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ADV NewsBudget Dual Sport Revival: Putting The Legendary XR600R To The Test

Budget Dual Sport Revival: Putting The Legendary XR600R To The Test

Can this $2,000 Dual Sport keep pace with modern bikes and stand the test of time?

Published on 11.29.2021
1986 XR600R Dual Sport Bike at the Lone Pine 300

“Where’s the trail?” I asked, after cresting a steep rise to a dead end. The gesture and pointing from another rider said it all. “You’re on it.” Finally, I saw. Sort of. The entrance to where the path continued was there, but you couldn’t see the trail itself until you rolled over the edge of the blind precipice into what looked like a canyon leading to the center of the earth. Welcome to the world of Jerry Counts.

“Countdown,” as he’s known due to his enduro background, has been scouting and cutting the gnarliest trails in the west since well before David Bowie suggested someone put on their red shoes and dance the blues. Rolling into the small community of Lone Pine the evening before the self-guided Lone Pine 300 dual sport ride had a familiar feel to it. I’d been through this town more times than I can count, and ridden the surrounding area quite a bit. Over the next couple days, I’d quickly learn how little I knew of the trails in the area. Those mountains I’d always assumed had no paths over them, do. Some predate the post office in Lone Pine.


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The suggested tracks were divided into two groups – a north loop, and a south loop. Which loop, and which track options were preferred was entirely up to the rider. In typical ADV Pulse fashion, we elected to string together all of the “hard” options. In atypical fashion, we also elected to bring along a 1986 Honda XR600R for the journey. In a way, it’s a very fitting machine for this particular event, as Jerry Counts was involved with Honda in the development of the early XRs, which were the predecessors to the XR600R. Plus we included a 2022 Honda CRF450RL into the mix of bikes, to see more closely how technology has evolved over the past three and a half decades.  

Honda Dual Sports modern and classic

The Final Countdown

Comparing two motorcycles 36 years apart from each other would normally seem impractical. However, Honda’s XR600R is no ordinary motorcycle. Through its 15-year run, this legendary thumper landed multiple titles in AMA Hare Scrambles, the Baja 1000 and even GNCC woods racing with riders like Scott Summers, Johnny Campbell, Jimmy Lewis and Bruce Ogilvie. Finding a 1986 runner in decent shape on the used market for $2,000 begged a question: could we get it to the finish line of a grueling 300-mile dual sport ride and how well would this classic machine stack up against the latest and greatest two wheeled tech?

Kickstarting a 1986 Honda XR600R

Enough funding can make almost anything possible. How much performance can be found on a small budget is a more interesting question in many ways. Surprisingly, the simple and robust design didn’t require much. All fluids, filters, and wear parts would need to be replaced, which is typical maintenance for any bike. After fixing a few electrical gremlins, installing a new chain and sprockets, chain slider, front brakes, and performing a valve adjustment, the light at the end of the tunnel started to be seen. 

Dunlop D605 Dual Sport Tires on a 1986 XR600R
Keeping with the budget theme we spooned on a set of Dunlop D605 dual sport tires, which we’ve had good experiences with in the past and go for only about $100 a set.

In final preparation for the ride, the decaying knobbies that came on the bike would need to be replaced. While there was still some tread left, the knobs were beginning to break off and the rubber looked dried and cracked. A quick look at the manufacturing date code revealed they were 12 years old. In keeping with the budget theme, we spooned on a set of Dunlop D605 DOT-legal dual sport tires. They worked well when we tested them in the past, they’re designed to be long lasting, and you can pick up a set for around $100. And since it hadn’t cost much to get our XR in good running order, we decided to throw a few more dollars at the old Honda in the form of fresh reproduction graphics and seat cover, which quickly turned the cool factor of this project up to 11.

We transformed our $2,000 budget dual sport into quite the stunner with a few cosmetic upgrades and some elbow grease.

