Riding the chosen one.
I’m going to have to admit this up front: after a year-long hiatus from testing motorcycles there was only one new bike that I was aching to ride. The Africa Twin.
I’ve become a fan of ADV bikes over the years, so after it was revealed at EICMA in 2014, I couldn’t wait to check it out. I just had a feeling that Honda would put all the pieces together and create an off-road capable ADV machine that was comfortable over the long haul but wouldn’t break the bank. On paper, it looked like they nailed it. But I needed to ride it for myself to be sure. Then life got in the way and 748 days passed before I finally got the opportunity.
When I did, man-oh-man it was worth the wait. The first trip aboard this DCT-equipped CRF1000L was a 75-mile ride through the countryside with temperatures hovering right around the 34-degree mark (that’s Fahrenheit so it was cold). I thumbed the Twin to life with one of the many switches on the handlebar and spent the next several minutes clicking all the buttons while looking for the one that puts the bike in gear (I should’ve read the manual first). It took a while but I found it on the right bar, buried amongst a bunch of buttons with non-descript nomenclature.
Once under way, the Africa Twin feels tall, thin, a bit lighter than I expected and softly sprung. Roll on the throttle and it pulls strong even though the DCT seems to shift earlier than I would like. It sounds good when you get it the revs up, despite having the eco-friendly stock exhaust. There’s a load of buttons on both bars, so I didn’t focus on that right away. But to get the most from this bike, you have to get familiar with them all. The dash looks compact and clean, it’s easy to read and full of useful info: fuel, clock, air temp, all the DCT, ABS, TC setting as well as the requisite idiot lights. Wind protection is decent, too, and since it was biting cold, I was painfully aware of what areas were not sheltered from the elements.
While my head, arms and neck were fairly safe; my shoulders and lower legs were exposed to the cold. I could not find my pant or jacket liners and was regretting it about 10 miles into the trip. The Africa Twin has good-looking brush guards that block most of the wind from hitting your hands directly, but eventually my fingers started to feel the effects of the cold and since heated grips don't come standard, I just had to deal with it. The seat is a combination of firm padding and a good shape that holds you in place without being too wide at the seat-tank junction. The tank is narrow, too, so the bike feels thin and comfortable when sitting down or standing up.
The pegs are placed well for my short legs but they are a bit small, so I noticed that my feet were often on the edge of them and the engine cases sort of get in the way of a perfect placement for my boot on the right side. I was following a bunch of riders on other ADV bikes on that chilly day and they were rolling along at a good clip in potentially slippery conditions. Despite riding with a bit of trepidation I was impressed with how well the bike gets down the road and straightens out turns.
While it handles fine, it is not capable of sportbike-level canyon carving; it holds its own. The suspension is on the soft side so the 45mm Showa fork compresses into the stroke when you get on the brakes, which seems to be a universal knock against these particular units, but it soaks up the weight of the bike without wallowing or acting funky in the sweepers.
You sacrifice a bit in the way of on-road performance so your off-road experience is that much better. If you push the big CRF on the street you will find the suspension is fairly soft. But it is tough to bitch about that because the ride itself is so plush and it’s really not any different than what you experience on the other tall ADV bikes out there.
Anyway, the brakes are decent, too, with a pair of four-piston calipers and big 310mm dual discs that are more than up to task on the street or dirt. I hammered the brakes a few times to see if I could get the ABS to kick in as we approached intersections and stop signs, but only the rear would take the bait. The front brake ABS never activated, so it is not too touchy. However, the front end seemed to dive pretty deep under hard braking tanks to the previously mentioned compromise for on- and off-road compliance and bump absorption.
The good news is, these are fully adjustable units, so you can dial in more compression or preload if you plan to tackle more street and less dirt. At that point, your tire selection will be the limiting factor. In the case of this test bike it came equipped with Mitas E-07 Dakar tires. I had never heard of these before but they did offer good grip in the cold and, to my surprise, they also were a decent dual sport tire in the dirt. Which is where I went next.
