's 2023 South Dakota Adventure Tour

Evans Brasfield
by Evans Brasfield

An Aprilia Tuareg 660, Ducati DesertX, and KTM 390 Adventure sample the best of the Black Hills

Touring on motorcycles has always been fraught with variables, and adventure touring, with its off-road excursions, only increases them – exponentially. We’d been planning a trip to South Dakota to ride the Black Hills’ extensive road and trail system and were scheduled to hit them on the first day of the season. We weren’t going to let a little thing, like a week of rain prior to our arrival, dampen our enthusiasm. So, we were surprised when the trails were mostly dry and not muddy, with the exception of occasional mud puddles that ranged from a couple of inches to a foot – or more – in depth. With the opaque nature of the puddles, we had no choice but to venture through them blindly. What could possibly go wrong?

Aprilia Tuareg 660, Ducati DesertX, and KTM 390 Adventure gathered a group of adventure bikes for a shootout in South Dakota, and we learned it was less about the bikes than it was about the ride

Aprilia Tuareg 660


  • Well balanced adventure-touring package
  • Flexible electronics package
  • Add the crash protection plus a set of bags, and you’re ready to travel


  • Engine needs to be spun up to access the torque off road
  • We missed the optional quickshifter
  • That’s all we’ve got

Ducati DesertX


  • The sportbike of the bunch on- and off-road
  • That exhaust note!
  • Electronics do a great job of taming the beast when necessary


  • Accessories added $6,000 to price
  • Rally seat not the best for long road stints
  • The power and weight combined can make things go sideways quickly

KTM 390 Adventure


  • Could tractor its way over almost anything
  • Kept up with the bigger bikes with a little effort
  • Swims well in mud puddles


  • Awkward standing position for all riders
  • Only 40hp
  • Difficult quickshifter

Setting the Stage

The thing that set the trip in motion was our visit to the Buffalo Chip and the 2022 Get On Adventure Fest! last July. We’d seen the countryside and heard stories of fantastic off-road riding. Naturally, we wanted to sample it. The second, and instrumental, development was that Travel South Dakota was anxious enough for us to experience the state’s riding – and share it with our readers and YouTube audience – that it agreed to sponsor our ride and accompanying video. Once the contracts were signed, we were required to take this trip. Tough work when you can get it.

Our premise for the tour was to gather four bikes, each of which represented a different slice of the adventure market. Then we would go on the ride and learn how the different sizes of the motorcycles responded to the conditions. The bikes nominated for our ride were, in order of decreasing displacement: BMW R 1250 GS, Ducati DesertX, Aprilia Tuareg 660, and KTM 390 Adventure, representing the heavyweight, heavy middleweight, light middleweight, and lightweight classes, respectively. Aside from crash protection, we asked that the bikes remain stock, a request that was greatly affected by bike availability.

By the time we hit the roads and trails of South Dakota, we had secured a 390 Adventure with crash bars, a Tuareg with crash bars, a fully-loaded DesertX (complete with a full titanium Termignoni exhaust), and a GS sporting a selection of pretty Option 719 accessories. So much for stock.

Our riders would consist of myself and Ryan Adams as the MO adventure enthusiasts, and guest-riding duties would be handled by Friends-of-MO Abhi Eswarappa of Iconic Motorbikes and John Nave, a GS owner who participated in our Pan America/GS comparo last year. Once again, I would be the weak link in the off-road testing chain, but my dirt skills have improved since our previous time in South Dakota.

Our action-packed schedule included four sun-up-to-sundown days of riding and shooting photos and video, with the first day consisting of as many miles as we could cram in before three days of riding interspersed with shooting. Since we all had experience on the models we’d gathered, our goal for the first day was to get the lay of the land (quite excellent on-road and off) and figure out how this odd grouping of machinery would stack up.

All of which brings us back to those opaque puddles filled with the unknown. Could it be rocks? Slippery mud? Something else? When there was no way around, we had to soldier through. Naturally, I was the first to take a bath on the KTM in a shallow-but-slippery puddle, with no issues other than the continued damage to my pride. (I decided to take a swim in a much longer and deeper pool at the end of the day, just to make sure that both boots were filled with water.)

