Tag Archives: Desert Riders

Desert Riders ~ XRL650s in the Sahara

“Having tasted the thrill of off-piste riding, corrugations just aren’t so much fun anymore.”

XRL ChoiceXRL Preparation • XRL 4000-mile report


Not long after 1989 when the original Sahara Motorcycle Tour (SMT) described in the Desert Travels staggered home, a bitter civil war broke out in Algeria as the army annulled elections and unrelated Tuareg rebellions broke out in Niger and Mali. At that time both Libya and the Western Sahara were not accessible and so the brief First Golden Age of Independent Saharan Exploration came to an end.
I took a nine-year break from desert biking until a chink opened up into Libya in the late 90s and I headed out there on a BMW Funduro. Soon I was running vehicle-supported motorcycle tours in Libya and then Algeria also re-opened. The Last Golden Age of Independent Saharan Exploration kicked off. Making the most of it, in 2003 I cooked up Desert Riders, an ambitious expedition. It turned out to be my best pure desert ride on which, with the aid of fuel caches, Jon, Andy and I managed to get out as far as the ‘Lost Tree’ in Niger’s Ténéré Desert, slip back into Algeria and get out again, all just days before a mass kidnapping which marked the beginning of the absolute end for Saharan moto tourism and which we managed to dodge thanks to a well-timed crash.

I looked at our route on a map the other day and realised that maybe there’s something to be said for a 38-litre fuel tank after all. All things considered, we made a pretty good dvd of it too, and in that pre-youtube era it managed to get broadcast in a shorter form on National Geographic and a couple of other more obscure TV channels.


Not surprisingly our actual route didn’t match our plans. Nothing new there. I’m pretty sure the Oued Samene canyon has never been traversed on a bike. One day I’d like to go back there and explore upstream – or nose up from the south to the watershed and see if there really was a bike-proof cliff face up there. But the chances of being able to do that are slimmer than ever these days.


Looking back, I realise Desert Riders was the most amazing ride I’ve done in the Sahara. And looking again at the location of the Lost Tree, we were way out there.
The Sahara has become a dangerous place in the intervening years and I don’t imagine I could ever repeat something like this. 

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It was in Oued Samene – our famous 4km day – that the reality of riding our 250kg slugs-on-stilts really hit us. But it was also our first cross-country (‘off-piste’) ride down to the canyon’s north rim and it underlined the thrill of finding one’s own way over wild terrain. Exploration: you can’t beat it!


Within sight of the Libyan border, Tarat wasn’t on our original itinerary either, but a fantastic piste. I’d long wanted to do this one and I’d love to do it again. Fat chance these days. Water became a problem for us; the soak at Imirhou was nearly dry, and then the route south to Dider (the cover of the dvd) became extremely rocky, right up to the last couple of kilometres. I don’t normally say this (though I often think it!) but it was a relief to get back to the road and ride down to Djanet.


Here we decided we couldn’t be arsed with the 1500-km run to Tam and back for Niger visas, so we took on an excursion to the Lost Tree instead. Out of town, amazingly we covered the 300km to the Erg Killian food and fuel cache in one glorious day’s riding, all off-piste through beautiful country. Not a single track did we see. It was especially wonderful after the rock-bashing and bike hauling of the previous week up on the plateau.


You never know, do you but the fuel and food dump was all there and intact underneath the sands. We gorged ourselves on Haribo, tinned frankfurters and other junk food and slept as well as we could do, knowing what lay ahead.


From there next day over the border and to the Lost Tree was across truly terre sauvage. There were some tricky hills around the Niger frontier where we erected the DRP Monument from use fuel cans. And then out into the Tenere itself: butt-numbing endurance. We were illegal and out on the edge, but I at least felt pretty safe as dodgy encounters or all three bikes packing up at once was unlikely. We saw not a soul for four or five days.


Next day on to the Tree and all the way back to Killian we did a stonking 450km – a ride to remember. We paid our respects at the remains of the marble monument erected to Thierry Sabine, the Paris-Dakar Rally founder whose ashes were scattered here in 1986 when he was among several killed in a helicopter crash near Timbuktu.


