Riding the Tiger 800XC as if it were a Rally Machine (Steens 2014 Part 2/3)

Many years ago I was traveling by car with one of my cousins in the area close to the border between Brazil and Uruguay.  As soon as the pavement ended and we hit dirt and gravel, my cousin made an observation, she said I was like her father: carried normal speeds on paved roads, but when hitting dirt, cranked the speed dial to faster. I had not realized until then how much that was true. But yes, I like driving and riding at speed on dirt roads. Maybe I learned this from my uncle on our many travels back and forth to the ranch.

Access road to the Ranch, Uruguay, April 2006

Access road to the Ranch, Uruguay, April 2006

Something has to explain why riding at speed on dirt roads is the ultimate fun for me. Until I rode my Ducati on the paved roads of the California Sierras last weekend, that is. Well, that was fun, but not as fun as riding on dirt. But the Ducati on the Sierras is another story still to be written.  I can’t believe we are in July already, half the year gone, days becoming shorter. But still the entire summer ahead of us!

Back to the story, it was Saturday and we were at the Diamond Hotel for a three-day weekend and Doug and I were the only two who traveled by motorcycle on this early June trip. Everyone was talking about hiking and bird watching as the activity for the day. When planning this trip and planning on taking the Tiger instead of the WR250R, I was unsure whether I was going to ride on Saturday or join the “civilian” festivities with the others.  But I had such a blast with the Tiger on dirt roads on the way in that I felt confident to do the Lone Mountain Loop.

And Enduro machine, really?

And Enduro machine, really?

After the experience of the day before on the deep gravel of Hogback Road, my riding partner bailed out on the idea of going for a ride on Saturday, and I can’t blame him either. Besides, he would enjoy his wife’s company and that of the other friends as well, and there are plenty of places to hike in the area. On top of it, this was his birthday celebration as well, and this would be a good time to enjoy the group’s company.

I, on the other hand, was single-minded, just wondering what this bike could do on my favorite dirt roads.  So I got ready to go, knowing I would be riding alone in a remote area.  From the Diamond Hotel it would be more than 80 miles just to get to the beginning of the loop, south of Fields, OR. Then the loop is another 80 miles or so of  some of the best dirt roads for going fast. There are very few miles of technical sections, if you could call a few ruts here and there, some switchbacks and one steep rocky descent technical. Most of it is gravel and dirt roads with nice sweeping curves, some two-track sections, framed by some great vistas all along. The roads allow you to see long distances ahead, which allows fast going without the risk of encountering hidden obstacles behind blind curves.  Just the recipe for fun, my way of having fun on a motorcycle.

This and water would go in my back pack, and then the tools which are already on the bike

This and water would go in my back pack, and then the tools which are already on the bike

I had five cameras, including the I-phone. I had extra batteries, and the charge cord for the phone. A can of Off to keep mosquitoes away in case I needed to wait for assistance in the middle of nowhere.  I also carried some energy bars. I would be fine until someone arrived for assistance, should that be the case. I told the guys my route, the direction I would take, and the times I would be reaching specific landmarks and crossroads along the route.

Ready to go! June 7, 2014

Ready to go! June 7, 2014

It is always good going to the south east of the state, from the roads, to the smells of the desert, to the views, to the solitude, it hits many of my favorites. I was glad to be on the bike again on a nice morning, and basically not carrying any load on it. I made my first stop before getting to Fields, to give a perspective view of the desert.  I would be going towards the right on the area of the photo, which is south towards Nevada.

The area south of the Alvord Desert, near Fields, OR. June 7th, 2014

The area south of the Alvord Desert, near Fields, OR. June 7th, 2014

A view of the Steens on the distance, the Alvord Desert on the right.

The Steens on the distance

The Steens on the distance

I stopped in Fields to top off the tank.

Fields Station, OR.

Fields Station.

From there I went south to find the beginning of the loop.

Let's have some fun!

Let’s have some fun!

I started slow, getting body and mind in sync with machine and road. It was about testing each others’ abilities and finding the right medium and balance for the right speed.  The first goal was to get to the top of Domingo Pass.  And we made it there with no problems.

On the top of Domingo Pass.

