Riding a motorcycle is inherently dangerous, but there is nothing like the freedom of exploring the back roads on two wheels. The rider is probably the most important safety feature of all. That said, some bikes are arguably more safe than others.
Adventure motorcycles are safer than most other types of bikes as they have more comfortable ergonomics, long-travel suspension and big wheels. Modern adventure bikes also feature a variety of electronic rider aids like ABS and traction control, making them safer.
Here are 10 reasons why we think adventure motorcycles are the safest bikes.
1. Comfortable ergonomics
Adventure bikes are designed so that the rider sits in a comfortable, neutral body position. With your feet below you, your back straight and your arms relaxed, there is less strain on your back, neck, shoulders, and wrists. The high seat and handlebars allow you to easily stand up to rest your backside or to stretch your legs, or to shift the center of gravity to the foot pegs to stabilize the bike on a dirt road.
Other bikes: On a sports bike your feet are tucked in high under your butt and you have to lean way forward putting a lot of weight onto your wrists. In this flat position, you have to constantly look up to see ahead which tires out your neck muscles. These bikes are made for fast cornering by chucking the bike over onto its side at speed. The narrow handlebars are awkward during slow speed turning.
Cruisers seems more comfortable. You sit upright, arms out-stretched and legs way forward. While it is not uncomfortable, at higher speeds the wind wants to blow you off the bike, except if you have a large windscreen like the Harley-Davidson touring bikes. There is also no way of standing up on a cruiser, as your foot pegs are way out in front of the rider. A big cruiser does not handle nearly as easily in traffic as an adventure bike.
Touring bikes are probably the most comfortable bikes – on the highway. Again, in traffic and at slow speeds, they are heavy and unwieldy.
2. Better visibility of the road ahead
By sitting upright on a high seat, an adventure bike allows you great visibility of the road ahead. Not only can you see further ahead, but you can also see the road right in front of your wheel. Having your head out of the wind, behind a tall screen, also prevents buffeting which is distracting during a fast ride.
Other bikes: On a sports bike you need to constantly flex your head upward to see ahead, especially if you are trying to hide from the wind. Cruisers and touring bikes offer great visibility of the road ahead.
3. Big front wheels
Adventure bikes have large diameter front wheels (usually 19 or 21 inch) with high profile rubber. The big circumference of the wheel allows your to ride over larger obstacles without unsettling the bike. If you hit a rock or a pot hole with a large wheel, it is more likely that you will roll over it without trouble. That is why most mountain bikes moved from 26 inch wheels to 29’ers.
The high profile rubber also helps absorb the jarring of uneven surfaces and the tires are less likely to get damaged when hitting something. Think of a Jeep’s tall tires compared to the low profile tires of a Porsche 911. Which one is more likely to get damaged?
Other bikes: Sports bikes and large touring bikes have smaller wheels that make them stick to the tarmac better when leaned over. If you hit an object with a sports bike, however, you are going to feel it. The table below compares the front wheel sizes of typical examples from each type of motorcycle.
|BMW R 1250 GS Adventure
|KTM 1290 Super Adventure R
|CBR R 1000 RR
|Honda Goldwing 1800
|HD Dyna Wide Glyde
Cruisers, like most Harley-Davidson’s, have large 21 inch front wheels just like adventure bikes. The only problem is, that they have next to no suspension travel.
4. Long travel suspension are safer
Adventure bikes have long travel suspension to soak up uneven roads and to keep the bike stable if you hit something. More modern adventure bikes have very advanced suspension to cope with fast sweeping tarmac roads, as well as rough rocky terrain. The Honda CRF 1100 L Africa Twin ES, for instance has electronically controlled dampers from Showa.
Other bikes: While many sports bikes also have technologically advanced electronic suspension, there is not nearly as much travel than on an adventure bike. That means that any irregularity in the road is going to be felt by the rider and hitting something bigger will unsettle the bike.
The table below highlights the big difference in suspension travel between bikes.
|BMW R 1250 GS Adventure
|(210 / 220 mm)
|KTM 1290 Super Adventure R
|(220 / 220 mm)
|CBR R 1000 RR
|(120 / 137 mm)
|Honda Goldwing 1800
|(110 / 104 mm)
|HD Low Rider S
|(130 / 112 mm)
On a track it doesn’t matter if the suspension is firm for stability around fast corners. In the real world, however, there are pot holes, rocks and other obstacles that could potentially end your ride. Having longer travel suspension means you will be able to withstand worse road conditions without losing control of the bike or damaging it.
5. Anti-Locking Brake System (ABS)
Most modern adventure bikes now have anti-locking brake systems (ABS) and the new Euro 4 regulations made it mandatory on all bikes over 125 cc since January 2016. ABS prevents the wheels from locking up under hard braking, thereby preventing a wipe-out if you grab the brakes and the tires loose grip on a wet road or a patch of gravel.
On gravel roads, however, ABS can be very dangerous. In loose gravel the tires have much less grip and therefore, if you grab a fist full of front brake the bike might just keep going. Adventure bikes have the ability to disable the ABS (fully or partially) on gravel roads to allow the rider to have more control and a safer ride.
On some bikes, like the BMW GS’s you can switch to an off-road ABS setting that allows the rear wheel to lock up, but still keeps ABS working on the front wheels to some extent. On more hardcore adventure bikes, like the KTM 790 Adventure R Rally, you can completely switch off the ABS.
