The Dakar rally, which first started in 1979, originally saw competitors racing from Paris, in France, to Dakar in Senegal.
In recent years the event has moved to South America, but it remains as spectacular and challenging as ever. Although the rally raid machines used by competitors are developed especially for the tough conditions, the event has inspired a number of adventure styled road bikes over the years. Here are five of our favourites…
Yamaha XTZ750 Super Tenere
No brand is more intrinsically linked to the early days of the Paris-Dakar (as it was then known) than Yamaha.
French rider Cyril Neveu won the first two editions (1979 and 1980) on modified examples of the company’s XT500 and Yamaha (with legendary rider Stephane Peterhansel) were the dominant force in the rally throughout the 1990s.
Nineties rally raids were rolling laboratories for factory race bikes and those 1990s wins came on the two cylinder YZE750T (later YZE850T) bikes built especially for desert racing. Although factory machines, they were loosely based on the XTZ750 Super Tenere, a road going ‘dual sport’ machine of 1989, which was the forebearer to the modern day adventure bike.
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The bike, named after a Saharan desert region, was never hugely popular in the UK but found a strong following in continental Europe – which is a shame as the Super Ten was a brilliant all rounder, as we discovered over a decade later when BMW’s GS model became the must have bike for the British motorcyclist.
KTM 990 Adventure Dakar Edition
Austrian manufacturers KTM have bossed the Dakar in recent years, winning each edition of the rally since 2001, and in 2011 they introduced this, the 990 Adventure ‘Dakar Edition’, to celebrate 30 years of the event.
The V-twin powered 990 Adventure already enjoyed that traditional rally raid stance with its high riding position and tall screen. Painted in the blue livery of sponsors Red Bull, with KTM’s traditional orange accents and the famous Dakar logo, the Dakar edition was a halfway house between the 990 Adventure and Adventure R, putting the R’s 115bhp motor in the standard 990 Adventure chassis. KTM also made a ‘raid’ on the Mattighofen parts bin, to add engine bars and velour seat to the base model.
Honda Africa Twin
One year before the Super Tenere, in 1988, Honda unleashed the first Africa Twin on the world.
As the name suggested, the bike had its roots in the African rally raids. Honda had been dominant in the Dakar, winning four editions back to back from 1986 to 1989 with a prototype NXR750V (later 800). The first Africa Twin road bikes used a 50bhp, 650cc, V-twin motor before being punched out to 742cc from 1991. With a 23 litre fuel tank and long travel suspension, it was a very competent mile muncher that attracted a strong following on mainland Europe.
The model was phased out in 2003, while the name was rebooted in 2016 with the current CRF1000F Africa Twin, which uses a 998cc parallel-twin motor.
Cagiva Elefant 900
More obscure than the other bikes on our list, the Elefant is a curious, yet hugely successful machine which was powered by a Ducati 900SS motor.
The Italian brand, founded by the Castiglione family, also owned Ducati and used their V-twin engines to move into the big bike markets.
Cagiva’s Elefant Dakar racer won the famous rally in 1990 and 1994, in the hands of Italian racer Edi Orioli.
The Elefant road bike was a huge machine, but simple and relatively light. It’s fuel injected 900SS motor made it the most powerful off-road style bike of the time, while the ‘Lucky Explorer’ paintwork of the 1990 models gave it a real race replica feel.
Later models gained more sober colour schemes and better road manners, but it is the more garish Orioli replica machines that most Dakar fans remember.
BMW F650GS Dakar
There’s no doubt that BMW has earned its Dakar spurs. The R80G/S of 1980 is widely considered to be the forerunner to the modern day adventure tourer, with a specially prepared version winning the 1981 Paris-Dakar in the hands of Hubert Auriol.
BMW went on to win the Dakar three more times in the 1980s, before going on to produce some of the gnarliest factory monsters in the 1990s, including singles and boxer twins.
Success in the 1999 and 2000 rallies, with Richard Sainct riding a heavily modified F650, saw the introduction of an F650GS ‘Dakar’ model for 2000.
With a large, 21”, front wheel, long travel suspension, special graphics and a taller seat than the standard model, the 50bhp 652cc single had genuine off-road capability and proved an important model in bringing adventure bikes to the masses.