You can see below how Lost Tree is not quite what it was in 1986. Passing travellers had sawn to centuries-old acacia down to a stump over 17 odd years. With the growth in migrant traffic across the Tenere in recent years, the Lost Tree – the sole landmark for hundreds of miles – may have been lost for good.


The ride back across the Tenere was topped off with this great shot of Jon scooting down the Erg Killan on his home-made surf board.


Next day we packed up and rode back north from the Killian cache to Bordj on the Djanet road. It was another great cross country ride until Andy got puncture fever and DNFed with tyre troubles all the way home. Read his story here.

Jon and I took the regular piste west to Tamanrasset as we were keen to have a closer look at Telertheba mountain. We rode up as close as we could over the rubble and Jon trekked right up to the base of the cliffs. But climbing this jagged ridge (it’s been done) would be tricky and as usual we were low on water and food. By the time we got to Tam we felt a bit unsatisfied. Having tasted the thrill of off-piste riding, corrugations just aren’t so much fun anymore.


Jon and I parked up in Tam for a few days (it was Tabaski festival) when a Dutch KTM – a guy I met last year on the Med ferry – turned up with a couple of German mates heading for Djanet. they were keen to hear about our ride out to the Lost Tree.
About ten days later they all got kidnapped in the Oued Samene region along with 29 other tourists in various groups. Arjen and his three mates were released six months later, several stone lighter and not all of them the same people. One woman died of the heat on the plateau (2003 was an exceedingly hot summer in the central Sahara, even by Saharan standards).
Desert travel in Algeria never really recovered from that event which went on to spread all over the Sahara under the banner of the GSPC, Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and these days, more splinter groups than the Life of Brian scene.

But we didn’t know any of this yet, so Jon and I set off through the Hoggar, our back-heavy XRLs cutting through the hairpins like half-sunk canoes. Still, a cracking ride even if the rough western descent took it out of our alloy panniers (never again!). From there we were heading up the easy Amguid piste to climb Garet el Djenoun. Or so we thought. From Garet it was a 100 km or so to the last fuel cache* and try and reach to the Amguid Crater**, though to be honest we didn’t hold out much hope on our radical canyon approach route from Foum el Mahek.


Then I crashed out so that would all have to wait for another time, and with the spate of abductions and restrictions of the following decade, that time may not be any time soon. The desert party that started in the late 1970s is over. Me, I’m just pleased I packed in all the Algeria I could in the good years. I still try and go back to the Sahara most years, but Desert Riders marked the end on an era in a fabulous place with the richest memories of my original desert travels.

* We picked up the fuel in November 2005 during another visit. A bit of evaporation but 90% there after three hot summers under a rock.
** And in November 2007 I reached the amazing Amguid Crater with a camel caravan.

Honda XR650L – 4000 mile report

XRL Choice • XRL Preparation • Desert Riders

Despite early reservations in Tunisia (it’s always the way on your first ride fully loaded), we agreed the bikes made a good alternative to a KTM 640 Adventure which was our second choice.

What we liked

  • Descent suspension (but see below)
  • Economy (but Andy’s was mysteriously 15% down on ours)
  • Clutch and gearbox took the hammering well
  • Engine never baulked at crap fuel
  • Despite low bhp, it was never lacking
  • Very accurate speedo/odo
  • Anvil-like reliability – worth a lot out in the desert

What we didn’t like

  • Too high and top-heavy with that giant tank (oh really?)
  • ‘Sternwheeler’ steering (due to oversprung front end)
  • Rough riding with alloy panniers – smaller and soft next time
  • Accurately measuring the oil level
  • Skinny rear subframe
  • Accessibility for rear spring adjustment

