[This is the third and final post from my last trip to the high desert in southeastern Oregon and this time with the Triumph Tiger 800XC. This post includes a comprehensive review of the Tiger’s performance on dirt roads. Click here for Part 1 and Part 2]
It was timely to have researched about the new mid-size adventure bikes Honda and Yamaha may bring to the market as I prepared and executed this ride with the Triumph 800XC to Oregon’s high desert. It helps for keeping things under the right perspective.
After riding the Triumph on desert roads with a good dose of aggression I went back home from this trip with many thoughts in my mind as I evaluated the Tiger 800XC’s performance on these fun roads. I was surprised by how well it performed and made me re-consider what I would like to see on a mid-size adventure bike, especially now that we hear about a possible new Honda Africa Twin or a new Yamaha 700 (or will it be 750?) Ténéré.
Ahead of me I had plenty of time, about 400 miles of two-lane highway going west towards the Cascades range and down to the Willamette valley to organize my thoughts. But before hitting the highway I decided to visit two local attractions – the Round Barn and the Diamond Craters.
I went to the Round Barn first then backtracked from there to see the Craters and from the Craters started the long way back home. The Round Barn is just what the name says, a round barn.
It was built in about 1,880 by Peter French, the boss of the “P” Ranch on the Donner and Blitzen Valley. They used this barn for breaking and exercising horses in the winter. It was quite the investment during those days, bringing the rocks for the inside wall and the wood, but then again, when all operations depended on the horse, that was the way to go.
The barn is listed in the National Register of Historical Places. If you are in the area, go check it out. There is also a book store on the grounds where you can find books and information about this interesting area of the state.
From here I started my way back stopping on the Diamond Craters. A sign at the visitor area of the craters says this is “designated an outstanding natural area and area of critical environmental concern (…) it is home to many plants and animals adapted to living in an environment of lava flows, cinder cones and craters.”
And one crater with water on it. Water levels used to be higher.
Time to hit the road, I turned my back to the Steens and headed north and west back home.
Soon I connected with Highway 205 and from there I went through the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge towards Burns.
I’ve been to this area in early September in 2009 and found this lake dry that late in the summer. I remember the GPS indicating water on both sides of the road and all I could see from the road was dry grass. It is mostly a shallow body of water and by September after several months without rain most of it becomes a dry grassy area.
Just before getting to Burns Hwy 205 climbs a ridge where I stopped and looked back for the last view of the Steens on this trip.
From Burns it becomes a boring two-lane highway. I filled the tank in Burns and from there I did not stop until I hit Sisters. Before I left the Diamond Hotel staff had mentioned a forest fire in Tumalo, just outside Bend. There were concerns of possible road closures but once I got to the area traffic was flowing normally. I got to see a helicopter with a hanging bucket of water flying towards the fire. From my perspective it looked like throwing a tea-spoon of water on a healthy fire in a fireplace. It won’t make much of a difference, I thought, no matter how many trips that helicopter would have to make.
The Sisters mountains were somewhat hidden by all the smoke in the area. I know a couple of people who live in the Tumalo area and I wished their houses and business were safe. The smell of burned wood that permeated the area, that view of the helicopter, the haze throughout the area, you experience through that the seriousness of the situation. We are at the mercy of the powerful nature.
And just as I was writing this segment of the story on July 13th, a Sunday morning here in Eugene, I heard thunder not too distant from here, thunder without rain, thunder being nature’s source for forest fires. It just crossed my mind a new forest fire could be starting somewhere especially when things have been really dry around here this year.
Back to the story, when I rode the Lone Mountain Loop, with all the dust, the bike lost its idle. It is a “feature” of the Triumph Tiger, where dust gets into the mechanism between the idle stepper motor and the linkage to the roller at the rest stop of the throttle. There is one particular area of this exposed mechanism (it has some three connections between the stepper motor and the throttle stopper) which operates on a tolerance of less than 0.5mm, where just the right amount of dust takes it our of whack. More on that later.
The point was that traveling in the traffic of Springfield and then Eugene, the bike with no idle speed became a potential liability at some intersections, but mostly a tremendous annoyance. It makes you wonder whether this bike was meant to be ridden off pavement. Other than that, the bike performed really well. And this is what I want to talk about.
Back to the main question of this post: Is this bike a Desert Racer?