The North Loop

Starting our ride at first light, we headed immediately for the adjacent Alabama Hills. Named for the Confederate warship CSS Alabama, when viewed from the north the area bears resemblance to this Civil War ship which was sunk in 1864. In 1919, Hollywood saw something else in the area and began making movies here. Since “The Round Up” (1920), to the present day, hundreds of movies have been filmed in this area. The primary graded dirt road through these boulder-y hills is named “Movie Road.” For dirt bikers, the trail options through here would look like a bowl of spaghetti when viewed from the air.

1986 Honda XR600R at the Lone Pine 300 Dual Sport Ride

Right off the bat, I thought this was going to be a very long couple days. The last Honda XRs I’d ridden were 400Rs and 650Rs from the late 1990s and early 2000s. It had been a while since I’d been on a kickstart-only machine, and it had been since never that I’d ridden one from the 1980s.

Kickstarting a 1986 Honda XR600R

Turns out, kicking the 600R to life is amazingly easy, once you have the technique down. Getting the technique down might as well be witchcraft, but it sure works well. Once the machine barked to life through the Supertrapp muffler, we were thrown into some mildly technical trail in less than 10 miles. 

1986 XR600R at the Lone Pine 300  Dual Sport Rid
1986 Honda XR600R river crossing

Shortly after leaving the pavement, some arm and hand pump started to be felt. The shorter chassis on the older machine when compared to the CRF450RL requires a different riding position, and I was simply gripping too hard to maintain a body position that wasn’t what it should have been. Fortunately the ample and unimposing power of the XR quickly educates you how it should be used, riding style adjusts, and the bike becomes really fun. Where the CRF450RL has a knife-like chassis feel and instant throttle response, the XR felt more like a soft tractor overall. Literally soft, when just the seat alone is considered. In spite of lower gearing limiting top speed to around 70 mph, the XR was definitely the preferred machine on the road due to a cushy saddle that felt like an integral part of the suspension, as well as the smooth-rolling Dunlop D605 tires.

1986 Honda XR600R and 2022 Honda CRF450RL at the Lone Pine 300 Dual Sport Ride
1986 Honda XR600R and 2022 Honda CRF450RL at the Lone Pine 300 Dual Sport Ride

Papoose Flat is a stunning high meadow, with relatively easy access from the north, and a much more challenging entrance from the south. I’d ridden through here on a KTM 1090 Adventure R and KTM 390 Adventure, both toting panniers fully loaded with camping gear. Riding this section on the 1986 Honda, sans luggage, was a blast. My initial doubts about how the rear drum brake would handle some of the steep, technical descents faded because the brakes didn’t fade. While the front brake is often a two-finger exercise, smooth engine braking on the older machine really helps slow things down. Suspension and ground clearance were surprising as well. In spite of riding some fairly technical rocky sections at a good clip, I never found the limits of the travel over the two days, and can only recall the lower engine guards making contact with anything a handful of times.

Honda XR600R in the Inyo Mountains

There’s an easy option to descend from Papoose Flat back down to Owens Valley. The hard option provides stunning views of Big Pine from the lower edges of the Inyo Mountains. This hard option is quite steep. Back to that rear drum brake. It’s not a fair comparison to match the descent performance of the 1986 XR to the 2022 CRF, but the older legendary machine had no complaints all the way down the mountain. In some ways, the shorter chassis made slow-speed technical riding easier. 

The South Loop

Easter Sierra Ride on a 2022 Honda CRF450RL

One primary mission was paramount to this trip: make it to the Saline Valley Salt Tram. Our two previous attempts were both stymied by a mess of mechanical mayhem. This trip, riding proper dirt bikes instead of fully-loaded adventure bikes, our chances of success looked much more promising. Ascending from the Swansea side is no joke. The lower part of the route starts out like a typical rocky desert path, then begins to wind up into the mountains, then reveals some technical stair step rocky bits that keep you on your toes, and eventually reaches a section that is potentially dangerous on a big bike. 

