Transalp Rally in Red Rock Country

Text: Perri Capell • Photography: Lynn Brown

When Honda introduced its unique "Rally Touring" XL 600V Transalp to the U.S. market in 1989, the reaction was a dispirited ho-hum.

American riders didn't know what to make of the bike. Based initially on the rugged, rally-type motorcycles Honda built to enter in long-distance races, such as the Paris-Dakar rally, the Transalp seemed ahead of its time here. The sleek styling and streamlined fairing raised questions: Was it a road bike or a dirt machine? You couldn't really tell by looking at it. As it happened, the Transalp played both roles well, but neither perfectly.

Magazine coverage was enthusiastic from the outset. Cycle World called the Transalp a "superb do-it-all" bike, a perfect choice for the rider who wants diversity. "It will happily cruise all day on the interstate or play road racer through the twisties," the periodical opined, "and it doubles as an off-road machine that'll reach the end of that dirt road you've always wondered about."

Even so, U.S. motorcyclists weren't doing as much long-distance and off-road touring as they do now, and they weren't as easily convinced. Withdrawing the Transalp from the U.S. market after two years of lackluster sales, Honda continued to sell it in Europe, where the bike has enjoyed immense popularity. Its styling and design has been reworked, and the Honda Transalp sold overseas now has a 650cc engine and a sleeker body, although the basic upright riding style remains intact.

Secondhand Roses
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., the Transalp's reputation among its few buyers began to spread. Those who had grasped what the bike could do and had purchased it clearly were ahead of the curve. As for worthy competitors in the early nineties, about the only bike that could challenge the Transalp in terms of versatility was Kawasaki's KLR650. But this air-cooled, single-cylinder dual-sport, while a real workhorse in dirt, handled like a truck on the highway when compared to the Transalp's smooth liquid-cooled twin-engine ride. (Now other Johnny Come Lately entrants in the mid-sized dual-sport market include BMW's single-cylinder 650 Funduro and 650GS, and Suzuki's twin 650 V-Strom.)

As dual sporting gained popularity and word spread about the Transalp, a lively secondhand market developed. Transalps originally sold in the U.S. in three different color schemes: grey or fire-engine red versions and a tri-color model in red, white and blue. All are in demand on the resale market but, hands down, the red version is particularly prized. The bidding for auctioned bikes is spirited on eBay, and Transalps advertised in newspaper classifieds sell virtually overnight. Originally sold for $ 4,500, the bikes have brought sellers nearly that much secondhand from the late 1990s on. Prices remain relatively high, making the Transalp one of the few non-vintage motorcycles to retain its original value.

The Hub of Transalp Action
In western states, Transalp owners are especially fanatical about their machines. This is likely due to the abundance of mountainous dirt roads, which give owners more opportunities to maximize use of their bikes. These days, because Earl Somsen lives there, the tiny town of Wayan, Idaho, is the hub of much of the Transalp activity in the U.S.

Somsen is the unofficial president of the Transalp Fan Club here and he owns two of the bikes: an all red one and the red, white and blue model. His son Bryce's tri-color Transalp just clocked 62,000 miles. Many riders looking to purchase one eventually find their way to Earl, who cheerfully tracks down owners willing to sell and helps them broker the deals.

For the past five years, Earl has organized annual Transalp rider rallies. Three Transalp "Tour de Elks" have been held in Colorado in 2000, 2001 and 2003; one "Tour de Caribou" took place in Idaho in 2002; and Escalante, Utah, played host to a "Tour de Kokopelli" in October 2004. A dozen to two dozen rally-goers come from all parts of the West and even the Midwest; and not to be total snobs about it, the rally organizers also allow riders on other makes and models to participate. During the weekends, they ride on- and off-road routes mapped by Earl, and break some bread together. Typically, T-shirts and prizes - for best and worst looking bikes, etc. - are awarded at the catered Saturday night banquet.

Riding Bryce Canyon Country
The real fun, of course, is in the riding, and there was plenty of that during the 2004 Tour de Kokopelli in the gorgeous mesas around Escalante. This is Bryce Canyon Country, and we spent time on Highway 12, known as America's most scenic byway, and explored many of its dirt-road offshoots through the breathtaking red rock scenery of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Bryce Canyon National Park and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area surrounding the shores of Lake Powell.

We began at the Moqui Motel/RV Park in Escalante, which we recommend in part because owner Sharol Bernardo, who also owns an art gallery in town, is on Utah's Garfield County Travel Council. She can provide you with more information about the roads in the area than you could possibly need.

Our group chose to be on dirt as much as possible, of course. Blessed with warm fall temperatures that weekend, we rode the 57 miles of Hole-in-the-Rock Road through plateaus and ravines dotted with yucca and sage brush, and on past Dance Hall Rock to Hole-in-the-Rock crossing. This last stretch is a narrow gulch where Mormon pioneers did the improbable, pulling and lowering 26 wagons down to the banks of the Colorado River (now Lake Powell) so they could cross it. At places where we clambered down on foot this opening is only six feet wide, which makes the Mormons' feat all the more extraordinary.

Later, we took the 78-mile-long Smoky Mountain Road to the Old Pahreah Townsite and Paria Movie Set, where we tied the Transalps up to the hitching post. The Outlaw Josie Wales and McKenna's Gold were filmed here. Other nearby sights include Devil's Rock Garden and Grosvenor Arch, both spectacular red-rock formations.

Playing Favorites
The Transalps didn't disappoint either, whirring to life easily every morning and performing beautifully in all the dirt and dust. Those who haven't ridden a Transalp may wonder what all the fuss is about. I wondered myself before I bought mine. At the time, I wasn't licensed to ride a motorcycle. Nevertheless, at my future husband's urging, I bid for one on eBay. When the price hit $ 3,500, I withdrew, but an owner in Kansas City who had watched that auction contacted me and asked if I would pay my final bid amount for his Transalp, a 1989 tri-colored beauty with only 3,000 miles on her. It was the find of the decade.

Several years and several thousand miles were spent "growing into" my Transalp, which seemed impossibly large for me initially. We lowered the suspension and cut down the seat to better fit my short inseam. We've added a crash bar, higher windshield and luggage racks, and we still need to install heated grips and other accessories to make it the perfect long-distance tourer. But now it's my favorite bike.

The Transalp will never be as formidable in the dirt as a KLR, nor as comfortable on highways as a Gold Wing. But owners like me appreciate how well it handles both. What we value most is the smoothness of the engine. The bike's Japanese design team wanted the motor to be powerful and flexible. Unlike some bikes, the Transalp retains power and torque in all gears, meaning that it pulls well in fourth gear at 20 mph. This means less down shifting. The gears also mesh easily. As Cycle World noted in its review, "Despite being rated at only 54 horsepower, the motor accelerates briskly, and never hesitates or stumbles as the next higher gear is selected."

One complaint is that the rear brake on the originals isn't powerful enough, something the Japanese designers admitted. Later versions introduced in Europe had stronger rear brakes, and the bike comes with disc brakes now. The upright seated position works well for long distances, although some people complain about the lack of padding in the seat. The Transalp also cries out for highway pegs, so you can stretch your legs while riding.

Still, these machines require virtually no maintenance and deliver a decent 50 miles to the gallon. And everywhere we go, they attract curiosity. Passersby routinely stop and stare. "That's a nice bike you're riding," they say. "It's some kind of enduro, isn't it?"