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The first time you ride a motorcycle on dirt is a bit like losing your virginity. You know it’s going be a lot of fun, but you’re still really nervous. You want to go faster, push the envelope a bit, may be even get the tail out if she’ll let you. The last thing you want to do is get too excited and fall off the saddle, or worse still brake prematurely and end up with a face full of dirt. So you ease into it and find a rhythm, get creative, and before you know it you are left in a pile of sweat, out of breath, aching in places you never knew existed and dreaming of the next time. I’ve ridden my fair share of motorcycles but nothing quite prepares you for the first time you ride a top-spec touring bike on gravel – bikes like the Triumph Tiger XRx(their on/off road model), Kawasaki Versys and Suzuki V-Strom. Now straight up the hawk-eyed among you are going to point out that the Tiger XRx displaces 800cc while the other two have a straight 200cc advantage; for those of you, I say, oh ye of little faith. The next thing to be straightened out is there is no way to pit these bikes against each other based purely on their ability to conquer the gravel rally stage we had set out for them. Rather pointless you might say, but we disagree. You see the problem with the adventure moto segment is, it is quite loosely defined. What does a manufacturer focus on?
Facts are facts: the Kwaker is easily the most capable on the highway with every inch of the Versys being designed to munch miles, with the odd off-road trail thrown in. The Suzuki is the most off-road capable by design, and implementation. The Triumph … well … we’re still trying to figure out which way it swings, but as of right now it seems to be the most consistent all-rounder.
We’ll start with the V-Strom which is the oldest of the three. The first thing you notice about the Strom is its deceptive size. I mean sure there’s no comparison to the Versys’s gargantuan proportions, but look at the bike when it’s parked and it does appear to be on the bulkier side. Swing a leg over and the Strom almost magically sheds all its bulk, and feels small and agile. Quite frankly it’s a little disconcerting. The Strom also has the most torque of the three courtesy the 1037cc V-twin. The 103Nm which kicks in at 4000rpm can get quite disconcerting on dirt especially with the traction control off. On the road however it is mindbogglingly fast off the line and the violence continues almost till the fourth gear. Long distance comfort? Off-road ability? Straight-line speed? The devil is in finding just the right balance. Each of these manufacturers have obviously put in the man hours into figuring out the ratio that will make Couple that with a light clutch action, lowish centre of gravity and intuitive throttle response and what you get is a bike that can manage twisty sections almost as easily as it can kick up rooster tails round gravel corners.
To keep you from hurting yourself the V-Strom gets three settings on the traction control: Off, TC1 which allows an element of slip before intervening and TC2 which has a no-slip policy. The ABS stays on permanently and we could think of no reason you’d ever need to turn it off. The Kayaba suspension makes things feel entirely effortless, it almost urges you to prove that it can’t handle a bump or pothole, and then it sails over it without so as much as a judder. The only problem we could find with the V-Strom was the lack of any protection. You get no handlebar guards, no engine guards, not even a skid plate like the Triumph. The only things protecting the tank are those fibre winglets which are about as useful as an Unsullied (from Game of Thrones) in the bedroom. If you’re going to claim even the slightest of off-road abilities, you’re going to have to prepare and account for your bike falling over.
The Kawasaki is quite an amusing juxtapose, you get the feeling that it was built by a man with the ever so slightest hint of schizophrenia. On the one hand you have this monolith that has a 1518mm wheelbase and weighs about the same as a small moon and on the other you have the 1043cc inline-four from the Z1000. Then they decided to give it the bolt upright ergonomics and extended suspension travel of an adventure tourer(150mm at both ends), and followed it up with 17-inch wheels (that make the Versys look like a 6-foot man with size 4 shoes) and sports-tourer-spec Bridgestone tyres. Seriously, pick a side.
Not that the Kawasaki is all bad, it has its moments, and at those precise moments you’d much rather be on the Kawasaki than anything else. For one I’d pick the Kawasaki if I had to go on a long ride any day. That wide soft seat that could be made out of stuffed angels add to the wonderful seating position and I swear I could ride for days without ever having to pull over. Then there’s that engine which is so wonderfully linear you simply twist the throttle and you’re pushing triple digits. Even on the twisty hill roads the Versys is wonderfully agile and you can get quite a bit of lean despite its proportions. What you have here is a lazy boy that thinks it’s a sports bike, making the Versys ideal as a daily ride/tourer. Don’t get me wrong, the Versys didn’t flounder about off-road either, it’s just that you always got the sense that it wasn’t entirely comfortable going about it. That aside it has some of the electronic sophistication of a sport bike with traction control (3 selectable modes suitable for everything from dry sport riding to rain; it can also be turned off), ABS brakes, two power modes (full power and 30bhp down for rain or other slippery situations) and a slipper clutch.
This leaves us with the XRx. Keep in mind that the XR series are tuned to prioritise onroad usage. Ideally we should’ve gotten our hands on the XC, which would have been more apt for this comparo, but that would mean giving the Tiger an undue edge. We’d have none of it. The XRx gets Showa suspension as opposed to the WPs on the XCx but, quite frankly, on the light off-road course that we had set up for the bikes, we didn’t even notice the difference. Both on-road and in the dirt the Triumph just went. Begging for more. Lower, faster, harder it was just so incredibly agile and manageable. So much so that at one point even old ham-fisted me decided to put off the traction control entirely and attack the course balls to the wall. Rooster tails for everyone! The Tiger is significantly lighter than the other two, and has much smaller, much less imposing dimensions. Surprisingly this doesn’t make the seating any less comfortable. In fact even Rivan, who has, let’s just say, an ample posterior, was quite comfortable on the pillion seat.
The XRx does get quite a few electronic do-dads including three ride modes, ABS and three traction control modes, two throttle map options, cruise control, a centre stand, hand guards, and an expansive trip computer. If you select the off-road ride mode it softens up the way the throttle responds and remaps the ABS and traction control, allowing the rear wheel some amount of slip before the traction control kicks in. Triumph have also engineered the front wheel ABS to perfection and gives you more braking and more control than either bike. They claim that the ABS is designed only to work under panic braking. The traction control seems slightly less wellengineered and isn’t as refined or effective as the other two.
The piece de resistance for the Tiger is Triumph’s second-generation 800cc in-line triple engine, which is mated to a gearbox with a large number of components from the Daytona 675R. The power delivery is just so linear and smooth that I could think of no further use of their complicated electronics. That’s the thing about the Triumph: it’s so well tied together, nothing seems in excess or shorthanded; a place for everything and everything in its place. It is the easiest to manoeuvre of the three and even though it is the smallest, it doesn’t lose out on comfort and stability. That’s why the Triumph wins this. Sure, it comes with a whole barrage of electronic wizardry to use at your disposal, but should you choose to turn everything off, it has the foundation of solid engineering to keep everything perfectly tied together.