The Honda CB500X Adventure – Part 4: Riding it on Death Valley – first impressions

The Death Valley in California is a great location to test an adventure motorcycle. It has gravel roads, sandy roads, rocky roads leading to challenging technical passes, and also paved roads, connecting the many fun riding sites.  On Part 4 I will report how the CB500X did on easy roads, Saline and Hunter Mountain roads.  On Part 5 we will raise the bar by testing it on Goler Wash and Mengel Pass.

The CB500X Adventure (Rally Raid Level 3 Kit) in the Death Valley

The CB500X Adventure (Rally Raid Level 3 Kit) in the Death Valley

If you’ve followed Parts 1, 2 and 3 where I describe this bike and the build process, you know I bought this bike for three main reasons: 1) I wanted a smaller multi-cylinder adventure motorcycle that is reliable and manageable for solo rides to isolated places; 2) I wanted to work or build my own adventure bike, which with a kit from Rally Raid designed for this bike, it makes the build process really easy, anyone can do it; and 3) I wanted this bike to be an option for visiting friends. There is more on these items on the previous posts about this bike.

Highest state of disassembly for this project

Highest state of disassembly for this project

To summarize Parts 1, 2 and 3, I bought the bike used, but with very low miles, and purchased the Rally Raid kit and then some other parts, to turn it into an adventure motorcycle. Then I spent the cold and rainy month of February building the bike.  This involved researching and procuring parts, organizing the shop for the build, getting the parts shipped, and then the build itself.  Installing the Rally Raid Kit itself takes only a couple of days, maybe three, if you have all the tools you need and some experience on the basics of working on bikes.

The project included setting up the shop and the CB500X itself. Because it culminated with taking this bike to Death Valley, I also worked on the Truck and the WR250R that I took as a back up bike.

The project included setting up the shop and the CB500X itself. Because it culminated with taking this bike to Death Valley, I also worked on the Truck and the WR250R that I took as a back up bike.

It was a busy February.  Besides organizing the shop and building the CB500X adventure itself, I had a few other tasks to do preparing the WR250R which I also took to Death Valley, and some work on the truck, which was my means of transportation for the almost 500 miles to get from Oregon to the Death Valley.

Bikes and gear loaded on the truck

Bikes and gear loaded on the truck

The Death Valley trip itself involved meeting two other riders who are based in California, Scott and Hugh.  I know Scott from my Ducati trips to Northern California, a great guy whom I’m lucky to call a friend, and his long time friend Hugh.  The three of us connected really well, we had a blast riding our bikes in the Death Valley, and we already have plans for a 2017 ride.

Last day of riding on this trip to the Death Valley, March of 2016

Cesar, Scott and Hugh: Last day of riding on this trip to the Death Valley, March of 2016

Overall, the CB500X did very well on its adventure riding test.  It can go most anywhere, but it really shines on packed gravel roads and it struggles on technical, rocky terrain, the kind that requires slow moving, slip-clutch type of work. I will discuss all of these issues in detail.

Getting to the Death Valley, weather issues

March is the perfect time to be in the Death Valley, it is the time of the flower bloom, it is the time when temperatures are not too cold nor too hot. On average. Since it is also the time of transition from winter to summer, though, you can call the month of March the Death Valley’s spring, but it is more like one day is winter the next day it could be like the kind of summer weather we find in Oregon. And this transition can be violent, you may find yourself on unexpected situations, like strong winds, rain storms, sand storms, and even snow storms. Add to it that in my case I was traveling from Oregon to California and had to cross a few passes, as a result on this trip I encountered all of the above conditions on the way in, while there, or on the way back.

I studied the weather forecast to find the best route to get there.  The first obstacle was the strong winds I faced on I-5 near Mount Shasta.  The winds were so strong my five-speed truck struggled even on down hills, the small 5L V-8 requiring the engine to be on 4th gear, even on a down hill, to keep up with traffic.

