By Surj Gish & Fish
Photos by Angelica Rubalcaba & Surj Gish
Surj: The CityBike Wrecking Crew goes to Bungee Brent’s Backroad Bash every year—it’s become something akin to an annual corporate retreat, which I understand is what real companies call these outings that serve as backdrops for trust falls, sexual harassment and blackmail fodder. It’s a bit of a misnomer, though: we’re not corporate, and we damn sure don’t retreat. Ever.
Bungee Brent is a seventeen-year member of the Oakland Motorcycle Club—the club that puts on the Sheetiron—and his annual, eponymous Backroad Bash is two days of dual-sporting in the Sierras, benefiting the UC Davis Cancer Center and A Song For Wellness.
Fish: Previous to last year’s BBBB, I hadn’t been on a dirt-oriented motorcycle since my mid-twenties—I was unprepared, to say the least. I was also in the middle of rebuilding my beloved FXR, so an NT650 Hawk GT was serving as my daily ride. When Editor Surj proposed I join the Wrecking Crew for the 2016 Bungee ride, the Hawk GT/DS was born.
I followed the hipster trend of mounting up some TKC80s, slightly jacking up the suspension, and calling it a “scrambler.” That Hawk had a custom upper triple for standard handlebars instead of clip-ons, so it was predisposed to scramblerdom. I also brought a dune buggy, an EMPI Sportster built in ‘65, as backup transportation and possible camera car. The Sportster was the first ready-made kit to turn your VW pan into a short wheelbase off-road car, predating the more widely loved Meyers Manx. This EMPI sports a mildly hopped up 1900cc VW-based engine, but retains stock brakes and chassis. It goes fast enough, but is poorly equipped to stop or turn. Perfect!
Surj: I’ve been working on our 2016 R1200GS project bike, refining the already-excellent GS into the ultimate tall-rounder, easily configurable for ass-kicking on or off-road with a few quick changes. I was inspired by Fish’s performance at last year’s BBBB on the DirtHawk, and when he told me of his planned mount, I decided that instead of the very well set up CRF250L (another of our long term project bikes), I’d ride the GS. After all, why ride a suitable dual-sport when I’ve got an overweight, oversized adventure grande at my disposal. This also freed up the 250L for Max, since his long-suffering KLR was about to be passed to its soon-to-be-long-suffering new owner.
This tenth Bungee ride would be the first real test of the GS’s off-road mettle beyond fire roads and the like. Not exactly Baja, but a reasonable prelude to the more serious off-roading awaiting me and Triple Black Beauty in Colorado later this summer.
Fish: While Surj has been “building” his GS fanboi dream, I’ve been cycling through cheapass ADV castoff daily riders between rare instances of my FXR not being blown up. I’d been flogging an old DL1000, but a high-miles ‘06 Buell Ulysses popped up on Craigslist, original owner, priced to sell, so I replaced the perfectly reasonable DL with more pushrod-equipped American aluminum.
I’d planned to bring the DL—just a set of TKC80s away from being a reasonable two-up dirt machine—regardless of Surj’s bike choice, because I’d be hauling a passenger. When the Buell happened, I figured I might as well stick to the plan.
More On The Bikes. Or Is It Moron Bikes?
Surj: I’d already fortified the GS with sturdy (and porky) AltRider crash bars and skid plate, so I didn’t have any real concerns about tossing the big bastard down the trail in the name of moto-journalism, but in hopes of making it more capable in the sloppy stuff—and to enable quick ‘n’ easy rubber swaps (ewww…)—I ordered a set of Superlaced Excel Takasagos from Woody’s Wheel Works out in Denver.
Fish: Surj was convinced that a 21” front with “real” knobby would be the difference between mediocrity and excellence on his fancy-pants BMW, but my NT650 experience taught me that TKCs and throttle would rule the day.
Surj: Despite his usual trash talk, Fish had to admit that the Woody’s wheels are the business. Their Superlite hubs are intricate and beautifully crafted, and shave a claimed 5 pounds from the front and 4 pounds from the rear.
I opted for plain silver wheels, spokes and hubs, because black rims on a triple black bike is just sooo obvious, and I’m an individual. Also, it saved me a hundred bucks. Despite the old-timey silver finish, the Superlaced wheels that showed up just in time to mount for BBBB ‘17 are stunning, so much so that Master Of Puppets Angelica spent an afternoon photographing them, just cuz.
