When the email came through about a dual-sport trip to Nevada not long after getting home from Colorado, I casually dismissed the invitation. I had heaps of work on my plate and an ongoing home renovation project – both of which were already requiring more attention than I had to give. Once things started to slow down and I had completed some of the looming projects, it didn’t take long for my relentless wanderlust to creep back in. I went back into my inbox to give the Nevada email another look. The itinerary spanned 850 miles of riding over six days with a travel day on either end.
Of course, I knew the trip would be spectacular. The person putting it together has loads of experience in the area and a lifetime of GPS track logs built by putting in the time and miles exploring. Could I get away for another week with everything going on at work and home? Did I want to? If so, I’d have to convince my boss and then get approval from Evans, too. Just as I began to really consider the possibility, I remembered the stories I had heard from the last couple of attempts at this itinerary. Two years ago, the ride had ended prematurely with a blown bike, and last year, the trip was cut short due to a broken collarbone. “Hmm, maybe I don’t want to do this,” I thought. People always say bad things happen in threes and I didn’t want to be the third to have a bad break, mechanical or otherwise.
With all things considered, I decided to go for it because, well, I’m young and foolish. I’m the type that never says, no. I’ll always take on assignments, projects, etc. Maybe it’s the FOMO, or just that I truly enjoy new experiences, whatever they may be. I brought the idea up to Evans, and we discussed whether or not I should take vacation or bring back a story or two and call it work.
Always hungry for more content on the site, he suggested I talk to Honda about using its CRF450L for the trip. Why not? After all, Brent and I’s comparison test a while back saw the Honda faring pretty well against the time-tested KTM 500 EXC-F. I’d have a chance to put the Honda to the test in a way we rarely get to these days. With only about five percent of the itinerary’s mileage consisting of pavement, it would be a fantastic way to test the real dual-sport capability of the Honda CRF450L.
After confirming with Honda the availability of a 450L, we were set, or so I thought. A heavy workload for our friends at Honda North America nearly had me taking vacation instead. I had asked about using the 450L, which wasn’t a problem as they had one available, but I had a few requirements: a larger fuel tank, proper knobbies wrapped around heavy-duty tubes (it’s rocky in Nevada), and wrap-around handguards. They could deliver on all but the handguards, So, I asked for replacement levers to stow in my pack for insurance. I really wish manufacturers would fit dual-sport and enduro bikes with wrap-around handguards from the factory, but that’s a rant for another time.
Up until a day before I was planning to pick up the bike, everything was cherry. Then, a miscommunication about the timeline led to a text message that the bike would not be ready in time. Honda thought they had one more day to prepare the 450L than they did. As I finished prepping my personal dual-sport for the trip and was about to submit my vacation request, I got a call from Honda’s PR manager that he thought he would actually be able to pull it off and have the bike prepped for pick up later that day. As we spoke, he was rummaging through parts bins to find extra levers and locating some slightly used Dunlop D606s to have mounted. Reliability isn’t just found in the company’s machines, the folks we deal with at Honda North America are just as dependable and weren’t going to let us down if they could help it.
The next morning I loaded the CRF450L between a couple of pumpkins in the back of a friend’s Transit and headed northeast. We met the other two members of our posse at the motel where we would be stowing the vans for the next six days. After dinner, our crew turned in early to get a reasonable start the next morning – it always takes a little longer the first day to get everything set before blast off.
Day one was spent getting used to the bike on some slick gravel-strewn fire roads and two-trackers. The day was mostly fast paced with some really fun faint two-track trails running through dense fields of sagebrush. I added three clicks of rebound damping to the shock which helped keep the rear end much more planted and compliant during fast sections where the rear was previously rebounding much too fast over large bumps and g-outs. The adjustment didn’t seem to cause any issues in slower technical stuff either.
The throttle and powerband took some getting used to though. The throttle requires a bit of attention to avoid abruptness, particularly when the motor is spun up. During technical rocky climbs when the motor was in its powerband, I had a difficult time minimizing wheel spin and keeping traction. As the rest of the day had hinted, the fork felt pretty harsh when taking bigger, slower hits. In the faster, more flowing trail sections that weren’t littered with rocks, it felt fine and totally in its element, but in slower sections over large rocks, the fork felt like it would get to a point in the stroke where the damping felt like you were trying to shoot molasses through a pinhole.
The day concluded with a rocky descent through switchbacks on the side of a massive canyon. At the bottom, sits a small community consisting of a double-digit population replete with character. The saloon/motel was across the dirt road from the gas pump which meant we didn’t have far to walk for everything we needed.
