How to Make the Best Adventure Motorcycle | Best Modifications for a Suzuki DR650
A DR650 is the platform for the perfect adventure rider’s bike. It does take a lot of work to get it to that point though. If you’re going to build a bike for a round-the-world trip, a DR650 is the way to go unless you’ve got the skills of Lyndon Poskitt.
Now, I know all the rebuttals I’ll get against that claim. I’ve had these debates in person many times. Here’s a few of the most common:
- “By the time you spend that much money, you should buy something designed for it like a KTM 690 or Husqvarna 701”.
You just can’t get the same reliability, longevity and service intervals out of the engine without serious changes, that start to apply the same question at the 690 instead of the DR. If you have the budget, you can get something like what Lyndon Poskitt Racing have previously made using the KTM 690 Factory Rally, though I don’t know if this is something they still do.
- “You need a big bike like a GS1250 for covering that sort of distance.”
That’s a load of crap. I know more than a handful of people that have ridden around the world on DR650’s with less mechanical issues than anyone on a GS1250 or similar. The DR just has less to go wrong.
Except for 3rd gear. I do have a few friends that have totally lunched the engine when 3rd gear has failed and sent chunks of metal through the bottom end while it’s still running. This has usually been around the 100,000km mark though.
We cover making 3rd gear reliable in this article.
- “You’re better off stripping down a big bike and making it lighter and more nimble, than upgrading a DR.”
It just can’t be done. Even if you can strip 50kg off something like a GS, it will still weigh 100kg more than a DR that’s been upgraded with everything you can throw at it.
Here’s an adventure motorcycle film we did using two DR650s.
Tall Person DR650 Handling & Ergonomic Modifications
High Bend Handlebars
We recommend ditching the stock bars for an alloy replacement no matter what your height, but if you’re average height or above, high bend bars will make a big difference to improved comfort and control.
I’m a big fan of the shape and feel of ProTaper Henry/Reed Fat Bars. ProTaper and Renthal are both great brands that have high bend options.
The stock DR650 seat is just way too low, especially by the time we add higher bend bars and an under-bar mount steering dampener or a set of bar raisers.
Other than not having an assertive enough position relative to the bars when seated, the sitting profile with knees higher than your hips, makes it a big and laborious transfer when moving to a standing position.
Don’t Buy a Seat Concepts Tall Comfort or a Sargent Sport Performance Seat for a DR650
There’s nothing wrong with the build quality of these brands, they make a quality product.
How Seat Concepts chose the word “tall” for their tall comfort is confusing and how Sargent chose the words “sport” and “performance” has got me well and truly buggered.
The Seat Concepts Tall Comfort seat is not a tall seat, it’s simply just a comfort-oriented seat that isn’t lower than the OEM Suzuki seat. The Sargent seat is a comfort upgrade for sure, but certainly not a performance or handling upgrade.
Both these seats are crazy expensive too. It’s like they’ve confused the DR and GS markets.
If you’re not tall, but are reading this section, the Tall Comfort is a good option for people average height and a little less.
Get a Custom Seat Made
Custom might sound expensive, but it’s the cheapest way of getting a genuine tall seat.
I’ve had a few DR seats done by a local motor trimmer. If you take them the stock seat, they can remove the cover, add some extra foam, and then reupholster it with vinyl to keep the costs down or you can choose another material.
I paid about $120AUD and it was done in a few days. Just remember to ask for quite a firm foam, something like what’s in a motocross seat, and then to top it with one (or two progressive) layers of foam for comfort. Otherwise, if you use a soft foam for the whole seat, you’ll sink in and not get the benefit, but it will also be hard to move forwards and back.
This was the single best modification I made to my DR and one of the best value too.
A benefit of having a flat seat with no contour, is that you can slide right up to the tank for cornering, without having to lift your weight up. Once you add a long-range tank (more on that below), this difference is even more pronounced. Another benefit is that if you’ve added something like a fuel bladder for a section of the trip, you’ve got more seat space if something is encroaching on where you’d normally sit.
