In my short CRF-L test in the UK back in February I speculated: ’If you can cruise at a real world 65mph and tackle any reasonable off-road trail, it makes you wonder if a bike like this could indeed be a contender as a lightweight, load-carrying overlander...’
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. Links to the trip reports:
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:
- Tail rack and Jesse prototype side racks
- Magadan panniers and Watershed dry bag
- Spitfire screen
- Bash plate, bar risers and hand guards
- EJK fuel controller
- 12v plug
- RAM mounts
- Trailtech Vapor, satnav and GPS
- Aerostich wool seat pad
- Standard gearing
- Half an inch of preload added to the rear shock
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.
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.
Without even trying, I got close to my 100mpg (UK) 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 though – 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!
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 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 by the way was perfect – never a stutter or a stall nor a surge when hot as the BMW did last year in Morocco, just some brief hunting as it warmed up in the mornings.
Like all 250s, hills and headwinds are 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 (right) 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 spaced gearing 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).
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.
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.