Our waitress (and cook) the next morning was Nancy, a cheeky elderly woman whose ribbing was cleverly timed and enjoyed, despite the early morning hour. A light, steady drizzle came down as we warmed ourselves with coffee inside the restaurant. Overnight, a cold front had rolled in leaving the gorge shrouded in fog so dense it concealed the surrounding mountain tops. The waterproof pack jacket I had brought would be seeing early use during this trip. Once we were full of caffeine, salty meat, and eggs, we geared up and set off for what would turn out to be quite the day for yours truly.
We made our way out of the canyon through winding fire roads. The light rain remained constant and while doing a slow u-turn, I had my first tip over. At almost zero mph, I couldn’t get my foot to the ground fast enough and slowly dropped the 450L on the downward slope. As soon as it happened I knew I had probably broken the clutch lever. Unfortunately, I was correct. This is one of the reasons I prefer wrap-around handguards, because it is so easy to break a lever in a silly situation like this one. Thankfully, there was still enough lever to use with two fingers due to the notched tip, so I didn’t bother replacing it. I just filed the sharp edges down a bit with a rock.
After cruising through more miles of fire roads, we dropped into some faster two-track trails that meandered through rolling grasslands where cattle grazed. I came up to a large wallowed-out muddy stream crossing at speed and thought I would take a less-used line to the side. Never have I so quickly and completely cleared the handlebars of a motorcycle. You see, that little stream was cut deep enough into the earth that it swallowed the Honda’s 21-inch front wheel and sent me shoulder first into that cold muddy stream. When I got up I felt water run out of my helmet down the back of my neck. It was around 50 degrees that morning so, needless to say, it was more than refreshing. I tried not to think about all of the cows and what the stream might have washed down with it.
About the time I was utterly soaked in questionable water, the rain let up and the sun came out. Later in the day, we regrouped and encountered yet another mudhole. More tentative than I might have been had I not gone over the bars earlier in the day, I stopped, assessed the situation, and decided to give it a go at a particularly sloppy section. With what turned out to be not enough speed and aggression, I got myself stuck. After attempting to power through the mud, I was sunk to my rear axle in slop. It took three of us to pull the machine out and we nearly lost one of our crew (or at least her boots) to the bottomless goo. See lead image.
Today was not my day. I hadn’t had this much trouble on a dirtbike since I started riding four years ago. And it was only day two! The trails turned rocky as we began to climb, dipping down periodically into small valleys of Aspens tucked neatly between rolling hills. During a particularly long and steep rocky climb, I felt like the only way I’d make it to the top was to carry some serious speed while choosing my line as best as possible to avoid the craggy embedded rocks that were coming at me with equally serious ferocity.
After smashing into a few especially hard-edged corners, I made it to the top. Worried about the possibility of a pinch flat I checked both tires throughout the next few miles. I couldn’t believe how much of a handful the bike had been, but then I remembered that the Honda weighs nearly 50 pounds more than my similarly equipped dual-sport, and some of that weight is fairly high in the frame, meaning that it gives the bike a pendulum effect when knocked back and forth. During normal riding, the Honda masks its weight quite well, but in more technical terrain, it’s noticeable.
After a quick regroup at the top we pushed on, spacing out to avoid the little dust there was and give each other room. I crested a hill at what was probably the top of third gear and something happened. I’m still not sure what, but it sent me to the ground so hard and quick that I still can’t comprehend it. I watched the bike slide down the trail and then into the grass on the side. As I got up, fairly stunned, I saw my tool belt had ripped off of my waist and my GPS had too flown the coop. The term “yard sale” comes to mind. The two riders following me eventually caught up and saw the mess I had made of myself. Thankfully, the bike started just fine, but the handlebars had been pretty severely tweaked. I tried to straighten them out by holding the front wheel between my knees and jerking the handlebars to one side. It helped a bit, but they weren’t perfect. I decided to ride with them the way they were until our next regroup.
At this point, I was ready to call it quits. Despite the beautiful scenery, and what might have otherwise been enjoyable trails, I was done. I started hatching a plan to go back to the motel where the vans were sitting and just work from there until the others finished their ride. With all this bad luck, bad riding, whatever it was, I started to worry that I was going to end up seriously injuring myself.
“F*************CK!” I yelled, as I landed on my side in a deep silty road. I should have probably been focusing on the ride. The expletive was shouted more out of frustration than pain. Imagine falling into a giant pile of flour. Everything was covered. The bike and I looked antique. It would seem the Honda had had enough of me. The bike would turn on, the lights, dash, etc., but the starter button did nothing. After surviving the severe impact earlier, I was shocked that this low-speed tip over in powder would have done in Big Red.
Then I noticed the rear wheel was completely locked. In neutral, the rear wheel wouldn’t budge, the chain had absolutely no slack in it. Once realizing that the chain had jumped some teeth, perhaps from being too loose, we got the chain back on the sprockets and then adjusted for the appropriate tautness. The wheel was back to spinning freely, but the bike still wouldn’t start. After a lot of troubleshooting with my basic mechanical know-how, we decided, in the waning light, that we needed to get back on the road. We were still 25 miles from our destination.
