Milan’s 2016 EICMA bike show saw the emergence of several new ‘lightweight adventure bikes’, as some of the biking media have been describing them. Me, I’d sooner call them ‘small-capacity adventure-styled’ bikes between 250 and 400cc. In some cases they’ve mini versions of established models, a ploy to lure the curious to a brand’s globe-trotting look.
From the specs available, the weight and therefore suitability for actual adventuring along rough tracks, is nothing to get excited about. The 34-hp BMW 310 single will have more than enough power to achieve this, but is said to weigh some 170kg. And I doubt the Versys 300 or DL250 (below) will be much lighter. And yet for travellers I suspect light weight is the primary reason for choosing bikes around this 250 category. Seat heights aren’t always so low and their economy isn’t substantially better than say, a CB500X, let alone an NC750, once you balance it against the performance loss which can make you feel a bit vulnerable riding at elevation, uphill in a headwind, as I was last month on my KLX250X. But that usually applies in wealthier countries outside the AMZ where the vehicles aren’t old bangers as they are here in Morocco. For the last two weeks we’ve been riding around on XR250 Tornados (left) which compare very well with current CRF-Ls: less weight, same power and mpg and better suspension. On the road even clapped-out examples running over 88,888km can indicate 120 clicks. And the great thing on the dirt is they’re so unintimidating and forgiving anyone can soon feel comfortable on them.
Some of the bikes, like the 300 Versys (above) and Suzuki V-Strom DL250 (right) are parallel twins and unlikely to be any lighter than the BMW 310. You do wonder why make a small twin – some say it helps constrain emissions. More likely it’s to connect the small version with the bigger twins they’re based on. They’re not trail bikes.
An often overlooked benefit of small-capacity singles is the lack of vibration compared to a 650 thumper. I was reminded of that as soon as I started a KTM 690 after riding my WR250R recently. Minimal vibration adds a welcome, if small, concession to comfort which some 250s otherwise lack.
That’s why 450 is the real segment that interests me, not something in the low 300s cc which I presume fits some licensing category in a promising market. Decent ‘get-out-of-jail’ poke with ideally, not much weight or vibration. Right now all we have is the CCM 450GP (right and reappraised in Rust mag #17). I just had a couple of GP owners on my tour (but renting the XRs), and both confirmed what I’ve suspected without ever having ridden a CCM: for all their amazing light weight and great suspension they run highly strung motors for something pitched as a travel or trail bike, rather than an out-and-out racer. Extensive after-market engine re-mapping may help get round that, but it’s no XR400.
Talking of 400s, they say the 411-cc Enfield Himalayan (above) will be coming to Europe. But by the time they squeeze it through the emissions regs, I bet it won’t have more power than a 2017 CRF250L. (It’s said to produce 24hp and weigh over 180kilos, wet). That was my impression after riding a similar capacity Chinese 400 last year. Outside of India, Enfield won’t be able to depend on its trusty old plodder cache for ever.
Based on looks alone, my favourite is the Rally-styled ‘HRC’ CRF-L (left). The best info and nearly full specs are currently at Honda US. Power is up 10% they say, to 24.4hp, with the weight claimed to stay at 144kg for the standard version (above right – same as the current 250L), and 155kg for the Rally rep. There’s an easy to use comparison table here.
The Rally version is not just a quick makeover; Honda have taken it quite seriously. Changes include revised headlight, an inch more rear travel, bigger front disc and tiny differences in castor, rack, wheelbase, suspension damping and seat height. The Rally’s tank holds 10.1 litre against 7.8 litres on the regular bike. This short range was one problem I found on my CRF-L in the US (left). At my average of 30.5kpl that means the Rally ought to be good for 300km which is OK.
In the US you’ll pay $5100 or $5900 for the Rally. ABS is another $300 on either and that will add some more weight on the European models where ABS is now mandatory. This rally look: tall screen, large tank, good suspension, lack of bulk, is not just for the kids. An all-terrain adventure bike traveller benefits from all that too. All Honda need to do is win the real Dakar Rally one of these years, and surely they’d crack and finally produce a CRF450L rally rep. What will there be to grumble about then? Oh, it’s just too red! More impressions on these and other travel bikes at next week’s Motorcycle Live show at the NEC.
Two 250 Honda trail bikes: one which I used in the UK then owned in the US; the other which I’ve used as a rental in Morocco several times. How do they compare? First, some stats, mostly gathered from the web and referring to the pre-2017 CRF. ymmv.
Scan over them and there looks to be very little in it: same weight fuelled up; same number of gears; suspension travel within an inch. Even the power’s the same, though the XR’s tank is half as big again and there’s 10% more claimed torque at 1000 less rpm on the Tornado (23.7Nm @6000rpm).
That could be down to the Tornado’s 1980s carb-and-air-cooled technology which makes the same claimed power as the modern water-cooled, fuel-injected pre-2017 CRF. But as you may have guessed, any benefits of the CRF’s greater compression and modern efficiencies are swallowed up by the catalyser and other gubbins to meet today’s demanding emissions legislation.
And that’s the biggest difference of all. Both are inexpensive bikes, but as far as I know there’s no place where you can choose between one or the other, well not new any more. The Thai-built CRF met Euro-3 emissions requirements in richer (or should that be ‘leaner’) western countries. The Brazilian-made Tornado won’t, so got sold where bike emissions were less strict or are not enforced.
Riding the 250s Although I rode them a few months apart, my impression was the XR was a more agile machine that lived up to its XR prefix. Much of that may have been because most of the time my CRF was loaded with some 15-20kg of baggage plus a rack, bashplate and screen, all which adds some 15% to kerb weight – quite significant on a 23-hp 250. But even unloaded on Utah’s fabulous White Rim Trail (left), I still feel the XR would have been a nippier and better-sprung machine. Fuel consumption is the same – so much for the mileage benefits of efi. Rider weight and payload will have a bearing on this: one light Tornado rider in Morocco was getting close to 100mpg (35.5kpl). I only got close to that a couple of times on my CRF in the US and – interestingly – nowhere near that on a UK test bike direct from Honda.