Riding to the Saline Valley Salt Tram on a 1986 Honda XR600R.
Ascending to the Saline Valley Salt Tram from the Swansea side is no joke and is best done on a smaller dual sport rather than a fully-loaded adventure bike.

At roughly the half-way point, there is an extremely steep run of jagged exposed rock, with serious exposure on one side. First through third gear on the XR600R are all very usable in technical terrain. The change in rear sprocket made the lower half of the transmission feel almost trials-like, and the torquey feel of the 1986 engine delivers power smoothly and predictably. This means you can focus on choosing lines versus keeping the rear wheel from spinning out. You can get used to any bike of course, this older machine was just very easy to get used to very quickly.

Riding to Cerro Gordo on an XR600R
Honda XR600R at the Lone Pine 300

Everyone in our group (as well as many of the other event participants) wanted to try the old XR, so just beyond this technical section I would switch off to the 2022 CRF450RL and ride the rest of the mountain on that machine. Before ascending beyond the tree line, the road to the Salt Tram turns into a steep mess of loose, jagged, bowling-ball size rocks. Where the XR would tractor and weave through these sections with ease, the CRF felt like it wanted to slice directly through the terrain. Everything moves by more quickly. The throttle is snappy, the handling is precise, and the speed is higher. The seat is a two-by-four, but you don’t spend much time sitting down on the CRF it seems.

XR600R and CRF450RL in the Eastern Sierra

Above the treeline, the smooth dirt roads either side of the Salt Tram, the XR rolling on Dunlop D605s revealed a surprising price/performance ratio. In the looser dirt, edge grip was a bit compromised compared to a hard-core knobby. Climbing through the rocks, however, the D605s always seemed to hook up just fine. Part of this may be due to the XR’s comparatively gentle powerplant having less of a tendency to want to break the rear tire loose. Given California’s mostly dry climate, we didn’t hit much in the way of mud but the tires seemed to handle everything else we encountered in this parched high-desert terrain just fine.

Easter Sierra Ride on a 2022 Honda CRF450RL
Saline Valley Salt Tram - Lone Pine 300 Dual Sport Ride.
The 13-mile Saline Valley Tram was built in the early 1900s to carry salt (and miners) from Death Valley over the Inyo Mountains to Owens Valley. The ruins of the control station sit at 8,500 feet elevation and the tram last operated in 1930.

Well above Cerro Gordo is another trail you’d likely miss without a GPS to show you where it is. The entrance to the Belmont Mine single track is entirely vague, and with no wheel tracks ahead of us, it took a moment to spot the gap between the trees which led to a hint of a path. More than once, the drastic switchbacks would sneak up and not be seen until you’d already passed the turning point. Given the extreme nature of this path carved into the side of a massive mountain, it was more than a little surprising to see leftover structures from a mine on this narrow descent. Only after passing the Belmont Mine was it realized this was the same route we had tried to do in reverse just a few weeks earlier, and were stopped by what we thought was a landslide, but may have very well been an overgrown tailing pile, or perhaps a combo pack of the two things. Either way, climbing this trail is not something I’d ever recommend attempting on a loaded-up adventure bike.

2022 Honda CRF450RL Cerro Gordo
Riding a 1986 Honda XR600R at Cerro Gordo
The views from Cerro Gordo of Owens Lake down below and the High Sierra Mountains looming over it are quite spectacular.

Things sped up drastically once the valley floor was reached. Old Saline Valley Road is the primary route headed south towards Boxcar Cabin, and past Viking Mine. There’s a back way, almost just as fast, which includes a bit more sandy wash and more narrow roads. The CRF and XR got to battle it out a bit on this section – a fun comparison which revealed the surprising capability of the 35 year old machine. An impromptu drag race showed that weight and power specs don’t always equate to overall performance. While the horsepower numbers put the 1986 XR600R in the same ballpark as the 2022 CRF, in a test of flat-out speed the newer machine walked away from its predecessor with ease. Its slightly larger fuel tank (2.8 vs. 2.0 gallons) does give the XR a range advantage of roughly 10 miles more than the CRF, although miles per gallon isn’t quite as good compared to the modern fuel-injected bike. Around 10 miles outside of Darwin, the CRF’s fuel light reminded me I wasn’t on an adventure bike.

