There is something redundant about the term “adventure bike”. In my experience, all motorcycles and all my rides are adventures of one sort or another. Whether it is the call of the wide-open highway, a serpentine canyon road, or a commute through town to work, every excursion turns out to be something of an adventure.Regardless, the category of adventure bikes has a draw all its own. While we had the Benelli Tre-K 1130 Amazonas and Moto Guzzi Stelvio 1200 in our herd, the frequency of “Hey, let’s go riding!” calls to my iPhone audibly increased. It seems that these motorcycles promise that extra little bit of, dare I say, adventure-and everyone wants a taste.
The flavor offered by each bike is not exactly what your motorcycling palate might anticipate. One could reasonably expect the Amazonas and Stelvio to share some Italian genetic material with the Ducati Multistrada and the (recently discontinued) Aprilia Caponord. Instead, the Benelli has more in common with England’s Triumph Tiger, while the Moto Guzzi prepares itself to do battle with Germany’s venerable BMW R 1200 GS. To further confuse the issue by swapping countries, the Benelli is a two-wheel equivalent of the Porsche Cayenne GTS, while the Moto Guzzi works Land Rover LR3 territory. That adventure you signed up for? Well, be prepared for some surprises.The first inkling that these two bikes are not direct competitors comes as soon as you saddle up. With a seat height over 37 inches-about, the same as a Honda CRF250X off-road racer, the Amazonas will have you on your tip-toes, unless you are six-feet tall. The Benelli’s suspension—50mm Marzocchi forks and Extreme Technology shock—has seven inches of travel and does not sag much with the rider aboard. The bars are wide and have brush guards, seemingly ready to take on the Amazon.Its seat over four inches lower-similar to an R 1200 GS with a low-seat option-the Stelvio is easily mounted. You feel at ease when stopped, as most riders will be able to rest flat-footed with boots. The Stelvio’s bars are very wide and high, with no hand protection. The Guzzi’s shorter suspension travel is within an inch of the Benelli’s, and both use a 19-inch-front/17-inch-rear wheel combination, so the seat height comes primarily from the design of the chassis. In your mind, the Amazonas is a large, ready-for-dirt bike, while the Stelvio is a big street-going upright. That’s wrong, but you will not find that out until you hit the dirt.
Our street rides were eye-opening, as well as eye-popping fun. There is probably nothing Ultimate MotorCycling Publisher and President Arthur Coldwells loves more than a fast ride through the mountains. Although he might prefer that ride to be through the Dolomites, our local San Gabriel mountain range grants a worthy alternative, thanks to the sweeping Angeles Forest Highway and technical Big Tujunga Canyon Road.Aboard the Amazonas, Arthur quickly realized the street-going worth of the Benelli. The 123-hp triple loves to rev, and has cornering clearance to spare. Conventional wisdom informs us that a tall bike will be unwieldy in corners, but the taut suspension, Metzeler Tourance tires, and chassis were up to the challenge. Arthur was diving hard into the corners, in spite of the Amazonas’ non-radial brakes, then twisting it on as the DOHC power-plant rapidly attacked its five-digit redline. Like the Porsche referenced earlier, this is a tall vehicle that delivers on the pavement. It is a real sportbike.Given Arthur’s uncommon street skills, I anticipated disappearing out of the Benelli’s rearview mirrors almost instantly. The Moto Guzzi’s relatively meager peak of 103 hp comes at an easily attainable 7500 rpm, and maximum torque 1100 rpm sooner, and nothing happens quickly with the big pushrod V-twin. That suits my riding style perfectly-smooth and steady. Using the Stelvio’s ease of operation, sufficient ground clearance, and superb Pirelli Scorpion Sync tires, I was able to keep Arthur in sight, even though I never threatened to catch him. I relied on engine braking, primarily, as the radial-mounted Brembos in the front were unexpectedly unimpressive.
And, to be fair, had Arthur decided to leave me far behind by pushing hard, both he and the Amazonas were certainly capable of doing so. Off-Road Editor Jess McKinley had done just that on an earlier ride between Santa Barbara and Ojai, as he was like a kid in a candy store on the sporting Benelli—the exuberant smile I saw on his face when I caught up at a stoplight told the story.Not intended to satisfy the purist canyon carver, the Stelvio is a highly rewarding ride for those of us who need gracious forgiving of our inevitable mistakes. It quite nicely fits my idea of an upright, sport-tourer that is ready for adventure.The rough-but-paved roads hugging Little Rock Reservoir offered additional insight-neither bike is concerned about degraded pavement. Again, the tires, chassis, and suspension of both bikes handled potholes, cracks and gravel without drama. Without a doubt, if pavement exists, these motorcycles are ready for back-road adventures.
