Home News Route Photos Links Contact

> Technology


The safety margins of any expedition can be widened through extensive planning and preparation. Months of work have been invested in the bike, and all equipment is checked and double-checked. And then checked again. As a rider, mental and physical preparation is also essential, as some aspects of independent motorcycle travel are psychologically and physically extremely demanding.

Training has been undertaken to ensure that the potential consequences of medical emergency are manageable. A full risk assessment has been completed under the guidance of the UCL Expeditionary Committee, who are supporting the project. As planning progresses, a checklist of equipment will appear here, and I am planning a separate packing list, which will be dowloadable..

The Bike

Click around the image of the bike for more details of modified components. I enjoy this stuff, so please excuse any rambling on my part here - it's something I can be quite nerdy about. Following the demise of Wright Bagwell's excellent XR650L site, I have been able to add further information to this page.

The bike used for this expedition is a Honda XR650L, privately imported from the USA to the UK in 2000. It was formerly owned by Jeremy Bullard. He made a very good choice in the XRL, for a variety of reasons, discussed here. More details of the modifications required for this sort of trip (as undertaken by me, to date) are detailed below:


The motor has been completely rebuilt by David Lambeth Engineering, after a mishap in Northern Spain (read more here). The problems provided the perfect opportunity to get things just right, as the crankcases had to be split. Nothing fancy has been done; just checking of clearances and very careful re-assembly. I had all sorts of cam profiles, valve spring materials, and piston properties available to me, but this engine design has over 15 years development behind it (in the XR600R and NX650 Dominator) so I think Honda-san may have ironed out any major problems... as long as I can keep it full of decent oil!

The carburation and power delivery of the XRL is notoriously poor in stock form, due to the very stringent emissions regulations in place in the States (and particularly in California).

The "uncorking" procedure must be really bad for the environment, because it involves tearing off the carefully designed Green add-ons (restrictive air filter and air-box restricting snorkel), and restoring the bike to its pre-eco warrior glory. Basically, a bike breathes in through the airbox and out through the exhaust. If you restrict these, the motor becomes more efficient (small inlet + small amount of fuel = cleaner exhaust gases). My bike has had the restrictor removed from the airbox, and a much more free-flowing airfilter has been installed. In combination with a race exhaust, the bike is much nicer to ride, producing more all-important torque throughout the rev range.

After modifying the airflow it is necessary to adjust the fuel mixture to match, to avoid damage to the bore in the long term. This is done by changing the jets in the carburettor (which is a bit of a black art). Luckily, you can buy a kit from the nice people at Baja Designs which includes everything you need, plus detailed instructions. I had mine tweaked on a Dyno after fitting the exhaust too, just to make sure. The main jet is currently a Dynojet 170, with a long-type 48 pilot. The idle mixture screw has been freed up on the carb. To see the difference between a no-questions asked Baja Designs setup and a "proper job", check this out:

Back to top


I suspect that the gearing on the XRL is one of the reasons I had my problems - when riding with a BMW F650 on the autoroute my bike was redlining in top while the Beemer still had a bit of go left in it. An easy way to get rid of this problem (especially relevant on the ride from the Channel ferry ports to Genoa) is to "gear-up" the bike. Although you can change either sprocket to achieve this, it's probably better to just change the front one, as you can do it by the side of the road, and it only takes a few mins once you have practice. I will check what the stock gearing of an XRL is, but I think I will be using a 13 or 14 for the off-road legs and a 16 on the way down. Also, it's important to remember that your tyres (and their pressures and tread pattern) affect your gearing too. Probably only relevant on longer legs, where fuel consumption and total mileage become quite important, or when navigating using the Rallye computer. Still, another thing to bear in mind.

Wright Bagwell's XR65L site was a great resource for more gearing information: he makes the very good point that, as a mass-market dual sport, the XR/L is geared for the tarmac (with a 15T front sprocket as stock). Fore more rideability off road, Wright recommends a 48T rear sprocket with a 13T or 14T front. I'm not planning on messing with the rear sprocket on my bike, but taking 13, 14 and 16T front sprockets for evaluation will give me a good set of options. I will be using good-quality DID O-ring chains and Renthal and JT steel front sprockets, for long life. There is no place for aluminium sprockets for travel bikes in sandy destinations: they are about as much use as a chocolate teapot.

