Has any bike embodied the spirit of motorcycling better? Not exactly “compact” in its day, but still. (Photo Credit: BMW)

The burgeoning “compact adventure” class might just be the purest embodiment of the core concepts that draw us to bikes: freedom and independence. And it’s accessible. Here’s why this is about to be a big deal.

The concept of a compact adventure bike is pretty simple: dedicated “adventure” bikes have grown large, intimidating, and costly, and a new class of adventure-bikes-but-smaller more easily captures their freewheeling nature.

These new bikes aren’t huge, but demand for them sure looks to be.

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Isn’t any bike an ‘adventure bike?’

Well, I mean, yeah. That’s what makes motorcycles so great! But the “adventure bike” or “ADV bike” class, also known as dual-sport (because they go on and off-road) really refers to bikes that are built for covering long distances over a wide range of terrains.

Like SUVs, they have off-road pretenses but generally excel most at really long rides over mild to moderate terrain.

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And also like SUVs, ADV bikes come in all shapes, sizes and luxury levels. Ergo, in my opinion they also have the greatest potential for mass-appeal. The category basically ranges from dirt bikes with blinkers like my WR250R to two-wheeled road boats with heated everything and massive mileage-eating engines like the BMW GS1200.

How is this a new trend, then?

Close, now make it just a tiny bit smaller. (Photo Credit: BMW)

The ADV segment is somewhat polarized at the moment. Small ADVs tend to be highly capable but brutal over long distances and frankly kind of ugly. Large ones cost a fortune and are physically intimidating to new riders.

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By lately I’ve been seeing bike concepts like this little baby Honda Africa Twin-style machine, Suzuki’s miniature off-road V-Strom, and some single-cylinder BMW adventure bikes allegedly slated to be released in earnest later this month. Meanwhile the Honda CRF250L Rally debuted as I was writing this manifesto.

These bikes take the appealing look of their big brothers and boil it down to an accessible size and presumably a price point to match. Now those mini adventure bikes might not be able to ride quite as hard through the rough stuff as my street-legal dirt bike, but they most definitely will be comfortable for more than 50 consecutive miles. Or your daily commute.

Is this like those lunatics riding unregistered dirt bikes all over the East Coast? 

The legendary 12 O’Clock Boys of Baltimore. Not New York, but the same idea. (Image: the 12 O’Clock Boys documentary by Lofty Nathany.)

Nah. Not-street-legal dirt bikes are popular because they’re cheap, light (easy to stunt) and simple (hard to damage.) Riders don’t bother getting license plates because when cops do catch them, they’re way past just writing tickets anyway.

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But dirt bikes (aside from being illegal on the street) are loud and crude. Dirt bike riders you’ve heard about taking over city streets aren’t about to take them on cross-country adventures.

Ok, so why is this supposed compact adventure trend better than any other in motorcycling? 

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The last major motorcycle trend we collectively observed, which is still flickering as far as I can tell, was/is the “cafe racer” thing. This is like the hot-rodding of old motorcycles, and subsequent riding in open-face helmets and tight jeans because the main objective is lookin’ dope.

Hey, I get it. Some of those stripped-and-chopped ratbikes really do look ice fucking cold. But they almost all suck to ride.

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Yes, they do. Don’t deny it, guy-who-just-spilled-macchiato-on-his-beard reading this.

It’s also about capability. People who have been thinking about a motorcycle for years but don’t really know what kind of riding they’d like to do might start with something that looks cool, and if that happens to be hard or miserable to ride (a la cafe bikes) these people are apt to write off riding as a sometimes-hobby or give up altogether.

Start on a small adventure bike and you can try everything; a little on-road, a little off, canyons, commuting, long multi-day cruises. An ADV bike on the right set of tires can give any rider a taste of any genre of motorcycling, and that makes it one of the hardest bikes to get bored of.

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Now get your oven mitts because here comes a hot take: adventure riding is the Most Correct interpretation of motorcycling.

You’re not getting over any of that on your Harley. (Photo Credit: Andrew Collins)

Motorcycling’s about freedom. On an ADV bike, you have the freedom to go down any road, no matter how long or bumpy, because you’ve got a versatile platform and (on a good one) a comfortable seat to carry you.

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Motorcycling’s about independence. I just mentioned roads? You don’t even need them once you start getting brave and learn how to change a tire tube.

No manner of motorcycling gets you better acquainted with where you’re at than adventure riding. On a cruiser you’re either luxuriating behind a big windscreen or going deaf from an archaic engine. You’re definitely not leaving the pavement. On a sport bike you’re too busy trying to stay alive to enjoy the scenery. And on a cafe racer, well, you’ve got your work cut out trying to keep oil stains off those nice shoes.

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But how is this getting new people into motorcycling? 

You like the Ducati Scrambler, don’t you? I knew it. Everybody does. (Photo Credit: Ducati)

As I mentioned earlier, the ADV scene appeals more strongly to the urges for freedom and independence than any other flavor of bike. They’re not associated with street racing like sport bikes are, or Hell’s Angeles bad boys like old cruisers might be.

But what’s considered cheap and small ADV bike today (a dirt bike with lights to make it street legal) hurts to ride. Big ones are scary expensive and physically tough to throw a leg over. A smaller ADV in the larger style rectifies both issues.

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If they’re so great why are these ‘compact ADV’ bikes only coming out now? 

Since you asked, I think we actually have the cafe racing hipsters I was just raging on to thank. Sort of.

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The evolution of the cafe look, as we’re going through it now, is the “scrambler” look. That’s the same cafe-style hot-rod motif plus off-road tires. Think of the motorcycle manifestation of a Baja Bug.

Motorcycle manufacturers are already answering the call of demand for this style of machine, hence the Ducati Scrambler and Yamaha XSR. But again, those bikes are pretty expensive and still not quite as long-haul, everyday-ride practical as something like a BMW GS.

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Then are these new compact ADV bikes more like dirt bikes or cruisers?

I think a range will pop up within the niche, even. Bikes like the Honda CRF250L Rally are pretty much just the basic slightly-more comfortable dirt bike concept I started turning my own Yamaha WR250R into a year ago.

I still need a windshield and a nicer seat, and maybe slightly less aggressive tires, and I’m there. A cupholder, phone mount, round headlight and taller handlebars are also on my wish list.

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On the nicer end of the market, once BMW’s GS310R comes out in earnest, I think we’ll have a luxury-option straight out of the box in this class.

You sound really biased toward this whole ADV bike thing.

I won’t deny it. Sport bikes got me into motorcycling, but I was brought into the hobby in earnest on adventure bikes.

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I spent 2011 living in a tent next to a Suzuki DR-Z 400, which is basically a taller version of a mountain bike with an enormous fuel tank, in whatever corner of Australia I felt like parking in on any given night.

Yeah no I wasn’t kidding. (Photo Credit: Andrew Collins)

Adventure riders are tough. I mean, not me, I whimpered and cried myself to sleep under cataclysmic weather and an onslaught of vengeful kangaroos most evenings. But the spirit of the genre is ride-every-day, ride-no-matter-what, ride because it’s just the best way to get around.

And that is what I’d love to see more people embracing as they get into the hobby of riding motorcycles.

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Bring on the affordable, comfortable ADV bikes and this sport will have fans for life.