However, the surprise of the day came when Abhi dropped the GS 1250 in a roughly 10-inch deep puddle. The speed was slow, the impact was minor, and the result was shocking. For the rest of the day, the BMW ran fine except for a sticky throttle that was easily repaired back at the hotel, but the next morning, it would only fire on one cylinder and produced a fear-inducing warning screen. Advice from our BMW rep was to park it since the nearest dealership was over 70 miles away. So, at this early point in the shootout we bid auf wiedersehen to the BMW. (After the ride, we got the BMW to a dealership, and the verdict was a fouled plug most likely resulting from a coil that needed to be replaced. For the bike that almost single-handedly created the adventure market to fail on such a minor tipover is worrisome.)

The reason we parted ways with the BMW R 1250 GS.

With the OG Adventure Tourer eliminated from the discussion, we set our minds to analyzing how the three bikes approached their respective jobs while leaving out how they represented each class of adventure bikes. Since adventure bikes are the multi tool of the motorcycle world, they are adept at both gobbling up large sections of pavement and tackling off-road exploration offered by the Black Hills. What we quickly learned about the three remaining bikes was that they all had their distinct personalities and approaches to the task at hand.

KTM 390 Adventure

The smallest bike of the group was, in some ways, the hardest to categorize. Yes, having a mere 40 hp at its disposal was a handicap at times. However, in some situations, its diminutive size became a distinct advantage. Still, there was one major flaw that determined how all four riders interacted with the bike. The odd rider triangle made the handlebar feel extremely low and difficult for all of our riders, who ranged in height from 5’7” to 6’3”, to stand up the way they wanted to in the dirt. I, at 5’11”, felt as if I was contorted into a question mark when trying to stand. I can’t imagine how Abhi, who is four inches taller than me could even consider it, but he gamely did.

The awkward standing position on the KTM helped me to take a couple of mud baths. My lack of skill finished the job.

Additionally, I think that my awkward position when standing on the 390 helped me to tip over twice, yes twice, in puddles on our first day of riding. My working theory is that my hunched posture made it difficult to get my weight rearward in the slippery conditions. Aside from a cracked plastic hand guard, the little KTM escaped these watery indignities unscathed.

The awkwardness of the standing position was universally criticized in our riders’ notes. Said Abhi, “My biggest issue was the ergonomics. It's one thing to be a tall guy on a small bike, but the KTM makes it even harder than usual (especially off-road) with bars that are too low and pegs that are angled forward.” At the other end of the height spectrum, John concurred: “Standing up was honestly almost impossible. The bars are so low that standing at all found me hunched over and uncomfortable. I ride a lot of dirt bikes in the desert so standing is more the norm than sitting. Higher bars and risers would be the first changes.”

In fact, the 390 Adventure is just a handlebar swap and riser addition from a significantly stronger position in this gathering. While this might sound surprising given the strengths of the other bikes we were riding, the KTM was the Little Engine That Could during our days in South Dakota. With a wet weight almost 200 lb. less than the parked BMW, the KTM felt somewhat familiar to John: “As the lightest bike at 387 lbs, its single-cylinder handling off-road approximated my Husky FE350S in riding style through South Dakota’s unpredictable mud. This is where a shorter, lighter bike is always at an advantage, where HP is not the primary concern.” “Interestingly enough,” agrees Ryan. “The KTM seemed to be the preferred steed when things got technical for most of our crew. Simply put, it’s just easy to ride and is easy to handle in any terrain.” If my description of the KTM was a little too juvenile, perhaps you’ll find Abhi’s metaphor more relatable: “It was a billy goat that just plodded through everything. It ended up in all the same places and conquered the same obstacles, it just got there slower.”

This even translated into the KTM’s on-road manners from the 40 hp Single. It didn’t get up to cruising speed as quickly as the others, but it got there and was reasonably comfortable doing so. Ryan explains: “The KTM’s mill feels like it was plucked out of the RC and Duke 390s, and that’s because it was. The motor has to be revved out to get into its powerband, but once you’re there, it surprises with a rush of forward momentum.” John concurred that the 390 was often “chasing to catch up with the bigger bikes on South Dakota’s terrific paved roads, which necessitated a lot of upper RPM work, shifting madly.” But he added, “The quickshifter, something KTM generally does well on its bigger bikes, was a little wonky.” In fact, there was much discussion over the communicators about how difficult it was to shift the 390 into second and third gears with the quickshifter. In the end, the secret to keeping up with the bigger kids on the paved playground was to maintain momentum through the corners, something the Continental TKC70s didn’t mind at all.

