The Honda CB500X Adventure – Part 5: Riding it on Death Valley – Is it an adventure motorcycle?

The Death Valley adventure continues. Today we will ride Goler Wash Road and go over Mengel Pass, it will be a great opportunity to test the CB500X on various types of roads,  the kinds of terrain an adventure machine is expected to manage.  The previous day was a preliminary test of this motorcycle, on today’s loop, with new and more challenging obstacles, we will gather more data to discuss how much of an adventure machine the CB500X can possibly be.

The CB500X Adventure Conquers Mengel Pass

The CB500X Adventure Conquers Mengel Pass… but… do you see rain drops on the bike?

The Mengel Pass Loop

This loop is 177 miles long, starting from our camp on Panamint Springs, to Mengel Pass via Ballarat and back to camp via West Side road and Furnace Creek. I subdivided the route into these six segments:

  1. Panamint Springs to Ballarat – 32.8 miles
  2. Ballarat to Goler Wash Road – 15.2 miles
  3. Goller Wash Road to Mengel Pass – 9.1 miles
  4. Mengel Pass to West Side Highway – 24.3 miles
  5. West Side Highway to Furnace Creek – 39.6 miles
  6. Stovepipe Wells back to Panamint Springs – 56 miles
177-mile loop

177-mile loop

The terrain on this loop offers a great variety of riding conditions:

  • Pavement at the beginning of segment 1, the end of segment 5, and the entirety of segment 6;
  • Gravel highways with nice sweeping curves on most of segment 1, the entirety of segment 2 and most of segment 5 (Note: gravel roads are my all time favorite type of road for motorcycle riding, especially when it includes sweeping curves);
  • Gravel two-track roads (my second favorite type of riding) on the majority of segments 3 and 4;
  • Rocky, slow going, pick your line or you will not have ground clearance, on steep terrain. We fund this type of road on small portions of segments 3 and 4 (Note: this is something I’m not good at, making it my least favorite type of riding); and
  • The bonus segment…. deep sand riding thanks to a major sandstorm that in less than one hour covered a portion of the West Side road with more than a foot of sand, in the beginning of segment 5 (Note: I kind’a like riding on sand).

The segments included terrain descriptors and my riding ability/preference on each type of terrain, to provide a better context for my review of the CB500X Adventure (Rally Raid Level 3 kit).

To get some perspective on how other types of bike performed on this same loop, Scott and Hugh were on this ride with me, riding a KTM 500 EXC and a 2013 BMW R1200GS respectively.  The smaller more dedicated motorcycle for technical terrain (KTM) as well as the large and well known great adventure motorcycle (BMW) provide a good range of types of motorcycles to help make comparisons with the Honda Cb500X Adventure which is sort of on the middle of these two other bikes.

KTM 500 EXC, Honda CB500X Adventure, and BMW R1200GS

KTM 500 EXC, Honda CB500X Adventure, and BMW R1200GS – in Ballarat, Death Valley, CA

Adventure starts when things go wrong

As a preamble to this ride and review, let’s talk about adventure.  The old saying “adventure starts when things go wrong” is true. Not sure someone would question its applicability. What people could question, perhaps, is whether they want to be in a situation that would possibly turn into an adventure as defined per that saying.

When riding a motorcycle you are automatically on adventure mode. It is even more the case when riding off pavement, in desolate areas with limited traffic and difficult access.  If something happens, you want to be ready for it.  That’s one element, getting ready for the unknown, something that attracts me to motorcycle riding, and it is a large component of my interpretation of what is “adventure” riding.

The 177-mile loop planned for this ride can easily be done in a day, considering all terrain involved, the easy and fast, and the challenging and slow segments.  In our case, besides the terrain itself, three elements conspired to make this ride into a real adventure.

The first one being that we left camp late, meaning we would likely be in the most desolate part of the ride deep in the afternoon.  The second was the weather forecast, indicate a 70% of rain. Here in Oregon, 70% of rain means it will rain.  In the Death Valley, I thought, well… 70% means perhaps maybe it will rain, but the skies were so blue, the park is so large, we will likely dodge it…  Still, I brought my rain gear with me.

We could have worked with these first two items and gone for a plan B of sorts.  We could have departed earlier in the day or decided for another destination.  But we didn’t.  As a result, 70% meant 100% and we got rained on and it made riding on rocky terrain more slippery, hence more challenging, and the rain helped make things darker sooner, when we were still in the mountain.

The third item was a sand storm and you already know about it as I have mentioned it on the other posts where I mentioned this bike and this trip.  We knew about the chance of rain, we did not know about the sand storm.  Storms like this seem to be very localized and not too infrequent in the area.  I had never been on a sand storm before, I have to say it was quite the experience.  It was the icing on the cake, making this a real adventure, as it was an ultimate test for me and for the machine. An experience not to be forgotten.

