Yamaha’s new Ténéré 700, a Suzuki DR350S and two Harleys

This is a story of my testing the new-for-2021, Yamaha Ténéré 700, an on/off-road motorcycle.  But first, here’s a bit of my history with this category of bikes.  If you’re lucky, I’ll work a couple of Harley-Davidsons into the story, too.  These days I love reviewing a new bike like this without an editor forcing me to focus, limiting me to 2,000 words (or less), keeping me on track, and worst of all, making me get it done before the deadline.  By the end of this story, you will have a far greater appreciation and respect for the role of editors than ever before.

When we moved to New York from Los Angeles in the early 1990s, I brought my Suzuki DR350S Dual-sport bike with me from California, a mistake you might think. You’d be wrong.

My Suzuki DR350S

The Suzuki had turned into one of the best purpose-built machines I’d ever owned.  Other than it being the most cold-blooded, hardest-to-start pig in history (of course, kick start only), I loved it. A single-cylinder “thumper,” it had all the nostalgic wonder you can imagine – loads of low-end torque, especially after adding a sprocket with more teeth to the rear. It could pull stumps from the ground. It was rugged, impossible to kill even when pointed nearly straight up a mountain carrying two people.  Its overly soft suspension made it wallow when going too fast in corners but otherwise made it hugely comfortable for all-day riding. I found it sublime then, but I was a younger rider. No doubt, if I rode one with today’s bones and muscles, I’d find it horrible.

Maggie and I riding in Mountains east of LA. Note old football helmet instead of proper gear.

In California, the bike stayed at Eric Wood’s cabin in Big Bear.  From there we rode thousands of miles on logging roads, out into the desert, and all over the mountains. Eric had a Yamaha 350 and I rode my Suzuki. At some point, we also acquired an XL500 Honda dual-sport. It was too heavy and not as much fun, but it sure looked good.  When we moved to New York, I had my doubts about where I’d be able to ride the Suzuki.  However, someone else was paying our moving expenses so I brought it anyway.  The first time I rode into New York City I had my answer.  It was perfect!  The potholes, cracked and loose asphalt, and generally rotten NYC road conditions made the Suzuki’s long-suspension travel and aggressive tires ideal.  Soon I was tearing all over Manhattan, through Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem, and the Bronx, exploring everywhere.  Although a bit harder to find, I eventually located a series of off-road trails in Westchester County where we lived.  The new Ténéré would be an excellent fit there, too.

After about a year of this, I fell in with some guys where I worked who rode. They owned only street bikes. It didn’t take a genius to see the Suzuki looked decidedly out-of-place amongst their shiny Harley Davidsons.  One weekend on a ride with my daughter we stopped at a motorcycle swap meet.

Franklin Mint model of Harley Heritage Softail

A Franklin Mint model of an HD Heritage Softail caught my eye. It was new, still in the box, remarkably detailed, and not horribly expensive, less than $100.  I had a thought. How about floating the idea of buying a new motorcycle to my wife, get the lay of the land on the degree of trouble I’d be in if I seriously broached the subject, and do so with little risk?  I brought my daughter, Ginger, in on the plan – well, at least part of it.  We bought the model and I instructed her that when we got home she should rush into the house and loudly and excitedly exclaim, “Mom, Dad bought a new Harley Davidson motorcycle when we were out today. It’s brand new, very shiny, and oh, really, really pretty.”  But she was NOT to tell her mother it was only a model, but let her think we’d bought a full-size motorcycle.  Ginger, always the actor, loved the idea and threw herself into her role.  When I got my gear stowed in the garage and came into the house, Maggie looked at me and said, “Well, did you really buy a Harley?”  I looked as chagrined and remorseful as I could and said, “I’m sorry, Honey, I should have talked to you first, but they only had this one.  It was gorgeous and was on sale,” all technically true.

Expecting the wrath of seven hundred hells, I was relieved when she said, “Well, I’m not surprised.  I’ve heard you complaining about how your current bike isn’t entirely compatible with the guys you’re riding with now. Did you trade in the Suzuki or do we now own two motorcycles?”  At this point, Ginger and I confessed our ruse and showed her the model of the HD motorcycle.  My daughter giggled at the joke, Maggie was relieved and I filed away an important informational tidbit; were I to buy another motorcycle, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. And of course, within six months, there were two Harley-Davidsons in my garage, but let me save that story for a bit.  I’d forgotten this model and story until on a ZOOM call in early March of 2021. As I listened to my old British-bike-loving pals go on and on discussing the proper way to kick-start a Norton, I happened to spot a model of an HD motorcycle over the shoulder of one of the Zoom participants, a UK friend, and fellow rider, Jeremy.  After the call, I found my model, took photos of it and sent them to Jeremy for comparison. He immediately wrote back confirming they were identical, his being a gift from his father.

