The first time I rode from Delhi to Chandigarh, it was with my mate Paddy Minne on two Royal Enfields, on the first leg of a 7,000-mile ride back to the UK. That was in 1998.
This time, I was 18 years older, and not a bit wiser, but at least the Enfield was better than ours back then, which were held together with hope. This new Enfield Himalayan 400 is just as good at going to the shops as to the Himalayas, which was exactly where I was heading.
Royal Enfield is a company already making 400,000 bikes a year, with a new 750cc twin in the offing, and it’s hell bent on global domination of mid-range motorcycling by 2020.
Rather than fitting the existing 500cc Bullet engine with a small bore kit, the Himalayan’s 411cc lump is fresh off the drawing board, and has a carb (remember those?) rather than injection (please note EU models will be injected.) Enfield’s rationale is that a carb is easier to fix in the back of beyond by a man with a hammer, while the bike’s adventure credentials are further ticked by a Harris chassis, rear mono-shock, long-travel suspension, crash bars, upswept exhaust and 21in front wheel. The sari guard pictured above won’t be standard EU equipment…
The 15-litre tank may not sound much by GS Adventure standards, but with the frugal long-stroke engine giving upwards of 80mpg, it’s enough for a range of up to 230 miles.
The biggest surprise, though, as I climbed aboard in Delhi, was the dash. Compared to my Enfield, which had a speedo and ammeter, this was like the instrument panel of the Space Shuttle, with a speedo, tacho and a digital panel telling you everything to the time of high tide in Hong Kong. It even has a compass, just in case you get lost on the way to Sainsbury’s.
As I rode north on the dual carriageway out of Delhi it was 46 degrees and as humid as a Turkish bath, when I passed an elephant trundling along the slow lane, although I use the term ‘lane’ loosely, since locals pay little attention to them, traffic lights or to other road users. Still, it’s not as bad as Naples. As for the bike, acceleration, as you’d expect with only 25 horses under the tank, didn’t set my pants on fire, although to be fair, my pants were so soggy due to the heat and humidity that even a Multistrada running on methanol would have failed to ignite them.
Having said that, it’s perky enough if you keep it in the sweet spot between 3,000 and 5,000rpm, and the real surprise was that even at a top speed nudging 75mph, the engine’s balance shaft kept it so smooth that the mirrors were rock-solid compared to the vibey 500cc Bullet and 535cc Continental GT. At that speed however, the engine was talking to me, saying in cultivated Anglo-Indian tones “I say, old chap, are you late for an appointment or something?” I apologised profusely, and settled back to a contented 55mph and 5,000rpm.
Handling is sweet and light, and the combination of that 21in front wheel and 8in and 7in suspension travel on the front and rear respectively soaked up even the most impressive pot-holes. However, the real test would come in the mountains, where every spring the mighty Himalayas chew up the roads and spit them out to teach humans a lesson about trying to conquer nature.
The brakes have only one disc up front, but it’s more than adequate with only 183kg of bike to haul in, although with no slipper clutch, the back wheel locked quite easily when changing down to first. With such a light bike it was never a problem, and it was accompanied by a delicious symphony of pops and barps from the exhaust.
Only faults? A seat perhaps designed for very slight Indian riders, and a mildly pernickety gearbox which needed to be seduced into action rather than told what to do, and which even after several days was still spurning my attempts to introduce it to the joys of neutral.
After the heat, dust and drudgery of the plains, the next day was a symphony of curves with the road rising and the mercury falling, a peg-scraping blast through forested foothills and splashing rivers to Manali, the pleasant alpine town where the good citizens of Delhi come in summer to escape the heat, and in winter to marvel at the wonder of snow.
Over the next few days, the road played with us, coyly offering us stretches of perfect tarmac then whisking its veil away to reveal miles of ugly roadworks, but at least standing on the pegs gave me a break from the seat, which I was now beginning to dislike more than an ex-girlfriend who kept popping into my head uninvited. When Royal Enfield does introduce the Himalayan to Europe, I hope it comes up with a saddle suited to more substantial Western buns.
All around as I rode, rested and stopped for photos, the mountains fisted to the sky, either yearning for heaven or angry that no matter how much they yearned, they would remain forever earthbound. Unlike the eagles who soared above their peaks, mocking us all with their effortless grace.
At Sarchu I camped and gently froze in a beautiful deserted valley at 13,000ft. Still, getting on a motorbike and setting off makes us all feel better, and I saddled up and rode on, over passes as high as 17,480ft and past the cheesy safety signs of the Border Roads Organisation, with slogans such as “Hug my curves, but not too tightly”, “Driving after whisky is always risky”, and the splendidly antediluvian “Don’t gossip. Let him drive”.
By now, although the Himalayan was coughing and spluttering because of the altitude, its chassis and suspension were in their element, dancing through mud, gravel, sand, snow and water crossings as lightly as a ballerina.
At Leh, I patted its tank sadly as I said farewell to it, and took a taxi to the airport.
“What were you doing in the mountains, sir?” said the driver.
“Riding the new Royal Enfield,” I said.
“Ah, Royal Enfield,” he grinned into the mirror. “Great motorcycles. Very powerful.”
I didn’t disillusion him, since given the choice between the Himalayan and a Multistrada on the roads I’d ridden over the past week, I know which I’d choose, and it’s not Italian. Or red.
Review by Geoff Hill.
Price: Not available in UK at time of writing (Update April 2018: now available at £3,999)
Engine: Air-cooled 411cc carburetted single (Update April 2018: now fuel-injected on European version)
Power: 25bhp @ 6,500rpm
Torque: 24 lb ft @ 4,500rpm
Colours: black, white, or covered in dust
For details of Royal Enfield official rides, click.
We’ll have a full test of the UK model soon.