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ADV NewsRiders Who Choose Old Motorcycles Over New For Traveling The World

Riders Who Choose Old Motorcycles Over New For Traveling The World

These RTW riders buck the trend to take a ride back in time with classic machines.

Published on 03.23.2023
Riding the world on an old motorcycle
Photo: Gianluca Alessi

With so many exciting new adventure bike models coming out each year, it seems the motorcycle industry has most of us convinced we need a new Tenere 700, a Norden, or a Ducati Desert-X for round-the-world adventures. However, plenty of RTW riders are out there traveling the world on old – or even vintage – motorcycles.

From Klaus Ulvestad who circumnavigated the world on a 1937 Nimbus sidecar to Chloe Jones traveling Central Asia on her 1986 Honda C90 and Fabian Zuppinger traveling the globe on a 1972 Royal Enfield Bullet, there’s no shortage of world riders sticking to older, simpler machines.


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Why? Are older bikes more resilient and easier to maintain on the road, is it purely sentimental, or perhaps it’s as simple as setting out to travel on the bike you currently own? We spoke with several RTW riders to figure out why older bikes are still so prevalent when it comes to long-distance adventure motorcycling.

Tormod Amlien and Klaus Ulvestad, 1937-1938 Nimbus sidecars

Riding the world on an old motorcycle
Photo: Klaus Ulvestad

Norwegians Tormod Amlien and Klaus Ulvestad completed a two-year round-the-world journey of over 75,000 km on 1937 and 1938 Nimbus sidecars. Between 2009 and 2011, Tormod and Klaus covered Europe, Mongolia, Russia, South and North America, and the African continent before heading back home. From a cracked engine block in Peru to getting arrested in Egypt amidst the Arab Spring protests, the duo’s journey was filled with adventure – but that was the plan right from the start.

Riding the world on an old motorcycle
Photo: Klaus Ulvestad

“When I came up with the idea to ride motorcycles around the world, I wanted a challenge. Even my mom could ride a BMW GS around the world, so I wanted something a bit more demanding than that.  I’ve been riding bikes since 1982 and I’ve always loved vintage motorcycles, so we settled on the Nimbus. Beforehand, I’d only traveled Europe by motorcycle, so the idea of a RTW trip on those bikes was crazy…and that’s why I wanted to do it,” Klaus remembers.

Riding the world on an old motorcycle
Photo: Klaus Ulvestad

Before setting off, the duo completely refurbished both motorcycles and customized the sidecars and the luggage boxes to be able to carry enough spare parts and tools. Klaus explains he was well aware that parts for a Danish-made Nimbus would be hard to come by along the road but, being knowledgeable about motorcycle mechanics, the traveler expected to fix most issues on his own. In addition to riding the Nimbus motorcycles, the adventurers chose not to use GPS for navigation and not to have a strict schedule. “We just wanted to go and see what happens. Some days, we’d cover 500 kilometers, sometimes 0 – those were the breakdown days – essentially, the bikes determined our speed and our daily miles,” Klaus shares.

Riding the world on an old motorcycle
Photo: Klaus Ulvestad

The motorcycles did break down a lot along the route: both riders experienced issues with the engines, cracked frames, broken sidecar frames, and just about everything in between. However, being able to fix most issues themselves, the riders would only need to find a local welder from time to time, and with the help of locals and people they met on the road, the adventure continued. The riders traveled both paved and off-road routes, and shared that Mongolia was especially challenging due to the rough terrain and in terms of navigation as road signs were few and far between.

Riding the world on an old motorcycle
Photo: Klaus Ulvestad
Riding the world on an old motorcycle
Photo: Klaus Ulvestad

Despite the frequent breakdowns and challenges, the duo completed their journey in 2011 – and Klaus is already plotting his next adventure. “I’d love to continue traveling and revisit the places and people from our last trip, but I think I’d probably take the challenge down a notch or two and wouldn’t ride the Nimbus again. Instead, I’d take my 1996 Dnepr 650,” Klaus smiles.

Gianluca Alessi, 1994 Yamaha XTZ 660 Ténéré

Riding the world on an old motorcycle
Photo: Gianluca Alessi

Italian Gianluca Alessi left for his RTW trip last summer riding his 1994 Yamaha XTZ 660 Ténéré across the Balkans, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal before shipping the bike by a cargo vessel from Mumbai to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Currently, Gianluca is in Malaysia planning to explore Southeast Asia and ship the motorcycle to Australia for the next leg of the journey.

Gianluca explains that his XTZ 660 is heavily modified. “Being an artisan, I’ve created and built the tank, fairings, dashboard instruments, and accessories but kept the base of the bike – I think the old, single-cylinder, carbureted, and water-cooled Tenere is perfect. Before leaving, I did a full restoration of the engine, replaced the rear shock, customized the front forks, refurbished the wheels with new spokes, and replaced the most worn parts,”, Gianluca says.

