WI Rustic Roads: Clark County, R73, R76

Published Wednesday, February 7, 2024 by Bryan

I have a surprise for you today: the Suzuki V-Strom! I first tried to ride the Rustic Roads of Clark county on that bike in 2022. I made it through R73, despite it being covered in deep, loose gravel. I bailed on R76 about a quarter mile in, when the cold, rainy weather made attempting it two-up seem like a bad idea.

I returned to R76 this season, on the BMW that has filmed the rest of this season, and had a great ride. But instead of riding R73 again, I thought it would be more fun to put a ride on each bike in the same video. (And only later remembered there was a bug stuck to the camera. Ah well.)

I said in this season's intro that I might make a video comparing the two bikes, but I just don't have the energy for that. I'm going to share my thoughts in writing instead. These thoughts will not focus on the specs. If you want numbers, they're readily available at your nearest search engine. It would be useless redundancy for me to regurgitate them. Also, I didn't find they informed me that much about what to expect the experience of owning and riding these bikes to be like.

The only stats I will quote you are my own, so you know where my subjectivity comes from. I've owned this Suzuki DL650 V-Strom for eleven years, and put about 68,000 miles on it. I've owned the BMW R1150GS Adventure for one year, and put 8,000 miles on it. The only other motorcycle I've put significant miles on was a Triumph Bonneville - 2 years, something over 10,000 miles, but I've misplaced the logbook, so I can't be more precise.

Three of my motorcycles over the years.
Left to right: 2001 Triumph Bonneville, 2011 Suzuki DL650A V-Strom, 2004 BMW R1150GS Adventure.

Do you know what a Bonneville and an R1150GSA have in common that a V-Strom lacks? Gas station appeal. Over eleven years of riding my V-Strom, I can remember only a handful of times that someone said more than, "Have a good ride," at one of our roadside stops.1 Rolling up to a rest stop on the BMW GSA seems to literally pull men over to chat. "I thought about one of those. What size engine is that? Where are you from/headed?" On the Bonneville it was always, "I used to have one of those," but the amount of conversation was the same.

The V-Strom luggage (black) next to the GSA luggage (silver).
The V-Strom top box will fit two full-face helmets. The GSA top box will fit only one.

One bit comparison where I couldn't give you numbers anyway, because they're not readily available, is luggage capacity. Fortunately, I think the numbers are also irrelevant. I'm pretty sure that the total volume of my V-Strom luggage and my GSA luggage are near equivalent. If anything, the GSA luggage is likely smaller purely because of the hilariously larger top box on the V-strom (admittedly, Givi-brand, not Suzuki OEM). But the GSA is so much easier to pack. We chalk it up to the simple top-loading box shape of the Adventure luggage. It's just easier to use than the awkward side-loading egg shape of the Suzuki luggage.

Handling, or "the ride", is where you'd expect numbers to make a difference. But I swear I barely noticed the difference on my first couple of GSA rides. In fact, my initial review of driving the GSA was that it drove very similarly to the V-Strom.

It wasn't until I had been riding the GSA exclusively for a couple weeks that I hopped back on the V-Strom and immediately thought, "Wow is this bike small!" When I bought the V-Strom, I had been riding that Triumph Bonneville. It didn't feel small then, and it never felt small over eleven years of riding. It's actually fairly tall compared to the common cruiser or even the typical standard "naked" bike. But the GSA is larger still. It's mainly two things. The first is wider, straighter handlebars, that make for a more open upper body. The second is the higher seat. It's only an inch and a half, but it crosses a threshold in my leg's reach that makes the difference between the balls of both feet versus the tips of both toes touching the ground. Of course I had noticed the increased shift-and-stretch to get a firm footing. But it was returning to the V-Strom, where everything was easily in reach, so much that it almost felt cramped, that drove the point home.

After I rode a bit longer, I noticed something else: I started riding the GSA like I rode the V-Strom, but I now ride the V-Strom differently. The place I really notice this is in gear selection. I usually cruised between 4,500 and 5,500 RPM on the V-Strom. The BMW sounded and felt somewhere between happy to ride this way, and maybe just a touched over-revved. So I started spending less time over 5,000 RPM on the BMW. But returning to the V-Strom, I find that I now spend more time over 5,000 RPM on it. I think it's a combination of feel and power profile. The R1150 in the GSA is a smooth engine, but the DL650 in the V-Strom is smoother still. The R1150 also makes more horsepower and torque, and does so at a lower RPM. In fact, the DL650's peak power is at nearly the R1150's redline. The rides are still different in other ways, but rolling off a bit on the BMW and rolling on harder on the Suzuki means I get a similar feel in others.

This change in typical RPM usage has exaggerated how much I miss one particular feature of the BMW when I return to the Suzuki: the gear indicator. The BMW is the first bike I've had that displayed my currently-selected gear on the dashboard. I had gotten pretty good at just remembering what gear I was in, but I had also learned how to compare my speedometer and tachometer readings to deduce my current gear. Now that I've gotten used to just being able to check the display, and also started using a different range of the tachometer, I find I'm wrong about my current gear more often than I expect. It may be time to finally look into a Stromputer of my own.