On the top of Domingo Pass, looking toward the east

The road was looking as if very few vehicles had used it this Spring so far.  In the fall you find it a bit more traveled on. This worried me a bit, not knowing what I would encounter ahead in the more remote areas, like lose rocks and ruts from winter travel.

Going down on the west side of the Domingo Pass (Pueblo Mountains).

Going down on the west side of the Domingo Pass (Pueblo Mountains).

From the other side of Domingo Pass you get a view of where I’m going (photo below), going south first towards Nevada (left on picture), than a right to find the valleys on the other side of the mountains depicted on the right side of the picture at the distance, to then start the north part of the loop.

Rincon Flat as viewed from the top of Domingo Pass

Rincon Flat as viewed from the top of Domingo Pass

Once I got to Rincon Flat I installed and turned my GoPro camera on. I just purchased a GoPro 3+ that was in promotion at the REI (included extra battery and a jaw clamp among other accessories – they must be ready to have the GoPro 4 ready to be released). That meant I was not stopping for pictures as usual, the GoPro took care of most of these next shots.

Rincon Flat, riding towards Nevada. June 2014

Rincon Flat, riding towards Nevada. June 2014

Eventually I found a comfortable speed zone.  This bike was feeling really planted, encouraging some twisting of the throttle. As if it asked me, “is that it, is that all you can make me do?” so I responded with more throttle.

Still going south...

Still going south…

Comparing videos I’ve taken with my WR250R on the same roads, and launching them together, side by side, I can see the speeds of the two bikes were similar. Except on straights, where the Tiger obviously gains speed coming out of corners much faster than the WR250R can do. But speeds on curves were very similar. I was really amazed by what this bike delivered (considering also the Tiger was not using real dirt tires – it has Shinko 705’s which are 50/50 at best, some people claim they are 80% street, actually).

Nevada in the distance

Nevada in the distance, but I will “turn right” just before the border

I just kept going, I was simply making great time, like if I were in an Enduro or Rally race. And the bike corresponded well.  Below is a video of this first part of the loop. Not really rally speeds, but it was not slow going.

I’ve always been skeptical of large and heavy bikes playing in such terrain. But given these roads, the bike and rider were a perfect match. It was complete synchronicity.  When compared to my WR250R, riding this bike was as if I was driving a Trophy truck in a Baja race! It sounds different with the three cylinders firing at 5-6,000 rpm, it is obviously heavier than the WR250R, but it moves fast as if it ploughs over everything. I have to admit, it is a bit decadent, but it was a lot of fun! Here is a second video, when I turned right before getting to Nevada. It’s a short cut to get to the Catlow Valley area.

Again, I was not really riding at Enduro or rally speeds, but several times the bike broke the 65 mph (100km/h) speed. And it did not require much work, it just felt solid most of the times. And I never turned the ABS off.  I did test the ABS three times, one of them on purpose to see how it worked, and it felt good, and a couple more of times when I encountered something unanticipated. In two opportunities You feel a very small delay until the brakes start to work, but work they do, and well.  The front brake, that is. The rear brake, well, I was not counting on it. As I mentioned on the previous post, I wish I could lock the rear wheel at will.  But I like the front brakes operating under ABS management.

Most of the time my mind was in the moment, my only thoughts were directly connected to the road, the bike, and my actions.  With these riding thoughts in mind I suddenly found myself at the start of my favorite set of roads, the real remote areas of this loop, in record time. I was again surprised on the ease of the going.

There it is!

There it is!

The nice roads section starts with a very steep descent. I actually did not think twice about keeping the ABS on for this as well.  And it worked well enough, basically I was relying on front brake only and kept bike in first gear.

There is the first road of a series of nice roads surrounded by beautiful landscapes

There is the first road of a series of nice roads surrounded by beautiful landscapes

When I get there I noticed the gate was closed, and at first sight I thought it could be locked, and was already thinking of alternate routes or turning back, pretty much disappointed.  But then I noticed the yellow sign.  Great. I opened it and closed it behind me.

Closed gate. Keep it closed.

Closed gate. Keep it closed.

The roads were in great shape, they are mostly used by local ranchers to re-supply cattle feeds.  So that guaranteed they had been cleared from the winter months’ mayhem.  The Domingo pass, it seems, are less traveled than these roads.

