Sheep, suet puddings, and a middleweight Honda.
Summer in Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is more a state of mind than meteorological phenomenon. It can be 50ºF and raining in December or June, March or September.
But as that time of year approaches, residents of this soggy archipelago pretend things will be different this time. We dig out straw fedoras and shorts, and we hope. Motorcyclists optimistically remove insulated lining from jackets and pore over maps looking for places to visit.
I sometimes allow myself to be suckered by the glitz of the Global Motorcycle Conspiracy (they're all out to get you, man), so when I daydream about touring I tend to daydream about bikes that are big, heavy, and tech-laden: the venerable BMW R1200RT, perhaps, or Triumph Tiger Explorer XRT, or the newly refreshed Yamaha FJR1300AS.
The problem with all these bikes, though, is they are also really expensive.
Meanwhile, ever since I spent some time travelling on the relatively affordable Indian Scout Sixty I've been questioning whether the go-to bikes of my daydreams are really necessary.
Cue the Honda CBR650F.
Receiving a subdued reception when first released in 2014, the bike has been given a refresh for 2016. By which I mean "new graphics." Honda places the CBR650F in its sport category, but that's because Big Red doesn't really want to call it what it is: an all-rounder. Honda's U.S website describes the CBR650F as "in a class by itself;" that's pretty accurate.
More comfortable, less powerful and easier to live with than the CBR600RR it is an everyday, all-the-time tool –– a fact I think some U.S. reviewers missed upon initial inspection. When RideApart's Bruce Speedman reviewed the bike two years ago, he described it as "an excellent midpoint platform for those on the CBR300RR-to-CBR600RR vector."
I'm not sure what he means, but my general feeling is that to focus on the CBR650F's track worthiness, or lack thereof, is to miss the point.
Scotland's east coast speaks to its industrial past.
After several hours of map gazing, I decide I want to run Scotland's North Coast 500, which the country's tourism officials refer to as "the Route 66 of Scotland." But first I have to pick up the CBR650F from Honda's UK headquarters in the English Midlands. As is usually the case when I borrow a motorcycle, I ride my own bike –– a 2015 Suzuki V-Strom 1000 –– to the location and leave it there for the duration of the loan.
"We'll keep it safe, mate," says a Honda rep, nodding at my 'Strom. "We'll just leave her out in the street with the keys in; no one's going to want that ugly thing."
Honda employees are like this: confident in the superiority of their product. Arguably, they have a right to be. Every criticism I have of the CBR650F is something another rider would not notice or would be happy to overlook. The essence of the bike is sound; everything works.
Looking a little small for my 6-foot-1 frame, it is surprisingly comfortable and instantly familiar. Light enough for me to spin it on the sidestand using one hand, it has a low center of gravity that gives the rider instant confidence.
As a touring rig, it lacks in passenger accommodation –– the seat is reasonably sized but the passenger pegs are too high –– but offers plenty of places to strap/bungee luggage. Its tank is metal, which means it will take a magnetic tank bag. Handlebars are clip-on, but above the triple tree. My ever-present TomTom Rider fits easily on the left 'bar.
Engine and Transmission
From the Midlands I face a 325-mile sprint to my friend Cam's house in Glasgow. I settle into an 80-mph cruising speed, with the Honda's 649cc inline four spinning at roughly 6,000 rpm. The bike's redline comes in north of 11,000 rpm, which is right about where it hits maximum power output: 86 hp. Maximum torque of 46.4 ft.-lbs. comes at 8,000 rpm.
At 80 mph, the CBR650F is smooth, with none of the buzzing that put me off inline fours a few years ago. It's smooth at slower speeds, too, and stays relaxed as you push toward a license ban.
Honda claims a top speed of 140 mph, which aligns more or less with the straight-line 135 mph I was able to achieve. Under closed-track conditions, of course...
