The Tiger Runs Wild in the High Desert (Steens 2014 Part 1/3)

Our group of riding friends here in Eugene started talking about a trip to the High Desert this spring. What about an extended weekend stay at the Diamond Hotel in June?  This conversation was not about a motorcycle trip. But in my single-minded way of thinking, if it is about going to the Steens then it is a motorcycle trip. What else is there to do in the Steens, I jokingly asked them?

If it is about going to the Steens, then it is a motorcycle trip.

If it is about going to the Steens, then it is a motorcycle trip.

I’ve been wondering what the Tiger could do in those high desert open roads I like so much.  I visualized all the dirt roads I already know, roads with which I’ve gotten familiar since 2006 when I went to the Steens for the first time with the BMW F650 Dakar. And after that with the Yamaha WR250R a few times. These bikes, especially the WR250R, make riding in that area second nature, it’s a point-and-shoot motorcycle.  Knowing those roads well I know where potential challenging points for the heavier Tiger are, riding this bike on those roads would raise my riding level. So it was with trepidation that I loaded my gear on the Tiger and took it with me on this trip.

Will the Tiger and I make it there and back? The answer is unequivocally yes! More than that, I was impressed with this bike. There are some shortfalls about this bike when it comes to riding on dirt, but overall it positively surprised me. In the three posts I will write about this trip I will describe in detail and show videos to demonstrate how well this bike performed on this real adventure trip. It includes an enduro/rally type of performance with this bike in my favorite roads at the Lone Mountain Loop. Well, uh, not an enduro nor rally, really… but I put this bike into high gear and it responded well to the challenge on dirt and gravel roads.  I will also cover some maintenance steps for this bike after such a dusty ride.

At Doug's house, ready to go!

At Doug’s house, ready to go!

As I had suspected from the initial conversations about this trip, only Doug was up to ride to the Steens with me, and even Doug was not completely in for this motorcycle trip, I suppose. But he made it.  All others went by car.  I loaded my gear on the bike Thursday evening and early on a Friday morning I rode the bike to Doug’s house for a 7 am departure. Doug rode his KTM 950.  These two bikes are reasonably compatible.

Doug and his KTM

Doug and his KTM

I had originally thought about taking as much dirt and gravel roads as possible from Bend all the way to the Steens. This being a three-day trip, however, one day to get there, one day staying there, and one day to come back, and not knowing how much effort I would have to invest in managing to keep this bike upright, I decided to take the shortest paved route to Paisley and keep dirt exclusively to those fun roads starting right out of Paisley.  Also impacting this decision is that the Diamond Hotel serves dinner at about 6pm.  If you miss dinner you will be sorry. And hungry. We did not want that, and we wanted to be there early so we would have time for a cold beer before dinner. Luxuries, you know. So we rode to Paisley via 58 to 97 to 31.

We stopped for fuel in Crescent, but I decided to hold off and wait to fuel in Paisley.  Let’s see if this Tiger can really do more than 200 miles with a tank of gasoline in real adventure riding situations. Although, it should be known, full disclosure here, I was not carrying tent, sleeping bag and other camping paraphernalia that all adds weight.

KTM gets fuel in Crescent, the Tiger bets on waiting until Paisley... Will it survive 200 miles without a refuel?

KTM gets fuel in Crescent, the Tiger bets on waiting until Paisley… Will it survive 200 miles on one tank of gasoline?

From Crescent we took 97 north for a short distance to the beginning of Hwy 31 and then continued the southeast track towards Paisley. As soon as we got to Hwy 31 I looked in the rear view mirror and saw Mt Bachelor and a corner of one of the Sisters. So I had a chance to get my three Sisters’ blessings, as is customary for me when starting motorcycle trips to East Oregon.

Mt Bachelor as viewed from Hwy 31, close to Hwy 97.

Mt Bachelor as viewed from Hwy 31, close to Hwy 97.

The day was picture perfect. We carried on steadily and only made a quick stop as we approached Summer Lake.

Summer Lake

Summer Lake

We eventually rode by the lake, which is mostly dry, and arrived in Paisley at 11:00am, on schedule.  The Tiger had covered 212 miles and the computer indicated I still had 19 miles to go before running dry. It was close, but it gives me the assurance this bike can safely cover 200 miles before I need to stop for fuel.  This included a very brisk climb of the Cascades following an inspired Doug, or should I call him Valentino Rossi on a dual sport, it was hard to keep up with him. Even with that, the bike would have done an indicated 231 miles before it would run out of fuel.

