Motorsports Network Road/Dirt Test

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XRL1.JPG (8064 bytes)Looking for a new bike but not sure what model is right for you? Need to comfortably traverse the pavement but daydream of going off-road to explore what's in that valley or over the next hill? If so, it sounds like a dual sport (formerly called "dual purpose") motorcycle just might be right for you.

Dual Sport motorcycles, like Honda's XR650L, are designed to get you down the highway in reasonable comfort yet include many features specifically for off-road riding. For years dual sport enthusiast were screaming for bikes designed almost entirely for off-road use while still retaining street legal status. Finally some of the manufactures heard the calling and began designing these bikes more towards dirt use. One of the first to do this was Suzuki with their extremely popular DR line. A few years after their introduction, Honda surprised everybody by introducing the XR650L which is largely based on the legendary XR600, but with a 644cc engine and electric start.

To meet consumer demands, the XRL was fitted with items like a frame very much like the XRs, true long travel suspension, a narrow seat and fuel tank, cleated footpegs, and a somewhat minimal amount of gauges and other street gear (not including the large street worthy battery). The end result is a beautiful motorcycle looking ready to take to the dirt, but weighing 53 pounds more than the XR600.

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On the street, the extremely tall 650 is a blast to ride. Be it a trip to the store or across town the bike is easy to fire up - thanks to it's electric start. It's also quiet and easy to ride.The only drawback here is the bike's extreme seat height (claimed to be 37.0 inches) which can seem tall even to 6 footers. The bike is smooth at freeway speeds, pulls well and only begins to buzz through the bars at speeds above 70mph. Jaunts under an hour are no problem, but extend this range and the straight-up in-the-wind seating position begins to take it's toll as you pull against the bars.

On one winding street ride in the mountains, with the stock tires, we were passed by a loaded Kawasaki Concourse. We thought we'd have some fun and decided to follow. The rider sped up so we did the same. After a few corners of this we couldn't bear to continue watching the bike ahead leaned over in the corners with the side bags coming so close to touching down, so we passed and pulled away. Three corners later our turnoff (a dirt road) came up so we exited the pavement and zoomed away on the dirt without missing a beat. We can only imagine what was going through the mind of the street bike we had just passed.

Even though the XRL (as we call it) is street worthy, it begs to be ridden in the dirt. We rode both the Malcolm Smith annual bike bending, snow plowing dual sport ride and the AMA District 37 Los Angeles to Barstow to Vegas ride. Before venturing out into the mud and snow southern California had been blessed with, their were a few changes to be made.

First, our 1998 XRL had been delivered to us with extremely lean jetting, particularly at and just above idle. The bike coughed and spit and took forever to warm up so we adjusted the the air screw as rich as we dare. This didn't entirely solve the bikes jetting woes but it certainly improved matters to a more acceptable level (re-jetting is in order here). Secondly we tossed the stock paper air filter and traded it for a Uni Filter Multi-Stage foam filter which breathes well and can be cleaned and reused.

Dual Sport bikes, for the most part, come with tires that satisfy the manufactures attorneys and the need to sell bikes with tires that work well primarily on the street. The worst thing you can do with the tires that come stock on most dual sport bikes, including the Honda, is to ride off-road with them. The smartest thing you can do is change the tires before your first off-road journey. So off they came for a set of Dunlop knobbies. We mounted a DOT approved K139 (3.00-21) front tire and a D903 (120/90-18) in back.

Before this change it was impossible to use most of the bikes dirt capabilities. It felt as if there was a beast within that wanted to be let out. Once we changed to the excellent Dunlops, the bike came to life for off-road use.

Just how well does it work off-road you ask? Well, extremely well for a street legal 324 pound dual sport motorcycle. It's light, precise steering make things very pleasant. Picking your way through rocks and rugged terrain as in the Malcolm Smith ride is a blast. Adding to the bikes rideability is it's light and easy to lift front end and instant throttle response. If you find yourself in need of power, it comes on almost instantly, a trait that saved us numerous times. If you need to lift the front wheel over an obstacle the bike complies with the blip of the throttle.

In the Malcolm ride, there were more upside down bikes than you could count on oneMalcolm Smith lunch stop particular rocky uphill section. Our Honda picked it's way up the hill nicely until we lost momentum behind slower riders on the single track trail. In places like this you'll find the 650 has far too tall of a first gear and less low end grunt than you'd expect from a single of this displacement. It becomes necessary to abuse the clutch in situations like this and boy did we use the clutch. In mountain trail situations like this, a typical XR600 will eat you alive as you're stuck in first gear while the XR behind you is in second or even third gear knocking at your back door.

Before we knew it, it was time for the annual LA-Barstow-Vegas event. Our bike had been cleaned and prepped and was ready for two days of fun. The morning began with freezing temperatures, frost covered highways and wet tacky forest roads. We were having a blast, but found ourselves riding in first and second gear on fairly fast fire roads - we desperately needed different gearing to ride fast.

On back roads it was wheelie time, something the XRL does in spades. This bike is so much fun and so easy to wheelie you'll find yourself on one wheel much of the time. You'll also find yourself comfortably passing most other dual sport bikes on paved sections due the bikes smooth running engine and tall gearing.

Once we exited the mountain trails and hit the desert floor the XRL came into it's own. Sure the suspension was plush and worked well everywhere we'd been in the mountains, but the XRL want's to stretch its legs - the more wide-open the terrain the better. With the increased speeds, gearing was no longer a problem and we were having a blast. Wet Southern California desert and the tall long-suspended XRL, we couldn't get enough.