Back to top


A thorny issue for most overlanders. Do you carry very little and go for soft luggage? Advantages of the latter include light weight, little structural modification to the bike, and easy mounting and removal. On the other hand, soft bags are not really secure, often end up catching fire and are very difficult to effectively waterproof (with the exception of the rather spiffing Ortlieb offerings). They are probably best for carrying irregularly shaped or soft items, in my opinion. Personally, I thought about taking soft bags for all of a few seconds. One of the things that occurred to me was that to use half-decent soft bags you have to protect them from the exhaust, which entails building some kind of rack or support - why not build essentially the same thing for hard cases?

Hard luggage can be made very secure and waterproof. I went with aluminium cases because I need a robust and protective means of carrying valuable equipment through places where I won't be able to supervise the bike all of the time. For the planned duration of Pan-Med 2004 it was difficult to achieve the required total volume using soft bags (without resorting to big rucksacks, huge tankbags and other such nonsense). The long-term practicality of hard cases is also a major bonus for me - I plan to keep the XRL for a very long time, so it was a good investment. If you're interested in the debate, there are plenty of people on the HU Bulletin Board who love arguing about this sort of thing!

 As can be seen from the pictures, all boxes have seals and substantial hasps for security. The boxes have rounded edges to prevent injury in a fall, and the top case (mounted behind the rider) also has loops for securing lightweight (yet bulky) items like sleeping mats and bags.

Back to top

Assorted Junk

Inevitable - you have 50,000 litres of luggage space, and yet you still find yourself lashing something to the seat! Well, I have decided to approach this issue head-on. I am accepting it as part of the fun. When this pic was taken the unlucky item was my tent, wrapped in a garden refuse bag (much thicker than "normal" bin bags and the perfect waterproof, flexible container when combined with Duct Tape). Generally speaking, kit stashed here is either bulky or you need it often. It doesn't get in the way, and can provide a handy lumbar support while riding those long road sections. As well as the bag / tent / king-size mattress on the seat behind me, I will have to store several other items in the course of the trip. Water carriers, tools, tyre changing and repair kit, medical kit, and eating utensils (sharpened spoon, or folding titanium chopsticks anyone?) all have to be carried somewhere. I think I will use my Camelbak bag and a fender back for this important miscellany.

Back to top


My bike has a 26 litre tank (range ~420km, assuming 16kpl average), manufactured by Italian outfit Acerbis. It is an essential item for this kind of trip. Not only is it much bigger than the standard item, it is also much lighter and almost indestructible. I have reinforced the mountings - they are vulnerable to vibration - and fitted a locking fuel cap to mine.

Wright Bagwell has been able to identify several problems with the Acerbis tank: "every bracket that hold this tank on the bike is prone to breakage or can cause catastrophic problems if any of them comes loose. The brace that connects the rear of the tank to the top frame tube is commonly known to crack from riding in rough conditions with a full tank (see image below), so keep an eye on it. I had mine welded and hasn't broken again yet, after a year of riding.

The front mount bolts that hold the tubular braces to the tank have been causing me terrible grief. The first year or so I had the bike they never came loose, but once one of them did, I can't seem to ever get them to stay on anymore, even with liberal amounts of Loctite. Recently, the tank came loose when one of them loosened up and fell off, causing the other side to bear too much twisting, resulting in a cracked frame mounting tab (image below). Use Loctite. Acerbis ships these tanks with the wrong left side petcock - if you get one with the left side petcock facing forwards, call them and ask for one that points to the rear of the bike so you don't have to route your fuel lines in a loop that will touch the cylinder cooling fins." Thanks for that Wright.


The tank actually makes the bike more comfortable for me, especially while standing. Other related fuel trivia includes the addition of inline fuel filters (cleaned by reversing them and flushing with petrol) and a quick-release hose fitting. This means that taking the tank off (for almost all routine maintenance) is a click-click affair. Good news indeed, as I want to spend as little time spannering in the desert as possible. The main and pilot jets have been changed on my bike for 158 and xxx (more about this here). Although this increases fuel consumption, it guarantees that the bike doesn't run lean and gives lots more bee-aitch-pees.

I have been musing on the subject of fuel quantity and quality recently. The biggest problem I have is achieving good enough range without resorting to crazy enormous tanks (you know who you are!) My solution is by no means perfect, but it requires no engineering and is very cheap and flexible. The plan is to carry a 10 litre plastic jerrycan of fuel in the lower front corner of my panniers. As you can see from my diagram, this places the weight as far forward and as near the centre of the bike as possible, aiding off-road balance and traction. If the main tank becomes almost empty, the smaller auxiliary tanks can be emptied. The only major problem I can see with this setup is the hassle of accessing the jerries. To maintain the quick release of the boxes, it wasn't possible to connect the cans permanently. I'm considering using the space above the fuel cans to house a 10 litre water container on each side, too.

