“But I must have confidence and I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly…” — Santiago, title character in the Old Man and the Sea
I, too felt a little like Hemingway’s long-suffering hero. But I wasn’t trying to play baseball or land a marlin. I was trying to ride a dirt bike. And my role model that day was not DiMaggio but someone who, in motorcycle racing, was just as good — eleven-time Baja 1000 champion Johnny Campbell. Honda had brought him along to help introduce its new 2019 CRF450L dual-purpose motorcycle, a bike Campbell had helped develop, and one of which I was desperately flogging up a narrow, chewed-up, rock-and-tree-root-lined skinny sliver of single track potting soil somewhere way out west in the pouring rain of south central Washington state.
If you look at Campbell’s 11 victories in Baja he is always listed as riding a Honda CRF450X. There are now seven different CRFs on the Honda roster, almost all of them pure dirt bikes. There are CRF250s, which I had ridden last year in the hills around Campbell’s home in the SoCal desert chaparral, and the rest were CRF450s, all capable of conquering Baja. Sure, there were tuning differences between Campbell’s race bikes and this one, but not all that many. The CRF450L is just a little more softly sprung, the ECU is tuned not only for more low-end and mid-range torque, but also to meet emissions slightly more strict than off-road motorcycles. And the extra gear in the six-speed manual transmission allows a top speed of 91 mph to keep up on freeways. So when Honda decided to add some lights, mirrors and a streetable exhaust to the CRF450X and make it this CRF450L, what you’re getting is essentially a Baja-winning bike that you can also legally ride to work every day. And if your commute happens to take you over challenging single-track through beautiful forests in the pouring rain, so much the better. It’s the mythical “race car for the street” that everyone always says they want, only this is a race bike for the dirt, and the street, and a darned good one.
Gallery: Honda CRF450L Photo 1
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The idea of Honda’s new CRF450L motorcycle was obvious. Dual sports – bikes that function on both city streets and out among the redwoods – are increasingly popular. Not only can you connect dirt trails with paved highways to increase the range of your riding revelry, you can also use them as regular transportation, about doubling your return on investment.
Honda wanted to show off the depth and breadth of the new bike’s abilities, so it brought us all to Packwood, Washington, the dual sport equivalent of paradise. There are paved roads, fire roads, trails and single track that would worry a mountain goat, all meandering through Pacific rain forests so thick you expect to see those little ewok creatures from that Star Wars movie attacking at any moment. And it’s all within a tank or two of gas. Everybody else on the ride was a full-time dirt biker, and they were all having a blast: doing wheelies, spewing gravel around turns and flying off jumps with the confidence of birds. I was learning as fast as I could, or rather, relearning, since I hadn’t ridden a lot of dirt bikes in a while.
We took off first on paved Highway 12 out of Packwood. On the wet pavement sections I could feel the tires skeetering just a little, a lot more than a road bike on road tires. Honda had installed meatier Dunlop 606 tires for their extended knobs that could dig a little deeper into the moist dirt. This was interesting but not really terribly challenging.
Then we turned off onto a fire road with packed dirt over which was slathered a layer of gravel about the size of walnuts. With every twist of the throttle on this salad of slip the rear tire lurched out sideways alarmingly. The moto men all thought this was another blast, and they ripped through it all with glee. It took me a while to realize that you use the sliding back tire to aim the less-sliding front, that the rocks machine-gunning from the back tire acted like retro rockets pointing the nose around the corners. It was terrifying, yes, but fun-terrifying.
I kept up.
Gallery: Honda CRF250L Photo 1
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A looser-dirted fire road was easier to negotiate. I thought that, with enough practice, I could get the hang of this stuff in about another 15 weeks.
Then we headed up the first single track. The Great Campbell could race a thousand miles across Baja on a bike like this, I thought, so I, too, ought to be able to stand on the pegs and do this. For a while I could. Then I caught up with a couple of the moto men who were having trouble on a elevator shaft of trail. I gave it the old college try. Several times. This was tough.
