Africa Twin – The Ride

Photos by Bill Petro unless otherwise specified

There’s that moment. When you realize the bike is past the point of saving and it’s time to let it go. Ideally, this should be a graceful moment — especially when you’re being watched by your fellow journos. As the bike’s front wheel yanked to the side and everything collapsed beneath me, I stepped off, lifted my visor and exclaimed to the onlookers what was already clear:  I was an idiot. And this was not a graceful moment.

Lucky for me, the bike was a Honda CRF250L, a filler bike on this Africa Twin launch that had a three-to-one ratio of journos to Africa Twins. But we were fortunate to have the three Africa Twins that we did. Being the only three  in North America right now, there was a lot of pressure to not be the first journalist to crash one.

To try to ensure this didn’t happen, Honda Canada flew out Adventure Bike instructor Clinton Smout to give all the journalists a refresher, since most of us spent the last five months off two wheels and on the couch. Ergo the CRF250 incident.

Before we were allowed to get reckless on the Africa Twin we all had to do a training session with Clinton Smout. I'm the gorilla at the front on the CRF250L And yes, everyone is wearing matching Klim gear. They came to the launch and kitted everyone out.
Before we were allowed to get reckless on the Africa Twin, we all had to do a training session with Clinton Smout. I’m the gorilla at the front on the CRF250L. And yes, everyone is wearing matching Klim gear. They came to the launch and kitted everyone out.

I was happy to let the more sociopathic journalists Bogart the Africa Twins as I battled with my jet-lagged brain to understand the bike’s features, get my head around the next obstacle and make sure I was not the one who appeared on the viral YouTube video.

There's no stopping now. Launching the CRF250L through a muddy hole and up a slope in front of an expectant crowd of journalists
There’s no stopping now. Launching the CRF250L through a muddy hole and up a slope in front of an expectant crowd of journalists

The learning curve was almost as steep as the hill-climb test (complete with muddy hole at the entry point) which, I must admit, was not an enjoyable experience. But much like the hill climb, there’s a point when you finally get to the top and for me, that was on the mini motocross track. This was where I finally swung a lanky leg over the tall saddle of the big Twin for some serious riding.

Confident enough now that I could keep an Africa Twin upright, I was keen to find out how the DCT  version would react to being thrown through a series of very tight cambered curves, jumps and short greasy straights. The Dual Clutch Transmission (read all about how it works here) is essentially an automatic, with no manual clutch lever.

Traction control off, ABS on the front wheel only. It was a happy place.

The Africa Twin is not a light bike, weighing at least 232 kg, but it can be wrangled around for short periods. The motor offers a very linear power experience, though at a tad less than 95 hp, it’s by no means a beast.  The 270-degree crank offers a lumpy but torquey experience and it emits a pleasing, low-toned blat from the pipe. There’s a sport mode that moves gear shift points later for higher revs, but on this tight track designed for smaller bikes, it was the DCT that shone the most.

It had seemed a liability earlier that morning when we practised on asphalt among some tightly-placed cones, when I really wanted a clutch to feather. But now, coming out of a corner in dirt with the throttle open, the AT’s brain and two-clutch trickery didn’t step in to save me from high-siding but recognized me as actually wanting a lurid, mud-flinging, hero-like corner exit. It even offered up decent engine braking.

AfricaTwin_silver_rob_motocross2
Taking the DCT version around the mini motocross track was where it all started to come together.

I went around and around and around, until I too became a journalist sociopath.

AN AT, DCT AND ME

Day two offered choices: a road loop or a day in the dirt. I took the latter, not just because I like the dirt, and I was in the southern mountains of Vancouver Island, and it was sunny, and it was 15C and, and, and … But because there were only two us opting for the dirt and that meant I would have 50% of the time on the Africa Twin, the remainder on an XR650, which makes for a pretty great day.

Bertrand Gahel navigates some single track on the Africa Twin with much skill. Photo: Rob Harris
Bertrand Gahel navigates some single track on the Africa Twin with much skill. Photo: Rob Harris

The day started with a bang. Not literally, but our guide for the day (Chris who runs MotorcycleAdventureTours.ca) turned up on his KTM 950 Super Enduro and promptly led us on a spirited blast through a single track, root-infested, mud-hole treat. Well, it was a treat on the XR650, while my colleague on the Africa Twin was having a tougher go of it. But all credit due, he did it, and the wait time for him to catch up wasn’t long at all. So you can get an Africa Twin through this stuff even if it does look like work.

Thankfully, by the time it came to my turn, the trail had become smoother, with samplings of hard-packed gravel and small, loose rocks. The Africa Twin was again DCT-equipped, which I welcomed after the previous day’s motocross experience.

