The XT500 was a big hit in Europe, with Gilles Comte winning the 1977 Abidjan-Nice Rally, a predecessor to the Paris-Dakar Rally. Cyril Nevue took wins at the 1979 and 1980 Paris-Dakar Rally events on an XT500.
Capitalizing on the rally raid successes, the 1983 Yamaha Ténéré 600 made it to showroom floors, featuring a huge fuel tank—a rally motorcycle hallmark. By then, the design had advanced to a monoshock chassis and 595cc motor. In 1989, the liquid-cooled twin-cylinder Super Ténéré 750 was born, mixing the concepts of rally and adventure motorcycles. The same year, the Ténéré 660 became available, sporting a liquid-cooled single.
Although not available in the United States, the Ténéré 660 continued to evolve to European enthusiasts’ delight. 2010 brought the shaft-drive Super Ténéré 1200, aimed directly at the burgeoning ADV market, with a focus on pavement performance.
Still, it would take another factory race budget to enter it into an off-road race, as you would learn rather quickly. Off-road, the Super Ténéré 1200 is front-heavy and just plain heavy. Add a passenger and the panniers with your luggage, and it becomes even heavier, though better balanced.
On the street, it’s solid. You may get beat around in a mean side wind, but it keeps its line. The fairing actually works well in a headwind. While the Bridgestone Trail Wing tires work well on tarmac, if you plan to take it on the occasional fire road, get some knobby-ish treads. Ruts and cambered dirt roads are going to spook you. When fully loaded, choose some good ankle protection in case your foot gets stuck between a pannier and a hard place in the dirt.
The adventure-touring motorcycle has become popular in the last ten years or so. The manufactures have expanded the offerings to include singles—though BMW had them for years—and small twins, such as the Honda CB500X. In-between, there are several choices, including Yamaha’s own Ténéré 700. If street riding is more your scene, the 1200 is still the best option; weight isn’t much of a factor, and the power is welcome on high-speed rides.
I began my review with seven nearly nonstop hours in the saddle on California State Highway 99 from a mountain pass above Bakersfield north to Lake Almanor via Chico. The continuous hours on my derriere on the straight highway left it hurting.
However, once to Chico and switching to California Highway 32 (Deer Creek Hwy)—a nice winding route and climbing along the border between the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain Ranges—things started to get a bit easier. The 2020 Yamaha Super Ténéré 1200 I was riding I had the hard plastic-and-metal Side Case panniers ($998/pair, plus $250 Side Case Mount Kit) loaded with a minimum of clothes. I had a bag across the two and mounted on the rear rack for easy access to sunglasses, maps, and water.
I spend a couple days with a friend on his COVID-19 layoff enjoying his Airbnb rental and fishing from his beloved pontoon boat on Lake Almanor, visiting Chester (pop. 2200) for grub and a drive up to the locked gates of Lassen Volcanic National Park.
For my ride home, I headed south on California Highway 89 into the Plumas National Forest. That took me through the quaint town of Quincy (pop. 1700). I stopped to take pictures and, with the pandemic, that was all I was going to do.
The Super Ténéré 1200 and Highway 89 are made for each other. From Lake Almanor to Topaz Lake at U.S. Route 395 in Nevada is over 200 miles of twisting roads. In addition to the Plumas National Forest, it goes through the Tahoe and El Dorado National Forests. A scenic highlight is the ride along the west side of Lake Tahoe.
My day ride continues on 395 through Bridgeport, Lee Vining, past Mammoth Mountain, and back down to lower elevations of Bishop and Lone Pine with a stop at Manzanar War Relocation Center. At Inyokern, I picked up California Highways 14 and 58 for the final segment to Tehachapi.
My second ride on the 2020 Yamaha Super Ténéré 1200 was to meet an old friend in Ely, who is fond of his European heritage and its machines.
I spent a day riding a loop from Ely, Nevada to Wheeler Peak in the Great Basin National Park. This is an area I have never explored. Nevada is strewn with mountain ranges and valleys one after another. There are long stretches of straight highway and around foothills over mountain passes.
At 13,159 feet above sea level, Wheeler Peak is the tallest independent mountain wholly in Nevada. After lunch at Kerouac’s Restaurant & Bar in Baker, just east of the park, I took a dead-end ride on Nevada State Route 488 up to over 10,000 feet and back down. You view Utah from this side of that valley.
The long stretches are comfortable on the Super Ténéré 1200, with complete control of suspension settings on-the-fly from the handlebar. The parallel-twin is smooth, vibrationless. The power to pass is there when needed. I didn’t need the panniers attached for this day, but I left them on, as they aren’t a burden.
My last day-trip was again from my home at elevation 4200 feet in Tehachapi to Lake Isabella in the Sequoia National Forest. The ride begins across Tehachapi valley down to overlook the historic Tehachapi Loop. If a train is 4000-feet long or more, it will pass 77-feet over itself.
From there is Keene, home of the César E. Chávez National Monument. After a short section of busy California Highway 58, I exited at Caliente, a community of 1000 dispersed people. Cattle roam in portions of this ride along the road, and caution is needed on Caliente Creek Road. However, speed is kept slow in those windy sections, and the Super Ténéré is equipped with ABS.
The weight of the Super Ténéré 1200 is felt in the dirt when traversing rutted and curvy fire roads. It won’t feel comfortable, and it will be slow going. However, it will make it just fine. Deep sand and gravel are different stories; this is where tires such as Continental Twinduro TKC 80s would be helpful.
After passing by Lake Isabella, I took the narrow, twisting back roads through California’s cattle country to Greenhorn Summit (elev. 8295 feet). From there, Rancheria Road—a collection of USFS paved and unpaved roads—send me south towards Bakersfield. From there, Highway 58 takes me back home quickly.
After 2000 miles or so in the saddle, I have grown to love the 2020 Yamaha Super Ténéré 1200 and what it offers. The shaft drive, adjustable fairing, traction control, and suspension electronics provide the newest technology for a safe and enjoyable ride. It’s a good-looking bike with a great history. Although it is not a rocket, the 1200 is economical on fuel, quiet, and capable of adding up the miles.
If I were to enter the Dakar Rally, it wouldn’t be on the Super Ténéré—dirt roads are manageable, but too slow-going. However, I wouldn’t ride 2000 miles on the pavement on a Dakar racer. Compromises can be rude, though we sometimes must make them. Ridden in its element, the 2020 Yamaha Super Ténéré 1200 ES is a smooth, steady stead for your adventure touring desires.
Photography by Damon Powell
2020 Yamaha Super Ténéré 1200 ES Specs
- Type: Crossplane crankshaft parallel twin
- Displacement: 1199cc
- Bore x stroke: 98.0 x 79.5mm
- Compression ratio: 11.0:1
- Valvetrain: DOHC, 4vpc
- Transmission: 6-speed
- Final drive: Shaft
- Frame: Double-cradle steel-tube
- Front suspension; travel: Fully electronically adjustable 43mm inverted fork; 7.5 inches
- Rear suspension; travel; Link-assisted, electronically adjustable spring-preload and rebound-damping shock; 7.5 inches
- Wheels: Wire-spoke
- Front tire: 110/80 x 19; Bridgestone Battle Wing BW501
- Rear tire: 150/70 x 17; Bridgestone Battle Wing BW502
- Front brakes: 310mm discs
- Rear brake: 282mm disc
- ABS: Standard w/ linked braking
- Wheelbase: 60.6 inches
- Rake: 28.0 degrees
- Seat height: 33.3 or 34.3 inches
- Fuel capacity: 6.1 gallons
- Estimated fuel consumption: 43 mpg
- Curb weight: 584 pounds (sans luggage)
- Color: Ceramic Ice