Worthwhile mods/gear

  • Tough tank and rack fabrication
  • Nifty Petzl Zipka head torches
  • Michelin Desert/T63 knobblies
  • DID gold-plate chains
  • Foam Unifilters
  • Renthal bars and Acerbis Pros
  • My rally screen
  • Andy’s IMO
  • My tank net
  • Our bashplates!
  • Reduced gearing (14/48 – never changed it back after Oued Samene)
  • I liked my Q/D Zega panniers
  • RAM mount
  • My trusty Coleman Dual Fuel 533 stove
  • Backpack hydrators (but my Platypus bladder leaked)
  • My Altberg boots – light enough to swing over and to walk in
  • Aerostich Darien Light jackets
  • Bel Ray synthetic oil – didn’t do the engine any harm
  • Thermorest mats (a three-quarter Ultralite was fine)
  • Hardwiring the GPS

Note: by now some of this gear has become obsolete or a lot better

Sub-functional mods/gear

  • Fitting heavy front springs (without doing the same on the back)
  • My GSX-R seat (barely better than the Honda plank)
  • My RK (Tagasako) chain stretched quicker than the DIDs
  • A few of my rear alt spokes snapped – the others’ OEs were OK
  • Those 10L Ortlieb water bags are hard to use and one leaked from new
  • MSR ‘RBJ’ stoves – both packed up but not designed for regular ‘desert’ fuel anyway
  • My Renthal grips – as bad as Honda (but I used ordinary gloves)
  • Canvas tool bag on my bash plate – nice idea but metal would be better
  • A lower tank with a fuel pump would lower CoG and improve handling
  • My car type oil temp gauge never worked
  • 12v cig lighter PTOs – unreliable contact on the rough terrain – hardwiring or DINs is best
  • Enlarged sidestand foot was not big enough in soft sand

Equipment failures (not including crashes)

  • Some of my rear spokes
  • Andy’s rear T63 (rock damage)
  • Jon’s tank bungs
  • One Orlieb bag
  • MSR stoves
  • Rear subframes found cracked on Jon’s and possibly Andy’s bike.

Other than that, these XRLs came back running much better than my previous Yamaha Teneres, but they were new and run on good oil.

I’ve lately been told that the Desert Riders boots I had custom made by Alt-Berg are now part of their line up.

Honda XR650L set up

XRL Choice • XRL 4000-mile report • Desert Riders

Written before the advent of blogs, these instalments run from the first one at the bottom of the page (receiving the new bike) to the last report at the top, just prior to departure on Desert Riders in early 2003.

Final preparations, January, 2003

I gave up waiting for the rain to stop and got on with changing the tyres (Mich Desert front, T63 rear) in my room. They mount fairly easily on the XRL’s rims. I’ve drilled self-tapers into my rims to stop tyre creep (an alternative to a rim lock). Andy’s riding down on an old tyre and fitting his T63 at the last minute as he’s not so sure it will last the full 7000km. I think he may have a point but as long as there is some rubber left between the road and the rim, we’ll make it back to Tunis.

I’ve modified the gearing now to 48/15 (with a 14T option) with a new RK ‘XW’ 110L chain and the gearing feels much more normal now. I’ve also been zip-tying on bits and pieces around the bike to keep the cases free of clutter: tyre levers and tent poles along the rack, spare levers and canvas bags on the rack and one on the bashplate for oil and tools.
The freshly oiled UniFilter has been stuffed into the greased airbox. Ernie made an extra plate to keep the back wheel spin from chucking too much crap into the intake and anyway, it’s running too rich now as it’s a pretty substantial air filter. Hopefully a good blast down the road will suck some of the extra filter oil out or it will be a re-jet job.

Jon’s going to be dyno-ing his next week to try and get it right so we can copy. He came over yesterday on his machine which looks a lot lower than mine – and even then he can’t reach the ground with both feet! We slipped in the heavier fork springs which should keep some daylight between the front tyre and fender at full tank. As expected, wet road riding on the new front Desert is good for Andrex plc shares.

The TTech Zega cases are now in my room and I’m experimenting with getting all the stuff in with only a gnat’s width of wasted space.
Getting on with this reminds me of the commitment needed to keeping things light. Various items have dropped off my kit list but I don’t doubt when the day comes, it will still be a struggle getting it all in and more stuff will be dropped.