Alex Moore and I in Utah on a Moto Discovery off-road ride.

Before explaining how I ended up with two Harleys in our New York garage and introducing you to my good friend and colleague Larry Ashkenazi at Prodigy and my best friend in New York, Rob Kost, I better get to the Yamaha Ténéré residing in my current garage.  The bike belongs to Alex Moore of Moto Discovery. He has been running a business renting road-legal off-road bikes in Colorado successfully for several years.  He also leads tours in and around the western half of the USA and Mexico. Colorado weather forces him to put his rental fleet into hibernation and shutter his touring business for half the year, it occurred to him he could move his operation to Phoenix during those months.  The past several weeks I’ve been helping him try this out to see if it will work in Phoenix.  In this process, Alex asked if I’d test out his new Ténéré and all the cool kit he’d added to it, and especially take it out and see how it would do on the backroads around the Phoenix area. No need to ask me twice.

While a full 700cc bike with generous torque and loads of power, the bike is narrow, making it feel on the trails as if you’re riding something much smaller and lighter.  I suspect it has to do with how narrow the seat and bike are and how quickly it turns into corners.  Alex has outfitted it with Oxford heated grips, a god-send when you get into the higher altitudes around here. He’s installed the HDB Ultimate Handguards, a super aggressive protection system for your hands that also reinforces the handlebars while providing convenient spots for adding mounts for things like GPS or smartphones. The bike can be comfortably ridden standing or sitting, and the controls are perfectly located for both.  Alex loves the Ténéré because it’s rugged as hell with no complex things like traction control that can go bad and leave you with a hard-to-solve issue way out in the bush.  Its only real adjustment is turning the ABS on or off and that’s just one button.  It’s more than decent on the street although it would not be my first choice for touring, to put it mildly.  The Ténéré is certainly more on the “off-road” side of the scale where, for instance, a Suzuki V-Strom would be almost the opposite, decent on the street, tour capable and okay for minimal back-road use as long as it’s not too tough or too long.  I’ll be sorry to see the Ténéré go, but my backroad journey and test ride motivated me to remount my TKC80 knobby tires onto my GS and see how much dirt I could get it to accumulate.  That’s a story, too, but it will hold until later.

My BMW GS kitted out for the dirt
My GS kitted out for the dirt, knobby tires, etc.

For me as an individual rider, the Ténéré and my GS are almost a total wash – I can’t come up with a favorite.  Their respective advantages and disadvantages closely balance each other out. The Ténéré wins on lower weight, easier maneuverability, and simplicity for navigating tough terrain, but for me, it is a tad too tall, and the seat isn’t comfortable for more than an hour or two and its luggage capacity is limited.  The GS, while far heavier, allows me to get both feet on the ground when I want to, has massive power from any of the bottom gears, and an excellent seat.  It takes more skill to navigate difficult terrain with the GS, but if you take the time to acquire the skills and keep in practice, it can be done.  Let’s get back to the Harleys.

One late summer day, my friend Larry Ashkenazi approached me at work.  I knew he rode and he’d taken me into the parking lot a couple of times to see his two gorgeous Harley Davidsons.  One was a new, nearly-stock Ultra Glide Classic with a full tour package, radio, and all the tricks.  The other was an FXDB Dyna Wide Glide extensively customized.  It had a kit to increase horsepower, lowered suspension, aftermarket pipes, beautifully stitched after-market seat, and a killer paint job. It was gorgeous, fast, and fun.  It got looks. Larry was embarrassed.  He’d borrowed money from the wrong sorts of people and now, had to pay up fast or be in deep do-do. He offered me a deal — lend him $20,000 for one year, interest-free, and he’d give me both of his bikes to hold as collateral, including the titles. His only request was he be allowed, on occasion, to come and borrow one of his bikes for the weekend, always bringing it back when he was finished riding.  He would maintain insurance on the bikes and he expected I would make liberal use of them when they were in my possession.