To me 200 miles is just perfect. More than that and you are always carrying unnecessary extra weight and/or bulk. If I know I will cover an area with more than 200 miles without gas stations – these areas are very rare, mind you – I will prepare for that by strapping an auxiliary tank which easily extends the bike’s range for what would be needed. On my three years of ownership pf this bike I’ve never faced a situation where I was riding it and there was no gas station for 200 miles on any direction. And 175-200 miles is just about the time for me to stop for a quick rest anyway.  You can tell I do not understand the fixation some “adventure” riders have with large motorcycle tanks. Must be something Freud would explain, perhaps.

Non-ethanol fuel in Paisley

Non-ethanol fuel in Paisley

From Paisley the most direct route to Frenchglen is about 130 miles of gravel and dirt roads. If, to be on the safe side, you decide to top your tank off in Plush, you will add some 20+ miles to the route. We thought a stop in Plush would be good for lunch and gas. And a stop in Plush always adds interesting twists to travel in that region, and this time was not an exception.

This road goes by several names. It starts in Paisley as Red House Lane.

This road goes by several names (it is a mix of roads, actually). It starts in Paisley as Red House Lane.

We had made a good time to Paisley, we were on schedule, but now is where the challenges start.  My fears and apprehensions were quickly dismissed, however. As soon as I hit gravel and dirt, even with the loaded bike, I could see the bike felt composed, no worries at all. I did not turn ABS off, by the way. The ideal set up would be to turn ABS off only for the rear brake. But this is not a capability this bike offers. More sophisticated systems on newer bikes such as the KTM 1190 Adventure, the water-cooled BMW R1200GS, or even my Ducati, have ABS systems designed for off pavement riding.

I’m not sure how much disabling ABS only for the rear brake would translate into an improvement but I would rather be able to lock my rear wheel when I want or feel a need.  The front ABS on this bike worked very well, I used the front brake several times, including at speed (60mph+) on dirt/gravel, with no fear of lock up and it really works in significantly slowing the motorcycle down.  This was in circumstances where the rear brake was rendered useless with ABS, by the way.  But I doubt it would improve performance without ABS, I would suppose.  But I still would like the ability to lock the rear wheel up on command.

Anyway, back to the trip, it was great to be riding this road and I was happy to have taken this bike when I realized how well it coped with gravel, dirt and even more challenging rutted conditions as the pic above shows, with the dried up mud tracks. Now, when this road is wet, you will not see me riding the Tiger on this road.

Helmet Cam Photo of the Road

Helmet Cam Photo of the Road

At some point we spotted antelopes. A group of three crossed the road ahead of me and this is a photo (below) of the last one of this group – they have a funny way of running, different than deer, but seem smarter than deer, or more skittish perhaps, when it comes to crossing the road.  We eventually ran into more antelope at the Hart Mountain Refuge.

Antelope ahead

Antelope crossing the road ahead: Would a tiger hunt antelope in the wild?

The bike was doing so well on this road that I started to roll on the throttle to see how far it would let me push it.  It turns out it lets you take it very far, this is quite a domesticated beast. It growls under command, but if not, it will just traverse all sorts of terrain purring with ease. Impressive machine for its size. I’m left wondering about the F800GS, must be even better, perhaps. Take a look at the video below, I apologize for the wind noise, as the camera was backwards. But it gives you the experience of riding this beast at speed on a gravel road.

Hogback road was a different story, though. Some areas of hard gravel were making things quite interesting.

Hogback Road. June 6, 2014

Hogback Road. June 6, 2014

At the first sections of Hogback Rd, just east of 395, it had small gravel on top of hard compacted soil. Slippery, but you know where you stand, or roll, at all times. But later, as we approached the turn off to Plush, we encountered deeper gravel which brought head shakes on both of our bikes. At one point both of us thought we had flat front tires.  My bike actually started an almost tank slapper at one point, as the handle bars at one point veered violently to the right.  Some level of head shake was always there at 50-60 mph. Slow down and you get that flat front tire feel. What’s worse? Slow down and fear losing momentum or go fast and face the head shakes?

