By Surj Gish, with Max Klein & Fish
Photography: Max Klein, except noted
Riders: Max Klein & Fish
Honda’s marketing lead-in for its Africa Twin was one of the most extensive in recent memory—rightfully so, one might argue, with the rich history of the Africa Twin name. But it started out with “true adventure,” which caused us here at CityBike to alternate between barely muted snickering and outright guffaws. Adventure is one of the most overused buzzwords in the history of motorcycling, almost always used quite optimistically.
But as we waited for an Africa Twin to darken the tailgate of our diesel moto-transpo, it began to look like there might be something to this true adventure. Sure, the single-cylinder “real adventure bikes weigh less than 350 pounds” guys carried on with their conveniently context-free complaining, and the “Honda has lost the plot—so boring” peanut gallery continued to not look much past their own oh-so-insightful noses—but by the time the Africa Twin hit the streets, it was clear that this was not your rich uncle’s adventure bike.
Sure, at 511 pounds wet—standard tranny—it’s no lightweight 350 single, no “real” dirtbike. But only an extreme S&M enthusiast would ride such a bike very far on the pavement, and they’d probably have to rebuild the goddamn sensitive, touchy, race-bred thing just this side of Flagstaff. Meanwhile, Max would be dodging saguaros with nary a care about ludicrously short maintenance intervals—with no bruises on his ass.
So yeah, the Africa Twin is a real porker compared to a proper dirtbike—as if that’s a legitimate comparison. Might as well bitch about how an R1 makes a shitty daily rider. Yes, we’ve done exactly that.
But let’s say you’re not a true grit real rider. You want a bike capable of some serious miles in somewhat serious comfort, but you’d like it to be manageable if you decide to take a ride on the wild, dirty side now and then. What are your options? Lucky for you, we have recently ridden a couple of the worthiest competitors, BMW’s (still, arguably) class-leading R1200GS and Yamaha’s Super Ténéré. You can check out our October 2016 issue for the whole story, but here’s the short version: the Yammie starts at $15,099 and weighs in 64 pounds heavier than the suddenly slender-sounding Africa Twin. You can drop 50 of those pounds by choosing the GS, getting within 14 of the AT—but you’ll need to come up with at least another $1,400 for a stripper GS. Assuming you can find one so shamefully equipped. Sure, the AT arrives at the party with comparatively bare bones, with no luggage or even a centerstand—seriously?!—but you see where I’m going with this, right?
You can fall back on “it’s the rider, not the bike,” and you’d be right—mostly. After all, Fish outrode most of us on a knobbied Honda Hawk 650 at Bungee Brent’s Backroad Bash last year. But a $13,299 (6-speed), 511 pound bike with proper dirt-sized wheels is a compelling choice, if it’s true adventure you seek. And if our enthusiasm for Honda’s DCT has sold you ditching the clutch, you can get the auto version for another $700 and a 23-pound penalty.
– Editor Surj
Max: Arizona Twin
As soon as I found out that Honda’s new Africa Twin was going to be for reals, I began scheming on doing something epic with one. All the Honda “adventure” bikes we’ve ridden, apart from Editor Surj’s village bicycle CRF250L of course, have the freaky ADV styley down, but in my mind leave a bit to be desired in terms of truly adventurous performance, at least if your adventures take you off-tarmac.
But the Africa Twin is not an “adventure” bike, where the quotation marks are required. This bike continues the heritage of the original, the one based on the NXR-750—a bike famous for winning four Paris-Dakar races in the late eighties. This is a proper ADV machine, we were told—no air quotes or beak required to prove it.
I thought about Alaska, because 1) Alaska screams epic ADV (and I’ve never been), and 2) Alaska and Africa both start and end with the letter A. Symbolism.
That was back in May of last year, and trip after trip to Honda’s SoCal warehouse ended in heartbreak. No Africa Twin in the truck back to CityBike World Headquarters.
Actually, heartbreak is a little too dramatic. Honda gave us bikes. Great bikes. But no Africa Twin.
This went on for at least six months, while the real moto-journalists gave the big CRF press fleet a right proper break-in. And then, finally, we had our Africa Twin—gray, not red (dammit, again!) and DCT-equipped, which would be a subject of much debate.