Suspension felt longer and more supple on the Tornado (in RSA they did a low seat model some 40mm lower; see table above left), the back disc is much better on the CRF. Both can sit on 100kph all day until you encounter steep inclines, headwinds or high altitude. Though it ran up to 10,000 feet without issues, some days my CRF certainly felt the elevations in Nevada and Utah. Add an incline and it struggled to do 80kph at times, though it might have been the local fuel which, in my experience, varies greatly in USA. At 2300m (7300′) on a rough track in the Moroccan Atlas, the Tornado also gets strung out between first and second gear but still fuels surprisingly well once off the pilot jet.
Conclusion The Tornado felt better all round and were it available in the UK cheap I’m sure I’d have bought one by now**. But maybe that’s the way it is with an ‘exotic’ unobtainable machine, let alone one whose old school technology recalls a simpler era which someone my age can relate to. Apart from being annoyingly tall for some, it’s everything you want from a 250 trail bike: light, good brakes, economical, fast enough and well sprung. For travelling the weak point on both 250s will be the subframe, but people have managed, so long as you don’t load a bike like a refugee’s GS12.
**Fast forward a few months. I met a TRFer last week and he told me 250 Tornados from around 2003–4 are found in the UK and as I check the usual places I find he’s right. The one on the right had 8000 miles on the clock and looked in great nick but was going for a rather optimistic £2200. In 2016 a UK dealer was even looking for £3500 for a near-new 2004 Tornado! There was another one on gumtree, same age and mileage for a more reasonable £1400.
And in 2015 they stopped importing the Tornado into Morocco where the all-conquering CRF250L joined the line up. The XR250 Tornado is no longer made in Brazil and, at least in South America, has become the XRE300 (left) – a Tornado engine bored to 291 plus efi, rear disc, optional ABS and cool, rally styling for same price as the CRF250L. However, the 300 has a poor reputation in Brazil; riders even lower the compression to try and make it last. More here.
If you like it old style you can still get a similarly basic XR250Rs until 2004, or TTR250 (right) in the UK until around the same time. They sold new in Australia right up to 2012 but elsewhere are getting on. As an alternative to the CRF, the injected Kawasaki KLX250B9 (an old carb’d KLX250S in the US) has been around for years, but for some reason never created the impact of the CRF when it came out, even if the suspension is way better than the Honda. The injected version is said to be power restricted in the upper gears, but there’s a dodge or two to get round that here.
Used prices of the more powerful and unrestricted WR250R make it a less obvious choice for a travel bike as opposed to a fun weekend dirt bike, and they’re pretty rare in the UK which stopped importing them in 2008 (still sold new in parts of the EU and the US and Au where the WR has a strong following). Both the EFI Kawa and especially the Yam WR are significantly pricier used in the UK – from £2500. But they’re more sophisticated and come with a higher spec than the CRF which seems to have caught up, price wise.
In 2016 I got a WR250R in the UK and also bought a carb’d Kawasaki KLX250S (left) in the American Southwest, a well put together machine – an efi ought to be even better. More news on how my WR compares with the above 250s here.
PRO • Easy to fit. • Looks well made and waterproof so far • Tells you many things you’re bike or satnav may not • Accurate and calibratable speedo and distance readings • Air and engine temp readings
CON • Cannot be easily unmounted against theft • The old eyes are going; would prefer some readings to be easier to read on the move
COST Now $130 but still a bargain compared to the Voyager at twice the price. Trail Tech supplied me with the Vapor in return for advertising in AMH6.
DESCRIPTION & REVIEW Trail Tech market themselves as selling ‘Aftermarket off-road powersport products’ including digital gauges for enduro bikes and quads which may have no instrumentation at all. They don’t claim to produce units suited to motorcycle overlanding, but many of the features their digital gauges display are handy on the long road and will be a useful back up if your GPS/satnav packs up. The Vapor users’ manual is here.
The screen is a mono 400 x 240 LCD screen and can display the following data: • GPS-derived speed/distance • Wheel-derived speed/distance (more accurate) • Odometre (adjustable) • GPS compass • GPS altitude • Air and engine temperature • Engine RPM • Time • Other racey stuff like stopwatch, ride time, ‘shift now!’ (over-reving) warning lights, accumulated ride time and max speed
Using the three buttons it also has a customisable User Screen to display various sets of data plus a back light for night-time use when wired to the 12-v bike battery. The Vapor will also run off a CR2 watch battery for a while.
I used the Voyager (see below) before I tried the Vapor but this unit is much more suited to my sort of riding which may involve a proper GPS or satnav for navigation. The Vapor provided data for things which the basic Honda didn’t cover, including RPM, though this did fluctuate a bit like an old Triumph rev gauge and to me was comparatively not that useful.
Fitting it to the bars was easy, if not so secure against theft or vandalism. They do offer a more metal cowling to make it less nick able but I’d much prefer to remove the pocket-sized unit in dodgy areas. A couple of wires go to the battery but the fact that the unit is always live (or ‘sleeping’) and the display stays on for a 15 minutes after coming to rest can attract unwanted attention. Making your own q/d mount with a grouped connector plug would be worthwhile on a long trip; out of sight is out of mind. As it was, in outback Southwest US I was never worried about it getting pinched or messed about with.
Other attachments to enable the unit include easily wrapping a wire around the HT lead to provide a pulse for the RPM read out. They advise that modifying the number of HT coils can minimise the fluctuation of the RPM read-out which varied over 2000rpm at times. Nut I never bothered trying to get it smoothed out as RPM proved not so important to me.
