Occasionally, there are days I have to pinch, slap, or even punch myself in the gut to make sure that I'm not dreaming. Standing in front of Cole Seely's bike at Pala Raceway, drooling over my steed for the day, I had one of these moments. You can ask almost every racer in the pits what team they'd like to ride for at least once, and even if they have an affinity to a certain brand, they'd probably tell you that racing for Factory Honda would be a dream come true. From the dominant 80s, McGrath's reign through the mid-90s, and Ricky Carmichael's two undefeated Outdoor seasons, Factory Honda just appeared to be a home for the dominant among the MX/SX elite.
I also dreamt of racing Supercross and Motocross at the highest level, and swinging a leg over an HRC bike, at least once. Now, thanks to my current job, some of my dreams can still become reality. Earlier this year, I'd contacted the HRC Honda team to see if there was a chance we could take one of their bikes out for a spin. Throughout the year, I kept in contact with the crew and finally got the answer that my dream had come true. Sadly, this came at a price, as the reason I had a chance to ride one of their bikes was because Cole Seely had sustained an injury late in the Pro Motocross Championship season. This left his CRF450R and mechanic Rich Simmons a little free time to join us at Pala Raceway, and to turn a few laps on Seely's bike before it was torn down and retired for the year.
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Naturally, I had certain expectations of the HRC Honda CRF450R, especially since it was Cole Seely's bike. As most know, Cole is a very calculated and smooth rider, with a style that just screams Supercross! Because of this, I expected to ride a very nimble bike with explosive power, since Cole appears to have such great throttle control. But this was his Outdoor bike, so I wasn't quite sure what I'd find.
Climbing aboard, Cole's controls are very neutral. His subframe, pegs, and seat are all set at stock height. The standout difference from the stock bike is the low set of Renthal Fat Bars, which I personally quite like on the Hondas. After talking to Rich, I learned that Cole really isn't all that picky about his controls, and is quite comfortable with the geometry of the stock Honda. Even with all the ergonomic options they have at their disposal, Cole has maintained this very traditional layout.
On the track is where the biggest surprise came. Right off the bat, I was really deceived by the power Cole's bike produced. To be honest, I was thinking to myself "Well, this isn't that impressive." I expected arm-wrenching, insane triple-to-quad power! Instead, I was greeted by an extremely progressive engine that was crisp as could be, and rolled on so smoothly it took me about half a lap to realize how much power the HRC Honda really puts out. The bike finally caught my attention as I rolled around a left-hand corner to a 70-foot tabletop that's quite the "booter" at Pala. I grabbed a handful for it, and settled into a little seat bounce. About halfway up the face I realized my mistake, and finally figured out how hard this bike was really pulling, as I launched myself about 15 feet past the landing to the flats. On the bright side, this also gave me a peek into how much bottoming resistance Cole's KYB suspension had, as it didn't quite use up all the travel during this dodo-esque performance.
Although the low RPM performance of the HRC bike was downright impressive, even more so was the way the bike continued to pull as the RPMs rose. Even though Cole typically rides the bike in the lower rev ranges, his Honda is more than capable of being revved to the moon. In fact, it pulls so far that I believed Cole's bike had to be equipped with a four-speed transmission, as I never had any reason to even click up another gear. Heck, I barely had any reason to use fourth, even though Pala has some of the largest and fastest sections in the area. The bike was more than capable of taking on the entire track in second and third gears. This made life quite a bit more simple and requiring less thought which gear you were in, and more thought into throttle control and line selection. (Note: contrary to what some may believe, the HRC Honda utilizes a production-based five-speed transmission in their race bikes.)
Now speaking of suspension, most people instantly think that a pro racer's setup is going to be stiffer than anything on the face of the earth, especially when talking about a rider capable of being on the podium in Supercross or Outdoors. Is this true? Sort of, but not quite in the way you'd imagine. In this case as I first entered a corner, I definitely noticed a difference, as the initial part of the stroke was quite a bit stiffer than most setups I've ridden. In Cole's case, he rides very forward on the bike, meaning that his fork setting is quite a bit stiffer initially. That keeps them from blowing through the stroke and diving when he settles into a corner. In my case, though, the forks felt a bit topped out and high in the stroke. This was the first thing I really noticed about the bike that was set up for Cole's personal preference, as Rich mentioned that Cole's style brought the need for this setup.
The overall action of the forks and shock on Cole's bike don't feel solid like a rock, but are actually fairly plush and very well-balanced, IF you have Cole's speed. The biggest difference in this setup is how speed-sensitive it is. The harder you push, the better things go, and the more confidence the bike gives you in what it can take on. On the handling side, it's a combination of the lighter weight, factory tires, and more that makes this bike feel planted no matter where you throw it. Due to the way this bike creates power, though, it's a bit hard to get the bike to squirt down out of a corner or slide through without quite a bit of clutch action to break it loose. For the most part, the bike really wants to follow the line you set it in and just rail from section to section.
Now let's dig into some of the details on the bike, starting with factory brakes. Cole's bike utilizes Honda's newest 260mm front rotor (which CRF models now come stock with), but backs it up with a factory Nissin caliper and master cylinder. The biggest difference in this setup is definitely the feel that the billet brake caliper produces. You get amazing stopping power, but it's still very usable. Personally, I'd say the lever travel feels a bit longer than most stock systems, but offers a much wider range of progression instead of the "grabby" feel of the production units.
As for the ergonomics, the HRC bike features radiator shrouds with carbon fiber extenders. They come in handy, as they decrease your chances of getting your boots caught up on the shrouds as you exit corners. That's especially true when you're forward and aggressive on the bike.
While the Yoshimura exhaust system is common to see on a Honda, the system on the HRC bike is a bit different from what a general customer purchases. It's not really that the race-spec system is better than the production one for any bike, it's that this one has countless R&D hours put into it to perfectly match the other engine and electronic modifications that the HRC Honda team does to this CRF450R.
Another part that easily catches your eyes, but also your feet while on the track, are HRC's titanium footpegs. These shiny-but-expensive hunks of whittled-down titanium are sharp, aggressive, and really hold you in place. After using them, I can see why Andrew Short said these were one of the parts he had to have when he went from a factory bike to a production bike a few seasons ago. The pegs alone offer a huge boost in confidence, and we all know how much the mental edge can help.
How about the weight? Most of us have wanted to crack open our wallets to grab every titanium bolt, plus aluminum nut and washer we could get our hands on. In this case we don't have an exact weight, but this bike is supposed to be right down at the minimum weight limit of 220lbs. The HRC Honda feels like it's easier to change directions with, whether you're standing or sitting. But it's also just a tad bit easier to throw around as the moto wears on, making fatigue a little bit less of an issue. At the top level of the sport this can be huge advantage for the riders throughout the course of a moto.
In the end, I definitely ended this experience surprised...both at how trick the HRC Honda was, but at the same time how easy it was to ride. Overall, the stock Honda CRF450R is a bike with a few faults but a ton of potential, and the HRC version takes all that potential to the max. In Cole's case, the CRF really suits him, so many of the changes aren't completely drastic. But at the same time, there are certain aspects of this bike that are made to suit Cole to a T. As with most factory-level bikes, I think people mistake the actual cost of the parts with the time and R&D that goes into personalizing it to each rider's personal bike. This makes any factory bike interesting to ride because it's quite uncommon to find one that suits yourself well, as they're always geared for their true owner.
I have to give a huge thanks to the HRC Honda crew for allowing me to check an item off my bucket list and giving me a smile that lasted for days.