If someone is looking for an entry-level adventure touring motorcycle, the Royal Enfield Himalayan is actually the only option thats currently out there. That is without deviating to machines that are either too dual sport or outright dirt bikes. Here in India, the place where the idea of developing the Himalayan was sown and grown, it is pretty much THE only motorcycle that sort of falls in the “affordable” bracket of adventure touring motorcycles, with the next one being the Kawasaki Versys 650. The Royal Enfield Himalayan costs about INR 180,000 on-road ($2,680) while the Versys comes in roughly at INR 750,000 ($11,170). Thats a huge price gap that till date remains relatively empty without any interesting offerings up till now. As a result, Royal Enfield has received a lot of praise for their adventure tourer in India as well as internationally. So much so that the company has gone ahead and launched the Himalayan in Europe for 2017 apart from expanding to the United States and India.
I recently took a trip to the hills of Uttarakhand (North India), for which I rented out a Royal Enfield Himalayan from one of the most trusted rental agencies in Delhi (as per TripAdvisor) that goes by the name of StoneHeadBikes. These guys have a huge fleet of motorcycles that they provide on rent to Indian as well as International riders who arrive at Delhi to head out to Leh Ladakh (or any other excursions into the Himalayas), mostly during the peak season (May -July). The Himalayan that I got hold of was a decently maintained motorcycle that I was told had traveled to Ladakh and back about 4 times in this very season (for those who know, even a single trip to Leh Ladakh is quite a torture to a machine’s mechanicals). It had apparently crashed once too I assume, since the odometer showed just 500kms (or it stopped working and had to be replaced). Overall, it was more or less what you could expect of a rental motorcycle during off-season time, where the rental agency had done the basic service on the bike while waiting to fix the bigger, more costly issues before the next riding season opens.
My short 4-day trip on the Royal Enfield Himalayan started from Delhi early morning a few days before Delhi was officially announced as the pollution capital of the world. We were to ride about 200miles (320km) up north into Uttarakhand, a state that’s shielded from all the obnoxiousness of big city living. While so, the roads to reach the so-called “Land of Gods” wasn’t quite in good shape. It was as if Gods themselves didn’t want city people to reach there and ruin the sanctity of their natural surrounds. On the leveled and straight highways, the suspensions kept the Himalayan sturdy while taking away the urgency to go fast. This enabled me to look around, relax my body while still carry a decently fast pace which differentiated me from looking to be “cruising” on the highway.
Once off the main national highway, the roads went from bad to worse… and eventually to none. The Himalayan couldn’t care less about these terrain changes as it quite capably glided over light and medium undulations. And you really can’t put the blame on the Himalayan for the really bad ones as no other motorcycle else would have been able to handle those anyways.
I rode the Royal Enfield Himalayan for 800km (500miles) through some breathtaking scenery, in an around my hometown of Almora. Our stay was at Naukuchiya Taal (taal means a lake) a part of the lake district of Nainital which has seven lakes spread over an area not larger than 50km in radius. This gives anyone who’s visiting a great opportunity to ride around the beautiful mountainous region and quickly explore quite a lot over a short weekend, before returning to the misery of the city at the dawn of the next week (sadly). But for those who are explorers, the region has much more to offer as well. Almora and Nainital are the gateway districts to the unravelling glory of Uttarakhand. From here on, one can head further into the mountains all the way to the sacred town of Badrinath, India’s only ski resort of Auli and also the beautiful Valley of Flowers that lies ahead. For someone who wants to get lost here in the mountains, even a couple of months won’t be enough. I and my accomplices sadly weren’t those, so we had a few days of all this beauty before we once again dragged our unwilling bodies into the hell of urban living.
The mountains are one place the Himalayan is made for. Despite its carbureted fuelling system, the motorcycle hardly struggled with the changing altitude. The power isn’t all that great, nor is the torque. But it does the job of pulling you up a steep mountain quite decently, although there isn’t much speed involved in doing so. Overall though, the engine is pretty decent, specially for being in its first generation. There are rattles and shakes, but it overall feels like something that you could count on for duration of the journey. For a Royal Enfield regular, this would feel right at home. What I found particularly nice about the Himalayan was its suspensions. While the front forks do crash occasionally, the overall feel is quite nice. They handle bad and broken roads like a champ, so much so that I decided to take it on a small trail which looked lot more easier when seen from a distance, but turned out to be a lot narrower and rougher when I seemed. The Himalayan seemed to have no problem getting though the harsh terrain. In fact, it was me who was struggling to keep myself on the bike.
When you get on the Himalayan for the first time there is a feeling that the bike is built well. But that feeling lasts only till the time you thumb the starter and put it in gear. In typical Royal Enfield-ness, the Himalayan shakes and shudders when shifted into first gear. The second gear is almost impossible to get to at first go. For me, the shift from first to second became so difficult (and painful) that I resorted to clutch-less shifts for the rest of my trip. Once you’re beyond second though, things get lot smoother. The erratic gearbox doesn’t bother so much while riding on open roads, but as soon as you hit slow-moving traffic you wish that there was there was more torque so that you never have to go to first gear ever.
For the duration of my road trip from Delhi to Nainital and back, the biggest and scariest incident was when the big nut that keeps the triple clamp tightened became ridiculously loose. So loose that I was able to tighten it with my bare hands. This could have lead to some scary, scary consequences if left unattended… None of which are a pretty scenario when you are on a motorcycle on a mountain road, with 200-foot drops on one side. This could be a issue particular to StoneHeadBikes rental motorcycle or a generic problem with the Himalayan. But it’s unnerving and shouldn’t happen.
Update: In reached back home and did some research on this and the problem seems to be a manufacturing one where the cone set gets damaged quite easily on the Royal Enfield Himalayan.
And this is the biggest chink in the Royal Enfield Himalayan‘s armour. While the company has created a motorcycle that has huge potential, specially since there aren’t many competitors in what it is offering (for now). It is a perfect motorcycle for a newcomer who is a little overwhelmed by the dimensions of larger adventure motorcycles like the Versys 650, Triumph Tiger 800 or the BMW 1200 GS. But with the mechanical inconveniences that come with the motorcycle and Royal Enfield’s legacy of reliability woes, it becomes tough to recommend the Himalayan to anyone…at least at this stage of its lifecycle.
Don’t get me wrong though. Royal Enfield is working day and night to ensure that the next batch of motorcycles that they produce are void of issues that have been seen on the first generation of the Himalayan. At least, here in India, customers who have bought the bike have been attended to at utmost urgency in most cases, finding a quick, sustainable solution to their issues. But again, there is still sometime before things are inch perfect with the Himalayan, and sadly time is running out quite fast for the 100-year old British-now-Indian brand.
Problem is that now other motorcycle manufacturers have understood the Himalayan’s standpoint internationally and are racing ahead to launch their own products in the category. By this time next year, we would have motorcycles like the Kawasaki Versys X-300, BMW G 310GS, Suzuki DL250 V-Strom and hopefully although highly unlikely, an adventure variant of the KTM 390 Duke. All these motorcycles are more or less around each other in performance but would assumably hold much better build quality and reliability than that of the Himalayan. Granted that they would be more expensive than Royal Enfield’s offering too, but when you are 500km outside of any organised civilisation, its the reliability that matter more than the cost effectiveness.
I really want to see the Royal Enfield Himalayan develop into a more reliable and confidence inspiring motorcycle that what it is today. It’s the segment’s pioneer with tremendous capability. But with other established players ready to throw punches at the segment from every direction, the company has very little time to get their motorcycle up to international standards.