As the year comes to a close, we MO editors find ourselves wrapped in sweaters, hot beverages in hand while we warm ourselves in front of space heaters cranked on high. SoCal can be bitterly cold this time of year with temps dipping all the way into the high 40s (F)! Since it’s much too cold to ride a motorcycle in this weather, we’ll sit and reminisce. Warm up the kettle, grab your heated blanket and join us won’t you, as we recall the best first rides of all (of 2019).
“I love riding in the rain” Brasfield said, his voice trailing off suggesting he hadn’t been listening to a thing I was saying. His tone conjured up images of an aging man staring out of his office window at nothing particular as the rain dripped down the glass. He would be wishing for nothing more – including listening to what I have to say – than to be splashing through puddles on his beloved 790 Duke. Well, it’d just so happen that ol’ Brasstacks managed to pry himself out from under his crushing managerial responsibilities, and whatever else it is that he does on a daily basis, to attend the 2019 Yamaha Niken GT introduction north of LA in Santa Barbara County. It was like the launch had been tailor-made for him. Mother Nature provided the moisture while Yamaha USA provided the ultimate vehicle for the conditions that lay ahead.
“The rain stopped just minutes before I entered the corner at a healthy clip – only to find that it had a decreasing radius. Then it went slightly off-camber. Not an ideal situation by any means. Still, the good folks at Yamaha insisted that less than ideal traction situations were where the Niken GT’s two-wheeled front suspension would shine. The assertion being that if one contact patch momentarily lost traction, the other one would make up for it. So, I grit my teeth and dialed in more lean…
“The corner would have been extremely sketchy on your typical motorcycle – though I wouldn’t have been going as fast on one in the wet conditions in which I was riding. A couple of corners later, as the right front tire spent a little too much time on a tar snake with the bike leaned over, I got to actually feel what it is like when a contact patch does lose traction. The bike tracked like nothing was wrong, betraying the one-wheel slip with a slight oscillation of the handlebar. Essentially, it was a non-event. The combination of those two moments on the 2019 Yamaha Niken GT won me over.”
Trying to get a straight answer out of John Burns is about as easy as organizing a seven-plus-bike shootout with a staff of four, so I’ll let him tell you how he felt about his slew of first rides this year:
“It’s all a blur, I had the privilege of riding a bunch of new bikes for the first time this year: Katana 1000 in Japan, Rocket 3 in Tenerife, Svartpilen 701 in Portugal, and some I may have forgotten. Of them all, I have to say my fave was Indian’s new FTR1200. The immediate whump of its big V-twin, the fat DT tires, the aggressive nature of the thing combined with comfy/sporty ergos (and cruise control) that let you go a good long time – even on sandy dirt roads. The FTR just grabbed me in a way nothing else did in 2019. But I gave the Svartpilen 701 an even higher rating, 92, maybe because I hadn’t ridden the FTR yet. The 690-Duke powered Svart does everything the FTR does but there’s probably 150 pounds less of it, which makes it a fantastic do-everything bike, too. Alas, no cruise control like on the FTR and the new Triumph Rocket 3. Oooooo Rocket 3, now there’s a sweet new motorcycle. Oh, don’t forget the new Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE LT, which I rated 89.5. I’m gonna narrow it down to those four, any one of which I could live happily with for years. It all depends on what you want.”
For Troy, blasting around the iconic Mugello Circuit on a beefed-up version of one of his favorite bikes topped the list. It’s no secret the RSV4 platform has been a favorite of the entire MO staff, current and past, for some time, but the newest version features a rule-breaking monstrous 1078cc V4 engine and as we always say, more is more and here MO is betta. More power + more brakes + more wings = more fun.
“There might be no better place than the legendary Mugello circuit in the Tuscan valley in Italy to let an 1100 stretch its wings, err, legs. Its fast, flowing corners highlight the RSV’s cornering agility, while its 1.1 km straight is one of the few places on earth you can tickle redline in sixth gear. Now, normally anybody in their right mind would suggest against learning a new track, especially Mugello, aboard a fire-breathing 1100, but if you don’t have another choice like I didn’t, the RSV4 1100 is not a bad place to be.”
I’ve had a lot of great First Rides in 2019, but considering it won our Best Adventure Motorcycle award as well as Motorcycle Of The Year in 2019, my pick would have to be the KTM 790 Adventure R. And even though we’re talking about First Rides here, which not only consider the motorcycle, but also the location and our experience saddling upon a model for the first time, riding the 790 Adventure R in some seriously gnarly conditions being led by Dakar legends and enduro gods will likely go down as a best ever for me.
Traveling to Morocco is no easy task. It takes some extra flights and extra time in some of the world’s less luxurious airports, but hey, that’s what make far off lands exotic. Rubbing elbows with Toby Price, who had just won the 2019 Dakar rally with a broken wrist, on the last couple legs of our journey was pretty cool, but the experience that would lie ahead was incredible. I’m still impressed with KTM’s willingness to send out groups of journalists into the harsh climate and terrain that encompasses the Sahara’s Merzouga Dunes. It was a proper motorcycle test. More often than not, manufacturers very carefully plan rides to ensure the routes, asphalt, dirt, etc. play to the motorcycle’s strengths, rather than their weaknesses. Not the case during the 790 Adventure R launch. We set off into deep sand almost immediately after we left the small village where we stayed. With Chris Birch, who is one of the most incredible enduro riders I’ve ever seen, leading my group, we managed to do a bit more exploring than some of the other groups. We’d work our way up steep cirques and back down sidehills scattered with sharp volcanic rock, spend time in massive sand dunes, and have high-speed desert blasts in between.
The entire experience was amazing. The bike did great, the location was interesting, and the VIP KTM racers helped add to the rally ambiance. But what I’m most impressed with, again, is KTM’s belief that their motorcycle would not be the limiting factor during that launch. It was true. Kudos to KTM for producing one of the best tests of a motorcycle I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of yet.