This setup is all under constant review, and I'm sure the rigours of the trip will bring about some modifications based upon experience (or possibly a complete change of approach), but you never know.

Back to top


The problem? To effectively mount an IMO 100R Sport and a Garmin GPS- V Deluxe within the instrument binnacle of a Honda XR650L. The solution? There isn't one. The only way for the rider to be able to read both instruments is to build a new dash. After consultation with David Lambeth over the exact configuration, the work is finished.

Although a long overland trip obviously isn't any kind of race, the requirements of Rallye riders (such as those in the Dakar, for example) are surprisingly universal. They want a clear cockpit arrangement, where all instruments and warning lights can be seen simultaneously. They also need to be able to read the GPS unit and the computer at all times, whether seated or standing, while travelling over rough terrain. For these reasons, I have decided to leave the Honda instruments at home. I will be using a combination of GPS and a "Rallye Computer" to monitor my speed, mileage and fuel consumption.

The system I am using also allows me to monitor the charging system of the bike constantly, as well as set alarms for high oil temperature or erratic engine performance. The new instrumentation includes a programmable gear-shift light, an analogue (graphical) revcount screen, and three tripmeters.

The whole instrument plate is isolated from vibration, and can be removed (for fault tracking or repair) in a matter of seconds. Most fabrication is in 4mm aluminium. All wiring is connected with bullet connectors and sealed with heat-shrink tubing for resistance to moisture and dirt.

Back to top


It is vital to protect a bike properly before you take it off-road, especially if you're expecting rocky and/or difficult terrain. Even more so if your off-road jaunt is 15,000 miles long. For this reason my bike is equipped with several heavy-duty components. The most important is probably the bashplate, also known as a sump-guard. This is the 4mm thick sheet of reinforced aluminium encasing the lower front of the engine (mine is a CRD Absolute Custom - thanks Andy!). The guard prevents rocks from fracturing the engine casings and ending the trip. It also provides helpful protection where ground clearance is limited and some sliding is required, and is a handy place to stash a small toolbox (nice and low down for a good centre of gravity, and tools aren't normally fragile).

As well as a sump-guard, this XR also has hand-guards (aka barkbusters or brushguards) and a "shark-fin". Brain surgery it ain't - the hand guards protect your hands from flying rocks and foliage. They are also really useful for stopping the control levers getting broken in a fall, and they offer the fringe benefit of toasty, dry fingers on colder and wetter days. There are many styles available, and it's a personal preference, but I like the Acerbis Rallye guards with the integrated indicators. The "shark fin" is the piece of milled aluminium visible in the centre of the rear wheel. Its role is to protect the brake disk from rocks and debris - as standard the Honda comes with a very weak plastic guard here.

But this isn't the end, oh no. I have fitted plastic guards to the lower fork legs on my bike, to save the aluminium from rocks and stones. The fork guards also cover the front brake disk (the largest source of braking effort) and keep it free of water and debris, saving pad and disk wear while enabling pretty instant braking, even in extreme circumstances. Essential on a heavy machine while travelling on loose ground. In the same vein as the fork guards are the Acerbis frame-guards. Although they are only plastic, they stop wear on the frame and protect the master cylinder for the rear brake (located just behind the rider's right heel). Finally, my bike is equipped with a headlight protector. Although some riders favour a steel mesh design, I prefer to have a small piece of Lexan (police riot shield material) help in place with velcro tabs. It is easy to keep clean, hasn't got "traveller's machismo" written all over it, and is probably more effective than mesh!

Back to top


I have the stiffest Eibach spring fitted to the rear shock, which was a massive improvement. Even without the luggage (with an appropriate adjustment of static sag) the bike is much more taut and controlled as a result of this modification. At the moment I am in the grips of indecision when it comes to the shock. The experts at AllBike Engineering have very kindly offered their services in support of Riders for Health. Should I get the valving in the shock matched to the axle weight? Hmmm.

The forks on the XR650L are derived from the 1987 Honda CR250 moto-crosser (thanks Wright!) - some of the most well-developed on the market. Unfortunately the XR/L is MUCH heavier than a 'crosser, so something needs to be done. Eibach have provided heavier springs for the front suspension on my expedition bike. Although not essential, the upgrade to 0.47 weight progressive springs makes a big difference when the tank is full and the boxes are laden, really stabilising the handling. Being able to set the sag properly also allows the rider to make use of the full range of adjustment on the forks. When this work was done, the head-race bearings were changed for heavy-duty items and the fork gaiters (the corrugated black tubes that protect the fragile oil seals and slider tubes) were renewed.

