Adventure Motorcycle Selection – BMW vs Ducati vs Suzuki vs Triumph

Over the course of the last two years I have researched various alternative motorcycles for my trip to Alaska.  In 1996, I bought an early BMW R1100GS, which I rode all over the Pacific Northwest.  My expectation was that I would have it for the rest of my life, taking major trips to national parks across Canada and the United States.

Unfortunately, I found that the bike was setup for European high octane fuel and the Seattle BMW dealers could not figure out how to fix the constant knocking I experienced when passing cars, particularly while riding two up.  The only time the bike actually ran right was on a trip to Canada, where I was able to put 95 octane fuel in.  The bike was transformed!

I loved the suspension and shaft drive, and the bike was very stable.  So it was great to ride, until I had to pass or any time I was riding two up.  I was also horrified at how heavy the bike was – over 600 pounds with (empty) saddle bags.  I had it parked in my garage on the center stand, and would park my car behind it.  Once I was driving into the garage, touched the back wheel of the bike with my car bumper, watched the bike roll forward off the center stand and lay over on the cylinder head on the right side.

I got out of the car and tried to lift the bike – unsuccessfully.  I called a friend at work, and he came over to help.  The two of us together could not lift the bike!  It was only when I got a third person to help that we successfully righted the motorcycle – sweating and swearing!

I sold the bike – which I immediately regretted.

In 2006 I bought a Suzuki DL 1000 V-Strom – Suzuki’s attempted answer to the BMW GS.  The V-Strom was much lighter than the BMW and was not as quirky.  However, it shipped with modest suspension components.  I replaced the rear shock with an Ohlins and got Race Tech springs installed in the forks.  The bike never handled as well as I would like, although the light steering and light controls were really nice.  I took the Suzuki on the trip to Canada (Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper) and it ran great.  I found that when I was passing cars, particularly uphill, it did not have as much power as I would like.  I also found that the dual sport tires it came with were not particularly sticky.  I was riding with three friends and at a rest stop I felt all of our rear tires – theirs were hot and sticky and mine was cool!  I upgraded to street tires when I got back to Seattle, which made a big difference in handling and confidence.  It was clear I was never going to ride the bike offroad, so going with higher performance street tires was the right move.

I eventually sold the Suzuki and have been looking for a replacement adventure bike since.  I looked at the BMW R1200GS, BMW F800GS, Triumph Tiger, Yamaha Super Tenere and was really excited when I saw that Ducati had created the 1200 Multistrada in 2010.  I had taken my Suzuki in for service and they loaned my an 1100 Multistrada to ride while I waited for the Suzuki to be completed.  That was a mind-blowing experience – the bike was so light and handled so well that it made the twistiest roads near my home feel “straight”.  Also, the clutch was so stiff that my wrist hurt for a week after riding 50 miles!

The Ducati 1200 Multistrada is a completely new design, and they have dramatically reduced the clutch stiffness.  I saw the Ducati at the Seattle Bike Show in 2010 and loved how it looked.  I was torn between the BMW R1200GS and the Ducati.  Here is the comparison I created to help me decide:

  • Weight
  • Horsepower
  • Torque
  • Clutch
  • Price
  • Drive (chain versus shaft)
  • Suspension travel front/rear
  • Suspension adjustments
  • Fuel Tank capacity

The Ducati won on weight (lower) and horsepower (higher).  The Ducati has a slipper hydraulic clutch.  I have a KTM with a slipper clutch and have found it makes the bike much easier to ride.  The BMW has a dry clutch and when I accompanied a friend to the Advanced Riding Course through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, I found that the BMW dry clutch was “grabby”, particularly at low speeds and tight maneuvers.

The BMW won on its shaft drive and suspension travel, plus I really like the anti-dive front suspension on the BMW.  The Ducati has electronic rebound and compression damping on both front and rear, and electronic rear preload.  The BMW has electronic rebound damping but does not have adjustements for electronic compression damping.  Tank capacity on both bikes was identical at 5.3 gallons.  Note that I was looking at the BMW R1200 GS not the GSA with its larger fuel capacity.

I have been attending a series of presentations at South Sound BMW in Fife, Washington and have spent hours looking at the R1200GS.  Also, a friend brought his GS to a photoshoot I was doing, and I took hundreds of photographs of the bike.  I loved my R1100GS, and really liked the breadth of accessories available from Touratech and other vendors for the R1200.  But I also noticed that there were a lot of “required” accessories for adventure riding on the R1200.  For example, you have to add a part to reinforce the steering stops to keep them from snapping off if you drop the bike.  Plus covers for the fuel injection, brake fluid reservoirs, etc.  An already heavy motorcycle would only become heavier when fully-equipped.

And I watched Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman as they struggled on their BMW’s on their trips around the world and across Africa.  Clearly a heavy motorcycle is challenging.

Then I test-rode the Ducati 1200 Multistrada at Seattle Ducati.  I wanted a bike with more power than the BMW or Suzuki so that when I ride with full panniers and a tank bag I have plenty of oomph for quick passes.

I rode the Ducati 20 miles throughout Seattle on a beautiful fall day.  Up Aurora, through Ballard, out to Shilshole and back to the dealership.  It was phenomenal – easy to ride, great power, great handling, great brakes.  The bike has four standard power/suspension configurations that the rider toggles through with a push of a button and a quick throttle chop.  I started on the “Urban” setting, which limits the power to 100 HP and jacks up the traction control.  I selected the “two up” mode to get some rear preload to balance the bike better.  I found that the forks were a little soft and would dive under braking.  I did not know how to adjust the settings for compression and front preload so I left them alone and enjoyed the ride.  After half an hour I switched modes to “Touring” which gives 150 HP.  And then I switched to Sport, which lowers the bike on its suspension and gives full power, while reducing traction control.

Regardless of the settings, the bike was remarkable to ride.  It definitely has plenty of power for anything I need, and it was comforting knowing it has ABS and traction control.  I picked up my Ducati 1200ST Multistrada yesterday and rode it home in the rain.  I left it on Urban mode so that I would have the most traction control, and I added three clicks to the front compression damping to reduce fork dive.  I added some rear preload but left the compression and rebound alone until I have more time on the bike and have the tires scrubbed in.

I rode the bike around the top of Lake Washington and had zero trouble with rear wheel traction despite the wet conditions and new tires – the bike had five miles on it when I picked it up!  The heated grips have three temperature settings – the middle setting was too warm on a 48 degree afternoon – the low setting was perfect.

This entry was posted in Motorcycling and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.