The Dakar Rally is the world’s most grueling off-road race, covering thousands of miles over vast swaths of horribly unforgiving terrain. In the words of one crew chief, “It’s like a Baja 500, every day for 12 days.”
It is global, competitive, and lethal. (Two riders died this year.) The machines look like modified dirt bikes, but at the top level they are highly specialized and entirely custom. The 2020 Dakar bike division was won by American Ricky Brabec, a first for the United States, and his Honda CRF450 Rally. During American Honda’s presentation of the bike, team member Johnny Campbell suggested that this machine is just as custom as Marc Márquez’s MotoGP bike.
A roadracer at heart, I rolled my eyes defensively. It says “CRF” on the side. How custom can it be? It turns out I had a lot to learn.
Brabec's Dakar-winning machine carries nine gallons of gas in two separate tanks and weighs around 400 pounds fully fueled. The subframe that reaches back to carry the seat, fender, and rear fuel tank is made from carbon fiber. A ridiculous and obvious tower of race-specific instruments and gadgets climbs up from the handlebar, but even stuff that’s hidden is custom. The engine internals, cases, and transmission are all made specifically to compete in the Dakar. According to Brabec’s team, the bike shares exactly zero parts with any production motorcycle that Honda manufactures.
Here’s a quick tour of the machine, with insights from the champion himself.
You might think the CRF450 Rally is ugly, but it’s definitely purposeful. The bike is around 150 pounds heavier than its motocross cousin, but also has a much wider range of capability. It’s meant to be capable of taking on a motocross track, an enduro circuit, and going more than 100 mph on an open stretch of dirt road or desert. The suspension was developed by Brabec and representatives from Showa, an in-house brand at Honda, and needs to work both when the massive fuel tanks are full and when they’re empty. “We test our suspension with half tanks,” Brabec said, “because that’s the happy medium. When the tanks are full and the bike is heavy, you have to be really careful for about half an hour.” Honda photo.
The front of the bike looks like a sentient robot from a sci-fi movie. A screen protects the oil cooler that sits below the headlight. The massive roadbook tower hides behind a basic windscreen. The plastics are just that, plastic, which was a special request from Brabec. “All of our plastics and shrouds and fenders were carbon fiber” he explained, which is light but also famously brittle. “I said, ‘No. You hit the sand dunes so hard it breaks the fender off.' So, finally they (Honda) made plastic for us.” The plastic pieces aren’t as sexy as carbon, but they bend without breaking and that’s key in the desert. Honda photo.
The sprockets, in the words of Brabec, are “nothing special.” The aluminum inner carrier with a steel ring on the outside saves weight but maintains the durability of steel teeth. And he’s right. Mere mortals can buy these. One odd feature of the rear wheel is a cush drive setup — essentially a two-piece hub with rubber bushings sandwiched in between, in order to damp driveline lash from the rear wheel, minimizing wear and damage to the transmission. Cush drive is common for road bikes but not in off-road racing. Honda photo.
Maybe the sprocket is "nothing special," but your bike probably doesn't have a side stand made of carbon fiber. Photo by Spenser Robert.
Another shot of the front end of the CRF450 Rally and the expansive front subframe that holds all of Brabec’s navigation equipment up where he can see it. The structure of the subframe is carbon and therefore extremely light, despite being able to hold the roadbook tower. In the age of bulbs and glass, all of that hardware was pretty heavy, but modern LED lighting has made that less of an issue. Note the horn mounted to the side of the front subframe. This angle also shows the custom frame geometry, which is designed specifically for the Dakar — the steering angle is a little more slack, for stability at high speeds. Honda photo.
One of the most noticeable differences between the Rally and a standard dirt bike is how bulbous and fat the bike is behind the front wheel. That’s mostly the fuel tank, which is heavy when it’s full but easier to manage if the weight is low in the chassis. Extra sharp eyes might have spotted a hose, running horizontally just below the countershaft sprocket. That’s not for fuel, but rather the mandated three liters of drinking water that must be carried on each bike in case a rider gets stranded in the desert. “I used it in 2016,” said Brabec. “It’s horrible. It’s hot and plasticky. It tastes like hose water.” That’s why the footpegs are a couple of inches above what appears to be the bottom of the frame and, especially when the bike is full of fuel, something Brabec has to remember when he’s riding: There’s less ground clearance than it feels like. Honda photo.
The cockpit of a CRF450 Rally is a complicated place. The roadbook is top and center, for navigation. Of the buttons on the left grip, two are speed limiters, two control the odometer, one scrolls through a menu, one is for the horn, and another toggle switches between front and rear fuel tanks. The yellow rocker switch on the right handlebar toggles between engine maps. If you’re wondering why this ultra-trick CRF has old-school foam hand grips, it’s the same reason any other bike does: comfort. “You’re riding the bike for 12 days,” says Brabec. “If you have rubber grips your hands will get so torn up. With the foam grips it’s so easy on your hands, and it also helps with vibration.” Honda photo.
Behind the main screen during the race is a paper roadbook, with markings to give the rider guidance for what is otherwise an unknown route. Riders receive the day’s roadbook on the morning of departure. A tiny metal toggle switch spins the spools to move the paper roll forward or backward. Photo by Spenser Robert.
Yep, even the saddle is full factory. “Our seats were all suede,” said Brabec, “and I was like, ‘Dude, I can’t even stay on the bike, because I give it gas and I slide off the back.’ I got a wing seat made, to hold on with your legs. It’s narrow in the middle so when you stand up your legs hold it. And I use a rubber, motocross seat cover. For like a year and a half the team was looking at me like 'Why do you have that seat cover?’ And now, all of the other riders have rubber seat covers and a little bit wider seat.” Living up to the name, "king of seat." Honda photo.
Routing the exhaust low is common for rally bikes, in large part to make room for the massive rear fuel tank that sits under the seat. There are also FIM sound regulations that have to be followed (plus the engine is a factory prototype), so a big muffler is necessary. If you look closely at the bottom of the rear fender you can see it’s not plastic, but composite. And that weird, squiggly, red sticker on the back of the fuel tank is actually a strip of LED tail and brake lights. Honda photo.
The CRF450 Rally plugs into a laptop, just like any cutting-edge race bike these days, making engine maps configurable for saving fuel or specific sections of the rally. Controlled via a switch on the right side of the handlebar, one engine map employed traction control to help Brabec navigate fast, twisty sections of dirt road. “I only changed the map when the Japanese guys told me to” he said. He admitted having some traction control on treacherous but fast sections was nice. The other map, used most of the time, was fully open to put all of the control in his hands. This technician was one of around 3,000 people who moved every day with the rally — essentially a small city that moves to support the racers. Honda photo.
The gas caps are in essentially a normal place, even though the bottom of the front fuel tank is near Brabec’s feet when he’s riding. A switch on the handlebar toggles between front and rear tanks, triggering whichever fuel pump is selected. The weight distribution of the bike is pretty balanced, Brabec said, even when it’s full. Still, not surprisingly, there’s some strategy to it. “I burn down the front tanks for about half an hour to get about four liters out of the front,” he said. “Then I switch to the rear, empty the rear, and then switch back to the front. When the bike’s almost empty it’s so light and so fun to ride.” Honda photo.