I can’t tell you what these exquisite hoops cost, because I’ve blocked the price out. But I think I could have gotten pretty close to adding a Z125 to the garage here at World Headquarters if I’d been content with riding pavement and occasional fire roads on the stock size wheels shod with those nonsense “adventure sport” 90/10 street/dirt tires.
Fish: I dig Erik Buell’s engineering, but know the Ulysses isn’t dirt-ready off the showroom floor. Or Craigslist. This Uly came with tamale cart panniers and auxiliary lights on a homemade bracket. Handguards too, but they looked like they’d be as effective as hopes and dreams.
Unlike Editor GS Aerostich, I hadn’t spent weeks plotting and planning my perfect ADV poser machine, so I hit my local Cycle Gear for a set of universal fit handguards, the aluminum ones with a little MX flair. I supplemented these with Biltwell “Mushroom Grips” grabbed from SF Moto, because I knew such blatant hipster brand whoring would anger our fearless leader. His swearing and glaring didn’t detract from the feel, which reminds me of the BMX hooligan days of my youth.
I stuck with the tried-and-true Continental TKC 80s because they offer reasonable on-road prowess and are pretty damn kickass in the dirt and rocks. There was nothing I could do about the 17” cast wheels this late in the game, and besides, Editor Surj already had us covered for really expensive, “real dirt” wheels.
Surj: I refused to be influenced by Fish’s nonstop lobbying for TKCs on the GS, and instead—after a comedic series of tire ordering mishaps, in which the distributor sent my pals at Hayward Cycle Salvage the wrong tire not once, but twice, before I realized I’d been asking for the wrong tire anyway—opt for a tube-type 90/90 21” Pirelli Scorpion Rally up front and a tubeless 150/70 17” Moto Z Tractionator out back. Although Fish is disappointed that his haranguing hasn’t swayed me to the TKC camp, he agrees that “Tractionator” is close enough to “Burninator” to be acceptable.
Fish: I won’t lie, I was full-on jealous of the Tractionator. That name alone is cool enough that the tires could be completely terrible and I’d probably still buy multiple sets.
Because Editor Safetypants recently installed obnoxiously bright LEDs on the GS and I had to handle my “prep” fairly quickly, I added no-name, Amazon-sourced LED aux lights to the Uly’s existing brackets, making the bike a reasonable parody of the real ADV bike. The finished product looks the part, more or less, and for magazine photos that’s what really matters.
Surj: Speaking of real ADV, I’d recently bolted up the wedges to attach a set of Mosko Moto’s Backcountry 35L solid-mount panniers. Installation is simple—just a few clamps—and complicated only by the fact that, in true CityBike fashion, I’ve used an adapter plate for the stock BMW GSA pannier frame on a Bumot pannier frame. It’s really close, but does limit my options a little. Actually, the correct way to say that is that I’ve limited my own options… But in the end, everything goes on, and the Backcountry panniers get stuffed with tools and other crap, to see how they do on the ride.
I slapped the ravishing new roundy-rounds on the GS late Thursday night and rode into SF first thing Friday morning before loading everything into the van Friday afternoon. The twenty-one incher on the front felt weird at first, of course, but the tires were so squirrely on the grooved pavement of the Bay Bridge that I alternated between questioning my life choices and considering prayer as a safety tactic the whole way into the city.
“It’ll be fine once we’re on the dirt,” I told myself, before laughing that it’s taken me 10 miles to notice the flat tire idiot light illuminated on the dash—the Woody’s wheels lack the appropriate sensors.
Let the Big Bike Bashing Begin
Fish: At the riders meeting Saturday morning, it comes out that my girlfriend will be riding pillion, a concept that is greeted by blank stares and confused laughter. My judgment is questioned, and she’s repeatedly pulled aside to determine whether she’s fully informed. Seems I made an impression last year.
With the magnitude of our poor judgment fully established, we saddle up and depart for the trail.
We enjoy the curves of 108 on the way to the trails. Even two-up with a Playmate cooler topcase, the Buell is a joy on-road.
The first trails are mellow fire roads, windy and fun. If you’ve never ridden a 100-horse, 450-pound motorcycle at an urgent pace on loose gravel roads, I highly recommend the experience. It’s a great way to spend a Saturday morning.
Lesson #1: the Uly’s rear brake is not really up to the task of both slowing and sliding the two-up sled around in gravel at speed. The front brake can make up for it, but requires a very delicate hand.
Surj: I sweep, because I almost always ask someone else to, and because I’m just getting to know the GS’s new road manners. It’s also been a while since I’ve been dirty, or rather ridden dirt, and the combination of these factors has me a little jittery.
