Heimfahrt (Coming home): Motorrad Classic article 04/2020

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For all the non-German speakers: here is the English translation of the text:

Of course, three decades connect, and the man would never give up his half-litre bike. Nevertheless, nobody thinks that Robert Koeber decided out of gratitude to make the pilgrimage to Kumamoto with an XBR 500. Across Russia to the Japanese Sea, then ferry, finally photo in front of the Honda plant. No, this Bavarian does so many crazy things with his motorcycles that the Honda shouldn’t think too much about it. Perhaps its origins were just an excuse to finally go to Vladivostok by land – and then across the Japanese Sea. After all Koeber has, among other things, an old Honda Pan European and a posh BMW K 1600 GT and acknowledges with a smile: “If I want to arrive somewhere for sure, I’ll take the XBR.”

So it is in his good books? Even before the Far East trip, this judgment was based on well over 350,000 kilometers together. Correctly read. 350,000 kilometers, collected on countless alpine tours, extensive trips through nearby and distant countries. The old lady had even traveled to North America, but more about that later.

So Japan then. The idea had been conceived while studying a world map many years ago, but had to wait for various reasons, until it finally materialised in spring 2019. One of the bureaucratic monsters that unfortunately affects any long-distance trip was that Japan does not allow motor vehicles registered in Germany on its roads. But it does accept them from Belgium, and that’s a solution, because Robert now lives and works there, and so he sacrificed his 32-year-old number plate. Otherwise, he trusted the tried-and-tested set-up, to say: a fully standard engine, but ventilated by a new Mikuni flat slide carburettor, a standard fork, Ikon struts and a massively reinforced frame. Not to forget the taller handlebar of a Honda Bol d’Or and the lush day-long seat, a part custom-made by the US specialist Russell that even takes into account seating position, size and weight.

When he leaves on May 30th, Robert is not alone. As planned three years earlier, the Englishman John Young, an old hand on an almost as old Triumph Trident, accompanied him. The men know each other, are friends. “Otherwise you can’t do that, trust is important.” The planned trip is ambitious, 17 days should suffice to get to Vladivostok. But John has to admit that this tight travel plan overwhelms the Triumph as well as himself at this point, and trust pays off even in such hardships. He doesn’t need to spend a lot of time to explain himself, he just quits in Moscow, amicably. Until then, crossing the border into Russia had been the greatest adventure. Waiting over twelve hours with a growing fear of possibly not being able to cross. The road conditions east of Moscow would soon be entertaining.

The XBR knows that. Syria, Namibia and Malawi are not exactly known for consistently smooth asphalt. These and many other countries in the Middle East, Europe and Africa have taught Robert that long-distance travel does not require a large enduro. “But a light, frugal motorcycle.” A simple system, the monitoring of which has became second nature, the mechanical sounds that are as familiar as your own breath. Actually a matter of course since motorcyclists have gone on long journeys, unfortunately this has been somewhat forgotten, because electronic assistance systems nowadays promise comfort. Until the first fall, when the whole cart goes on strike just because it has lost a turn signal.

Can’t happen with the XBR. But it also needs tyres, and because of the tight schedule and the expected thin workshop network, Robert drags two complete wheels through Siberia. He carries spark plugs, hand levers, clutch cable, speedometer cable, brake pads, ignition coil and CDI box on spare parts; He can leave the rocker arm and camshaft at home: Because the valve stem seals had to be replaced shortly before the start, he has a clear view of the condition of the cylinder head. If anything, the XBR engine can cause grief in the sophisticated control of its radially arranged four valves. Most likely a rocker arm or the camshaft itself. But not with this engine …

And anyway: Even with the rocker arm completely ground away, this XBR has already brought him home. He has never ever broke down with it since 1987. It was a used vehicle, two years old, just a few kilometers. The student Koeber had still enjoyed the test ride with a nominal 44 HP, but as he only had the small license, the power had to be reduced at first. Little by little the money borrowed from the father was paid back. The XBR fits. It also fits while studying chemistry, because nothing ever really broke, the Bavarian-born was able to spend the little money he had left in the Alps. He finishes the first 100,000 km five years after the purchase, and needed another seven for the second.