Cam and I setting out from Glasgow
Power delivery is syrupy. How power can be like syrup, I'm not sure, but that's the word that comes to mind. Twisting the throttle, feeling the bike push forward without effort or hesitation, the image that comes to mind is of a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth's pouring onto a stack of pancakes.
My one complaint, which is not really a complaint at all, is that this syrup isn't hot. Honda's damnably brilliant engineers have made an engine that doesn't really get warm under normal riding conditions –– unfortunate as I cross the border into Scotland. It starts raining. From Gretna Green to Glasgow I get drenched and my hands lose feeling from the cold; pressing them against the engine accomplishes nothing.
The transmission, meanwhile, is totally Honda. It makes sense as soon as you get on the bike and it's so slick that above third gear it's almost like having a quickshifter. The engine pulls from low in the rpm range –– I'm able to leave it in sixth while lazing along with 30-mph traffic –– but in the coming days I will find I enjoy keeping revs high and slipping up and down the gears on Scotland's winding roads.
Ride Quality and Brakes
The CBR650F falls into the "reasonably affordable" category, so you get what you pay for in terms of suspension. For all-round road use, though, it is above average. On the second day, Cam and I cut through Glencoe to Fort William, then push west to Inverness. It's a route that provides some good-quality high-speed bends.
Cam, who likes to claim he's a riding novice (the man commutes 90 miles a day on a motorcycle) proves otherwise. His spirited pace allows me to really enjoy the Honda in its element. In Bruce Speedman's review he claimed pegs drag too easily, but for my tastes there is more than enough lean angle for anything you'd want to do amid the unpredictable nature and unreliable quality of public roadways.
Things only get unsettled once: when I suffer a brain fart and downshift two gears mid corner. My pride wants to place some of the blame for the resulting oh-my-god wobble on the suspension, but we all know that's unfair.
The standard Dunlop tires do a good job of keeping me stuck to the road, even on the third day, when we spend several hours riding through unrelenting rain. During the deluge I am thankful, too, for the Honda's anti-lock brakes, which come standard in the European Union and are available as a $500 option in the United States.
In dry or wet, the brakes offer plenty of bite without being overbearing.
Comfort and Features
The bike's forward-leaning riding position means water dribbles into my gloves as we ride through the rain. I have ultra sensitive hands (I fell through the ice as a teenager and suffered nerve damage) but try to press on. My heart aches for the upright ergonomics, heated grips, and huge Givi AirFlow screen of my own bike. The CBR650F is somewhat low-frills in that sense; it's a lovely motorcycle that goes fast, but don't expect bells and whistles.
No slipper clutch (as I learned the hard way), no traction control, no rider modes.
Parked outside Inverness Castle
There is fairing to keep some of the weather off, but not much. The screen puts wind at my xiphoid process. The only way I can get completely out of it is to drop into a full belly-to-tank tuck, which feels silly at legal speeds.
When it's not raining, I'm happy to hang out in the wind, finding speeds above 60 mph to be preferable. The wind hits my chest and holds me up, taking the weight off my wrists. Lower speeds are tolerable. On the fourth day, I observe an overall lack of pain. No cramped legs, no aching back. My right wrist is just a teency bit tender but that has more to do with the fact this is not my usual riding position.
Cam and I are men who appreciate frequent stops for tea (such is the rock-n-roll lifestyle of married dudes, y'all), so I don't spend ultra-long stretches in the saddle, but there's never a point when my butt is wanting to quit.
One of my two biggest complaints about the CBR650F is its dash. It looks too "built to budget." All the important information is there, though: speedometer, tachometer, trip meters, clock, fuel gauge, and so on. There is no gear indicator, though. The buttons to to use the dash functions are on the dash itself, rather than on the handlebar, which is annoying.
Mirrors offer a splendid view of forearms and elbows. Contortion is needed to spot what's actually behind, but when I find the right angle things are at least steady.
The whole purpose of this exercise is to prove to myself the viability of the CBR650F as an everything machine. I suspected it would be, and –– shocker –– it is. Most everything you could want to do on paved road can be done aboard this (relatively) cheap and cheerful Honda.
