Motorcycles navigate the continental divide


By Olivier de Vaulx

Year after year exploring the American wilderness on motorcycles, the idea to share our experience with other riders was becoming more appealing. Our company Moto Trails USA was being patiently shaped during endless discussions around bonfires, after long rides all over the western states. However, the same question was looming over our heads, unanswered: which bike should we use? We rented our customers some nimble dual-sport machines such as the mythical XR650L and DR400Z, powerful twin-cylinders such as the KTM 1090R and the Africa Twin, but it was always too little or too much. The arrival of the long-awaited Tenere 700 seemed to be the game-changer we were dreaming about. With new delays due to Covid putting us at risk of missing out the summer season, we negotiated with Yamaha the shipping of two bikes from France and were finally ready to explore the American wilderness with the Tenere and check if the bike was true to its name.

Motorcycle navigates the continental divide

The Mother Of All Rides

The plan was to go back on the tracks we developed all these years, trying to anticipate the way customers would apprehend these trips with this mid-sized adventure bike. Would it be too easy, too difficult? There was only one way to know for sure, and it was to try every mile by ourselves. California and Utah being way too hot in the summer, we opted for the Continental Divide ride, the best adventure you can possibly dream to ride in the US. Following the geographical line upon which the water goes either toward the Atlantic Ocean or the Pacific Ocean, the Continental Divide crosses the USA from South to North over 2,500 miles of mostly perfectly maintained dirt roads. From the border of Mexico to Canada, it was the promise of long days of riding in very remote areas, out of reach from the civilized world. For those who dream about escaping their daily routine, that’s the ride they need on the top of their bucket list to share with their best friends.

Motorcycles navigate the continental divide

Forests And Lakes

We started from Silver City, in the south of New Mexico. There, nature was green, with forests covering the rolling hills and flowers splashing colored dots in the grass. The trails were rough but fun, with plenty of river crossings, the usual ruts here and there, and some nice lakes for a snack break. On the Tenere, we all felt immediately at home. Standing up was comfortable, and the miles went by in a breeze. The Dunlop Mission tires we mounted gave us a surprisingly good grip on packed dirt and gravel, matching real knobbier while killing it on pavement. Off-road, the ABS-free brakes were smooth, and breaking late in a slippery corner was never an issue. Stable in the rough sections, the Tenere never shook under the impacts and we could use the same lines as on a smaller dual sport. Deceptive at first with its quiet exhaust and its soft demeanor, the engine proved full of surprises. A torquey but perfectly smooth power range throughout the throttle gave the bike power to exit any corner without shifting, while still having enough power to propel us way too fast in between the trees or on the highway. Luckily, the dashboard stayed clear even under the sunlight and reading the excessive speed on the speedometer helped us slow down and keep a safer pace. Feeling safe, we just had to focus on the GPS and to admire the countryside. At times, the forest lightened and we crossed vast plains of fluorescent green grass under an overcast sky or followed high cliffs, vestiges of a tumultuous geological past. This ever-changing scenery and weather made the days look shorter than they were, with no routine whatsoever. Arriving at Pie Town though, we had our first disappointment. The owners of the mythical pie shop gave up during the pandemic and the small restaurant is now for sale. Luckily, there was another place to eat across the street, with a friendly staff and atmosphere, but still, the pie will never taste the same. Overall, these first days in New Mexico were mostly a bucolic ride across a colorful landscape, where you only reach civilization once a day to fill the tanks of the little twins. At the gas stations, we noticed the CP2 engine was literally sipping gas, giving us a staggering average of 64mpg!

muddy roads on the continental divide in NM

Impassable When Wet

Alas, everything is not always perfect in New Mexico. We quickly realized that the sublime dirt we enjoyed in the first days could change suddenly in a inescapable muddy trap. Since it was so green everywhere, we knew it was just a matter of time before we had to face the challenge of New Mexico’s infamous mud, especially with the thunderstorms developing almost every afternoon. All over the backcountry, big signs were warning the impetuous travelers that the trails were impassable when wet. These signs were not erected to warn motorcyclists, mind you! There were warnings for drivers of heavy-duty pickup trucks, fitted with four wheel drive, huge tires and powerful V8s. Needless to say that if these big trucks couldn’t make it, our brilliant Tenere’s didn’t stand a chance. Indeed, we all fell miserably at the first encounter with the enemy just before Grants. Thanks to our soft bags, nobody stayed stuck under the bike… Message received, we updated our GPS tracks to avoid the muddy sections, planning on staying on gravel roads or pavement when we would be back in 2021. There was no shame on using the Tenere on the highway though, since these roads were just as beautiful as their dirt counterparts and the T7 proved to be perfectly happy at high cruising speeds.

Motorcycles navigate the continental divide in New Mexico

Rally-Like Experience

Going up North, the terrain changed again to morph into open desert. Sand, dust, ultra bright sunlight, the ambiance was totally different. The name Tenere rang differently there, and it was hard not to think about the Dakar rally race. Our GPS track brought us through amazingly fun terrain, with just the right amount of bumps and ruts between corners. Trying to ride safely but not really able to resist the temptation, we all rode a bit too fast in this fascinating decor, taking some unusual risks but smiling under our helmets. Who wouldn’t? Thus, it was not a video game and after one rider survived miraculously a missed turn after a long and exhilarating straight line taken at unreasonable speed, we all went back to a safer pace. Riding slowly also gave us the time to enjoy more of the incredible scenery, with a range of colors only matched by some regions of Utah. As the sunlight turned golden in the end of afternoon, each mile became more colorful than the last and nobody was really in a rush to finish the day. Stopping on a cliff, we were like cowboys in a western movie, missing only the epic music to feel like true heroes. But weren’t we heroes nonetheless, standing here on our Tenere 700 dozen of miles from civilization, in a splendid but otherwise lethal desert? Only the thoughts of the A/C waiting for us at the hotel could bring us back to reality and we finally made it up in time for happy hour.

This story was originally published in Issue 49