It’s been raining all day. It’s supposed to be bright and sunny hill-station-weather in Shimla this time of the year, but it’s been raining. Temperatures have dropped considerably and then it gets worse – it begins to snow. My hands are beyond being just soaked and cold under my gloves – they’re at the point where the tips of my fingers have started to pain unbearably. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s the onset of frostbite – and that can’t be a good situation when you’re on a motorcycle, still a few kilometres away from shelter of any sort. It’s a short convoy we’re riding in – just three bikes – with Shawn of Royal Enfield leading the way (coz he has GPS), Ruman from ‘The Motoring World’ crammed in the middle and me following up as the tail. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m the only one feeling this. Then they stop. We’ve spotted a small tea stall on the side of the road and the fire-lit stove seems God-sent. By the time we’ve taken our helmets and gloves off, the hot kettle is reduced to nothing but a cold metal sheet at the ends of our frigid fingers. Then the blood slowly starts rushing back in and the pain shoots up even more. We weren’t prepared for this. We weren’t prepared for anything that this ride in Shimla was all about. We weren’t prepared for the Royal Enfield Himalayan.
A new launch from Royal Enfield isn’t a novel event in itself – they’ve had new products in the last few years but the fact that they were still re-hashed from the age-old Bullet pretty much took all the newness out of them. The Himalayan is different – it’s all-new from the ground up. New chassis, new design, new engine, new transmission, new suspension – all brand new in the true sense of the term. It’s the first product that has completely been designed, developed, tested and manufactured from scratch ever since Siddhartha Lal and the Eicher Group took over the reigns of the iconic Indian motorcycle brand (which continued manufacturing that age-old British bike). Trouble is, when you say ‘Royal Enfield’ you expect a certain kind of motorcycle based on years and years of their products in the past and the Himalayan is nothing like any of that – yet, it is purpose built for the one task that every Royal Enfield ever has been expected to have done.
The Chennai-based manufacturer has been visiting the Himalayas for years in some form of riding-related activity or the other. The brand has become synonymous to riding to Leh and on many an occasion has become the topic of humour on that front too (we’ve all heard that one about RE reclaiming the guy’s bike just because he didn’t ride to the mountains within 6 months of purchase). The Himalayan is Royal Enfield’s tribute to the most majestic mountain range in the world and to all those who have time-and-again taken their regular Enfields touring to the north. Instead of following popular practices and making their own production version of customised RE Bullets for the Himalayas though, this time round they’ve gone and developed a whole new machine.
Form follows Function
In many ways the Royal Enfield Himalayan is a paradox but in a good way. It represents all the riding in the Himalayas over the past decades and yet it is a whole new direction for the manufacturer. This is a motorcycle that looks nothing like anything from RE that has come before it – the Thunderbird included. Every bit of metal and plastic on the Himalayan exists with a specific function in mind – if it doesn’t have one, you won’t find it on the bike.
At this point, all those who love age-old British bikes and think that every Royal Enfield ever will be just that can stop reading further – the Himalayan’s new direction is not for you.
Fast motorcycles need to be aerodynamic and that’s why the Suzuki Hayabusa and the Kawasaki ZX-14R are the way they are. The Himalayan needed to be rugged, as exploratory as a mountain goat and yet have the capability to carry loads and loads of luggage. It needed to take a fall without too much damage. It needed to have the capability to allow riders to get right back on the motorcycle after a spill and be able to ride it far. It needed to be short enough for the average Indian height and yet tall enough to have great ground clearance. The design brief was full of paradoxes but it was handled with finesse.
The resultant motorcycle was spied many months ago and then rendered by artists over and over. The results were a little confusing and some didn’t like the way it looked – me included. Like I said – we weren’t prepared for the Himalayan. One look at the motorcycle in the flesh and you realise how capable this machine is going to be. The practicality of it all is overwhelming – this could only be a product from a company that has a leadership which understands motorcycles not by reading about them in books and magazines but by actually going out there and riding them in the conditions they’re meant for. Royal Enfield’s design team needs to go party like never before because the motorcycle they’ve given us is truly extraordinary.