Riding the world on an old motorcycle
Photo: Gianluca Alessi

According to the rider, he chose the XTZ because it’s a great compromise for on-road and off-road riding, has a reliable engine, weighs less than two-cylinder motorcycles, has a strong chassis and very basic electronics which makes it resilient and easy to fix.

Riding the world on an old motorcycle
Photo: Gianluca Alessi

Gianluca explains he hasn’t experienced any issues with the bike except for the normal wear and tear. As he’s able to maintain and repair the motorcycle himself and carries tools and spares, Gianluca is well-prepared. “I’m hoping to spend five to six years on the road – there’s no time limit, I just love to explore and take odd jobs along the way so that I keep traveling. The bike hasn’t failed me yet, although prep and being able to fix most things myself is important,”, the rider explains.

Fabian Zuppinger, 1972 Royal Enfield Bullet

Riding the world on an old motorcycle
Photo: Fabian Zuppinger

Swiss Fabian Zuppinger has been traveling the world since 2016 riding a modified 1972 Royal Enfield Bullet. The motorcycle has a 500CC Hatz diesel engine, no carburetor, and no ignition, and its seat and handlebars have been modified for ergonomics. Fabian has ridden the Bullet from Switzerland to Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Southeast Asia, then shipped the motorcycle to South America and continued across Central and North America. As he was traveling back South toward Mexico, the COVID pandemic began, and Fabian made it to Costa Rica before the borders closed down. Having spent eight months there, Fabian resumed his ride looping to Dead Horse in Alaska and Tuktoyak in Canada before heading to Central America again.

Riding the world on an old motorcycle
Photo: Fabian Zuppinger

“I chose this bike because it’s economical and cheap; the engine runs without electric ignition, and you can fix the Bullet with a hammer on the side of the road. I can repair most things myself, and during my seven years on the road, the only bigger issue I had was a broken cylinder somewhere in Ecuador. I do wish I’d modified the suspension, though, as I love riding off-road,”, Fabian shares. He says the Bullet tends to stand out wherever he goes, eliciting smiles and encouraging curious locals to start conversations.

Chloe Jones, 1986 Honda C90

Riding the world on an old motorcycle
Photo: Chloe Jones

Chloe Jones is currently on the road traveling from the UK to Tajikistan on her 1986 Honda C90. The bike is mostly stock except for aftermarket footpegs and heated grips as Chloe believes adventure can be had on any budget and any bike.

“I love how versatile and robust these little bikes are. They’re also iconic – I meet so many people on the road who aren’t riders but recognize the C90, and it’s great to exchange stories and adventures along the way,”, Chloe shares.

Riding the world on an old motorcycle
Photo: Chloe Jones

So far, the only issues she’d experienced was one flat tire, a leaking carb, and heated grips that had stopped working. The C90 is easy to maintain and repair, and Chloe carries a full tool bag and spare parts to make sure she can keep the little bike running. Her daily distances vary from zero to about 280 km, but the traveler explains she’s in no rush, preferring instead to explore off-road trails and take it day by day.

“This trip had been my dream for so long, but long-distance motorcycle trips are often sold online as adventures with large, top-of-the-range motorbikes and gear. I’m recording my journey to hopefully inspire people to have adventures with whatever they can make work. I couldn’t afford any other bike without committing to a very long work contract. Besides, I’m having a blast on the C90!”, Chloe says.

Riding the world on an old motorcycle
Photo: Chloe Jones

While she doesn’t have a strictly planned route, Chloe says it’s Tajikistan or bust – no matter how long it takes, the adventurer is prepared to keep traveling until she reaches Central Asia or runs out of funds.

“I’m not rushing this journey… well, I couldn’t even if I wanted to with a top speed of 70 k/m downhill. I am on the road until I make it, run out of money, or break down. However, I’m quietly confident even if I blow up the engine I will find a way to get it fixed,” Chloe explains.

Maxime Berberat, Honda Dominator 1988

Riding the world on an old motorcycle
Photo: Maxime Berberat

Swiss rider Maxime Berberat has been riding bikes since the age of sixteen, and adventure travel was always in his sights. Last spring, Maxime rode his 1988 Honda Dominator from Switzerland to Malaysia traveling across Europe, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal before shipping the bike to Malaysia, the distance of his journey totaling 40,000 kilometers. According to Maxime, the Dominator held up well.

“I bought this bike specifically for the trip because I’d owned one before. I knew the Dominator well, and I knew I could maintain and fix it on the road if need be,” Maxime shares. The rider believes older motorcycles are cheaper, and more importantly, they’re simpler machines to repair should something go wrong – there’s no need for expensive tech to diagnose and fix problems, especially as in the more remote parts of the world, official BMW or Yamaha dealers are much harder to find.

Riding the world on an old motorcycle
Photo: Maxime Berberat

Maxime says he’s very happy to have completed his journey on the Dominator: while he experienced some minor issues every overlander has to deal with, such as flat tires or worn-out spark plugs, overall, the bike did the job well. He modified the motorcycle slightly before leaving, installing crash bars, a luggage rack, a rear brake pedal extension, wider footpegs, and a new shock. Other than that, the bike was stock, although Maxime made sure to carry all the spares he might need on the road like oil filters, brake pads, levers, tire tubes, and tools.