Heading for the hills with dirt on our minds, the tables turned quickly. Upon closer examination, the Amazonas is not interested in leaving the pavement, let alone any road. The flimsy “skidplate” is nothing more than a guard to prevent errant pebbles from striking the engine cases and exhaust head-pipes; a direct hit would demolish it. Also, the Amazonas’ ergonomics quickly dissuade you from leaving your seat. The sculpted tank deflects your knees as you transition to a standing position, so you tend to stay seated.Showing some temerity, and trusting Jess’s earlier suggestion to me that the Stelvio is nearly as capable off-pavement as his personal R 1200 GS Adventure, I rode past the parked Amazonas to see where the Stelvio would take me. On dirt roads, it is perfectly composed, though the Guzzi is no dirt bike-it’s still a liter-plus bike with plenty of weight and girth. However, the sump-protecting skidplate is heavy-duty and the cylinder head crash guards purely functional.Happily, the Stelvio is ergonomically correct for off-road riding. The bars give the necessary leverage and it is reassuring in a standing position. With my comfort zone expanded, hubris urged me to abandon the road-paved or not-and strike out across the aptly named Little Rock Wash. This rock-filled terrain was certainly a challenge for the Stelvio and me; I kept my momentum up and my feet on the pegs, to great success. Like the open-class BMW GSes, the Stelvio requires a certain leap of faith in the dirt. You have to be willing to be aggressive, though not overly insistent, using the throttle and momentum to make your way through difficult terrain.
The freeway ride home revealed an Achilles’ heel for both motorcycles- vibration. Not a smoothly thumping V-twin like other Guzzis—though this was our first experience with a 4-valver—the Stelvio constantly attacks your hands at freeway speeds in sixth gear. It’s not a buzz, but almost like a small hammer is rapidly pounding your palms.Downshifting and running higher in the rev range provides some temporary relief, but it is not a great solution. We blame the bar risers and slightly over-wide bars for amplifying the twin’s natural pulses. Some experimentation with aftermarket bars is in order.Buzziness is the bane of the Amazonas. Once it tops 4000 rpm, the tingling is on. It begins with your hands, then migrates to the seat as the revs climb, then finally settling at your feet near redline. There is no escaping the buzz; you can only redirect it. It is a shame that two bikes that would make outstanding touring bikes are so disagreeable on the freeway.
Associate Editor Shawn Pickett is another adventurer among us; he is the type of rider who thinks nothing of hopping on his Multistrada with Alaska as a destination. Or, he will take a Kawasaki Concours across three wide states over the weekend to visit a UFO museum (see his Oct/Nov 2008 Downshift). Coming up with something interesting for him is as difficult as it sounds. But, when he mentioned he had never seen central California’s Carrizo Plain National Monument, we had a destination.Bisected by the San Andreas Fault, between the Trembler and Caliente mountain ranges, Carrizo Plain is a place of desolate beauty, with the stark white Soda Lake as its centerpiece. Soda Lake Road, which runs between the northern and southern borders, features a 30-mile stretch of dirt separating two lengths of rugged pavement.After filling up in Ojai, we hustled down Highway 33 toward New Cuyama on Highway 166 for lunch at the inviting, family-run Burger Barn before attacking the Carrizo Plain. The Stelvio and Amazonas reprised their roles on the street, with the Benelli loving to be pushed and the Guzzi making life easy for its pilot.
The long straight through Ventucopa allows room to test the upper limits of sixth gear on both bikes, and they are rock solid. Raising the windshield on each bike provides extra protection, but how much you will like the redirection of the blast will be determined by your height.We had intended to gas up in New Cuyama, but fuel was not available. With the Benelli packing nearly six gallons and the Guzzi carrying about a gallon less, I figured we were okay. But, just as we hit the dirt section, the Benelli’s low-fuel light clicked on, about 120 miles into the tank. Regardless, we took off at high speed over the well-maintained dirt road.The Stelvio was a dream here-it is exactly what the bike was made to do. In comparison, the Amazonas was reasonable, but the infrequent washboard sections were treacherous, as the firm suspension was not responding and the bike skittered around. Also, the Amazonas’ tiny footpegs are great for sport riding, but offer an inadequate platform off the pavement. One nice feature is an engine-detuning button that takes the edge off the Amazonas’ power delivery, making it easier to handle in the dirt and more agreeable when cruising on the street.Just before the pavement resumed, the Guzzi-which is considerably less thirsty-lit up the little pump icon. With 40 twisty and hilly miles to go before a gas station would appear, we were a bit concerned. We rode up to the Soda Lake Overlook and contemplated our fate.
Rather than hit the road to Taft and hope we didn’t run dry, it was time for an adventure. Homes are scarce in the valley, but they are there. Someone, I thought, must have fuel. We saw a family of dirt bike riders camped nearby, but they were there on a day-trip and had left a full five-gallon jug at home. Further off-road exploration revealed a compound that looked to be currently inhabited.We parked the bikes at the gate, and I walked in, hoping to purchase some fuel. The couple that warily greeted initially claimed to be without gas. But, as I turned to leave, the husband “remembered” a six-gallon can in the back. He pointed out that wandering souls come out to the Carrizo Plain quite often without proper provisions, and he can’t help everyone. But, he was a motorcycle enthusiast and the two exotic Italian bikes caught his eye.With the agreement that we would not reveal to anyone where we got the fuel, he filled up the Amazonas and nearly the Stelvio, as he shared some jaw-dropping experiences gathered during his 30 years in the isolated valley. We handed him $80, which he reluctantly accepted, and we were set to tackle the 175-mile ride back to the office.Undoubtedly, you can have adventures on other sorts of motorcycles. But, there is something about the Moto Guzzi Stelvio and Benelli Tre-K Amazonas that invited us to take risks we might not have considered on other bikes. We went out on a limb, got bailed out by a friendly stranger, and lived to tell the tale of adventure.Photography by Kevin Wing