The trouble with DCT, or any modern bike for that matter,  is the myriad of choices supplied by its electronics. This is a new and (IMHO) exciting period in motorcycling, but with Traction Control, ABS, and now DCT, comes a mind-boggling variation of permutations and combinations.

Vancouver Island in March
Vancouver Island in March

DCT alone can be set to either Regular mode or Sport (3 separate levels that shift gears at different rev points), along with a ‘G’ button for gravel that reduces clutch slippage between changes. On top of those, you can go to manual mode and change gears with the handlebar switch lever, or even get an optional foot shifter for a more old-school experience. Oh, and there’s even a slope sensor that helps the AT’s brain decide when to change gear depending on how steep a hill you’re on. Just remember to not turn off the ignition at a brief stop, as that will set all those settings back to standard when you turn it back on again.

Sploooosh. The extra weight helped keep the AT on course in this water crossing where the lighter dualies would tend to get knocked about.
Sploooosh. The extra weight helped keep the AT on course in this water crossing where the lighter dualies would tend to get knocked about.

To the journalist with only a short time in the saddle, it is an exercise in mind bending. A new owner will presumably spend the first few weeks experimenting until they get their noggins around it all. Me? I wanted to recreate the sliding from the previous day, so I kept it in auto, turned Traction Control down to the minimalist 1, switched off ABS at the rear wheel, and pressed G. I felt like a guy at Mission Control.

Hard off the start and the Traction Control chopped the power to the rear into a nervous stutter. There’s finesse required, but once going, I was glad to have the insurance policy of level one TC. The Africa Twin started to break free through a section of wiggles scattered with small rocks. It stopped the rear from coming around too quickly, but I cursed the new TKC80 knobbies when the mild-mannered motor had difficulty breaking traction consistently.

But what I suddenly realized is that I was totally oblivious to the DCT.  Apart from grabbing a phantom clutch and dropping the non-existent gear changer at launch, I didn’t miss the box at all. In fact I quite enjoyed not thinking about it – it frees up time to focus on other things. Like practising my corner drifts.

Following a bunch of small dual-sports on a fast gravel road inevitably meant you’d catch up to them and have to slow down, so I would stop, let them get ahead, then practise a non-stuttering launch and try to slide the rear around some corners.

A pause at a local lake. Photo: Rob Harris
A pause at a local lake. Photo: Rob Harris

When I did catch up, it was at the base of a steep-looking, loose-rock hill climb with a bunch of expecting riders atop, dualies parked beside them, all waiting for the Africa Twin. Oh. What the hell settings do I need to get up this mother?

The answer, courtesy of sweep rider Clinton Smout was TC off and manual mode on, so it would stay in first no matter what. My initial attempt got me near but a loss of momentum at the last half meant a humiliating and slightly nerve-racking rearward descent. Attempt number two saw better momentum but a similar outcome.

What a dude.
What a dude.

“Keep right, then swing to the left just before the boulder.” When in doubt, listen to Smout.

Again I didn’t miss the box at all. In fact, knowing the bike would keep it in first and never stall was a godsend. I focused on the line and application of power, and I was up. It wasn’t graceful but it was successful. A good journalist would have gone back down and tried it once more in auto mode, but you’ll have to find a good journalist if you want to see if that would work.

The descent was a no-brainer. Rear-wheel-only switchable ABS is likewise. I can’t think of a reason why you’d ever want to turn off ABS on the front [What about stoppies? – CMG copy editor minion] but being able to drag the rear down a hill like this is mandatory for any bike that claims to be a real adventurer.

The day and the launch ended with a high-speed blast back to base. I disabled Traction Control completely and tried Sport mode and found a much easier launch (no stuttering and little sliding), a slightly higher revved ride, and no ‘moments’ from too much throttle. I’d say the TC at level 1 is a good practice mode until you get comfy, but then switch it off and start having some serious fun.

SO WHAT DO WE KNOW?

So many options, so little time. Such is the way of the launch. A week with the Africa Twin would be great, but I can tell you a few things I garnered during my couple of days with the bike.

When I finally got up that steep hill this is one of the shots I took from the top. Photo: Rob Harris
When I finally got up that steep hill this is one of the shots I took from the top. Photo: Rob Harris

Firstly, DCT is a serious option. Yes, it adds 10 Kg and $1k to the cost, but it works and it liberates the rider to focus on other things. The only issue I had with it was during that cone practice the first morning on pavement. Maneuvering at very slow speed is where I needed to feather a clutch. DCT wasn’t terrible – it didn’t do anything dangerous, it just meant I was more clumsy and less accurate. In real-world riding, I don’t see this as an issue, or at least, it’s so minor as to be irrelevant.

