It all sounded so simple back in about 2009: let’s ride from somewhere in Europe to Vladivostok for a giggle. Yes, that Vladivostok – the one in far-eastern Russia. Like I said: simple if you say it fast.
Okay, so the reality has been a bit different. Lots of planning, lots of chasing documentation like visas, carnets, shipping quotes and whatnot. Lots of headaches. Lots of red wine. More headaches. Obviously.
But as I sit here, a month and a half from my departure date to Athens (where I’ll be reunited with my bike) I’m finally getting the sense that it is all happening. My paper-chasing is almost done, my trip planning is as done as it will ever be for a rubbery itinerary such as this one and, just as importantly, my bike is ready.
As a long-term owner of a BMW R1150 GS, I was tempted to use that as my trans-global transport. But, in reality, I had to face the fact that it’s just too heavy for some of the terrain we’ll be crossing (the plan is to stay off the bitumen as much as possible. Not difficult in places like Mongolia where bitumen hasn’t been invented yet).
And yes, I know Charlie and Ewen used BMW GSs, but we won’t have the back-up truck, 4WDs, helicopters and medical crew nor will we have a film crew to help push and/or pull when we get bogged. We’ll be four blokes on four bikes so we’d better be able to manhandle the buggers.
So what bike do you use for a trip like this? In my case, it was a pretty simple decision. I wanted something new or near new (so I wasn’t fixing problems before we’d even started) and it had to be air-cooled (for simplicity), carburetted (you don’t cross deserts on fuel-injection) and steel framed (so it can be welded with an oxy-set back-o-beyond).
A single-cylinder was fine by me and when you look at what’s around, it just had to be a Suzuki DR650SE.
Now, Suzuki has been making these old girls for decades and they’re strong, cheap and owner-serviceable. (see MT’s comparo between Suzuki’s DR650SE and BMW G 650 GS from page 62 of this issue.) In fact, talk to long-distance adventurers and they’re the weapon of choice for stuff like this. Even so, there’s some fiddling you need to do to make sure the bike will hang in there as well as do what it needs to. So what did I fix/swap/modify? Here goes…
Trying to use locally developed and made gear where I could (if it works here, it should work anywhere), I contacted Safari Tanks in Victoria. Within a few days, the postie dropped a big box at my place, full of fuel tank. And I mean big. This thing holds 30lt (but I reckon I’ve squeezed 32lt into it during testing) and although it makes the Suzi a bit top-heavy when it’s full, it gives me a lazy 550km range before I hit reserve on either of the twin fuel taps. And I reckon there’s at least 100km of reserve, too, though I haven’t pushed it all the way to find out.
Safari tanks come in a range of colours, but I opted for transluscent white so I can instantly see how much juice remains. Fitting the tank was a cinch and the standard seat doesn’t need any bending or slotting to go back on. There’s a brace that runs under the tank to make the whole plot rigid and all the plumbing is included. Cool. Yours for about $650.
Krooz Tune is a suspension tuning mob not far from my place in Melbourne’s south-east but, beyond the mere geographical convenience, Krooz Tune has a big reputation for tailoring suspension set-ups for both road, circuit and off-road bikes.
Having learned that the rear end of the DR was a bit of a pogo-stick, the boys at Krooz Tune suggested a new rear spring, a revalved rear shock and a set of valves and springs in the front end too. To arrive at the settings, they need to know your weight and the weight of whatever gear you’ll be carrying. But be honest, because it’s pretty crucial to getting the set-up right.
The end result is a transformed bike which now soaks up bumps rather than replicating them for the next 30 metres. The DR feels supple but tauter than before and with full panniers, it gets even better than when it’s unladen. Result. And at just on $900, I reckon it was a dead-set bargain.
Anybody who fiddles with a DR engine that’s about to cross Europe and Asia in a single bound needs their head read. If it ain’t broke etc etc. The one exception is the exhaust system which is pretty restrictive in stock form and obviously built down to a price.