Aprilia Tuareg 660

If the KTM was the younger, smaller kid trying to hang with the bigger ones, the Tuareg is the kid that’s both a great student and an athlete. If it weren’t such a likable bloke of a motorcycle, it’s well-roundedness might be off-putting. So, instead of being accused of blandness, like some other relentlessly competent motorcycles, the Aprilia presents itself as the Jack-of-all-trades.

“Every time I start gushing about how fun the Ducati is I must remind myself that the Aprilia is nearly half the price and a lot of fun to ride,” Ryan expounds on a similar theme to the other riders, “The Tuareg’s Parallel-Twin doesn’t have the same low-end torque of the Testastretta engine, and you’re reminded that its mill is shared with Aprilia’s shorter and sportier siblings. Still, once you have it in the meat of its power, it’s just as fun to flog at an elevated pace. Not to mention, off-road it can be easier to manage in most situations thanks to its low center of gravity.”

The Tuareg made the testers write paragraphs instead of sentence-long notes. John opines: “The Tuareg powerplant, at just 68 hp and carrying 466 lbs, felt quicker than the numbers state. There was a memorable stretch of paved road with Ryan chasing me on the Ducati where that 660 motor provided excellent power on the serpentine roads. I really enjoyed the power, and the fueling was just spot on all over the entire tachometer range. It had plenty of scoot from 3500 rpm up, and over 6,000 rpm, it was surprising.”

None of this was a surprise to me. I was on last year’s 2,000 mile ride from Sturgis to Los Angeles and had plenty of miles – both paved and dirt – to appreciate the Tuareg’s backroad scratching capabilities combined with morphing into exactly the bike the rider of any skill level wanted when the road turned to two-track, a trait that Abhi summed up as “the best combination of off-road prowess with on-road handling and comfort.” The universal praise for the Aprilia only serves to highlight our selection of the Tuareg as the 2022 Motorcycle of the Year.

Ryan has a lot to say about the Tuareg:

“The Tuareg does an excellent job of appealing to many rider’s sensibilities, or lack thereof. It’s an easy steed for those newer to the genre or riders looking to explore sensibly, but also for ham-fisted folks who have no sense at all, like Yours Truly.

“I’ve been planning to buy a new adventure bike for some time – and even sold four motorcycles to aid in doing so. Sitting on a plane from Munich to LA just a week after our time in South Dakota it dawned on me, why not the Tuareg? I’d always thought it would be the KTM 890 Adventure R which I truly enjoy, and the raucousness that the Desert X brings out of me is also addicting, but it comes at a price. The Tuareg makes a lot of sense in too many ways.”

Our tallest tester, Abhi, found the Tuareg to be a great fit off road without compromising paved comfort: “The Tuareg has my favorite ergonomics (I'm 6'3") as the bars are quite tall, though that can feel a little odd while corner carving on the road. The tank is also extra narrow where it meets the seat and the suspension is plush - it's a great place to spend a few hours exploring.”

John continues the love-fest: “Off-road while standing, the 660 was really in its element. There was plenty of power to pull cleanly out of slippery turns, relying on Enduro mode to allow some tire slip but not too much. Even with traction control turned on, acceleration at rear tire limits was stable and great fun. I felt the Tuareg put down power well in every situation, even on the rare washboard it was compliant and competent.”

The Tuareg’s appeal isn’t just due to the riding position that fit our range of sizes. The electronic tunability helps riders, like myself, who want more protection from errors, to riders, like, well, everyone else on the ride, who turn them off and let the right wrist do the work. Abhi expounds on this capability: “The electronics package is impressive, and more importantly, it's intuitive. It's very easy to change settings/modes on the fly. There was good differentiation between the preset riding modes and the ability to program ‘Individual’ to my own needs was perfect.”

Still, the Tuareg isn’t without flaws. Ryan points out that the “Tuareg’s front brake doesn’t have the same initial bite of the Desert X, but the power is there and delivered in a linear fashion.” And we all agree with Abhi’s sentiment: “Our tester lacked the optional quickshifter, which I really missed a few times when trying to change gears quickly in technical off-road situations.”

We’ll end the praise of the Tuareg by noting that the intake noise from the 270° Parallel-Twin is intoxicating and “is better than some exhaust sounds,” in Abhi’s opinion.

