After I decided to make a long-distance journey on a motorcycle, I had many things to figure out. The first thing to figure out was which bike I should ride. One of my early inspirations was the Paris-Dakar rally. Reading about that, I came across Charley Boorman’s documentary about the rally, Race to Dakar, and then his trips with Ewan McGregor around the world and from London to South Africa. They rode BMW R1150GSAs so that seemed like an obvious choice. A little more research showed me that the price and weight meant I should consider a smaller size. The awesome KTM 990 and BMW F800GS are in high demand and so their prices put them out of reach for me also. I started looking in the 650 range–something like the Kawasaki KLR650, Suzuki DR650, BMW F650GS, or Honda XR650. Even some older bikes like the Honda Africa Twin or the BMW Funduro seemed like good choices.
I spent basically all of my free time reading travel blogs and watching documentaries about motorcycle travel learning as much as I could. My conclusion was that basically any bike can make the trip, but there are a few features that will make it easier. Access to parts in other countries, distance per tank, reliability, and comfort. Naturally, choosing a dual-sport also allows more opportunities to get off-road and explore. One particular model that satisfied all of these conditions kept coming up over and over: the BMW F650GS Dakar. The single-cylinder Rotax engine is famed for being extremely reliable if a bit uncomfortable at high speeds. So it was decided, I’d get a 2003+ F650 GS Dakar–after I learned how to ride one.
I didn’t have any experience with riding two-wheeled motor vehicles (except that one time when I crashed my friend’s 125cc dirt bike in her yard ten years ago) so I thought a class would be a good idea before buying my own motorcycle. I found three options for learning to ride: Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic RiderCourse (highly recommended by all riders I spoke to), the BWM off-road class in Greenville, SC, and the RawHyde courses in Colorado. The last two were focused on off-road riding, and since you have to ride on a road before you can get off the road and because I was living in Boston when this started shaping up, I found an MSF class nearby and signed up.
The MSF class was great despite it being 30 degrees, raining, and blowing snow–good practice for all-season driving in the Northeast. We started from the beginning learning how to mount and start the bike, how to push the bike (looking surprisingly silly), how to ride the clutch and scoot along with one’s feet walking on the ground. Once we could start and stop, we learned to stop faster (always using both brakes) and to shift gears. We learned what it felt like to lock the rear brake and how to emergency stop while cornering, some of the most dangerous things that you can do on a motorcycle. We ended by taking a mock practical driving test which, if passed successfully, allowed one to obtain a full motorcycle driver’s license from the state of Massachusetts. We all passed with flying colors!
After the class, I really wanted some way to continue to practice my skills and generally keep riding. I still wanted something manageable in the city though. I found a 50cc Vespa for $1000 dollars, rode it on some short trips and around the city for a few months until it became snowbound in the great Boston blizzards of 2015. I sold it when I left Boston.
I looked across the country for the perfect F650 on Craigslist and message boards. It looked like $4,000-5,000 would be the price. This all happened before hiking the Appalachian Trail so I knew it would likely be a year or more until I could actually buy such a bike. This didn’t stop me from day-dreaming while idly searching Craigslist.
I was on the fence about whether I should buy a smaller old dual-sport motorcycle to take my driver’s test with and to possibly get my first drop out of my system before buying a fancy BMW (“there are two types of motorcycle riders, etc.”). A professor of mine from university told me he had enjoying driving a two-stroke Yamaha DT250 a long distance off-road in the 70s so I thought I might try one of those. In February I was doing another search for motorcycles nearby and somehow came across the (almost) perfect Dakar for a steal, $2200, in Winston-Salem, NC not so far away. This was more than I was going to spend on my learner bike, but much less than I was planning to spend on my big bike. I knew I had to at least so see it and sit on it. After a nice little drive to Winston, I couldn’t resist and agreed to buy it right there. I trucked it home a few days later and am now the happy owner of a 2001 F650GS Dakar. It’s old, lacks ABS, and has 77,000 miles, but it’s been driven across the country several times and anything that was going to break already has. I think it’ll do just fine.