Back to top


The standard wheels on an XR650L are very good quality, with 32-hole DID rims as standard. The only problem is that the wheels are factory-assembled, which often means that the spoke tensions and lengths are not precisely correct (although for riding on the street you would never notice). My wheels were sent to Talon Engineering for rebuilding before this trip. The task involved dismantling the wheels and completely reassembling them by hand, with new heavy duty spokes (4mm in the rear to better cope with the extra loads imposed by luggage). The wheels were assembled to exact tolerances, which should guarantee trouble-free and long life. As a side note, when travelling overland - especially in rocky terrain - it is vital to have a wheel-check every day, to replace broken spokes and check for even-ness of tension.

As well as supporting the weight of the bike, the wheels also provide somewhere convenient to store your tyres. The only link between ground and bike, tyre choice is crucial, and the model most often recommended for use on the XR650L is the Pirelli MT21, a DOT-approved 2-ply off-road tyre. Obviously, for riding on the road this is a potentially dangerous compromise, not offering the grip of a tyre designed for tarmac use. For this trip (about 75% off-road and in very remote locations), the robustness of the tyres is the most crucially important factor. This means that the MT21, although grippy, would not be up to the job.

I have been considering three options: the Michelin Desert, the Metzeler Karoo, or the MCE 6-Days. All are designed for Enduro and African Rallies, where heavy bikes travel over extreme terrain at high speed. The final decision will be made over the next few days - watch this space! Following the choice of tyre, heavy-duty (4mm thick) inner tubes can make life easier for the rider, reducing the risk of thorn punctures and "pinch-flats." On the Pan-Med trip, I'm also planning to use sealant, which is injected into the tube. In the event of a puncture, air pressure forces this rubberising solution out of the hole, where it reacts, to harden in the atmosphere and seal the hole.

Back to top

Lights & Horn

As the XR650L is a US-specification bike, the headlight and tail light are hard-wired. There is no switch on the handlebars to turn off the lights (which seems most strange if you're used to European or Japanese market bikes). The headlight draws the most current, so it is probably sufficient to disable that with a simple retro-fitted switch and in-line fuse. There are several reasons for switching the light off; to increase bulb life, to enable the use of the headlight as a signal and to reduce the baseline load on the charging system of the bike. This last reason is probably the most significant. NOTE: Overland travellers rarely travel at night, especially in dangerous foreign countries, or where safety margins are already quite slim enough thank you very much - it's not worth the risk ... which brings me to the horn, which was replaced by the previous owner with a two-tone air-horn, running from a small compressor mounted near the airbox. This thing is seriously loud - exactly like a truck horn. Just what you need, and I would unreservedly recommend the upgrade for everyone. Perfect for scaring jaywalkers and making your presence felt!


One of the many challenges of overland travel is to be as self-sufficient as possible. This is pretty difficult when you need a laptop, mobile/sat phone, Palm device, digital camera etc on a daily basis. The trick is to charge them all from the bike during the day. The 12v system on the XR650L will typically charge at 13.7v while riding (with hard-wired lights on). As soon as this voltage drops to below 13.2v, the battery will cease charging and will be slowly flattened - not a good situation when you have no kickstart!

Luckily most electronic devices are poratble enough for the manufacturers to supply a "car charger" - more accurately a 12v adaptor. These are very easy to find and extremely cheap when the device needs less than 12v (in the case of mobile telephones, for example). However, my Toshiba laptop needs 15v, and up to 90W to be happy. A simple resolution is to run an invertor (commonly used in expedition 4x4s) to give mains power (240v AC). This would flatten my battery in a very short time, so is not suitable. Toshiba charge £76 for a car/plane DC adaptor, whereas Maplin Electronics charge around £30. The Maplin product comes supplied with seven different plugs, and the output voltage is switchable.

I am planning to use the Maplin product to charge my Palm, camera and laptop while riding. When I have decided on the exact mounting strategy I will post pics here.