We went to Overland Solutions to pick up Jon and Andy’s bikes just before Xmas (Tip of the Day: never try to get to the Elephant on a #322 bus). As with mine, Ern did a brilliant job on the bikes. J & A have chosen to bolt their larger Tesch boxes to the racks whereas I think the q/d ability of mine will be handy in the evenings (table and chair) as long as the mounts withstand prangs. Their tanks are lower mounted too (they got scoops melted into the underneath), but as mentioned below, this could be a problem with using the full volume of the tank. Talking of which Rich Lees, who is out there now, got 41 litres from his tank – I got 37 so I may check mine again at the petrol station down the road. Rich also got his dyno tested before he left. Guess what an XRL puts out at the back wheel standard… 41hp?… 35 maybe? Try 22 bhp! It’s amazing the things manage to go forward at all, but if it means the engines last longer before blowing up, it’s OK with me.

November 10
So, our man Ernie of the Overland has not been sparing his welder and angle grinder these past weeks. My T-Tech travel tins are now sitting snuggly in a nest of powder-coated tubing that has already borne the weight of Desert Rider Escombe without a creak. Ernie’s work ran late but I now have confidence in rack and tank and frame to take the beating. In fact, it’s the first time in 20+ years I’ve had a decent machine for a desert trip and not my usual Dexion and bubblegum arrangements. Just as well too as the DRP is going to test these machines hard.

Ern did a neat job of holding up and protecting my tank – but I reckon 37 litres of slosh will need it. Jon and Andy are using the mushrooms and plates supplied in the Acerbis kit, moving the regulator and blow torching a dimple under the tank at point X. Idea of Richard Lees’ (RL’s in the same area on an XRL a month before us), but I can’t help thinking it may not be enough: all that weight on two mushies off the frame. The advantage is it’s certainly lower and more forward than my set up – ideal in fact, but I think a bit of undersupport would not go amis. Among other things Ern also fabricated lifting/dragging handles on the back rack and a revolutionary front towing/dragging handle for winching the bike out of sticky or steep situations. Expect to see it imitated on 2003 production models. The rear frame – a possible week point – has also been cleverly strengthened (hard to see in the photos) Ern also tidy up many of my bodges detailed below. It’s not light but all in has been short listed for the Fitter & Turner Prize. The cost of my work was at least a thousand quid – 20% on the cost of the bike, but undeniably worth it.
Over Xmas there will be some hasty experimentation with loading, slipping in some heavier front springs, changing the tyres and drilling the back rim (AM p.51), lowering the gearing to 14/15-48 (standard 15-45), linking up the oil temp and finding places to attach things externally. Oh for a heated and well-lit garage instead of the mossy cave in which my XRL rots quietly…

July 9
I’m off to the Outback now for 3 months work with most of the easy mods done to the XRL. Interestingly enough, fixing the seat on properly had made the bike much more likeable – makes sense really as it was like riding around with loose wheels. I took it for a 200k ride over the weekend and I can’t say the wider GSX saddle is a 3-berth suite with Jacuzzi and room service, but it has surely got to be better than the original which I did not want to chop up. Indeed all the ugly bodges I’ve done to my XRL so far are entirely reversible without trace should it not be sellable in overland format.
On the weekend trip I wired up the GPS to check odometer accuracy (very important in the DZ). Incredibly that cranky old cable drive set up gained only 1.2kms over 100 clicks – so it will be good to be able to rely on the bike’s trip meter if the GPS cuts out.
I’ve also chopped the rear light down a bit further and made it into quite a neat unit – without spending a penny! All the indicators are off but a good brake light may save a few pile ups in the canyons. I also replaced my Barkbuster buckets (for sale, 20 quid) with slinkier Acerbis Rally Pros – much better made these, but the clamps still nail the tank and reduce lock severely. The answer will be another 10 mm raise on the handlebars – so far the cables have not complained. And one thing I must do is get ride of those horrible ridged grips.
As you can see I have a giant cargo net hooked around the tank – proved very handy already this for tucking in things like gloves, small roadkill or a U-lock. I’ve also put a switch on the front light as there may be times when we want to signal to each other with the lights (normally permanently on on XRLs).
I also spent a couple of messy hours calibrating the 37-litre tank so I can pull off the cap and estimate the capacity inside against the levels marked on the outside. Useful with a massive tank like this. While I’m away Ernie the Rack will be fabricating my forward tank mounts properly – and boy will the bike need them when full. Riding it full in sand does not bear thinking about, but our first dirt section of the trip will be just that: 300kms through big dunes.
Next instalment in November when I collect the racked-up bike. By then it will finally be looking desert-ready just before I set off in the Land Cruiser to lay the fuel dumps.

