Tell ‘Em I’m CRFin’: Honda CRF250L Rally

By Surj Gish with Fish & Max Klein
Photography: Surj Gish
Rider: Kerri Dougherty

Our love for Honda’s CRF250L is well-documented, if not well-understood. Seriously, search for “CRF” right here on CityBike.com. Our extremely well set up project CRF has made more appearances than good judgment, correct grammar, or accurate math, although admittedly none of those are strong suits for us. Point being, despite the fact that Honda’s simple, cheap CRF loses nearly every comparison on paper, it’s… well, simple, cheap, user friendly, good looking, and seemingly unbreakable. Believe me, we’ve tried.

So you can imagine our excitement at the prospect of getting our hands on the new Rally version of the now-venerable L, which adds seriously cool, rally-inspired looks, including a surprisingly functional windscreen; a bit more suspension travel; a larger 2.7 gallon fuel tank, and other miscellany like plastic “handguards.” It shares the 250L’s updated-for-2017 engine, which Honda says offers better low and mid-range power. Oh, and the most important bit: bold new graphics for both versions!

One of the CRF’s biggest strengths—its low price, which has crept a bit to $5,149—kinda goes away with the Rally, which lists at $5,899 (add $300 for ABS on either version), making the on-paper comparisons we all love to jibber-jabber on about a little tougher, never mind the always-thoughtful and well-informed online forum discussions. As a 250, the Rally arguably fits into a few potential use cases. Let’s look at some of those before we hit the road.

Beginner bike: the Rally’s 35.2” seat height makes it a bad choice for short-legged beginners but a good option for taller folk, while the mellow power delivery is good for everyone. Larger riders interested in starting out on a dual-sport might look at bigger bikes too, for example Suzuki’s DR650, which offers more power for just over a 10% bump in price, but is a few pounds heavier; uses old tech like carburetors and an old school fork; and doesn’t offer ABS. The first two aren’t a big deal, but ABS is a boon to new riders, and if you add ABS to the Rally—which you should—the price difference shrinks to $350.

There are tons of other beginner options beyond dual-sports, of course: any of the 300s, Honda’s own Rebels, and so on. It mostly comes down to aesthetics—if a new rider wants something dirty-looking and actually plans to ride off-road, the long-travel Rally (and standard L) are compelling, capable options, even if a few bucks more.

Inexpensive dual-sport: there aren’t a lot of real options here, unless you’re comfortable cruising Craigslist for never-stunted, never-raced motorcycles that often look like they weren’t raced or stunted because they’d fallen off a truck at freeway speed. Ignoring larger displacement, old tech options like Honda’s XR650L and the aforementioned DR, Yamaha’s still-strong WR250R is the standout here—it’s more dirt-capable out of the box and not much more expensive at $6,699. In fact, the only ways blue loses to red in this scenario is the lack of ABS.

But Kawasaki has just announced the return of their revamped KLX250, a bike that can’t trade on the cool factor of the Rally’s bitchin’ looks but does offer adjustable suspension and lighter weight, at a claimed 304.3 pounds wet. Based on looks and price $5,349 (no ABS available here, either), it’s more comparable to the standard L, but anyone looking at inexpensive dual-sports will be looking hard at the old-new-again Kawi.

The Honda’s weight it what hypothetically hurts it in this category. Its 346.1-pound wet weight (with ABS) makes it an easy target for loud-mouthed, know-it-all online throttle jockeys who claim that it’s impossible to have a good time on the dirt with such porcine poundage. They said the same about the standard L, and we haven’t run into any issues riding the shit out of it in real-world dirt. Getting down to “real dirtbike” weight in a dual-sport means adding several thousand dollars on top of the price of a Rally, and yeah, it’d be bad ass, but that price increase takes us well beyond “inexpensive” territory and also radically changes reliability and maintenance intervals, and not for the better. Seems backward, right?

Roundtown runabout: almost any motorcycle can meet this requirement if you try hard enough, but there’s no denying the joy of splitting lanes and slicing through the city on a lightweight motorcycle with enough suspension travel to soak up gaping potholes and curb drops with equal proficiency. The Rally serves well in this capacity—we all wish it was a little snappier off-idle, and as most of us are approaching “real dirtbike” weight ourselves, we’d beef up the boingy bits as we did with our project L.