This happens often on my WR250R, on similar circumstances, but I just ignore it. But with this bike I was not ignoring this thing. I tried everything to cope with it: relaxing my arms, standing up, speeding up, slowing down. Everything helps a little. The best approach to calm her down was to let go of the handlebars, but then I could not operate the throttle, obviously. The second best was to sit as far back as possible, on top of my Giant Loop bag in my case, keep arms relaxed and then carry a good speed on top of that. You want to let it shake a bit, but not transfer that motion to the rest of the bike. If you tense up, your arms and body transfer the motion to the rest of the bike and the head shake can easily turn into a tank slapper. And when that happens it becomes a likely buy-buy sunny-side-up scenario.

Hogback Road: it doesn't look like much, but this is deep gravel.

Hogback Road: it doesn’t look like much, but this is deep gravel.

I did not play with the bike’s settings (what is available on this bike is pre-load and compression damping on the rear shock) to see if I could improve its composure. I just lived with it, kept my body relaxed and maintained speeds on the high 70’s or more. It worked. And it was fun.  But if I was having this issues, Doug was feeling miserable.

Doug stopped to check air pressure of front tire. Was it flat?

Doug stopped to check air pressure of front tire. Was it flat? It felt like flat.

Later, much later, on the way back to Eugene, he found out his forks had built up so much pressure that when he released the air valves the bike dropped almost two inches. This was possibly what was building up to his problem, why his bike was really struggling on deep gravel.  Anyway, we made it safely to Paisley.

Paisley Gas Station, Restaurant, Grocery Store, Hangout...

Paisley Gas Station, Restaurant, Grocery Store, Hangout…

We topped off our tanks after the station’s owner (or manager?) was hinting about Frenchglen’s gas station’s reliability issues: “If he is there” or “if they have gas”, he said, warning us to not count on finding gas in the Frenchglen Mercantile. Yes, I’ve been there and they once had a sign saying: “back in 1 hour”. And they didn’t take credit cards either. But we could also get gas in Diamond, from the hotel staff. Or Fields. Anyway, we topped our bikes’ tanks off to be on the safe side. Reasonable planning is another item on the list of reasons to not need to have a “tanker” bike.

But first and foremost, we took care of our bellies.  By this time I was starving.

The Cheeseburger was actualy pretty good. Better than last September when I stopped here with Christian.

The Cheeseburger was actually pretty good (and it is larger than it appears).

Doug gets started on a conversation with a local. It turns out he has a gemstone claim in the area. He proudly showed us photos of a recent blast he detonated in his claim. The explosion creates a large pile of loose dirt he sifts through for gems. That was quite the conversation, part of the Plush experience, I suppose.

Fuel and conversation at Paisley

Fuel and conversation at Paisley

We met other locals, or imported, newbie locals, like two friendly Mexican brothers.  We left Plush and found our way to the Hart Mountain Rd.

At the Hart Mountain Refuge

Confluence of roads at the Hart Mountain Refuge

And my first view of the Steens on this trip (below).  Just a smudge of snow, it seems from the distance.  Will the Steens loop be open?

The Steens, some 50 miles away.

The Steens, some 60 miles (100km) away.

This road was also covered in fresh gravel. I had to ride on the yellow band to the right, on the edge of the road, for more stability, otherwise it was doing the same thing as we got on Hogback Rd., but it was lighter and easier to manage here.

Frenchglen Rd.

Frenchglen Rd.

As we got closer to the Steens, the road got better but you still had to pick a line as free of gravel as possible.  Again, the faster I went, the better the bike felt.  By comparison, my Yamaha 250 does shake a bit too, but it is much less pronounced.

Almost home-free.  I can taste the cold beer!

Almost home-free. I can feel the taste of a cold beer!

Closer yet.

Are we there yet?

Are we there yet?

We topped off our tanks in Frenchglen, so here is an update on their gas reliability issues. They have a new attendant at the Frenchglen Mercantile, and he seems to match the store. And now the store takes credit cards (the attendant used his I-phone to process it). Who knows who will be there next time, but things looked good this time.

Fuel in Frenchglen.

Fuel in Frenchglen, June 2014.

The inside of the store is always the same. It is good to have certain things not change. For a change.

The store continues the same, operating since 1926.

The store continues the same, probably not too different what it looked like when it opened 88 years ago, in 1926.

