Sand riding is a love-it or hate-it affair. Those who love it embrace the “gas on, brain off” approach, keeping their body weight back and a loose grip on the handlebar, allowing the front wheel to float and hunt. Speed and momentum are your friends in the sand, but they are also the kind of friends who like to scare the bejeezus out of you. When doubt or fear kick in and you roll off the throttle, the front wheel plows into the sand and — like a light switch — right becomes wrong.
My early sand-riding experience was on my old ’98 Kawasaki KLR650, a solid, trustworthy dual-sport that’s remarkably capable off-road given its limited power, hefty weight and budget suspension. I’ve ridden in sand on full-size adventure bikes, and while doable it always fills me with dread, in part because their 19-front wheels, 90/10 tires and 500-plus-pound curb weights stack the deck in favor of peril.
Like a speed boat, successful sand riding requires getting “up on a plane” and skimming across the top. That’s why speed is so important, and the lighter the bike (and rider), the better. I learned to stop worrying and love sand on my KTM 690 Enduro R, which is lighter and more powerful than my KLR and has excellent suspension that forgives many of my foibles. Knocking 100 pounds off the weight of a motorcycle completely transforms its agility and handling, especially off-road.
Which brings us to Honda’s CRF450RL. Tipping our scales at 286 pounds, it’s 54 pounds lighter than my KTM. Dual-sports live in dual worlds — on and off the road — and trade-offs must be made. To make an off-road motorcycle street legal, lights, turn signals, a horn and mirrors must be added, all of which add weight. The engine and exhaust need to be revised to handle higher mileage and satisfy emissions. Further concessions to on-road capability, such as ABS, a larger fuel tank, a more comfortable seat, a subframe designed to carry luggage and perhaps a passenger, add even more weight. When buying a dual-sport, you must ask yourself what’s most important — on-road comfort or off-road capability?
Derived from the CRF450R motocrosser, the CRF450RL leans strongly toward the off-road end of the scale. Its lightweight, compact, liquid-cooled 449cc single has a 12:1 compression ratio and a Unicam SOHC valve train with titanium valves. Updates for 2021 include revised ECU and fuel-injection settings for better throttle response, new hand guards and fresh graphics. Although we didn’t put the CRF450RL on the dyno, results published elsewhere put rear-wheel horsepower in the high 30s and torque in the high 20s. The power is very tractable, snappy enough to lift the front wheel upon command and generous enough to rip along at 75-80 mph across the desert or on the freeway, which it does quite smoothly thanks to a gear-driven counterbalancer. But with a hard, narrow seat and a 2-gallon tank, long street rides are not really in the cards.
When photographer Kevin Wing suggested we trailer the CRF450RL and his Yamaha YZ250F out to Dumont Dunes for a full-day photo shoot, I said “Sure thing!,” hoping my enthusiasm would mask my trepidation. Although I’ve learned to make peace with sand riding and even enjoyed it on a few occasions, the sand I’ve ridden was flat. At Dumont Dunes, an off-highway riding area that covers nearly 8,000 acres near Death Valley National Park, the only flat sand is in the parking area. Competition Hill, the tallest of the dunes, rises more than 500 feet above the desert floor. You know how difficult it is to walk in loosey-goosey sand on the beach? Now imagine riding through that on a motorcycle — at 45 degrees uphill!
As luck would have it, the motorcycle gods smiled upon us. We went to Dumont Dunes on the last Tuesday in January, and it had rained the night before, packing down the sand and blanketing the nearby Kingston Range in a layer of snow. Another big storm was predicted for the next day, and given the short window the OHV area was all but empty. It was a perfect blue-sky day with highs around 50, yet we saw only one other group, a pack of several quads waaaaaaay off in the distance. The dunes were pristine, with nary a track on them. If I embarrassed myself, Kevin would be my only witness!
Off the trailer with its long sidestand perched on a rock to keep it from sinking into the sand, the CRF was cold-blooded and needed to idle for a few minutes to warm up. I’m fortunate to be tall enough to flat-foot the Honda when sitting on its 37.2-inch saddle. With 21-/18-inch wheels, 12 inches of suspension travel and 12.6 inches of ground clearance, a low seat height isn’t an option. This was my first ride on the CRF, and from the handlebar height and lever positions to the placement of the cleated pegs, everything felt just right, especially when standing up. There was nothing to figure out, nothing to distract or frustrate me.
We approached the first dune at a good clip and climbing its face I quickly realized this was no ordinary sand, or at least not ordinary conditions. Whereas dry sand is loose and unpredictable, wet sand is firm and has plenty of traction. Which was a huge relief. We had aired down our tires to about 12 psi front and rear, but the CRF comes with IRC GP21/22 dual-sport tires rated for 70% on-road/30% off-road, a far cry from the full knobbies on Kevin’s YZ250F. The IRCs dug right in, held a line and gave me more confidence than my skills warranted.
I can’t really say what carving a set of dunes normally feels like, but Kevin and I were like ski bums on a fresh powder day, or surfers slicing through a winter swell. We cut huge arcs across dunes, climbing them on an angle while being mindful not to launch over a lip into the abyss. The swirling winds that constantly shape the dunes create sudden drop-offs, deep holes and other hazards, and then there can be motorcycles, quads or buggies lurking just out of sight.
As the day wore on and Kevin continued to coach me, my am-I-doing-this-right? worry faded and adrenaline-filled joy took over, at least until I chopped the throttle and ended up rolling in the sand like a sugar cookie. Thank goodness for the new hand guards. With its feather-light clutch, smooth-shifting gearbox and ultra-precise brakes, riding the CRF450RL felt like second nature, like I’d been testing it for months. Its high-quality Showa suspension insulated me from abuse and kept the rock-solid chassis on track, whether I was launching off dunes or flying down a whooped-out trail in 5th gear.
Honda’s CRF450RL is a quintessential “dirt bike with lights,” one that is fast, fun and 50-state street-legal so it can be ridden to, from or between trails. Its hard, narrow seat and small tank will keep pavement forays to a minimum, but thanks to its license plate it can be ridden on thousands of miles of national forest roads and other unpaved byways. Honda also dropped the price by $400 to $9,999, making it even more appealing.
2021 Honda CRF450RL Specs:
Base Price: $9,999
Warranty: 1 yr., unltd. miles
Engine Type: Liquid-cooled single
Bore x Stroke: 96.0 x 62.1mm
Compression Ratio: 12:1
Valve Train: Unicam SOHC, 4 valves
Valve Insp. Interval: 1,800 miles
Fuel Delivery: PGM-FI, 46mm downdraft throttle body
Lubrication System: Wet sump, 1.53 qt. cap.
Transmission: 6-speed, cable-actuated wet clutch
Final Drive: Chain
Frame: Twin-spar aluminum w/
Wheelbase: 58.9 in.
Rake/Trail: 28 degrees/4.8 in.
Seat Height: 37.2 in.
Suspension, Front: 49mm USD coil-spring fork, adj. for rebound & compression damping, 12.0 in. travel
Rear: Pro-Link single shock, fully adj., 11.8 in. travel
Brakes, Front: Single 260mm disc w/ 2-piston caliper
Rear: Single 240mm disc w/ 1-piston caliper
Wheels, Front: Spoked aluminum, 1.60 x 21 in.
Rear: Spoked aluminum, 2.15 x 18 in.
Tires, Front: 80/100-21, tube-type
Rear: 120/80-18, tube-type
Wet Weight: 286 lbs.
Load Capacity: 223 lbs.
GVWR: 509 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 2.0 gals.
Fuel Consumption: 41 mpg (highway)
Estimated Range: 82 miles