How fast does it go, Mister?

One of the first considerations when planning an adventure like ours is to decide what bikes you plan to use for the journey. We’ve all seen Ewan and Charlie manhandling their huge BMWs through Eastern Russia and some of us have seen Austin Vince and his Mondo Enduro group taking the very long way round on old, modified Suzuki enduro bikes.

The popularity of The Long Way Round/Down combined with the ageing motorcycle riding population has led to the rise of the “adventure motorcycle” sector which has given us a huge choice of potential mounts. Virtually every manufacturer now offers their interpretation of what an adventure bike should be, from the narrowly focussed CCM GP450 Adventure through to recently announced Harley-Davidson 1250cc Pan America. Many of the manufacturers follow a similar path of producing a “big trailie” bike similar to the way that car manufacturers are building 4×4 vehicles that will never go off-road in their life: most of them know that the majority of adventure bikes will be used for two-up with luggage touring on tarmac.

So the task began to search for our perfect bikes for this trip. Both of us have already bought into the adventure bike scene with me owning a Triumph Tiger 800 XCx and Mike riding a Kawasaki KLE 1000 Versys, both of which are excellent touring bikes but neither are really suited to the kind of riding that we envisage during this journey. I immediately narrowed the search by imposing a £5,000 cap on the price of the bike and both of us decided that the lighter the bike is, the better it would be: Triumph claim that the dry weight of the XCx is 205 kg and Kawasaki have the wet weight at 239 kg for the Versys 1000. These weights are without all of the add-ons such as panniers and crash bars that’ll soon get you struggling to lift the bike off its stand one last time at the end of a long day of riding, so the idea is to get something that’s light to start with and keep the weight as far below 200 kg as possible without too much compromise.

These self-imposed limitations immediately ruled out all of the flagship adventure bikes above 1,000 cc and the majority of mid-sized (650 – 800 cc) bikes. Even the Suzuki DL650 V-Strom, which we both like, weighs in at a staggering 220 kg wet and, upon closer examination, we found that the ground clearance is that of a street bike, not something that can climb mountains, forge rivers and cross deserts. So this gave us a short list of four bikes… that doesn’t sound very many but I also didn’t want to go too old (DR350) or have to make too many modifications to the existing platform; I just wanted to add bags and go! The four bikes were the Yamaha XT660Z Ténéré, Kawasaki’s Versys-X 300, the Royal Enfield Himalayan and the totally left-field SWM 650 Superdual Adventure.

Mike really likes the 660 Ténéré as he previously owned one that he did many miles on whilst touring around Europe. I agree that it is a very capable bike that I really like the look of. Some other friends have owned them and none have had anything bad to say about them. They are powered by an engine that has been around for decades: Yamaha’s 660 single can be traced all the way back to the 1976 XT500 and has been refined and kept up-to-date in many guises since. I had never ridden one (although I have had different versions of the engine in other bikes and I do like a good old thumper) so I decided to find one to test ride. This was a bit difficult as Yamaha stopped bringing the 660 Ténéré into the UK about 10 years ago and people who have them seem to like and keep them. We eventually found one at a dealership in Essex who was willing to let me have a test ride: he was asking for the top book price but when we looked at the bike, it didn’t seem in that good condition with damaged side panels and a jacked-up rear end. The test ride didn’t help as something just didn’t feel right: as though the bike hadn’t been looked after. This experience put me off a little, however, I did keep an eye out for another but none turned up.

Just before Christmas 2018, we were able to try out the 300 Versys-X which, looking at the spec sheet and sitting on it in the showroom, seemed like the ideal bike. At just 175 kg wet and nearly 40 horse power, it looked like a winner: light(ish) and quite powerful for a 300 cc twin, it should be able to cope with any terrain as well as the odd dual carriageway that we should happen upon. In reality, however, the engine seemed very buzzy – ideal for a street bike but not so good when negotiating a gnarly, boulder-strewn trail. This was a real shame as Mike really liked the bike on our 20 mile jaunt over to Sudbury, likening it to an old 2-stroke from his youth. I, on the other hand, wasn’t as enamoured as I didn’t like having to rev the little engine to get anything out of it: by the time you’re doing 30 mph, you’re already in 6th gear! I did have a little fun on the way back to Ipswich: on this rare occasion, the A1071 was empty and I was able to have some enjoy twisties on this little bike, winding it up into the “power band” and letting it flow from one corner to the next, I really did have some fun, however, this is not how I would like to spend 6 months travelling through distant lands.