I was able to drag Rob Kost into my riding avocation.

Hmmm… now, this was some offer.  After spending a few minutes with my friend Rob Kost, an intellectual property attorney and advanced science and patent expert who’d previously plied his legal schooling at the Office of Technology Assessment in Washington, DC, we wrote some kind of legal-looking agreement. BTW, like most non-legal people, I frequently think of all lawyers as, well, lawyers. To this day if I were to be charged with a crime or had a property issue, or was being sued by someone for shooting a drone down over my house, I’d call my friend Rob in and ask him what to do. He HATES this, but I don’t care. I like to talk to him. And he’s lots smarter than me. He didn’t practice law or bother with passing the bar in several states where he lived, but he still has one of the sharpest minds on the planet, legal or otherwise.

It turned out these two Harleys were my entry ticket to the HOG (Harley Owners’ Group) world. Larry and I rode his two bikes all over Westchester and Rockland Counties and Connecticut.  The roads to and through the towns along the Hudson River from Poughkeepsie to Albany and east to Hartford, Waterbury, and Stamford and then back toward the Hudson River were custom made for Harley Davidson motorcycles.  They are all well-maintained, 2-way blacktop roads, crossing low hills, and filled with gradual, predictable curves.  Ideal speeds are between 40 and 60 mph, but not much more. For the first time, I understood why a person would own one of these large, heavy, over-weight, under-preforming, technologically inferior bikes.  Riding the roads north of New York City in Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess County and New Jersey’s Rockland County, on a fall day with the leaves turning color in the cool, crisp air is as close to motorcycle heaven as you will ever be.   The HOG group with which Larry rode welcomed me with open arms.  The ticket wasn’t dues but having a love and appreciation for these unique motorcycles – and owning one, of course. While costumed on the weekend to look mean, rough, bad, and evil, the members’ workday lives typically were that of dentists, insurance agency owners, IT managers, and other professionals. After all, you had to be doing pretty well to shell out $25K or more for, essentially, a toy.

While the next observation may appear critical, it isn’t. While riding motorcycles was a part of why these groups got together, it wasn’t the primary reason and thus, actual time spent on the motorcycle was far less than I’d experienced riding with other groups.  The Harley owners I rode with in New York loved to gather in large groups, often numbering 50 bikes or more. This required road captains, tour masters, Sargent at arms, tail gunners, enforcers, and more. The process of getting this many bikes into or out of a parking lot could take 20-30 minutes. Once dismounted, it took at least 45 minutes to stroll among the various bikes, admiring the newest additions friends and fellow members had made to their rides. And, of course, there was lunch, requiring the selected restaurant to arrange their tables and chairs into one large banquet offering, suitable to the group. Then seating, ordering, eating, and talking.  Resolving restaurant billing issues (someone always forgot to ask for separate checks) added another 15-20 minutes.  With all of this, it was no surprise the amount of time actually riding motorcycles was constrained.  But it was okay.  This was a community of people who shared a passion, loved each other, and enjoyed their time together.  Time spent in a restaurant eating and talking, leisurely wandering parking lots admiring bikes communally may have been more gratifying to them than the time on their bikes, locked alone inside helmets with just their thoughts.

As the end of the year approached I fully expected to be the owner of two Harleys at a ridiculously low price. I was wrong.  About a week before the due date, Larry came into my office with $20,000 in cash. He paid off the loan; I gave him back the titles to his bikes with expressions of deep gratitude for a wonderful year and hundreds of important lessons. I still miss those bikes.

Top TV Pic #15: Himalaya Calling and Pedro Mota’s YouTube videos

Himalaya Calling trailer

Following my recommendation of a series of YouTube videos made by Pedro Mota, two of my friends responded with how much they liked an Amazon Prime documentary, Himalaya Calling – Overland to the highest passes in the world. They were right! I’ve watched three of the four episodes, and they are great.  Plus, these have far broader appeal than Mota’s videos. Maggie loved the incredible scenery from a part of the world that is rarely photographed because it is so remote and empty.

This 4-epsisode film stars two German guys, Eric Peters and Alain Beger. They are not super jocks, handsome movie stars, or killer riders.  They’re mostly normal, although trained and experienced enough to take six months and spent it on an incredible adventure to a part of the world few visit.  Their real skill is the way they managed to capture this adventure with only hi-res cameras mounted on their helmets, bikes, and a drone.  No supplemental film crew, chase vehicles, or backups, and rarely cell phone coverage.  They got spectacular footage and edited it into a smoothly compelling movie series.  You don’t have to be a motorcycle rider to appreciate this amazingly ambitious accomplishment.