“I chose this bike for practical reasons, although I admit it was a bit of a statement too, an attempt to show that you can travel on anything and don’t need all the newest tech, LCD screens, and the like. However, to travel on an older bike, you do need some basic mechanical skills. I love working on bikes – it’s my hobby – so I was almost looking for bike issues so I could fix them. I did all my own repairs, oil changes, and so on, and I think it’s really important to prepare an older bike well. It also helps to know which parts are prone to wear and keep an eye on them. If you’re not mechanically minded, at least make sure the bike is in good shape before you leave and have it maintained by garages along the road. Some issues are to be expected, but if your bike starts falling apart as soon as you leave, that’s just no fun,” Maxime shares.

Riding the world on an old motorcycle
Photo: Maxime Berberat

Are older bikes a better choice for a round-the-world journey? That’s up for debate, and one common pattern among riders on pre-2000’s bikes seems to be the mechanical know-how so that any potential issues could be fixed roadside. On the other hand, older bikes are indeed cheaper, more economical, and simpler to maintain, especially if you’re traversing the more far-flung places in the world. One thing’s for sure – older bikes may not have the newest tech and farkles, but they do inspire a special bond and a unique adventure.

Author: Egle Gerulaityte

Riding around the world extra slowly and not taking it too seriously, Egle is always on the lookout for interesting stories. Editor of the Women ADV Riders magazine, she focuses on ordinary people doing extraordinary things and hopes to bring travel inspiration to all two-wheeled maniacs out there.

Author: Egle Gerulaityte
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archbishopsmith
archbishopsmith
March 23, 2023 12:04 pm

I circled Australia on a 1965 Ducati 250 bitsa slapped together by a “restorer” who ripped me off. He didn’t think people actually ride his restored bikes more than to the coffee shop. It broke down the first time 2 hours after I got it. Then it would break about once a day, but almost never bad enough to strand me. Not even when the tank split pouring fuel down my leg as I was in a bush fire. Fun times! I met almost single Ducati mechanic in Australia. It was a lot of fun and I think about beautiful Australia and their great citizens almost every day. I finally blew it up while doing the South Island in New Zealand (which was my fault that time). Then I had problems getting it into India, so I smuggled an Enfield 350 from Kathmandu and rode as far south as you can in India. I love the idea of doing this on a diesel Enfield. I looked for one of those, but no luck.

Bob
Bob
March 23, 2023 12:59 pm

Is your name Dave and are you associated with Gornzilla? I seem to remember following your trip and sent you some gas money on several occasions.

James Heywood
James Heywood
March 23, 2023 3:18 pm
Reply to  Bob

Having only ridden the western US solo on .a xr650l and kz450 ( shorter hard stuff) I would be REAL nervous on a high tech bike far from civilization not to mention a RTW type trip
These new high tech rigs are also heavier and highly electrical which would seem counter intuitive to the tasks at hand on a long journey to foreign places. As I recall, the author has ridden ALL over on a DR650 without big problems or big expenses related to the bike. Great article!

Bob
Bob
March 23, 2023 1:16 pm

Great story, Egle. Nice work bringing these stories alive for us. How about a story from you about your resto-mod. 🙂

SteveO
SteveO
March 23, 2023 8:05 pm

Inspirational stories. If I could ever pull it off, it would be an early carbureted KLR650. I had one from the original owner that was rode hard, even Enduro raced and I put an additional 50k on after buying. Regret selling it.

rodbuilder
rodbuilder
March 24, 2023 7:58 am

Riding a 1995 Yamaha XT750 Super Tenere. Odometer reads 93K. It’s heart is still beating strong. It’s life began in Switzerland and migrated to North America.
One can’t ask for a better companion. No worries of ride by wire faults !

Klr650
Klr650
March 24, 2023 9:36 am

I got a 2007 klr 650 with 3200 miles ill be selling at the end of the month. $2999

Richard Goacher
Richard Goacher
March 31, 2023 3:52 am

Great article Egle! Also emphasizing the need for less tech oriented motos for RTW and other big rides! Keep up the good work!

David Morrison
David Morrison
March 31, 2023 7:03 am

What about Pedro Mota and his ’90’s Trans Alps? Is the bike too new for this artcle?…https://www.youtube.com/@iPedroMota

J. Braun
J. Braun
March 31, 2023 11:04 am

Just got back from another trip on my ’95 RD07A Africa Twin. I looked at the new version and decided that there was too much to break or go wrong.
Once stuck in a Mexican village I was able to fix it with the help of a local mechanic. Not happening with all that new electronic stuff.
Besides, when I get to the top of a hill or bottom of a canyon I have the satisfaction of knowing that I did it and not some robotic algorithm!

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