Off The Beaten Path
The Africa Twin's claim to fame is its capability off-road. I had designs on extended, lengthy dual-sport rides and lots of varied terrain... but the biggest winter storm of the decade was rolling into Oregon, so it was wet, muddy and, like I complained about before, very cold. So, I only took it off road twice: once to our local OHV area where I often ride my trusty KLR, and a Jeep road that ended up being frozen with ice on the day I was taking photos.
There is a network of trails in the OHV area that are challenging for new riders but overall just trails with some ruts, roots, switchbacks, plus some fairly steep hill climbs and descents. On a dirtbike it’s easy but a lot of fun. On a big bike it’s fun, too, but not as easy.
For starters the trail is just wide enough for an ATV but it can be tough to get two bikes past each other if you meet someone head-on. The trail was muddy so it was slipperier than usual, but the bike never touched the ground. I fiddled with the ABS and traction control and found that turning ABS off (this allows the rear wheel to work without it but the front still does) was obviously the best way to go.
I put the DCT in manual so I could shift when I wanted, but it will still shift automatically if you leave it in gear for too long as revs climb. This was irritating at first but once I expected it to happen is wasn’t a big deal to simply dab the downshift paddle and grab that low gear again. What is nice about the DCT set-up is never having to worry about a stall.
On the flip side, I was constantly reaching for the missing clutch lever and apparently my brain will never get used to it being gone. Instead there is a parking brake lever that is placed far away from your hand but still within eyesight so that may be why I kept reaching for it. It works great when you need to hold the bike on a hill. Which is, of course, the reason it’s there. But the DCT goes into neutral when you shut the CRF off – so it will just roll if you don’t do something to stop it.
When you have a bike that weighs 530 lbs (504 lbs on the non-DCT), and you are riding off-road you have to expect it will be difficult to manhandle, especially if you’re not a big guy, which I am not. If you try to blast through whooped out trails you will eventually get out of shape and risk a crash. I was still impressed with how fast I could get through whoops and big bumps, ruts and potholes but if you want to keep your bike in good condition I suggest you slow it down a bit. That’s what I did, and at that point it really started to work for me.
The Africa Twin is basically a big CRF at heart. Or maybe it’s better to call it a big XR because that’s what it reminds me of. When you dial it down a bit the trail ride becomes enjoyable. The soft suspension soaks up all but the biggest bumps and the 21-inch front wheel rolls over cross rutted, rocky obstacles with ease. I very much enjoyed this bike when it was ridden tactfully rather than mindlessly. Which should be no surprise. The DCT was damn near perfect for this type of riding, too, with the exception of not having the ability to stop on an incline and simply leave the bike in gear.
DCT - Dual Clutch Transmission
Like I just said, the DCT is about as well sorted as you can expect at this point. Honda’s goal with the Africa Twin is to offer a bike that is easy to ride anywhere. As far as I can tell, the DCT is certainly an awesome feature that – once you get used to it – makes the riding experience a bit more... simple. It takes the mundane task of shifting out of the equation and allows you to enjoy the ride, soak up the scenery, and focus on the road ahead. I’ve ridden bikes with DCT in the past and I feel I get it and I understand where it belongs in the advancement of motorcycles. And while I don’t mind riding with it I would prefer not to. I really want to drink the Kool-aid here but I just can’t. I mean, I like DCT when I’m in the act of riding and it’s fun to shift gears with the paddles, plus it’s nice to not worry about the clutch and all of that stuff – but it is not for everyone.
The system itself offers the options of the stock and Sport (S-Mode) with S-mode giving you three settings to choose from. Level 1 is the base with Level 2 and 3 holding the rpms longer before it shifts. Or you can leave it in manual and shift on your own (but DCT still kicks in here, too – see above). It takes a little getting used to but once you understand what you want, how it works, and how to make it work for your particular needs, it starts to make sense. The Level 3 setting helps with downhill trails in particular and makes it easier to maintain rpm and power when you’re going up or down hill.
