It’s over 40 years since Ted Simon set off from the Grays Inn Road (London) on a four-year around the world trip on his Triumph Tiger T100. His subsequent book of the journey, Jupiter’s Travels, became a best seller and an inspiration for others to follow – and because of Ted’s eloquence, and his background in journalism, the book remains almost certainly the finest ever in the genre of motorcycle travel.
But we’re not interested in Ted here, nor his book. It’s the Triumph that’s relevant. The Tiger was a 500cc twin, weighing 170-kilos, producing 41hp, capable of 105mph (with a 40mph following wind) and would turn in 45-60mpg which with a three-gallon tank meant a range of around 150 miles. So Ted ran out of fuel a fair few times on his trip, understandably, but with a modest 760mm (30”) seat height he could always get his feet to the floor when it did. In fact the Tiger was modestly proportioned all round, with a shortish 1400mm wheelbase rolling on 19”/18” wheels.
Now those stats are a very long way from currently favoured adventure bike specifications. Adventure bikes today have been supersized, a rider can typically be tapping into anywhere between 100 and 150 horsepower on machines that weigh the best part of 300kg. And when it comes to seat height you can typically start with a 9, as in 900mm+, even on the more modest options. That’s a good 36”, if you like – when the average (male) inside leg measurement is what, 32”? Big is what these bikes are, with added bigness coming from various OEM or aftermarket accessory options.
Which brings us to the bike we see here, a Honda CB500X Adventure. It’s a Honda CB500X subtly modified to adventure spec using 19”/17” wheels and with 50mm of added suspension height, front and rear. Plus tyres, engine guard, hand guards and a few other off-road protection items. And significantly this Honda is a 500cc twin, producing 47hp, capable of a solid 100mph (no tail wind necessary) and when returning 80mpg it means the 17.3-litre tank (about 3.8 gallons) offers about 300 miles between stops. So yes, you’ve got it, what we’re saying is we have here – at long last – a modern incarnation of Ted’s Triumph.
REDISCOVERING THE MIDDLEWEIGHT
Yet such is the march of time and the sway of public wants and mores that a Tiger for our time doesn’t necessarily receive the enthusiastic response you might expect.
“It’s noticeable that you have the two camps,” explains the bike’s creator John Mitchinson of Rally Raid Products. “Some people get it straight away, like Austin Vince (of Mondo Enduro/Sahara fame) loved it, then you get those that just think ‘why the hell did you choose that bike?’ Unfortunately you can’t convince those people, they don’t see the benefit, they see it as a lack of something, they don’t see that it could take you places the bigger bike couldn’t.
“But it’s a good compromise between weight and power. It weighs 200kg, goes 100mph, and returns 75mpg – what’s not to like? It’ll ride at 85mph all day and it doesn’t feel stressed. A 1200 would be quicker, but on this bike you can go places the 1200 won’t. It’s not an enduro bike, it’s a middleweight adventure bike.”
Middleweight adventure bikes have been, for a while, difficult beasts to find. Time was when we had plenty of choice; from the mid 1980s into the 1990s we could choose from Ténérés, Funduros, Pegasos, XLs, DRs even KLRs – all singles, of course. But there were twins as well, like Transalps and KLEs, not to mention exotica like Kanguros. And you could almost place the early 800cc BMWs in there, as middleweights, after all the first R80G/S only produced 50hp in a package weighing 186kg (with a full 19-litre tank). But lately, the rise of the 1200cc super-adventure bike has come at the cost of the middleweight variety. BMW have plodded along with their Rotax-engined F650s and to their eternal credit Yamaha have maintained the new (in 2008) Ténéré for the faithful, but options have been few.
It was this dearth of middleweight options, this vacuum, that set John Mitchinson and Jenny Morgan at Rally Raid Products (RRP) on the path of creating the CB500X Adventure. RRP is a company that emerged from Mitchinson’s own fascination for rally racing. After a lifelong motorcycling career that followed the typical path of trials to scrambles (becoming motocross) to enduro then to rally, Mitchinson ended up riding and racing a series of KTM 690s. As the 690 is sold as an enduro, Mitchinson took the step of developing his own long range tanks, fairings and instrument towers to convert the bikes into rally racers. As an engineer and specialist in plastic mouldings he had the skills to make the best job and soon, by popular demand, was supplying his fellow competitors. In time, with the adventure sector ever expanding – there were adventure riders, too, looking for added fuel capacity and fairings to complete their conversions of the veritable 690.