Most regular people stay away from adventure tourers (despite them being extremely practical in daily riding conditions) mainly because they’re too big and bulky – intimidating even. What if I’m too short and my feet don’t reach when they need to? What if I drop it? Then there’s the engine capacity as well – most of these bikes have no less than 800cc which could be a whole lot of power for someone who wants to start off with the business of adventure touring but doesn’t want to be wheel-spinning all the time. Yep, some of these machines come with traction control to avoid just that but then the price tag goes north and the rider goes nowhere. There existed a specific need for a middle-weight tourer that could answer all these questions and yet be light on the pocket. It needed to look the part too and the Himalayan does that extremely well.
This Royal Enfield is comforting to look at – it invites you to hop on and have a go. Once you’re on, it amazes you with how little effort it takes to get used to where all the controls are and how easy it is to ride. The Himalayan is a visual and ergonomic success as well – there has been no other motorcycle I have ever ridden that didn’t give me even a hint of butt pain all the while that I was riding it. It lets you stand up on the foot pegs as naturally as standing up from a chair without feeling like you’re so bent forward that you’ll get thrown off over the handlebars the moment you hit a bump. The fuel tank is large enough to take you to far out places and if that isn’t enough you could attach auxiliary cans on the front frame. Of course you’ve got the provision for hardcase panniers on either side on the rear as well as an additional rack behind the pillion seat. The way I see it, most people who get themselves a Himalayan should go the extra distance and get the luggage attachments too – it’ll be well worth it.
LS 410 & other bits
No, that’s not a code name for anything – it’s what the Himalayan’s brand new engine is called. Royal Enfield’s engines have recently gone through a bit of an evolution all the way from the Cast Iron pieces early on to the Unit Construction but the Long Stroke 410 is all-new. In fact this one’s so new that if you didn’t know which bike it belongs to, you’d never guess it was a Royal Enfield mill. It revs well and there’s no sign of a lazy thump either.
At this stage, all those who buy Royal Enfields just for the lazy thumping that the Bullets are known for can simply stop reading further and carry on with whatever mundane task you were doing in the first place – this bike is not for you.
What you get with the LS 410 single-cylinder mill on the Himalayan is 25PS and 32Nm along with a single OHC, 4-valves and an oil cooler. What you don’t get with the LS 410 on the Himalayan is the elbow-jerking handlebar vibrations or the I-have-a-mind-of-my-own mirrors that either always show blurred reflections or simply turn on their joints to a different angle. The engineers at Royal Enfield have done a great job in coming up with an engine that is not only radically different than what they’ve been making all these years (except for the long stroke bit) but in fact is a huge leap forward in being more technologically acceptable to the modern rider who may not necessarily have bought an RE product before. A lot of that has also got to do with the throaty note emanating from the very slick upswept exhaust pipe on the Himalayan as well.
Then there are the cycle parts – a whole new chassis for a whole new engine which by the way, for the first time in Royal Enfield’s history, get’s an oil cooler. This new type of chassis is called a ‘half duplex double cradle’ frame. If that sounds like Real Estate marketing lingo for a tiny South Bombay apartment with a storage loft and two bunk beds, then we forgive you. In reality though, it simply is one of the best bits on the Himalayan and something we hope we see more of in the future – especially considering that chassis can handle a lot more powertrain than what the LS410 currently is. There’s thick forks on the front and huge brake rotors which are decently effective though in some instances they could do with a little more bite from the ByBre hydraulic system. And then there’s that other ‘first’ for RE that comes in with the Himalayan – monoshock rear suspension. It’s really not about the fact that they’ve finally moved on to this technology that has existed for decades, but about how well it has been designed with all its linkages and spring rates coming to a common consensus with ride quality both on and off road.
All the information you’ll ever need on your rides is pretty much available on the instrument cluster which is a combination of digital and analog dials. It even has a compass though that may be a tad confusing to read at times. The speedo and tacho have been deliberately kept analog to offer quick visual references to the respective readouts when you’re in the middle of a ride and should be spending as little time concentrating on reading things rather than riding the motorcycle. The speedo in fact is marked out in both mph and km/h – another simple detail that can so easily be missed. The reason for doing that – a lot of foreigners travel to India and they get themselves motorcycles to ride around and considering they may be more used to mph for speed measurement, they don’t need to be calculating to convert from km/h anymore.