The combination of all these factors contributed to making this day, this ride, a legitimate adventure. Mother nature and the weather it throws at us is beautiful, incredible, powerful, overwhelming.  Because the conditions turned so quickly, we had no shelter, not even a tree or an overhanging rock anywhere.  When the sand storm arrived further reducing visibility it introduced deep sand as a new element to the road conditions… we had no choice but to keep moving.  It caused the group to get separated after a small incident with one of the bikes.  We were able to resolve it, kept moving, hoping for the best.

Maybe it is not a big deal.  How often when you ride you are cold, wet, and also hungry, right?  But when you add all of that together, and then take n consideration where we were, and when we were there, things get really interesting.  We were the last people traveling in the area just east of Mengel Pass for that day, as far as I could tell. Just to give you an idea about its intensity, we had food with us, but the conditions were such that we did not want to stop, dig it from the bags, and eat it. Well, it definitely would not be possible to eat during the sand storm. Earlier when it had started raining, I did not stop to don my wet gear either.

We made it through it all, and the group reconnected before going back to camp.  Because the outcome was a positive one, we were able to celebrate this ride like no ordinary ride would be celebrated.  I know other riders have been through challenges much more realistic and overwhelming than the ones we encountered.  Still, in the end, our little adventure was felt like the real thing.  This ride, this small 177-mile loop, was one of the best rides of my life, for what I endured on my own perspective, for the friendship I hope to have strengthened and developed with Scott and Hugh during this full day of riding. We already have a plan to go back there for another ride together.

Having said all of that, let’s go back to the evaluation of the CB500X with its Rally Raid Kit as an adventure machine.  When we call a motorcycle an “adventure motorcycle” we are talking about something different than the adventure I just described. We are not precluding the possibility of such an unexpected adventure to happen, but we are talking about “adventure” as the evolved definition of a type of motorcycle based on its capacity to travel long distances, carrying gear, including camping gear, and which can traverse all types of terrain, from pavement to some off-pavement roads.  That’s how the CB500X with its Rally Raid Level 3 kit, the adventure kit, will be evaluated.

But there is a lot more to this story.  So, don your helmet, let’s start this ride!

Panamint Springs to Ballarat – lots of fun and the first incident with the CB500X

This was my second time in the Death Valley.  The roads, the landscape, it is always good to be there, experience the scale of it, there is a lot to absorb. No wonder it has attracted so many people to visit or to live there, even considering, or perhaps because of its often inhospitable weather conditions.

We were all set. The BMW carried our lunch.

Lunch on the bag on the back of the BMW

Lunch on the bag on the back of the BMW

I carried tools, spare tubes, and camera equipment. Because one of my dirtbagz burned the day before, I improvised with small bags from Mosko Moto that I had as a back up.  Two 4-liter storage pouches attached to the side racks, with camera equipment.

Back up plan for bags: Mosko Moto 4-Liter storage pouches

Back up plan for bags: Mosko Moto 4-Liter storage pouches

Two 2-liter storage pouches attached to the engine bars, with spare tube and tools.  Ready for the action!

Two 2-Liter storage pouches, for tools and spare tube

Two 2-Liter storage pouches, for tools and spare tube

We started by going south on Panamint Springs road. It was already windy, and the winds were blowing from the south.  You can actually see some sand blowing on the horizon already.  But that was not a big deal at this point, and nothing compared to what we would face later in the day.

Going south on Panamint Valley Road

Going south on Panamint Valley Road

We turned into the fun gravel roads in the direction of Ballarat, our first destination, a total of about 33 miles from our camp.  The CB500X is light enough to move fast on these roads, power seems just appropriate for the kind of speed you can safely manage on gravel  roads.  The bike feels composed with the Rally Raid’s upgrade to front forks and rear shock. Front fork has about 7 inches of travel (almost 2 inches more from stock).

Yes, this road is a lot of fun to ride and the CB500X did very well.

Yes, this road is a lot of fun to ride and the CB500X did very well on these roads.

When we reached a section with sweeping curves, that was the ultimate fun with this machine.  Because it has limited, well, low power, about 48 hp, it makes it really easy to simply twist the throttle with abandon and have the bike settle nicely on gravel curves, with very little risk the rear will pass the front.

When riding on gravel I like to crank the power at the very beginning of the curve to help settle the bike and relieve the front from steering functions.  With this bike you don’t need to fine-tune the throttle, there is no need for traction control, just go for it. Besides its soft power, Rally Raid’s Level 3 kit with its Tractive shock and spring on the rear was probably another decisive factor on keeping this bike settled so well. It never feels to be hunting for traction even on washboard surfaces. Perfect.