Once on the fire roads, I begin to think that all those big bike haters are right. This thing is too big for proper dirt riding, better suited for the coffee shop and carefully-staged destination photos. Power delivery in “Enduro” mode has me wondering if the name is a translation error. It’s cutting power every time I even look at the twisty-grip, and I can’t slide the rear.
I fucking hate this fucking piece of shit motorcycle.
But cursing Enduro mode reminds me that there’s an Enduro Pro mode, too. I’m no Pro (whatever that means to you), but I’d sure love a more dirt-oriented setup, so I pull over and pull the seat, now cursing the heat as I futz with the plug that enables Enduro Pro.
I no longer hate the GS. It’s not perfect, and goddamn it’s a ton (actually, a bit over a quarter-ton) of work to hustle around. But Enduro Pro mode is an honest-to-god game-changer, and I can at least ride it like a dirtbike now, with wheelspin and sliding occurring roughly as expected and desired.
Fish: Bungee excels at route planning, and Saturday’s chart was no exception—unless you got one that was missing a section. Anyway, the chart leads to a water crossing in a shaded area, with notes to take a break and cool off. I take this opportunity to shed my passenger and get a good feel for foot-down sliding on the Buell, and to convince Editor Surj to let me take his baby rhinocer-GS for a quick spin, to compare.
I’ll give him credit—the 21” front does have a pleasant effect on the GS’s trail agility. I’m also rudely reminded that the Buell has less steering lock than any motorcycle I’ve ever ridden, while the GS has the most. I do my standard wheelie/burnout/slidey hooligan antics and come away with an understanding of why people like these things in the dirt too.
Oh, and the Tractionator didn’t disappoint.
Surj: We leave the water crossing, me still sweeping our group, and I roll up to a split leading upward into the trees. I’m not sure what it looks like after the first 50 feet, but it’s definitely uphill and gnarly for a good while. There’s an easier way, but I confer with Tom, the official sweep, who’s wearing Bungee’s GoPro on his chest. He says he’ll follow me and get it all on video.
That sounds like a good way to crash test the Mosko panniers, and the video will certainly be good for some laughs at the party coming up this evening, so I ignore the fact that I’ve just restarted the GS to get it out of limp mode and ease out the clutch.
The trail is a blast, all boisterous bouncing and backing it in. The GS—surprisingly—feels totally right. I’m up on the pegs, slipping and sliding, catching a bit of air here and there. I’m ignoring the roll chart, just riding, and I pass Alex, one of the riders in our group, coming out of what I think is the wrong way to go, heading upward into the hills.
The trail snakes back and forth, ever closer to the blue sky. There are near-endless jumps and whoops, and I feel like I’m hitting them just right. The GS is in its element, and I’m cackling with the maniacal glee we usually hear from Fish. It’s glorious.
Miles later, a downed tree forces me to stop. I’m preparing to apologize to Tom for my slow pace—after all, he’s on a real dirtbike—but he fist-bumps me vigorously and shouts “fuck yeah!”
It’s clear that what I thought was the wrong way was actually the right way, so we head back, enjoying the trail just as much on the way out. But I’m exhausted from throwing the gargantuan GS around on the trails, and eventually noodle out, launching the bike into a surprisingly soft stand of manzanita. Nature’s air fence.
I take a few minutes to clear my head, hydrate, chomp on some salmon jerky, and check out the Mosko bags, which are 100% solid despite the bike’s recent suborbital journey—these things are tough. Once my bell has stopped ringing, we continue, eventually rejoining the Wrecking Crew at the next split, huddled—surprise, surprise—around Fish’s disabled Buell.
It’s ok, though. My GS has started going into limp mode every couple minutes. Shit.
Fish: Things are going well through the first couple splits. The trail is deeply rutted from snowmelt, and I’m cursing my pathetic steering lock, but the short wheelbase helps make up for it. There are some interesting clunking noises and jolty landings, but overall we’re good.
We’re all high-fiving at the break at the end of the trail—the two-up Buell was not expected to have navigated such terrain. I shut off the V-Twin and drink some water, understanding that trail riding is as much a social event as it is travel.
But then we try to leave…
Apparently, the $2,000 Buell has suffered some sort of charging system failure—there’s not enough juice to start the engine. The ensuing bump start attempts are humorous, but ineffective. Gwynne gets out her handy tow strap, and we attempt a tow with Alex’s KT-varna.
This somehow breaks off one of the Buell’s turn signals, but is unsuccessful at starting the bike. Alex is Eagle Scout-prepared, and we find a charging cable in his nearly bottomless, well-stocked backpack, and attempt to charge the Buell from his Husky. More socialization happens, also known as “waiting for the dummy with the Buell.”