This is why you should, 1.) Not ride alone, and 2.) carry a tow-rope. With no tow-rope in my pack, I was at the mercy of the two much more, um, mature riders that had stuck around with me during this debacle. The other two members of our quintet were far enough ahead that they had to continue into town to try to get gas before the only pump for 50 miles shut down for the evening. They didn’t make it, so there was no turning back to check on the rest of us and, as my luck would have it, one of those two were the most mechanically knowledgeable of the group. A KTM 500 XC-W ended up towing me 23 miles into town through more silt, narrow winding trails, and then a skosh of highway. In the middle of all of that, I managed to coast downhill by myself for two miles. I forced myself to keep my hand and foot off of the brakes in order to get as far as possible. Day two had sucked.
After some detective work by our ride leader in the motel parking lot, he was able to narrow the starting issue down to a blown FI fuse, after of course, we had cut and by-passed the clutch interlock sensor (sorry, Honda). The bike started, and I was set to continue on our ride. Great.
No really, I was appreciative. What else was I going to do? Sit in a town consisting of a gas station, a bar, a motel, and a few houses for four or five days while I waited for the others to come get me?
The following morning consisted of microwave burritos, instant coffee, and bringing the bike back to its pre-Ryan rideability. We loosened the triples in order to get the fork legs straightened out and decided we would try raising the fork tubes to see if we could get the bike steering a little quicker while we were at it. It was also pointed out that the rear wheel had been rubbing the exhaust which meant I had tweaked the subframe, the exhaust, or something else. Once we got the handlebars straightened, we laid the bike on its left side and started looking for a piece of wood tall enough to reach from the ground to the exhaust.
My stomach turned at the thought of what we were about to have to do to this press bike. The guys had not stopped giving me grief asking what Honda was going to say when I returned the bike. I wasn’t sure. I still “owed them a beer” from the Africa Twin disaster during our last big ADV shootout. When I set the bike on its side in the gravel parking lot, I had put a folded up belt under the grip so it wouldn’t get damaged which, of course, brought more heckling from the peanut gallery. After what I had put the bike through, who cared about a grip? I did. Ugh, poor bike, I thought to myself as I climbed on top of it. I grabbed one of the guy’s hands to stabilize myself as I jumped into the air and slammed my boots down on the Honda’s frame. The stump we had placed between the ground and the exhaust held firm and with one jump I had bent the muffler out of the way so it was no longer in danger of being contacted by the rear tire.
Oh, and it turns out, in all of my excitement, I hadn’t checked the tire pressures and, without a tire gauge in my tool pack, I took one of the guy’s pushing on my rear tire on the trail and saying, “Feels the same as mine” as a good enough measurement. After all the trouble I had, we decided to check the pressure and it nearly blew the pencil gauge’s measurement bar out the end. I had somewhere north of 25 pounds of pressure in my rear tire and roughly the same in the front. I should have been running 15 or so on both ends. I couldn’t believe I had made such a stupid mistake. Of course, this was adding to a lot of my traction issues. While the Honda’s engine characteristics still made things tricky, the high pressures had exacerbated the issues.
After all of that abuse, the bike was ready to roll once more. I asked the motel/gas station owner if I could use a hose to clean off the bike. After all, it was the least I could do for the poor machine after stomping on it. Once we hit the trails, the only thing we had to backpedal on was the fork height adjustment. Moving the fork tubes up had made the bike incredibly unstable. It felt like the wheel was under the motor so we returned them to the factory position which was much more stable. With a refreshed yet cautious attitude, I tackled the day from the back of the pack. I never felt totally comfortable in the rocks with the 450L, and that hadn’t changed. The suspension just wasn’t jiving, and the fork was delivering a lot of those impacts directly to my hands and wrists. At the last section of the day, I had a good run following one of the guys through a faster, vegetation-dense section of trail that ended at a cattle gate that would need closing after we had all passed through. I decided I’d wait till our last rider came through to help close the gate. After what started to seem like a worrying amount of time, she showed up.
“Something happened to my rear brake,” she said, worried. She mentioned there had been a loud noise from the rear, a puff of white smoke, and then pedal pressure went away. She’d also found a stick lodged in the pedal afterward. It took only a quick look at her rear brake to see that the inboard supports on the caliper had blown off and the piston was now pushing the brake pads into the rotor to the point that the inner pad had been almost severed at that point by the friction. “This itinerary is cursed,” I thought to myself. It was her bike that blew up two years ago, too! I told her I’d bet our lead rider (her boyfriend) says, “I’ve never seen anything like that!” when we caught up with them at the pavement stretch back into town. Sure enough, on cue, “I’ve never seen anything like that!” he blurted out.