Fast sweeping curves, perfect for the CB500X

Fast sweeping curves, perfect for the CB500X

I kept cranking the speed up and up, the bike always feeling composed.  I was having a blast! And then I was riding at about 60-70 mph on straights, slowing some on curves, I was on the zone, when out of a curve I came to a straight stretch and I see a sign on top of an erosion-damaged area on the road.  I had been through others on this road, but this one was different. There sign was on top of it.  I arrived too quickly to do anything about it.

On the photo below, just before I hit it, it looks like nothing.  Actually it was not too deep but it had a sharp edge on the other end with just the amount of height to make it a big deal, especially when hitting it at about 50 mph.

I hit this thing at about 50 mph, major impact

I hit this thing at about 50 mph, major impact

It was a major impact and I felt it hard, but the bike kept moving.  I could not believe the bike was in one piece.  However, the handlebars moved on the clamps, the front rim (tire inflated at regular pressure) got slightly bent, and the bike developed a light clank from the triple tree area.  I could not find the source of the clanking at that time so I kept riding it, but kept checking on things at stops to see what was damaged from the impact.

Checking to see whether the wheels were still round and tires still inflated after the shock.

Checking to see whether the wheels were still round and tires still inflated after the shock.

After a closer look I learned the steering stem bearings were smashed pretty good from the impact, the bike developed a slight notch on the steering.  Therefore, here goes another upgrade I recommend for this bike if you want to take it on serious off pavement adventure riding.

Part number 130279 or AB22-1020 or 22-2020 will fit the CB500X and costs about $35 on ebay

Tapered bearings: Part number 130279 or AB22-1020 or 22-2020 will fit the CB500X and costs about $35 on ebay

The CB500X comes with ball-type steering head bearings.  I recommend substituting it with tapered bearings.

After some research, and talking to the chief mechanic from the Honda dealer in town, I learned this “All Balls Racing” tapered steering stem bearing (left) was a fit for this bike.

I purchased the kit and the bike has now a more appropriate stem bearing.  However, I would recommend this bike be ridden more carefully, it is not a rally machine.  It can be even more of a problem if you do not have the Rally Raid Level 3 wheels.  Can you imagine hitting this bump at speed with the 17-inch alloy wheel that comes with this bike?

Slightly bent front rim (and did you know these Conti tires were made in Korea?

Slightly bent front rim (and did you know these “German” Conti TKC 80 tires were made in Korea?)

We arrived in Ballarat without further incidents.  I’m glad this Dodge power wagon truck is still there. I had seen it in 2010 and six years later it is still there, like it belongs to the landscape.

1940's(?) Dodge Power Wagon

1940’s(?) Dodge Power Wagon

Ballarat is one of the many interesting places in the Death Valley. It is worth a stop.

The Trading Post in Ballarat

The Trading Post in Ballarat

The “Trading Post” is still there, with the same guy who manages or owns it or lives there.

The piano in the porch of the trading post, Ballarat, CA.

The piano in the porch of the trading post, Ballarat, CA.

What was different this time was this beautiful model who was taking advantage of the peculiarities of Ballarat as a background to photograph and model for her vintage clothing shop.

Interesting juxtaposition of subjects

Interesting juxtaposition of subjects

She graciously accepted the request to be photographed with us.

Beautiful with the beasts (men and machines)

The beautiful and the beasts (men and machines).  Photograph taken by the model’s photographer

To conclude this first segment, the incident where I hit the erosion across the road was not the bike’s fault.  But it does point out that if you want to push this bike hard, and again I do not recommend anyone ride any bike that way, then you should replace its stem ball bearings with a set of tapered bearings.

It also shows the importance of having having a set of spoke wheels which are stronger than alloy wheels. And the larger, 19-inch size helps going over obstacles as well, when compared to this bike’s original 17-inch wheels.  This is exactly the kind of scenario that justifies the Rally Raid Level 3 kit, or why bikes with alloy wheels are not recommended for this type of riding.

Overall, on gravel roads the CB500X does a great job.  I enjoy its power and power delivery for this type of road, when you are already on the range of the torque curve, you can accelerate it on gravel curves and it is solid and settled on how it feels and behaves.  Gravel roads are my favorite type of riding by a great margin and this bike, with the Rally Raid kit, allows for twisting the throttle with abandon. With a 100 hp machine you can have fun as well, of course but you will need to manage to manage it carefully, unless you rely on traction control.