Put Sheepskin on Your Seat
If you’re really worried about comfort implications for long distance without getting a comfort-oriented aftermarket seat, slap some sheepskin on and it makes an incredible difference. Do choose the real thing though, for some reason synthetic imitations just don’t do the job.
Under-Bar Mount Steering Damper
More on steering dampers in a below section, but if you are going to get one and you’re tall, you may as well get the under-bar mounting system, which raises the bars.
Short Person Modifications for the DR650
Opposite of our recommendations for tall riders, we do recommend Sargent Seats and Seat Concepts products.
If you’re on a budget, you can cut out some of the foam in your seat and then re-staple the stock seat cover. Not the comfiest option around, but gets the job done.
Please Don’t Reduce Preload to Lower the Bike | Avoid Lowering the Bike if Possible
If you have to lower the bike, a lowering link allows you to do that at the rear without compromising all suspension handling and you can drop the triple clamps down a little bit on the forks for the front.
DR650’s are already a very low bike, so if you’re able to get away without lowering, the handling will be a lot better. Aside from the problems of putting a foot down when you need it, being shorter is actually good for riding. All bikes, even enduro models are better suited for short riders. When I first started racing motocross as a junior, there was a kid who was so short he had to run alongside his bike and jump on it while moving, but once he was on it, he would win every race. The guy was a total dickhead, but at least his dad understood not to lower the bike to suit his kids height.
DR650 Handling & Ergonomic Modifications for All Heights
Other than being flimsy enough to bend when you fall off, the stock Suzuki bars are a terrible shape for off-road riding.
Designed solely with the dual sport commuter in mind, the bars have a very significant sweep backwards which is suited to road riding, sitting down. If you’ve only ever ridden with these types of handlebars, going to a much straighter enduro style bar is going to feel horrible at first. Going from one type of bar to another for the first time feels hopelessly unnatural and wrong, but once you get used to it, you will be a better rider because of it and it will be a more capable bike.
Renthal and ProTaper are the handlebar brands we recommend.
We’ve got a whole write up on Steg Pegz being great for adventure ridingADD LINK, despite being thought of as an enduro or desert racing product only.
We’ve always used Steg Pegz on our DRs, including in Desert Blood.
By the time a DR650 is loaded up with luggage, it’s heavy enough to be a problem in the sand.
There’s not much you can do about the basic dynamics of having that amount of weight trying to plough through the sand with only a small amount of front tyre holding you up. Even if you are really careful with how and where you load everything, the handlebars will be wrestling against you.
We recommend a steering damper for all adventure bikes and DRs are no exception. Even if you’re on a KTM690 which is a fair bit lighter, they have a very steep fork angle and quite twitchy steering, also calling for a steering damper.
I’ve used MSC steering dampers on a lot of my bikes including a Honda CRF450X, KTM EXC500, Suzuki DR650 and surprisingly on my BMW GS1200 as well. Their after-sales service seems pretty crap, but they make a good product.
Long Range Modifications for a DR650
Oil Cooler Guard
Not so much to do with achieving long distances, but rather keeping the bike working across all distances. The DRs are so robust that not a lot will stop you in your tracks, but piercing the oil cooler is one of the few that will.
You can buy an emergency bypass kit, to use in the event of piercing the cooler, but I think it’s better just to protect it in the first place.
Long Range Tank
This is probably the very first thing you should do.
18 to 20 litres (about 4.6 to 5.3 US gallons) is a pretty good size. You can go bigger, but it affects the handling a lot and isn’t necessary 95% of the time. Instead, we prefer using fuel bladders for the occasional times you’ll need to do a longer stretch between fuel stops.
Acerbis, IMS and Clarke all make very good tanks in this size range. If you do opt to go for a bigger tank, the 30L option by Safari Tanks is the best. I have used one of these and while it’s good quality, it does make you feel like you’re riding a sizeable boat. Again, I’d rather a smaller tank and a fuel bladder.