There are two was of getting a speed and distance reading; off the in-built GPS signal or off the wheel. You may be surprised to learn that the old-fashioned geometric method off the wheel is more accurate. Replace one of your disc rotor bolts with a magnetic item supplied in the kit, then zip tie a pick up (sensor) cable to the fork leg. Now accurately measure the diameter of your tyre, program it in as the instructions explain (all easy) and you have an accurate distance and speed measurement that can be modified as the tyre wears or gets changed. As you may have read in my CRF-L review the Vapor revealed how widely inaccurate the Honda’s speedo – and therefore odometer – were. Click on the photo right and you’ll see how the true speed on the Vapor is 10% faster than on the Honda, and the more important odometer is even more out. Relying on the Honda’s readings, this would have given falsely pessimistic fuel consumption readings and therefore an inaccurate fuel range when compared to roadside distance markers. In truth you actually travel 10% further than the Honda shows. My CRF-L fuel records were all taken from the Vapor backed up by the GPS. The Honda uses an electronic speedo sensor somewhere in the gearbox so once you mess about with gearing and tyre sizes, it goes off. My gearing and tyres were all normal; raısıng the gearing by 10% may bring the Honda speedo reading back in line, or there’s an inline electronic gadget called a SpeedoDRD you can fit to recalibrate the OE speedo, but it looks pretty fiddly.
Engine and ambient temperatures were another very useful feature. I’m staggered that some bikes have no overheating warning and know of at least one KTM engine that blew in the desert for not having a water temp warning. On the Honda it required cutting an inch out of a rad hose to install the sensor. The ambient air temp sensor is somewhere on the body of the unit. I suppose it may get hot and over-read if parked in the sun for a while. On a little 250 engine plugging up a rough incline with a tail wind, I found it very useful to keep track of the engine water temp. Both air and engine water readings may not have been absolutely accurate but I assume they were consistent. As my water temp reached 100°C and the fan came on I could choose to pull over and turn the bike into the breeze with the engine running. It’s possible to set one of the Vapor’s warning lights to come on at the water temp reaches a certain level, but they’re quite small. I found it easier to watch the temp figures climbing and react appropriately. The temp read-outs were something I’d like to be bigger on the screen as often I’d ride ‘on the temperature’ (s well as the terrain), rather than on the speedo.
The other read-outs like time, elevation and compass overlapped with the GPS/satnav but were handy back-ups. Overall I found the Vapor indispensable on my ride, even though I used a satnav and a GPS, both of which proved essential route finding aids out in the hills. The accurate speed/distance enabled me to accurately calculate the potential fuel range and the temperature read outs stopped me running the engine too hot for too long and reminded me that I need a drink too. At the other extreme they say the unit may not operate or display properly below freezing. I included a lot of stuff when I sold the CRF but I kept the Barkbusters and the Trail Tech Vapor for my next bike.
TRAIL TECH VOYAGER
IN A LINE A nifty and versatile trip computer with basic GPS capability.
WHERE TESTED Riding around Britain on a GS500R for a few months.
PRO • Easy to fit. • Looks well made and waterproof so far • Tells you many things you’re bike or satnav may not
CON • Cannot be easily removed against theft • It can’t replace a proper sat nav
COST About £180 Trail Tech supplied me with the Vapor in return for advertising in AMH6.
DESCRIPTION & REVIEW The Voyager is the sort of computer that’s now commonly integrated on CANBus bikes such as the BMW F650GS I rode in March. That one was linked to the engine and so could accurately give fuel tank and even mpg values.
The Voyager has a small 400 x 240 mono LCD screen an on/menu button, a 4-way toggle button, an ‘enter’ button and a next page button. The screen displays the following: GPS speed/distance, Wheel speed/distance (more accurate), GPS compass, GPS altitude, Air and engine temperature, Time, non-routable GPS maps. It also has a customisable User Screen giving a pick up to six sets if data to display and a back light for night time. To me they include: time; ambient and engine temps; a very accurate wheel-based odometer and a compass. There are six screens you can toggle across: Main (pictured), Map, Air/Engine Temperature graph, Altitude record, the customisable User Screen, Nav Screen and a Satellite status Screen, as on a GPS.
I took a long ride up to Scotland in June with the Voyager (until it went flat after a couple of hours due to a loose bike battery connection), and a ride back a few months later, including three hours of pelting rain.
On both occasions, using the main screen, I found the Voyager a very useful gadget. On my air-cooled GS it was good to have an engine temperature (spark plug) reference point, same with air temperature, especially when combined with the altitude. The clock is also handy of course and I found the compass very useful when trying to unravel cross-country short cuts while riding without the aid of a paper map or satnav.
I did try at one point to load an OSM map via the mini-SD card but didn’t have any luck and having spent hours before with GPSs I didn’t persevere too much. A Voyager’s memory is limited: you’re not going to be able to load an OSM country map – the unit is designed to carry mapping for relatively short-range day rides; it won’t replace a proper satnav.
The main flaw is that it can’t be removed quickly, as you would any aftermarket satnav or GPS. It’s intended for mounting to your quad you wheel off your pickup. Leave it on around town and someone will try to nick it for sure (with tools they’ll succeed). You could adapt it with a quick plug for the three or more wires and use some sort of butterfly nut to fit it to the handlebar clamp.
Like the CRF250L itself, I use longer rides to try out new stuff, new ways of doing things or whatever else catches my imagination. Below is the equipment roll call from the 2013 Honda ride around Southwest USA. What worked, what didn’t and why. The prices given in £ or $ are what I paid for the gear or what it cost. Some items like Kriega, Magadans, Trailtech and Aero stuff has been supplied to me over the years in exchange for adverts in the book.
Adventure Spec Magadan bags – £330 No complains about my Magbags; the best soft bag out there for my sort of riding. Simple and functional, great capacity, big external pockets and tough fabric. It didn’t rain enough on this trip to test them, but it lashed down on previous UK rides with no leakage, even through the fabric outer, let alone the thick PVC liners. Requires a rack but that’s the way it should be for heavy loads in soft bags. More on the Mags here. Verdict: regret giving these away with the CRF.
Aerostich wool seat pad – $67 I used this last year in Morocco on a BMW 650 twin which has a seat straight out of Enhanced Interrogation; sadly the Aeropad couldn’t save it – three inches of Moroccan mattress foam did. On the Honda the wool pad may have taken the edge off, giving another hour’s comfort but I actually found frequent dismounts were as effective to posterior durability. Another interesting thing: mostly I rode in my leather jeans but one hot day I wore thinner (slipperier?) synthetic 5-11 Tactical trousers (great gear btw, much tougher than ‘outdoor rec’ stuff). Result: sore arse arrived very soon. I also found the wool would pack down and lose its loft after a few long days, but could be easily washed and ruffled up. And after a night in the rain a vigorous rub dispersed most of the moisture. Verdict: seemingly minimal improvement but can’t do any harm.