You may not even need the Rally Raid Kit for gravel riding on this bike. You can always go slowly and enjoy the scenery and in that case this bike on its OEM configuration, maybe better tires, would had been fine on this first segment of the loop. But with the rally raid kit you have better suspension which makes quite a difference if you like to ride faster.  It is not a rally machine, though, and if only the already improved front suspension dealt better over the smaller rocks, this machine could be considered a perfect gravel monster.

Ballarat to Goler Wash Road to Mengel Pass – More fun and the second incident with the CB500X

After the short stop in Ballarat we were back on track.  After that first incident I re-adjusted the handlebars, did a final check on things and considered it good to go.  I did start slower this time though.  The road continued south with the same type of gravel, just a bit rougher on spots, until reaching Goler Wash Road (Goler Wash Road is part of Coyote Canyon Road), some fifteen miles or so south of Ballarat.

Continuing south of Ballarat and changing skies

Continuing south of Ballarat and changing skies

Take a look at the picture above and the one below, the skies have completely changed from what you see on the first photos. No more blue skies, no questions, a storm was brewing.  We carried on.

The skies have changed...

The skies have changed…

Soon the road starts climbing as we enter the canyon.  It is about 9 miles from the main road to reach the summit of Mengel Pass through Goler Wash.  It turns out there is a mining site that has been operational for the last 6 years or so in the area, it is about half way to the summit of Mengel Pass, and is reached through the Goler Wash Road.

That means the road has been graveled to support the back and forth traffic of trucks carrying mining equipment,fuel,  supplies and whatever they are mining.

Goler Wash... deep gravel, not very compacted yet.

Goler Wash… deep gravel, not very compacted yet.

As a result, there are no more “steps” on Goler Wash. Instead, it is this gravel that is not very compact.  On the picture above it looks like a simple gravel road, but it is very steep and the deep and loose gravel made me lose traction when I got half way through it.  I was the first to hit it, and had no idea how steep and loose it was until the bike lost traction some 10 yards from the top.  Once I lost traction the bike fishtailed one way, than the other, and when it got sideways I dropped it.

Dropped the thing

Dropped the thing

To the CB500X’s credit, no bike made this little hill on their own power. Also, there was no damage done to the bike. It crashes well (well it was almost stopped by the time I dropped it).

We ghost-walked the KTM.

Ghost-walking the KTM on this steep with gravel portion of the road.

Ghost-walking the KTM on this steep with gravel portion of the road.

The BMW almost made it on its on power after Hugh got some speed to start the short but steep hill.  But it also lost traction close to the top and once it lost traction it dug its own trench and required attention.  We have to give credit to Hugh and the BMW, although it also lost traction, the bike looked stable all along.  The problem was how to extricate this heavy bike from this trench on this steep incline… Two of us pushing, Hugh on board, a few back and forth moves, that’s how we made it.

The BMW dug its own trench, but did really well, almost cleared it without assistance

The BMW dug its own trench, but did really well, almost cleared it without assistance

All bikes needed help but the three of us made it to the top of this small patch of road.  This steep hill was not a big deal, considering what we would face next, but we did talk about maybe turning around here. We decided to keep going.

First obstacle cleared!

First obstacle cleared!

From the picture below you can see how the road abruptly disappears. It was a steep section of this road.

To understand how steep it is, take a look at hour it disappears abruptly behind the BMW

To understand how steep it is, take a look at hour it disappears abruptly behind the BMW

The road continued without any other major challenges after that.

The road continued with no other challenges until a few miles after the mine operations

The road continued with no other challenges until a few miles after the mining operations

At some point we reached the mining operations. The road continued to be good for a couple of miles after that.

Mining operations on Goler Wash area.

Mining operations on Goler Wash area.

But then the road started to degrade and segments with rocky terrain appeared.  Not too bad, though. The section below was the worst portion on this road and it was just before hitting the summit.

Rock garden!

Rock garden!

Most of the time, though, it was just rough going, but fun and and we kept moving.

Rolling stones rocking our going

Rolling stones rocking our going

This kind of terrain, with rocks creating very rough spots is hard on the CB500X, even with the Rally Raid kit.  The front suspension does not have the travel to allow more shock absorption, hence the bike feels really hard, transferring shocks to the handle bars, giving the sensation that it crashes onto these rocks instead of hovering over them.  You do need to slow down. And sometimes you lose the momentum, especially if you add the characteristics of the motor.  What is good about this motor on pavement and on gravel, may not translate too well on technical terrain.

But we made it to the top!

We all make it to the top of Mengel Pass

We all make it to the top of Mengel Pass

As a summary, for this segment, especially the nine miles to reach the summit, I would say the bike did well.  What makes this bike interesting as a lightest multi-cylinder adventure motorcycle available is the capacity to use it on solo travel.  Perhaps I could have picked it up on my own and recovered from the incident on that steep area of the gravel road.  I’m not sure because in this case I had assistance to pick it up and ghost-ride it to the top.

