Adventure motorcycling was the standard back in the day when there were few paved roads and motorcycles didn’t have suspension or quality wheels. Nowadays, riding on rough terrain or uncharted offroad paths is a choice that some riders love.
The Bikes that Made it Possible (Rather, More Comfortable)
BMW and the R80 G/S
The IFMA International Show of 1980 didn’t know what hit them when BMW debuted the R80 G/S, the first motorcycle designed for more than just paved roads. It would provide an equally good ride on both streets and terrain, which was the opposite of the design mindset of the time.
Other brands were focused on creating the best in one category, street or terrain, but BMW dared to create a bike that could perform on both surfaces with ease. Thanks to BMW, riders would no longer need one bike for road travel and a second bike for touring (riding off-road).
And so was born the first adventure touring motorcycle.
Yamaha and the DT-1
BMW may have created the first two-in-one motorcycle, but Yamaha introduced a street dirt bike in 1968. While it was designed for off-road riding, it could also be ridden on the streets (though not for long periods).
The DT-1 was a two-stroke, lightweight, and more closely resembled a dirt bike than a motorcycle. This bike was the first sign of two emerging paths in motorcycles. One path is bikes that are lightweight and sturdy enough for off-roading, and the heavier, sturdier, more powerful bikes designed for street riding.
Suzuki and the DR125S
If Yamaha and other brands began to lean towards heaviness and power, then Suzuki took the second path with the DR125S. Introduced as a Dual Sport model, it was pushed out as a street-legal dirt bike. In other words, it was a glorified dirt bike that had turn signals, brake lights, and headlights.
The DR line was also responsible for the beak trend, or the lower fended on the forks. While it lacked a practical purpose, it became a style statement that is still around today.
Yamaha and the TDM 850
Yamaha continued to be a trailblazer in the adventure motorcycle field with the 1991 launch of the TDM 850, the first road-only adventure bike.
The riding position was more upright than other street bikes. While the design was meant to resemble a dirt bike, it was too bulky and large for real off-road riding. It could, however, handle roads in the Alps, thanks to its long travel suspension.
BMW and the R1100GS
14 years after the R80 G/S, BMW launched the R1100GS in 1994. This model featured an upgraded twin which boosted performance and led to impressive sales. Between 1994 and 1999, nearly 40,000 models were sold. The upgraded version, the R1150GS, sold nearly 60,000 bikes over five years.
Thanks to these models, BMW continues to be the king of adventure motorcycles.
The Beginnings of Adventure Motorcycling
While the bikes may not have been designed until the 1980s, riders participated in adventure touring as early as the 1930s. Of course, the bikes weren’t meant to handle that kind of riding, which only upped the adventure aspect.
World War 1
Many aficionados argue the true beginnings can be traced back to World War I and the motorcycles used by the military. Triumph motorcycles were mainly used for moving heavy guns and relaying messages between headquarters and the men in the trenches. This meant riders had to ride fast over awful terrain conditions, which was certainly some form of an adventure.
The Triumph Motorcycle
It lacked elegance and had laughable horsepower, but it didn’t need either of these things to do its job. They were reliable and could cover ground, even rocky, uneven ground, quickly. More than 30,000 were produced for British soldiers alone.
While a sidecar was added in 1915, the Triumph model (and motorcycles in general) never truly became militarized the way tanks did.
Lawrence of Arabia
TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, was a renowned scholar, writer, and archaeologist. He was also one of the first adventure motorcyclists, frequenting the desert terrains of Asia. Lawrence died at age 45 after being in a motorbike accident.
Adventure Motorcycling Picks Up Speed
This type of riding started gaining popularity between the first and second World Wars, largely in part to the serviceman who turned to it to deal with trauma. It would be a few more decades before it would gain popularity with the public.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that adventure motorcycling became more commonplace. It started with lots of individuals picking up and traveling to exotic countries to ride the backroads (or rather, the gravel and dirt). A few famous adventure motorcyclists include:
- Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado
- Ted Simon
- Emilio Scotto
Perhaps the most famous adventure motorcyclist, he biked across five continents, multiple subcontinents, and 279 countries. He covered more than 500,000 miles on his 1980 Honda Gold Wing.
Adventure Motorcycling Today
Motorcycles have come a long way since enthusiasts started modifying bikes on their own to go on off-road adventures. Riders today can choose from models made by companies like Harley Davidson, Yamaha, BMW, Royal Enfield, and Kawasaki, to name a few.