After more than two decades of attending manufacturer events to sling his lanky leg over brand-new motorcycles, CMG’s founding editor Rob Harris flew this March to Vancouver Island to try out the Honda Africa Twin. It was a classic test in which he went his own way with longtime sidekick Bertrand Gahel to get all the dirt on the new bike — literally.
It’s fitting that the final article in our series of 20 Years of CMG should be Rob’s final write-up of a manufacturer junket, before his tragic death in May. At the time, he put everything he had into this story and it deserves revisiting today.
Next week: Rob’s own thoughts for the future, and then we’re all going to move on. -Ed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.