First of all, I’m not an expert or professional rider, but I have many years of riding off pavement. I do believe most owners never take their larger adventure bikes off pavement, and when they do, they ride conservatively or have their bikes loaded with camping gear which slow them down. When I talk about desert racing here I mean the top speeds a rider with average dirt riding skills (my case) still feels comfortable when riding – it changes from person to person, of course. Perhaps it is better by describing it includes some sliding out of corners but no two-wheels-in-the-air stunts – for the most part. It is not about Dakar speeds. Although on occasions I confess to have taken this bike to some good speeds on these roads, just to see what it could do.
The Bike and the Tires
The bike is a 2012 Tiger 800XC (all original except for a Triumph bash plate, engine guards, and fender extenders front and back). Bike was not carrying any gear, except for basic tools, cameras and drinking water. The bike was shod with Shinko 705 tires for this trip. They are usually rated as 80% street 20% dirt and I picked these tires because I was reluctant to make this bike into a dirt rider – I did not want to compromise its great on pavement performance. It just does so well on paved roads, why mess with it, right? But in the end these tires performed really well on dirt and gravel, as well as on paved roads. But it just makes me wonder how much better this bike would have performed on dirt if I had installed TKC 80’s or other more dirt aggressive tires.
Tire pressures were kept at 36 psi front and back – not aired down from the recommended 36-41 range. I have for tradition not aired down tires when traveling on dirt and gravel roads, especially because on these larger adventure bikes when you air these tires down, and combine that with the weight of the motorcycle, the wide rims, add speed and rocks to that and you get a recipe for bending rims. Knowing that airing tires down assists the suspension in coping with smaller bumps on the terrain and significantly improves traction, despite the fact that I did not air down the tires, I have to say the bike/tires combo did great.
In terms of suspension, the bike is all original. Only change was a bit of compression added to the rear shock.
What is this desert I talk about?
I’m talking about off-pavement but riding on existing roads (not off-road). These are relatively leveled dirt roads, with light gravel at times. On these roads, the bike traveled very well and safely at speeds ranging from 40 to 75 mph.
On these roads, the bike always felt planted when going at speed. The front end never pushed wide or threatened to slid from under the bike. The rear, except for 3 or 4 unexpected slides, which were always easily controlled and the bike quickly regained composure. For the most part the rear stuck very well under acceleration, sliding just enough to keep the bike composed and settled on the curves. It was as if this bike had traction control. Overall it was as if the bike were on rails.
If anything, I wish this bike had a faster throttle response and consequently more rear action. There were times when I realized I entered a curve too fast and could be running out of road, and in those times I wished I had a faster throttle response, a more direct connection from throttle and wheel spin at lower RPMs. I do think this is an inherent characteristic of three or more cylinder motors. But this bike can actually do it, only that you have to get used to ride it on the higher range of the torque curve. That’s where you get more engine braking and more throttle response from smaller throttle input. You just have to get used with the engine revving higher than what you would expect from a dirt bike. Most riders suggest a different sprocket to resolve this issue. Problem with that is that this bike has a narrow-span gear box, with a tall 1st and a short 6th gear when compared to the F800GS and the KTM990, for example. So when you shorten all the gears, you obviously will shorten an already short 6th gear.
You resolve the issue by riding on the higher RPM’s as mentioned, but it doesn’t solve the issue for when going slow on first, lets say climbing a steep rocky area. The tall first gear becomes a real hindrance in those situations, and you will be heavily depending on slipping the clutch, more so than with other bikes. In those cases, if you ride through that type of terrain frequently, I would recommend a change of sprocket. It will somewhat compromise your road riding, maybe fuel economy as well.
Having said that, under normal operation this bike operates well at the 4K rpm range where the motor sounds relaxed and does not struggle to deliver smooth power on lower gears. But riding on these desert roads, when you start having fun and need that immediate and stronger throttle response, keep it on the 5-6k rpm range and you will have plenty of torque for keeping the bike under throttle control. Although at this range it sounds like there is some drama going on with the motor, it is well within the normal operating range. Remember this bike does not redline until close to 10k rpm. That’s what makes this bike sound and feel as if you were driving a Trophy Truck instead of a Baja Bug. That can be a lot of fun, actually. I could not stop grinning days after this stint…
Below is a video of the action. I already posted videos on the previous post of this trip, but here you will find 12 minutes of unedited action. You will see how well the bike handles. This bike can go a lot faster than what I rode it. It just needs the right rider to make it happen. That is, any limitation of speed on this video was not the bike, but the rider. You will also see how it bogs down some when keeping it at 4k rpm and I twist the throttle. But going one gear down and keeping it at about 5K rpm it already shows great response (for a reference on the video, nine O’clock on the RPM gauge is just above 5K rpm).