Now, I’m up for some true adventure, but Alaska in wintertime seemed a bit ambitious. So I decided to head to the next best letter A bookended state.
No, not Alabama.
I figured heading south instead of north would be warmer, and also a homecoming of sorts. Arizona was where I first threw a leg over, and I figured heading back there on a bike that draws on Honda’s ADV history would make for a romantic tale of bike and rider chasing down their roots together.
Sure, the 998cc parallel twin is a bit different than the original Africa Twin’s 650-then-750 V-twin, and a bit heavier at 511 pounds. But I’m not the same rider I was when I started either, and I was eager to see just how far we had both come.
I hit the road bright and early, with 742 miles between me and Arizona, from where my dad warned me of the previous day’s snowfall. “Nothing stuck to the road, but be careful,” were the words of advice I received prior to my departure. So much for heading south for warmth. Fortunately. a quick look at my weather app convinced me I’d probably just miss the next storm.
Remember, we’d been given the automatic version of the Africa Twin, and for the first time I was not worried about bringing a giant scooter home to the CityBike World Headquarters. In case you’re just tuning in, the Wrecking Crew has pretty much unanimously voted the Honda DCT as “bitchin’,” and the AT continues that tradition. On road, shifts are smooth (both up and down) and once you sort your preferred power mode the transmission is damn near omnipotent.
Like the DCT in our NC700X (“The Motorcycle You Deserve, Not The Motorcycle You “Need” -Honda’s NC700X” – December 2016) the AT has D and S modes, but also a G mode as well…
Confused? Honda calls the modes Drive, Sport, and Gravel.
Drive is economy mode, suitable for fuel economy and humming down I5 at 4 AM. Sport is the fun setting (with three levels of fun) for when you get to the twisty bits. And Gravel? It’s a supplemental setting for D and S, and makes the DCT shift even more seamlessly. It’s intended for off-road use, but it was happy to assist on road as well. The only bummer is that the bike defaults to Drive mode whenever you switch it off, forcing you to switch it back into Sport mode every… single… time… you start it up again. D is for disappointing in this case.
But that’s ok. Like I said: nearly omnipotent. No matter which mode I chose, the bike always knew what I was trying to do. Traveling downhill? No upshift, better engine braking. Longer uphill? Delayed upshifts, plenty of power to summit.
So back to the weather app, and why you should never trust the weather app.
About 80 miles from my dad’s place in Prescott Valley it began to rain. No problem, I had my ‘Stich on. As I climbed into the high desert the rain got a bit more… fluffy. So fluffy, in fact, that it began to stick to the windscreen, then my faceshield, and then the road. “No biggie, I have heated gear on. I’ve ridden in snow in two other states, on less capable machines.”
Right as I had that thought I came upon an overturned Jeep.
No clue how the Jeeper lost control of his fancy rig with less than an inch of snow on the ground, but there he was standing next to the officer that was also wondering the same thing. I waved at them, stood on the pegs and gave the throttle a bit of a twist as I went by. The back stepped out, traction control kicked in, and I giggled like an idiot as the Africa Twin made a glorious cacophony, fishtailing through the snow.
I rode the remaining 75 miles or so in the snow, marveling that even in Sport mode with traction control set to the most intrusive setting I had to try pretty hard to get the TC to interfere. It just didn’t get in my way like it does on some other bikes. The crappy conditions gave me a chance to so test out the ABS on the dual 310mm front and single 256mm rear rotors.
With an inch of snow under the front tire, stabbing at the brake lever produced a bit of sliding before the ABS took over, but applying the brakes in a non-Neanderthal manner resulted in minimal sketchiness. The rear brakes took a bit more pressure to engage the ABS, which added to my winter wonderland confidence. Later, I did panic stop testing on dry roads, and was equally impressed with how little the ABS made itself known. For those of you that would rather not have ABS kick in ever, Honda has made it super simple to shut off the rear anti-lock assistance with a simple Rear ABS Off button—no scrolling through menus.
Genius, right? You don’t even have to press it twice to confirm or sign some digital waiver. Traction control is just as easy to adjust—on the fly even.
