GS500R Overlander – First Ride

A little more than three years after I bought it, my GS-R got wheeled out of a Derbyshire hilltop hangar to prepare for it’s maiden flight – a run of a few hundred miles to far northern Scotland where development is set to continue.

Since my last brief ride round the lanes, the suspension got lowered a bit, the stands trimmed to fit and the pipe levelled off to make room for a rack and low/forward luggage, when that day comes.

As I pulled on my clobber Matt and Andy wired in a cig socket (left) to run a satnav, and with that done I set off into the rain to see how far I’d get that night.

There were small problems of course. The only way to securely load my gear was to pile most of it on the back – some 20kg right off the back; anathema to good loading and balanced handling. The GS is especially bad as it has a short back; I sit only just in front of the back axle. If I took my hands off the bars they flapped like a flag in the breeze. Then there was the limp back brake. As mentioned, I suspect it’s down to a too large GS master cylinder working the DR650 calliper so the ‘hydraulic advantage’ is cocked up (well explained here). Even extreme pedal pressure won’t lock the wheel. And besides that, the bike was long unused and untested – the new front end, wheels, the chain run and so on. With a lot of scope for something to go wrong, I initially kept off the motorways to simplify a recovery or roadside repair.

I splashed my way through the grim industrial conurbations between Sheffield and Leeds and spent the night at a mate’s in Shipley, trying to revive my Garmin Nuvi which either got wet or died of its own accord. Next day promised to be brighter before the next apocalyptic weather event (due to the displaced jet stream) bore down onto the UK. So I set off early to cross the Pennines I knew well as a walker, scooting up the A65 across the Yorkshire Dales before taking the A683 moorland backroad (left) to Kirkby Stephen for a snack in the Market Square (right). I knew this bench well too, having last sat on it at the end of a long day’s walk from Shap on the Coast to Coast path. The sun was out, but that was to be the last I’d see of it for another 10 hours.

I followed the A66 onto the M6 where the Suzuki held its own, stable enough up to around 80. I’d heard Halfords were doing specials on satnavs, but in the Carlisle branch there were no worthwhile deals. However, filling up gave here me a nice surprise: 176 miles on just 11.1 litres. That’s 25.35 kpl or 71.5 mpg (nearly 60US) – as good as the modern, efi BMW I rode last March at about the same speeds. Not bad at all. With the GS’s 20-litre tank that’s 500 clicks or 300 miles to a tank. The rest of the ride got occasionally faster and fuel economy dipped by around 10%.

The weather was supposed to improve as I got further north but they got that wrong, and then I made a right mess of getting across Glasgow. I should have gone under and up the left side for Dumbarton and Loch Lomond, but with only the compass on the Voyager and not enough signs, I ploughed on northward and after an interlude in some suburbs, went back in and up on the A81 signed to Loch Lomond – but the wrong side.

Still, there was more daylight than I had energy to keep riding, so I stayed on the A81 over Dukes Pass (left). ‘It’s  a bikers’ road’ said the green-haired girl at the servo in Aberfoyle – but not in the rain with a balcony hanging off the back of your GS5. Like everywhere else, she had no map for me but said turn left at Callander, by which time I was back on roads I knew; the way to Glencoe and the Highlands.

Five pm. Nine hours on the road, I should have been starving and wilting, but was feeling OK. Fish and chips is one of the most over-rated Brit dishes, but I tell you what, a haddock supper at the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum with their home-made tartare sauce might be a bit skimpy and pricey, but was just about the best I’ve ever eaten.

From here it was about another 200 miles – probably four hours with another fuel and snack break. Up over lonely Rannoch Moor, a tempting nod towards the cosy Kingshouse Hotel and down through the famous valley of Glencoe (right). In and out of Fort William – Scotland’s ugly but functional outdoor adventure capital, and then a route I’d not done for 30 years, up the side of Loch Ness.

By now roads were drying out and the ill-balanced GS and I had melded into one amorphous lump. You know that feeling at the end of a long day’s immersion on a bike; you’re shagged out but riding intuitively while the bike itself is warmed through and on song. But you’re not a machine and eventually you’ll get too tired to concentrate, so I pulled into a village servo for a chocolate injection and took a quick sit on a German bloke’s knee-high Harley Night Rod (top left) with a back tyre three times wider than mine.
On my near empty stomach the Star Bar the trick. I perked up and rode away from the uninspiring east coast farmland, west over the moors and down to the Hebridean shore. A moment’s rest on Ullapool waterfront to wipe the bug-splattered visor against the setting sun, followed by another hour’s ride into the mountains of Assynt and touchdown.