One Recommendation: adjust suspension to your riding style
One recommendation I would make is to set the suspension for your riding style. This bike’s forks are not adjustable. But it seems like Triumph did a great job setting it up for the right compromise for all occasions and riding styles.
It was only when I pushed it on bumpier roads that I felt the forks had too much rebound. On those occasions the front end feels locked up and as a result you get a harsh ride over bumps. The compression seemed fine. Here is a video going over small bumps from odd sized gravel mixed in with the dirt and dried up mud from cattle (hooves). You can clearly see how the front end feels harsh. Of course, airing down tires would have helped some. But it would not solve the actual problem, especially when facing larger obstacles.
Therefore, overall, so far the only recommendation is to adjust the front suspension, and only if you will be riding fast. Otherwise, leave as is and you will be more than fine. But if you are going to adjust it, since it is a non-adjustable suspension, it will require re-valving. If you will go through that trouble, you may as well make it a fully adjustable set of forks. Also if you reduce the rebound damping, something that is needed in this bike, you may realize that you will need to upgrade the springs as well for your weight and riding style. Bringing full adjustment to the forks can get expensive really fast, though. But it may just transform a good bike into a really good bike.
Faster Gravel Roads
And I also traveled with this bike on fast gravel roads, what I call gravel highways. On these gravel roads, the bike traveled well at 65 to 85 mph speeds.
On these roads I encountered two problems that I don’t think are unique to this bike. One of them was a front end wobble on deeper gravel sections. But on these roads I was riding with a friend of mine and he was riding a KTM Adventure 950 and his bike was having the same problems, if not worse. And he has a steering damper on his bike! Here is a video of the wobble, which I called on the video “headshake”. But I’m not sure that’s what it is. In this video you will notice I stopped where my friend had stopped to check front tire pressure, since the wobble made him think he had a flat tire. That thought had crossed my mind as well.
And to prove the point that his KTM was struggling more than the Triumph, here is a video of the Tiger going past his bike as if the KTM was standing still.
Ok, I confess I added this video just to rub it in on the KTM riders who claim their bikes are the best machines for off pavement riding. I have no question they are great bikes. But there are other great bikes out there as well.
The second issue I encountered on fast gravel roads was rear wheel traction on washboard areas. But again, I don’t think this is an exclusive “feature” of the Tiger. This is just the way things are with most bikes. It can be improved, perhaps in the case of the Tiger it is about too much rebound for the rear shock as well.
The Real Problem and a Solution
The one issue that really bothered me with this bike is that it is prone to lose idle speed when riding on dusty terrain. You hear all about it on the several forums. People often refer to it as a stepper motor problem.
I encountered this problem for the first time on this trip, and I have to say it was extremely annoying (and dangerous when I was riding on city traffic on my way back home). So I decided to investigate the issue. I cleaned the bike and removed the tank and the airbox to have access to the stepper motor and the linkage to the roller where the throttle rests at idle.
And here is the stepper motor to the right of the black cross bar, with the mechanisms leading to the roller and throttle resting stop and cable to the left of it, between upper and middle trumpets.
I cleaned the throttle linkages and the roller and it took care of the problem. But I can’t see myself after a day of riding on dusty roads doing this work by a campsite. Some people suggest adding marine grease to the linkage to prevent this problem from reoccurring. Others suggest spraying WD40 into the area when the problem happens and you are on the field. I don’t like those solutions. I will keep it as dry as possible, and will see if I can simply spray air into the area, just enough to blow the dust off of it. It is tight in there and there is no clear vision from the outside (you need to remove the tank and airbox to see it). But once you know where it is, you can “map it” and cut a small piece of hose and curve it just enough to reach the area from outside of the frame. And you can either use compressed air (if in your garage) or take the hose with you and use canned air or a tire pump when in the field to blow air. Alternatively, you can use a small nylon brush with the appropriate curvature to reach the area. I will try these alternatives before applying grease or WD40 (or similar) options.