Rally Raid Products has then grown considerably. His first kits were made using moulds hand-hewn from foam using carving knives and scalpels. Such has been demand, the first moulds simply wore out. His second set of moulds have then been made using CAD design and 3D modeling, after first having had a 690 laser scanned top to bottom. Accuracy is down to ±0.1mm – it’s a proper 21st century operation. RRP exports worldwide and while America, Australia and Europe have been traditional markets, they’re seeing increasing demand from emerging markets such as South America, Asia and Russia.
The KTM 690 does, though, sit at the super-enthusiasts end of the adventure market. For their next project RRP were attracted to a more everyman ideal. Morgan had witnessed the keen take-up of the Honda CB500X by American adventure riders. Stock, its off-road capability is limited but given a keen price point and the real-world specifications it was identifiably a good launch point for a project.
“We liked the idea of a smaller, lighter adventure bike, but with full-size capability,” explains Mitichinson. “As well, with the demographic of riders getting older there’s a probable trend toward smaller adventure bikes. Even if you’re used to riding a 1200 there’ll come the day when you still want to ride you but you don’t really want a 300-kilo 150hp machine – you’ll have more fun on a bike two-thirds the weight and half the power. And for half the price!”
And so the CB500X Adventure.
The project started with the wheels. Standard, the CB500X is equipped with cast 17” wheels – no good for real adventure. Only finding alternatives proved all-but impossible.
“You’re stuck with a 17” rear because it has a gearbox driven speedo, and while there were 17” spoked wheels available they didn’t come with the cush drive that the Honda has – so that meant we had to develop our own. And we tried a 21” front in the front but it was too high, fouling the radiator, so we ended up with a 19”.”
In fact Mitchinson ended up with bespoke solutions front and rear. The hubs he designed himself – admitting to using the KTM 690 rear hub as his starting point – and having first created these in CAD they’ve been milled from billet using his own £50,000 CNC machine. The hubs, which are finished with black anodising, take the standard axles and bearings – and cush drive. The heavy duty rims are laced to the hubs using 36 stainless steel spokes. Built to rally-spec they’ve maximum strength and durability built in.
The suspension came next. Standard it’s very basic road stuff which is in no way up to the job of off-roading. It’s also a bit short, leading to ground clearance issues. But suspension development is no easy task and it took Mitchinson and Morgan months of testing, trying different solutions before they settled on a specification. Long story short, they finished with a bespoke rear shock and linkages that offered 50mm more travel, and new valving and a lengthening treatment for the forks which allowed 30mm more travel. The suspension was a collaboration with Dutch suspension specialists Tractive who put both sets of suspension through exhaustive dyno testing, to ensure a top shelf solution.
There were still niggles, such as the 19” front wheel striking the radiator. And that was cleverly solved using a stepped top triple clamp that afforded the front forks a further 20mm clearance. So the new set up affords the bike in total 50mm (2”) of additional ground clearance – necessitating a longer sidestand (and removal of the centrestand).
That, essentially, is the job done. But a full conversion to adventure spec requires other additions, such as the engine guards, the off-road spec footrests, the hand guards, even luggage racks – all of which RRP have developed or sourced. On the test bike even the graphics are bespoke – but not that’s something you’d immediately spot – Mitchinson, as always, at pains to make the finished article look factory-standard.
“I wanted the bike to look like Honda had produced it themselves, it should have a level of fit and finish that accords with OEM and I think that, given so many people have mistaken it for a stock bike, we’ve achieved that.”
For me, having ridden a Honda CRF250L for the best part of a year, there’s a certain familiarity to the CB500X. Both models are made in the same factory – in Thailand – and so many of the controls and instruments are virtually identical. The bike also shares the CRF’s ethos, it’s a highly practical design, very technologically efficient and of its age. It is though – on first initiation at least – less than engaging!
Like the CRF, the engine merely revs and scoots along doing its own thing without any of the traditional surges we associate with lusty off-roaders, almost as if it’s devoid of torque. You swap gears, easily, and the speed comes up – acceleration would be overstating the effect, it merely gathers momentum. However, with time you understand this motor actually likes to rev and so once you start buzzing the motor you get better feedback.
Off-road, running fairly smooth two-track, the CB500X Adventure plods ultra-easy at low revs in second – better than most singles. But if you want to get a feel and a sense of connection with the terrain then using the revs and making the ride more animated really brings everything to life. Then the tyres start pushing nicely into the dirt and despite being a good 200kg the bike feels much lighter (just as the CRF250L belies its weight) so you feel confident in pushing on. Unlike the 1200s, you can also afford to lay the CB-XA over a little in the turns, without the excess mass it doesn’t tip over or wash-out. There were limitations, though, for I was too heavy for the spring rates in the suspension (I’m nearly 100kg in my riding kit) so it bottomed when pushed into bigger holes and bumps. Fear not, though, for there are three options available on spring rates, so this can be sorted.
