MXA RETRO TEST: WE RIDE RICKY CARMICHAEL’S 2004 WORKS HONDA CRF450

We get misty-eyed sometimes thinking about past bikes we loved and those that should remain forgotten. We take you on a trip down memory lane with bike tests that got filed away and disregarded in the MXA archives. We reminisce on a piece of moto history that has been resurrected. Here is the test we did on Ricky Carmichael’s 2004 factory Honda CRF450 in the January 2005 issue of MXA.

It was normal for Ray Conway to leave messages on the MXA hotline. He is, after all, our official, authorized factory Honda contact. If we need parts for our test bikes, a generator for an outdoor photo shoot or new pics of Honda’s corporate jet, Ray is our go-to guy. What was unusual was the tone of Ray’s voice on the message machine. It had a nervous quality that we had never heard before‚ and that was only on his first voicemail. The two after that sounded even more urgent. What was wrong? Why was Ray so desperate to get a hold of us? 

Before you think that we’re a bunch of jerks sitting around listening to Ray Conway’s voicemails but never returning his calls, you should know that it was out of our hands. We were goneall of us. Tim Olson was in Italy in search of the mysterious Aprilia V-twin. Jimmy Mac was in Durango riding his mountain bike. Jody was surfing at some distant Shangri-La, and the Basher boys were off in fashion la-la land.

WE WERE GONE—ALL OF US: TIM IN ITALY, SEARCHING FOR THE APRILIA V-TWIN; JIMMY MAC IN DURANGO RIDING HIS MOUNTAIN BIKE; JODY SURFING AT SOME DISTANT SHANGRI-LA; AND THE BASHER BOYS OFF IN FASHION LAND.

MXA has ridden all of RC’s race bikes, even as far back as his KX85 days, and we’ve rarely enjoyed his setup. But the 2004 Honda CRF450 was different.

You’re probably wondering if we’ve ever heard of cell phones. We have, but Jody won’t answer his, and Tim’s service didn’t work in Italy; as for Jimmy, Mike and John, their lines are always busy. So, it wasn’t until Tim landed at the Bradley Terminal at LAX that anyone at MXA retrieved Ray’s message. Unfortunately, Ray didn’t leave his cell phone number on any of his messages. Tim started calling Jody’s, Jimmy’s and the Bashers’ cell phone numbers‚ but, of course, none of them answered. Finally, he called Dave Chase at Pro Circuit. Dave came to the rescue with Conway’s digits.

“Ray, what’s up?” said Tim.

“Where have you been? I’ve been calling you. Remember when you asked me about riding Ricky Carmichael’s CRF450?” asked Ray.

“Sure, but that’ll never happen now that he’s at Suzuki,” answered Tim.

“That’s why I’ve been trying to reach you guys,” said Ray.

“Please don’t tell me we missed the chance to test it,” pleaded Tim.

“Almost. We are going to let the MXA wrecking crew ride it, but it has to be tomorrow, because the bike is being crated to be sent to the Honda museum the next day,” said Ray.

“You’ve got to be kidding me. We’ll sleep in the parking lot!”

It was back in May at Mt. Morris that we had asked Ray Conway about testing Ricky Carmichael’s CRF450. Back then, it was a shot in the dark. We never thought it would actually happen. Then, after the announcement of RC switching to Suzuki and his second perfect season, we had crossed it off our list of possibilities. Thank goodness Ray hadn’t forgotten.

AFTER THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF RC SWITCHING TO SUZUKI AND HIS SECOND PERFECT SEASON, WE HAD CROSSED IT OFF OUR LIST OF POSSIBILITIES. THANK GOODNESS, RAY HADN’T FORGOTTEN.

Ricky’s magnesium carburetor.

We couldn’t gather every MXA test rider from the far corners of the earth in time, so only the lucky few got the call. As we pulled into the I-5 track’s parking lot, there sat Carmichael’s bike, and flanking it were team manager Erik Kehoe, Windham’s old mechanic Jonathon Hyland and, our savior, Ray Conway.

(1) Head angle. Honda wouldn’t allow us to shoot the bike without the bars being turned one way or the other. It may not be common knowledge, but competitors have been known to take bike photos, blow them up to life size and measure the frame angles.

(2) Weight. The bike is light. We’re not talking a few pounds lighter than the stock 232 pounds, but more like 218 pounds without gas. That’s only 2 pounds over the AMA limit.

Ricky ran a steering stabilizer before Honda put it into production.