Anyway, when looking at things in perspective, this is nothing compared to the problems the KTM 1190 Adventure and Adventure R are facing with respect to riding on dusty areas. The 2013 bikes had problems with the airbox’s lid warping from engine heat and letting air bypass the filter and going into the throttle inlet via cracks formed between the box and its warped lid. KTM changed the airbox design for the 2014 but that still did not solve the problem. Dusty air getting into the motor creates significant, and expensive damage. It may seem I’m bashing KTM here, but I’m not. It is what it is. I really like those KTMs. The 1190 is in my short list of future bikes, who knows, certainly something to consider after there is a KTM fix for the airbox problem.
The entire operation to get to the Tiger’s problem area involves removing plastic, removing tank, and removing the airbox to access the throttle linkage. The first time I did this and then put everything back together took me about the time of an entire soccer match. The second time I removed all those pieces and put it all back together took me about half of that.
If you are an average rider like me, and will only be riding gravel and dirt roads, you basically don’t need to do anything to this bike. It would be overkill to invest on suspension or change sprockets or anything. Just ride it as you get it form the showroom floor and you will have plenty of motorcycle for a lot of fun. I personally haven’t changed anything on this bike up to now, although I imagine suspension adjustments will go a long way in making it a better bike. And yes, tires make a difference as well.
Now, if you will be riding on rocky terrain, deep sand, single track, then, to begin with, this size of bike is not the ideal size for that type of travel. You would want something smaller and lighter for that kind of riding. But I understand, some of us dream these bikes can ride the Back Country Discovery Routes. And they do if you have the skills or the cullones to put it through those routes. I think it still can do it without changes if you ride in normal and conservative speeds. But you will probably benefit from a sprocket change to lower the gears for crawling or going up steep and technical terrain. And if you want to ride it more aggressively, and loaded with gear, I would recommend reviewing the suspension set up. And that’s it. Well… that and you should learn how to clean the throttle linkage up from the stepper motor once in a while.
Now for the personal preference side of this equation I’m thinking about a slip-on exhaust to get a more throaty exhaust note, something that would drown out the triple whistle (what makes it sound like a jet turbine) and the engine tappet-like sound (Triumph dealer claims it is normal) you hear at around the 3k RPM. Also, a narrower slip-on exhaust would allow for side racks that won’t stick out too far and wide, which would work for side panniers (I’m thinking about soft panniers like the Siskiyou (Giant Loop) or the smaller set of the Mosko Moto).
What about the speculated new Africa Twin and the new Ténéré 700 or 750 XTZ?
After riding the Tiger on this trip and pushing it on these roads, I have to say the 800XC is pretty much spot on. But of course, it could be better. And that is what I’m hoping from these two new possible offerings in the market.
If they are lighter than the Tiger would be one thing that would be extremely helpful, so you could venture with these bikes with more confidence in technical terrain.
More torque at lower revs would also be a welcome improvement, which is something these two speculated bikes would have if they stick with parallel twins with a 270 degree crank as rumors seem to indicate. Although the Yamaha seems to have a smaller displacement and less power, with only 50 ft/lbs of torque if the motor comes unchanged from the FZ-07/MT-07 as it has been speculated. But 70 hp of the 700cc twin of the FZ-07/MT-07 it is still plenty of power to have loads of fun on dirt roads!
The BMW F800GS has a parallel twin (360 degree crank, though) and has more torque at low revs when compared to the Tiger.
Finally, one item that would be very welcome is the capacity to fully adjust front and rear suspension (pre-load, compression and rebound damping).
Other than that, the 200 mile range of the fuel tank is spot on for the Triumph, you don’t need more than that, in my opinion. So I hope that is the case for these two new bikes. When you need more range, just strap a gas jug and it takes care of the issue. But under normal circumstances, 200 miles will be plenty.
For whatever my opinion is worth, overall the Triumph gets two thumbs up from me for the loads of fun it afforded me on the desert roads of southeastern Oregon. Maybe it is not a desert racer, but given reasonably leveled roads, this bike does really well. I was thrilled by its performance.
As for the other bikes, I would love to ride the F800GS, the KTM 1190 and the speculated new Africa Twin and new Ténéré (when/if they become available) on these fun roads. Maybe these other bikes will make my Triumph Tiger 800XC feel like a heavy street bike.
Thank you for reading.