To KLR or To Not KLR – Touring Choices

The Inner Adventurer Unchained

To KLR or not to KLR. Are you a cruiser kind of person who’s always been a cruiser kind of person yet secretly yearned to join the fraternity of off-highway adventurers? If you’re planning to make the transition, are dualsports (ADV bikes, if you prefer) really the right fit? Marvin Penner was once where you are now, and offers the benefit of his experience.

I dismounted to survey the situation. I figured the KLR could make it over the windfall but I didn’t trust my ability. So I carefully picked a route around the fallen tree through the bush and continued down the two-track trail. Only seven miles from my house in rural Alberta and I had never been to this beautiful spot. A whole new world was opening around me. But it wasn’t always thus. 

Once, I was a guy facing a major decision. Should I get rid of the cruiser I was then riding, and take the plunge into the dualsport world I quietly yearned for, or do I play it safe and keep the cruiser? It was after all a known quantity, while dualsport was still just an ideal in my mind.

It was mere chance that led me to the KLR I now own, but at times I wonder how many others like me are “out” there—riders who want to change styles altogether but find it hard to go from, say, sportbike to cruiser, or from cruiser to dualsport. In a perfect world we could all have one of each. For those who are or were like me, all I can offer is my experience as I made the transition from cruisers to dualsport.

LONG BEFORE I EVER EVEN OWNED my first motorcycle I thought dualsport would be the way to travel. But when I finally had the means to get a bike I bought a Honda CB750 because all my friends had cruisers. Soon I was riding every chance I got.  At one point I removed the CB’s Vetter fairing to cool off. To my surprise I never wanted it back on. Even when it turned cold I preferred to be in the wind over putting all that plastic back on the bike. That winter the bike went into a friend’s shop to undergo surgery. We spent many hours with grinders, welders and spray paint. The result was a rat bike bobber that fit me perfectly.  

Yet I couldn’t shake dreams of adventure off the beaten track. Even then I was wondering if I should just take the plunge and change rides. I couldn’t bring myself to do it though. The cruiser trips my friends and I were now taking into the mountains on weekends and holidays were too much fun, and I simply could not afford the kind of big displacement dualsport that would be able to keep up with them. 

The years went by and at one point I even bought a Honda Shadow VT1100 ACE using the profit from a previous sale I’d made of a 1987 Honda Shadow 750 that was in need of a little TLC. I had brought it home for $250, and after dismantling the shift linkage and welding a broken part it worked perfectly. I rode that bargain basement Shadow 750 for two years, logging 20,000 kilometres. It was physically too small for me but it was a good bike, and I really liked its liquid-cooled twin. I thought of Honda’s Africa Twin and made many drawings, trying to figure out how to convert the Shadow into a dualsport. In the end my plan to make my own adventure bike out of the Honda just was not practical. I sold it for $2,500 and with savings had enough cash to upgrade to the ACE. 

I’m not sure why I didn’t buy a dualsport then. Perhaps it was that my wife had bought riding gear and occasionally wanted to come along. Maybe I am far more affected by peer pressure than I care to admit … So I went for the ACE. To be honest, I love this bike. It’s taken me all over BC and Alberta, it gets good gas mileage, has acceptable range and is easy to maintain. It hardly notices my wife on the back and has enough performance for the kind of riding I like. Maybe I’m a cruiser guy after all!

Still, the dualsport dream would not die. I would haunt the local motorcycle shops looking at big dualsports and get excited when Canadian Biker would arrive with an adventure bike on the cover. I met a guy who had ridden the world on a 650 single, and became inspired. I would watch The Long Way Around again and search Kijiji for a killer deal on that magic breed of bike with tall suspension. I tried hard to find a V-Strom in my price range but there were none. Many days I would go out to the garage and gaze upon the Shadow and think, I love this ride, but if I trade it on, say a KLR650, will I forever regret it? I could find almost no written advice on what it is like to make the switch. It would be a disaster for me to sell the 1100 Shadow for a KLR only to discover I couldn’t stand the new bike, and then not have the funds to get back what I once had. 

In the meantime I had not insured my good old customized 1975 CB750 for two years. Last summer I decided to take it out again. After a month of having it on the road I knew that I would likely not keep riding it. My back could no longer take the apes and the feet forward position. After all of the time spent in the saddle and shop with this bike it was hard to let go. Yet I knew it would just sit in the barn gathering dust if I kept it. So I put it up for sale. I needn’t have worried. I didn’t get even one phone call. I had almost forgotten the ad was still online when I got an email. 

