THE ROYAL EN­FIELD HI­MALAYAN

The Royal En­field Hi­malayan is light at the end of the tun­nel

Motorcyclist - - Front Page - BY ABHI ESWARAPPA

THE BUREAU OF LAND MAN­AGE­MENT HAS A

straight­for­ward pol­icy on rid­ing a mo­tor­cy­cle into the Re­ward Mine, an aban­doned sil­ver and gold digs a short ride from Man­za­nar in eastern Cal­i­for­nia: “En­ter at your own risk.” That should be the ad­ven­ture-mo­tor­cy­cling motto, as ap­pli­ca­ble to rid­ers as the man­u­fac­tur­ers who build the bikes they love. Royal En­field is no stranger to the gam­ble that comes with mak­ing and sell­ing mo­tor­cy­cles, and the com­pany’s new­est wa­ger, the Hi­malayan, is an in­ex­pen­sive dual-sport aimed at those of us with an itch to go where wise rid­ers don’t dare. Places like the gap­ing mouth of the Re­ward.

The Royal En­field Hi­malayan trav­eled an un­ex­pected path to the U.S. It took the com­pany’s Amer­i­can arm two years to con­vince head­quar­ters to bring the bike state­side. Orig­i­nally devel­oped for the In­dian mar­ket, the Hi­malayan gets an all-new 411cc sin­gle that pro­duces 24 horsepower, about the same as a Honda CRF250L Rally. Dainty, but a coun­ter­bal­ancer means the en­gine can sit at red­line for hours on end with­out shak­ing apart.

Rid­ing north on Route 395 with the snow­capped Sier­ras rolling end­lessly along, I’m glad of the en­gi­neer­ing. The Hi­malayan has been near its top speed of 85 mph for hours, happy to spin up the high­way. De­spite an MSRP of just $4,499, this bike comes stan­dard with fea­tures you won’t see on ADV bikes twice the price: a cen­ter­stand, front and rear lug­gage racks, and an alu­minum skid plate. It’s also in­cred­i­bly com­fort­able. My right wrist is un­happy keep­ing the throt­tle wide open, but the er­gonomics are well-suited for my 6-foot-2-inch frame, and the seat is agree­able all day long. It’s a pleas­ant sur­prise from a small dis­place­ment bike.

But the Hi­malayan isn’t built for glassy as­phalt, and shortly af­ter turn­ing onto the Man­za­nar-re­ward Road, the flat, graded sur­face gives way to a dou­ble track thick with sharp rocks. The climb starts with trep­i­da­tion, but the Hi­malayan mocks my cau­tion, han­dling every­thing the trail presents with­out trou­ble. My pace in­creases with the el­e­va­tion un­til loose rocks start bang­ing up against the skid plate, pro­vid­ing a stac­cato metal­lic sound­track to the as­cent. The Hi­malayan is so well-suited for this trail that once I get to the top, I turn around and do it all over again. And again. And again.

Get­ting to the top of the trail af­fords a mo­ment to re­lax and en­joy one last view of the Sier­ras be­fore drop­ping into the Re­ward Mine. The op­er­a­tion was named af­ter the town of Re­ward, which was es­tab­lished in 1900, a year be­fore Royal En­field be­gan mak­ing mo­tor­cy­cles. But while RE has been in busi­ness in one form or an­other all that time, the town did not en­joy sim­i­lar suc­cess. The lo­cal post of­fice lasted just six years.

None of that does much to quell my nerves. This is what I’ve been wait­ing for, but the ra­tio­nal side of me isn’t in a rush to ride into a pitch-black tun­nel that hasn’t been main­tained in decades. Rock-slide pro­tec­tion cov­ers the top of the en­trance, re­mind­ing ex­plor­ers that this is a stupid idea, a risk.

The mouth of the mine is a door­way to a dif­fer­ent world. Out­side, it’s nearly 100 de­grees, and the high desert sun finds a way to re­flect off ev­ery nat­u­ral sur­face in an at­tempt to blind you. In­side, the tem­per­a­ture is 30 de­grees cooler and so dark that you lose one of your five senses. Ten feet in­side the cave is the per­fect balance. A slow draft of cool air mod­er­ates the desert heat while the last ves­tiges of light il­lu­mi­nate the jagged sur­face of the in­te­rior wall.

Ev­ery movement is slow and de­lib­er­ate. The tun­nel isn’t straight, so the head­light only buys 50 feet of vis­i­bil­ity at a time. For the first time, the Hi­malayan feels like it has plenty

of power for the task at hand. The mine branches out oc­ca­sion­ally, tempt­ing you to ex­plore dead ends. There’s no right an­swer, just ex­cuses to ex­plore more of the mine. Some de­tours re­veal old wooden lad­ders that ex­tend sev­eral floors up, teas­ing the fact that the mine stretches eight sto­ries and over 500 feet.

It feels like I’m alone, but there are signs of other vis­i­tors. Graffiti seems to be the most com­mon. An­other call­ing sign is an oc­ca­sional empty can of cheap Amer­i­can lager. I didn’t come for a re­minder that peo­ple can be slobs.

The best way to ig­nore the mess is to go dark, to iso­late my­self, so I turn the bike off and in­stantly plunge into the void. It’s sur­real, so dark that I can’t tell if my eye­lids are open or closed. The si­lence would be calm­ing in any other en­vi­ron­ment, but in the ab­sence of light, it’s omi­nous. I fire the long-stroke thumper back up to life. In here, the timid ex­haust thun­ders like a 411cc chain saw. Maybe I’m the vil­lain in this story.

It’s less than a quar­ter-mile to a large room. The head­light and tail­light pro­vide the only il­lu­mi­na­tion, a wash of red and a ray of white that re­flect off all sur­faces. It’s the way out. The Hi­malayan has con­quered the bow­els of the earth. It looks pur­pose­ful there. A lit­tle proud. Wait­ing for the next chal­lenge and with­out a con­cern of what it might be.

We find the exit, and as my pupils adjust to the sun, I re­al­ize that I’m see­ing the Hi­malayan in a new light. Sure, it’s slow. It’s also ca­pa­ble, com­fort­able, ef­fi­cient, cheap, and fun. It’s the best mo­tor­cy­cle Royal En­field has made in 50 years. And it’s fi­nally on our shores.

“THE HI­MALAYAN HAS CON­QUERED THE BOW­ELS OF THE EARTH. IT LOOKS PUR­POSE­FUL THERE.”

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY NATHAN MAY

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