Alpha Three tail rack – on bike Never heard of Alpha Three – could be Japanese rather than Chinese? – but this ‘Type A’ item was a neat little rack with downward pointing prongs incorporating hexhead bolts to securely attach stuff, should you wish. A tendency has developed towards racks cut out of flat metal sheets, either thick alloy or thin galvanized steel. Reason: cheaper manufacturing costs not necessarily reflected in the retail price as they’re the latest ‘thing’. Smaller ‘plate racks’ the size of the Alpha might be fine but some of the wider ones as tested in Overland Journal (Fall 2012) have nasty thin edges that I wouldn’t want to meet while tumbling down a slope, even though I’m all for wide ‘sheep racks’ in principle. Conventional tube racks are easier to use and grip, when needed. There are a few more CRF-L rack options listed here. Verdict: a slick and well-featured tail rack.
Barkbuster Storm handguards – $130 Always liked the Aussie-made BBs and even though cheaper versions are available I splashed out at more tolerable US prices US prices on some Barks with the biggest Storm handguards to keep for later. Cheapies often don’t fit so well; the key I believe is the articulated joint (available separately) at the inboard mounting end. Cheaper versions off ebay have no joint – less easy to position optimally. I like to think the Storm handguards kept my hands warmer and drier and so deferred the need for heavy gloves – I always prefer thin unlined gloves. The only time I fell off the Barks did their job, although one drawback with all lever guards is you can’t hang stuff, including a helmet, so easily off the bar ends. I’ve fitted bungy hooks on previous bikes. Verdict: worth paying out and keeping for the next bike.
Bashplate – came on bike I omitted to note what brand it was – Ricochet is a name that bounces around the forums. Engine protection is a no brainer of course, even if I only dinged it once on the gnarly Lockhart Basin track. The fit was fine – no exposed bolts on the underside and a hole to enable drain plug access without removal. But clamped directly to the frame rails I found the resonance intrusive. I reduced that by refitting the plate with some strips of closed cell foam (karrimat) on the frame rails. Like others, I also think a bit more width to either side would improve protection of the filter housing and bottom hose. Verdict: As usual, the OE plastic plate is a joke. Essential for off highway riding.
Bell Mag 9 helmet – $70 Probably discontinued by now but great lid for the money. Full review here.
Benchmark atlases – $15 I’ve been using these for years in the US and on this trip they came into their own for riding off pavement across Nevada and Utah. Yes they’re big to carry on a bike and may well be available as a tablet app, but give me a paper map any day for getting the big picture. I barely use the additional guidebook-like recreational info you get in a Benchmark but it’s good to know it’s there. As with all paper maps, dirt road accuracy got a bit mushy at times, and here I found the US-sourced Garmin satnav filled in the gaps. And then when the satnav was wanting, just like a proper map I could read a long-lat easily off my Garmin 62 against the Benchmark’s incremental long-lat grid (above) to find exactly where I was. Verdict: I’ve tried Delormes but Benchmarks are to the US what OS maps are to the UK.
Double Take mirrors – $100 pair! A mate had these in Morocco last year and I admit I fell for the hype – or wanted to see if they lived up to it. At over $100 a pair (iirc) the RAM ball-mounted DT mirrors provided infinite positioning and crash-proof toughness. I took one and left the OE Honda mirror on the nearside (on the right side in the picture, left) but soon wished I’d either kept both Hondas or ran them the other way round. For seeing what’s behind you the OE Honda was a better mirror – bigger (wider), clearer and immune to vibration or movement. That was until my single, low-speed fall on the right side when the Honda glass shattered in the otherwise undamaged plastic housing. Honda dealers at the time only sold the whole mirror assembly which had to be ordered. Perhaps they’re suited to more aggressive off-roading where falls are more frequent, but where you probably want mirrors to get to your riding location. Here a Double Take or the like soon pays for itself, although I found at road speeds it blurred too much to be reliable and moved around on the dirt or in strong headwinds, no matter how hard I clamped it. And with that nifty mirror-base RAM mounts they are rather nickable; RAM’s theft-proof clamp is not the slickest design. Verdict: built for crashing, but on the Honda less good for seeing.
EJK fuel controller – on bike I’ve had 4×4 turbo-diesel engines ‘chipped’ through I never knew exactly what was being done – it seemed to be one unprogrammable map and the sort of performance chasing meddling that doesn’t interest me that much. For petrol engines EJK’s fuel controller is a bit more sophisticated: an ‘electronic jet kit’ enabling you to increase fuel delivery (richen the mixture) as you experiment with performance enhancement. Short version: at $200 a useful bit of kit to experiment with or optimise the mixture; long version here. Verdict: another good reason to bid adios to carbs.
FMF Q4 pipe + Megabomb header – on bike (sold for $350) The bike came with this set up the suitably calibrated EJK (above) and holes in the airbox, but one day’s dirt riding convinced me the Q was not at all Quiet and would have driven me nuts on the long road. Even at double the weight I was happy to refit the weighty OE cat silencer and flogged the FMF set up. Verdict: way too noisy and can’t say I noticed any significant power loss once removed.
Garmin GPS 60CSx – £160 used I used the bulkier GPSMap 72 for years to log tracks for my off-roading guidebooks until it started playing up. I was happy to replace it with the more compact and popular 60 series using the similarly intuitive interface. This one had Utah topo maps on it and took the UTBDR tracklog without any undue gnashing of teeth. And a RAM cradle mount performed securely without vibration issues. Verdict: CSx not made any more but still preferable to touch screen Montana/Oregons.