The only downside to the Rally as urban utili-bike is its good looks. It’s so damn pretty that it’s hard to imagine leaving it outside some of the places we frequent (or reside). This must be why Ducatisti are so weird about parking their motorcycles in middle class and below zip codes.

We wanted to put our Rally through a compressed version of what our project L has been through—minus the crashing, of course. So while Fish and Max focused on more local pursuits, I did some actual off-road riding and also rode it to the Horizons Unlimited Travellers Meeting in Mariposa (“Overlanders Unite! Horizons Unlimited Travellers Meeting California” – November 2017) with Kerri Dougherty of Motobird Adventures, for some real-deal lightweight adventure touring cred.

Unlike a bigger ADV mount, the Rally offers no factory luggage options (yes, I just said that) so I reached out to Giant Loop, the Bend, Oregon-based maker of “go light, go fast, go far” off-road oriented luggage. They sent us a Coyote saddlebag and Fandango tank bag, along with some clear plastic film to make sure that if we were gonna fuck up the Rally, it’d be thanks to an epic crash, not preventable scratches from the luggage.

Our in-house long-distance dirt travel expert Gwynne Fitzsimmons describes Giant Loop as having “off-road riding totally figured out,” and the design of the Coyote saddlebag reflects this. It’s horseshoe-shaped, wrapping around the seat behind the rider, and uses attachment points on either side and at the rear of the seat. It’s easy to secure in a way that made me confident the bag would remain with the bike, even if I tossed the Rally into a gulch.

The Coyote utilizes three internal compression drybags, and the packing process involves distributing your stuff between these three bags (one for each side, and a barrel-shaped bag along the top), compressing ‘em, slipping ‘em into their respective spots, and closing the roll-top of the Coyote. There are external straps that let you further compress and secure your load, and the whole thing ends up rather tidy and stable. I jammed a few days’ worth of crap into the Coyote, strapped it down, and had room left for more junk in my soft-luggage trunk. The Fandango offers similar utility, with an included dry bag and on-and-off zipper attachments to make it easy to remove from the main mounting harness. Both are end-of-the-world rugged, and both served me well while also adding to my “this guy must be serious” cred.

Kerri and I stuck to secondary roads where we could, taking the long way to Mariposa. In this context, the Rally’s diminutive displacement was a non-issue, a good traveling companion for her well-traveled F650GS Dakar. My only criticism: my ass hurt on the long, straight stretches where I wasn’t naturally moving around on the bike—we all universally hated the Rally’s seat, probably because our project CRF-L’s upgraded seat has spoiled us.

At the HU, the Rally was the star of the show. One morning, I dismounted and was unable to walk away from the bike for thirty minutes, thanks to an unending stream of people inquiring about the bike: “What is that?” “Just a 250, you say?” “Looks cool!”

Like I said, it’s a looker.

Thanks to some unplanned exploration on my way out of Mariposa, which in some cultures is known as “getting lost,” I made the last couple hours of the trek back to The Bay in darkness, and I’ll admit this is the only time the Rally’s lack of ponies was cause for concern. I had it wound up the whole way, and between the increased vibes present at near-redline engine speeds and the lack of headroom for high-speed evasive maneuvers, it was a little nerve-wracking.

Look, it’s not really fair to fault a 250 for its inherent inability to engage in ride fast take chances maneuvers, and it’s not like my “if they’re going 80, I better go 90… or so” methodology for ensuring my safety on the roads is universally accepted and well-supported by science and data, never mind law enforcement. And fantasies like “this bike would be perfect if it just had firmer suspension and three or four times the horsepower” don’t really belong in a review of said motorcycle. But this was the only time I felt like I couldn’t live with the Rally as an only bike, and it made me a little sad. Just imagine… a modern, reliable, ABS-equipped dual-sport with real-world maintenance intervals and say 60 HP… for $6,199, of course.

Back to reality. There’s really nothing like the Rally. It offers a level of cool not found in other entry-level options, and while we’re certainly going to get a bunch of the usual hate mail for selling it short as a “beginner bike” the reality is that’s the most likely use case, and a sensible one.