4th gear on I-5, fighting strong head winds

4th gear on I-5, fighting strong head winds

I had several options of routes to get to the Death Valley and I had to make course corrections on the fly.  One of them was to get out of the I-5 and the strong head winds with which the truck was fighting.  I turned onto SR89, going south east towards Susanville.  My fear about taking this route was the possibility of finding snow on high elevations and then it is an area with less traffic, so if you need assistance you can be waiting for a while, if you can get in touch with someone, that is.  I was ready to sleep in my truck’s cabin if needed.

On the way south, only snow I encountered was on the side of the road, roads were clear.

On the way south, only snow I encountered was on the side of the road, roads were clear.

I arrived in Susanville and it was dark already. However, once I got past Susanville the road conditions improved, I cruised on 395 going south with no problems. I was going to spend the night at some point, and I knew Scott would be with his RV in Bishop, CA to spend the night. My goal was to meet him there, but I had left my house several hours behind schedule, therefore my plan was to go as far as I could, stop and take a nap if needed, and catch up wit him on the following day.

Susanville, CA

Susanville, CA

South of Carson City I got a text from Scott who was driving from Sacramento, California, and while updating each other on our progress, we realized we were just a few miles apart.  We met and drove together to Bishop where we spent the night at the Paiute Casino RV park.  The next day the weather was perfect and we arrived at the Death Valley park with no problems.  I will discuss more about the weather on the second day of riding and on my return to Oregon on Part 5 of these series of posts.

Close to the entrance to Death Valley, following Scott's RV.

Close to the entrance to Death Valley, following Scott’s RV.

We arrived at the camp (Panamint Springs), setup the RV, unloaded the gear and the bikes and went out for a ride. I was really glad to be there and to have this chance to test the CB500X in the real conditions you would expect such a bike to perform.

Bikes unloaded, ready for action

Bikes unloaded, ready for action

Riding the CB500X on Saline Road and Hunter Mountain Road, Death Valley

This first ride was an afternoon ride, so we decided to take it easy, go towards Saline road and from there make a right on Hunter Mountain road and check the cabin.  Then go back the same way. I was really anxious to try the CB500X off pavement.  The bike is a bit tall for my 30 inch inseam, but it is and feels a good amount lighter than my Triumph Tiger 800XC. I was counting on that for when I would need to stop on uneven terrain.

On the way to Saline road, a quick stop for pictures

On the way to Saline road, a quick stop for pictures

As soon as we got on the gravel, the bike felt really good.  I did not air down the tires, just rode it with regular pressure.  The bike felt very stable on gravel and I was able to get it to just around 70mph without any problems.

At 70mph, bikes feels solid

At 70mph, bikes feels solid

The bike did very well on the sweeping gravel curves of Saline Road.  This is where less power is a benefit, as you can twist throttle with abandon, well, some level of abandon, and the rear is not going to step out too much or risk passing the front. It just settles the bike very nicely.

Pin it and the rear wheel will keep the front where you want it to go

Pin it and the rear wheel will keep the front where you want it to go

The one thing that bothered me at this point was how much the front bounced on the kind of rocks you find on these kinds of roads, the ones that are lodged on the road but protruding slightly through the surface of the road.  In part this was happening because I did not air down the tires, but mostly it seems it could be coming from how stiff the front end felt as it reacted to these smaller bumps at speed. It seems everything was transferred directly to the handlebars.  My Tiger 800XC does a better job, my WR250R does a really better job at these situations.  Even my Multistrada could do better, I think.

The rear suspension, on the other hand, felt perfectly suited to any situation, I never felt the rear wheel to be fighting for grip and traction, even when going fast on washboard situations.

Rear weheel traction was good, great Tractive suspension setup for this bike.

Rear wheel traction was good, great Tractive suspension setup for this bike.

The bike did very well on the odd mud holes we encountered on the way up the mountain, much more a function of the tires, perhaps. Same happened on the sand patches we encountered.  The bike always felt solid and stable on mud or sand, really, really good.

No problems handling sand.

No problems handling sand.