(3) Steering damper. While Kevin Windham ditched the secret Showa steering damper after the 2004 Supercross series, Carmichael ran it throughout the AMA Nationals. Even though everybody knows about the damper, Honda still wouldn’t pull off the front number plate to allow an unobstructed view of it.

(4) Setup. We’ve ridden almost all of RC’s bikes, even as far back as his KX85 days, and we’ve rarely enjoyed his setup. Luckily, Carmichael has finally ditched his funky low-rider handlebar position. The handlebars themselves are positioned parallel to the forks. The only unusual setup is that Carmichael’s bar mounts are positioned really far back in the clamps.

(5) Stoppers. Carmichael’s front brake was mushy. No, his mechanic doesn’t need to bleed the system. Honda has works front brake levers with different leverage ratios. Carmichael’s choice is what Team Honda calls the #15 front brake lever.

(6) Height. The bike is low. Really low. To accomplish this, Honda cuts the subframe and shaves some foam out of the seat.

The first MXA test rider to ride Ricky’s CRF450 was a genius. Ricky runs his clutch lever at a very old-school, downward angle. Way down! But, Honda didn’t want us to touch anything on the bike. We had to ride it just the way it was when Ricky rolled it off the track at the final National at Glen Helen (after all, it was headed to a museum). All was well and good, but we couldn’t adapt to the lever position, so, somewhere on the back of the track, the lever accidentally got knocked into a position that was more natural. By the time the bike came back into view on the first lap, all was right with the world. Unfortunately, the front brake lever was not mounted on a nylon bushing like the clutch lever, and the test rider bruised his palm banging on it.

IT’S NOT A HIGH-RPM, EARSPLITTING SHRIEKER. NO WAY. IT’S A TORQUE MONSTER. IT IS BEST RIDDEN AT LOW RPM IN THE MEAT OF THE TORQUE CURVE. NO RUSH, JUST GRUNT AND GO.

What was the power like on RC’s CRF? Unbelievable. That’s the only word that can describe the power that churns out of Carmichael’s CRF450. Don’t get us wrong. It’s not a high-rpm, earsplitting shrieker. No way. It’s a torque monster. It is best ridden at low rpm in the meat of the torque curve. No rush, just grunt and go. With this much torque at your disposal, it’s almost like you have a direct connection between the ground, your rear wheel and the throttle. Obstacles aren’t a problem unless you have throttle control issues, and then you’ll end up over-jumping everything.

All that torque is mated to a works transmission that has almost perfect spacing between gears. Shifting wasn’t just easy, it was second nature. We found ourselves shifting out of corners early and using torque rather than the rev limiter to get the CRF450 to the next corner.

The powerplant of this factory CRF450 was unbelievable. It was a torque monster that could be ridden in a gear higher.

A great engine would be useless without good suspension. Carmichael’s CRF450 has great suspension. It wasn’t always like that. We know from experience. Ricky was infamous for his off-the-wall suspension setup. When we tested Ricky’s Supercross-winning CR250 in 2003, we couldn’t believe that he could win anything on a bike that hung down in the rear and didn’t move unless a nuclear bomb went off under the rear wheel. That all changed after Chad Reed started beating him during the latter rounds of the 2003 Supercross series. Honda showed Ricky videotapes of his bike and Reed’s YZ going through the same sections. It was then that Ricky realized that he needed to let the Honda suspension technicians change his settings. 

The end result is suspension that is truly amazing. Carmichael’s front forks are the best forks we’ve ever ridden (and we have ridden lots of works bikes). They absorbed every bump: small, large and square-edged. They didn’t deflect or bottom, and they tracked the ground like they were attached to it with Velcro. RC’s rear suspension was just as good as the front, even though every MXA test rider carries considerably more weight than Ricky.

As you would expect, all the controls were works units—all of them: the clutch perch, front brake, shifter, footpegs and rear brake. The only control that even resembles the stock part is the throttle, and it’s seriously massaged.

You want to know the best thing about Ricky Carmichael’s works bike? It inspires confidence. Within a couple of laps, every test rider was entering corners faster than he ever had. The test riders were jumping jumps they wouldn’t have even considered on their own bikes. They were getting on the throttle harder than they ever dreamed and keeping it on longer down the straights.

You want to know the worst part about Ricky Carmichael’s works bike? All that confidence disappears as soon as Team Honda takes the bike away from you, puts it in a crate and ships it to Japan.

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