The next day, my dad and I rode with one of his local riding buddies to the former mining town of Jerome. Instead of snow, the roads were covered in sand to help traction on the icy spots, so we kept a fairly mellow pace. The Africa Twin showed its weight a little on some of the tighter corners, and seemed to require some muscle to get pointed in the right direction. Compared to other big ADV machines, turn-in felt a little sluggish, but there was nothing lacking in grunt out of the corners. Despite the occasional corner battle lost to my dad and his buddy, the rangy Africa Twin was pretty easy to manage—a credit much more to ergonomics than suspension geometry, in my opinion. You’re not perched high(ish) like the R1200GS and similar beaked warriors. The height adjustable seat and relatively narrow knee placement made the riding experience more of an in than on the bike affair, making the Africa Twin less acrophobic than some of the other big dogs.
For special “won’t see that on the Dakar” cred, I wanted to get photos of the bike amongst the Saguaro cactus. Going to Arizona and not getting a picture of a mighty Saguaro would be like going to Africa and not listening to Toto on the plane ride over. Some shit just has to happen.
For these photos, I thought I’d be putting the fully adjustable Showa suspension to the test, but brisk runs down fire roads and crawling through rock gardens were a walk in the desert for the fork’s 9” and the shock’s 8.5” of travel. While I never ran out of travel, I did test the shit out of the (unfortunately) plastic hand guards and the (thankfully) metal bash plate on more than one occasion.
Encounters of the cactus kind achieved, my time in Arizona had to come to an end. After a delicious breakfast of chicken fried steak and eggs with my dad, it was time to hit the slab home. I’d have plenty of time to reflect on not only the trip and the bike, but my entire “career” as a rider. I thought of the first time I followed my dad around his neighborhood years ago when he taught me the basics. I thought about all of the techniques I have learned over the years and realized how effortless it was navigating those same streets. I pondered the history of the Africa Twin and wondered what the engineers thought about the significance of the name as they developed this new, much-advanced version, this next generation of Honda ADV.
My riding and Honda’s tech came together as if fate had intervened. For the first time ever, I took off into the wilds—no tracks or trails, just me, the desert and a bike with a bitchin’ transmission.
This is the part of the story where just about every person who’s gone off into the desert on a bike without Honda’s bitchin’ tranny has told me I wasn’t really riding in the desert. Sometimes those words were said explicitly, sometimes I just got a little side-eye from the critic, but DCT-equipped desert ride still gets belittled.
Why? Because I had an automatic?
Much of my free run found the bike in second gear, sometimes bogging, sometimes near the rev limiter, but here’s the thing: keep the Twin in manual mode and control the shifting from the left hand controls. The fact that I didn’t have to worry about the bike stalling—ever—gave me more confidence than I would have had on any other machine, even smaller more dirt-oriented bikes like my KLR.
I guess all those guys with Rekluse clutches are fakin’ it too.
I went places and did things on our Africa Twin that I would be hard pressed to replicate on my trusty, lighter—yes, I hear your laughter—KLR, and I’m talking about more than just extended runs over 80mph. I maneuvered the 500+ pound CRF1000 around obstacles like it had one less zero in the name, and on-road, it ate up freeway miles comfortably, while still dancing in the twisty bits with the nimbleness of a cat. An older, paunchier cat, but feline nonetheless.
For most people that is all that this bike is going to experience, save for the occasional fire trail or gravel parking lot. The only drawback that I found to the automatic was not being able to easily clutch up a wheelie in certain off-road situations, a problem Fish worked tirelessly to find a solution to.
The Africa Twin isn’t the most electronically advanced machine I have ridden. You have to manually adjust the suspension. There’s no cruise control. But out there in the desert, dodging rocks and prickly pear cactus at an unrestrained pace over uncharted terrain ,I felt unstoppable.
The Africa Twin might not be the best bike I’ve ever ridden, but it did move me to do some of the best riding I’ve ever done. In fact, I was so inspired that after I passed the bike on to Fish I started researching a big bore kit and Rekluse for my KLR.
Fish: DCT FTW
CRF1000L. Say it out loud. The letters C-R-F inspire dreams of massive tabletop jumps and huge doubles. Not to mention energy drinks and flatbill hats. Honda has built a pretty huge legacy with their off-road bikes, for good reason.
Slapping those letters on the new Africa Twin was a bold move. The good news is that the bike seems to be able to cash those checks. But since Max covered the off-road side of things, I decided to see how the biggest CRF handled the mean streets.
