You’d have to be nuts to race a Honda Africa Twin in America’s longest off-road race, wouldn’t you? Turns out, not really!
The Nevada desert is a lonely place for a motorcycle race. Dotted with rotted mining shacks and broken dreams, you feel tiny when in its clutches. Scorched bone dry by the sun, it’s a harsh and unforgiving landscape. It is laced with cacti so sharp it’ll pierce you boots and rocks that will snap your bones if you crash onto them. And if you did crash onto them with the bike I was racing in the 2016 Vegas-To-Reno, it wouldn’t be pretty.
To read the story in Cycle News Digital Edition Magazine, click HERE
Photography Mark Kariya and Rennie Scaysbrook
Part of the Best In The Desert race series, the Vegas-To-Reno is now in its 20th year. A logistical nightmare to organize and conduct, the race snakes its way through the driest state in North America over 500 grueling miles from Sin City to Sin City’s lost little brother, Reno. You share the course with other bikes, quads, Trophy Trucks and buggies. Everyone in a mad dash to the horizon as they chase each other’s dust.
But for my teammates and I, the 2016 epic was going to take on a different meaning than just hunting down dust trails. This year saw the racing debut of the Africa Twin, Honda’s brand new big-bore adventure bike showcased in what can only be described as a true adventure of a race.
Honda wanted to show the real capabilities of their new pride and joy. So much so, that the Africa Twin’s original chassis and suspension designer, Yosh Imai, was sent by Honda Japan to be one of the four team riders alongside myself, American Honda’s off-road racing legend Johnny Campbell and Japanese moto journalist, Mikami Katsuhisa.
And, we were lucky enough to be sharing the team facility with the official HRC Rally riders, Spaniard Juan Barreda and Frenchman Michael Metge and their money-can’t-buy factory race bikes. These machines were unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Pure unobtanium, ridden by two of the fastest riders on the planet. It was another time where I felt rather insignificant.
Zebra At A Lion Party
In among a sea of ubiquitous 450cc dirt bikes, most people who saw the Africa Twin standard six-speed manual gearbox (not the DCT, or “automatic transmission,” version) in the metal, resplendent in her stock-standard graphics and #308 on the side panels, thought us four riders were mad. After all, the only modifications we did to it were to the engine guard, a new seat, some heavier fork springs and some off-road Michelin knobby rubber for the ‘Twin’s 18- and 21-inch rims. It even still had the standard exhaust!
“Whhoooiiee, that’s alotta bike for this race, man!” “Are you guys sure you’re not part of the pace team?” “Why the hell you got one a those things here?” Those were just a few of the verbal barbs dropped our way as Imai-san geared up to take the day-one start at about 6:45 a.m.
The Africa Twin is brand new to the U.S. And when I say brand new, I mean it. The original globetrotter that ran from 1989 to 2003 never made it to the States. So for Johnny Campbell, a man who has done everything there is to do on a motorcycle in the desert, the arrival of the 2016 edition created a unique opportunity.
“I want to help start the legend of the Africa Twin in the U.S.,” says the 11-time Vegas-To-Reno winner. “I love the bike, and I love the adventure sport segment, so putting a race project together seemed like the logical choice for myself and Honda.”
A logical choice for a man who could ride a couch across the Nevada desert at race-winning speed it may have been, but as I climbed aboard to take over from Imai-san for the second leg of day one, I began to question the validity of my own decision making.
I’d never even started an Africa Twin before the race marshal sent me on my way into the wilderness. And I’d never raced a desert event before. Although I have a vast amount of experience on big-bore adventure bikes, the first 20 miles of deep sand and silt made me think I was in over my head. Y’see, the Africa Twin, an excellent machine it may be, is not the first bike that comes to mind for a 500-mile desert race. The problem comes from one area: weight. Compared to a race-prepped 450, the Africa Twin, at a claimed 511 ready-to-ride pounds, weighs almost twice as much, yet has to plow on through the same deep sand and ruts a 450 will simply skim over.
2016 Vegas-to-Reno Day One Video
Here’s Rennie’s thoughts after racing a Honda Africa Twin the first day of the longest off-road race in North America, the Vegas-to-Reno.
Learning To Deal
But the weight does have its benefits. High-speed stability is rock solid on the Africa Twin, and in the Vegas-To-Reno, that can yield a few advantages. This year the course ran from east to west and took in a number of wide open, sixth-gear fire roads. And, if you were brave enough to hold it flat, you could make up some time on the 450s that don’t have the extra girth on its side. Of course, this means your braking distances had to be increased—if you’d hit the anchors at the same point, at the same speed, as a 450, the resulting crash would look like one of the USAF fighter jets that often circled above during the race had fallen out of the sky.