Ducati DesertX

Every time I threw a leg over the DesertX on the pavement, I thought, “Is this the time the Ducati is gonna get me arrested?” Even in the dirt, where I am at a significant disadvantage compared to my compatriots on this ride, the DesertX talked me into trying things that might not be the best idea, yet it had the tools to keep these impulsive maneuvers from coming back to bite me. Clearly the bad boy of the gathering, the Ducati violated our rules in one of the most pleasant of ways.

“Ignoring the power bump and the weight savings, the full titanium Termignoni race exhaust sounds so good (especially during gear changes) that it should be illegal. Oh wait - it is!” Abhi enthused, pointing out the double-edged nature of the sexy Termignoni system. Still, even without the power bump and the aural pleasure, the Ducati would have been the on-road ripper of the bunch. The Testastretta is a willing partner in crime, and even in ADV trim, the chassis and Pirelli STR Rally tires were ready for paved shenanigans.

Perhaps I should have saved myself some typing and let Ryan gush a little instead: “The Desert X is an absolute ripper. The Testastretta engine goads you into yankin’ its tail, willing to show off its strong, linear torque delivery as it lofts the front wheel effortlessly. That power is what makes the Ducati so much fun to ride off-road and through twisty bits of tarmac. Of course, the chassis needs to hold up, too. The Desert X’s KYB suspenders are up to the task delivering the sportiest, stiffest ride of the bunch and offering full adjustment should you want to soften things up.”

Abhi was also a fan:

“This is the bike I was most excited to try, and it did not disappoint. The DesertX was most similar to a large dirt bike in terms of ergonomics, suspension stiffness, and how the power is delivered. It’s a rowdy experience that was the most fun of all the bikes, but I think you need to be at Ryan’s skill level to enjoy it the most and not get in trouble with it.

“V-Twins are my favorite motors, and the 937cc Testastretta in the DesertX is another example as to why. It hits hard down low and is incredibly tractable. It was by far the easiest bike to slide and to loft over obstacles.”

Maybe we should let John get a word in, too: “Riding the Ducati DesertX was like the excitement of when the prettiest girl in high school says yes to the dance. Controlled chaos at times. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat, driver’s license in a steady state of peril.”

However, our ride through the Black Hills wasn’t just about sexy pavement, we had lots of dirt, too. The challenge for Ducati, and the riders, was keeping all that grunt under control when things got slippery. I remember watching John navigate one of the longest, deepest puddles we encountered. After just the slightest bit of throttle mismanagement, the DesertX snapped sideways 90° – which John, to his credit, saved – sending rider and bike over a berm and riding down the embankment into a field. (As a point of reference, I followed John and, at the exact same point in the puddle, tucked the front and took a nice mud bath.)

The ride modes were key to enjoying the DesertX off-road, and the best part is that it could be tuned to rider preferences. John notes: “Utilizing mostly the Rally mode, it was never a handful and fueling was just spot on. Grabbing a bunch of throttle standing up using the quickshifter was a blast, and my boot fit.” However, Abhi observed that changing modes was not the only interaction required with the electronics: “The electronics package is probably the most impressive of the bunch in terms of aiding the rider and making them seem more skilled, but I also found it the hardest to use. It’s easy to switch ride modes when switching between pavement and dirt, but some things that should be simple (such as resetting the trip meter) are much more fussy than they need to be.”

Still, Ryan reminds us that the most important interaction with the Ducati is right there at your fingertips:

“The Desert X is infinitely adjustable from an electronic standpoint – the most of this crew by a longshot – allowing the rider to tune each of its six ride modes at a granular level and save those changes. Once you’ve got your preferred ride modes adjusted, it’s quick and easy to swap between modes on the fly with a long press of a button on the left switchgear.

“Ducati’s first from-the-ground-up adventure bike does an excellent job of masking its over 500-pound curb weight, but with its stonkin’ engine set to full power and with its ride modes dialed back or turned off, things can go sideways pretty quickly. It’s then that you’re reminded that you’re on a big ol’ bike.”

Overkill in the hands of less skilled riders? Perhaps, but the package that Ducati put together with the DesertX was loved by all four riders.