So I talked to NSW-based Staintune about a slip-on muffler. Bad news. It seems the stock Suzuki muffler is just part of the problem and the header pipe itself is a major restriction as well. The only fix is a complete system at about $950, so that’s what I went for. And being stainless, it should survive a knock that would split titanium or shatter carbonfibre.
The Staintune system is half the weight of the stock set-up (2.8kg versus 5.6) and it’s been designed to work with standard jetting provided you leave the removable baffle in place. You’ll want to leave it there, too, because it’s a bit rowdy without it. Baffle in, the system gives a nice bassy note that is loud enough for traffic to hear but quiet enough not to peeve the neighbours.
I’ve also gained something like 4hp (2.9kW) – not a huge amount, but a 10 per cent hike for a DR650 – and it could be my imagination but I think the engine runs a bit cooler, too. Oh, and having fitted plenty of aftermarket exhaust systems before today, I can honestly say I’ve never experienced an exhaust that fitted so perfectly and easily. In my life.
The final step was to hand the bike over to Cisco’s Race Tuning for a dyno session and to finalise the jetting. The last thing you want is to find out that the bugger has been running lean since Greece. Steve at Cisco’s spent countless hours getting the thing right and making sure that the tune would be as good as it could be in the conditions I was expecting. Which means any ambient temp from zero to 40 and anything from sea-level to 3000 metres.
Okay, so there’s a compromise to be made, but the bike made good numbers on the dyno and the sniffer was happy with the tail-pipe readings. And just to make doubly sure, Steve packed me off with a selection of jets to make changes if the conditions became too much for the carb’s vocal range. Cost for this will vary on exactly how much dyno time is needed and how many combinations are tried.
Talk to the people who know and they’ll tell you the only real weak spots on a DR are the wheel rims. A bit soft, it seems, and prone to bending. In any case, I needed a new rear wheel because tyres for the DR’s 17in rear hoop simply aren’t available east of about Istanbul.
Lightfoot Engineering in Melbourne built me up a set of gorgeous Excel rims in 18in and 21in sizes with thick spokes using stock DR hubs. According to Phil at Lightfoot, the rims he put together for my bike are the same as the ones he’d make for himself were he to be embarking on doing the same trip. That’ll do me. They weren’t cheap at $1200 (not including the new hubs or bearings) but they’re good insurance.
Andy Strapz was the first port of call for luggage for a trip like this. I’ve been using an Andy Strapz seat-bag and the Strapz themselves for years now, and the thought of going back to ocky straps and backpacks fills me with dread.
For the DR, I fitted a set of pannier frames (made specifically for this model) and a pair of soft panniers which will expand as my luggage does. The panniers have removable liners so you don’t have to remove the whole pannier set-up to take your stuff into a hotel.
There are also a lot of clever touches like the pannier liners being different colours so you know what’s in each one without opening both, and there’s even two bottle pouches built into each pannier.
I also grabbed a Stuff Sak, which will be secured across the seat. This is for all my bedding and tent stuff and it’s made from the same material they use to make the taut-liner curtains on semi-trailers. So it should be strong and, thanks to a clever, double-ended closing system, watertight as well. The cost will vary enormously depending on whether you need racks or whatnot and the options are endless.
I’ve also added a small Ventura tank bag for bits and pieces like my camera and paperwork; it can be quickly removed and taken with me for security.
I’d dearly love to meet the Suzuki engineer that designed the original DR seat. And then I’d like to hit him with it.
In many years of bike ownership I have never experienced such a crap excuse for a perch. It’s hard, narrow and tolerable (as opposed to actually comfortable) for about five minutes at a stretch.
Australian Cumfy Motorcycle Seats across town in Glenroy saved the day, however, with a modified DR seat-base that gets a much wider cushion and a different foam density. They’re available on an exchange basis or they’ll re-do your own base for around the $340 mark. This alone has transformed the bike.