Honda CRF Rally. Perfect for a little adventure.

Three years ago Honda brought a curious addition to the rapidly growing adventure bike sector when they launched a modified version of their venerable CRF 250 trail bike and christened it the ‘Rally’. I’m ashamed to admit I dismissed the bike at the time as a mere styling exercise intended to woo newly qualified riders into purchasing a small capacity, faux adventure bike, rather like the rash of quarter litre cruisers which appeared on the market some time ago designed to appeal to potential future Harley owners.

However, during the past 18 months a number of AdventureRide customers have bought themselves a Rally and without exception these riders are highly experienced motorcyclists who know their stuff. One of them is my old chum Gary who, as well as being am expert rider, is also something of a dirt bike connoisseur and in the past has loaned me a number of interesting bikes to test including his Fantic Caballero and the classic Kawasaki KDX featured in previous blogs.

Gaz always carries out meticulous research before buying a bike and his enthusiasm for his latest purchase piqued my curiosity to see the bike and last week he was kind enough to let me try it for a day. A pleasant burble from the engine announced Gaz’s arrival on the CRF as he pulled up the steep drive to AdventureRide HQ, the fruitier-than-standard exhaust note being down to a Honda-approved Yoshimura system which not only sounds good but also knocks a bit of weight off the CRF’s slightly corpulent 157kg. Yoshimura claim a 2.8% boost in power from their exhaust plus an improved bottom end and mid range response and its a popular accessory for Rally owners.

The Rally’s attractive styling is cribbed from Honda’s successful 450cc Dakar bike with Gary’s bike being in the optional black metallic instead of the more common red colour scheme. The asymmetric headlight, neat, all-enveloping bodywork and belly pan plus a GS-style front ‘beak’ might suggest a quick cosmetic makeover but beneath the skin Honda’s design team have put a lot of thought into the Rally. A close inspection of the spec sheet compared to the standard CRF 250L reveals a marginally longer wheelbase, better brakes, larger tank, increased suspension travel and a couple of extra horses liberated through a more efficient header.

After handing me the key to the CRF, Gaz jumped on an AdventureRide Pampera and followed me off towards the Long Mynd. Having ridden CRFs in the past I’m familiar with their performance and whilst they’ll never set your pants on fire, they’re more than adequate for hustling along quiet back lanes. Out on the open road the sophisticated little four stroke motor hums along quite happily until it starts to run out of puff above 7000 rpm but to be honest, the bike is more comfortable being short-shifted and wafted along in an unhurried fashion. The Rally has an impressively flexible motor and can tolerate a very low speed in third gear without displaying any unpleasant snatch or grumpiness. To accomplish this I assumed it must have a low compression motor but no, the four valve, twin cam, fuel-injected single has a peppy 10.7:1 ratio and so top marks to Honda for impeccable fuelling and a faultless transmission.

With just 250cc and 157kg ( plus a winter-clad rider) to haul along the CRF accumulates speed in a smooth, unhurried way. This is not a criticism and the relaxed power delivery and typical Honda user-friendliness means this is a bike which endears itself to the rider over a long riding day. It also makes the bike very manageable on the trails. I know this from experience having ridden standard CRFs trail riding with my chum Nick Tunstill at Nick’s Spanish trail riding centre, something I covered in a previous blog* (see link below). CRF’s disguise their weight well and although the overall spec may look uninspiring on paper, the whole package is so cohesive and well thought out the riding experience exceeds expectations.

Travelling in a straight line on the open road I noticed an occasional requirement to make minor steering corrections to correct a barely noticeable weave. I’d normally suspect over-tight headstock bearings but we’re talking about a brand new Honda here so I think we can safely eliminate the possibility of sloppy assembly. Possibly it may have been caused by the windshield. Honda refer to the Rally as having as a fully floating screen but I can’t for the life of me find any reference on the web as to what they actually mean by that. The steering issue only manifested itself on a couple of occasions and it might just have been gusts of wind buffeting the screen which deflected the bike off course. No big deal but I thought I’d mention it. Standard CRFs don’t have this characteristic so it could well be down to screen /fairing combination.

The revised longer travel suspension on the Rally is particularly worthy of comment, it works superbly on pot-holed back roads and is impressively plush on rough trails. For a sub £6000 bike the Rally’s ride quality really is exceptionally good. Standard tyres are so-called 50/50 road and trail items and are predictably awful once you get off the tarmac. I’ve no idea why tyre manufacturers seek to perpetuate the myth of tyres which are supposedly 50/50 or even more absurdly 80/20 road and trail use. Off road, these allegedly dual purpose tyres are utterly useless except on bone dry, hard-packed fire roads. Good luck finding any routes like that in the UK.