That little snafu caused the couple to miss the next day’s intended route. Rather, they decided to use BFRs to get to our next destination and spent the morning calling shops and dealerships to see if they could get a caliper delivered to the evening’s motel. A single shop in Idaho had one rear caliper in stock. The dealer told us the entire state’s KTM dealerships have their parts inventory visible to one another, meaning that it was the only one in the state. At least some good fortune was had. They helped to arrange a courier service delivery that would have the caliper to the motel that evening, which it did. In the morning, we swapped in the new caliper and pads and she was ready to ride. Good as new.
Our ride leader, Jim, wasn’t going to let anything stop him from finishing this itinerary out. We’d see it through till the end this time! 2020 was the year (ha!).
The following day started out rocky and stayed that way. It was 145 rocky miles of hell. Okay, that may be an exaggeration, but with the way the Honda performed through rockier sections, I wasn’t looking forward to an entire day of it. I was too worried to carry much speed for fear of getting a pinch flat (especially now that my pressures were where they should be). And the way the Honda was smashing through the rocks, I didn’t want to go any faster anyway. I slowly made it through the day. I can still feel the pain in my hands, no doubt permanent at this point, as I’m typing this two weeks later.
The end of day five took us through some really beautiful trails flush with Aspens and through a few stream crossings. Thankfully, these were full of rocks rather than cow excrement. We were warned that there was a long steep uphill toward the end. “Nothing too technical, you just don’t want to lose momentum,” I was told.
That hill nearly defeated me. On the first attempt I got stuck and dug a hole quickly in the dry, loose rocky dirt. Back at the bottom for a second try, I let a good amount of air out of my rear tire, drank the half-ounce of water I had left, and gave it another go, stalled, and had to come back down again. A third attempt kicked me sideways and shot me off downhill and the bike landed upside down. Picking up a 300-pound motorcycle with its skid plate facing uphill in terrain you can barely stand on is tiring. Absolutely exhausted from getting beat up by the bike all day, I had to take some time to catch my breath and suck whatever moisture I could out of my Camelbak. Our ride leader rode down and offered to ride the Honda up the hill and let me use his bike. No f*cking way was I going to let that happen. I politely declined, and then, in anger, blasted my way to the top of the hill.
At the top, I had a clear view of a steeper hill climb, albeit shorter, ahead of us. One guy tried and failed so we decided to go cross country and traverse the side hill that happened to be littered with massive piles of tombstone-sized scree. Everyone struggled a bit, including yours truly (hard to imagine, right?), but we managed to make it to the top. At that point, the ride into town was a cakewalk compared to where we had come from, but it was still sprinkled with a few steep rocky descents. We were back in the small village we had stayed at the first night, and the saloon had never looked so welcoming. After some impressive stand-up comedy from the bar/restaurant/motel’s (and many of the other businesses in town) proprietor, we had burgers at the bar and promptly went to bed.
Day six, the final day. I was happy to be on the home stretch. It turned out that when the bike had ended up upside down on that steep hill I must have poked a couple of holes in the radiator. At our first regroup out of town we decided that the amount of coolant on my left boot necessitated a fix. Down the Honda went again on its side as we performed more trail triage on the big girl. Once the Quick Steel had cured we topped her up with water and we were good to go again. So was I. Knowing that it was the last day rejuvenated my battered and broken spirits and thankfully, the trail, although it was 160 miles or so, managed to be a lot of the faster flowing terrain that the Honda was much more adept at railing through.
In the afternoon, we snaked through canyons with tall reddish-brown jagged walls stretching high to meet the perfect blue sky above. The dirt road was lined with golden Aspens glowing in the Autumn sun. I think we all slowed down through that portion just to enjoy the scenery. Our last miles were spent passing through a 198,000-acre private ranch that our ride leader had acquired a permit for, giving us special permission to travel through the area. Slightly sunburnt, thoroughly battered (maybe that was just me and the 450L), and inundated with dust. We reconvened at the highway that would take us back to our starting point.
What a ride. The Honda CRF450L had managed to make it through despite my abuse. If I owned the bike – which I may be forced to once Honda reads this – there are some definite measures I would take to remedy some of the issues I had. Weight savings would be first. Stripping everything I possibly could and replacing parts with 450X components like the rear subframe, where feasible. Next, I would send the suspension out to get re-valved and probably change the spring rates. The IMS three-gallon tank is a necessity for the type of riding I do. The stock two-gallon tank simply won’t cut it. And last but not least, wrap-around handguards. I would also probably throw on some of my favorite Bridgestone X40s on with HD tubes, too.
With that work, I think I could be happy with the CRF450L, but as it sat on this trip, it was a handful. Not all of my issues were caused by the bike, for sure, but I think with the aforementioned changes, I would have had a smoother ride. Or maybe I wouldn’t have, and the itinerary really is cursed. I’m not sure I’ll go back to find out.