Five hundred and fifty miles or nearly 900km in 14 hours, with about 12 hours of actual riding rarely over 60mph. Nineteen hours of daylight helps of course, but this wasn’t like crossing the Montana prairie. I’ve not ridden anywhere near that far in the UK before, but was surprised to arrive with no single source of discomfort, be it back, butt, neck or knees.
That suggests that the GS is pretty comfortable overall, even tensed up riding an unfamiliar bike in wet weather. As on any bike, the over high footrests can be dealt with by stretching the legs forward once in a while, and I plan to fit some flat track bars off an American Bonnie. The screen needs to grow to a useful height, too but must have had some positive effect. And when I think how I suffered on that BMW in March, you got to give full marks to the Suzuki seat.

The DR front end brakes fine too; it’ll be great to have the back doing the same. Most of all I feel the 19-inch front wheel was worthwhile. On a 21-incher the wet bends and higher speeds would have been a little more edgy. As for the skinny back tyre, no moments there (a pretty worn Metz Tourance 110/80 radial marked ‘front’, plus a Chen Shin Hi-Max 110/90 on the actual front). I wonder if that back radial at 36 psi helped the mpg? Either way, I look forward to having the GS shod with new Heidi K60s on Tubliss.

Didn’t have a chance to test the headlight – it’s never fully dark up here at the moment – but I’m sure it’s terrible. And that light is on all the time, even when electric starting which seems dumb. A switch is needed. The indicators and back light are aftermarket LEDs, but some sort of HID will be in order to help light the path. A mate’s recommended the VisionX Solstice for nearly £100.

According to the Trail Tech Voyager’s wheel-sensor based data, the GS’s cable speedo reads 12% over with the 19-inch front wheel on a [21″] DR hub, but the odometre is only 2% over. The Trail Tech packed up towards the end of the ride – it wasn’t charging off the bike (loose at the battery, easily fixed) but while it worked I loved it. Engine temp, air temp, compass, speed and odo – all things I like to know. And it’s has a map page too, though aimed at short range trail riding it can only handle small maps. Looking forward to delving more into this gadget.

At 30-something hp, the GS doesn’t exactly crease tarmac on steep climbs. And it needs to be spun at over 4000 to respond. At 5300 it’s indicting 70 – a true 63mph. I rarely rev it higher through the gears, but that’s still only halfway to the rather far-fetched redline of 11,000 rpm. Compared to other things I’ve ridden there’s not much torque low down in this thing, so I suspect the GS-R would be unresponsive on the dirt. It’s still on the tall side and heavy for that too, plus the pegs as so high the bars would be at knee level when standing, but the suspension isn’t flabby or harsh, and there’s more than enough of it. I do wonder about the strength of the frame for overland travel. I know it’s only a cheap a Suzuki, but it doesn’t look especially robust close up. All the more reason then to keep the load light and low.

What’s it all cost me? The bike was £1500 (five years old and 11,000 miles at the time). The Talon wheels built onto DR hubs were £400. Back shock £40, DR front end £200 by the time I bought a spindle and speedo drive. Other bits £200. I got back a few hundred quid selling the original GS500 front end, wheels, shock and other bits which paid for the labour, so we’re looking at around £2500. Add the new tyres and Tubliss cores for £250 and whatever it will cost to fabricate a rack. Spread over the years that’s not had too much of an impact, and the great thing with the GS5 (less so the DR650) is that parts are dirt cheap. There are chassis on ebay now from £30. Once completed it ought not cost much to run the GS-R.

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6 Responses to GS500R Overlander – First Ride

  1. Chris S says:

    Thanks for clarifying E and F models. Looks like you had a few. Mine was a 2003 so I missed out on the lighter one, though I don’t suppose that could have been in the motor. Whatever hp mine had, it was enough to get the job done. Email an address off the contact page (menu: top left) and I’ll send you a review copy when the time comes. cheers. Ch

  2. As a PS, have you got an recommendations for 17″ front / rear tyres with a modicum of off-road ability? I’ve got an old 600 Hornet sitting around not doing much, and it’s crossed my mind to bung a pair of slightly more patterned tyres on it, then use it both as my winter hack (which was the original intention) and some dry green lanes in the summer. The tyre sizes are 120-70 17 and 180-55 17 on standard tyres. Pirellii Scorpion Trials are the only ones I can find. Any thoughts welcomed!