Yep, B.C.
Yep, B.C.

In fact – and I’m surprised I’m saying this – I would wager that 90% of Africa Twin buyers would like the DCT. It takes away a task, but instead of diminishing the experience, it allows you to focus on different things. Don’t be surprised if it becomes normal in the near future, much like ABS is now. It’s a shame it adds 10 kg and a thousand dollars to the price, but I would recommend you consider it.

Talking of which, I wish the weight was less – it disappears at higher speeds but not in tighter stuff. If Honda had managed BMW F800 GS weight figures (which weighs in at 214 Kg, or 18 kg less than the non-DCT AT) then the Africa Twin might have surpassed “great bike” status to become “a game changer”. It has to be just a matter of time before we see a war on weight in the adventure class, since this will increase the bike’s off-road abilities exponentially. Maybe the soon-to-be redesigned 800 GS will be just such a machine?

I know Honda has built the Africa Twin to a price point (and at $13,999 for the non-DCT, it’s a good one), but tubed wheels could be a major pain in the trails. We had a flat on the front that was an easy fix thanks to the 21-inch diameter, but that fat 18-inch rear would be a whole different story.

But I’m quibbling on the fine details. What we have here is a serious contender for your adventure dollars. It’s a very capable bike, similar to BMW’s F800 GS in feel but with a little bit more all round, including weight of course.

Sexy
Sexy

If you’re used to bikes like KLRs, DRs or Honda’s XR650, you’ll discover the Africa Twin is an aggressive adventure bike rather than a big dualie. You get a more capable tourer and more smiles on gravel. There’s some loss on more technical off-road stretches thanks to its size and weight, but the capable suspension and good ground clearance will get you through a lot of it. And if you want to chew up distance on asphalt, you get a much more comfortable machine in every way.

Of course, with all the soon-to-arrive models already sold, you may have to wait a while.

Want the tech story on the Africa Twin? That would be the Pre-Ride piece that you can read here.


GALLERY

Check out all the pics that go with this story! Click on the main sized pic to transition to the next or just press play to show in a slideshow.

37 thoughts on “Africa Twin – The Ride”

  1. got about a 1000kms on my new dct.All I can say is wow! I dont miss shifting I’ve been doing it for over 30 years. This bike is so well balanced and smooth it’s effortless riding off road. 90% of my off road dumps have been the old stall and fall, and dont tell me none of you experience this. You can pick your line and not worry about it because it wont stall. Bust off your clutch lever? wreck or break your left hand? left leg/foot? you can still get home with the dct. Just Sayin !

  2. The DCT tranny works amazingly . I just rolled 2000km on this bike , the DCT does take some time getting used to !. But once you get the hang of it ! It’s quite amazing ! . If you like to ride hard, standing on the pegs Letting the Traction control & Auto clutch do all the math , it’s fast as hell ?.I ride a KTM Exc 570 with a Rekluse clutch & a 2010 Ducati Multistrada 1200’s with Conti TKC 80’s . This Africa twin fills the gap so well !! . Just sayin ????

  3. DCT just not for me. I would be embarrassed get it in a 911 too. What the hell is wrong with everyone??? Nothing to do with bad ass, everything to do with enjoyment of the ride (or drive) and the reason we are gear heads in the first place. Maybe it enhances performance, but you sure can’t credit your own ability for that. If isolation from the experience is what you are looking for then just get a video game console….or a DCT Porsche or AT.

    1. I tend to agree,especially when you reference the 911.
      Balancing power vs gear vs traction/surface is a major part of the joy of riding for me.
      I’d still like to try the DCT version though,but I’m unlikely to pay more for a bike that will weigh more just so I don’t have to change gear.
      But hey what would I know,I don’t even call people with different opinions to me names on the internet.
      I guess I lack courage.

  4. I look forward to riding one here in Saskatoon during the Honda demo days, we all know that’s where the real adventure begins. ? DCT is here to stay everywhere, the 911 Porsches, in fact the whole Porsche lineup moving to dual clutch transmissions, Dopplekopplung as the Stuttgart folks call it, actual shifts on the track are faster than manually possible. All said, I’m a 7 speed manual 911 driver myself and the Africa Twin or any motorcycle in my view would have to manual…. it’s the manual labour that gets one’s back into one’s livin’….. yea, yea, yea…. Yea (The Who)

  5. Twice the author mentioned DCT and the cone course and sounded like there was a problem which there isn’t. With a manual bike you use the clutch and throttle for a cone course. With DCT you use the rear brake and throttle. The author just needed to learn a new skill which is basically the same as switching between an automatic and manual car. Then there is my pet peeve with most reviews and their emphasis on how does the bike power slide through turns. I’ve ridden with quite a few average Joe riders, the people who actually buy the bikes, on various adventure bikes and power sliding through turns never seems to be high on the priority list. Also found it funny that he complained about tube type tires. If it was tubeless there would be a whole lot of complaining that that tubeless isn’t good for off road.