The test ride to Sudbury gave us the opportunity to visit the Adventure Bike Shop so that we could have a look at the SWM 650 Superdual Adventure. This bike, to me, is a bit of an unknown: SWM is an Italian manufacturer who are owned by a Chinese company that are using a BMW derived Husqvarna engine in a light-weight bike that comes in several formats… I think. The shop had 3 of the bikes in stock for around £7,500, but none of them were the same: one didn’t have ABS and another had a 19 inch front wheel so I was a bit confused. They were also above my ceiling of £5,000 although Mike did find some at other dealers for a lot less than the list price. Both Mike and I really liked the bikes and I was willing to ignore my price limit as these bikes are basically ready to go with everything included: crash protection, auxiliary lights and sockets along with a full set of hard luggage. Add all of that to any other bike and you’re looking at another £1,000+ so, if we could get the bikes for around £6,000 or a little over, they wouldn’t be breaking the bank. On the down side, at the time we were looking at the SWM, their UK importer had just gone bust and we weren’t sure of how easy or hard it would be to source parts once we left Europe.

Then we have the Royal Enfield Himalayan. This is the bike that I really wanted to do this trip on: it’s an air-cooled, 411 cc long-stroke single that is totally unstressed in a chassis that is made how bikes used to be made: from steel. At £4,199 on the road, the Himalayan is a bargain. It’s not fast as it only has 24 horse power and it’s a bit heavy at around 190 kg but it does what it does with ease and comfort. The seat height is pretty low for this kind of bike but that means that Mike is able to get both feet flat on the ground, which can’t be said for all of the bikes we sat on! When you consider what the Enfield factory in India has been producing for over half a century, the Himalayan is a huge departure from their standard line-up of bikes that have hardly changed since production left the UK. We both really liked this bike and, for me, it was the front runner for the whole of the search. It is a bike that can be worked on anywhere if something fails or breaks and, being made in India, it is designed for conditions far harsher than you would encounter within Western Europe. It really did tick all of the boxes.

Then, without fanfare or forethought, up pops the Honda CRF250L and CRF250 Rally. I know that Mike had been following Steph Jeavons on Instagram or Twitter who had travelled over 50,000 trouble-free miles on a CRF250L, so I think that I just searched for the bike on the Honda website and was amazed to find that the L model was around £4,600 with the Rally at around £1,000 more. I had a quick look on our local Honda dealer website (Lings in Ipswich) and found that they had one of each model in their showroom, so I suggested to Mike that we should pop in to see them at the weekend. So there we were, at the beginning of January, 2019, in the Lings showroom bouncing up and down on a pair of CRF250s… and enjoying their lightness and size: not too small and not too big. I was thinking that a pair of modified L models would be good, even though I preferred the Rally with its screen and slightly better weather protection and then Mike sat on the Rally and was surprised that he was able to get both feet on the ground: the seat height on the Rally is a massive 895 mm, nearly an inch higher than the L model and a whopping 2 inches more than the much coveted KTM 790 Adventure R which, if money was no object, we would have both chosen for this trip. The reason for Mike sudden leg extension was actually down to the fact that the suspension compresses a long way once the rider sits on the bike. We got chatting with the sales chaps and found that, as the new models were coming in soon, they had a red CRF250 Rally for just under £5,000 on the road. This really got the little grey cells working and, after an hour or so of chat and looking around the bikes, Mike and I retired to the pub across the road for a bit of refreshment and to regroup. We both really liked the bikes and decided that, if they could get a black one for me at the same price, we would do the deal and buy a pair. That was it: the deal was done and all we had to do was wait a couple of weeks.

Two weeks later, we turned up at Lings at 9 o’clock on a Friday morning with that child-like expectance on a Christmas morning. Neither of us had even had a test ride on these bikes but here we were, handing over nearly £5,000 for a brace of Hondas that would be our transport for the trip of a lifetime. Well… they’re Hondas; maybe not the most inspiring engines but something that we know will do this kind of trip without any fuss as long as we look after them and change their oil every few thousand miles. They are so prolific that we should have no problems finding any parts that we may need in most major towns anywhere along our route. We’ve both owned Hondas before and we both like them.

TOTU CRF250 Rally

As Mike has already said, the first big step has been taken and it’s now, finally happening. We have already looked at virtually every after-market gadget and gizmo available to make these two World conquering bikes and I’m sure many will make it on to the bikes. Here’s to the next year of farkling!