    • Chris S says:

      Re: tyres. Is that an unusually low profile on the back? Don’t suppose there are many dirtish tyres in that size as the higher profile is needed. But I see Conti make TKC 80s in those sizes. That may be a bit radical on a Hornet unless you buy into the Street Scrambler look. I just put a pair on Mitas 07s on my bike today took the 50-mile round trip to the shops and the handling is transformed. I guess the Tourances were more worn then they looked. A pair cost less than one rear TKC.

  3. Great article… I spent quite a few years despatching and instructing on GS500s and had a vague idea of doing something similar, but never got round to it. The only comment I’d make is that the earlier GS500E is considerably lighter than the later F model (no idea why, looks much the same outwardly, unless it’s heavier, lower quality steel in the frame) and would be my choice of ‘donor’ machine!

    • Chris S says:

      Glad you enjoyed it Kevin. I miss that old hack; it was a good platform for experiments. I still think a mid-sized parallel twin motor is the best do-it-at engine for a motorbike and it seems they’re coming back (CB500s, MT-07…). Mine was the plain and original E version – afaik the F was the fully faired model which explained the extra weight. My ‘GS500R’ designation was made up. As an ex-despatcher and ‘motorcycle survivalist’ you may be interested in my new book out soon.

      • Hi Chris, I agree… 50/60hp is unthreatening and easily controlled by a relatively low spec chassis, and doesn’t need an expensive to build / expensive to maintain engine either to create it either, all of which helps keep weight, complexity and cost down. All of which makes for a fun riding experience.

        The E version was the original 89-on model which ran to about 2002 if I remember right. And there was indeed a faired version of that with a twin headlight full fairing (which used a Powerbronze fairing and I think originated in Germany – it certainly had wrong-hand dip headlights and a bit of sticky tape to fix incidentally), but the F was a full Suzuki model update version in 2002 or thereabouts – there was also a faired version of that with a two-tier GSX-R style headlight.

        As a courier I owned various models of the ‘E’, including a white 1990 model (which was the quickest and with uprated suspension was a hoot to ride), a black 94 which was crash-damaged and that I put back together with odd spares and then later cannibalised when it broke down (someone had put an aftermarket front sprocket on it, which wore out the gearbox output shaft), and a metallic blue 96 which had minor tweaks like pre-load adjustable fork tops, a painted steel fork brace rather than the alloy one of the early model, revised front caliper to stop the pads falling out if not installed correctly, and the reworked carbs and exhaust which slowed it down. I’ve a vague idea I had another black one but can’t remember ;)

        Even though the F was a new model, it was outwardly only via a mild restyle – the tank, seat and tailpiece were all slightly different, and the most obvious change was from the clip-on style bars on the tops of the fork legs to olde-worlde tubular handlebars on fork clamps. And because of yet more tweaks to pass emission regs, it was even slower – our training one’s barely nudged 100mph. It had also been downrated from the original 54hp claimed for the 1989 model to 47hp, which just happened to be 0.4hp over the minium for DAS.

        When I finished despatching, I worked as an instructor and for a while we had both a late ‘E’ and an early ‘F’ model (both nakeds) side by side. The F was noticeably heavier, as well as taller even with both rear shocks on the lowest preload – that was obvious when you got a short trainee to sit on both of them! My seat of the pants dyno said there was no way it produced the 47hp required for DAS – my guess is that it was nearer 30! But so long as Suzuki claimed 47hp, the DSA weren’t bothered! A sad emasculation of what had been a fun bike.

        Apologies not for replying earlier – forgot to tick the ‘alert via email’ box so only saw an alert when I logged into my own blog at https://survivalskills.wordpress.com/

        I’ll take a look at the book! Cheeky I know (but there have to be some benefits to running a reasonably busy site ;) ), but if you send me a review copy, I’ll review it for you here and on my FB page (www.facebook.com/survivalskills)!!

        Cheers

        Kevin

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