If I were a new rider, I’d buy the Rally, upgrade the suspension, seat, and a few other bits over time, and then keep it as my sensible, sentimental value dual-sport when I over-upgraded to a soon-to-be-salvage-titled 214-horse sportbike six months later.

Fish: Urban Hooligan

Before Editor GS Aerostich went on his ADV-cred quest, I absconded with the Rally and subjected it to some city living. If he was going to explore responsible small displacement touring, I thought I’d better balance our fact-finding with new and exciting ways to defile traffic laws.

Swapping bikes at CityBike World Headquarters is always tricky. Sometimes I have to wait for a charge because our fearless leader has left a bike on and killed its battery, other times I’m just forced into a game of motorcycle Jenga in order to extract the bike du jour and find a home for one of my turds.

By “one of my turds,” I mean one of my shitty motorcycles.

This time, as the garage door slowly raised, I was greeted by the obviously Dakar-inspired fairing and asymmetrical headlight. Captain Bike Parker Extreme had backed the CRF in!

The Rally makes a strong visual statement and I had to remind myself that it was “only” a 250. Frankly, the upright windshield and broad radiator scoops are really goddamn cool-looking.

After pushing the bike out and walking around it, the entry level bits came to light. Basic but serviceable foot pegs, handguards lacking real substance, and plastic skidplate. The upside? Typically excellent Honda fit and finish. The controls have a high-quality feel, the wiring is routed cleanly, and the LED headlight is definitely not what I’d expect on a small displacement, entry level dual-sport.

I finished walking laps around the bike, saying “this thing is really cool” out loud to no one and got underway. My route home usually involves a little freeway and some East Bay twisties, but I was in a hurry so the freeway-only route was the order of the day. I knew this wouldn’t be the most fun ride home, but the Rally package made the freeway more bearable than the standard CRF—the windshield and wider bodywork are much more effective than one might suspect.

Our overall plan for the Rally was to take it to Carnegie SVRA to compare against our project L, so I felt the need to familiarize myself with its off-road capabilities by exploring urban off-road opportunities, such as the frequently haunted demolition / construction sites around Oakland, assorted dirtpile jumps, concrete wall rides, severe potholes, and the occasional loading dock. This environment revealed what I was looking for in the CRF: it’s secretly a pure criminal.

Hooligan dirtbikers terrorizing cities isn’t new, but the CRF manages to do so with style and grace. Something about a windscreen and quiet exhaust add an air of respectability to the bike that seems to spill over into the rider.

Hooning aside, the Rally is a genuinely great bike to ride around town or even on the freeway—some freeway, anyway. In typical Honda fashion, it’s devoid of bad habits. The riding position is classic dirtbike, with just the right amount of wind protection; the brakes are totally reasonable for the weight and power of the bike; the fueling is spot-on.

But I do have a few suggestions.

A few months back, I used our project CRF250L as a chase bike at King Of The Hammers / Motos (“Majestic Madness : King Of The Motos 2017” – April 2017). In that 10 days, the mods applied to that bike made it a fantastic companion for desert stupidity, with the most helpful upgrade being the suspension. The stock Rally is adequate, but our project bike’s Race Tech Gold Valves, revalved shock and uprated springs had a profound effect on the bike. The underdamped and undersprung Rally, even with 0.9” more travel out back and 1.2” up front, offers a bouncy ride interrupted by suspension-bottoming clunks, while our L is a very composed tool even with my 200 pounds aboard.

The softer side of that 200 pounds feels like our project bike’s upgraded Seat Concepts seat is also a necessity. The grippy material is helpful, but the wider pad and better foam would be required for me were I to put a Rally into daily service. It doesn’t have the worst stock seat ever, but it works best when you’re standing on the pegs.

Speaking of the pegs, the factory jobs are not bad, but our project bike has Fastway Evolution III pegs on it and while they’re not a required upgrade, if you improve the suspension you’re need gonna need better grip for the jumping that will follow.

I was initially drawn to the Rally by its aesthetic—the first time I saw one, I didn’t even realize it was a 250.  It presents as a do-all enduro, but in stock form it’s more like do-most, or all if you’re not in a hurry. It’s good, and really user friendly, the foundation solid enough that minimal upgrades can transform it into a real off-road bike, and its small displacement makes it a nice “learner” bike too, at least for the long-legged. Way to cover a broad spectrum, Honda.