July 8
I picked up my respoked rear wheel from Roger last weekend. The gauge is the same but he’s fitted less brittle galvanised items which screw in fully to the nipples. The standard stainless items only screwed in about half way – a common occurrence with Jap bikes reckons Roge.
While the wheels was off I lined up the T61 rear tyre we’ve got from Michelin. Once that alloy chainguard carrier inside the swingarm was sawn off, it fitted in fine and is about 2cm wide than the standard tyre. Hopefully, it should last the 7000km, although we may ride out on near worn out rears and fit the 61s near Hassi bel Guebbour where the dunes start.
This morning a bash plate landed on the doormat. XR650R it said. Groan… I keep getting this. No matter how many times you tell a UK bike shop it’s an XR650LLLLL, Dommie engine, XR6 frame “oh yeah, I know the one”, they send you XR600 or 650R bits.
But I could be wrong because the plate fitted just fine, with seemingly lots of air where a 650R’s water pump would go. A little tool box on the Dommie would fit in nicely.

June 7
The 37-litre (8 imp. gallon) tank is now in place and in the manner I planned. I’ve had to remove the front indicators and the screen which will need to be cut back if it’s to go back on. It took a lot of experimenting with the tank’s position to get the height at the front so that the taps are the lowest point without the front fouling the bars – we need to get full use of those 37 litres. As it is, the lock is reduced by maybe 10 degrees, but still usable. A GSX-R seat crams in nicely for the moment, although I’ve yet to take it for a decent ride to see if it’s any more comfy. It certainly sits lower, which, with the Dakar High bars cranked forward gives a kind of Dennis-H-in-Easy-Rider seating position – cool, not so hot for standing up fast.
It took a lot of staring and thinking to work out the front mounts under the front/sides of the tank, but in the end I just glued on two bits of hardwood and into these screwed two rubber exhaust mounts from a Land Cruiser. Don’t know if the picture makes this clear at all. These will then attach properly to the arms coming off the front of the bikes downtube – at the moment they sit on two bits of pipe lagging. (In the end the tank has cleared the black box near the headstock). I’ve also bodged up a tank support frame from scrap metal. It will get re-done properly by Overland Ernie when he builds the rack. at the back a block of 2 by 4 lifts the tank high enough to clear the frame. It doesn’t make for a smooth seat-to-tank interface but crudely and simply made is easily repairable out there. Now the tank should have enough movement while still being firmly located in all planes, so that it doesn’t damage itself when it takes a fall.
As things stand now, the whole bike can be returned to the original standard tank/seat format in 20 minutes plus indicators.
Meanwhile Andy has found out the hard way that XR6 bash plates don’t fit – Dommie engines are wider. Me, I was lucky enough to find the only XRL bash plate in UK captivity made to the Baja-D/Moose pattern (left).
But Andy’s installed his IMO gadget without any difficulties. It was a lot easier than I assumed: speed sensor, temp sensor and rpm sensor. that’s it. I’m a bit jealous now as even I could have managed that and may yet get one. He’s also fitted a neat Acerbis back guard which is a whole lot better than the TV-set sit dangling on my machine.
Off on some hols now – back in a couple of weeks. While I’m away Roger the Wheel will be serving my back wheel a plateful of galvanised spokes to replace the stainless. The galvanised items are no thicker, but they’re stronger. And we’ll be getting a set of 25%-over fork springs wound for us in Holland via K-Tech so the front doesn’t sink when we dare fill the tank.

