Photography: Gaurav S Thombre & Rohit G Mane
If you’re a history buff you’ll automatically know that the one thing that our erstwhile European masters dreaded above all others was the Indian monsoon. Vicious in its ferocity and bringing in its wake all sorts of obstacles, it was a time of year that would test the toughest of the colonials. A few centuries on, the Indian monsoon is still dreaded. For different reasons, however; mostly related to the havoc it wreaks on India’s roads. When it recedes it leaves in its wake, a lush landscape crisscrossed with pothole-ridden highways and stripped road surfaces. In other words, it churns everything into a mess and then mixes it up with all sorts of off-road bits like mud, rocks and gravel to create an environment that’s perfectly suited to the genre of motorcycling we call Adventure Tourers. So it was only fitting that this issue of OFF-ROAD carries an ode to these fantastic beasts. You can just head to the respective showrooms to find these beasts. And once you do, you’ll realise they’re all just as magical the ones in Rowling’s story.
Honda CRF 1000L Africa Twin v Ducati Multistrada 950 v Triumph Tiger 800 XCa
Great roads. Good roads. Okay roads. Bad roads, and then no roads. That pretty much sums up the Indian motorcycle touring environment. Let’s see, what do you need in your bike to tackle such variation in the riding environment? High ground clearance for sure, a soft suspension with plenty of travel, an upright position that helps maintain maximum control and an engine that has plenty of bottom and mid-range grunt to prevent it from stalling at low speeds over rough roads. Not to mention, manageable dimensions and mass. To us, that sounds like a middleweight adventure tourer.
Once you make this connection, the reason behind the success of this format, which has only come to India in the recent past, becomes crystal. There are few formats that can deliver as much of a sucker punch to the heart as it does to the head as the adventure touring motorcycle. They are good looking, they are practical, are plenty powerful and the modern variety are dynamically able too. But the real test of an adventure tourer starts when the touring ends and the adventure begins. In our world that refers to the transition from an on-road to an off-road environment. So, we decided to bring together India’s top three adventure tourers to find out just how good (or not) they are past the asphalt. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, allow us to introduce you to the three protagonists in this dramatic tale. From Japan, we have the Honda CRF 1000L Africa Twin – the latest entrant into this segment. From Italy, we have the fiery Ducati Multistrada 950, while from the UK we have the ever popular Triumph Tiger 800. They are all priced within a lakh or two of each other and offer a similar package to their buyers.
Strangely enough, the Honda, which is also the latest bike to jump on to the adventure touring bandwagon, is priced higher than the Ducati! By a mere 20 grand, but the fact that an Italian bike should cost less than a Japanese one? Well, who would’ve thought of that? Nonetheless, despite its apparent lack of bulk in these photographs, the Africa Twin is big in the flesh. In fact, it is both wider and longer than the Triumph here. It also comes packaged with a proper litre-class engine – a 999.1cc liquid-cooled parallel twin with a 270-crank and SOHC at that. And that 20 grand extra you pay over the Ducati? You don’t pay it for the legendary Africa Twin name. You pay it for that cutting-edge dual clutch transmission that the Honda engine is mated to.
The semi-double-cradle chassis has been honed to perfection where it’s just the right balance between rigidity and flex. Meanwhile a near 50:50 weight distribution with maximum mass centralisation means that it outhandles everything around it and feels very easy to manage, in spite of being significantly heavier than both the Tiger and the Multi. The fact that you’re sitting closest to the ground and a slimmed out tank means, you can get both feet planted firmly on the ground, adding immensely to confidence levels. In fact, its very neutrality of behaviour may actually feel a little boring on road but take it off the tarmac and the bike comes alive. Electronic intervention, which is already at a minimum, can be switched off completely and that means you can have proper fun off-road. The only thing that’ll hold you back from doing absolutely extreme off-road stuff is that superb DCT, which won’t let you slip the clutch like you can on the other two to find traction on slippery surfaces, and the Dunlop dual purpose tyres that aren’t particularly good anywhere. For the rest of the stuff, it’ll light up your face like only a legend could.
So, the Honda is the best of the lot. But what of the other two? Like all Ducatis, this Bolognese piece of art too comes with the soul of a racer. So you get 111bhp and 96Nm from that liquid-cooled 937cc L-twin Testastretta engine channelled to the rear wheel via a 6-speed gearbox. Like in the larger Multistrada 1200 Enduro, there’s a mode that allows you to restrict peak output – to 74bhp in the case of this smaller Multi. The bike has a well sorted seat-handlebar-footpeg relation for relaxed riding, long travel suspension (unfortunately, there’s no Skyhook here), raked out front and 19-inch front wheel – both wheels being spoked. And given how the 950 borrows its geometry and cycle parts from the off-road biased 1200 Enduro, it should be a great trail bike. At least that’s the assumption. For the most part, it is a good bike but it’s that wonderful engine that stops it from being a great bike off-road for the power delivery is peaky. It’s all very sober for the first 3500 revs but from there all the way to 9500rpm, the motor goes mental. Exactly the opposite of what you want when traction is poor. Nonetheless, we still feel that for our Indian riding conditions this is the best Multi money can buy.
