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REMOTE CONTROL: 2019 ADVENTURE COMPARO | Adventure test

What happens if you take big-bore adventure bikes way out of their comfort zone? Jump on and find out

   Test SAM MACLACHLAN   Photography JOSH EVANS

Josh, just blink or something so I know you understand me,” I wasn’t mucking around now. “We need to go back the fastest way, not the fun way. We are not having fun. We just need to get back before dark. Are you listening?”

Josh was not listening. Josh was thinking that if we were to join up some more random squiggly lines on his phone’s map – the same ones we had followed to nowhere, so far – that we would be landing somewhere near where we were meant to be, as opposed to where we were now.

Never mind that we were riding enduro-spec single track on these four monsters, Josh wanted an Adventure and, being the ride leader, that meant we had to go wherever the hell he led us. Until I snapped.

It was all good and well, me deciding that we had pushed things far enough, and that the least experienced of our riding group had figured he would never make it out of the bush alive, however we weren’t really sure where we were, or what to do about that. Lucky all four bikes have an epic fuel range.

Our weapons of choice were four of the big bore adventure bikes we Aussies have been lapping up in recent years, in no particular order – BMW’s R 1250 GS, Ducati’s 1260 Multistrada Enduro, Triumph’s 1200 Tiger and KTM’s 1290 Super Adventure R.

The loose plan had been to enjoy an adventure ride not far from our base metropolis of Sydney – you don’t necessarily need to get to the red dirt to enjoy the capabilities of these bikes from any of our major cities – but my first mistake was handing the reins of the lead ride to our long-time photographer and adventure bike nut, Josh Evans.

Josh is one of those riders who likes to jump off a cliff and build a plane on the way down. My second mistake was riding sweep, meaning Josh could get us into deep trouble before I had time to avoid it.

One man’s idea of an adventure is another’s nightmare, and Josh certainly catered for each approach on this ride. It all started so sweetly. Our starting point was Windsor, NSW, heading out on the Putty Road bitumen, before turning onto the dirt just out of Colo. Things immediately went horribly wrong.

The twisty bitumen on the way to destination dirt was a reminder of how well these bikes all do the road rides en route to off road nirvana. The Triumph Tiger had the least off-road focussed rubber and felt good as we negotiated the turns up the hill, though how it would go off road with Metzeler Tourance tyres, was going to be hard to tell at that point.

All four have engines that suit road riding duties, a necessary evil when heading to adventure country in Australia, and all four run cruise control, bi-directional shifters, heated grips (except the Ducati, which has a button for said grips, but is an option), comfy seats and good wind protection.

They can tour for days on the road, and this is where the big bikes have an advantage over their lighter, smaller siblings. Those smaller Adventure bikes will still tour well, the KTM 790 Adventure variants for instance, but not quite as well as the big girls, thanks to their endless power and torque, and the way they sit on the road. We were sitting pretty, ourselves.

Not wanting us to get too comfortable though, Josh then led us off road and straight onto a 3km section of deep sand, sun baked to a silty, talcum powder consistency and pretty much the most difficult type of sand to ride on anything, let alone a quartet of 260kg-plus adventure bikes.

Staff journo Pete Vorst hadn’t ridden much sand until that point. As in, none. It was his worst nightmare. He was BMW 1250 GS-mounted, so enjoyed the low centre of gravity and easy, torquey power of the awesome boxer twin, but the soft, crumbly nature of that murderous sandpit was enough to pucker the butt for the entire 3km section. Apparently. The ruts left by the previous riders didn’t help, either, and Pete was a bit quiet (apart from being a bit sweary) by the end of it. The cool weather seemed to have disappeared, too, as we sweated it up muscling our bikes through the pit of hell.

I was Ducati-mounted through it, and while I started confidently, I’ve ridden sand heaps, a couple of unexpected turns into the bush had me just sweating to get through.

The Enduro has the best front end of the group, but nothing felt good on that section. The new 1260 engine did make parting the sandy seas easy, though, as there is more power on tap than you will ever need. Bursts of throttle helped me gather up the front-end loses, too. It may have been the start of the ride, but Josh was already unpopular. Deeply.

The ride mellowed after that, and as we flowed our way through some much more appropriate 4WD tracks, very much the kind of thing these bikes were actually designed for, I found myself on the KTM. It’s the most hyperactive of the bunch, with an engine that prefers its chain yanked, rather than the Triumph and BMW, which can both chug smoothly at 1500rpm in top, before building revs if you ask that of them.