Garmin Nuvi LM50 – $80 used I hoped that a US-sourced Nuvi would have maps which featured the countless miles of unsealed roads in the western US, and so it did. When the Benchmark atlases got a bit vague the Nuvi led me out of the mountains, providing it was set up right and you took the suggested directions with a pinch of salt. Don’t know if it was my basic unit but I found that the full range of tracks around me would only display once a ‘Go to’ was set (a memory saving feature perhaps?). It meant I couldn’t scroll/zoom out to see the possibilities around me without a ‘go to’. Also, I was too lazy to address what I knew would be problem with vibration. Last year using a similar unit in Morocco I was smart enough to lay it on foam on the tank, this time with a cobbled together Garmin/RAM set up the vibration at higher revs caused it to cut out. I’ve since modified my home-made mount to incorporate a foam sandwich (above left) that may work better with future moto Nuvi-ing. Used Nuvis are cheap and easy to find on ebay; Garmin’s moto-focussed waterproof Zumo is not. You can buy waterproof pouches for a Nuvi to fit your bike. Verdict: as long as it has worthwhile mapping, a used Nuvi is a good value nav aid.
Old iPad $200 vs Macbook Air $600 I soon found that trying to update this website on the road from an iPad was frustrating, even with an accessory keyboard; WordPress have not got to the bottom of it. Luckily craigslist Phoenix had several used Macbook Airs within arm’s each. What a relief to get back to Mac’s laptop platform at about the same size and barely twice the weight of an iPad. Verdict: a tablet to read but a laptop to write and edit. Nearly six years, many trips and a couple of dents later, I’m writing this in New Zealand on the same well-used airbook. What a brilliant machine!
Kriega R30 backpack – £135 I’m not so keen on tank bags but can’t fit all my essentials in my jacket so a backpack like the R30 takes the laptop and other valuables, sandwiches and quick access day items. Too heavy a backpack accelerates backside pain but the R30 rested on the Watershed when seated so took the weight off my shoulders. Like a lot of Kriega stuff there’s some very clever but over-complex strap adjustment system that I never investigated; for me it fitted well enough out of the box. It includes a double clip joining the shoulder straps across the chest which along with the grippy mesh on the back helps keep it in place. On the back are cinch-down straps to stop a loose bag flapping. But when unclipped the chest clip arrangement doesn’t hang naturally off the shoulders when walking and who wants to walk around clipped in as if you’re ready to make a parachute jump. On the move I can’t say I ever noticed it which is the point and the capacity is expandable enough for all my needs; if not camping you could probably get a superlight touring load all in there.
Best thing about it was a simple, zip-free roll-top closure which, unlike around-the-top zips, won’t matter too much if you forget to do it up – opened zips see stuff fall out. The small outside pockets do feature water-resistant zips which are a bit stiff to use, but then zips do need cleaning from time to time. The R30 has a velcroed-in, removable waterproof liner which I hear is up to the job and easy to replace once it isn’t. Or just use your own dry bags. The chunky top handle is another good feature, the reflectives are probably useful and the quality of construction is what you’ve come to expect rom Kriega. Verdict: expensive for a backpack but actually designed for biking not hiking.
Liquid Containment 5L fuel bag – £60 I figured this was a compact way to inexpensively increase fuel range and rated fuel bags as such in the book: rolled up out of the way when not needed; handy when they are. That may be true for the odd occasion when you need extra fuel, but I found a fuel bag was less well suited to near daily use on a motorcycle. The rot set in when the o-ring cap seal fell out and blew away unnoticed at a fill up in Vegas – didn’t notice that until that evening when everything reeked of 85 octane. A day or two later I picked up a replacement o-ring for a backstreet garage, but had gone off the bag by then. The other pain on a bike is securing a wobbly bag of fuel reliably, securely and without faffing. Sure, the tough plastic LQ has holes on every corner but at a fuel stop you have to release the bag, prop it up, fill it up, cap it and then secure the load to the bike. If I had stuck with it I’d have found a good method, but these sorts of repetitive tasks need to be foolproof for the day you rush it and make a mistake. Like scores before me, I found a red plastic $10 one-gallon can strapped to the tail rack better for near daily use. To fill up simply undo the cap, like an auxiliary fuel tank; to decant into the bike tank undo the straps, pour in and refit. A bigger tank in a worthwhile size was not available for the CRF-L at the time. Note; the fuel bag I used was not the same as the 7L item which Zen sell in the UK. Theirs is an older, bigger and superior model with an integrated pouring spout inside the cap and a handle. Verdict: in practise not so convenient for regular use.
Maxxis IT Desert tyre – $110 Amazingly the CRF-L’s OE rear IRC tyre was finished in 3000 miles – a record for me, and on a 18-horse 250, too! I found the meaty-knobbed Maxxis (like an MT21 or D606) was easy to fit with short levers and some WD40 lube, didn’t play up on the highway (bike not heavy or powerful enough to stress and flex the knobs) while on the dry and rocky dirt I rode at road pressures it did the business and I’m sure would have outlasted the IRC. Verdict: performed as well as better known brands; a pair goes for <£100 on ebay.
Panasonic Lumix FT2 – from £60 used I’ve had this camera for a couple of years now and use it almost every day. When it was playing up recently I looked around but newer models in the FT range all had compromises (smaller battery, less megapixels, unnecessary gimmicks like GPS, expensive) as did other brands. So I got another old FT2 off ebay for £60 but which time my original camera had fixed itself. What I like about Lumixes is they commonly feature wide-angle lenses (28mm or less) over excessive zooms. An FT2 camera is also shockproof and waterproof to a few metres so rain or sand won’t bother it and it’s robust enough to survive ‘carefree’ treatment. Yes, the enclosed lens is tiny and the zoom is limited, but slipped into my jacket’s chest pocket and hung around my neck on a cord, it’s easy to use while riding. And just occasionally the auto exposure captures the scene as well as any DSLR. At other times – especially on full optical zoom, the quality drops off; better to shoot wide at max resolution and crop later (I always disable digital zoom). With landscapes, a trick I use with these types of cameras all the time is half press the shutter and expose off the sky, then lower the camera, compose and click. The resultant ‘tricking’ into under exposure often gives a richer result (or one that can be more easily edited). I didn’t film on this trip, but have done a lot elsewhere and the results are up to youtubing. I even sold my annoying GoPro a while back and am now happy to use the FT2 for movie making. The tougher, DSLR-sized Gorillapod also works well as a steady tripod or clamp. Verdict: until it wears out or breaks up, can’t think of a better P&S camera.