Jumping a 1986 Honda XR600R
Racing a 1986 Honda XR600R and 2022 Honda CRF450RL
In an flat-out drag race, the modern CRF450RL walked away from its predecessor but the 35-year-old XR had no trouble keeping the pace throughout the 300-mile ride.

Weather patterns in this part of California can be extremely dynamic. Sometimes, this works against you, other times to one’s advantage. Waking to a red sky earlier in the morning, while beautiful, is pretty ominous. A “record” storm was on the way, and we were headed up to 9,000 feet almost immediately. Fortunately, the storm front zigged where it was predicted to zag, and delayed its crossing over the Eastern Sierras into the Owens Valley. 

The storm front did have a pre runner, of sorts, in the form of a lot of wind. We ended up in the Olancha Dunes towards the end of the day, just as this breeze turned into a gale. The Olancha Dunes are a fun sand practice area, in that they are low, and for the most part, fairly easy to ride. Being sandblasted through every vent and gap in one’s gear adds a new challenge to crossing this area.

Riding the dunes on a XR600R
Easter Sierra Ride on a 2022 Honda CRF450RL and 1986 XR600R

The Lone Pine 300 arguably saved the best for last. Scenic rocky roads at the base of the Eastern Sierras led all the way back to where the suggested tracks had one last optional hard route one could take “if you think you’ve got what it takes.” Literally directly over the town of Lone Pine, a steep, flowy, rocky single track snaked through the Alabama Hills until it deposited riders a stone’s throw from the eastern edge of town.

Riding single track in the Alabama Hills.

The Future, And the Past

Exploring the Eastern Sierras allows for a wide range of experiences, from tame to extreme. Smaller dual sport bikes arguably offer the ability to cover more gnarly terrain in a shorter period of time than any other vehicle. The volume of scenery, history, and adventure tucked away between the Eastern Sierra and Inyo mountain ranges is on par or perhaps greater than any other spot in the West. 

Owens Valley Dual Sport Ride Wheelie

For the time being, this section of EasternCalifornia remains a Mecca for adventure and exploration of the state’s early history. Fortunately, events like the Lone Pine 300 provide a way to see it all.

Riding an environment which has stood the test of time, aboard a machine which has done the same begs questions about the difference between nostalgia and performance. I didn’t grow up riding in the 1980’s, so I have no direct connection to motorcycles of the era. So why was riding a classic machine in such a gnarly event so fun? The primary conclusion I draw is that it still works really good. While there’s no question the more advanced CRF450RL is superior from a performance standpoint, mixing things up by riding vastly different machines from vastly different eras seems to both help one better appreciate the performance gains from advances in technology, as well as qualities of older machines we may have lost in our rush to the future.

1986 Honda XR600R Dual Sport

Photography by Ely Woody & Rob Dabney

Author: Jon Beck

Jon Beck is fulfilling a dream of never figuring out what to be when he grows up. Racing mountain bikes, competitive surfing, and touring as a musician are somehow part of what led Jon to travel through over 40 countries so far as an adventure motorcycle photographer, journalist, and guide. From precision riding for cameras in Hollywood, to refilling a fountain pen for travel stories, Jon brings a rare blend of experience to the table. While he seems happiest when lost in a desert someplace, deadlines are met most of the time.

Author: Jon Beck
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Anna H Dabney
Anna H Dabney
November 29, 2021 3:17 pm

What an exciting and challenging adventure you had on wide-ranging terrain. I loved the story and the photos!!!