It’s not every day that a media ride like the one for the Royal Enfield Himalayan happens. Everything about the planned routes was in keeping with showing off the capabilities of the machine that everyone had been waiting eagerly to ride. What was planned though, got heightened more thanks to the weather in Shimla which took a drastic turn just as we started cabbing it out from Chandigarh to reach our destination in the night. It had rained that evening and the hill station was enveloped in a blanket of bone-chilling cold winds. The morning of the next day though started out with the sun shining in all its glory – but the forecast wasn’t looking so good. It was the exact sort of weather that tests a motorcycle as much as it tests the endurance of its rider. And then it got worse.
I was staring down at the map for Route 1 – the one I had chosen to ride the first day. It started off with some tarmac riding in the twisties getting out of the hotel and then the scenery kept changing – there was some serious off-roading to be done and it wasn’t going to be easy – the rain had made the broken rocks on the trail extremely slippery. The next time I’d be seeing the comfort of a warm fire was going to be over 100km later. That was the least of my worries though – I’ve ridden way longer distances at a stretch in the freezing cold before. What I was shaking with fear about was that I had never ridden off-road in my life.
I’m going to spare the details of what happened along the route and how the bike behaved and how great the suspension is and everything that everyone’s been talking about. Instead, I’m just going to say this – if the Royal Enfield Himalayan could make mince-meat out of Route 1 on that cold, rainy day in Shimla with an off-road rookie on-board it, then it definitely has my vote. You see, when experienced guys take the Himalayan out in those conditions, there could be a huge element of their riding skills that influence the achievements of the motorcycle itself. When a self-proclaimed off-road noob comes back from a ride like that without a single spill though, then that’s all motorcycle and zero skill – which makes the Himalayan an even more respectable machine in my mind.
The Royal Enfield Himalayan was quite an experience but it was still an incomplete one. There’s one aspect of the bike that we didn’t get to test out at all and anyone who’s been to Shimla will know why. There are absolutely no open stretches where you can wring the right wrist to the stop and test out what the motorcycle is capable of on the open highway. So until I’ve ridden it in regular touring mode, I will reserve all judgement about the Himalayan’s long-distance capabilities. As far as going up into the mountains and their broken roads and tackling tough trails is concerned, the Himalayan does its job well. Motorcycle riders always want more power and while somewhere around 35PS would have been great from that LS410 mill, the currently available 29PS is compensated for by the 32Nm of torque – which really is what this motorcycle is all about. It’s easy to ride and it’s inviting to ride. I see a whole bunch of buyers who are awed by the Adventure Tourer space going ahead and lapping up the Himalayan. More than the Himalayan being a great motorcycle though is the change to the Royal Enfield brand that it will most likely bring about.
The Himalayan isn’t just a good Royal Enfield – it’s a great motorcycle. It’s truly as modern a machine as any other out there and in that sense it has the potential to make its way into the hearts of many riders – regardless of whether they’ve been Royal Enfield enthusiasts or not. I loved the practicality in its design. I loved the power delivery (in the conditions that we rode it in). I loved the ergonomics. I especially loved the seat – it seems like it’s been stuffed with love and pampering rather than foam. I loved the accessories that go along with the Himalayan. I love that the bike is true to its name and that it’s been very well thought of and tested in the right way.
Then there’s the price tag. Close to Rs 1.75 lakh on-road isn’t really too much money for a motorcycle like the Himalayan. Let’s face it – you’re not paying that amount for just the number of horses it makes (if that’s your argument here) – you’re buying a motorcycle – parts, performance and potential. The argument against the Himalayan’s value for money is like saying Shah Rukh Khan doesn’t deserve his paycheck. But in the end it’s about talent, coz otherwise Shah Rukh has a head, arms, legs, etc just like the rest of us. In fact, bring that paycheck back Shah Rukh, coz you stammer!