Riding gear On this trip to save weight I bought a lid once in the US (see Bell), wore my heavy leather trousers and old Altberg boots on the plane and brought my Aerostich Kanetsu electric vest to make up for my regular ‘M65’ desert jacket; no armour, Gore-tex, mesh or reflectives – just light, quick drying and with enough big pockets to make up for not being a Darien. In the event of heavy rain I had my old Rukka one-piece suit, but never needed it. For gloves I has my similarly ancient unlined Aerostich Deerskins (sadly MIA) and a pair of Armr Moto WXP8 gloves for cold days. Apart from the Rukka, all got used all or some of the time. Temperature-wise this trip was quite extreme but I felt protected enough to be comfortable, while never feeling over-laden with clobber, as you can do with moto gear. Verdict: for the local conditions, the best set up I’ve ridden in.
SealLine XL map case – £15 I normally use this for sea kayaking or packrafting, the zip-lock seal keeps maps and other bits dry and the big size gives you the all-important big picture without the need to open up and refold a map too often as the crashing surf closes in. In the Southwest the map case took a folded back Benchmark with room to spare and stopped the pages flapping in the wind. I found a neat way of holding the maps case down was stretching a thin loop on inner tube from one side of the engine to the other (right). Note: they also make roll-top map cases, not as reliably waterproof as the zip lock version. Verdict: moto or boto, great bit of kit.
Slime anti-puncture fluid and compressor (both $10) Can’t say the luridly green Slime fluid stopped any punctures on my ride, but for ten bucks it was worth the squirt. Also on the shelf in Walmart was a Slime-branded 12-volt compressor (right) also for a tenner and with a pressure gauge too and the ever useful flashing light. More compact and lighter than my Cycle Pump, I actually used the Slimepump a few times and it performed fine. Verdict: well worth $20 for peace of mind.
Slipstreamer Spitfire windshield – $70 Just what was wanted for the CRF; a small, inexpensive, one-size-fits-most screen to keep the wind and rain off. Mounting is a bit rudimentary but adds up to a quick, tool-free way of temporarily removing the screen while leaving the bar mounts in place, something I was slow to catch on to for dirt day rides when the screen was not needed. With only two mounting rods (no triangulation) high-speed runs into headwinds or rough tracks caused the screen to inch back – this could have been fixed by anchoring the base of the screen to the headlamp cowling. It seemed hard to get a tight fit on the screw down screen mount lugs too, but meddling with spacers or rubber shims would fix this. Verdict: Great value, simple fitting and effective.
Trail Tech Vapor digital guage – $90 A great gadget for a travel bike like the CRF-: with limited instrumentation. Click the link for full review.
Watershed Chattooga dry bag – £65 Another kayaking item that works well on bikes. Watershed dry bags use a tough fabric, but unlike your average roll-top bag, they feature a chunky ziplock-like seal that makes the bag immersion proof. At about 20 litres the Chattooga model is compact but big enough to take my infrequently used tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and a spare pair of gloves. It didn’t happen on this trip but it’s good to know in heavy rain you need not worry at all about your camping gear getting wet until you take it out. For smooth closure the zip seal can use a bit of WD or 303 once in a while. Verdict: Watershed when it absolutely positively has to be kept dry.
An invitation to a show in the US gave me a chance to arrive early, pick up a CRF of my own and pull off a long-planned tour of the fabulous Southwest (see map, right). My mission was to set forth and evaluate whether the CRF really could be the answer to the long-sought lightweight overland travel bike. America is not an ‘adventure motorcycling’ destination as I define it, but it sure is a great place to go ride around on a trail bike for a few weeks.
What makes the Honda special is that there seem to be so few bikes like it these days. Besides Kawasaki’s KLX250S (which in the UK comes with efi and can be as cheap as a CRF), other 250 dirt bikes seem to be high performance racers with maintenance schedules set in hours, while we’re told a typical ‘adventure’ bike weighs a quarter of a ton, puts put over 100hp and costs 10 grand. Where are the old XLs and XTs of my early biking years? Yes I know there are ageing DR-Z400s, but apart from that it’s all got too specialised and more particularly just too heavy, although in presumed response to the stagnating global economy there do seem to be signs of bikes fluttering back down to earth.
Most would assume an ordinary 250 dual sporter is physically too small to carry a travel load in comfort, too fragile to hack the terrain and of course too slow to not get in the way. On this last point the US may not have not a great place to simulate riding through the AMZ where speeds are much slower, but the barren deserts and mountains of the American West didn’t put up much of a fight in terms of busy roads. Other factors, as you will read, did affect the Honda. Some might even say a 250 is just plain too boring, but that depends on your attitude to combining travel with motorcycling. There seems to be increasing chat about 125s for overland travel, and not merely from an attention-seeking ‘Across the Andes by Frog’ novelty PoV, but simply because that’s all new riders can afford these days, not least when taking into account the cost of obtaining a full license to ride bigger capacity bikes.
What you can’t accuse a CRF-L of is being too expensive, too fuel inefficient or too heavy, despite people getting hung up on the fact it weighs some 144kg. For the record, mine was not a stock bike and came with 1000 miles on the clock as well as various performance and functional accessories. You can read about the rest of my set up here but in a nutshell they included:
Comfort When I first saw and sat on a test bike back in February I was gratified to find it wasn’t too small for my 6′ 1″ frame, nor was it uncomfortable to ride, though a shorter person may not have got on (literally) with my jacked-up US CRF. Over a full day my legs never felt cramped on the pegs, although the saddle was annoyingly high, especially when getting on and off wearing heavy leather trousers and back luggage in the way. It’s all good for the abs and quads, I suppose. Yes, saddle soreness set in at over 200 miles, or sooner on rough tracks (the Aero pad may have deferred this a bit), but the lack of vibration from the small engine as well as frequent stops of even a minute or two all helped relieve butt pain. In fact, frequent stops rather than burning down the highway like Gheghis Khan aboard a V-Max chariot was quite a revelation. I found it was easier to break the rhythm or momentum when you’re not going that fast in the first place. Standing up on the dirt to spare the bum didn’t really work for me; the risers weren’t high enough and I stooped.