The traction control is of particular interest when you are riding off-road. Once you get the bike to shift the way you like it to, then you have to dial in the TC settings to your style. If you leave them in stock then it kicks in very early. You can back it off using a switch on the lefthand side of the 'bar while noting the changes indicated by a little yellow tire symbol on the left side of the dash. It has three settings, or you can turn it off completely. The bad news is, when you shut the bike off, it reverts back to the base setting, which will drive you nuts when it slips your mind.
It takes a while to get used to; it eventually becomes part of the start-up ritual, but is still annoying. The TC response is based off of the data gathered through wheel speed sensors rather than an expensive IMU-based TC system, so it isn’t overly technical in nature. It’s simple. If the wheel is spinning too much in relation to the throttle position, it retards the ignition until it gains traction again. Luckily, it’s easy to swap or turn off if you feel the need.
Engine and Performance
The 999cc parallel twin is so well suited to the ADV market it isn’t even funny. This bike makes consistent power right off idle and all the way to the 8000rpm redline. It has no distinct surge of power either. Instead it is linear and steady, which makes it very easy to modulate the throttle off-road and very vanilla on the street. The 270-degree firing order helps the engine build a very V-twin-like power that makes it tractable in both the dirt and slippery road surfaces.
This engine is efficient, too. I didn’t ride it very hard in terms of keeping the rpm up for long periods of time and as a result it registered just over 40 mpg. I’m sure it will not be that good with a manual transmission because the DCT was constantly shifting at low rpm. Either way, with a 4.9-gallon fuel tank you can expect to have a range of roughly 200 miles if you ride smart. Also, I did not have time to get it on a dyno but a number of other reports suggest it has roughly 94 horsepower, so it is not the most powerful ADV bike you can buy. It’s quite a way off of the 150 hp of the KTM 1290 Super Adventure but it's right in the mix with the 1050 and 1090 (maybe) Adventures and just a bit more than the 800cc Triumph Tiger XC.
What Others Say
Jimmy Lewis, Dirtbike Test: “Plain and simple the CRF1000 has great suspension. It is fully adjustable and we don’t know too many of the specifics about the internals because that isn’t something touted too much in the adventure world. But Honda really spent some time getting it tuned and it allowing it to be very adjustable with range to be set up for a lot of conditions.”
Ned Suesse, Cycle World: “At the end of the first day we got a chance to ride some dirt roads, and I was immediately impressed by the Honda’s handling. I was struck by how the chassis manages to be stable, thus easy to keep on line, and nimble, ready to turn when desired. Off-road I never experienced headshake or even much tendency to follow ruts, which would seem to indicate slow geometry, but it was also very easy to steer onto a new line. Ordinarily these two qualities are opposed to one another, but the Africa Twin seems to find the best of both worlds.”.
ADV Pulse: “In auto-mode, there were only a few times when DCT selected a gear that wasn’t to our liking, but most of the time it got it right with smoother, faster shifts than most humans are capable of. What you gain is the elimination of stalls and missed shifts and it allows you to ride just as fast, but in a more relaxed manner. For those that are afraid DCT will ruin the fun or riding a motorcycle, give it a try first before judging it. Most of the testers during the press ride were surprised to find out they preferred DCT over the standard shift model.”
On the Street
Probably the primary tenet of an adventure bike is that it must be comfortable on the long haul so I’m pleased to inform you that the CRF1000L will make a great long-distance bike. Remember, this is a purpose-built dual sport intended to go off-road first and on-road second. But it’s a Honda, so it has a sublime blend of smooth power, soft suspension and comfortable ergonomics. The compromises are made for you and all you have to worry about is riding.