Suprisingly, the hardest thing to adapt to riding the BMW was the turn signal controls.2 I had only used what's known as "UJM" (Universal Japanese Motorcycle) controls before last season. This layout uses a stick on the left handlebar that you push left or right to turn on the left or right turn signal, using your left thumb. BMW uses another style, where you push a button on the left grip with your left thumb to turn on the left signal, and push a button on the right grip with your right thumb to turn on the right signal. To cancel a UJM turn signal, you use your left thumb to press the stick in (or to) its center position. To cancel a BMW signal, you use your right thumb to press another right-grip button. Different, but simple, right? Okay, now look at where these controls are on each grip:

Left, yellow arrows: how my thumbs were supposed to adapt.
Right, pink arrows: how my thumbs fumbled at the start of the season.

BMW left turn is where Suzuki horn is. BMW right turn is where Suzuki engine start is. BMW horn is where Suzuki turns are. I honked each horn, and ground the Suzuki's engine starter more times last summer than I care to admit. I was doing better by autumn, and thanks to a sudden warm spell last week, I was able to get out and see how a few months off has affected my habits. My hands really wanted to poke BMW controls. That would have been great, if I hadn't been riding the Suzuki. I didn't do too bad, but more switch practice is in order.

The first thing I'll be doing after the winter is some maintenance, and maintenance is one of the big things I was excited about on this transition. I know people will argue with me, but I hate cleaning, lubing, and checking slack on a chain drive. I feel like it takes too much time to be really particular about it, but that the chain deteriorates too fast if I'm not. So split the difference, and lube and adjust every 1,000-ish miles, then replace it and the sprockets every other tire change (around 25,000 miles). BMW's shaft drive? Change its oil every other engine-oil change (around 12,000 miles). No adjustment. And also no mess all over the swingarm and luggage. I'm quite happy so far.

One bit of maintenance that I never really bothered with on the V-Strom, but oddly think more about on the GSA is the cooling system. The V-Strom is liquid cooled by a large radiator right behind the front forks. I think it may have gotten a flush when I took it to a shop for its 30,000 mile service, but otherwise I've never touched it, and yet it does an amazing job. I've never seen the temperature gauge climb anywhere near the red zone. The GSA is mostly air cooled, though it also has a small radiator under the headlight that it circulates oil through. I often see the gauge begin to climb during slow road segments (when there is little air flowing over the engine and its tiny radiator). And on a rush-hour ride through a hot Chicago afternoon this summer, the temperature gauge reached its high bar. I reached my destination very soon after that without any trouble. I've shifted to using a thicker oil that is spec'd more appropriately for those situations, to see if it moves the heat better. I'm just a little wary of temperature danger like that, because my problems with the Bonneville began not too long after a particularly hot, heavy-traffic trip, and I've always wondered if that wasn't just coincidence.

I'll need a few more seasons to test reliability. I've had exactly one major problem with the V-Strom, and every other time it has started at the push of a button no matter how much I had neglected it since the previous button press. The GSA was beginning to start really slowly at the end of the season. I'm planning a new fuel filter, spark plugs, and battery to start the next season. These would be no surprise, and are expected wear items. If they don't fix it, I'll look at the starter, which brings up the next item.

Cost is the usual BMW gripe. Not having needed major service yet, I haven't really worried about the price of parts - oil filters and crush washers are kind of designed to be cheap. Fuel has been the main cost difference for me. The V-Strom runs just fine on regular unleaded (85 or 87 (R+M)/2 octane, which usually "contains up to 10% ethanol" in the US), and gets 50 miles per gallon while doing so.3 The BMW requires premium (90 (R+M)/2 octane, which is all ethanol-free around here), and gets only 40mpg.4 Usually 20-30% more cost per gallon for 20% less distance. Not ideal, but not a budget breaker for me.

The final major difference for us has been the seat. The V-Strom seat was an enormous upgrade from the Bonneville's bench. Six years of sitting on it for nearly two hours commuting every weekday, plus ten years of our own personal "seats" changing, and it it's no longer pleasant for a really long haul. This GSA came with a Russell Day-Long. We've been able to do more days in a row, and longer segments within those days, than we've ever done before. It was an upgrade that was on my list for the V-Strom, and depending on what I decide to do next with it, it might be at the top of the list of modifications.

I've been thinking a lot about what I want to do with the V-Strom. I had written out a list of modifications to consider right before the GSA became available. A number of the items on the list are things I should do regardless, because of the age of the bike, and having another bike to spend the summer on should enable that. But other items might need reconsideration. We have basically decided that any long trip, especially two-up, will be done on the GSA from now on, just because of comfort and luggage convenience. If that limits the V-Strom to shorter, single-rider trips, how should I set it up? Maybe a more off-road direction - kobbly tires, single seat, soft luggage? Maybe sportier like DL's SV sibling - ditch the belly pan and engine gaurds?


1The most memorable V-Strom comment was a woman who thought the black bike with matching black luggage looked, "Very refined, like a Mercedes."

2The second hardest thing to adapt to has been startup. I'm unwilling to write down the full BMW sequence, but suffice it to say that servo-assisted brake initialization and management of a choke lever require a bit more attention than the Suzuki's flip the key, flip the engine cutoff, grab both levers and punch the button.

3The V-Strom's manual calls for 91 RON or 87 (R+M)/2. I've always bought whatever the "regular" is at the pump, and never had a problem. The biggest mileage change I noticed was when California stations switched from summer to winter blends and back each year - nearly a 5mpg difference for me.

4I infered the 90 (R+M)/2 for the BMW. It says 95 RON or 85 MON, and as far as I understand, those are the R and M in the equation. Most pumps I find are 91 at the top end, with the occasional 93 and even less commonly 89.

Categories: Motorcycle Travel WIRR