I’m hoping the KTM can give the Buell a fast enough transfusion that I can hide this failure from Editor Real ADV. Sadly, he finds me sitting next to my disabled bike. But from the slant of his yellow LEDs approaching through the trees, it’s apparent that the GS has suffered some trauma, so I know he won’t be too brutal with his feedback/ridicule.
Editor GS’s GS has taken him for quite a ride, and he’s done, exhausted. Taking advantage of this, I move the charging cable from the Husky to the big BMW. Charging continues, but at an accelerated rate, and Surj tells us of his troubles:
“Keeps going into limp mode. Won’t run at more than 2k, maybe three grand tops. Whyyy, 2k?!?!”
The small bike party departs, groaning at this “joke.” The GS powers up the Buell in short order, and the three of us head back to the lodge for some poolside rehab.
Surj: Back at Long Barn Lodge, we relax, watching other riders roll in. Everyone’s grinning, even me—although the GS appears to be suffering some kind of gremlins (electrical?), I’m still at full stoke from the run up and down the good trail.
At dinner that night, Bungee puts the video of me wrangling the GS on the big screen in the ice skating rink (yes, for real) and everyone’s suitably impressed with my big bike skills. I take it, not pointing out that the GoPro’s wide angle tends to make everything look faster. There was real air, after all, confirmed by Max, and he’s a racer, ok?
Fish: The Buell’s charging system is wounded, but not dead. I charge the battery back to 100% using my truck and jumper cables. While the juice flows from the Detroit Ford to Milwaukee motorcycle, I manage to get Surj to admit that the $2,000 Craigslist Buell is the clear winner of this challenge.
With that bit of ego inflation, my unfazed passenger and I set off for some “here’s a map, choose your own adventure” fun on day two. Max is along on the CityBike project CRF250L. A trail is recommended to us via a “you guys will enjoy this one” suggestion from other Bungee riders we meet at a stop.
Not one to shy away from a challenge, I ask my passenger to hold on and we roar down the trail, a groomed ATV track with tight turns and rollicking jumps. I may have jumped motorcycles while two-up before, but never so many times consecutively.
The trail is only about two miles, but it’s the highlight of the weekend for me.
I exercise my CityBike project bike privileges, stealing the CRF from Max for a run through the same trail, for a totally relevant Buell versus real dual-sport comparison. The CRF is certainly better suspended—I continue to be impressed with Race Tech’s work on that bike’s boingy bits. I miss the Buell’s stupid power, and want to believe that it may have been able to keep up with the CRF if both had been ridden in anger.
Surj: While the Wrecking Crew rides, I spend Sunday morning cleaning up our cabin, loading the van, and waiting for the painfully slow mountain internet to answer questions like “why does this goddamn limp mode keep coming back when the bike is running fine, goddamnit?!”
I find a post from some helpful bloke in the UK on a Euro-ADV website (where real adventure happens) about his bike going into limp mode after he added bar risers.
Interesting… I know someone who just raised the bars on their GS.
That someone is me, in case that’s not clear. I finally installed the Rizoma risers that have been sitting on my desk because they were just too pretty to put on the bike. Turns out they put the bars in a nice relaxed position for standing on the pegs, and look just as pretty on the bike as on my desk.
There’s a small block plug on the right side, that apparently gets pulled just enough to trigger an error at full lock, once bar risers are installed. The fix? Loosening the zip ties, tugging a bit. The lesson? The old-timers were right—ride by wire is stupid!
Funny thing, though. I couldn’t replicate the problem on Sunday, even before I tugged at the wires. So the problem is either magically gone for good, or—more likely—waiting for me to be 100 miles from nowhere in Colorado: “Whyyy, 2k!?!?”
Fish: This low-dough, crappy Craigslist DIY ADV riding may not be for you, but it’s a fun way to spend a weekend. The Buell exceeded my expectations, despite its bullshit, Nineties Ducati-esque steering lock. The short enough wheelbase fits handily in a 6-foot pickup, and that compactness translates into serious agility on the trail.
The wounded charging system ended up being a failed stator ($240) and a rectifier regulator ($190). Both were easily ordered from my friendly Harley dealership and not awful to R&R.
Look, a bargain Buell and a BMW GS aren’t much of a much of a real-life comparison, but as a Harley apologist, I have to advocate for the Buell. But I’ll admit that the GS is probably the more mature and responsible choice.
Emphasis on mature, like old.