Our gang recently returned from a long weekend in Death Valley, Calif. We often visit DV in springtime, which is the best season to go. Cold-winter days and nights have faded away by then, and daytime temperatures, from 65-90 degrees (F) depending on altitude, haven’t become oven-like as happens in summer.
As avid motorcyclists and travelers, we have ridden all over the west together, and we have never taken a trip that was rated anything less then fabulous. From blasts to Monterrey, tours of the Pacific Northwest and peg-scraping rides through the Sierras, none fail to combine the beauty of the scenery with the love of being on two wheels like our jaunt to the other worldliness of Death Valley.
DV is simply one jaw-dropping panorama after another. The geological diversity, loneliness, colors, and astounding beauty never fail to please and amaze. Entering Death Valley National Park from the south, there is a particular set of turns on Trona Road that takes one’s breath away.
After many hours and hundreds of miles of great scenery, the pavement, for some reason, changes from black to brown and in the next instant, upon rounding the curve, the entire valley, until now unseen, lies at your feet.
This is where one throttles back quickly and takes in a scene not unlike a vision in a dream. In its own way it equals the majesty of the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Maroon Bells or the Grand Tetons, to name only a few.
Equal in majesty, yes, but unique unto itself. Nothing the rider sees is anything like home or anywhere else. The plant life is diverse in its scrubby way and every road is a journey through time. Altitudes vary from 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin to 5,475 feet at Dante’s View. One needn’t be a geologist to be astounded by the formations that range from sand dunes to every kind of upthrusted and erosion-caused mountain, all wrapped in dozens of subdued colors.
We see red, brown, yellow, blue, green, and more, in a myriad of gradations. Artist’s Palette, a short ride from our lodging at Furnace Creek Ranch, is imbued with every color imaginable, all at one overlook and the approach road off Highway 190 is a meandering trip through what might as well be the surface of another planet.
For many miles and hours during the ride we are completely alone. No other vehicles, no cell service, no gas stations, nothing but the Valley. We have our bikes and each other and this camaraderie is supportive, reassuring and a part of what makes this trip so special.
No one is ever left behind. Care is taken to make sure every rider is accounted for at our checkpoints. One rider’s problem is everyone’s problem and and an opportunity to be a senior field engineer. Like when Kaming’s mirrors came loose and the search was on for tape or glue, or when Joe’s radiator ingested a rock at about a buck-30 and had to be nursed until he found some sealant. We looked like a Caltrans road crew – one guy working and 10 others around him giving advice, usually all at once.
Death Valley is a quirky place and I chose to ride Moto Guzzi’s 2015 Stelvio 1200 NTX ABS which is a quirky bike, in a good way, and matches the theme of the trip. The new Stelvio is all Moto Guzzi and its connection to the lineage that goes back decades is undeniable, even in its modern ADV styling.
Through 900 miles of mostly twisty mountain roads I got to sample and experience every possible characteristic of this bike and also grind off half of the kickstand flange. With some reservations, the motorcycle does all that is asked of it.
Our trek started off through hill country on the way to the mountains at a very fast pace. The Stelvio won’t keep up with the sport bikes but it’s not far behind. It will happily corner to the limits of its ground clearance and is stable throughout all this with good front-end feedback from the fully adjustable 45mm forks, smooth rear-end action (adjustable rebound and preload) and a tubular steel chassis that holds up to the demands without any drama. Loaded with my 190 pounds and about 30 pounds of gear I never needed to even consider making suspension adjustments. Add to this the excellent nature of the shaft-drive system, which exhibited no jacking or negative behavior whatsoever. It just worked.
The reservations, mentioned above, have to do with the characteristics of the way the motor makes power. When ridden like a touring bike, the way most Guzzi riders will ride, the Stelvio is smooth and predictable with a nice feeling that helps melt away the miles. The pilot can let the revs dip below 3,000 when cruising as long as any acceleration is done slowly and easily. Grabbing a handful at this time and the engine will respond reluctantly.
When pushed hard the engine wants to be kept on the boil, at or above 4,200 rpm. For a torque monster it really doesn’t like to lug – not when gobs of throttle are applied. Under 4,200 revs, it will pull but shudders until the engine is on the pipe. Initially, I was disappointed in that I could not feast off the low-end torque while riding hard. I later learned, when tooling around DV, that it is quite happy at low revs, when droning along. This is a bit of a split personality but one grows accustomed to notching down a gear or three when a fast pace is desired. In its favor, this 1151cc V-twin is happy to work between 4,500-7,500 rpm all day long and feels more powerful than its claimed 105hp and 598 pound ready-to-ride weight might suggest.
On Trona Road, south of the Wild Rose turnoff we experienced about two miles of deep gravel in a construction zone. Perhaps it was my fault as a, basically, novice off-road rider but the bike was scary in the gravel and felt like the front end continually wanted to tuck at 20-25 mph. The sport bikes all passed me with no problem although their riders reported later that I was in the center of the road with the deepest gravel. Mia culpa.
The rider ergonomics were perfect for my size with a bolt-upright seating position. Reach to the bars and pegs was spot on and the adjustable windscreen was quite effective, especially judging by the fact that all the other riders had many more insect splats on their jackets and helmets than I did. Mostly big yellow ones.
The 2-piece seat is quite comfortable for all-day occupancy and with 8.5 gallons of fuel this is a requirement if you have any intention of burning a full tank before stopping. As it was, with all the accompanying sportbikes, I was always refueling half a tank or less since the fuel range is well over 300 miles.
Moto Guzzi didn’t scrimp on quality components either. Brembo brakes front and back do a fine job with excellent feel and no detrimental action when slightly abused. The alloy spoke wheels are tubeless and as a road rider, the last thing I want is a tire with a tube if I have a flat. This way I get the best of both worlds; the forgiving flex of spoke wheels without the inner tube hassles.
The fit and finish of the bike and components is typically excellent. The Stelvio looks good at any distance and there are no bad welds or imperfections to be seen. The side bags are sourced from Hepco & Becker and are high quality aluminum, mounted on solid frames. They are generous and there is also a package shelf behind the passenger seat that will allow one to strap on just about any kind of top case or roll imaginable to give a serious storage solution to almost any need.
The Stelvio is a fine ADV-style motorcycle capable to hauling the rider and gear to any planned destination. As a Moto Guzzi it has a certain styling and appeal unique unto itself and appreciated by most observers and riders. What Brits might call a “proper motorbike.”
2015 Moto Guzzi Stelvio 1200 NTX MSRP: $15,990