While the front suspension did not absorb well the two- to five-inch rocks and edges on the road when going at speed, it did well on the larger more rounded obstacles, such as this erosion ditch on the final approach to the cabin on Hunter Mountain Rd.

Bike handled well erosion ditches.

Bike handled well erosion ditches.

It turns out, the bike and its upgraded suspension do very well at slower speeds on rough terrain, as long as there is momentum going forward. I would learn more about this on the second day, and I will go on more detail on Part 5 when I talk about it. Upfront I can say it is about power delivery on first gear and a narrow, maybe too narrow clutch friction zone.  That’s were a street bike’s set up, the part of the build you can’t quite change, find its limits when going off road type of situations (not off-pavement).  But more on that later.

When riding steep uphill on rough terrain, if you slow down, the bike struggles. A power and friction zone thing.

When riding steep uphill on rough terrain, if you slow down too much, the bike struggles to continue. It is a power (low torque) and clutch friction zone (too narrow) issue.

What is important is that we made to the cabin without a problem, just a slight moment, something that gave me pause to think this bike may reach “adventure” limitations at a lower level of challenges than what I had anticipated.  I have to say that, overall, I was very satisfied with what the bike delivered in this first day.  It is nothing more, nor less, than what I could be expected, with a small adjustment on the less side of it.

Te bike made it to the cabin on Hunter Mountain Rd.

Te bike made it to the cabin on Hunter Mountain Rd.

The only real problem that happened on this first day had nothing to do with the bike, but with the dirtbagz that moved from its position when I was riding and got too close to the exhaust. Obviously my job attaching them to the side rack was not good enough, and the bag on the exhaust side burned, and with it a spare tube got burned as well.

The burned dirtbagz bag

The burned dirtbagz bag

Since then I already bought a new set of dirtbagz (they fit both the WR250R and the CB500X) and found a better way to attach the bags on the CB500X.  Two tests so far and they still haven’t moved or burned.

We returned to camp the same way, and as expected it soon was dark.  The CB500X headlight is okay, but there is room for improvement.  This is a limitation that is not particular to this bike, as most bikes will do better, a lot better, with auxiliary lights. This is something I will upgrade on this bike during this next winter, by adding a set of good auxiliary lights that will work for both the Cb500X and the WR250R.

Headlight is okay, would benefit with the addition of auxiliary lights. I already have something in mind.

Headlight is okay, would benefit with the addition of auxiliary lights. I already have something in mind.

Going over Saline and Hunter Mountain roads was just an appetizer of a test.  The real test was to see how this bike behaved when going up Goler Wash and from there Mengel Pass.

On the first day it was only Scott and me for the Saline Rd and Hunter Mountain RD adventure, as Hugh was still traveling, arriving only at night.  Hugh joined us with his 2013 BMW R1200GS. As you can tell, for joining us on this adventure on Mengel Pass with his large adventure motorcycle, Hugh is either courageous, or a great rider, or both.

It turns out both were true, and the large BMW motorcycle gets its credit as well! It turns out having the R1200GS along for this ride was a great way to learn about the importance of having a very tractable at low speed, torquey motor to ride on challenging technical terrain.

On top of Mengel Pass, looking towards the east, storms brewing...

On top of Mengel Pass, looking towards the east, storms brewing…

But this is something for the next chapter, when I will report how the CB500X did on the ride towards the Mengel Pass.  I will report one crash, or two, and also, the horrible weather conditions we encountered as we descended towards Badwater, including a blinding sand storm. It was another night ride back to camp, with some drama to make things better – it was about confirming the definition of “adventure”.  All with a good ending, mind you.

Part 5 will include a summary of my perceptions of the CB500X as an Adventure motorcycle and a brief report on the return of the WR250R to the Lippincott trail (I was there with that bike in 2010) and my trip back to Oregon.

Thank you for reading and stay tuned for Part 5 where the real action unfolds.

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One Response to The Honda CB500X Adventure – Part 4: Riding it on Death Valley – first impressions

  1. s1b3r1a says:

    Looking forward to the next part!

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