I was supermotard before Supermotard was supermotard

As any 2-wheel hoon will tell you, motards, or streetified dirt bikes, are an unholy blast. Here’s mine, circa 1984. You might be tempted to call it a Supermotard, but at the time this bike was built, the term didn’t exist, or at least hadn’t migrated outside of France.
Back in late 1983 (as you’ll recall from my Bultaco Streaker article), I bought a brand new Honda XL600R. I was an Army Spec-4 at the time, living on-post at Ft. Lewis WA, smack dab in the middle of a nearly inexhaustible web of wide, dusty tank trails. Like my own, private unpaved Interstate highway system, the range was just perfect for a big, powerful off-road cruiser like the 600R.

XL600R
The XL in its original, dirt-friendly form

Back then, “dualsport” was still called “dual-purpose,” and initially I divided my time between cruising the trails and streets. But I had begun working corners regularly for WMRRA roadraces at Seattle International Raceway (now Pacific Raceways), and my enthusiasm for asphalt won out. I was already besting some friends’ sport bikes on twisty, rural Washington 2-lanes, but my skinny enduro front tire made going fast in the corners rather dicey. I wanted some real rubber.
I wasn’t the first to think of this. The Superbikers had been an annual event on Wide World of Sports for years, and the unique style of slick-shod motocrosser it spawned had been featured in moto-mag coverage a number of times. But I had never seen one on the street, and the only conversions I’d seen were dedicated roadracing bikes with lowered suspensions and café fairings.
I had gotten to know Seattle tuning wiz Steve Giblin at the track, and I asked him to lace a 19″ aluminum D.I.D rim onto my front hub. He did the job aces and then slapped on a pair of Dunlop K291 Sport Elites (the stickiest street rubber you could get at the time): a 3.50×19″ up front and a 5.10×17 in the rear. I left the suspension stock, which quickened the steering just enough to be perfect for the street. Since I now had a dedicated street racer, I went all the way and swapped the wide bars for a pair of K&N clubmans. I initially wanted to mount a low front fender, but I couldn’t find an aftermarket café fender that would work with the XL’s wide fork tubes and leading axle, so the stock one remained.
Damn you, Kodak, for that horrid Disc camera.

The bike was awesome, but the tire choice was probably not the most practical. For the first few miles each morning, cornering was downright scary until the K291s warmed up sufficiently, a difficult task on a bike as light as the XL in damp, cool Washington weather. I ended up on my tush several times on my morning commute around the airfield. (Early Sport Elites were ferociously sticky when hot, but the consistency of a bowling ball when cold, and they could actually get a visible glaze on the tread overnight). Fortunately, being a dirt bike, everything was tucked up nicely and very little was damaged by sliding across the tarmac.
The bike was stunningly effective in the twisties, though. I found myself routinely playing hound to a pack of large-bore UJM sportbikes, including a GPz1100 and the new Ninja 900.
I was forced to sell the XL at a giveaway price when I was discharged; nobody wanted the strange contraption. It would be a number of years before the torch passed from ABC Sports’ Superbikers to the French riders who would make Supermotard a common term in the States and teach the general riding population how much sense these bikes really make.

Tanshanomi is Japanese [単車のみ] for "motorcycle(s) only." Though primarily tasked with creating two-wheel oriented content for Hooniverse, Pete is a lover of all sorts of motorized vehicles.

11 Comments

  1. Back in 1978 I bought my first bike, a 1970 Yamaha XS650 for something like 400 bucks. It would be a classic now, but back then it was just an old bike. The guy I bought it from also had a Yamaha 360 motocrosser that he had converted into an insane street legal flat track bike that I could have bought for another two hundred bucks, which I didn't have. I probably would have killed myself on that thing. It was another dirt bike conversion that would have been a lot of fun, if I'd had enough experience.

  2. Sweet Bike…but to me Supermotard sounds, well unappealing. This is very similar to Toyota Racing and Development's TRD. No Turds or Tards thank you, I'll take mine neat.

    1. Ditto amongst my buddies in the northwest. The XR was the bike of choice, unless you were po' like me. Then you rode an archaic Yamaha two-stroke single.

  3. I had an '86 250XL, and I can attest, knobby dirt tires aren't worth a damn on the street. I spent $50 on a new back tire that had a lower tread pattern.

  4. Very entertaining! After getting tired of replacing dual sport tires every 1500 miles on my DR350, I saved up for a set of Dunlop 491's. Not only did it triple the tire mileage, it also tripled my back road fun. The long, soft dual sport suspension smoothed out the worst pavement that California could throw at it. Going through tight twisties, you could feel the suspension compress what felt like a foot in the corners!

  5. I think the idea of putting a dirt bike on street tires is chock full of awesome, but can't shake the involuntary mental association of "Supermotard" with some kind of MVP award at the Special Olympics.
    [Yes, I know I'm going to hell for that.]

  6. I would like to begin by thanking you for the useful information you are supplying! I will definitly add you URL to my bookmarks for future reading.

  7. just info :
    Supermoto has its origins in the 1970s when ABC’s Wide World of Sports was the highest-rated sports show in the United States. In 1979, ABC commissioned a made-for-TV event called "Superbikers," created by motorcycling journalist and promoter Gavin Trippe, intended to find the ultimate all-around motorcycle racer by putting all star riders from different genres of racing on a single track that combined three genres of racing: flat track racing, motocross and road racing. Superbikers was then manifested as a yearly event run at southern California's Carlsbad Raceway. The show's tarmac-and-dirt courses were intended to draw on talent from the world's of off-road, flat track and road racing. World and National Championship-winning motorcycling greats such as Kenny Roberts and Jeff Ward, whose respective sports at the time were road-racing and motocross, participated in the races. The Superbikers quickly became a huge Nielsen ratings contender, running until 1985, at which point ABC was forced to cancel the show due to new management and cuts; its cancellation also initiated a long sabbatical of the sport in the USA. The European racers who participated in the sport at Carlsbad, however, brought it back to Europe with them, where it quickly gained popularity in countries such as France.
    The 2000s signalled the resurrection of the sport in the United States, with the birth of the AMA Supermoto Championship in 2003 and with the event to the X Games in 2004. Both competitions were cancelled after the 2009 season.

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