Like Elvis and Madonna, the Dakar has become known by a single name as the toughest, most demanding test of rider and motorcycle in the world. Even though the shifting sands of politics and motorsport mean the event last finished in the Senegalese capital in 2008 before moving to South America and then the Middle East, it’s still known simply as the Dakar, and it’s bred some brilliant road bikes.
After founder Thierry Sabine got lost in the desert in 1976 and thought a race across the Sahara would be a good idea, the first Paris-Dakar Rally got underway. The rag-tag teams left Paris on 26th December 1978 and the survivors arrived at the finish on 14th January, after more than 6000 miles of riding and racing. That year Cyril Neveu took two-wheeled victory on his Yamaha XT500, and Yamaha went on to dominate with its YZE 850T. For mere mortal road riders, Yamaha came up with the XTZ Super Ténéré.
While the Super Ténéré had the same hunched aggression as the real race bike, it used a 600cc parallel twin engine with softer tune and matching softer suspension settings. It still had more than enough ground clearance for anyone keen on green-laning, but the Super Ténéré was equally at home on the road where it could swallow up big distances thanks to its comfort and whopping 30-litre fuel tank.
Credit: Miguel Angel Prieto Ciudad/Flickr
The 1989 750 Super Ténéré was the ultimate version of this original line of Yamaha’s go-anywhere adventure bike. After that, the name persisted but the bikes became much more road biased, even though Yamaha carried on its winning ways in the race right up to 1998 with the legendary Stéfan Peterhansel taking the flag that year.
Yamaha might have scooped the first two wins in the Dakar for motorcycles, but BMW was intent on using the race to prove its bikes’ durability. For this, it came up with the R80 G/S, which stood for Gelände/Straße which was German for off-road/street. Launched in 1980, the G/S lined up for the start of the 1981 Dakar confident its air-cooled engine would be better equipped to cope with the heat and dust. So it proved, and this win, plus three more for the R80 G/S, saw the bike fly out of showrooms when other adventure machines struggled to find favour.
Credit: BMW Press Club
The quirky BMW G/S quickly gained a following with those looking to ride round the world, or certainly further than the local chip shop. This created its own legend around the R80 and it led to the line of G/S models that continues today as one of BMW’s most successful motorcycle models. Such popularity also means the G/S is one of the easier Dakar-inspired road bikes to find and afford.
Another classic Dakar-derived machine you can still find in abundance and without breaking the bank is the Honda Africa Twin. Its name says it all about this bike, which has a rugged V-twin engine that makes it narrow and easy to manoeuvre on rough terrain. Honda might have won the Dakar in 1982 with its XR550, but it was the NXR750V’s victory in 1986 that led to the Africa Twin.
You can still buy a brand-new Africa Twin model today, but these early bikes have a close relationship with the race versions that give them a purity and purpose. The simple fairing, large fuel tank, long travel suspension, and well padded seat make them perfect for touring and exploring places where a normal motorcycle would become bogged down. As a classic to use in any conditions, the Africa Twin is hard to beat.
In the Dakar race, it was Cagiva that beat Honda’s winning streak when it won the event in 1990 with its unusually named Elefant 900. The small Italian company came up with its own design to tackle the race, but it borrowed the 900cc V-twin engine from Ducati, which had been dominating World Superbike racing at the time. It proved a brilliant marriage and the Elefant lifted the winner’s garland in 1990 and 1994.
The resulting road bike may have suffered from some poor build quality issues, but its punchy 68bhp engine meant it could hit 128mph and the 24-litre tank gave it a range of up to 180 miles. It all made the Elefant an oddball but very capable touring bike. The ones to have now are those in the original race bike livery, which makes the Cagiva stand out in any crowd.
When it comes to a crowd, no motorcycle manufacturer has more Dakar trophies in its cabinet than KTM. The Austrian firm has won the event no fewer than 19 times up to 2023, mostly with its LC4 with varying capacities of thumping single-cylinder engine. Although the LC4 is more recent machine than the others here, it has earned its classic status the hard way with repeated wins on the Dakar and for its character as a road bike. It’s also unusual for being a single-cylinder bike when the Dakar had previously favoured the twin-cylinder configuration.
Credit: Silverstone Auctions
While the LC4 had started life as a supermoto bike, it evolved into an effective off-roader. It started to show its promise in the Dakar with individual stage wins, but then outright victory came in 2001. This started an unbeaten run of 18 Dakar wins and sales success for the road version followed. As a newer classic bike, finding a KTM LC4 R in decent condition is relatively simple, but finding an owner willing to part with theirs might prove trickier as this is a bike that gets under owners’ skin. That’s understandable given the LC4’s talents and character-packed big single engine.
All of these bikes, and others like them, serve up a taste of what it’s like to ride in the Dakar, even if you only head out for a Sunday blast. Just as when they were new, the appeal lies in knowing you could point the bike anywhere in the world and it will take you there.
Is your favourite Dakar-inspired machine missing from our list? Or are you the proud owner of one of our top picks? Let us know in the comments…