the appearance is deceptive: sitting on the newer bike, it feels light and compact with a reassuringly upright riding position, and all the controls readily to hand.
The tarmac haul to Revelstoke passes in uncommon comfort, the Tiger’s free-revving engine and cruise control (really!) are easily equal to BC’s new, higher interior highway speed limits. On rough tarmac roads, the Tiger seriously rocks. And on the dirt/gravel sections around Revelstoke, it’s a revelation. I select the pre-set “off-road” mode (this adjusts the power delivery, ABS and traction control to suit slippery conditions) and simply set off.
I’ve been used to big dually bikes wanting to plow straight on, with maybe too much weight on the front wheel. By contrast the Tiger turns nimbly and predictably, so I can steadily increase my speed as my confidence grows, knowing the electronics are there if I screw up. I wouldn’t say I got to be totally confident on the loose, but my apprehension receded to the point of something approaching composure.
I know all you experienced dirt riders are snickering at my inadequacy on two-tracks that aren’t even particularly technical. But thanks to the Tiger, my experience was something of a breakthrough. I’m not ready for the Trans-America Trail yet, but I may be searching out tarmac-reduced touring alternatives in future.