I found this out after I pegged back a nameless rider on a 450 after about 25 miles. Using his dust as a motivator, he was initially a spec on the horizon, and gradually he was sucked back into the Africa Twin’s grasp. Coming into a twisty section after a long bout of six-gear shenanigans, I caught him to the point where I could make the pass. But I got it wrong. Ordinarily on a 450 I’d not hit the deck. I could have used the small built-up dirt on the outside of the corner to rebound the bike back onto the course, and pick my new buddy off at the next corner. But the Africa Twin bashed straight through the mini berm, over the edge of the road and into the rocks below.
Luckily I was only going about 15 mph by the end. But a crash is a crash, and I felt like a bit of a dick for it. Especially as I lost more time than the crash itself trying to find out why the Africa Twin kept stalling as I tried to get out of the crap due to the traction control defaulting to “on.” For this ride, of course, any electrical-assist operations, like ABS and traction control, were turned off (though the front ABS always stays on—it can’t be turned off).
Despite my crash, it was genuinely surprising how easily the Africa Twin handled the rough stuff. Even with the standard-weight spring in the rear and just a one-stage heavier spring in the 45mm Showa cartridge fork, it cruised over every bump and rock the 450s did without once getting out of shape (aside from rider-induced moments). We were a little under geared for the really fast stuff. But even so, I saw 116 mph flash up briefly on the dash before I chickened out and backed off. The 998cc Unicam 8-valve Parallel Twin engine wasn’t even trying—with the right gearing and a rider with real balls this thing could easily clock 130 mph on the dirt, which would be substantially faster than what even the factory HRC race bikes were getting (Barreda got a GPS-certified 116 mph on his bike).
The top-speed capability may have been impressive, but it was overshadowed by how user-friendly the power delivery was at low speed. Soft like butter is probably the best way to describe it, allowing you to dial in power so progressively and slide the back with such ease, you feel like you’re in slow motion. I shouldn’t have been surprised, really: this is what the Africa Twin was designed to do, not high-speed desert racing—another thing we just proved that it can actually do, though.
Handing the bike to Mikami-san, a more accomplished desert rider than myself, with multiple Baja 1000 starts to his name, was a relief. The Africa Twin was a little bent but rideable, with the triple-clamps twisted and the left handguard donated to the Nevada abyss.
As expected, Mikami-san rode without fault and handed the bike to the safest pair of hands in the team, Johnny Campbell’s, for him to take it to the day-one finish in the sleepy town of Tonopah. It may have been only a 30-mile ride for JC, but he was beaming like a teenager who’d just seen his first pair of boobs at the finish.
“That wasn’t long enough!” he said to me. Having a rider of this man’s caliber in the team was a huge motivating factor for two reasons. One, is he’s extremely naturally gifted on a motorcycle. Two, his love of racing is infectious, and even if I’d had enough by the time I gave the bike to Mikami-san, after five minutes with Johnny all I could think about was how bad I wanted to get back on the Africa Twin. Andre Agassi may have been the best tennis player in the world but hated it. At one point Johnny may have been the fastest desert racer in the world and loves it just as much now as retired as when he was at his peak.
When you’re a part of the official JCR Honda team, there’s plenty of people on hand. That means mechanics, cooks, general company. Unlike many of the riders in the Vegas-To-Reno, we were absolutely not changing the tires, broken handguards, busted fork seal, none of that stuff. I’ll admit it: I felt like a phony. So I did my best to sink a couple of beers and chat to whoever wanted to listen. It was during this time I began to see another side of desert racing. With a bit of downtime, the camaraderie aspect of racing comes to the fore. For what seemed like eight straight hours, we were all cracking jokes, laughing, having a great old time. It was unlike any other racing I’d experienced, and another part of why the cult of desert racing can be so addictive.
After a fractured night’s sleep, I was elected to start the second morning. Gridding up for what seemed like hours, I was finally released into the wild at about 7:00 a.m., one of the last 25 or so riders to take the start. The wind decided it would take a break right at the time the clutch was released, meaning the first 30 or so miles out of the next 120 were caked in thick dust. It was nearly impossible to see more than 20 feet in front, but by the 40-mile mark, and having caught and passed three riders, the dust had settled and the Africa Twin and I shared our own little On Any Sunday moment as together we blasted across the open plains of the Nevada desert, the sun beginning to find its perch for the Saturday morning.
