2009 Honda CRF450X ISDE Bike Build

August 7, 2009
Chilly White
Chilly White
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Having spent most his riding career desert racing, Chilly White brings expert racing skills to his off-road dirt bike reviews. The Californian is also an International Six Days Enduro competitor, including the 2009 Portugal ISDE.

2009 Honda CRF450X ISDE Project Bike
Johnny Campbell Racing was a great resource for helpful tips. They were kind enough to help prep our bike (left) while getting Timmy Weigand’s (right) ready as well.

After a couple of weeks of steady work and testing, I finally have the Honda CRF450X crated and shipped off to Portugal. Like most bikes there is a lot to learn by really living with a motorcycle for a while and getting to know it from both a mechanical and performance perspective. I think one of the pitfalls of testing bikes in the “shootout” method is that you really only get a snapshot of each bike, a view of how the bike performs in only one set of conditions. As this project was really designed to let me set a bike up just the way I want it, I think I have a much better understanding of the potential of the X and a better appreciation of it. I think it is going to make an excellent Six Day Enduro bike and I am really looking forward to riding it in Portugal.

Having said that, as I look back at the work list of all the things I did to get to this point, it seems rather long. I really tried to stay away from anything frivolous, focusing strictly on performance, durability and ISDE requirements. The performance goal was all about rideability. Many of the 450X models that I have previously ridden were very fast, but difficult to ride in technical terrain and I definitely want a bike that is easy to ride. As far as durability, the Honda is a pretty good package overall, but there are couple of things that are pretty vulnerable to damage, so those would have to be addressed.

Before putting a wrench to anything, I took the new bike out to the local vet moto track to get an idea of what the starting point was. I firmly believe that it is important to have an understanding of how a bike works before thinking about changing anything. My first impressions were quite good. The motor was smooth and easy to ride, just a bit slow. The suspension was better than earlier models that I had ridden and the overall handling was stable and predictable. So with a good baseline I started to put the prep list down on paper and the list just kept getting longer and longer.

2009 Honda CRF450X ISDE Project Bike
Updating the internal fork settings was high on our priority list. Javier Gonzales at Trail Tricks has suspension testing experience from the actual race location in Portugal.

The first order of business was to take care of the suspension. I have had lots of luck working with Javier Gonzales at Trail Tricks, we always seem to be on the same page about where to go on set up. Secondly, as Javier worked on a World Enduro team for many years, he used to go and test at the exact location in Portugal where the ISDE is going to be, Figueira Da Foz, so he has firsthand knowledge of the conditions there. The stock forks were a little sluggish to get moving and then would blow through the middle of the stroke a little too easy. Javier’s suggestion was to work on the valving and install a lighter secondary spring in the twin-chamber forks. We kept stock spring rates front and rear.

While we had the Honda apart for suspension, I started working to make it breathe better. The stock main jet is a measly 145, so that was replaced with a 165 along with a 48 pilot and an NCYS needle. The stock needle is non adjustable and the mixture screw requires a special tool to adjust, both results of emissions requirements. The entire top of the airbox was cut out to improve air flow, it seems drastic but it is actually less than what is cut out of the factory Baja bikes. While working on the air box we also did some careful knife work around the edges. There are sharp lips on both the top and bottom of the side opening of the air box and when changing the air filter these constantly snag the foam.

After these initial mods, it was out to the desert to test again. The power gain was significant and the suspension was much more controlled. The suspension would continue to get more supple as the fork broke in, and after about five hours they are really nice. Back on the motocross track the power was still a little lacking, in a number of sections I would still ride with the throttle wide open and it is always nice to have just a little in reserve. Knowing that the bike had to stay at 94db for ISDE use, I decided to try a FMF Q4 slip-on and that did help wake up the mid-range as well as giving just a little more on top. It also shaved about 2.5 pounds off the stock can. I think that for other race conditions where sound is not as critical, I would probably choose the FMF Powercore over the Q4, and then keep the stock exhaust for trail riding.

2009 Honda CRF450X ISDE Project Bike
 A BRP chain guide made the list, but check out the reinforced welds to keep it from snapping off the swingarm.

I now have a box of all the things I have taken off the Honda dirt bike. This includes: mechanical odometer, smog pump and plumbing, steel kickstand, plastic disc guards, stock starter switch and clutch cut-out wiring. Some of these things don’t directly hinder performance, it is just that they represent things that could potentially become damaged or cause some other problem. For example the stock starter switch is rather large and it slots into the throttle, so you cannot adjust the throttle position without also adjusting the starter. It also makes it difficult to find room to add bar-mounted handguards. The clutch cut-out switch requires the clutch lever to be pulled in to start the bike. If the wires were to become damaged, the electric starter would not work. Applied Racing makes a nice kit for eliminating the smog pump.
For durability there are a couple of spots on the chassis that really need attention. The tabs on the swingarm for the chain guide and disc protector are very flimsy. Our welder did a nice job of beefing these up and we mounted up a BRP chain guide. At Johnny Campbell’s suggestion, we ground a radius on all of the edges of the chain guide to help deflect sharp impacts. For the rear disc protector we installed the Pro Moto Billet replacement that incorporates a secondary mounting point on the brake carrier. A Rekluse billet cover now protects the clutch side from impact by the brake pedal and a piece of water hose safety wired to the inside of the pedal tip helps insure it won’t hit the clutch cover too hard.