The original was made in German but the Amazon Prime version has an English language soundtrack.  I’m guessing the guy’s actual voices would have been better, but as I don’t speak German, this is an acceptable compromise.  Oh, and there is some salty language at times, but it’s not overdone. Check it out and let me know what you think.

For more hardcore riders, I also have to recommend Pedro Mota, who’s ridden his Transalp just about everywhere. His videos are on YouTube and are all genuine, unpolished, rough, and transparent.  They show what it’s like to explore roads and trails you’ve only heard about but never ridden.  This totally meets the definition of “adventure,” unlike the hyper-staged media extravaganzas like “The Long Way Down,” and its sequels.  Mota chronicles what actually happens, and does it all alone, without a camera crew or backups.

The first video is enlightening. I think I felt grit from his ride in my own teeth!  Skip down for notes and links to the second.

His second video, below, is a continuation of the one above.  It shows one of the most wonderful things that happen when adventure riding.  You meet incredible people.  You learn so much about what humanity is all about.  You get to really touch the world.

These aren’t professionally produced, the editing is spotty, the camera angles are sometimes horrible, and forget about the soundtrack.  And sometimes, things happen in languages you won’t understand and he forgets to translate.  To me, however, that is the magic of these things.  They’re raw and real and so reminded me of some of my rides in uncanny ways.  If today’s camera technology had been around back then, I could have made some cool movies, I think.

Photographs: Dakar 2021

riding up a sand storm
Photo credit: The Atlantic

Ten years ago I tracked the 2011 Dakar Rally in Argentina and Chile for The Overland Journal Magazine.  In the article I said the Dakar Rally was to dirt bike riders what The Vatican is to Catholics, what Hollywood is to movie buffs and the Grand Ole Opry is to country music lovers. Bringing together the best riders in the world also attracts the top photographers, especially when the race covers some of the most beautiful and harshest landscapes on the planet.

Follow this link to see a collection of photographs pulled together by The Atlantic magazine, featuring photographs by Franck Fife and Hamad Mohammed. This extraordinary compilation of images gives you a brief glimpse into what 300 brave souls experienced in 2021 during the 43rd annual Dakar Rally, a 14-day, 4,751 mile off-road trek in Saudi Arabia.  If you’ve never read my report from the 2011 Dakar Rally, please take a look at it here.

Were they that high?

jumping motorcycle

When visiting John Binder, one of the “old pharts” in Frank Del Monte’s orbit of British bike aficionados, I discovered a distinguished set of classic motorcycles and a spotless garage/workshop.  Holding 45 motorcycles at one point, John’s recently cut his collection to just over a half dozen exceptionally special and historic bikes.  These are carefully set up at various workstations making it convenient for his meticulous restoration work.

Full size pic below

After a tour and hearing the histories and stories of each bike, we lounged in his shop, reminiscing about younger days riding and racing.  Photos on the walls show John racing on Catalina Island in the mid-’50s and at Ascot Park Raceway in Los Angeles. These photos, mostly black & white, are impressive. John’s face is clearly visible; his left leg kicked out as he leads a cluster of racers in vintage helmets on numbered bikes, sliding around a corner.  While John admits to not always ending at the top of the podium, he nearly always finished close to the winner.

Full size pic below

In this photo of him at Ascot Park, in a half-mile TT (Tourist Trophy) Race, John finished in the #3 position, riding his 250 C-15 BSA (#238R). Winning the race and pictured just a few feet ahead of John in the photo, is Gene Romero, #121.  Romero was sponsored by Triumph and later Yamaha factory racing teams. He won the 1970 AMA Grand National Championship and the 1975 Daytona 200.  Romeo was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.

I recently come across some old photos showing my early humble racing attempts.  Unlike John, few of my efforts were sanctioned by anyone.  Of greatest surprise was seeing how those huge jumps on our makeshift motocross course had shrunk in the pictures to just piles of dirt maybe 5-6 feet high. Somehow in my mind, I transferred those early riding experiences to something looking like the modern stadium-style motocross course.  While nothing could be further from the truth, the photo at the top of this piece shows me appearing to have launched myself near the peak of my house.  More cringe-worthy than the height, is the total lack of protective equipment – helmet, boots, padded jacket, gloves.  Invulnerable in those days, my suspicion is we all can recount moments that in retrospect we’re a bit surprised we survived.