Based on this incident, which most riders would encounter when riding off pavement and off the beaten path, my conclusion would be:  the KTM could do it on its own power or the rider could manage to drag it to the top of that hill one way or another if needed, it is a very light machine; the CB500X is likely to need assistance; the BMW definitely needs assistance if it doesn’t make it.  The BMW has more weight and in part because of the weight, and in other part because it has the appropriate power delivery and gearing, it seems more stable to tractor up that steep incline. But if or when the BMW gets stuck you will definitely need help to get it going again.

The CB500X, on the other hand, does not have the “tractoring” type of power on first gear, that low speed torque delivery you need on these conditions. It is a bit frenetic (is there a better word to describe it?) on its power delivery from first gear, which is a problem for this type of riding condition. It works well in the city, it is fun on the twisties. Here it is a nuisance. A better rider would have perhaps cleared that little hill without problems.  But chances are these experienced riders will be riding something different.  And that is the point about the CB500X, with Rally Raid kit or not, its essence, the combo of motor, transmission and clutch, was not designed for this type of riding.  More on the clutch next.

From Mengel Pass to the West Side Road:  Third incident with the CB500X

As we were on the top of the pass, taking pictures and celebrating our accomplishment, it started to rain. Very lightly, though. We had felt a few drops here and there before, but now we know it is really coming, we could see it in the horizon.  The total distance to reach the West Side road from here is about 24 miles.  And mostly down hill.  Not a problem, right?

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

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

However, going down the other side, the road does not get any easier.  Actually it gets worse before it gets better.  There are some more rock gardens, with larger rocks than on the other side.

Real rock gardens on the other side of the pass. Notice the projected light of the bike - it is getting dark

Real rock gardens on the other side of the pass. Notice the projected light of the bike on the pile of rocks – it is getting dark


For this type of riding, you need to feather the clutch to go slow while keeping that very important momentum going.  This happens with most any motorcycle on these riding situations.  In particular with the CB500X, as discussed earlier, because of its its low and somewhat peaky torque, which feels more pronounced at slow gears and speeds, reliance on feathering the clutch becomes yet more important.

That’s when I found another potential challenge for this bike as a true adventure machine: it has a narrow friction zone for clutch engagement. It was about one inch of travel at the lever at the beginning of the ride and operating on this narrow margin was difficult, I stalled the bike several times.  At some point either the cable stretched or the clutch plates started wearing down, I was down to less than one inch of engagement travel. I adjusted it on the spot, which improved some, but there is only so much to work with, I learned.

Struggling to move forward... narrow friction zone on the clutch

Struggling to move forward… narrow friction zone on the clutch

The friction zone is something important for an adventure motorcycle, we need a good amount. On the street, no problems, we want fast gear changes.  Kudos to Honda for making a DCT version for the Africa Twin, designed to prevent the bike from stalling, exactly what makes it good for these types of circumstances. It is also what makes the Rekluse auto-clutch so popular on dual sport and adventure bikes. Maybe Rekluse has something for the Honda CB500X? I doubt it, but it would be an awesome upgrade!

The challenge to make the CB500X a true adventure machine is that you can’t broaden a clutch’s friction zone on a bike. You can maximize it by adjusting the cable and lever properly for the largest range it can deliver.  You can change friction plates to have them last longer or change springs, but stronger springs, which would be required for this type of riding, may actually shorten the friction zone.  I don’t know what I will do with this yet, but it is an area that may require some research.

After a few more challenging spots the road finally started getting better. And dark.

After a few more challenging spots the road finally started getting better. And dark.

As an alternative, now that the bike has more miles with the Tractive suspension, I can go back and properly adjust the sag, which based on a recent preliminary measure requires an increase of about half an inch of sag, reducing the pre-load may actually make the bike lower, and hence easier to maneuver on these situations.

If you have a long inseam this issue can be resolved with the old leg assist. In my case, I have to use balance and rely on a steady throttle to have the bike climb and crawl over obstacles.  I never wanted to be a trial rider, but you need these skills on these types of riding or a bike that will work with you.  The CB500X is not one of these bikes.  The BMW seems to do it so well… or was it Hugh’s riding? Both, I would say.  The KTM is light and Scott maneuvered everything very nicely as well.  They both had to wait for me and sometimes help me, each time we encountered one of the several areas of the road when such steep or rocky terrain required slow going.

Back to the ride, after a while the road finally got better and we were cruising.  I think at some point we went past Striped Butte.  Nothing to see, really, all we wanted at this point was to get out of the mountain as it was raining more and of course, getting darker.  We will come back to this area next time and I hope to spend more time on this very beautiful plateau.