May 9
Picked up the big tank from Bert Harkins today, putting on the final couple of hundred kms to run the XRL in, in readiness for a weekend’s derestricting. (Fuel = 17.8 kpl , 51 m/ukg). And the good news is the ’40-litre’ XR600R tank (actually it turns out to be just under 37) fits the XRL pretty damn well. All the fitting problems can be fixed. If you’re interested they are:

  • Still higher bars needed (ie Dakar Highs on 40mm risers)
  • Indicators restrict lock
  • Standard seat won’t fit (what a terrible blow!)
  • Side panel fronts need to be chopped off
  • Front frame lugs don’t line up – but I have a better idea…
  • Regulator (or some finned black box) is a bit close, may have to move down a bit
  • New rear tank mounting will have to be fabricated further back
  • Clutch cable is a bit close as it passes the cylinder head

The tank sits fully above the carb feed so no fuel pump needed. Nor does it shroud the barrel unduly – far from it, if anything there is more air around the frame’s oil tank and the dipstick is still easy to get to – so no extra overheating worries there. Even the taps line up with the XRLs carb hose! A quick sit on the bike with everything thrown on feels good – nifty cut outs for the knees means one’s legs are not too splayed.
The tank comes with chunky moulded back mounting lugs for which a new rear tank/frame mount will have to be fixed to the chassis rails above the airbox. This won’t be too hard, especially if it’s made out of wood (one of my favourite fabri-bodging materials, not having access to a welder). The wood mount can be easily taken off too, should the original tank/seat be refitted.
At the front I plan to improve things by supporting the tank underneath each side from a cross bar, like too-high highway footrests, which for the moment will be attached to the tabs which held on the air scoops. These tabs will almost certainly not be strong enough in a full-tank/corrugation scenario, but they’re in just the right position so I’ll get something stronger welded on at the rack-building stage. Under the front of the tank I’ll glue on some locators which will somehow lock or screw into the carrier bar. IMHO, the good thing with this system is that it that the huge tank’s mounts are triangulated, rather than in a single plane along the frame backbone. This way when the bike falls the side of the tank is not pushed into the bike (I hope ;-), stressing the plastic. And anyway, welding new front tank lugs onto the frame would be tricky.
The standard seat has to be junked of course, and good riddance to it. I picked up the front bit of a GSX750R saddle which is twice as wide and will get crammed in there somehow. I have some concerns that, with the recommended removal of the airbox snorkel during derestriction, along with the ill-fitting GSX seat base (the original seat is part rear mudguard), there will be a gap with sand getting chucked straight into the airbox. Once that is sealed off, I’ll try and make an alternative wide-mouthed snorkel that runs forward a bit under the tank, away from the spinning back wheel’s dust cloud.

While I’m waiting for the tank to turn up I’ve bodged on a ‘rally screen’, mainly to house a dashboard for some dials and switches. Fitting the cheap ABS item was easy (made for XRs) – fitting it well will take a bit longer. I kid myself that my NPF (non-permanent fastenings) system will cleverly limit damage in a crash, but it’s really just a fast and easily repairable way of slapping bits on.
Apart from a burning about the knees and rattley noises, who knows when an air-cooled engine is too hot, so I’ve half fitted an electric oil temperature gauge. Plumbing in the sender will be a bit tricky, hopefully there’ll be room to incorporate a ‘T’ with the sender stuck it into the oil outlet hose below the oil filter. If nothing else, the gauge gives you a relative reading to get used to. Bel Ray have supplied us with a few litres of their synthetic their EXC oil.
On the dash I’ve also fitted a 3-way cig lighter PTO with a switch for running and recharging various gadgets. I’ve replaced the battery with a better sealed Hawker battery – who knows if its better than standard. And I’ve welded butterflies to make QD seat retaining bolts. I haven’t got the knack of fitting the air-filter sidepanel quickly and whipping off the seat
makes it easier. Keeping this poxy arrangement well sealed will be vital of course. But now I think about it the seat certainly won’t fit with the big tank and I’m reluctant to hack it up, so I picked up a couple of cheap GSX front saddles at a motojumble. Fitting will be another zip tie and hacksaw bodge, but one of those arse-wide items will be mated to the frame and hopefully provide day-long comfort while maintaining narrowness at the knees when standing.
Recent fuel consumption figures have gone down to 50 and 52 m/ukg (17.6, 18.1 kpl) – not so impressive, and the XRL still runs like a cheese grater. Any day now Mr Postie will deliver a jetting kit. Word is, it will transform the bike.

