COAL: 1995 Suzuki DR650 – Self Taught Lessons

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I used to think motorcycles were stupid. I thought you had to have a death wish to ride them, they’re just inherently dangerous. Since my younger self had a tendency to push the limits of whatever poor vehicle I owned, I figured it was best if I avoided bikes entirely, even if they looked pretty fun. Soon after I had got my license a couple of students at my high school were kind enough to provide examples of what happens when you don’t respect the risk associated with riding a motorbike. They didn’t die but they were lucky they didn’t. However, a funny thing happened when I started riding a motorcycle, I mellowed out a bit and actually became a safer driver. Scaring the hell out of yourself will do that to a guy.



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I can still remember the moment I decided that I must have a motorcycle. I was on top of a mountain in the middle of winter. I had recently moved to BC and my new roommate worked for a snowmobile adventure company that took tourists up into the beautiful alpine basin you see above. On one of his days off, my roommate borrowed one of the work snowmobiles and dragged me up the mountain via tow rope and skis. Once on top of the mountain I was blown away at the scenery and vast open area that could be accessed with the snowmobile. Naturally, I figured that I needed a snowmobile pronto, I had to have access to the back country.

The problem was that I had little money and a replacement for my PedoVan would soon be necessary. How could I combine the need for daily transportation with something that could get me way out in the back country? Having done some ill-advised off-roading in the van I knew that I needed something smaller, that could supply the necessary traction for any kind of road conditions. Clearly, a dual sport dirt bike was the most rational solution and from that moment on I started saving up to buy one in the spring.

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The next minor obstacle was that I had never rode a motorbike before and did not have the license to do so. Fortunately, BC had (and still has) a rather relaxed approach to motorcycle training. Not only did I not need to take a course but I could teach myself. No training wheels for me! Well, I wasn’t supposed to be able to teach myself but was required to have someone who’s held a motorcycle license for 2 years supervise me, but there was no oversight. All I had to do was take a written test to get my learner’s permit, then I could ride with a bunch of restrictions, then take an easy parking lot test to get even less restrictions. Finally I had to do a full road test that got me my full license, which I passed without issues in the minimum allowable waiting period. The learning process was not without its hiccups however, I learned a few things the hard way.

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image via Only the first and last pics are of my actual bike

As spring approached, I was focused on the local online classified ads. I wanted a bike that could do everything; tight single track trails, highways, city driving and something that could handle at least a few bags of groceries and a case of beer. I figured a 400cc dual sport would be a fitting compromise; small enough for the trails but (just) big enough for the highway. I really didn’t care what brand either, Kawasaki’s seemed to have the best reputation but that was also reflected in their price. As it turned out, 400cc bikes were no where to be found so I settled on a Suzuki DR650 for $3400. It even came with a couple of soft saddle bags and a hard case which would facilitate grocery getting.

Yeah, it was a little big for a starter bike. Not just engine wise, I literally had to stretch to my tippy toes to stay upright at a stop, and I’m 6 feet tall. So I decided to teach myself slowly, starting off going back and forth in a parking lot until I got all the controls figured out and felt comfortable. I then graduated to a nearby gravel road while mastering the art of shifting and practicing some evasive maneuvers. On and on it went until I felt comfortable on the highways and back roads , but never moving “up” until I felt comfortable.


Things were going well, I was gaining confidence and starting to explore the many back country roads. Unfortunately, I had to explore on my own as my friends were far more interested in spending time at the beach or the bar. Riding alone in the empty wilderness was obviously not a great idea as it left me very vulnerable in the unlikely event of me having an accident out in the middle of nowhere. This point was hammered home the first time I inadvertently “rolled on” the throttle while on a narrow overgrown old road.

I had read about the dangers of losing one’s balance and rolling on the throttle but was still surprised the first time I did it. The bike just took on it’s own! No it didn’t, I had my hand too far over the throttle as I climbed a hill and pulled it way too far back as I lost my balance, which only made it worse. Lesson #1 learned, from them on I made sure my hand was in the right position on the throttle and I haven’t accidentally rolled on the throttle since.


Riding a motorcycle through a scenic area is a truly unparalleled driving experience. As Robert Pirsig noted in Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, riding a motorcycle is an active experience where one is a part of the scenery instead of a passive observer in a car. You really can see everything at once. In BC there really is too much to see as one can easily be distracted and not see danger right in front of them.

One of my first highway trips was a lap around the Golden triangle, which departs just 15 kms from my home. I was riding along admiring the scenery near Field, BC when a deer suddenly appeared 10 feet in front of me. Time transitioned into slow motion as I hit the brakes hard, lifting me up out of the seat, ready to launch myself over the stupid creature. Just as suddenly it darted across the road, I let off the brakes and landed back down on my seat. Holy crap, that could have been really bad. The adrenaline was pumping so hard I had to pull over for a few minutes to settle down. Lesson #2 learned; pay attention to the road!


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While this bike could do almost anything, it soon became apparent that it couldn’t do anything particularly well. The lack of a windshield and upright seating style made it uncomfortable on the highway, especially in strong winds. It’s size and 400 lb heft made it difficult to maneuver on small trails, I dropped it numerous times and it wasn’t easy to pick up. As a daily driver, it had just enough room for groceries or beer, you couldn’t pick them both up on the same trip. It’s 200 km range was tested numerous times on long back country roads, I had to switch to the reserve tank a few times but never actually ran out of gas. I would buy another beater to drive over the winter but this bike served me well over 3 summers.


By my third summer I had gotten pretty good at riding it and was probably pushing the envelope a little bit. I was riding down a previously unexplored road by myself, that was riddled with ditches cut into them to allow water across. I would slow down for them, ride through, then speed up again. One went completely unnoticed as I flew in at a considerable speed. I stayed on the bike into the ditch but did the flying superman once I hit the other side. I went straight and the bike went right. Once the dust settled, I was surprised to find that my only injuries were some road rash and minor bruising. The bike on the other hand had bent pegs and handlebars, gauges broken off and it wouldn’t start. I was about 20 kms from the main road and it dawned on me that there were three potential outcomes; fix the bike and go home, walk the long way home or spend the night with the bears and the cougars.

Long story short, I got the bike running after about 45 mins of messing around. It wasn’t running well but I made it home. That was my last solo adventure in the wilderness. Lesson #3 learned; don’t go into the back country alone!

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The bike was really beginning to show its age after the abuse I had heaped on it. It was time to fix it up and sell it. I soon discovered that not only were parts very expensive, they were also hard to find. The bike was only 14 years old but it was the last of the old models, with new Suzuki DRs coming out in 1996. Parts were obsolete and took a lot of digging to find. Lesson #4 learned, motorcycles parts are more expensive and more difficult to find compared to car parts.

In the end, I sold the bike for a little less than I paid for it, without taking into consideration the expense of fixing it up. While I once again learned things the hard way, it was certainly worth it as it has made me not only a better rider but a better car driver as well. Riding a bike gives you a different perspective on the road and makes you far more aware of other road users. But that’s not why I ride them. I ride them because they are a driving experience like no other.