Max: Photographer / Commuter

While Surj and Fish were off doing all things dual-sport with their jumps and camping, I used the Rally primarily as transportation to and from a variety of race / track events.

First, I rode to Sears Point to photograph a combo car / bike track day. The relatively short freeway jaunt was done in the predawn hours to avoid rush hour traffic… on a Saturday. Part of me was relieved that there was no serious splitting to be done, but another part was hoping for a slower pace—Editor Surj had me convinced that the Rally vibed like an out-of-balance Oral-B at 70 and above. I must be more aerodynamic because it didn’t start to feel like a KLR until I broke 80. Even better, unlike “My Life With the Thrill KLR Cult” I had no concerns about oil consumption induced by “high speeds.”

At Sears Point, the Rally was put on pit bike duty as I traveled from corner to corner taking arguably the best photos ever taken at a car / bike event. It was here that I first took the CRF off the beaten path, through a small section of the infield. While not much of a challenge, the long and squishy suspension soaked up every little bump.

Sunday I was off to Carnegie SVRA for a little hot hill climb action, or more accurately, taking photos of the action. I’d planned to climb the lower hill on foot in the morning, take some photos and then ride up the backside to shoot from the top later in the day.

I never actually rode up, as I am a stupid person and decided to climb alongside the entire course on foot instead.

Monday I was supposed to go back to Sears Point to cover another car day. I knew I had to leave at least an hour early to arrive on time because of the slower weekday pace while splitting and the fact that nobody can figure out why Highway 37 is always at a dead stop both directions at 7 AM.

I took my super-secret route through Mare Island to beat the clusterfuck that is the bridge prior to where 37 drops to that single lane of dead stopped traffic, but 37 was closed in both directions. I checked Google Maps for alternates, and it chose 29 to 121—so I decided to do the opposite.

I spent the next hour splitting traffic on 80, surface streets, 580, over the Richmond Bridge and even a little bit on 101. As I stopped for gas I pulled my phone out to let the trackday provider know I was about 10 minutes out. I had missed a call, a text, and a Facebook message from them all telling me that the day was canceled due to a fire.

Yeah. That fire.

It was 7 AM and dark. I had all day and a dual-sport, so I headed north instead of splitting all the way home, planning to cut through Santa Rosa and take 12 over to Berryessa for some shenanigans.

At this point I thought the fire was only by Sears Point. The sun was just coming up and the smoke was billowing in that general area. I was unaware that not only had sections of Santa Rosa been devoured by flames, but that the fire was moving the exact same direction I was.

After riding down Highway 12 for some time without encountering flames I was turned around by CHP at Trinity Road. Backtracking, I rode through new fires that in less than five minutes completely engulfed a small valley and at least one house. Before these fires could be contained yet another neighborhood would be turned to ash, including the fire station less than half a mile away.

I made the decision to GTFO of Sonoma county by the most direct route, which involved rejoining the molasses combination of evacuees and the usual commuters. 101 south out of Slow-noma County always sucks, and factor the ambulances and other emergency vehicle blasting up one or more breakdown lanes into the equation and you can imagine the hellish level of lane splitting difficulty.

Given their frequent use I found the non-ABS brakes on our CRF to be good, and the clutch pull was very forgiving even in my third hour of splitting and fifth hour on the bike.

What was not forgiving was the seat. It must be stuffed with death metal lyrics or something equally harsh. Probably fine for shorter trips, but I was well into my third tank of gas for the day and can tell you that was 1.5 too many. Worse, Honda chose to place the Flatbill Holder strap right in my ass groove—if I slid in front of it, my hips cramped up, and behind it the front wheel left the ground all the time.

Seat aside, the Rally was almost great right out of the box. Better handguards and a proper skidplate will be needed, and I suppose I’d have to beef up the suspension or drop 40 pounds to get the ride perfect. But the bike looks legitimately rally-ready to the untrained eye, and Honda may have a low-buck winner on its hands.

This story originally appeared in our December 2017 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.

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