Some guy offered to trade a 1983 Gold Wing for my custom 750. I had never even looked at a Gold Wing but made the trade anyway. I took a few trips on the Wing and knew it was not for me. On a whim I stopped at a bike shop that had a 2005 KLR and asked if they would trade. To my surprise they took the Wing and a bit of cash and the KLR 650 was mine. So for the first time on two wheels I found myself confronted with the aforementioned deadfall across the path I wanted to travel. Down back roads and past the dead end signs that had always stopped me before I was discovering adventure in my back yard. I found that it really is a pleasure to be on a bike that is comfortable on pavement, gravel, two-track and even a little off-road. I also found that a tall seat with foot pegs directly beneath is infinitely better for my back than any cruiser will ever be. Most of all, I now know the real reason motorcycles hold my attention. It’s about freedom and being free to ride anywhere is so much more … well, you know, free.

WHY WAS IT SO DIFFICULT FOR ME to make the leap from cruiser to dualsport? Perhaps it had to do with the lack of real world comparisons between these two styles. Almost every comparison you’ll read is between two or more bikes that are essentially identical, though made by different manufacturers. What I needed was a comparison between a cruiser and a dualsport by a rider who had made this transition. So here is the perspective I wished I’d had when trying to decide.

Overall first impressions: As expected, the two bikes are very different to ride. Though they can both do quite similar things on the street, they “get there” in such a different way as to feel like they are not even in the same discipline. I find both bikes almost equal in terms of fun factor, but very different.

Comfort: The seating position is the biggest difference. In stock form the KLR would easily win here for my six-foot one-inch body, but I have the Shadow pretty well dialed in and can ride it all day, and day after day. I definitely like that the KLR puts no pressure on my lower back and tailbone. On the Shadow I am always trying to get my feet further under me, so the KLR is better there. The KLR will need a seat upgrade to match the Shadow for all-day comfort.

Twisties: Both are very fun here (as is every motorcycle). The Shadow really holds a line and at my riding speeds I only scrape the floorboards once in a while. The KLR is more flickable and seems to hold a line well too. Once I learn to trust those skinny tires the KLR will easily be able to win a race through a seriously twisty road.

Wind: Once again I have the Shadow dialed in, but it took a lot of trial and error to get where it all works for me (adding or subtracting stuff and making little changes). I like quite a lot of air movement up and around and under the windshield but I only rarely get real buffeting. Wind management is actually better on the KLR up to the top of my chest. My pants flap around less, my knees are better protected and the hand guards and fairing on the KLR take all the windblast. I get fairly clean air on my faceshield (don’t use one on the Shadow) and windblast on my shoulders. It’s easily manageable. 

Side winds: These do tend to blow me around considerably more on the KLR. I thought this would be a problem but so far it doesn’t seem to be. I feel relaxed and safe. The KLR is so quick to adjust as the wind blows it around that I find I don’t really even have to think about it. My body just knows what to do to keep a straight line. The Shadow takes a lot more to get blown out of line, but it also takes a lot more to get back in line when it happens.            Gravel: You might be surprised how well a cruiser handles on gravel once you get used to it. The long wheelbase, heavy weight, and relaxed geometry actually make speeds of 80 km-plus easy to achieve for me. But the dust and rock chips are hard on the bike. 

I think the KLR takes a little more attention to keep straight on very loose gravel, but when the gravel turns to washboards or potholes—which can and does happen regularly and unexpectedly—the KLR is so much better that it is by far the safer and more entertaining bike on these surfaces. If it rains everything changes. The Shadow must park or fall. The KLR hardly notices.

Dirt: I don’t really have to say anything here do I? The cruiser just doesn’t go there and the KLR seems to be able to go almost anywhere on the dirt, two track, grass, pasture, creek bed, and on and on. Its only real limitation is the pilot.

Power: Power deliveries are so different, the bikes are hard to compare. The funny thing is, the actual performance envelope is very close. Zero to 60 feels close and Wikipedia says the KLR just wins. The most comfortable cruising speed for both motors seems to be right around 110 kmh. Top speed is identical at about 160 kmh. On the steepest paved hill around home they both do about the same. It’s funny how doing exactly that same thing can be so different.

Passenger: The KLR will take my daughter with ease, but limits my ability to move around so I would not want to go too far. The Shadow will take my wife or any person of any size with easy and hardly be noticed in terms of my comfort.

City: Again no contest. The KLR wins easily. It makes stop and go fun and tempts interesting shortcuts.

Attitude: This is interesting. You cannot deny the attitude of loud, chromed, V-Twin pipes. Some love while others despise them, but you can’t deny their attitude. But the KLR has an attitude all its own, that finds its best expression in the dualsport rider who pulls alongside you covered head-to-toe in dirt from who knows where.

The bottom line is that I almost never take the Shadow anymore unless I have a passenger. The KLR makes me just as happy everywhere, but then it opens up a lot of options that make “everywhere” a much bigger place.

By Marvin Penner Canadian Biker #294

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