Selecting a Winner

Typically, at this point in a shootout, we’d be wrapping up our discussion with a choice of what bike won. However, this gathering, with its varied selection of bikes (with or without the BMW), doesn’t lend itself to that type of conclusion. Rather, the riders and I would likely say, if pressed about this ride, that we were the real winners. Spring in the Black Hills of South Dakota is spectacular – mud baths notwithstanding. The scenery is green in the way that only Spring can deliver. The roads are legendary and uncluttered by other users, though they are equally fun during Sturgis Bike Week, just more crowded. In fact, during Bike Week – or any time of year, actually – riding adventure tourers just might be the ideal way to see the Black Hills. The fire roads and two-track trails can take you far away from the crowds into places that not enough people get to see.

Abhi had a lot to say in that regard:

“It’s clear that over the years I have overlooked South Dakota. This was a mistake on my part, as the Black Hills offered up a wonderful variety of environments to explore, ranging from low-lying prairies that extend out as far as you can see to the tallest peaks found between the Rockies and the Alps.

“There’s something for nearly every kind of rider, whether you enjoy paved scenic byways that loop on top of each other, easy off-roading with an emphasis on scenery, or harder off-roading that makes up events like the Dakota 600 that our guide organized.

“As a resident of Los Angeles, I can sometimes forget what it’s like to see endless fields of green, and there were several moments on this ride where I’d have to remind myself to focus on the trail and not let myself get distracted by the scenery. Nearly every blind crest opened up to a view worth taking in, and we were alone on the trails most of the time. So, it felt like we had the world to ourselves.”

John’s South Dakota thoughts were along similar lines:

“West South Dakota was an eye-opener for both natural beauty and a great system of trails that interconnect. Add in the terrific roads that one could spend days exploring, and you’ve got a riding mecca for days. I found myself comparing the beauty of South Dakota with the best of Colorado, California, Montana, and Wyoming roads where around every turn was either another vista or just ideal combinations of turns that every rider would marvel at.

“What can’t be missed is Custer State Park. That road day was one of the most memorable days in South Dakota. With fair warning about the ‘fluffy cows’ and how many Darwin award winners get hurt trying to pet them, we did make a close acquaintance with bison in Custer. Very cool. True Dakota history standing right there.

“Accepting that the seasonal day crowds may be challenging, go see Mt. Rushmore at night. We did, late one week night, and it was great fun.”

Ryan took a moment from lofting the Aprilia’s and Ducati’s front wheels to pen: “It’s big sky country up there. Craggy rocks covered in moss, standing water and mud, some old dead guys carved into a mountain, and a big ol’ biker rally. Its beauty can’t be understated. It turns out that’s not all South Dakota has to offer.”

If you’re interested in sampling backcountry rides like we did, we’d heartily recommend the Dakota Adventure Loop (DakAL) and the Dakota 600 mentioned above. They were put together by Bill Hearne and the SD Trails Development Corporation, which is a non-profit dedicated “to on-the-ground expansion, enhancement and development of responsible, motorized use of 62”, and single-track trails.” The research behind the DakAL’s 900-mile loop through western South Dakota provided the knowledge to create the route we rode and shot this shootout on.

Every motorcyclist owes it to themselves to ride in South Dakota, whether at the Sturgis Bike Week or some other time. The roads and scenery are exemplary, but truthfully, adventure riders will get a special treat. Don’t miss out!

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Evans Brasfield
Evans Brasfield

Like most of the best happenings in his life, Evans stumbled into his motojournalism career. While on his way to a planned life in academia, he applied for a job at a motorcycle magazine, thinking he’d get the opportunity to write some freelance articles. Instead, he was offered a full-time job in which he discovered he could actually get paid to ride other people’s motorcycles – and he’s never looked back. Over the 25 years he’s been in the motorcycle industry, Evans has written two books, 101 Sportbike Performance Projects and How to Modify Your Metric Cruiser, and has ridden just about every production motorcycle manufactured. Evans has a deep love of motorcycles and believes they are a force for good in the world.

More by Evans Brasfield

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2 of 16 comments
  • MrFixit MrFixit on Jul 30, 2023

    I had a Honda XR650L 10 years ago and currently own a KTM 390 ADV. That Honda was the worst street bike I ever had the displeasure of riding. An 80 mile ride had my tailbone sore for a week. Too tall, too slow, too uncomfortable. Bulletproof though. If I was going to try an around the world ride, I would take it over any of these three.

  • Engineerbob Engineerbob on Aug 02, 2023

    The KTM's seat height is 56.3 ± 0.6 inches?