A pair of Pirelli MT43s or similar would fit the character of the Rally perfectly: being trials tyres they’re not particularly brilliant in deep mud but they’re outstanding on wet rocks and gravel and work really well on the road. To further bolster the Rally’s off road capability you could fit a more aggressive enduro style tyre to the Rally but then you might also ask yourself why you chose the bike in the first place.

Speaking of off road capability Gaz’s CRF has switchable ABS, I didn’t notice it on the road which is exactly how a decent ABS system should behave. ABS can also be a liability on loose terrain because it hobbles the rider’s ability to do cadence braking. Unfortunately the Honda system can’t be switched off on the fly and there’s always a possibility you could be negotiating a steep, gravelly descent and suddenly discover you’ve forgotten to disable the ABS system. If you know you’re headed for the trails I’d suggest disabling the ABS setting off.

Of late, I’m seeing a trend amongst motorcyclists (as distinct from trail riders) to look beyond the normal conventions of road riding and seek out something different. The traditional Sunday morning ‘A’ road blast is becoming less attractive due to increasing speed restrictions and the volume of traffic. Big adventure bikes fill a certain niche and excel at long trips but there’s no getting away from the fact they’re often bulky, heavy and if you’re not crossing continents you can feel a little bit over-dressed riding around on one.

The CRF is 100kgs lighter than most Adventure bikes and physically much smaller. This makes it far more manageable if your own typical overland adventure is more like a 150 mile jaunt around Mid Wales or the North Yorkshire moors taking in a few byways and unclassified county roads along the way. For this type of use the CRF is a very fine bike indeed, my only observation being that the bike is almost too balanced as an all rounder and I wish it excelled more in one of its roles: perhaps be a bit more nimble off road or a little brisker on the tarmac. From a technical point of view it would be difficult to improve it’s off road capability without undergoing an expensive weight reduction programme but perhaps in the future Honda might do a 350cc version or similar to improve its tarmac performance.

Honda’s marketing claims the CRF Rally will take you “Around the world or around the block”. For the time being the company have carved out an interesting niche within a niche for themselves but I suspect it won’t be long before we see other manufacturers following suit into the quarter-litre adventure bike market.

As always, a big thank you to Gaz for the loan of the bike.

* see: https://adventurerideblog.wordpress.com/2019/10/14/busmans-holiday-catalan-adventure

Busman’s Holiday- Catalan Adventure

catalan vista

Two CRFs overlooking the Serra de Cavalls

During the forty five years I’ve been riding bikes many of my favourite motorcycling memories seem to involve riding small capacity bikes around the sunnier parts of Europe. This week I’ve returned from Barcelona having spent two fantastic days riding in the mountains north of Barcelona with my pal Nick Tunstill from the trail riding specialists Catalan Adventure and it’s been a riding experience which is right up there with the best of them.

My first contact with Nick came after writing a short series of articles about UK trail riding for his magazine South East Biker (SEB). Nick’s mag is a lively, independent periodical which enjoys a loyal following amongst bikers in London and the south east. After I’d written the articles, Nick travelled up to Shropshire with his son Josh to explore the Welsh Marches with AdventureRide. Not so long after we had our ride Nick sold up in London, relocated to Spain and established a trail riding, equestrian and holiday accommodation business about two hours from Barcelona. I don’t claim any responsibility or credit for Nick’s radical lifestyle change but I’d like to think his day out in Shropshire might have helped sow the seed.

Catalan landscape

View from the Monument a la Pau across the Serra de Pandols

Nick contacted me earlier this year to suggest I come over and sample trail riding Catalan-style and so it came to be that myself and two riding buddies John and Dave, landed at Barcelona airport, picked up a hire car and and drove out to Nick’s operation just outside the town of Mora d’ Ebre. Nick’s house is off the beaten track and so he kindly met us at the local supermarket to show us the way back to his finca, a comfortable three bedroom apartment situated about 100 metres from his house.