    1. Hi Bamamate,

      Regarding the cones I was trying to point out that that was the only time that I would have liked to have a clutch over the DCT. Sure, you can likely work around it, but right then, I would have prefered to have a clutch.

      As for the power slides, sure, that is only a small part of riding a bike in the trails, but I was highlighting one of the benefits of DCT, not suggesting that power slides should be the be all and end all of an adventure bike rider’s existence. With the DCT Africa Twin, they become viable for the average Joe (and I would include myself in that), which I thought was an interesting shift of the DCT world.

      And finally, tube tires. If you’ve tried to pry off a fat rear tire in the trails to get at a tube then you’ll understand why I mentioned it. A tubeless could be plugged and off you go. Tube type are fine for small bikes, but I think they become a liability as the bikes get bigger and the tires get fatter.

  6. If I was buying one of these, it would be for it’s off-road abilities. As such, I would probably go with the non-DCT version, it being lighter and simpler, and cheaper too. I also believe the clutch would improve control off-road.

    Now, realistically I have no interest in beating a 500 lb streetbike through the boonies. My idea of a dirt bike is about 200 lbs lighter. I owned a V-Strom for 10 years and (wisely, in my opinion) never really did anything on it that I couldn’t do on almost any bike.

    But that’s just me – if real-deal open class adventure touring with a significant serving of dirt is what you’re after, this seems like a pretty good choice.

  7. Good article…but not one mention of the 1200GS. I NEED VALIDATION!!

    I’m joking…love my BMW, but that Honda sure is interesting.

  8. So is learning how to speak properly, I see.

    It wasn’t just a rumour, only fifty bikes to Canada and they’re all spoken for?

    Still gun shy after their Varadero screw up, I guess.

    1. As of last Thursday KW Honda had a black one available. $1000 non-refundable deposit – delivery “sometime in May”.

      Milton had an available black one as well but that was back during the MC Show.

  9. Dct transmission jeez if u want a scooter save ur money and buy a scooter. Just not cool at all. Pussification of north america. Shifting hard to learn mah i just buy auto. Instead of learning. Sad

    And traction control and abs in the ol day we just gunned it with our smokey 2 strokes. They will outlast any of these electronic bike. More stuff to break. I ride a stratoliner now. No abs no traction control no water cooling equals no problems and a reliable cruise

      1. You do realize the irony of your comments as you communicate over the interweb right? What happened to your paper cups with the string attached?

    1. the pervasive misconception that adding electrics makes vehicles of all types unreliable is nonsense, the future is here, just enjoy it.

      1. Electronics are generally pretty reliable, but they can’t make a DCT work on their own, they need active hydraulic systems to handle the clutches. Probably not as reliable as a simple mechanical clutch (as opposed to two in a DCT) operated by a cable or a manually-activated hydraulic cylinder.

        1. Not to mention the shit-kicking your wallet will take when repairs are needed. Great-looking bike but overweight, complex, and expensive.

        2. Honda’s been building and selling DCT motorcycles since 2009. The 700 has been selling in the top 10 world wide since 2011. Tens of thousands sold. In some markets DCT 700s outsell the manual box 700. No history of reliability problems with DCT but in the 700 manual clutches have shown a tendency to require replacement by 40,000 miles. Not so with DCT.

    2. Wow, we’re all very impressed by your badassness. I’m sure you still get TV with rabbit ears and have a car without power steering too.

      1. Does anyone remember owning a car/truck that was only available with a standard transmission? What is everyone so afraid of? Losing their “BADASS” image? DCT is here to stay and Honda is only the first company to bring it to market, others will follow. I wouldn’t even consider buying a daily driver car with a standard box. I have a DCT AT on order. I’m purchasing this bike “because” of the DCT. Let the bashing begin…..

    3. I hear the Stratoliner has EFI instead of a good old carb, has disk brakes instead of good old drums and actually has brakes on the front (gasp)! Hell, the engine isn’t even steam driven, has auto spark advance, an electric starter and a foot shifter. And to make things even less manly, the bloody thing even has bags and a windscreen! Talk about pussification!

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