Road gets better, we were cruising!

Road gets better, we were cruising!

At least now we were past the trouble zone, and only had rain to contend with and darkness was approaching fast.  I was just saying to myself “will there be any other surprise” ahead of us?  I was thinking about road conditions as surprises, but something else happened.

I was following Hugh and his BMW R1200GS when he hit a rut that had an odd camber to it, and it was right where there was a deep ditch on the side of the road. Perhaps it was the only portion of road with a ditch!

As Scott cleared the hump ahead, Hugh crashes his BMW into a ditch

As Scott cleared the hump ahead with his KTM, Hugh crashes his BMW into a ditch (Part 1)

His bike hit the rut and went out from under him and veered to the right where the ditch was.  There was nothing he could do. The bike went “head first” into the ditch. Check the sequence of events, below is part two.

Part 2 of the sequence

Part 2 of the sequence

Part three.

Part 4

Part 3

Part four.

Part 4

Part 4

Part five.

Part 4: front of the bike has fallen on a deep rut

Part 4: front of the bike has fallen on a deep rut

Part six, the most important thing: Hugh is fine.

Part 5, The most important thing, Hugh is fine!

Part 6, The most important thing, Hugh is fine!

This happened when it really started raining.  Scott had just cleared the next hill so he had no knowledge this was happening right behind him and continued. We were assessing the situation, waiting to see if Scott would come back to help us move the BMW from the ditch.  But with that rain falling steadily we figured we should not wait, we should try to extricate the bike ourselves.

We tried different ways, the best approach, we found out, was to drag the bike on its side to bring the front wheel back on the road.  It took a while but we managed to bring it back to the road and from there we stood it up.  There was damage to the beak and front fairing, and especially worrisome was the information cluster that was completely loose from its anchoring points.  I know some bikes need a working cluster to be able to start the motor and run.  Hugh turned the key on and it lit up and the bike started right away. What a relief, Hugh was fine, the bike was running! Great job BMW.

However, we lost a good amount of time there.  Scott by this time was probably almost out of the mountain.  He was completely oblivious to our issues, and, at the same time, he knew the road had been good since the last time he had seen us, so he had nothing to think that we were not just right behind him.

The incident with the BMW was something completely out of the ordinary, as Hugh is a great rider. “Sh!t happens”, is the best way to describe it.  Later we learned that once Scott reached the West Side Road, a good point to stop and wait for us, the sand storm was are already in full swing.  Have you been on a sand storm? There is no way someone could stand there, waiting, with all the wind and sand hitting you.  Especially when you assume we were not too far behind him. Scott carried on, he was worried, but assumed we were fine. I would had done the same, given the circumstances.

Meanwhile, Hugh and I did not know anything about the sandstorm, we are now riding again, maybe some 30 minutes or more behind Scott, it is still raining but road conditions are improving as we are getting out of the mountain and in more open areas.  It was a beautiful scenery, too bad I had stopped the video camera and never thought of turning it back on.

All along I was following Hugh and we were checking Scott’s tracks.  All of a sudden I got distracted and when we reached a more frequently traveled area, I could not see Scott’s tracks anymore.  What if Scott had gotten lost or fallen on the side of the road and with the rain and darkness we missed him?

With these thoughts in mind we made it out of the mountain and when we got to the West Side road the sand storm was going at full tilt and had already covered the road with a feet or more of sand.  The last leg of the adventure was just about taking shape.

In five minutes we stopped, our own tracks had been already covered by the sand storm (West Side Hwy.)

In five minutes from the time we stopped, our own tracks had been already covered by the sand storm (West Side Hwy.)

These photos do not make justice to how dark it was, nor it documents the wind level, nor how much sand was flying. It was a scene of total desolation, which, once again, explains why Scott did not wait for us here. Hugh and I talked, maybe screamed at each other over the wind noise and blasting. Assuming Scott was ahead of us, we decided to carry on, hoping for the best.

Te BMW is fully operational, except the headlights are aiming to the skies instead of the road ahead.

The BMW is fully operational, except the headlights are aiming to the skies instead of the road ahead.

From West Side Road back to Camp:  No more incidents with the CB500X, just a curious thing

My main concern at this point was about the bikes, how would they perform on this deep sand?

The G1X camera after about 1 minute of exposure to the sand storm

The next morning I photographed the G1X camera to show how much sand it accumulated after about 1 minute of exposure to the sand storm (when I took the sandstorm pictures)

The CB500X felt very stable and easy to ride.  When I realized this was not going to be an issue, and now that it was completely dark, we started riding side by side, as the BMW’s headlights were useless after the crash, aiming to the night sky, and Hugh had to rely on my Honda’s lights.  We went side by side for basically all the distance back to pavement.  Luckily the sandstorm stopped a few miles north (or we rode out of it).