The road bike origins made themselves felt quite early on. The standard bars are probably just a little too narrow for most adventure rider’s tastes, but to go to a wider set-up might need some attention as the control lines don’t look overly long. A cross-brace on the handlebars would probably be a good idea to resist bending if the bike goes down. And you can identify the road bike genes by the high footrest positioning, and while this is good for clearance over ruts I’d prefer pegs closer to the swingarm pivot for that off-road trials-type feel.
And for me – at 6’0” (1.82m) – the stepped seat doesn’t quite match up to off-road duties. As bespoke seems to be the idea with this bike, I’d spec a taller, flat, seat which would also gain me much-needed legroom when seated. But I recognise that for many potential owners it’s the lack of seat height that’s important and so I can’t criticise the seat on anything other than personal grounds. As it is the seat height sits at 860mm and this is as high as Mitchinson wants to pitch it to ensure ease of manhandling.
And that’s the point. This is not a big bike. More accurately – it’s not long. The wheelbase is 1400mm, same as Ted’s Tiger’s – and that’s about 10mm shorter than a 2016 KTM EXC and a whopping 160mm shorter than say Suzuki’s V-Strom 650XT. And that makes it quite a snug fit for a bloke of my proportions – and conversely a perfect fit for someone a good six-inches shorter. It’s a set of dimensions we’re not seeing anywhere else in the adventure world, and its fits Mitchinson’s concept.
“With real adventure you need a bike that’s light enough that when you go down a trail and when the trail runs out, then you can put the bike on your hip and spin it around and go back down.”
As an enthusiast I wanted to love this bike, I wanted it to be the Holy Grail of adventure. Visually it looks so right, on paper it’s so right, and given that it comes so close to Ted’s Tiger then it should be right. And it is. The problem is I’m wrong. At 6’0” and 100kg I’m too big for it and, really, it hasn’t been made for me. So from a personal point of view – as a bike for me – it’s a non-starter. Which is a real pain, because I can appreciate and champion its every virtue. But for all those 5’0”-5’9” (1.50-1.75m) 60-75kg riders out there, this is quite possibly your adventure panacea – and I damn well envy you for that. For me, it would need a few tweaks – the handlebars and the seat mostly – and then I too could comfortably enjoy the ride.
So yes, Rally Raid Products have nailed the job here. Their Honda CB500X Adventure is exactly what they set out to make, a middleweight adventure bike, virtually bespoke-built, yet with all the virtues and values of an OEM model. It looks the part and as a round-the-world travel bike it is super-sensible, it works on every level. The base model from Honda is bargain priced and the £2000 for the wheel and suspension kit (you can probably add another £500 for the bash plate and few other mods) means it’s still cheaper than the likes of the V-Strom XT and 700/800GSs when all done. And if world travel is your goal then low market value is a serious boon when it comes to purchasing that essential carnet de passage.
But there’s good news for me and other bigger-proportioned people – RRP are eyeing up the NC700/750 as their next probable adventure-conversion project. Same ethos, just a bigger proportioned machine. Hey, who needs an Africa Twin?!
12,000 miles later
Rally Raid Products clearly believe in thorough product testing. No sooner had they finalised the production spec than Jenny Morgan raced off to the States to ride a fully RRP Adventure spec’d CB500X across the Trans-America Trail – and back. That’s coast-to-coast, twice – west-east-west – with plenty of off-road, 12,000 miles in total – a trip she made successfully without trouble in just seven weeks.
Having completed that mission, John Mitchinson set off for a further trial of the CB500X Adventure, this time completing an ultra tough 1400km loop through Australia’s Simpson Desert, riding only desert roads and dunes. So if you want to know if the kit works it looks like RRP can offer up an emphatic, hand-on-heart, ‘certainly’!
2019 HONDA CB500X UPDATE
After six years (2013-18) Honda updated the CB500X for 2019 – and it would seem they took on board the enthusiasm of owners to ride adventure as well as the direction of development RRP had made with their Adventure upgrades. Essentially the standard suspension got lengthened, to 150mm, and the front wheel changed to an adventure friendly 19″ – albeit still cast. Good news is these changes bring the CB500X much closer to being adventure ready. Even better news is RRP has already been at work with the new model and have adapted or made anew their Adventure kits to suit the new model. So whether you buy a new or older model RRP has the bespoke kit to fit your bike.
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