The bike was smooth, compliant and surprisingly balanced through the rocks, sand whoops, road crossings and anything else the desert had to offer. We even pushed the bike hard through some miserable sand whoops and it stayed straight and true, as long as we left the throttle on and stayed below expert level race speeds. Over one high speed launch we bottomed the suspension hard, but the bike retained complete composure - we were impressed. Who says dual sport bikes can't cut it off-road. About an hour or so in the desert and my riding buddy and I found that there were no longer any bikes ahead of us, not a single track, which is the way it continued for the rest of the afternoon.

The disadvantages to riding the XRL off-road were the bikes heavier weight and tall seat height which can leave your feet dangling in the air if you stall or get caught on something like a rock ledge. In addition, we never got the bike to go around tight corners the way we'd like. Because of the bike's weight and higher center of gravity, you simply can't stuff it in a corner like a true off-road bike. It's completely rideable, you just won't be planting the bars in the dirt in tight tacky corners.

People always ask us if they should buy a XR600 or a XR650L. Our answer is always the same, if you want the best possible off-road performance buy the XR600. If you want   an excellent dual sport bike with gobs of suspension and good street and off-road manners buy the XL650R.

Bill Wolf / MN

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XR650L Dirt Hop-Up

The XL650R has an abundance of off-road capabilities just screaming to be let out. So after the rides mentioned above, we made a few simple modifications like many purchasers of this bike would want to do. The first step, as we stated earlier, was to replace the stock tires with knobbies, preferably DOT approved. We chose a DOT approved Dunlop K139 (3.00-21) front and a Dunlop D903 (120/90-18) rear. The D903 is designed for use on hard ground and is often used in Supercross racing.

At first we were concerned the rear 120/90 looked a bit small, but it turned out to be the perfect size for the power output of the stock engine. If you pump up the horsepower even a little you'll want to mount something larger. The D903 worked excellent in all the varied conditions we encountered, but it did wear rather quickly.

The K139 front also worked well in all conditions and wore at what we would consider to be a normal, much slower, rate. The front end never did anything wrong or unexpected which means the tire was working well.

Air Filter
The next item was to replace the stock paper air filter element with a Uni Filter foam element.

The Multi-Stage Uni Filter is made of Polyurethane Foam, is washable and reusable once you've properly re-oiled the element.The filter we received fit the stock airbox perfectly.  

Next came the gearing change so desperately needed for off road riding. To accomplish this we fitted an aluminum SUNSTARо 48 tooth rear sprocket replacing the 45 tooth stocker. The fit was perfect and left us with just barely enough chain to get by.  If you make this modification you'll want to add a link to the chain and/or modify the bottom chain guide just in front of the sprocket as it will rub and wear prematurely.

This gearing change felt just about perfect. The tall first gear was now more useable making fast cornering less of a hassle. On the pavement, the bike still handled highway speeds but now buzzed a bit.

ExhaustSupertrapp IDS

After our dual sport rides we received a first-off production sample of Supertrapp's new IDSо (Internal Discs Series) exhaust system. This new system, which replaces everything but the stock header pipe, basically places their patented disc design into an T-6063 Aluminum shell with end cap. Like previous supertrapp systems, the new IDS system can be tuned by adding or removing the number of discs inside the canister. More disks mean  higher revving power while less discs mean less revving and greater low end torque.

The new design, which retains the forest service approved spark arrestor, provides for a cleaner look and no more burning or discoloring of the body pieces next to the exhausts exit. The IDS is narrow and straight rather than tapered to a wide end like their previous designs. Not only does the new system look great, it allows more clearance for knobby tires - sometimes a problem on dual sport bikes.

The system takes about an hour to install and comes complete with instructions and all necessary hardware. All the pieces appear to be of an extremely high quality (we were impressed) and even included the t-handle allen wrench necessary for tightening the bolts holding the discs in place.

Because our system was the first production sample for the XR650L, we were only able to obtain the race core. We ran 6 disks in an effort to keep the bike as quiet as possible - but it wasn't. The race core is only acceptable for closed course competition use. The quiet core will be available when this product hits the market early in 98. From our previous experience, the quiet core with 6-8 disks will probably be the hot setup. Overall power will be down a bit from the race core, especially up top, but the low end performance ought to be similar. Note: if you make any change to your bike be sure to check the jetting very carefully! Our was extremely lean and modifying the exhaust/muffler tends to lean out the bike even more. 

For testing purposes we ran what we had available to us. Riding down the street we felt as if we had a bulls eye on our back for every cop miles around. The race core is loud and has  bit of a different raspy tone. Once we reached the dirt, all we cared about was performance - and we found it. The Supertrapp, in this configuration, woke up the 650s weak low end turning it into a monster. Quicker response and wheelie city. We could now wheelie the bike through the gears while spinning the rear tire on slippery (hard) California dirt. More importantly, the XRLs manners in slow corners was greatly improved. Before you were always stuck in first gear around tight corners.

With the gearing change and the added low end provided by the Supertrapp, we could now ride in a higher gear - oh how we wish we had this setup during the B to V ride!

So there you have it, these are the modifications we would make if we had a XR650L parked in our garage. We're going to sorely miss our test bike - especially when the ride traverses open desert, or when were craving to wheelie.

Bill Wolf / MN

Product Information:

Company Product Part # Suggested Retail Phone
Dunlop Front Tire
Rear Tire
K139 (3.00-21)
D903 (120/90-18)
$ 95.00
$ 92 - $102
Sun Star 48 Rear Sprocket H01-KZ1 $ 49.95 (Aluminum) 909-598-9666
Supertrapp Exhaust System
XR600R 85-87/91-98
XR650L 92-98
Race 613-3601
Quiet 611-3601
$ 209.25
$ 229.95

Uni Filter

Foam Air Filter


$ 24.95

All the products listed above are available from your local motorcycle dealer.

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