I took two passengers for short rides and both of them thought it was great. The reach to the passenger pegs is a stretch and my short pillion had a long climb to the seat. So, I had to be braced and ready while they clamored into place. It’s the same effort to get on any of these taller ADV bikes. Both of them had the chance to ride on the street and both said the wind protection was good, no buffeting – and they were perched just a bit above my head so they had a good view of the road ahead. The seat was quite comfortable and the pegs didn’t bend up their legs too much Then again, both were just over 5 feet tall, so they weren’t lanky.
What I Like
The thing that stands out the most on the Africa Twin is that it has off-road chops. My best ride took place without a photographer, in the woods on my favorite tough ADV trails (I can send pics of my girlfriend in Canada, too, she’s super-hot, I swear). There’s an OHV area called John’s Peak that is not terribly difficult but I always get weird looks from the dirtbike riders when we cross paths out in the woods.
The DCT may have made it easier because it’s impossible to stall on the steep, long, rutted and rocky climbs (this is in dual-sport terms, not dirt bike terms), but it has the power to pull just about any grade hill with the tires being the limiting factor. It managed these slow speed trails as if it was a much smaller bike and that won me over, just as I hoped it would. Every time I took it in the dirt, it just felt like it belonged there and that’s sweet for such a big bike.
What I Don’t Like
As much as I want to love the DCT it just detracts from my personal reasons for riding a motorcycle. Don’t get me wrong, I can imagine 100 ways that this function is great for some riders. First of all, it makes two-up riding very pleasant for the passenger. There’s very little disruption in stability when the bike shifts and both my passengers noted it. It’s also very good for low-speed riding and worry-free starts. The bike will not stall so it’s great when you start on a hill or if you’re navigating difficult terrain off-road. But it dumbs down the riding experience for me, so: thanks, but I’ll take a pass.
Also the footpegs seem so tiny. I kept hitting my boot on the engine cases when I was trying to locate the rear brake pedal. It’s in a slightly funky position that made it so my foot barely grabbed the edge of it sometimes. And again, the pegs are small, so when I was standing up during off road riding, my foot would slip off every once in a while, or I couldn’t find it on the first try. I know that’s a weird complaint but it happened enough that it became annoying.
Would I Buy One?
Although I like the silver $13,699 DCT-equipped Africa Twin, I don’t think I would buy this version, I’d opt for the red, white and black $12,999 version with the manual transmission like the one being ridden by badass Baja racer Johnny Campbell in the picture above. There’s so much electronic wizzbangery on these things it’s almost overwhelming and if there’s one particular piece I could live without: the DTC.
I would rather have the ability to shift on my own: a nice cable-actuated clutch lever I could dab to help lift the front end over obstacles, a shift lever to help me stay in the gear of my dreams, and I would ride that S.O.B. to the end of the Earth and back.
It was a good first date. The Africa Twin was very good looking and it was a joy to ride. Sure, there are a few things I would change if we had to take this relationship to the next level but overall I’ve got to give the Honda my stamp of approval. Even the DCT was pretty good. It may not be my preferred way to shift gears but it works. I feel this bike has massive potential as an all-around ADV machine and for my personal preference, it ticks nearly all the right boxes. It is fast but not overly powerful, it looks good and handles good, too, plus it is a relative bargain compared to the other motorcycles in the ADV class.
I’d like mine with a full suite of crash bars, skid plates and some legitimate knobby tires. I would probably keep the exhaust stock, definitely dial in the suspension a wee bit, and call it a day. I can visualize a long ride through Baja on this baby with a pocketful full of twenties and a backpack full of Zantac to ease me through the steady diet of dust, street tacos and Coronas. Hopefully, Honda will give me the opportunity to do some real off-road adventure riding with the next test bike because, in the end, that’s what this bike is made to do.
Ken’s Riding Gear
The Africa Twin has been a bike that just about everyone here at RideApart has wanted to throw a leg over. Last year, Director Chris Cope tried looking at the bike (manual transmission version) from the perspective of someone with no plans to ever take it off road: Asessing the Africa Twin on the Road
Meanwhile, much-missed former RideApart Director Jim Downs put together this great video that will probably send you running to your nearest Honda dealership: