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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel interview with Mark Charlton on dual sport motorcycling

Published on 4/8/2015
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One of the fastest-growing segments of motorcycling takes a Swiss Army-knife approach to the sport, with bikes that are legal to ride on the highway and also can tackle dirt trails.

Dual-sport motorcycles are popular in northern Wisconsin, where there are hundreds of miles of gravel roads and trails through the woods. Some have even called the Town of Wabeno in Forest County the dual-sport capital of the world.

The U.S. Forest Service manages much of the land in Forest County, including unpaved roads popular with dual-sport motorcyclists.

Twice a year, Wabeno hosts large events for them, generating revenue for the area economy, various charities and the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center in Madison.

"When a couple of hundred dual-sport riders and their families come to town, it's good for business," said Town of Wabeno Chairman Edward Piontek.

U.S. sales of dual-sport motorcycles were up nearly 8% in 2013, according to the most recent available figures from the Motorcycle Industry Council. By comparison, sales of street bikes were up 2%, while sales of strictly off-highway bikes increased about 6%.

These days, more people are using the multipurpose motorcycles for commuting to work and running errands near home, especially when gasoline prices climb, according to area motorcycle dealerships.

Many of the bikes are never taken on dirt trails, said Glenn Curtis, a partner with Fuel Powersports, a motorcycle dealership in West Bend.

Some dual-sport motorcycles are much more capable of highway speeds than others. The biggest ones are sometimes used for long-distance touring, including trips from Canada to South America on rural roads and off-road trails.

"It's the next evolution of touring," said Mark Charlton, president of theWisconsin Dual Sport Riders and a motorcyclist from Mequon.

Charlton has a Harley-Davidson street bike and a dual-sport motorcycle from KTM, an Austrian manufacturer. He also has a bike that's strictly for off-road use.

"Every bike I have has a different purpose. But if a guy can only have one bike, a dual-sport is a good choice because you can go anywhere with it," Charlton said.

Currently, Harley-Davidson doesn't have a dual-purpose motorcycle in its lineup. But the world's largest manufacturer of heavyweight street bikes is one of the sponsors of Wisconsin Dual Sport Riders, and at least one Harley executive rides with the club.

Charlton has been a dual-sport motorcyclist since 2003. He was a street-bike rider for many years before that, and he did some motocross racing.

"As I got older, I didn't want to race anymore," Charlton said, but he enjoyed the flexibility that dual-purpose bikes afforded his riding.

Twice a year, hundreds of dual-sport enthusiasts come to Wabeno, a town of about 1,200 people, for events that raise money for charities.

One of the events, usually held in June, has raised more than $120,000 for the Carbone Cancer Center. Another event, typically held in late September, has become the largest source of revenue for a Forest County food pantry.

"We get to play in the dirt and raise money for charities at the same time," Charlton said.

Another dual-sport motorcycle group in Wisconsin is the Kettle Moraine Sport Riders. Also, the Madison Motorcycle Club has dual-sport riders in its membership.

The motorcycles range in price from about $5,000 for a smaller Honda that's better suited for trails than the highway, to nearly $20,000 for a BMW R-1200 GS Adventure bike.

Some of the popular brands are Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, KTM and Husqvarna.

With a tall seat height, dual-sport bikes can be difficult for shorter riders to straddle and put a foot on the ground when stopped.

Some of the bikes weigh only about 300 pounds, though, compared with 800 pounds for a big street touring bike. And there are aftermarket "lowering" kits to shorten the suspension, and thus the seat height, of many popular models.

The concept of dual-purpose motorcycles has been around for decades. In 1970, for example, Honda made anSL-350 that was marketed for both street and trail use. For many years before that, people were using one type of bike for different kinds of riding.

If he could have only one motorcycle, Charlton said, it would be a dual-purpose bike.

He sometimes uses his KTM to reach a fishing hole that's off the beaten path. Some of his riding buddies have come from mountain-bicycle backgrounds.

"I love hiking and backpacking, but there are some places you just can't get to in a day on your feet or on a mountain bike," Charlton said.

"This is like the Swiss Army knife of motorcycles. You can take it camping, on a short ride to the store, or out on a gravel road or the highway. It's a blast."