6. Smart traction control
All the big adventure bikes, and many mid-range models, now have electronic traction control as standard equipment. Most sports bikes, tourers, and even cruisers also feature traction control on the higher end bikes.
The system constantly measures wheel speed and cuts the power if the rear starts spinning faster than the front. This prevents the loss of traction on wet roads or loose gravel, and it prevents the bike front lifting the front wheel. With the huge amounts of power large capacity adventure bikes deliver, traction control is a necessary safety aid for new riders.
Some models include lean angle sensors to keep the rear wheel from spinning out when the motorcycle is accelerating while cornering.
On adventure bikes, it is important to be able to rein in the traction control. Getting the rear wheel to spin helps steer the bike around tight corners, and in order to not bog down in sand the rear wheel needs to be able to spin freely. And what is an adventure bike that cannot lift the front wheel? Not only do wheelies look cool, they help you lift the front wheel over ruts or logs on the trail.
For that reason, adventure bikes have different setting for the traction control. Most models has an off-road function, where you can choose to switch off the traction control or at least allow generous amounts of wheel spin before it kicks in. The KTM 790 Adventure R’s traction control system has a “Rally mode” that allows you to modulate through 9 different settings on the fly. Nice!
7. Different rider modes
With massive amounts of power on tap from large capacity engines, a neat safety feature is to be able to select how the engine responds to inputs from your right hand, as well as the level of intervention from the ABS and traction control systems. Big adventure bikes have different rider modes that can be selected on the move by pressing a button.
On the BMW R 1250 GS Adventure, for instance, you can choose between “Rain”, “Road”, “Dynamic”, “Enduro” and “Enduro Pro” modes depending on the terrain. In rain mode the throttle response is smooth and the traction control intervenes early for maximum safety when accelerating. This will help novice riders that are not used to having 100+ horsepower on tap. The Enduro Pro mode requires a coding plug which allows experienced riders to de-activate the ABS and traction control (ASC) altogether.
The Honda CRF 1100 L Africa Twin has 4 preset rider modes (TOUR, URBAN, GRAVEL, and OFF-ROAD) and two additional customize-able modes that the rider can set to his or her preference.
You might be asking, “Hey, is a bike with less power not safer?” Well, in some cases that may be true. With a powerful bike, however, you can keep up with faster traffic and you don’t need half a mile to pass a slow-moving truck ahead. Believe me, it is quite scary riding a bike that maxes out at 55 mph with a big 18-wheel truck passing you on a blind rise. Oh, and in soft sand it helps to have more power too.
8. Bright LED headlights
While riding at night is something any adventure biker should put on the list of ‘things never to do on a trip’ it is almost inevitable that you will have to ride in the dark at least once in a while. A flat tire, breakdown or a delay at the mobile phone network shop in Mbeya (to activate data on your Tanzanian sim card to blog about your African bike trip) might cause you to ride well into the night looking for a campsite.
Modern, large adventure bikes come out with super bright LED headlights that draw much less electrical current than traditional halogen lights. They also feature LED daytime running lights for maximum visibility (a key safety feature). Some manufactures have taken lighting a step further. Honda’s Africa Twin has daytime running lights that automatically adjust to ambient light intensity, improving safety, no matter the conditions.
On KTM’s 1290 Super Adventure, you now get LED cornering lights that are integrated into the fairing side panels which are activated separately by means of a lean-angle sensor. As the degree of lean increases, more LED’s are switched on on that side of the bike. So the lights get brighter as you lean over further. This results in more light on the important side when going round a bend at night. To see this in action, check out the video below.
9. Crash bars
Crash bars can be fitted as optional extras on most new adventure bikes, and some come out with it as standard. This is more of a safety feature for the bike. If you are paying upward of $15 000 for a new adventure bike, it may be worth the cost.
With a heavy adventure bike, fully loaded with camping gear, it is almost inevitable that you will drop the bike at some stage. When riding in thick sand all day, sweating from all the safety gear you are wearing and the bike weighing more than 400 lbs it helps to know you won’t damage the expensive side panels or dent the tank when letting go of the leaned over bike.
As a bonus the crash bars may make it easier to pick up a fallen bike and you can rest your legs on it while cruising along on the highway.
10. Cruise control
On long rides across the country your whole body will get tired. One thing that you can’t really stretch out is your right-hand wrist. If you let go of the throttle, the bike slows down. Another example is when you need both hands to zip up your jacket or adjust your gloves, for instance.
Many new adventure bikes come out with cruise control from the factory. To find out which ones, check out this article I wrote. Cruise control keeps the engine speed (and as a result the road speed) constant, whether you are going up or down a hill. Once set, you can still accelerate and if you let go of the throttle, it settles back to the set speed. Braking or pulling in the clutch will disengages the system.
KTM and Ducati are busy testing a new system called Adaptive Cruise Control. It uses radar housed between the front headlights that scan the road ahead. The rider can set the desired speed and following distance. If the car ahead brakes, the bike slows down on its own to maintain the following distance. It can even apply the brakes if necessary. Once the car moves over, the bike will smoothly accelerate to the set speed again. For a preview of how this works on the KTM 1290 Super Adventure, check out he video below:
Motorcycle safety has come a long way and in my humble opinion adventure bikes are the safest class of bike you can get.
In the end, however, the best safety feature you can install on any bike is a disciplined rider who rides defensively. We all love to slide the rear around and try to lift the front wheel at every opportunity, but when you have to rely on your adventure bike to get you safely back home, don’t be a fool.
If you can.