Rodolfo
Rodolfo
November 30, 2021 1:23 pm

La verdad que al leer este artículo derramé algunas lágrimas cuando recordé mis XR600 del 93, 94 y 97. Para mi, fué la mejor moto de ese segmento por años. Aceleración y amortiguación incomparable para esa época !

c
c
December 1, 2021 1:06 am

What a great article and not full of adverts well done

Jerry L Counts
Jerry L Counts
December 1, 2021 8:13 pm

Jon/Rob, All I can say is WOW, you guys hit it out of the park!!

Fantastic photos, great article on the bike and on the ride. Please come back to any of my 7 rides next year.

Jim Heywood
Jim Heywood
December 13, 2021 5:41 pm

As a owner of a 2005 xr650l big bore, etc. and a 2016 kx450 I relate to your story, for distance and comfort give me a xr650 over a lard ass ADV bike that I’ve seen on others adventures that didn’t seem like fun w/ all that weight and tech. My kx is for going fast, aggressive and shorter trips. Beautiful photos and great story. I hope to ride that area soon. Keep up the good stories !

Greg
Greg
December 13, 2021 11:10 pm

I had an 86 XR600 on which I made my own AC lighting circuit and plated. Rode it in a couple of Jerry’s Hi-Desert 250s in fact. Lowering the rear suspension by about 3/4″ really stabilizes the handling. I had Phil Douglas of Aftershocks do a complete re-valve and the bike was transformed. I also put a 628 kit in it which was a mistake. A bad cam grenaded the engine on the aqueduct road at Jawbone.

Moved on to a ’94. Different frame geometry and cartridge forks. Really great bike. Rode lots of D37 dual-sports and D-36 enduro (without anything close to Scott Summers’ success). Bought an 02 XR400 and got one of the last CA plates. I enjoyed that bike too, really good engine.

All the XRs were very reliable if you left them alone. Guys like Al Baker were doing hop-up kits but it seemed to me as soon as you broke the engine open, you would have trouble down the road.

@2KickAround
@2KickAround
November 9, 2022 12:53 am
Reply to  Greg

My girlfriend & I are currently riding two XR600R’s through Africa.  One is a 1989 with a Mikuni TM40-6 Pumper Carb. The other is a 1996 with a 628cc high compression piston. We are now on our 10th country and can agree with keeping the engine stock. Fantastic bikes with the best results being adding a pumper carburetor. The 1989 with the pumper carb not only gets better fuel economy but it also seems to perform better with increased reliability. The 628cc, 1996 might actually have more power but the throttle response with the 1989’s pumper carb makes it feel more powerful. The 1996 had an oversized piston when we purchased the bike but is now on its  3rd piston. The 1989 is stock and the engine has never been opened.

We can definately recommend these bikes. If anyone wants to follow our journey you can subscribe to our YouTube channel on the link below!

https://youtube.com/c/2kickaround

@2KickAround

Dan Tal
Dan Tal
November 24, 2022 1:17 am
Reply to  @2KickAround

Just keep in mind that in the 89, the cylinder is coated and if you get to the point where the cylinder is damaged, you will have to replace the cylinder, piston and rings, as a set.
You have no chance of finding the cylinder, anywhere in the world, because it was only produced for the years 1988, 1989 and 1990.
Part of the reason for the better response you get in the 89 is a result of the coated cylinder. And that is because there is less friction between the rings and the cylinder walls.
By the way, it is not understood if and how, this cylinder lasted so many years.
Keep good quality oil, proper level, use only original Honda filters and everything will last longer.

Barry Lauth
Barry Lauth
December 13, 2021 11:38 pm

Considering the comfort (and maintenance intervals in case of 450L) of the old machine, that is certainly something that the newer dual sports have lost. Now I’d love to see a comparison between the CRF300L and the older XR250R. I suspect the newer 300L’s suspension may just leave it wanting.
Great article. Well done!

Barry Lauth
Barry Lauth
December 13, 2021 11:40 pm

Great words of wisdom there. The XR’s are bullet proof but don’t mess with them too much.