Instead, the KTM delivers bulk power in a furious snarl of revs and actually entices you to do so; just be prepared for it achieving a rapid pace, perhaps more than you expected. They can all do that, but the KTM has the most potential for a rate of knots you’ve only read about in the bush, rather than actually done. It hammers.

The initial shock of Josh’s idea of an adventure ride soon lulled us into a false sense of security. Narrow 4WD tracks are fun on these bikes, so long as you leave yourself room for things to change in front of you. They make ground quickly.

The Tiger is the lightest-feeling of the quartet in this going, partly because it feels the narrowest between the legs and even its road-going tyres weren’t stopping whoever piloted it to enjoy the ride. That triple-cylinder engine is perfect for picking your way through trail debris in whatever gear you choose – the large gear indicator is also largely useless, given the bike can do almost anything in any gear. The Tiger is the bike I have had the least to do with of this four, and it was impressing the hell out of me. That engine…

Our overnight destination was at Wollombi, and I felt totally out of place stomping into our flash guest house wearing dirty adventure bike clobber. Our host felt likewise, judging by the look on her face… I paid the account, then she said with great satisfaction, “Hop on your bike and come down to where you’re all staying.” Not in the flash house, clearly…

Our accommodation was excellent, though, made all the better by the short walk to the Wollombi pub for dinner. As soon as we walked in, we met a couple who were adventure biking their way around Australia, so they were pretty interested in what we were riding.

Interestingly, both said they had started on bigger Adventure bikes and were now down-sizing to make it easier in the rough stuff. We know this is a thing, but the bigger bikes are still very useable and for fuel range and luggage carrying ability, they are superb.

Probably not so much for the route we had awaiting us for the next day, but we weren’t to know at that stage, so had an enjoyable night, talking about how well we had done that day… 

First thing the next morning and we wound our way through some bumpy, twisty sealed backroads – these bikes eat this stuff up and are a lot of fun and well equipped with traction control and riding modes to choose for the right moments. Choosing those modes, and those options within are a mixed bag of straight forwardness, with the BMW the overall best in this area due to dedicated buttons for the regularly used options – such as switching off traction and/or ABS on the fly as you approach a sandy section. The other three need pulling over and adjusting from within menus.

All four can change riding modes on the fly, when moving from sealed to unsealed roads for instance, just a button push or two for all four. But when things get gnarly and the bike needs to go full manual off-road mode, the BMW’s set up is best.

It’s also the best to simply start and take off on off-road, because it stays in the same configuration it was when you turned it off. The Triumph, however, defaults back to the standard road mode, so each time we took off, the Triumph rider had a job at hand. They needed to start the bike, which like all fob-equipped bikes takes a while in itself, then select the off-road mode, then turn off the traction control if it’s sandy (you need wheelspin to move forward in sand), then you needed to look for which way everyone else went, because they were long gone. Frustrating when part of a group ride.

The BMW was just a matter of starting and riding, the Ducati defaulted its TC and ABS back on but remained in mode, while the KTM also stayed in mode, but defaulted back to TC and ABS on. How one manufacturer can make that work, and the others not, I don’t know, but full marks to BMW here.

Josh had soon got us mostly lost, wondering why the hell some random squiggly line was not joining us to the tracks he was thinking of, but not before we arrived at a huge granite-capped lookout – these kinds of places are where Adventure bikes can take you. Just as we were settling into the wonder of the place, we set off for the last section of the ride. We thought.

Josh led us down a few dead ends, his faith in his phone map and ours in him, wavering.

“This trail should take us out of here,” he was saying incredulously.

Except it didn’t and no amount of wonderment seemed to change that result.

As our exploration for the exit got deeper and the sun lower, Josh and I had the conversation I started the story with. He didn’t listen and soon our options were in the singular.

“This trail takes us out of here and drops us near Laguna (nine kilometres from where we started that morning…),” Josh was saying. “I am just not sure it is clear though. Or even where it comes out…”

I asked Josh to lead down this ‘sure thing’ trail, but if he got to something we couldn’t all ride back up again, to stop and wait. If there was a log down or similar further down the trail, I wanted to be able to get out the way we came, not be left huddled against these blokes for warmth as we waited overnight…

The trail was getting narrower and narrower, morphing from 4WD track to single track. Just when I was thinking, from my position at sweep, we are going to hit trouble for sure – we hit trouble.