May 1
Well this XRL is not so bad, is it. Popped down to David Lambeth’s Overland R&D establishment hidden in the Sussex Weald to deliver some books and see what there was to scrounge – a 150km round trip of town country and motorway riding. The ride revealed that:

  • The gear change feels unusually good.
  • The brakes are still nothing special.
  • The seat is about half the width it needs to be for an adult human.
  • The pipe is as noisy as I want it to be so, apart from dumping the restrictor washer half way along, I won’t be messing around with removing baffles.
  • The suspension seems pretty firm as standard, but this is only unloaded on the highway.
  • It’s higher than it needs to be – there may be room under the bash plate (to be fitted) for heavy stuff (a trick used on my Benele desert bike)
  • It ran onto reserve at 140kms, returning 21.2kpl (60.5 mpUKg) which is not bad and looking good for our desert target of 17kpl.
  • The jetting feels a bit uneven with some backfiring, to be sorted when it’s run-in.
  • The gearing is pretty high – loaded up in the sand and rocks it will need to be lowered to pull without stressing the clutch.
  • It’s nice and light to handle, more skittish XR than stable NX. And although you can feel the engine running, vibration is not a problem.
  • Power, well the jetting, pipe and filter will get sorted in a few hundred kms.

DL also pointed out some things on the XRL:

  • XR wheels with straight-pull spokes good (thought I plan to fit thicker on the back. The rims are DID which are presumably OK.
  • Skimpy XR subframe with pillion footrest mounts drilled – not so good.
  • He didn’t like the battery box arrangement either, and suggested a sealed unit laid on its side in the back guard. As it happens I have a sealed Hawker bat looking for a new home
  • Twinlamp Tenere tank supports would adapt well to supporting a 40-L XR6 Acerbis from each side – should it fit the XRL

In his bunker there wasn’t much useful Honda stuff – mostly Yam of course. He kept trying to trick me into buying stuff which he should know by now is a waste of time. He had an interesting ABS XR rally screen which looked like a flimsy baby bath. Not sure about that one…
On the way home I got caught in a storm. The Darien miraculously became waterproof following the last time I used it in the Yukon, but otherwise I was soaked. Oddly exhilarating, it took me back to the old days when I rode every day for years at a time.

Late April
While I’m waiting for a plate I’ve spent a few afternoons poking about the bike. A guy suggested I block the smog thing off myself – the Baja Designs kit being nothing special. Sure enough, once I unravelled the windings of the octopusian gadget, it all came away easily revealing a carb, no less. In keeping with the environmental ethos of the smog pump, I reused one of the hoses to re-attach the crankcase breather back to the air-box and stuffed an old ear plug into the other hole left in the airbag. On the lower front barrel the two holes feeding the smog pump were blanked off using some strips from the metal frame the bike came in. Any more of this and I’ll applying for a recycling grant.
The smog contraption appears to be ‘powered’ by vacuum hose off the carb. This hose may well prove useful to power a Mikuni fuel pump, should the 40-litre Acerbis tanks we’ve dug up require it. For the moment though, it’s on standby, plugged up with a screw.