DR650 Suspension Upgrades
It would be remiss of me not to mention that DR suspension is pretty terrible.
Install Heavier Springs
It’s very easy to bottom out the suspension, even if you’re not loaded up. If you’re looking for the minimum feasible upgrade, it would be to upgrade the springs to match the weight of rider and some luggage. If it’s for a big trip where you’ll be loaded all the time, get springs that match the rider plus all the luggage.
It’s fairly likely that you’ll now have springs that are stronger than the rebound dampening can control. It’s just about striking a balance and you wont get it perfect, because the stock suspension on a DR650 is not worth the expense of getting it professionally re-valved, as the technology just doesn’t allow for worthwhile improvements.
Preload Adjustable Fork Caps, Gold Valves, Dynamic Drop-In Cartridges and Shock Piston Kits
There’s a decent amount you can do to the forks, to make them a lot better. These include dynamic drop-in cartridges or gold valves and you can change the fork caps to ones that allow you to adjust the pre-load, but make sure you’ve got the right springs in first. Progressive springs are typically the best options for DRs because even with these upgrades, there’s only so much control you can have over dampening and a progressive spring rate can compensate for that to an extent.
When it comes to the rear shock, while there are a lot of modifications available, your money is much better spent on a total replacement aftermarket shock.
For all suspension upgrades to a DR650, we recommend contacting or buying from the following places:
- Australia: Vince Strang Motorcycles
- US: Procycle
- South America: Moto Hell – They’re a small adventure motorcycle accessories shop in Ecuador, but arguably the continent’s DR650 experts. Really great people too, we met the owner while riding through Peru.
Hardcore DR650 Modifications
Expensive, Difficult Suspension Modifications
Want the best adventure motorcycle ever?
It’s a lot of work, but well worth it. I’ve ridden 4 DR650s that have been modified in this way.
Basically, the frame and engine are kept and everything else thrown aside. You’ll need a donor bike that has PDS (linkless) rear suspension. A KTM EXC500 is the best option.
The technical side is beyond the scope of this guide, as it’s going to require someone with a lot of skill to pull this off. The swingarm and everything attached (rear wheel, brakes etc.) will be replaced, which requires machining down and shimming the mount for the shock, so as to align it with the top mount on the frame. The airbox needs to be modified heavily and the subframe replaced.
For the front, we’re going to pull everything off and replace triple clamps, forks, wheel and everything related such as hydraulic brakes etc. To replace the triple clamps, it will require different steering stem bearings to match the changed inner dimensions to the steering stem on the KTM triple clamps, or you can press the stem to remove it, do some machining and press in the stem from the DR650 triple clamp. Extra work, but it means you can use standard bearing sizes which may come in handy if they fail on the other side of the world and you’re not right near a specialty bearing shop.
The suspension will need to be re-sprung and re-valved, but you now have suspension that will allow that to be done properly.
Ultimately, this results in a bike with much better suspension, a longer and stronger swingarm and therefore a longer wheel base, substantially higher clearance, hydraulic disk brake on the rear and an 18” rear wheel
How to Prevent 3rd Gear Blowing Up in a DR650
3rd Gear Replacement
Replacing 3rd gear is a good idea if you want the bike to get you the whole way around the world. Otherwise, you’re probably good for getting halfway around.
Wide Ratio Gear Set – Upgrade Every Gear
Nova also make a whole gearbox replacement set.
It’s wider ration than stock, so you can maintain low gearing in first and second for the trail, while keeping revs lower on the highway. This is excellent for what we’re trying to do, as the current gear ratios are better suited to commuting.
From stock, we often need to make the gearing taller via a larger countershaft sprocket, smaller rear sprocket or both which gives us good highway speeds without over revving. The problem with this is that it can make 1st and 2nd gear to high for tight or steep trails. Installing a wider ratio gear set fixes this, while making it a lot more durable with Nova’s billet gears that come from the pedigree of a manufacturer that make performance gearboxes for professional racing.