Cattle near a feed area

Cattle near a feed (and possibly water) area

Overall, I could just open the throttle and keep the bike at good speeds.  Very few stops on the traditional places I usually stop, where I adjusted the cameras, changed batteries and recording cards.

Hawks Valley, June 2014

Hawks Valley, June 2014

And then I got to the Funnel Canyon.

Funnel Canyon, June 2014

Funnel Canyon, June 2014

And the Catlow Valley itself.

Catlow Valley, June 2014

Catlow Valley, June 2014

The dry lake before getting to Hwy 205.

The Tiger on a dry lake bed.

The Tiger on a dry lake bed.

It was all good. And here is a video compilation of riding on these areas.  Yes, it was not rally speeds,  but this bike did fairly well – except for an annoying issue – with all the dirt and dust, the bike’s stepper motor for idle adjustment could not do its job.  I’m investigating the problem (it is a common issue on this bike). I have fixed it already, I think, but I’m investigating how to keep it from happening again, or how to fix it when in the field without having to remove the tank and the airbox. With the onset of this problem, the bike had no idle after the stop on the dry lake.

The Tiger, great performance on fast and fairly smooth dirt roads

The Tiger, great performance on fast and fairly smooth dirt roads

Anyway, aside from this annoying idle problem, I have a new appreciation for this bike and for what people call “big enduros” or “adventure” bikes in general.  I would assume other middle-weights would do fine, the F800GS comes to mind.  I just wonder how well it would do on these roads. Maybe even better than the Tiger 800XC since the F800GS has a bit more torque down low, a more responsive throttle action which may make speeds off of corners faster and with more of the fun wheel spins, and a narrower mid-section.  And it has the option for Enduro ABS (and traction control, if that is wanted).  And what about that “badass” KTM 1190R?  It must be a blast on these roads. And the dreamed Africa Twin with 100HP (and probably more torque as it is a parallel twin) and less weight than the Tiger?

Here is a video of this last part of the loop where you can see how well the Tiger does on these roads.  It misses a barking exhaust note… maybe next time.

That was it for this trip, I got back on 205 and started my way back towards Frenchglen and from there to Diamond.

Hwy 205, June 2014

Hwy 205, June 2014

But I checked the time, it was still early in the day, so before getting to Frenchglen itself, I decided to check the Steens Loop. I had heard it was closed, but went to check it out for myself through the north access road of the loop.  I was traveling at 65-70 mph on the loop when I crossed an SUV coming down from the mountain.  He flashed his blue and red roof lights… oops… I realized it was an “official” vehicle and thought he had caught me.  I slowed down to the 35 mph speed limit and kept looking in my mirror and I could see the dust of a vehicle driving behind me, this went on for a few miles. I definitely did not want him/her to think I was running away. But was not going to stop either…  Eventually the vehicle got close enough for me to see it was a different truck, so I got lucky… this time. So I twisted the throttle again to enjoy the sliding effects of this ball-bearing-type-gravel road.

On the Steens Loop, June 2014

On the Steens Loop, June 2014

And yes, the loop was closed. This last winter was very mild in terms of rain and snow. But there were still some snow banks covering the road in this year’s early June right above Jackman Park. People were saying two weeks more and it would have melted.  So I can assume it is open by now.

Snow bank just above Jackman Park. June 7th, 2014

Snow bank just above Jackman Park. June 7th, 2014

I turned around and made my way back to Frenchglen.

Back to Frenchglen

Back to Frenchglen

Where I stopped for fuel.

Frenchglen Mercantile

Frenchglen Mercantile

The store was called the Bradeen Brothers Store when it was founded.  Did I say it was 1926 on the previous post?

Bradeen Brothers Store

Bradeen Brothers Store

Check the stand in the middle of the picture, just above the “Bradeen Bros.” words.  It is still there today.

Almost 100 years at service.

About 90 years of service. Frenchgen Mercantile

And from here I rode back to Diamond for another great dinner. I got there before my group arrived. Somehow I crossed them, as they were at the Jackman Park and had hiked to the Krieger Gorge.

I traveled 271 miles this day, completing 638 miles since I had left my house.

The next day is my return to Eugene with stops at the Round Barn, the Diamond Craters, and then many miles of Hwy 20 towards Bend and Sisters.

The French Round Barn. June 2014

The French Round Barn. June 2014

Thank you for reading.

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