Finally, we have the ever popular Triumph Tiger 800 in its off-road biased XCa form. In this fully loaded variant, it comes with all the bells and whistles you would require on an off-road machine, including spoked wheels. The 800cc in-line triple debuted way back in 2010 but does not feel outdated in this company, thanks to its butter smooth, linear power delivery, which makes you feel at home even on bad surfaces. Jumping over rocks and riding through potholes is child’s play thanks to a whopping 220mm of suspension travel. There’s no doubt that the Tiger continues to hold its head high on trails. The traction control system is extremely intrusive but can be completely switched off and you can go sideways the whole day. The brakes are slightly on the wooden side but the switchable ABS system is top notch, giving you the confidence to keep the Triumph on edge. The Tiger is capable on the tarmac as well, giving you the best of both worlds.
So, what’s our verdict then? The Ducati is (hold your breath) the cheapest of the lot, but it isn’t the best off-road machine out there. The Tiger is great and has a proven track record but will deplete your finances the most. Still guessing? The winner here would undoubtedly be the Honda. Not only is it the best off-road bike out there it also gives you cutting edge tech, a legendary name and Honda’s bulletproof reliability. What more could you ask for?
Mark Twain once said, “Let us consider that we are all partially insane. It will explain us to each other; it will unriddle many riddles.” So, we take that as the core premise in our story and build from there, that we (bikers) are all partially insane. Once we’ve acknowledged this, then it’s easy for us to understand the needs of people who want even bigger and more powerful motorcycles than the ones you’ve already seen in the previous pages. And, are willing to pay significantly more for the difference. Upto Rs 5 lakh more, that is. The Triumph Tiger Explorer XCx and the Ducati Multistrada 1200 Enduro are for this set of people who crave more than what the Tiger 800, Multistrada 950 or the Honda Africa Twin can provide and are willing to pay the difference to scale up to an Explorer or a 1200.
Given that this isn’t a comparison, we will go alphabetically and start with the Ducati. Powered by a liquid-cooled 1198cc L-twin with 150bhp and 128Nm, this Italian thoroughbred could have you thinking that we are talking about supersports. But it isn’t. This is a six-feet tall, dyed-in-the-wool adventure tourer where you sit at an Alpine 850mm (non-adjustable) from terra firma. To distinguish the Enduro from the road-biased S, the bike gets a 19-inch front wheel, spoked wheels at both ends, 200mm of wheel travel at both ends and a 30-litre petrol tank. Unfortunately, the Pirelli Scorpion Rally tyres that you get overseas aren’t available here and you have to manage with Scorpion Trail II rubber, which is par for the course once the tarmac gives way to dirt. There is some compensation of course from the electronic suspension that Ducati calls Skyhook and for those who like their gadgets, there is the full colour 5-inch TFT instrument also. Adding peace of mind is Ducati’s Safety Pack, an invaluable safety net should things go wrong.
Before you ride it off-road however, we recommend that you put it in Enduro more so that it restricts the peak output to a “mere” 100bhp! The suspension too is softened a bit for better off-road riding characteristics. While these make the Multi more manageable off-road, especially with that excellent traction control system trying to ensure grip at all times, fact is the bike is too front heavy and shows a remarkable tendency to slide around at the tail end. Moreover, in spite of the restriction on output, the delivery is still aggressive and you’ll need to exercise caution when you’re opening the throttle. Or she will happily chew you and spit you out. Ergonomics too are better suited for tall riders and if you’re 5’ 8” or shorter then you may not like it as much. The fact that it is chain driven and not shaft driven, like the Explorer, also means the Ducati doesn’t feel as smooth as the Triumph once you venture off the black top.
Quite frankly, the Tiger Explorer too feels front heavy. And it is. Just look at all that bulk up front. As a matter of fact it looks like a wrestler; a motorcycle you would rather have in front of you than be hounded by from the rear. And yet, the Explorer feels easier to manage. Put it down to that 830mm seat height if you will, but the fact that your legs will reach the ground 20mm sooner adds a hefty dose of confidence when dealing with machines that weigh over a couple of quintals each.
Compared to the Ducati’s 150 horses, the Explorer’s 137bhp feels positively low. Peak torque too is lower at 123Nm against the Italian’s 128. In the case of the Brit bike however, the max torque kicks in a full 1300 revs sooner with the engine delivering the bulk of its grunt lower through the rev range. This means that the Tiger is actually easier to ride over the rough stuff than the Ducati. Being shaft driven, it’s also smoother.
Like the Ducati, the Triumph too gets an electronically adjustable semi-active suspension with nearly as much travel at both ends. Off the tarmac, the bike feels less of a handful than the Ducati and will tackle all sorts of off-road situations. Everything, other than extreme climbs probably. Unlike in the case of the Multistrada, hitting Off-Road mode (the Tiger also offers Road and Rain modes) doesn’t alter the output but changes the fuel mapping, suspension setting, ABS and traction control settings for better off-road riding. In effect, once you’ve put the two bikes in their respective dirt riding modes, the Triumph actually turns out to be the more powerful of the two!
In effect, the Explorer just about nudges ahead of the Multistrada in off-road conditions. On the downside however, the Ducati is Rs 75k cheaper to buy. Only, we’re not sure that 75 grand is a lot of money for the insane man who’s willing to part with over Rs 18 lakh for a bike in the first place.