“About 60 percent of it is picking the line, and the rest is balance,” said dirt bike racer Mike Spears. Spears had just completed a multi-week ride on the trails, and before that had just finished 15th out of a field of hundreds in a big race in upstate Washington. Without the help of Spears and Campbell, who also gave guidance and advice, I would still be out there, probably kidnapped by a Bigfoot colony, appearing in shaky videos with a new layer of fur.
On this really steep stuff I was most impressed with the basic functions of the bike: the easy operation of the clutch, which never faltered, never smoked and never gave off that burned clutch odor despite the fact that I spent the entire damned day desperately slipping it while flailing up dirt hills in first gear. The CRF450L’s heavier crankshaft and extended gear ratios allowed me – and maybe any beginner rider – to lug the bike in first or second gears over and over again. Honda doesn’t list horsepower but if you wear down the Japanese engineers you’ll get a sort-of consensus that the 450 puts out 45 hp. You can’t get a torque figure. All Japanese motorcycle makers are this way about engine stats.
Likewise when I stalled, which was more often than I’d like to admit, the push-button electric starter whapped the single cylinder back to life every time in just a second or two. Credit the new lightweight lithium ion battery on this 2019 model. It was my third-best friend after Spears and Campbell. Also, simple things like the mirrors were both well-positioned and big enough that you could actually see something behind you. A lot of street bikes have artsy, thin and useless mirrors that show you your elbow but nothing else. I even liked the pegs.
The freedom of the open dirt
One time, giving it just a little too much front brake on a downhill talcum-powder dirt turn of single track, the front wheel slid off the trail’s edge and I went flying over the handlebars like some kind of cartoon character. I landed in a perfect aikido roll and popped right back up faster than anyone could radio for a life flight chopper extraction and, with Spears’ help, pulled the bike back up and kept going.
It went on like that all day, over 110 miles in the rain and scenic splendor. I’d say that if you are a good to expert rider like my media colleagues that day you can really exploit the engineering that went into the CRF450L. It’s not a comfort cruiser, not something that anyone but iron-buttocked youth could actually ride to work and back every day. For beginners there is the less powerful CRF250L or, even better, The Grom, a micro dirt bike that is almost comically small but far easier to master. Or, for the true beginner, and I mean this in all seriousness, you can get a feel for dirt riding on the new Honda Monkey, the cutest little dirt spelunker you’ll ever see. As you graduate up through the size and power ranks of Honda dirt bikes, with the CRF450L being the crowning glory, you will want to keep the Monkey on which you started it all as a coffee table keepsake in the living room, it is that cute.
The CRF450L is not an adventure bike in the traditional sense of a large, heavy and very comfortable machine with big hard cases on the sides and a windshield to protect your delicate facial features from stone wallops. No, this is first and foremost a mean, manly dirt bike meant to powerslide around dirt fire roads as easily as it picks its way up desperate hill climbs. The seat, for instance, is about the most uncomfortable surface on which my raging buttocks has ever alit – you’re supposed to be standing on the pegs, anyway, not comfy cruising. The pavement roadworthiness is only incidentally tolerable, it’ll legally go down a paved highway with “cars,” but this bike favors dirt surfaces by a ratio of about 10 to 1. When you’re on it you can’t help but adopt a motocross posture.
CRF450L price is $10,399, about double the cost of the CRF250L. This one will compete with the likes of the KTM 450 EXC-F and Husqvarna Enduro FE 450 and maybe, in a broader sense, with larger-displacement bikes like the Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled or ancient designs like the Kawasaki KLR650 and Suzuki DR-Z400. That’s not even counting all the bigger, heavier, far more comfortable “adventure” bikes like the Honda Africa Twin, BMW R1200 GS and KTM 1290 Super Adventure R.
That’s a lot of bikes. There is a mountain of choices out there. Ain’t this a great time to be alive and riding?
On Sale: Now
Base Price: $10,399
Powertrain: 449.7-cc single-cylinder, six-speed manual, rwd
Output: 45 hp or thereabouts
Curb Weight: 289 pounds (mfg.)
Pros: Fully sorted, fully capable dirt bike that you can take on the road, too
Cons: Good to expert riders will get the most out of it, not a beginner’s bike