The $70 Spitfire screen (or something like it) was a no brainer. It kept most bugs, occasional rain and what wind blast there was off me without affecting stability too much. The basic handlebar mounting system works surprisingly well and the screen can be removed in a minute for off-roading at where times I did feel it angled back rather too close to my face
Economy Do you know what, I actually think the CRF’s mileage is not so exceptional. I bet if I rode a BMW 650 twin like I did the Honda I’d get to within 90% of the CRF’s readings. The fuel log is here. It’s divided into three stages: running inefficiently (power was not really affected), running a bit better (less rich) and with the EJK retuned, running correctly. The tank is 7.8 litres and without even trying, I got close to my 100mpg (Imp) goal a couple of times to know it was achievable. My last recorded fill was an annoying dash 70 miles back to a motel to retrieve something while averaging nearly 60mph. Returning to Flagstaff (climbing from 4000 to 7000′) a couple of times I noticed I was on the throttle stop so this ‘worst possible’ mpg added up to 56US or 67.5UK. Again, I suspect my recent GS650 twin and 660 Tenere before that would have managed the same mileage at similar speeds, but then who rides 650s like a 250 except when you’re running on fumes? Talking of petrol fumes, filling up is a pain to master without splashback; the small tank and two bars blocking the filler mouth combined with high pressure gas pumps you seem to get in the US means there is often a spurt of gasoline coming back at you. I discuss bigger tanks here. So, in the final ‘running correctly’ mode over some 2400 miles of dirt, highway and freeway the Honda averaged 72USmpg or 86.7UK. By comparison last year the BMW twin did 57/68 and the Tenere before it 59/72, so the Honda is a good 20% better while running on about 30-40% of the power.
Oil, water, drive chain, tyres In the first 1000 miles, when the fuelling was off the bike got through an oil-level window’s worth with was surprising. Once the fuelling was fixed it used no oil over the next 2000 miles, and may have even gained some. Maybe it was still running-in and it was nothing do with running rich? Who knows. No coolant was ever used and the chain, lubed most days, never needed tensioning.
Tyre wear was a bit of a shock – that’s some soft IRC rubber they’ve slung on the back, worn out and split just 3200 miles from new. For me that’s a record on any bike, and from the condition of the CRF it wasn’t like the original owner caned the Honda. Dirt or pavement I ran both tyres at about 30psi and by the time I sold it at 4200 miles the front had about 4-5mm left. They performed fine on road and trail – as did the replacement Maxxis Desert. I suppose hot days and the combined weight of 280kg on the two OE tyres was too much – it certainly wasn’t due to pulling ‘blackies’ out of gas station forecourts!
Performance Not having ridden the bike in totally stock form and spending most of my time at elevations greater than Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak (4406′, right), it’s a bit difficult to judge true performance. Then there was 10% ethanol fuel in AZ and maybe CA too, but regular fuel in Nevada? Does that make a difference? I experimented with various octanes but can’t say 91 RON was better than the usual 87 (Honda recommends 85 or more), though one time after a remote and expensive fill up the bike was noticeably down on power (‘stale’ fuel?) until the next fill a few hours later. Tuning the EJK correctly in Truckee didn’t noticibly produce lots more power, just much better economy, though when I did return to Phoenix right at the end of the ride (1100′ elevation) I thought I did notice more acceleration, but perhaps that was just because I was frequently stopping and starting at traffic lights for the first time in over a month. At times above 6500′ I thought I could notice a significant drop in power, even though at nearly 10,000 feet I could still do 50mph on the level. They say air density drops 4.5% every 1000 feet or that at 10,000′ the air pressure is 70% of sea level, but I don’t know if that means proportional oxygen levels too or if it all gets exponential as altitude increases. I suppose a 30% loss of power at 10,000 feet is plausible – 12hp still being enough to propel the 250 at 50mph. High or low, the efi fuelling was perfect – never a stutter or a stall nor a surge when hot, as the BMW did last year in Morocco, With the Honda just some brief hunting as it warmed up in the mornings. Like all 250s, hills and headwindsare the killers of speed, though not necessarily economy, as the fuel log shows. With me and the full load on it (additional combined weight equalling about the same as the Honda) the L simply hasn’t got the power to punch effortlessly up hill at 6000′ or against a headwind. On a more powerful machine you can just wind it on and pay at the servo later (a guy on an 1150GS told me he got as little as 120 miles to a tank against severe headwinds in the mid-West). I don’t think the EJK running on the stock engine (apart from air filter backfire screen removed) added more than 1 or 2hp if anything at all, and I suppose a small engine is more affected by relatively small levels of power loss. If I’d stayed up there in the Great Basin I think I’d have experimented with upping (richening) the settings on the EJK, even if it cost a few mpgs. It might have cooled the motor too.
Overtaking on the highway was an extremely rare event and at high elevations I was sometimes down to 45mph in 5th gear, more commonly 50mph. That sounds a bit inconvenient or unnerving on a two-lane blacktop with a 65 limit, but in practise the traffic was so light and daylight visibility so good that it wasn’t unsafe. But it did mean you had nothing to spare.
What I did miss was the surge and the rush of acceleration – the fun factor that is elemental to biking and keeps tyre manufacturers as well as a few nurses in business. Loaded up, there is no real perception of acceleration on the Honda, the numbers simply crawl up the speedo. Exuberant antics like power sliding out of dirt turns (left) necessitated yanking the throttle or very poor traction which simply risked dumping it. They talk about 24hp with a full-noise pipe, drilled airbox, 1T less on the countershaft and EJK retuned to suit, but my one-day’s experience at that theoretical power level before setting off was merely an embarrassing and unsustainable racket. Teenagers take note: noise ≠ power.
Most of the time I chose to cruise at 55 and with no traffic around was very happy to do so. I could look around, take pictures easily and generally not need to cling on or concentrate too hard. Maybe I should get an H-D? Above 65 the CRF-L didn’t always feel so stable, both with and without the screen or the baggage on or off. It could be the front tyre, front mudguard or just the light weight. The wake of a big truck up ahead wasn’t a great place to ride, and in the very strong winds I experienced on some days the bike got blown about quite dramatically, though never felt dangerous. The highest true speed I saw was 72 briefly downhill though it wasn’t pinned yet. I had an rpm read-out on the Trail Tech Vapor and although it fluctuated quite a bit, rpm actually wasn’t as high as you’d think. Even with a piston the size of an egg cup the Honda only revs to 8000 and I don’t think I ever went over 5000 in normal riding.