2009 Honda CRF450X ISDE Project Bike
ISDE format racing virtually necessitates having a kickstand. The Pro Moto Billet KICKIT is lighter, stronger and less obtrusive than the stock version.

A Pro Moto Billet kickstand replaces the stock unit and tucks out of the way nicely. The stock side stand hangs out a little and I was concerned about possibly catching a boot on it. I went with Fastway pegs for a larger platform. These are covered with rubber booties from Acerbis that prevent mud build up in the hinged area. Johnny Campbell Racing also set us up with a super clean Acerbis plastic skid plate and a LED tail light/sub fender combo. The radiators on the CRF are particularly vulnerable so a set of Works Connection braces should cure that. Like nearly all the aftermarket parts I used on the X project, the radiator braces took about 5 minutes to install and were a perfect fit. I think one big advantage of a bike as popular as the Honda is that the aftermarket companies spend a little extra time to make sure their products really fit correct, no cutting or drilling required.

There are a few items on this project that are strictly based upon my personal preference. A Rekluse Pro Model auto clutch is a necessity for me. Sure, call me lazy but in the course of a six-day race how many times do you pull in the lever? The auto clutch provides a huge relief to my wrists and hands over multi day races. Along those same lines are the Fasst Company Flexx bars in the 10-degree KTM bend, they make the whole world seem like a smoother place. To mount up the oversize bars I went with a set of BRP bar mounts on the stock top clamp. This is a clean set up that moves the bars slightly forward and retains the stock rubber mounting. Fastway flag-style handguards complete the bar set up.

2009 Honda CRF450X ISDE Project Bike
Experience and attention to detail pays off. This brake pedal is wired for safety and has a slice of rubber hose around the inside to keep it from punching through the clutch cover. 

I spent a lot of time just working on details for the bike. The welder also fabricated a nice rear axle pull to help speed tire changes. No-Toil sent some of their rim lock nuts that cover all the threads to keep things clean and the red color makes them easy to spot. A brake snake adds just a little extra security to the pedal. Six Day rules require a speedometer and I had a stock KTM one handy and it even fit right into the stock mount on the top clamp. For the brake light I used an inline switch from Baja Designs and wired it to the Acerbis LED light. To keep things simple the Acerbis unit is used only for the brake, leaving the stock taillight in service and the brake light is run directly from the battery, eliminating the need to tap into the stock wiring. The stock odometer drive is gone from the front axle, replaced by a spacer, to simplify tire changes.

The gas tank, chain, sprockets and stabilizer are all things that I left stock. I love the idea of the stock stabilizer and I think it will work perfect for this purpose. I am not sure if it has enough control for desert racing, but I see that there are some aftermarket piston kits available for it now and that would be on the list of things to try in the future.

2009 Honda CRF450X ISDE Project Bike
JCR’s lead mechanic, Eric Siraton, put in the elbow grease for us,

So how does it run? Well, it is really good. The motor has a huge sweet spot in the mid-range. It hooks up well coming out of corners with very little wheelspin and lots of control. Up on top I would rate the motor as good. Clearly it would be stronger with an open exhaust system and that would be a benefit in the desert or perhaps Grand Prix racing, but for Six Days use it is just about perfect. The bottom end is smooth and controlled up to a point. At the very slowest technical speeds it still takes a careful throttle hand to keep everything under control. This is one of the areas where the auto clutch plays its part, eliminating the need for fancy clutch work in ultra technical terrain, as well as eliminating potential stalls.

The motor is smooth with little vibration. Whether kickstarting or using the magic button it always comes right to life, even in gear. The hot start is only needed in conditions where the motor is extra hot. A large coolant recovery tank is mounted safely behind the skid plate. I am told one of the hot tips is to switch out the stock 1.1 radiator cap for a 1.8 unit to further reduce the chance of boiling.

The chassis is really stable and neutral, almost to the point of feeling lazy. At casual speeds the front end feels sluggish in corners, as you begin to ride with more aggression, the turning ability starts to come around. For tight corners; keep the speed up, brake late, slide forward over the front end, turn it in hard and it all starts to come together. It is the complete opposite of something like the Husaberg FE 450 that has a natural slice and dice feel. What it does do very well is rail the outside of corners, it loves to take a wide line and lean way over. The front tire is very planted and the chassis never seems to get upset.

2009 Honda CRF450X ISDE Project Bike
All that work just to send it away. Until we meet again, Honda… in Portugal!

The fork seems to handle everything without issue. Once I had it set up, I never felt the need to change anything, regardless of conditions. In contrast, the shock is very sensitive to set up. Every turn on the clickers is important. So, for example, if I decided to make a change in the spring preload; I then had to go back to the baseline settings for the compression and rebound adjustments and start dialing them in all over again. Consequently I spent considerable time getting the shock tuned. Once set up, it is a very good package, but it may still require tuning to suit different conditions. I expect Portugal to be very rocky and possibly wet. Javier says to expect lots of second-gear creek bottoms. When I tested out on my regular desert rock loop, I felt the X was as good, if not better, than anything else I have ridden on that loop.

Now that it is all prepped, I have pretty high hopes for the bike. I expect it is going to perform and hold up very well. It has been a little more extensive project than I first expected, but the end result is a really competitive bike. The heart of the CRF450X is a race bike; it just needs a little help to get that pedigree to shine through.

It’s going to be awhile until we’ll see this bike again since the race isn’t until October, but we’ll have a full report on how this JCR Honda CRF450X performs at the 2009 ISDE. A big thanks to American Honda and Johnny Campbell Racing for their efforts.

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