Diamond is another 30 miles up the road. We made it there by 4pm, with time to spare to unload the bikes, learn about the vicious and relentless mosquitoes, and appreciate a very cold beer while enjoying the view of the bikes, from behind a screened mosquito free porch, of course.  I was really glad about this bike’s performance, that evening I was like a kid with a new toy. Well, it is a re-discovered toy. And I am a kid. A big, old, and forever a kid.

Bikes parked in front of the Diamond Hotel

Bikes parked in front of the Diamond Hotel

Others did not arrive until later, when it was almost time for dinner. After dinner they were talking about next day activities: hiking, bicycling, or bird watching? Right. I was thinking differently. I had my mind set but some things are better dealt with and mentioned on the next day, after a good rest. I was so tired, I slept well.

The next post will be a report on what I did the next day, and it was one of the best riding experiences of my life! Stay tuned.

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10 Responses to The Tiger Runs Wild in the High Desert (Steens 2014 Part 1/3)

  1. bob skoot says:

    Cesar:

    I really liked that Pink Wringer washer in the general store in Frenchglen. I’m afraid that I have only had limited experience on gravel so I have to just look at your photos. Your bike is looking too clean for a days ride on non-paved roads

    bob
    Riding the Wet Coast

  2. Rick Pannemann says:

    What tires are you running on the Tiger? Would a different set improve the control and feel in gravel do you think?

    • cesardagord says:

      Hey Rick,
      I’m running Shinko 705’s on the bike. I don’t think the type of tire will make much difference (some, yes) in deeper gravel. As an example, my friend was riding his KTM950 Adv with TKC80’s in the front and his bike was doing worse than the Tiger (I was going to post a video when I passed by him like he was standing still, but… no. That was not going to be fair. :-)). Bike setting would help more, I’m thinking. In the end, I just cranked the throttle and lived with it. I never felt I was really in trouble, but was on guard. I was riding the last few days, so could not respond. I will prepare the second post, where I rode more aggressively, and the Shinkos did fine, even keeping the pressure at 32lbs (in the hopes to reduce the chances of rim damage). The bike and tire did a great job!

      (edit: I checked the tire pressures when I got back home and it was 36lbs front and back and not 32 as I stated on my response to you)

  3. Markus Hellenthal says:

    Dear Wes,

    Over the years I have been enjoying and learning quite a lot from your blogs and want to say thank you so much for your effort and insight you share with us. And in particular this new site is extremely good, interesting and shows the wealth of your experience.

    In this great thread I was struck when I saw a Pelican Storm iM2200 case, which on some picture was fixed to your Triumph Tiger 800 XC, in others not. In another post we could see some pictures, where this case was fixed to a Ducati Multistrada.

    The usual topcases as far too huge and bulky for sport riding in my opinion (and often make the bike look more like a transporter than a sports bike). Therefore I have been searching for a small and waterproof one for a while (and am using soft tailbags in the meantime). Your usage of the Stormcase is very compelling in my view, in particular if it is still easily removable or interchanged between different bikes.

    Could you please share with us how you managed to fix the Pelican Storm iM2200 case to the racks of your bikes and still have it removable?

    Many thanks.

    Cheers
    Markus

    • cesardagord says:

      Hey Markus.

      These are two different boxes. The Triumph has the iM2200 case, the Ducati has the iM2100. The Triumph case is attached to a plate with quarter-turn fasteners developed by Caribou. In the Ducati, the iM2100 is simply bolted on. I never remove it from the bike.

      Thanks
      Cesar

      • Markus Hellenthal says:

        Hi Cesar,

        Thanks for your quick response. I wasn’t aware of Caribou here in Europe, so thanks for the hint.

        One additional question, though: Was there a reason for using slighly different sizes of the boxes on both bikes? Or just by chance? If there was a reason, I would be interested in learning about them with respect to my bikes (VFR 1200 F, Triumph Daytona, Fireblade).

        Thanks.
        Markus

      • cesardagord says:

        Hey Markus

        The reason was simply aesthetics. The larger box doesn’t look right on the Ducati. Also, on the Ducati I have the two Ducati side-cases, so I don’t need a bigger box on the back of that bike. While on the Tiger I use soft bags, so the top box needs to carry all my electronics, cameras, etc. so it needs to be big enough to safely carry all of that.

        Cesar

      • Markus Hellenthal says:

        Hi Cesar,
        Thanks. Clear.
        Markus

      • cesardagord says:

        You are welcome Markus.

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