There is a weird process that you go through with a brand new bike which is very similar do you want to go through with a second hand bike but slightly different because it’s an unproven quantity.
Well, a couple of days ago I took Ginko, my Africa Twin, out on what I would consider to be her first real ride and I was mightily impressed. You might be thinking ‘oh, he’s been waiting ages for this bloody thing, of course he’s going to love it’.
No. I was expecting some kind of slightly more refined thumper that does everything kinda okay, but what I got is something that is pretty darn incredible for 95% of people who will throw their leg over it. I know a few people who can ride a sports bike until it’s pegs are ground to dust and a lot of people who can whip a 40ft motorcross double and I’m not talking about them. They’re the very ends of the bell curve who need a precision tool but for pretty much everyone else, this bike will rule every scenario.
Uncovering her, turning round, and rolling off the deck into the garden, I wiggle past the gate into the alley and click the key. The dash lights up displays CRF (just in case you forgot you were riding Hondas primo off road tool). At this point I always get a little thrill from the fuel pump making that weeeeezt noise, then something slightly more unusual happens. The bike clunks the gearbox into neutral. Then I pause and press the other end of the engine kill switch and she’s instantly alive and at a slow idle. With a flick of the throttle an aural treat in the form of a deep v-twin growl meets you. Also odd because the engine has no letters in its configuration.
Once aboard, the stand up you press the gear selector twice, to engage sport2, and the gearbox responds with the normal clunk you’d get from a conventional bike and it very gently rocks forward. With a positive throttle input you are quickly away and bumbling along in second gear before you have even noticed the cats ambling with heads cocked to the weird intrusion on their battlefield. At the end of the alley a slight rise meets the road with a blind view to the pavement. Here you don’t even think as the bike senses your trepidation and slightly firmly engages first gear and you slow to an uphill stop. It’s useful, I think, to point out the subtle nuances of the bike’s brain. I suspect the Honda engineers spent months, years even, not on the blindingly quick headline “it shifts like a formula one car” but rather the delicate situations like gently slowing down uphill and pulling out from an alley with nursery school murals enlivening the walls.
I flip my dark visor down and firmly grab some throttle, sweeping confidently into the yellow morning light. This process, I quickly learned, needs to be positive because with such a tall bike you don’t want the gearbox to be at all hesitant and bleed off power.
Montreal, I’ve said before, has some of the worst paved roads of any city I have traveled over. Yeah, I’ve lived in Switzerland but I’m talking more on the third world end of the scale of pavement. This in itself would be the perfect excuse to own a bike with competition level off-road suspension, but for me it’s just a welcome symptom of the situation. In another world I would have bought a Panagali or a VFR and I’m sure glad I didn’t. Like any vehicle here it would just get ruined.
Through the empty 6am streets there is just that blissful smug feeling of being awake to appreciate the quiet as the bike gently moves from light to light. The real thing I miss, to be honest is being able to make vroom vroom noises with the throttle. I tried when I got the bike, by selecting neutral whilst rolling to a stop, but she (the bike) just made me look like a 16 year old trying to wheelie a 50cc scooter. The gearbox really doesn’t want you to be in neutral whilst moving.
When I bore of bumbling from light to light I press the little manual bottom and, instead entertain myself with the deeply satisfying noises of the two 500cc pistons on overrun. To non car nerds that’s when you decelerate whilst in gear, that very low noise trucks make when slowing down. Satisfying.
Accelerate press + button, press – button; irritate everyone.
Then comes the magic part of owning any bike past 20HP. Onramps! The Africa Twin has a lot of torque, the advantage of having two large pistons, which one can make full use of on the lead up to a highway. Unless you have owned a bike, or a very fast car, you’ll not know the pleasure of passing motorway speed traffic in such a short distance. The great thing is, with the silicone brained gearbox, you just pin the throttle and the bike decides how many gears to drop then you’re away. At quite some speed.