It was one of those moments I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
There were a couple more sections left to run that allowed the Africa Twin to stretch its very long legs, and pulling back riders on horsepower and top speed alone proved to be great fun. There’s a perverse satisfaction knowing you have the fastest bike in the race (even if that fastest claim is only for straight-line speed), and the high-speed stuff is where I’m most comfortable in. That meant miles quickly gobbled up in surprising comfort thanks to the long and flat race seat that was fitted, meaning you could get all the way back and let her rip off into the distance.
My ride was over by 8:30 a.m. Pulling into the pits and handing the Africa Twin over to Imai-san with no damage and a few places gained was a great feeling. The rest of the day I was with American Honda’s Senior Engineer Hide Hanawa, again cracking jokes and laughing and finding ways to pass the time as we drove from pit stop to pit stop.
A small crash for Mikami-san resulted in a couple of little tank dents but aside from that, the Africa Twin was near brand new when Campbell rode over the finishing line in Reno. We’d finished 73rd out of 111 bike and quad competitors and seventh in the Open Expert class, and taken immense satisfaction from the fact we’d just created a small part of American history for the Africa Twin.
Strength Of Spirit
Most of the bike competitors had gone home by the time Johnny crossed the line, but we didn’t care. We’d taken an adventure bike, put some numbers on it and raced it in the longest, most grueling off-road event in the United States. And made it to the finish, which is more than what a lot of people thought would happen.
The race was taken out by Juan Barreda, only the second man in the race’s 20-year history to win it solo. The flying Spaniard and his glorious factory HRC racer completed the 500 miles in nine hours, 59 seconds, eight minutes clear of David Pearson’s KTM who in turn was the same time clear of the Husqvarna of Jacob Argubright.
Barreda’s HRC teammate Michael Metge didn’t have the best of runs after being handed a half-hour penalty for working on his bike after his wheel collapsed on the first stage of day one. Starting 26th, the Frenchman hunted down 20 riders in the choking dust to eventually finish the race in sixth. His speed was such that if he didn’t suffer such bad luck on day one he would have given Barreda a real run for his money.
For us, the result didn’t matter. We made it to the end of the Africa Twin’s first race, and got the finisher pin to prove it. That alone made all the effort worthwhile.
2016 Vegas-to-Reno Day Two Video
We made it! We got the Honda Africa Twin to the finish in its first ever race! Check out how it went right here.
Five Minutes With Johnny Campbell
To anyone with a dirt bike bone in their body, this guy needs no introduction. An 11-time Baja 1000 winner, Dakar competitor, HGA (Honda Japan) development rider and owner of JCR Honda, the man is a walking legend in the sport of off-road racing. We sat down with him to see just how the Africa Twin project came about.
How did this Africa Twin project go from discussion to reality?
What it came down to was there was some interest from Imai-san in Japan and Hide (Hanawa, American Honda Senior Engineer). I’d been wanting to do a race project or an event project with the Africa Twin. This model of the Africa Twin has never been in North America. The previous one was never sold here. So in order to start building a story, a historic story with this model and the adventure sport market for Honda, I wanted to be the one that’s setting the trend. I love the bike and I love adventure sport riding. The bike works so great off-road it was just time to lay something out. We also talked about doing the Baja 1000.
Would you do that with this bike?
The Baja 1000 is a bit bigger project than this. This is still a very large project. But in Baja there’s a lot more unforeseen logistics and more intense logistics in certain stations. The other thing is that in the Vegas-To-Reno this year the course is laid out east to west across the state. That means we have smoother roads, which caters to this type of bike. Some valleys are tricky and with this type of bike. But I wanted something that was gnarly and was going to test the machine and test the riders and start showing what this bike’s capable of doing.
Will you develop some parts for the Africa Twin?
I like the bike and I’ve been riding it quite a bit this year since it was available. Exactly what we’re doing is race development on it. Not that we’re going to race this machine full-time, but we’re just showing the capabilities of it here. So we’ll develop some parts and pieces and stuff. Let’s just say we’ll tune it for certain types of conditions, maybe a little harder, rougher, off-road riding. There’s going to be a lot of guys that are my generation that are coming off a dirt bike that want to go do this and we’re accustomed to riding some pretty hard-core stuff. So in order to do that with the Africa Twin, it’s going to take a little bit of modifications and stuff than what it was actually designed for. CN
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For more Cycle News Adventure motorcycle reviews, click HERE.