Jean Richer never thought he would give up road motorcycling, even though his long-time biking friend had bought an off-road-ready BMW in 2016.
“I thought it was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen in my life, and I thought he was goofy for doing that,” said Richer, who is in his early 50s and owns a sales and marketing agency, as he retold the story beside his friend Karl Boivin, of Montreal. The two have been motorcycling together for 36 years.
But Richer’s attitude quickly shifted in 2019 after Boivin, a sales director at 3M, convinced his friend to take his BMW R 1200 GS Adventure bike for a ride.
“I still thought it was ugly, but I was impressed by the manoeuvrability,” said Richer, who moved from Montreal to Hockley Valley, Ont., three years ago. In 2021, he signed up for a two-day course on how to handle the hulking BMW, which weighs about 270 kilograms with a full tank of fuel.
“I must’ve dropped it 20 times,” Richer said with a laugh. “But they’re unkillable. Four days later, I went to my dealer and bought the bike right there.”
Adventure riding, he said, has renewed his love of motorcycling. His off-road exploits include tours of Northern Ontario logging roads and even a fresh look at the gravel paths near his farm about an hour northwest of Toronto. One of the biggest appeals is being away from cars.
“I feel like I’m 16 again,” he said. “It’s opened my eyes to a whole new world.”
Richer and Boivin were among 31 adventure motorcyclists who joined an organized tour of the rough terrain and logging roads that surround Sun Peaks Resort in a mountainous region of British Columbia about 400 kilometres northeast of Vancouver.
They were riding in a six-day event called ADV-X, organized by BMW Motorrad Canada and Enduro Park Canada, a motorcycle training company based just north of Victoria. The event, in its first year, was only open to owners of BMW’s 1200 and 1250 GS models. I was one of two journalists who also participated.
Adventure riding is to road motorcycling what sky diving is to sitting in a passenger jet. It is rugged trips along rutted and dusty logging roads, clambering up butt-clenchingly steep tracks with loose rocks and sharp switchbacks. It’s splashing through streams, navigating seven-metre drops, balancing on your footpegs as you look over your shoulder at steep drop-offs with – of course – no guardrails. It is knowing your safety is almost entirely in your own hands. (Indeed, this trip was marked by two minor injuries when riders lost control and ran off the paths.)
It is also a journey to stunning mountain lakes and sweeping vistas that no regular tourist will ever see. Cattle graze on many of these slopes and often run onto the road when startled. Deer are common and black bears make cameos.
As a newbie to the 1250 GS, I faced the steep learning curve many first-timers do. Under the tutelage of our guide and certified instructor, David Parker of Regina, over a few days I learned how to use my footpegs to steer, discovered the art of feathering the clutch to enhance traction, and even mastered the stop without flopping over under the bike’s sheer mass.
British Columbia has a massive amount of terrain to explore on an adventure bike. The B.C. government states there are 620,000 km of “resource roads” – logging roads – across the province. A few trips down these roads reveal the eye-popping scale of the logging industry in the province.
Adventure motorcycling, however, is more than simply ripping around backcountry roads. Adventure riders want a motorcycle that will handle rough terrain, but also carry all their gear as they snake along a paved highway at 120 km/h. The idea, they say, is to go anywhere.
“The exploration aspect is in us all, at sort of a primal level,” said Ryan Austin, a retired police officer and founder of Enduro Park Canada. “Out here, there is much you can really get into.”
Like many others, Parker, the instructor, rode sport bikes for years but bought an adventure motorcycle after getting more curious about Saskatchewan’s gravel roads. “I needed a Swiss Army Knife bike,” he said, and chose the BMW.
Parker said the appeal of adventure biking is being able to shape any trip the way you want.
“I like checking a map out and putting a finger down and saying, ‘I want to go there.’”
It’s a desire that seems to be growing. Wyoming-based Expert Market Research forecasts the global adventure motorcycle market will expand by 8.7 per cent annually over the next five years, driven by increased participation in adventure activities, long-distance travel and a rising number of events organized by motorcycle manufacturers. Advances in technology and an increase in disposable income are also behind the trend, the company says. It sees growth in North America, Europe and Asia.
British motorbike insurance firm the Bike Insurer reports that quotes for adventure motorcycles rose by 118 per cent over the decade to 2018 as more models entered the market. Riders can now choose from at least 14 adventure models, including those from BMW, Ducati, Honda, KTM, Triumph and Yamaha.
Although adventure motorcycling appears to be having a moment, its roots reach back to the 1980s, when BMW started working on go-anywhere motorcycles. The trend got a big boost in 2004, when Scottish actor Ewan McGregor and his friend Charley Boorman released Long Way Round, the first of several documentary series they made about their adventure travels. The bikes they rode were precursors to BMW’s 1250 GSs.
It’s part of a larger adventure travel trend, say experts, who attribute the shift to the sense of freedom people craved as COVID-19 lockdowns ended, and also the reach of social media influencers who are shunning areas overrun with tourists in favour of more remote and less-travelled regions.
It’s also a novel way for couples to adventure together, said Tanya Cassels, the only female participant at the ADV-X event. She and her husband Cameron Cassels live in Coldstream, B.C., a community adjacent to Vernon.
Tanya Cassels said she rode small motorbikes as a child in Stettler, Alta., but gave it up until she turned 50 and wanted to travel by motorbike with her husband. She suggested they sign up for the ADV-X event in part to get over the intimidating feeling of riding off-road.
“This came up, and I said, ‘Let’s push ourselves,’” said Tanya. “I think we were both pretty nervous.”
After they both completed the challenging runs the other participants did, they were feeling pretty proud of themselves – and each other.
Ryan Austin, the Enduro Park founder, said he plans on making this ride an annual event to encourage even more people to try adventure riding.
“One of the things about bikes that’s cool – you’re more in the environment than you are in a vehicle,” he said. “The sights, the smells – everything. Being off-road, that’s amplified.”
The writer was a guest of BMW. Content was not subject to approval.