A scene of total desolation

A scene of total desolation

When we were very close to reach pavement, just south of Furnace Creek, my GPS indicated I had received a phone call from Scott’s wife (the GPS connects via blue tooth to my phone).  I stopped to check my phone, it did not have reception at that point, but I let Hugh know we had received the call.  That was good news, it meant Scott was looking for us. Soon after I got a call from Scott. Great, he was waiting for us at the Furnace Creek gas station.  We arrived at the gas station just before 9 pm, just before it closed. It was great to regroup, even emotional. Very celebrated indeed. The adventure was complete.  Or was it?

Hugh filled his BMW’s tank, and I did not fill the Honda’s tank. We were 56 miles from camp, and we had ridden some 121 miles so far and I confess, I did not start this loop with a full tank. It was one bar down…  But 177 miles would be plenty good for the 50 mpg this bike does on average. As we were hanging out at the gas station I had a second thought and decided it would be a good idea to fill it up, but by that time the gas station was closed.

Zipties to adjust the BMW's headlights.

Zipties to adjust the BMW’s headlights.

We worked a few minutes on the BMW, using zipties to adjust the headlights.  It worked, they were now pointing on the right direction.

It is "fixed"

It is “fixed”

We continued on the last leg of the ride back to camp, we had 56 miles to go.  I don’t know this bike very well, this was the first time I was riding it with an emptier tank. In my history of motorcycle ownership, all my bikes had a reserve petcock or a a reserve amber light on the dash.  I was somewhat confident the Honda would make it back to camp with the gasoline I had on the tank.  But then we were climbing from Furnace Creek, the fuel gauge had two bars remaining and then it went fast to one bar and soon after it started blinking. No amber light? What the heck was that? Was I past the the traditional amber light point and did not notice it?  The dash would flash the last bar, alternating with a red bar (the red bar is part of the dash but it is covered by the lowest black bar when you have fuel).

The dash would flash the last bar, which would show this red box

The dash would flash the last bar, which would show this red box

The dash eventually showed a number on the right, which started from 0, and then the word “gal”.

Then it should the last black bar with a number on the right

Then it should the last black bar with a number on the right

Therefore, not having read the manual of the bike, I had no idea how much gasoline the bike had at this point.  I did not realize until then, instead of counting miles from the time the tank hits the reserve (when it starts flashing the last bar – that’s the amber light equivalent for this bike), the bike starts counting the amount of gallons consumed form the reserve amount.  The point is, I had no idea how much gasoline there is on reserve on this bike. So I started riding on save mode.  Hugh and Scott were way ahead, I could see their lights, but I was just not going to accelerate too much to keep up with them.  When we started going downhill again I started pushing it a bit more and finally reconnected with them.

Somehow the bike made it and now I know I can ride at for least 50 miles, if ridden carefully, after the reserve starts. Gladly this last part of the adventure did not mean I was going to be waiting on the side of the road for one of them to go back to camp to bring me some extra gasoline (we had plenty of gasoline at the camp).  The Honda sipped fuel, as the number on the right did not go past 0.2 in those last 50 miles or so. Now, after the fact, I checked the manual and it doesn’t say how much gas the bike has on reserve.  It does state “refuel right away” and the manual says that when you go past 0.26 miles (1 liter) it will start blinking faster.

Is the CB500X an Adventure Motorcycle?

To conclude, the CB500X Adventure is just what it is, a street bike with an adventure kit. You can expand its adventure boundaries with the kit, and then add your riding skills to the equation, and it will still have its limitations.  If your adventure riding is limited to dirt and gravel roads, the bike will be more than fine.

If you want to push it hard, this is not going to be your bike. The limitations are a city riding torque curve, narrow friction zone, and overall, parts that are not made for dirt riding, such as the stem bearings.  Besides the Level 3 kit, you can work around some of these issues. If changing the gear ratio for shorter gears, you may take care of two problems (torque curve and narrow friction zone). Maybe it will work with a different clutch spring or more rugged clutch plates.

Having said that, I would not have taken my Tiger 800 XC to Mengel Pass.  Would I have taken a BMW R1200GS if I owned one? From what I saw, it worked really well.  It was probably the best bike of the three on the slow going technical terrain.  Partly it was rider skill, as Hugh showed great balance, great throttle control, and picked his lines very smartly. However, I’m not sure I would take an R1200GS on these roads…  but as I always say, if I had to have only one motorcycle, it likely would be a BMW R1200GS.