When Robert reached Lake Baikal on June 9, 2019, the speedometer of his XBR was almost four times around. The two of them pull off between 700 and 800 kilometers a day and are fully on schedule. The system works, in the evening the XBR gets around 0.2 liters of oil; when the road is smooth, it is allowed to run at a good 110 km/h and feels extremely comfortable. Only the carburettor that overflows from time to time is a bit worrying. And sometimes the construction site density or long deep gravel sections. They can mess up the average quite a bit, then it will take longer to the planned hotel – and writing the blog. “Actually, I’ve always written a travel diary,” reveals Robert, but this time he takes it very seriously and reports on the latest news. Maybe because so many – “Often over 700!” – are following his trip?

In Vladivostok, horse and rider take a short break, the ferry via South Korea to Japan only leaves in three days. Time enough to take care of the good Honda and mount her spare wheels. So it would not have been necessary to drag them along, because there are plenty of workshops in Japan.

„Well, not really.“ The experienced long-distance traveler has to smile. “Just because you don’t need a part on a trip, you can’t leave it at home. Spare parts work like insurance. “Okay, we understand. This time Robert needed insurance against broken speedometer cables somewhere behind Krasnoyarsk, which he booked with the wheels under necessary expenses. And he tells his followers right away that the old Comstar wheels, including the worn tyres, have landed in a scrap yard in Vladivostok.

He no longer needs them. In addition to its Japan-XBR, there is still an almost new one with only 3000 kilometers, another with a really brisk 600 engine and lots of parts. Once it became clear that this Honda belonged to him, Robert struck time and again. And so there were always good engines that he only had to install. His number one XBR is currently running, blubb-blubb-blubb, with engine number six. “The engines never went, but the new ones just ran better.” And he immediately added that a good buddy had made over 155,000 kilometers with the first engine.

In Japan, he has to discover that the bikers there pay more attention to Yamaha’s SR than his beloved Honda. No problem, he dived into the breathless collection of cultural and historical impressions anyway, experiencing enchanted landscapes, Japanese warmth and perfection, enjoying wonderful food. “A fabulous travel destination full of polite people.” In between, he still pursues the goal of his trip: The XBR 500 is supposed to see its place of birth, the large Honda plant in Kumamoto. Robert would love to visit the factory and did some research on the way. This is theoretically possible, but requires a written application months in advance. In Japanese. His attempts to arrange something via Honda Germany had resulted in deep frustration with the Offenbachers. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers on site remain unaffected by his history and long journey, and so he glances to the factory just as wistfully as the XBR. No entry.

This journey took a full 40 days, and since October the Honda is back in Belgium. Mileage: 384,000 km. A brand new engine is stored next to her parking lot in Robert’s garage. So the story will continue, of course, and preferably again to North America. To the Iron Butt Rally. No, to THE Iron Butt Rally. Robert already contested in such a scavenger hunt with his XBR in 2002 and was immediately enthusiastic. Planning, discipline, perseverance – everything made for him. The old guys will remember that the legendary Scout trophy once fascinated many leather butts in Germany. Iron Butt works in a similar way: Between some more or less distant waypoints, there are destinations whose documented visit brings more or fewer points.

The mother of all Iron Butt rallies is held in the United States and lasts eleven days. You have to be invited to it. Because Robert and his XBR already were successful in Europe, they were allowed to start in 2013 in the hopeless class. If you want to win, drive Pan European, Gold Wing or Yamaha FJR. Robert just wanted to get there at the finish, be a finisher, and he gave it all: changing tyres had taken him many hours, finally he could leave Pittsburgh. He paused at the Mississippi, and at some point he looked for a hotel. There was none. When one popped up, he was wide awake and continued. A storm kept him awake in Wyoming; when he got off his day long seat in Salt Lake City, he had rode 3500 kilometers in one go. He arrived at finish without being an official finisher due to a lack of sufficient points, because at some point the transmission went on strike and only knew third gear. On his XBR! On THIS XBR. When it was over, all the gears came back little by little. Nevertheless or precisely because: the XBR owns him one.

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