Dean Henthorn
Dean Henthorn
December 15, 2021 8:53 am

Bravo –

Scott Tapp
Scott Tapp
January 22, 2022 11:45 pm

This is an awesome story, I enjoyed it very much. Kudos to the author.

DesertRacer225
DesertRacer225
February 11, 2022 6:35 pm

Proving once again, it ain’t the bike, it’s the rider.

wfo75080
wfo75080
February 16, 2022 12:01 pm

The problem with the old XR 600 was never riding it or starting it cold. It was when you fell over when the old girl was hot. They didn’t have the to start back then and for me and my buddy you just took the helmet off and waiting till she cooled down. In Texas that might be 30-45 minutes.

wfo75080
wfo75080
February 16, 2022 12:03 pm
Reply to  wfo75080

Edit: Hot start NOT to start.

Guillermo
Guillermo
February 21, 2022 5:56 pm

Buenisimo el articulo,,!!!!
Tube xr 600R 87 / 93 / 95 y despues XR650L 2000 /2004 y2008 tremendas motos las mejores de todas y sigo extrañando los 600R se me escapa un lagrimon

Syndee Sains
Syndee Sains
March 20, 2022 8:08 am

Wow, all inclusive article Jerry! Well written and practical! I’ve learned to enjoy dirt-bikes and all it’s magic when riding! Keep riding!

@2KickAround
@2KickAround
November 9, 2022 1:06 am

My girlfriend & I have been riding two XR600R’s nearly everyday for almost a year straight. Not sure about why yours wasn’t starting when hot but when they flood from tipping over the procedure is holding the throttle all the way open and kicking it over, with the compression release in, 10 times. Then it should start right up!

We had to figure this out the hard way in Africa. Quick starting became critical when lions & elephants were around.

https://youtube.com/c/2kickaround

@2KickAround

Steve T.
Steve T.
June 10, 2023 4:46 pm

I had the 1985 Honda XR 600R, was $2300 cash otd, brand new. Street legal kits were not available, and the title stated “off-road use unly”. Thes she could not become D.O.T. legal for the street. Sold her three years later (mint condition) for $1750.. hated to see her go, she was my favorite bike of all. We shared many fantastic experiences. I saw 103 mph on the speedo on a dirt (entrance to Croom Wildlife Mgt area, next to I-75. I had changed the countershaft sprocket by 1 tooth larger and opened up the airbox. Other than that, she was stock. Have had 11 bikes now, and still miss her.. she was one of a kind.
Great article, THANKS!

David
David
September 18, 2023 7:16 am

Love this story! I own a 1996 xr600 and love it. Always starts and from the mountains to the desert it never complains and is so comfortable and fast. Cheers

Monty Crain
Monty Crain
April 18, 2024 3:39 am

I understand Baja 1000 Winner on a 600 Bruce Ogilve teamed with Muzzys Racing. They built an engine package that won in the Baja 1000s before Kawasaki Team Green took Over. It had a surprisingly low compression of 9.5 to 1 which allowed it to rev WAY out and 628cc. Welded on extended cooling fins on the head, along with Muzzys porting and exhaust, stock valves and springs and a HRC flat track cam. It was tested by several mags and was known for its incredibly Wide power band building from right off idle. Tested on a rear wheel dyno it made 68 rwhp. Which beats anything made today. Ogilve won two Baja 1000s on it in 86 and 87 and rode it regularly for several years and several 1000s of miles after that according to him. Without a rebuild !

Steve Rogers
Steve Rogers
June 10, 2024 5:34 am
Reply to  Monty Crain

I have a 1986 XR600R, that I purchased in 1998. It came with a Muzzy exhaust pipe on it, and boy did that thing have a bark! It was very loud. That bike went like a bat out of Hades, though!
The one downside to the carbureted engine was that going up four or five thousand feet in elevation made it really struggle. Mine’s been sitting for a few years now, and I really want to get the engine rebuilt so I can start riding it again. Many good memories!

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