Still to come:

DIY remote GPS aerial
Vibration-proof electrical sockets
Fusing and cable routing
Modified wiring diagram (incl. IMO and accessories)

Back to top


My bike is fully road-legal and has a V5, MOT and road tax. The numberplate is legal (although I have a smaller, aluminium plate rivetted to the topbox. I plan to remove the EU plate as soon as I arrive in Africa or it will be destroyed by rocks and debris from the back wheel). I have retained the indicator function and the bike has a horn. For all of the time I am in Europe I will be using homologated road-legal tyres, and my crash helmet has a BSI and EU stamp. The bike will be legally quiet on the day of the MOT (but might get a bit louder after that, ha ha). I don't see a slightly loud exhaust being a problem once I'm outside Europe, and it could be considered a safety feature. On the other hand, I have been informed that travelling with a loud pipe just becomes tedious, as you get fed up of your own exhaust note. It can also be problematic when riding through small towns, where you might be more likely to attract the local hoodlums as the police! A final decision has yet to be made on this matter...

Back to top


Some people find the XR/L very uncomfortable in stock form - luckily, I don't. It must have something to do with being tall. When I bought my bike, it was fitted with a lowering link, designed to reduce the seat height by about 50mm. Needless to say, it was the first thing to be sold on. I find the height of the bike an advantage - it means that my legs aren't cramped, and holding bike upright is never a problem. I never know why people complain so much, anyway - how much of your time on a bike do you actually have your feet on the ground?

Moving on from the suitability of the bike or otherwise for short people, I am planning to buy a sheepskin as soon as I get to Tunisia. There are two very important reasons for this addition. The first is that a fleece is extremely soft to spread your weight and avoid long-term discomfort, and also helps to keep your "seat area" cool. The second reason for having a sheepskin is that it lends a certain well-travelled cachet to the bike, he he. When I get home I could even put it in front of the fire in my new flat - a rug with a real story to tell! The other contact points on the bike are also worthy of mention here; the 'bars, and footrests.

The first time I saw a Dakar Rallye bike I was surprised to see decidedly uncool foamy handgrips. I was under the impression that anyone who was anyone had extra-sticky Race grips for more feel. Not the case. One of the biggest problems for riders of big singles (although less of a problem with smooth lumps like that in the XR650L) is vibration. It is necessary to either rubber-mount the handlebars or to use good grips and gloves. BMW went down the route of suspending the 'bars, accounting for the vague and imprecise 'bar control on F650s. Yuck. I am going down the other route, fitting Renthal Fatbars - which have no cross-brace, and flex a little - and good quality grips. My gloves also have gel palm inserts.

As for the footrests, the more unfriendly they are the better. I want 'em to be big and spiky so that my boots grip properly. This makes the bike hard to ride in flip-flops though. Footrests are a strange item - people will pay a fortune for celebrity-endorsed titanium ones! I am planning to weld something up along these lines (DTR 250 pegs on my XT600)

Back to top

The Little Things...

The sidestand has a foot welded to it, to prevent the bike falling over when stood on soft ground or sand.

Back to top


Other Equipment

In addition to the bike componentry, several key areas of equipment must be addressed. Survival and communications gear is obviously essential, as are the means to carry water, fuel and shelter. In the words of Chris Scott "fuel buys you range, but water buys you time".

Riding motorcycles off-road is obviously a hazardous activity, and riders have to make a personal decision about how much protection to wear. Some prefer to "take it easy" and gamble with walking boots and tough trousers, while others go all the way, looking like professional Motocross stars. I believe you should protect yourself as much as possible, but I also accept that if an item isn't comfortable or practical it won't be used. For this reason I have been testing clothing and equipment for the last two years - these are some of the products I will be using...

Comfortable and protective; I can walk all day in these.

Very irritating to begin with, but worth getting used to!

Off-road crashes often involve a hard impact on the hip...

Keeps your insides safe, when they are getting shaken around.

Brilliant bit of kit, although slightly Star Wars in appearance!

Great quality off-road gloves; tons of feel and ace knuckle armour.

Good abrasion resistance and much toastier than the A'Stars gloves.

Used for winning the Paris-Dakar, so they must be quite good.


On an overland bike journey there are hundreds of opportunities for gadget fetishists to indulge themselves. Luckily for me (and my bank manager) I'm not very good with these things. However, I have succumbed to buying a laptop computer, a GPS and a new digital camera. If you are one of those people, dear reader, who find these things interesting, read on. If not, now would probably be a good time for a muffin and a cup of tea.

Back to top

Riders for Health AquaPac Cyclone Couriers All Bike Engineering Bandit Bikes RGS RGS Visordown
Map image


As soon as I can, there will be pictures here.

I am planning to have a gallery of the modifications discussed (as much as possible) here, with clickable images that will enlarge. This will illustrate features nicely, and will cut down on the descriptive text.

[ More ]