Adventure Requires Quality
Motorcyclists are adventurers. Our products appeal to riders who enjoy the challenge of travel balanced on two wheels, facing wind and rain, and suffering the jolts and impacts of potholes and pavement cracks.
For an increasingly large number of riders, the day comes when they decide they want to expand the adventure beyond commuting to work or playing in the local dirt bike pits. Allan Karl is an outstanding example of a rider who did just that. He gave up a West Coast high tech career to travel the world on his motorcycle. He has captured as much of the feeling of his adventure as is possible in his gorgeous book Forks: A Quest for Culture, Cuisine, and Connection. Three Years. Five Continents. One Motorcycle.
Karl has also discussed his packing list, his motorcycle specifications, and the statistics and maintenance of his journey in the book.He published the book independently and released it in June 2014. The book includes 40 recipes and 700 photos of places he visited. He shows spectacular scenery, challenging roads, cultural changes and mouth-watering new foods that await the adventurer.
“To me, there is no better way to travel. On a bike, not only would I feel the wind on my face, I would feel the temperature change, smell the unique aromas of each place, and breath the air freely.”
“Most of all, on a motorcycle I could stop freely and when I came to a fork in the road, I could choose to go with the wind – or against it. Along the way, I would be able to connect with anyone – especially those living way off the beaten track and with no history of exposure to tourists. Real people.”
Karl’s adventure took him far away from the well paved freeways and back roads that we are accustomed to in the US. Recently, he expanded the adventure to ride across China to the border with Viet Nam.
It is not the sort of adventure that one undertakes on a whim on the bike that we use to commute to work every day. It required a bike capable of handling unpaved roads that sometimes tapered off into trails and even into no road at all. A big, heavy road bike would not have the suspension or the road clearance to handle these conditions. A light-weight dirt bike would do better in the rougher terrain but be a misery on improved roads. We contacted Karl by email to ask what qualities a rider should look for in an adventure bike. He replied,
“Durability, realizability and availability for parts should there be a need for repair. The bike should be engineered and designed with the motorcyclist and the style of riding the bike is designed for. Quality components and just simple things like nuts and bolts should be secured with corrosion resistant materials and fitted surely so that in difficult roads, parts don’t loosen or fall off. Ergonomics should play into the design, comfort in riding position, suspension adjustment and flexibility and a powerful enough electric system where third party products can be fitted without overworking the alternator/generator. Good quality rims so that in difficult roads they do not bend. Quality components is the key. The bike should feel solid.”
When asked why he chose a BMW F650GS Dakar,
“The Dakar is lighter and more nimble than the other large adventure bikes. I also like that it has a 21” front wheel and a more robust rear suspension. The BMW is known for its durability and reliability, both very important to my decision. Finally, there are a number of aftermarket products available for this and other BMW adventure bikes, so fitting the bike to my personal needs is easier than other potential choices.”
The Dakar weighs in at 421 lbs wet with no accessories or baggage. It also carries a price tag that will discourage all but the most dedicated, well-heeled buyers. For those who yearn for adventure riding but won’t be taking on such a daunting journey as Karl’s, it would be good to find an alternative.
Which brings us to the reason for including Alan Karl’s adventure and his thoughts on bikes in a publication dedicated to Chinese bikes. In our email exchange, Karl wrote,
“I think the under 500cc market for street and dual sport bikes is untapped”
“Dual sport motorcycles are trendy, and for good reason. There are still opportunities to lead in this market.”
There is a market for adventure/dual sport bikes in the US – but changes are needed to capitalize on the market. We are beginning to see some Chinese entries into the smaller adventure/dual sport market. At what is perhaps the low end, there is the 250 Zhongshen RX3. With its lower weight and lower power, it will appeal to the rider who will be staying fairly close to home but still wants to get down and dirty once he gets away from the urban environment. Moving toward the higher end we find the Shineray 400. The added power and weight will make the rider comfortable with longer trips on paved roads but not be so heavy that a rider will be uncomfortable heading for the dirt.
These bikes are not the heavy duty variety that Karl rode – and they need not be. Most riders will not be adventuring far outside the USA. But, their bikes do need to be built with the qualities in mind that Karl listed above. Durability. Reliability. Attention to quality. Even adventuring takes our riders no more than 100 miles from home, it can be a major headache to recover from a breakdown when they are off on a mountain trail. And when they do get their bike home, they want to be able to find parts without waiting for them to be found in an obscure warehouse in a province in China.
The challenge for the Chinese bike market in the USA is not new. Chinese bikes still suffer from the perception that they are poorly designed and the quality of components is poor. They attract many first time buyers because of the low price tag. Many are outraged when their bikes and ATVs break easily and are hard to get fixed. If they stay in the market, they move on to Japanese or German bikes.
In the past, owners of Chinese bikes and dealers who service Chinese bikes have found it hard to find spare parts and decent tech manuals. BMW, Honda, Suzuki and other well known brands have learned the importance of having well written maintenance manuals and readily available parts. It is a major factor in their success.
US consumers are paying more attention to the country of origin of their products. Consumers will overlook the “Made in China” label on a pair of underwear but it is harder ignore the Chinese-ness of names like Zhongshen or Shineray. Auto makers have long since learned to give names to their products sold in the USA that Americans can look at and pronounce without a twinge of anti-import conscience. Toyota Tacoma and Kia Sonata are perfect examples of de-emphasizing the fact that the vehicle was built by a foreign corporation.
Providing new names for the USA market can also be a way of breaking with the past – if it is accompanied by a determined effort to improve quality, provide a reliable, easily accessed source of spare parts and provide technical support for dealers. The change of Datsun to Nissan left behind a legacy of clunky design and less than stellar reliability. But it only worked because it was accompanied by a commitment to better design, higher quality and improved reliability.
Improving the image of Chinese bikes will take work and good organization. It can be done. The Japanese imports of the 50’s and early 60’s suffered from the same problems. Now Honda, Suzuki and Kawasaki are huge in the US bike market because they paid attention to the issues of reliability, durability and quality. They built dealership networks and made sure that they were well stocked with spare parts and tech manuals that made it possible to service their products. With China’s vast resources and labor market, clearly it is possible to do it again – but it won’t be easy.
Enthusiastic riders are awaiting smaller lighter bikes that address adventure riding. To sell to this market, Chinese manufactures need to ensure that their bikes give the rider a well built, reliable machine that can take a beating and keep on running. Dealers in Chinese bikes need to encourage riders with marketing campaigns that make riders aware of the concept of adventure motorcycling. Show riders what bikes are available to carry them off into their adventures.
The difference between adventure and disaster is in the result. A journey that reaches its goals is an adventure. A journey that ends short of the goal with a broken bike is a disaster. Adventure requires quality.