Josh had already negotiated the KTM down a descent we were never going to get back up again and was busy helping others get down it!

“If there’s a dead end down there, Josh, then what?” I asked. He shrugged, happily…

When the going gets really silly, as in, sillier than most owners would ever put there 30-odd grand bike through, the BMW and KTM were most at home. Each have the grit required to make a tough descent possible, with excellent feel at the front end and quality suspension that mask their weight and size. To a degree.

We also discovered you can’t underestimate the Ducati Enduro, which enjoys the best front end of all of them and with its new engine is a weapon in the bush, even though it has more power than you will ever need off road, like all of them. It was able to pick its way through the rocks and ruts and get down safely – it’s no Italian princess, it’s a proper adventure bike.

The Tiger, too, overcame its tyre disadvantage with sublime throttle response and great chassis balance and before I knew it, all four were down the nastiest of nasty bits. Now what..?

I took off ahead, at this point, because a downed tree or serious wash away was going to cause us massive problems and I wanted the chance to think about it before the rest of the crew got there. Instead, the trail continued to narrow to a proper enduro trail, lined with ferns, festooned with moist, loamy dirt, and as the late arvo sun poked its way through, I was in bliss mode.

All four bikes handled this beautifully, because it was smooth and the fiddly stuff these bikes don’t like, tree roots and rocks, were nowhere to be seen. They are stable, torquey and riding is fun in these conditions.

I swung around a corner, feeling the end of the trail was nigh and yes, it was. I could tell, because there, blocking the trail, was a huge metal gate, with a bulldozer pushed up against it and a large sign, Private Property. Shit.

As I heard the rumble of the others approaching, I spotted a small trail off to the side, skirting around the gate and heading out to freedom. We formed an orderly queue and, relieved and kind of surprised it had actually worked out, filed our way out.

We followed the BMW’s GPS to Laguna and fuelled the bikes and our tummies, which hadn’t been filled since breakfast. As the bikes sat ticking and the death stares in an oblivious Josh’s direction mostly abated, we reflected on a set of bikes that delivered the adventure at least one of us wanted in spades.

No one crashed, the bikes performed well above their pay grade and did so without running out of fuel, with luggage aboard, and then got us home on the boring bitumen in comfort. They all have distinct characters, though.

The BMW does everything so well, that once you are used to the unique feel from the bike’s chassis, you feel it will go anywhere. Its electronics work so progressively, powershifter included, that it feels high quality. Nothing is an afterthought, nothing doesn’t do its job well, and the GS heritage is evident when everything you need to pilot a big bike through tough conditions is right where you need it to be, and works as advertised. It’s a quality unit that puts everything together so well, it’s hard to fault, on or off road.

Ducati’s Enduro is easy to underestimate in this niche, because the firm’s heritage is knee down roadbikes. But don’t, not even a little bit. It has a front end that makes gravelly off camber 4WD track corners feel like bitumen, the engine punches you over trail debris with style and function and the Enduro Pro mode delivers proper trail-conquering dirt prowess. It’s an amazing bike, particularly given it’s only a few years old as a model. To think it’s likely to get even better is astounding.

KTM’s Ready to Race philosophy is bred into every aspect of the 1290 Adventure, and it’s difficult to keep the right hand restrained when riding it. It’s not the lopey, relaxing ride of the others, it’s for the busy kid of the group to ride. It has everything you need to cross the country at high speed and looks the most agro of all of them, and also feels the lightest. If Adventure touring with a bit of zest is your thing, the KTM will look good in your shed.

Triumph’s Tiger is such a sweet ride, mostly because of that engine. It’s a superb powerplant and backed up with the narrow-feeling riding position, the others feel bigger by far and, despite the road tyres on the Tiger, it was a joy off road, even when Josh got too ambitious. Other features such as the TFT dash and classy up and down gear shifter all compliment the platform the engine provides.

Because they are so different, the bike you choose comes down to what you ride, when, how often and who with. Check our tester’s second opinions for their take, but if you ride with people like Josh, the BMW and KTM are your picks. If your trail leaders are more sedate (or, as Josh would describe them, ‘boring’), then the Triumph and Ducati are more likely your match, though those pairings could switch easily enough, depending on who is on them.

Whichever of these you choose to take on your adventure, you will get home satisfied.

Unless Josh was leading.