The key issue here is that if you get in trouble with the CB500X, and you’re alone, at least you may be able to extricate yourself from the situation because it is a relatively lighter bike. Well, it is not light. It is about 440 lbs wet (“official” wet wait is 430 lbs plus the Rally Raid kit’s heavier wheels).  But it is the lightest multi-cylinder adventure motorcycle currently available.  If you want to go lighter than the CB500X you have to pick a single cylinder motorcycle.

The weight issue…

So what are the alternatives for the CB500X? Short of a single cylinder motorcycle, there is nothing out there. Yes, there is the BMW F700GS, but you may need to put spoke wheels on it. The Suzuki Strom DL 650 is also an option.  But both the BMW and the Strom are heavier than the CB500X. The small Honda with its Rally Raid kit is what is available at the moment, one of the few options out there on the just above 400lbs weight.

Not many options around the 400lb mark

Not many options around the 400lb mark

However, rumors are showing up indicating KTM will have a mid-weight, 800cc adventure bike.  Yamaha could be working on a 700 cc mid-size Ténéré.  And finally Ducati seems to expanding its Scrambler line with something that looks like an enduro machine (or a Scrambler with real scrambler ambitions). I would not be surprised if these other bikes really come out, since this is a real empty space in the market, for people who do not want a single cylinder machine.

One of the things a like most about the CB500X is that it is an unassuming underdog of a machine. Maybe I can make it slightly better for future endeavors. Meanwhile, this bike delivers lots of fun when riding it fast on paved or gravel roads. It is an interesting machine.

If you are an expert rider, look elsewhere.  If you want a real enduro or adventure performance from a machine, this is not for you either.  But if you want to enjoy the back roads with an inexpensive unassuming machine, this bike will deliver fun in spades.  I will keep mine. Unless Yamaha, KTM or Ducati convince me otherwise.  They will have to deliver something good to convince me to trade my Honda.

Final Day in Death Valley and Return home

That was it for the review of the CB500X in the Death Valley. The next day I did not ride it, for one thing I did not want to exacerbate the head bearing problem. And second, I had taken with me the WR250R and I wanted to take it out for a spin.

Took the WR250R for a ride, this time Lippincott trail from the top (in 2010 it climbed it)

Took the WR250R for a ride, this time Lippincott trail from the top (in 2010 it climbed it)

It was great to ride the WR250R again, it is so light. It shows also, that one bike is not enough… it is always good to have an alternative. Or so I want to believe.

On the next day I loaded the bikes and traveled back to Oregon.  The strange or strong weather patterns continued. Around Susanville the winds were really strong, enough for the highway patrol to prevent trucks to travel on certain portions of the road.  And then I encountered snow close to Mount Shasta.

Snow on the way back home

Snow on the way back home

In the end the weather played an important role on this trip. I had strong winds on the way in, strong winds on the way back, rain storms, snow storms and sand storms. And a lot of fun with two great guys who are great riders.

I’m already looking forward to my next trip to the Death Valley.  The CB500X will gain auxiliary lights, a sag adjustment, maybe a shorter gear ratio, maybe mirrors that don’t flop around.  I’m sure it will be fun to ride it again on the dirt.

Thank you for reading.

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3 Responses to The Honda CB500X Adventure – Part 5: Riding it on Death Valley – Is it an adventure motorcycle?

  1. Ross says:

    Great feedback. Thank you.

  2. P Harris says:

    Having owned a cb500f, and despite my best efforts, always ending up on dirt and rocks, I found the clutch and engine power very tractable. Bikes I’ve ridden since have borne that out. I’ve never ridden a dedicated dirt bike, but the picture you paint seems a little overstated. I’m thinking you might have a clutch problem.

    • cesardagord says:

      I understand your point. It is about situations when the bike has to go over a small ledge, a large rock, and a “tractor-like” first gear comes in handy. I was talking about Mengel Pass, for example, in the Death Valley. Have you seen the boulders you need to traverse close to the top of the pass? 🙂 That the CB500X does not have that tractor like ability, despite a low first, and on those steep terrains, that’s when we learn the narrowness of the clutch travel and torque band. On the other hand, it is a light motorcycle, when compared to adventure motorcycles, so you gain here you lose there, in the end it is up to what is your preference and where you ride. It does ride very well at slow speeds when all you have to do is steep inclines and rocky terrain, as long as we are not talking about too tall rocks where you need trial like behavior from the bike… As of now, I’ve taken my CB500X three times to the Death Valley, twice to Eastern Oregon… and I have and have had other motorcycles from which to make comparisons. Thank you for your opinion, though. It is a great motorcycle, my favorite for all kinds of adventure riding (dirt and gravel), and I haven’t found something new for which to replace it, which would be an improvement.

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