On Saturday, Sept 25, I joined a few friends in Flagstaff, AZ at the Overland Expo West, an event growing exponentially over the past few years to include vendors from across the outdoor experience world. Represented were every truck and off-road-oriented vehicle, motorcycle companies, tents, yurts, lights, knives, water purification, backpacks, and hundreds of exhibitors with accessory products to make your outdoor trekking more enjoyable. Here’s the complete list.
Harley-Davidson had a booth entirely given over to their new Pan America adventure motorcycle. This bike is an outright divergence from Harley’s dominant cruiser market. Since its introduction earlier this year, reviews are popping up everywhere, even some by former colleagues of mine. But my first chance to ride it was this past Saturday. Having ridden and written about many motorcycles for magazines like RIDER, Motorcycle Consumer News, RoadRunner, and The Overland Journal, I’m keenly aware of the fierce competition from manufacturers in this space. Before making my own choice for the best bike in this class to buy personally, I spent over two years extensively reading and testing the BMW 1250GS, KTM 1290, Ducati Multistrada, Triumph Tiger, Honda Africa Twin, Kawasaki KLR-650, and Yamaha Ténéré. These are all terrific bikes and their makers have been fine-tuning their capabilities and advantages. I had my doubts on how well Harley would do. Their past attempts at innovation included the V-Rod which (introduced in 2000 and dropped in 2017) had a revolutionary new motor designed jointly with Porsche but the Harley faithful never took to it. In 2019 the LiveWire electric bike was introduced with great fanfare but withdrawn the same year. Some readers have asked my opinion but I’ve been holding off until after I had a chance to personally take one for a ride. Well, now I’ve done that, and will give you my thoughts.
While a short, twenty-mile jaunt involving only a brief bit of gravel, it was revealing. My years of having to quickly assess and crystalize my impressions of a motorcycle for publication resurfaced and, I found that part of my brain went right into gear after throwing my leg over the orange Harley. Here are my early observations:
Harley fans looking for an upright seating position on a premium Adventure bike with a Harley logo, now have a solid choice. The seat is comfortable, the handlebars well-placed, the windscreen adequate, and the controls easy to reach and understand. Like most other bikes in this category, it seems more than capable for touring and moderate off-road use.
Sound matters to many Harley riders. My immediate impression was the sound of the Pan America owes a bigger debt to Buell than to the Harley cruisers cracking the throttle as they speed past my house on Thunderbird Road, often with aftermarket pipes. With wind and chain noise, valve-train clatter, lifters, cam sounds, and the clutch and gears chiming in, the exhaust note is very much in the background until you aggressively get on it.
Performance/engine. It’s a Harley, so it couldn’t be anything other than a V-Twin and it is. It’s a big, beefy 1252 cc motor with good low-end torque — true to expectations. For its size and weight, it has more than enough grunt.
The suspension surprised me with the level of adjustability. As I left the Overland Expo vendor area full of strolling show-goers with wagons, bikes, kids, and dogs, I kept it on the “Rain” setting which cuts the horsepower. Once heading south on Hwy 89A, I switched it to Sport mode and in a few seconds, it became much peppier. A “Road” setting is also offered, along with Off-Road and Off-Road Plus shuts off anti-lock braking. It also has three fully customizable ride modes. Going through these at the end of the ride with the Harley rep, I considered them straightforward to tune, allowing an almost unprecedented amount of personalization for your preferred riding setup.
The controls were all easy to understand. I even figured out the cruise control for the first time while riding with no instructions, meaning it must be simple. That says something, as several bikes in this category manage to make these features difficult, unintuitive, and hidden behind arcane menu systems only an engineer could love. It has cruise, heated grips, and decent wind protection.
Summary: While originally prepared to dismiss this bike, given my prejudices regarding Harley’s past lack of focus on performance, I was grudgingly impressed. Harley didn’t just copy the leading hefty adventure bike brands in this class. Instead, they studied what riders of those bikes appeared to want and provided that and a bit more. For instance, some prospective riders of big adventure bikes, particularly those with limited inseams, fear their height. How cool is it that the Pan America lowers itself as the speed decreases and by the time you come to a stop, it’s adjusted to the shortest possible reach to the ground? At 560 lbs. wet, it is right in line with others in this category, a bar I would have thought Harley could never meet, given all its power and features. Although a definitive recommendation would require more extensive testing, if this bike appeals to you right now, I’d say go for it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.