Apart from high-speed stability the handling gave no surprises, but I wasn’t tearing about or intent on chamfering my boots soles. Obviously it’s easy to manoeuvre at low speed and the tyres and brakes were never overwhelmed by the weight or the power, nor the front forks by hard braking.
Note that on my bike the speedo read 8% under (ie: slower than true) and the odo was even worse, some 12% under. Other CRF-L owners have reported over-reading and some have it spot on. Establishing my error early on, I used the GPS or more commonly the Vapor (left) as accurate odometres to determine distance and so, accurate mpg.
Off road riding On the 500+ miles of dry dirt I rode I never felt the need for more power, nor was the accumulated weight of the bike ever hard to handle. (I never had to haul it out of deep mud, sand or snow). The biggest limitation such as it was, was the tall- but more especially the widely spacedgearing which sometimes made slow, technical riding tricky without slipping and so stressing the clutch – something to be avoided. Also, what I believe they call a slipping ‘judder spring‘ in the clutch and the way I jacked up the OE shock (left) made the back-end harsh when riding unloaded on bumpy terrain (though it was just right when loaded). It may all have been exacerbated by the lack of a cush drive in the back wheel, too. On the same topic the gearbox was less slick than the Honda press bike I rode in February, but as mentioned that did seem a suspiciously well set-up machine. The forks felt fine and neither end ever bottomed out, despite my 205lb weight, which just shows you how slow I ride!
Riding by myself, loaded up in the hills with no comms and at times helmet-free, I didn’t push my luck and in turn, didn’t push the Honda either, but it was good to know the bike was as light as practicable. U-turns on narrow trails were easily knocked out where a bigger bike would have involved much heaving and shoving. The bar risers I fitted were actually still not high enough to sustain standing on the pegs in a natural posture, but then I tend to sit down unless absolutely necessary or my arse is in meltdown (‘Stand up when you must, sit down when you can’). My theory is sitting keeps you more in touch with the hammering and stresses the luggage rack and tyres are receiving, these being the two most common causes of problems on the long road. How’s that for an explanation! (One guy on the WRT gently told me off for not standing up on a big climb).
Durability Here you have to wonder whether an inexpensively produced 250, even a Honda, is up to the task of long-range, fully loaded travel. It’s best to avoid long spells where you’d need to cane the engine, as well as change the 1.5L of oil much more frequently than the suggested 8000 miles. On a hot day running slow with a backwind it does run close to 100°C for hours (102°C max recorded) at which point the fan kicks in, but although it never boiled over, nor showed a warning light on the dash (if there is one), I tend to regard the fan coming on when not at a standstill as a warning. (Having a water temperature read-out on the Vapor was a great feature). I took it easy so the subframe took the hefty vertical load without any signs of stress, but like all bikes is more prone to side swipes. The only fall I had at some 15-20mph was harmless to me, but bent the bars a little, twisted the forks in the yokes and even tweaked the subframe – all this without a full load in the panniers which can exacerbate stresses. Apart from the bars, that was all set back with some loosening and retightening but it did make me wonder about the subframe which is any light monoshock travel bike’s traditional weak spot.
With the high mileages that overlanding obviously involves, you also wonder if you’d be running the motor, if not the whole bike, closer to the limit than a 500cc+ with more in reserve when ridden moderately. Sparing the revs and the gear change as well as frequent oil changes is the best you can do there, but months of bad fuel or unavoidable neglect might take their toll sooner than on a bigger bike. This is all speculation of course, though Lois Pryce did admit her TTR250 was shagged out by the time it got to Cape Town (or maybe it was her Serow 225 on arriving at Ushiaia?). If given a good start to life though, you’d hope a 250 like mine will last better than a clapped-out KLR 650 running on 40 a day.
Summary Passing over ag bikes and posties, something like a CRF is at the extreme bottom end for a practical overlanding bike; at least for someone of my size. But for my sort of riding (let alone budget) it’s still far less extreme and much more practical than a Triumph Explorer, Super Tenere, ‘Waterboxer’ or any other of the quarter-ton 12s that seem to exemplify ‘adventure bikes’ to ill-informed entities led by most of the UK moto media. Perhaps ‘adv bikes’ and what you can see I now deliberately now call ‘overlanders’ or ‘travel bikes’ are beginning to take on different meanings.
In the end I think I was right all along when building up my never tested GS500R: a 500-650 single or twin delivers the optimal level of performance, weight and – with efi- economy for a real-world overlander. Unfortunately these days the price you pay is at least 20 kilos more weight than you want which may simply be down to manufacturing economics. As MTBers will know, a little lightness costs a lot of $$$. One guy I met in Flagstaff said he liked his big Harley as ‘it sure gets windy around here’, but when I sum it all up, it’s the lightness that makes the Honda such fun, easy to live with, manoeuvre and ride. (The winds I experienced were never unnerving.) Bikes now have masses of power, and now at long last have creditable fuel economy too, but light weight is the element many bikes are lack and why for example we’re right to be potentially excited by the forthcoming 450 CCM and why guys put up with things like a KTM690 (above left – same weight as the Honda but nearly four times the power at nearly double the price). Loaded up with a realistic kerbside weight of some 180kg (+ me), the L was about as heavy as I would wish a bike, but light enough to be unloaded and pulled out of any ditch or manhandled onto a boat, pickup or plane. The economy was impressive, but then so it should be. But when you think of the typical 30-kilos of payload and accessories that most of us carry on a big ride, for someone of my build the ability to hold 60mph (100kph) on any road is what is wanted to make the ride relaxing. People are using the CRF250L for all sorts of applications so ymmv, but I see now that for me that requires a bit more than 250cc.
I’ve since got myself a BMW 650Xcountry back in the UK and other Project bikes have followed – see the menu above.