At one point my motorcycle mechanic and former motocross racer directed me to a friend of his who had a farm where they’d constructed a make-shift practice motocross track.  The quarter-mile track was complete with several large mounds of black dirt and a section of smaller whoops and several tight, steeply banked turns. It was a completely informal and fun place to practice motocross riding skills.  After a few weekends I was beginning to get the hang of things. One Friday night I was talking to a young woman at a bar.  Certain the site of me flying high over mounds of black dirt would impress her immensely and melt her heart, I invited her to where we practiced and drew her a map on a cocktail napkin. Practicing the next morning, I kept looking down the road leading to the farm, hoping to see her car appear, and eventually, it did.  Timing my moves carefully, I rode the track slowly until the car with this young woman and her friend parked and they’d walked a bit closer to the track. Then I pulled out all the stops and let it rip.  I hit each jump to ensure maximum altitude.  I most certainly must have cleared 15 or 20 feet in the air.  I slid around the corners with the back wheel spinning furiously, sending a stream of dirt flying. Pretending I’d noticed them for the first time, I rode the bike over to where they were standing, locking the rear brake as I slid to a stop close to them, letting the tall bike with its 36 inch seat height lean over so I could get a leg down with my 29 inch inseam. I dismounted, pushed the bike back straight and onto its side stand, and removed my helmet and smiled. She and her girlfriend rushed up to me, giggled, and she said, “Wow, that’s amazing. You looked just like those monkeys in the circus riding ponies over those jumps.”  As you can imagine, this was not the effect I was going for, but I had to admit, on these very tall bikes with the suspension set to provide maximum cushion for landing softly, my short legs did not come close to reaching the ground.

Like a lot of riders, I went through a track-day phase when living in California.  When trying to channel MotoGP racers like Kenny Roberts, seeing photos of myself on the track, I look more like Kenny Rogers, the country-western singer. I wrote a story about one of the track schools I attended and chronicled that experience here.

Looking back on how we rode, I sometimes wonder if those hills and jumps were bigger or smaller than they were in our minds.

I first observed this time impacted disorientation when revisiting a favorite family picnic spot from my youth. Now in our twenties, my brother Leif and I joined our family at a park near Taylors Falls, MN.  The park sits along the St. Croix River, outside of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul. We’d come here when we were kids, perhaps when in junior high school.  The picnic area provides easy access to the river for swimming, and lots of hiking trails leading to the high cliffs rising above the river.  I reminded my brother as youngsters, we’d hiked these trails and launched ourselves into the river.  “Maybe we can find the spot from where we jumped,” I said as we headed out.  After less than 15 minutes climbing the trail through the trees, we were a good way up the cliff.  As we approached a clearing we cautiously approached the edge. I got on my knees to crawl a bit closer, Leif was brave enough to slowly walk to the edge, and we both peered down at the churning water below.  Then we retreated about 10-15 feet back to confer.  “This couldn’t be where we jumped, could it?”  We both concluded this was far too high above the river, it couldn’t have been the spot.  One could get seriously hurt hitting the water from this height. One more peak over the ledge and we both agreed, we couldn’t have jumped from here.

As we were about to turn around, we heard the voices of young kids, coming up the trail.  They were running, approaching rapidly, yelling, and carrying on as kids do.  Not knowing how many there were or how fast they were going, we stepped back out of the way, to let them pass.  The first skinny kid of about 8 years old glanced to the right and noticed us but did not miss a step, as he ran toward the edge and launched himself into the river, arms flailing and yelling.  In just another second or two, another flash passed, making the same jump, followed by 3 more.  Whoosh… whoosh… whoosh they went.  Leif and I slowly approached the ledge again, looking down at the five young kids in the water, laughing, splashing as they swam toward the shore.  After a moment of silence, I mumbled, “Well, maybe we did jump from here. We must have been nuts.” 

Ascot Park Race with Gene Romero (#121) leading. John Binder (#238R) is just behind him and to the left, on his BSA 250 C-15
John Binder, bike #51, racing on Catalina Island in 1958. As always, John ran near the front of the pack, nearly always in contention to win.