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.

TV Top Pick #14: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople trailer screenshot

Do you ever wish for a compelling but simple story having no agenda? Something that every minute you watch you just smile, and say to yourself, “OMG, this is just so good!” If so, watch “Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The story here is funny and touching, the scenery spectacular, and the actors create strong, believable characters.  The original songs are hilarious and the occasional haiku poems a hoot.  I have to give credit for this film to the director, Taika Waititi, who also wrote the screenplay based on the book “Wild Pork and Watercress.”  Waititi has won accolades for his other movies like “What We Do in the Shadows,” “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Jojo Rabbit.”  He is so clearly at the top of his game here, confidently balancing comedy with superb story-telling, making it just magical in its simplicity and wonder.

My thanks for learning about this movie go to my niece, Christen Phaenuf, who is staying with us for a few weeks. Since we can’t be out and about with Covid, we’re watching movies.  It’s been a great time sharing personal favorites.  This was one of hers and after watching it, I can see why, and it is now one of mine.  It is a delightful experience to watch this movie.  We rented this 2016 film from Amazon Video but I now see that it is free on Netflix.  It stars Sam Neil and Julian Dennison, just 14 years old when the movie was made.

 

TV Top Picks #13: Engineering the Future: 3 Episode Series

The first of these 3 one-hour films is on wind power. I was instantly hooked.  In just over 50 minutes, you get amazing views into the interior workings of massively large wind turbines; learn extraordinary details on how they are made and what it takes to locate them.   At first I was a bit put off on having to join a new streaming service, this one called “CuriosityStream” to watch it, but that turned out to be an unexpected bonus.  If nothing else, watch this first episode on the engineering revolution going on in wind power and let me know what you think.

Before I tell you a tad more about these documentaries, let me explain CuriositySteam.  It was new to me, but apparently over 13 million subscribers have already discovered and signed up since it began in 2015, founded by the guy who created the Discovery Channel.  You need to subscribe, and it’s $2.99 a month or $19.99 annually for an HD subscription, although right now they have special $11.99/yr. offer.  Having cut the cable on our COX programming, I’m saving about $90 a month.  Being able to spend my subscription dollar on precisely the content I value and want to watch versus paying for massive amounts of programming I had no interest in is a no-brainer.  The way I figure it, I can sign up for another 25-30 monthly streaming services (Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, etc.) and I am still getting better value for my subscription dollar.  CuriosityStream offers thousands of documentary films across a variety of categories like science, history, mathematics, technology, robotics and nature. Think of it like the online version of The Great Courses, much more entertaining and less academic, but still authentic and accurate.

The 3 episodes in the Engineering the Future series are Wind, Aviation and Fusion, each one just under an hour.  Production quality is some of the best you will find.  Narration is done by David Attenborough and Patrick Stewart.  Interviews are conducted with scientists and engineers at the leading edge of research and production in each of these three areas, and scripted in a way that is easily understood for non-engineers like me. This is all new, cutting-edge stuff: one of the wind farms was just completed and brought onto the electric grid in the fall of 2020.