I had no idea what I wanted in my first motorcycle. It was early 2014 and I had found myself a good consistent job working at a flexographic label factory three days a week. Paid for forty hours and four days off was a pretty nice gig for a couple years, a schedule that would allow me all sorts of time to acquaint myself with my newfound interest in riding. I can’t recall anything in my childhood that drew me to motorcycles. It wasn’t some decades-long yearning or fascination, like some children might have with trains or firetrucks.
Hell, I was afraid of them. My cousin Cory had a dirt-bike before he was a teenager and I refused to try it out. It was many years later into my late 20s that I could begin to picture myself on two wheels with a tank of gas between my legs. My cousin Chris (who I’ve shared the Alaska trip with back in 2016) had purchased a BMW F650GS and taken it with him on the road in the back of his tractor-trailer in true wanderlust fashion. Able to access the roads and trails his truck obviously couldn’t, it was an offering of motorcycle I’d never seen before: dual-sport. Capable of racking up highway miles, yet comfortable enough off the gravel turn into some off-road exploration, BMW’s GS series would eventually make much more sense to me in the coming years.
I found the bike visually appealing and the utility of it interesting, but it wasn’t until later that year while in college I would get a sense of the joy of riding. “Please please please will you come for a ride with me?” my classmate and pseudo-girlfriend begged of me. A smirk and an eyeroll formed on my face where they’re usually not seen together, not unlike a politician and a clear conscience. I’m not going to ride on the back of a girl’s motorcycle! No way!
After a couple miles on her Ninja 250, we arrived back to where we started and she asks me what I thought. “Well, I want one now!” and that little story could serve as pure embarrassment, if it were true. Okay, yes, it did happen, and I couldn’t care less what anyone thinks, because the experience lead to a plethora of truly amazing experiences in the following years. When it was nearing time to purchase, a lot of my options tended to be below $1200 – something that looked decent for a starting bike, like a Honda Sabre V65, nothing bulky like a cruiser/bagger and twisted handlebars. Nothing sporty like a Ninja or GSXR, just something with “flat” bars and reliable. Chris pushed me towards the adventure stylings such as the Suzuki DR650, BMW’s GS or Kawasaki’s KLR650. When it came time to ticking off all the requirements I had (ease of maintenance, overall cost, reliability), the KLR650 won out ahead once we found a Craigslist ad for a 1997 with around 20,000 miles on the engine. The owner, followed by his wife, drove up to me for a couple hours for the test ride — of which I handed my cousin Jesse the keys, since he had riding experience. After chatting with the seller awhile about the KLR, Jesse came back and gave it his seal of approval. Nothing was mechanically wrong with it. It rode straight and true and presented no red flags. $1900 out of my pocket a moment later, I was it’s third owner. Now I had to setup the Motorcycle Safety Foundation riding course to get my permit and license.
It’s these qualities that have tenured it’s reputation for being simply bulletproof and beloved amongst the adventure riding communities across the globe.
The years between then and my 2016 Alaska trip would be too much of standard-fluff, so there’s little purpose reminiscing upon that. What I can look back upon, though, are general sentiments that other KLR650 riders have shared over the two generations released of the bike. 1987-2007 being the first generation, and 2008-2018 being the second generation. The second generation of KLRs received mostly cosmetic changes, but otherwise the standard-fare platform that Kawasaki had utilized since the 80s. It was a design that had no requirement to level with the playing field. Down to it’s last model release year of 2018, the KLR was still a single-cylinder 650cc, carbureted, water-cooled dual-sport with cable clutch, brakes and throttle. These pigs (as affectionately named by KLR communities across the world due to it’s top-heavy weight and tall seat height that lumbered along more than rocketed) were so simple to work on, I was personally able to crack open the engine and replace the Balancer Chain Adjuster Lever (aka “doohickey”) myself with a Clymer manual and Youtube. I had no mechanical experience prior to that aside from maybe a tire change or brake bleeding, and a few left over bolts on the garage floor later confirmed this.
Often billed as “the Jeep” of motorcycles for it’s ability to do everything broadly but not supremely in one area, KLRs have traveled the world over no doubt in the millions of miles cumulatively. With routine oil changes and chain maintenance, my ’97 KLR fared to Alaska and back to Wisconsin in under 11,000 miles with no major issues aside from the speedometer dying. This was likely to the bike’s age and that the speedometer is cable driven down to the front wheel hub. Engine-wise, however, it would fire up the first time, often in colder temperatures in the late fall of 15-25F. If the roads were absent of ice from rain and it started, it meant I rode to work. With tens-of-pounds of weight on the back, it was surprisingly nimble dipping into the corners of Glacier National Park, traversing up and through rocky and rutted terrain of Cody, Wyoming or off the beaten path in South Dakota, despite it’s 21″ front wheel. Hours on slab highway, it would become fatiguing droning on at 80-90 MPH with the single’s vibration traveling up the bars into my hands, and the engine in the higher rev-ranges. Not once did it signal any complaint or give up, it just kept going.
It’s these qualities that have tenured it’s reputation for being simply bulletproof and beloved amongst the adventure riding communities across the globe. It won’t win awards or drop panties, but it will bring fun and utility on a budget to the adventure and exploration minded rider yearning to escape traffic. It is without a doubt that for years and decades, the KLR650 will continue to be a viable option to new riders, and those who recognize a valuable ride with it’s merit coated quirks. The end of Kawasaki’s 31 year long run is not without some uncomfortable squirming and concerns in the KLR650 communities, with many riders wondering what Kawasaki will bestow upon them in the form of a replacement.
Surely fuel-injection would be a prerequisite due to recent emissions-based policies around the globe, though some riders simply have no desire for the conveniences of “modern” fuel-injection. These particular riders might espouse “from my cold, dead hands!” if Kawasaki releases them of their treasured carburetors. Cue an eyeroll and cry me a river, because forward from here could be a true spiritual-successor to the KLR. Kawasaki didn’t tease or release any KLR650 replacements at it’s 2018 EICMA show, which some interpret as an ouija board might spell “doomed”. For the brand loyalists, there really is nothing on offer like the KLR650, and I consider that a good move for the time being. Give them time to study the market, which is flooding with all sorts of adventure bike releases lately. Kawasaki doesn’t need to compete against the likes of KTM or BMW or Yamaha, because aside from perhaps Suzuki’s DR-650, there hasn’t been a direct KLR650 competitor. Perhaps it leaves an opportunity for Kawasaki to use the KLR’s consistent, rock-solid history as a motivation towards something even better, but every bit as familiar and affordable. Until then, there’s no shortage of parts and rideable KLRs to keep those riders in the pack.