Down in England and through the gridlock of Glasgow the bike had filtered through traffic with stunning ease. Riding the NC 500 it's handled every sweeping curve, every hairpin turn, every wide-open straight, every crawling village lane.
Cam and I make it to John O'Groats, the northernmost point in "mainland" Britain.
On the fifth day, we hit the infamous Applecross pass. The bike is so steady I'm able to do a section no-handed. This has the opposite of the desired effect. Instead of calming Cam's nerves (he's following me down and feeling stressed) he panics about the both of us.
Cam's riding a Suzuki DL650 V-Strom, which has a 20-liter (5.2 U.S. gal.) tank. The Honda has a 17.3-liter (4.5 US gal.) tank but the two of us are needing to fill up at roughly the same time. Ridden prudishly, the CBR650F's fuel economy is mystical. Ridden like a goof by someone who loves the tight roar of its engine at high revs, it still delivers a solid 190 miles before the fuel light.
Lubing the chain without a center- or paddock stand is a pain in the caboose, but people with far more expensive motorcycles face the same challenge. Cleaning the bike is simple enough, though I'd worry about the fairing's stick-on graphics coming off over time. Checking tire pressure is relatively easy; access to valves is uncomplicated and the bike light enough I can muscle wheels into position.
Scotland doesn't suck
On the sixth day, Cam and I stop for lunch north of Perth. From here we'll go our separate ways: he back to Glasgow, me taking a slow route south via Northumberland National Park.
"So, what's your assessment of the bike" he asks. "Sick of it yet?"
"No," I say. "I'm pleasantly surprised. That dash annoys me. And I feel the frame welds and fairing decals are tacky, but that's really about it as far as downsides."
The decals are my second biggest complaint. They're just stickers, looking like they've been slapped on as an afterthought. In "matte gunpowder black" with "candy rosy red," though, the bike is overall gorgeous. With only one more day in my possession, I'm feeling sad about not getting to stare at it much longer.
That night I stay in a hotel and can see the parking garage from my room. I go back down to the garage and move the bike to the top level so I can sit and look at it from afar. There's something about the CBR650F's look that says: "Someone cool rides this bike."
Beyond the decals, all the bits and bobs are up to the standard I'd expect from Honda. Which means you could ride this thing around the world six times before needing to adjust the chain. OK, I'm exaggerating, but you get my drift. Certain bits are plasticky –– this is an affordable bike, after all –– but it should all last a long time.
My final hours with the CBR650F are spent covering 100 miles of motorway on an unusually cold spring morning. The bike is out-maneuvering everything else on the road and handily keeping pace with the Audis and BMWs that try to muscle their way down the A1. Zipping through traffic I'm able to hit gaps I wouldn't think of attempting on my own bike. The Honda has so much zing, fluidity, and ability to dance.
This bike really has done everything I've asked of it. I'll be honest: it hasn't cured me of my desire for technological and comfort whizzbangery, but I've really, really enjoyed my time on it.
Meanwhile, the aftermarket offers all kinds of bike-specific accessories to help transform the CBR650F into something more tour-ready (This image of a CBR650F with Shad panniers certainly makes it look the part). No, two people wouldn't be happy crossing the continent on such a rig, but an individual may find it's everything he or she wants.
I wish I could test this theory. I'd like to kit this bike out with hard panniers, a top box, heated grips, and a new screen, and ride it to Vladivostok. But too quickly I arrive at Honda HQ and am handing over the keys.
"I'll go fish your bike out of the bin," the Honda rep says.
Rider: RideApart Managing Editor Chris Cope
Height: 6 ft 1 in. (1.86 m)
Weight: 168 lbs. (76.2 kg)
Inseam: 34 inches (86 cm)
Likes: Piña coladas, Getting caught in the rain
Dislikes: The fact that Honda insists on having the horn button and indicator button switch places