A crate of Touratech goodies arrived the other day. A couple of Zega boxes, frames, mounts and a bunch of misc. items. The telescopic tyre pump looks nifty and I especially like the ‘GPS holder arm’ – or ‘Ram Mount’ as they thrustingly call it. It’s a very neat way of making a small-screened GPS readable and adjustable. I plan to get another one for the other side of the bars for the minicam.
I also picked up a bag of used XRLeries from an ex-Trans Am Trailer whose XRL got pinched. A couple of sprockets, cables, another tank and some bucket-sized hand guards with bark busters have nearly gone onto the Renthal Dakar Medium bars. These turned out to be no higher than the steel originals, so if you want high bars – go for the ‘Dakar Highs’. Luckily Touratech included some 40cm bar raisers which should make standing less of a stoop and will help clear the big tank.
Unable to wait any longer, I made up a cardboard number plate and went for a quick scoot to the bank. First riding impressions? Snatchy, not much low-rpm pull, brakes not so hot, but the bike is nice and slim (not for long…). And there is no speed bump in town that can faze the XRL. It feels a bit choked, but so would you with 6km on your clock. As we all know there are various ways of perking up an XRL, jetting – pipe – foam filter – but I’ll give it a few hundred clicks to run-in before ripping off the pipe and fitting a bottle of nitrous oxide.

First instalment – April 2002
The bikes are here. Not having bought a new bike for nearly 20 years, it was fun picking a crate and putting my machine together. Jon and Andy will be collecting their crates shortly.  First impressions? Well if Honda have the best ‘attention to detail’ of the Jap Four (as they say in the mags) then I’m sure glad we didn’t buy a Suyamsaki! I guess the XRL is a mongrel, but crappy fittings and half-baked afterthoughts make you think a KTM is worth the extra grand…

So far I like:

  • Adjustable suspension.
  • DID rims.
  • Disc brakes all round.
  • Relatively light silencer.

Not so impressed by:

  • Ridiculous smog thing.
  • Flimsy fork gaiters, handlebars, lever mounts, chain guard, shock mud flap and tool bag.
  • Useless engine bars.
  • Battery compartment hanging off the back.

Still, I haven’t ridden it yet as I want to take my time, have a good poke around and knock out some obvious jobs while it’s still half-built and clean.

Honda XR650L for Desert Riders

XRL preparation • 4000-mile reportDesert Riders 

Back in 2002 the criteria for our ideal desert machine for Desert Riders added up to those listed on p.208 of my Sahara Overland book:
• Lightness
• Economy
• Comfort
• Robustness
• Agility
• Reliability
• Mechanical simplicity

To give ourselves a good chance of success we wanted to buy new bikes and so the list was narrowed down to:
• KTM 640 Adventure
• Kawasaki KLR 650 (imported from Canada)
• Honda XR650L (imported from Australia)
• Yamaha TT600E (imported from Italy)
• BMW F650GS Dakar

In recent years I’d travelled with all these machines, either on my desert tours or my own travels. The way we saw it then, in 2002 these were the pros and cons of each machine:

KTM 640
27L tank, desert-ready components, suspension and build qualityExpensive in the UK, variable economy, vibration and exceedingly poor comfort
KLR 650
23L tank, inexpensive, economical, reliable, good kit in the USImport and registration hassles, average suspension
Inexpensive, economical, reliable, good suspension, proven air-cooled engineImport and registration hassles, small tank, seat height.
Easy to import, air-cooled, well known in UK and EuropeImport and registration hassles, dated design, small tank, leaky USDs, ‘non-Japanese’ build quality?
F650 Dakar
UK model, comfort, very good economyHeavy, complex, pricier than Japs

In a Burger King one evening we narrowed it down to a KTM or Honda with large fries. Then, once we considered the importance of economy and got a good price from Australia (about £4000 delivered), the Honda XR650L was the choice we were all confident with (until we rode them…).
In case you don’t know, the XRL is an NX650 Dominator engine in an XR600 frame ~ more or less. With good springs and a trail bike motor, it’s the ideal set-up for a desert bike, even if we had to buy a tank and get racks made. In our opinion, for this ride Honda’s proven, decade-old technology was an asset.
And now, they still sell them new in the US!

Proceed to XRL preparation