The rest of the highway experience is fairly conventional. Comfortable, fast overtakes and the ability to cruise at an easy 150km/h (or just under a hundred for you metrically challenged out there). There is some buzz through the bars compared to my VFR800 and the ‘screen is juuuust a tad low for my 5’11” (in cubans) frame. This means adopting a cruiser style slouch for long stints to prevent head buffeting from turbulence. I’m yet to see what fuel consumption really is because of random usage (read: Jason using way too much throttle at very inefficient times) and, of course, the tightness of a new engine.
This, I suppose, I will have a lot to say about in a month’s time but for now all I can tell you is that the bike feels very light when on the pegs, compared to when hefting it around with the engine off. On her second day I decided to forego the usual preening that happens with a new possession and just give her the dirt. I found a gravel road and gave her the beans, covering the poor thing in a layer of fine dust. The traction control really doesn’t like being on III when on the loose and makes the engine sound like a stuttering oaf trying to say ‘dominos’. The weirdest thing is seeing the ‘Navigation Tower’ (the bit with the instruments and screen on it) yawing back and forth as the rear wheel slews around and the front wheel points where you’re going. After that I ventured out onto some ATV trails and got very muddy. The stock tyres are really quite scary when in the gloop and you really remember you’re aboard a 220kg 1000cc bike when it lunges to the side and you try and dab it upright. In doing this one also encounters the passenger footrests; with your calf muscle. The things stick out a huge amount and now I have a large bruise on my leg. I would have taken them off, except they provide a very good sticky outtie bit at the back for the foregone topple.
Sand is a similar story to the mud. On Scotch Road, about 30min West of Montreal there is a great sandy playground. I powered into it, got on an off-camber part and stopped. Then tried to continue and the tyres refused to provide any traction so I did what any self respecting nerd would do and got off to take a photo.
Now exiting a pretty rough road on to one of the finest pieces of twisty back road around here is a weird experience on this machine. One moment you’re whooping through dirt troughs and sliding around gravel corners and the next you seem to be on some kind of street carving monster with such fantastic power delivery that the grin never ceases. I know a lot of people complain about the suspension on the road, but to me it provides the perfect platform for rough back roads. I’m never scared about bottoming the suspension on a fast corner and being high-sided off. That in combination with the DCT gearbox thrusting you out of corners and downshifting aggressively for thight bends as you brake makes for a special back-roads carver. I doubt if a litre sports bike would gain much ground.
One thing I’m really not used to is having such an advanced computer on the bike. It basically has an odometer and two trip computers. The trips are connected to separate MPG readers that show the MPG over the period of the current trip until you reset it. I am keeping one as a kind of fuel meter at the moment and the other for more specific trip related stuff, when I have a specific destination that is. Both these are re-setable by holding the ‘SET’ button clustered in the myriad buttons on the left. I have found that, on occasion, I have been randomly flashing people with the lights rather than cycling up the computer’s functions because the buttons for the high beam are very closely located.
There is also a curious countdown odometer Honda call ‘subtraction trip’ which is a bit of a pain to set. presumably it is a service countdown?
The ‘SET’ function cycles through the clock, weird countdown odometer, whether you want an immobiliser light flashing, units (km/h, mph etc) and really irritatingly. the brightness of the display. I like it to match the GPS so tend to fiddle with this whilst riding. To do that you have to press the ‘SET’ and ‘DOWN’ buttons simultaneously, which is possible but a chore.
Conclusion (for now)
Returning home to the alley I scrape open the rear gate and ride Ginko up the 10″ step to the deck. Sometimes it feels like I’m going to go right through the window into the kitchen but she settles, I kick the stand down rest her for the night.
It’s a great, great bike. I put her cover on whilst thinking I wish I had the income to treat her as a raucous plaything that I could ride like I stole. But I paid what is, to me, an awful lot of money so it will take a bit of time until the responsibility of that massive purchase tarnishes enough for me to treat her like the beast she really is. We’ll see on the TAT?