Off-road prowess is a boastful claim few adventure bikes get called on, because the platform generally makes for an incredibly useful daily rider or tourer. Who knew that wind protection and cargo capacity would be useful things?
My introduction to the AT was the CityBike “Ride Friday Give Back” event. I was elected to lead the first group, and carried a passenger as well. Just to really get to know the bike, of course.
Generally, parallel twins don’t excite me. The layout is conducive to boring and predictable power delivery and low redlines. I can’t say that I feel any differently about the Africa Twin’s engine, but the whole package is really well thought out. Throttle response is perfectly linear and predictable. Fueling is spot-on. The exhaust note is just what you want from a bike that is supposed to carry you for hundreds of miles a day. While not exactly a rocketship, it has all the guts you could ever desire, and doles it out in a very good way.
There’s a specific turn that I encounter on Pinehurst Road, a 180-degree steep uphill turn with a poor surface. It’s a recipe for dropped bikes and bruised egos—in fact, one of the Ride Friday Give Back-ers drops his bike negotiating it. But the AT made short work of it, easily carting me and my passenger around and up.
At no time did I feel like I was asking too much of the bike on all the high-quality roads throughout the Bay Area. The forks are beefy, with great out-of-the-box damping and spring rates. I did have to bump up the compression damping on the shock, but the OEM equipment was up to the tasks I gave it. I really couldn’t ask for more—Honda got it right.
Like Max, I found braking and traction control to be good, and non-invasive. Wet pavement, gravel, dirt, panic stops in town… nothing fazed the riding aids. Even stupid muddy gravel parking lot antics were well within the AT’s capabilities… or so I heard from other riders at Ride Friday Give Back 2016.
The windscreen is minimalistic, but effectively shaped for maximum protection. There’s a power outlet, but the forward placement and lack of nearby pocket mean that you’ll have to route a cord to charge your phone while you ride. It is effective for a handlebar mounted GPS or other devices, though.
What a world we live in, where my biggest gripe is the placement of the stock 12v outlet on a bike. So far, anyway.
But it’s the truth—in spite of its reasonable price, fit and finish is great, typical of what you’d expect from Honda. Solid switches, nice button placement, fantastic feel. The heated grip switch feels like something of an afterthought, unexpectedly placed on the left grip, just to the left of the switch pod. It’s not intuitive, but not overly complex either once you get used to it.
If you read our review of the updated NC700X last year, you know how I feel about Honda’s DCT technology. Short version: the pairing of the DCT with the NC’s unusual powerband was a match made in heaven. On the Africa Twin, it’s even better— nothing short of amazing.
While the lack of clutch lever can be unnerving at first, the DCT can shift faster than you can think about shifting. The gravel button does soften things up, but doesn’t water down the experience. Sport mode keeps the bike in gear long enough to use all of the liter twin’s torque. I never had to find the downshift button to get extra oomph for corner exits. As with the NC, sport mode level 2 suited me best, but even standard automatic mode was pleasant and fun.
The manual shift buttons, however, take some getting used to, and the bike could almost be better without them. This is only a problem for constant bike switchers like me, but looking for the horn button or trying to cancel the turn signal could cause an unintentional downshift if you’re not familiar enough. It never got me, but when rode in pure in manual mode, I cancelled more signals than I had successful downshifts.
My other real complaint is that the tires and sizing are not fun for true hooligan adventures on pavement. I’ll sing the praises all day long of the 19” / 17” wheel combo, which generally has enough grip and feel to make on-road hooning fun, while offering competent off capabilities. The 18” / 21” combo on the AT is just skinny enough that pushing it gets a little uncomfortable.
It’s not surprising—this bike is about more realistic off-road capabilities (for a big ADV bike) than maximum canyon prowess, but I need more rubber. Maybe a rapid-swap supermoto setup is in order?
The ADV segment continues to grow, but the direction for most of the latest offerings seem to be moving toward rugged-looking street bikes, in acceptance of the actual usage of these two-wheeled SUVs. The Africa Twin is truly the first big ADV bike that seems committed to realistic dirt use. It’s light for its size, has a fantastic turning radius and a truly off-road oriented wheelset. It’s more than adequate as a daily rider for sure, with real “getting out there” capabilities. It just lacks the rubber for beating up on 600 super sports in the canyon.
This story originally appeared in our March 2017 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.