I found my one-bike solution, and it isn’t enough
The dirt trail looked like a yard sale. My shave kit perched on a tree root. A jacket was tossed on the ground, along with a bag of tent stakes and the clear shield for a motorcycle helmet. The situation would have been funny if one of the hard cases (formerly) attached to my motorcycle weren’t also sitting in the middle of the trail like some grand prize for a bargain hunter. The latch holding the case to the frame was broken, but I was okay and so was the bike. A few bungee cords fixed everything up quickly, and we were off again.
Two days into a week-long, mostly off-road journey to get a 2005 KTM 950 Adventure S home to Michigan from Essex, Massachusetts, and it still took conscious thought for me to remember those bags were back there. Kind of important, when those cases hold all your belongings, and you and a friend are traversing the North East Back Country Discovery Route, a literal crash course in how to ride a big adventure bike. Luckily, the bike was making me look good. Big WP suspension soaked up everything I pointed the blue and orange beast at. All the long hill climbs of doll head-sized rocks were a game of relaxing and letting the bike do its thing. Keep the revs up and look where you want to go, and the bike would damn near figure the rest out.
If I sound particularly fawn-y over this new bike, it’s because I’m genuinely impressed. I’ve tried multiple times to buy or build the “one motorcycle solution,” and guess what? Honda XR650Rs are terrible on the highway. That poor brown Goldwing really hated gravel roads. The Husky TE510 with motard wheels was close, but damn was the maintenance schedule scary. For a guy who can’t fathom neglecting an engine, that high-strung single-cylinder stuff is mentally exhausting. What’s that ticking noise? Why did it go away? Is it back?
This big KTM just … works. Sure, there are reminders that you are not on a 450 rally bike despite the fact this turns in like one. The V-twin is rev-happy and playful once up over around 4500 rpm. Riding over fast, flowy gravel is a delight with proper body position. Get up and attack, and you can throw nice, manageable power slides at will, all with a thundering boom from the twin Akra cannons mounted under the seat.
This motorcycle reminds me that trucks are the vehicles that killed the sedan. Modern pickups are basically no-compromise vehicles that do everything well. I’ve ridden over 2000 dirt miles on my KTM 950 Adventure S in the first month of ownership and another 1000 or so running around town and making excuses to ride two counties over for lunch.
Those 1000 street miles were racked up just by bobbing around town. Commuting to coffee shops, riding over to a friend’s place for a bourbon, sitting in traffic during the National Cherry Festival in its yearly descent on Traverse City. Never did I want for another motorcycle, though half the time I was leaving some of the KTM’s capability on the table. My enjoyment of this do-it-all motorcycle is just one example of what I think to be a larger trend.
The motorcycle market is narrowing. Yamaha discontinuing the R6. The 250s that were once standard entry bikes have now ballooned to 400cc. Adventure bikes sell on appearance and functionality. KTM alone has four different displacement ADV machines, from 390 to 1290cc. Yamaha offers only three supersport models but already two adventure machines. Honda comes in at three supersports and four ADV bikes. Sound familiar? Like when Ford axed all its cars except the Mustang and stuffed its lineup full of trucks and SUVs?
ADV bikes have become the trucks of the motorcycle world. The BMW G 310 GS is the Toyota Tacoma. BMW R1250GS is the Ford F250 Super Duty Platinum. KTM 1290 Adventure R is Bronco Raptor.
Drivers no longer have to compromise. Fuel mileage with an SUV or truck is a bit down compared to a sedan, but the raised seating position makes for easier entry and exit, plus a better field of view. Toss in hauling and towing capability with a dash of off-road competence, and it’s hard to argue that a modern truck is not the best solution to, “What vehicle should I buy?” We are used to having the option to do anything all of the time, and it’s hard to consider sacrificing one of those options.
The luxury motorcycle brands are in on it, too. The top-selling Ducati for the last two quarters has been the Multistrada. Sounds a lot like Porsche and the Cayenne just a few years back. The GS line brought much-needed life to an ailing BMW back in the 1980s and has been Motorrad’s staple since. Just as the 911 GT3 RS exists thanks to the Cayenne, the M1000RR gets to live because of the R1250GS.
Will the rise of the generalist motorcycle lead to the death of the specialists? I doubt it. History has proven that the one thing that promises to solve all your problems can’t even solve most of them; it merely makes you feel as though it can. My newly acquired KTM has blown me away with the breadth of its capability—I could see myself doing a track day on it just for laughs—but it’s not my track bike. My non-street-legal XR250R, for instance, is so much better in the sandy Michigan singletrack than the KTM that it’s worth the hassle of transporting the Honda to the trailhead.
This is just my personal experience, but it reflects a trend in the market. In 1921, Ford had 61% market share with the Model T, the original do-it-all vehicle. If you consider the selections in the new-vehicle market as a balloon, in 1921 the balloon was probably as contracted as it will ever be. Over time the market swelled with specialized machines—trucks, roadsters, station wagons, limousines. Today, we’re in another contraction: Dealer lots are filled with so many versions of the same, multi-function SUV. It is only time before buyers—even those who don’t consider themselves enthusiasts—beg for specialized vehicles. Hardcore enthusiasts are only the first, and loudest, to protest the narrowing range of selections.
We evolve just like the companies who produce—or used to produce—the machines we enjoy. Today’s generalist machines enable us to find our specific interests by purchasing just one machine. No longer must you dedicate yourself to a single activity only to find that you don’t like it, sell everything to explore another discipline, and repeat the process. Buyers might be hot on generalist machines right now, but that creates a vacuum in the market. Specialist vehicles will return—likely, stronger and better than ever. And, if my KTM is any indication, Swiss Army Knife vehicles don’t have to leave; the best ones are too much fun.