The following morning Nick handed over three Honda CRF 250s and after a short briefing, John, Dave and myself and were following Nick as he threaded his way through the maze of tracks which network the surrounding area. The terrain around Mora is within the Terres de l’Ebre region (Lands of the Ebre) and is perfect trail riding country. It’s a wide, flat river valley surrounded by forests and mountains with what seems like endless trails leading off in all directions. Climbing steeply through a wooded area we emerged into a clearing high on a ridge dominated by the ancient chapel of Santa Magdalena, a one time refuge for hermits. From here we could see the expanse of the surrounding mountains and it was obvious we were going to be in for a spectacular couple of days riding.

Ruta de les Valls

Dave, Nick and John stop for a quick breather at the junction of the Ruta de les Valls

The area is steeped in Catalan history and was a key strategic location during the Spanish Civil War, most notably a battle in 1938 subsequently known as the Battle of the River Ebro which became pivotal in General Franco establishing himself in Madrid as a dictator who went on to rule Spain until his death in 1975. Judging by the amount of flags supporting Catalan independence which were flying from many properties throughout the region it’s clear many of the locals are still engaged in political strife with Madrid.

Group windmills

The second day of riding was even more impressive and Nick led us up a series of a vertiginous mountain passes into the Serra de Cavalls, a mountain range with amazing views across the surrounding country. On one particularly high trail I noticed a swirling group of Egyptian Vultures circling just off to our right and at a similar elevation to us, not something you normally see from the saddle of a motorcycle!

For those riders familiar with UK trail riding, Spain offers a very different experience. For a start there are no gates, the trails are much longer than we are used to and fuel stops are far and few between. There is also a lack of rain and therefore mud. Choice of bike in this inhospitable terrain is important and reliability is key, bear in mind you can be a long way from civilisation should a problem occur. Nick has wisely chosen to use Honda’s CRF 250 as his weapon of choice: their frugal fuel consumption coupled with excellent all round ability makes them perfect for the Spanish mountains where a couple of hours on the trail might then be punctuated by a brisk 15 mile stretch on tarmac with scant prospect of passing a petrol station. The CRF excels at this kind of stuff where its soft nature combined with an ability to cruise at 60mph makes it an ideal tool for the job. They’re a bit heavier than some other trail bikes in this class but in this type of terrain it makes little difference. It’s all-round user-friendliness which matters and this is something Honda excel at.

a viewpoint

The trails themselves are invariably wide, hard-packed and easy to negotiate, making Nick’s routes very suitable for newbies. We often encountered loose stones and gravel which at times felt like riding on marbles but this shouldn’t present a problem for prudent riders so long as caution is exercised, especially on elevated sections of the trails. However, enthusiastic riders would be well advised to take care on on some of the tight mountain hairpins because it can be a long way down if you get it wrong!

Overall the trails are great fun to ride and off-road novices with a sensible disposition need have no fears, none of the trails we rode on were technically challenging which is just as well because in such spectacular scenery it’s good to be able to take your eyes off the road and enjoy the view. Nick is an excellent guide and has amassed an impressive catalogue of local trails plus an excellent grasp of the history of the area and his commentary adds an interesting dimension to the rides. The area has a great deal to offer in terms of outdoor pursuits, history and culture. If you’re looking for a motorcycling holiday with an element of adventure and which won’t cost the earth I’m sure Nick will organise something suitable for you. Contact him at http://www.catalanadventure.com

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Montesa 4 Ride. Small but perfectly formed.

The Cota based 4Ride is a Honda Montesa collaboration which can trace its roots back to the Cota 4RT introduced in 2005. The 4RT followed on from the earlier success of the 315R which had been so successful in the hands of Dougie Lampkin . The Montesa Honda connection goes back to the 1980s when Honda bought shares in Montesa in an effort to use the Spanish firm to establish a manufacturing base for their commuter models to help Honda bypass EU import tariffs.

Montesa stiperstones

The 4 Ride in its natural habitat.

The 4 Ride is Montesa’s take on what is a newly emerging sector of the dirt bike market. It’s such an arcane and sparsely populated sector it doesn’t even have a name and so I’ll give it one: let’s call it the extreme play bike market or EPB for short. EPBs are trials bike based machines which have been modified to provide somewhere to sit and given an increase in fuel capacity. The result are bikes which can climb trees and rocks almost as well as their pure bred siblings but have enough range and comfort to enable the rider to explore a (little) bit further afield. The concept was created by Gas Gas (another Spanish firm) who introduced the TXT trials based Pampera 320 MK1 in 1998. Other examples of EPBs would be Ossas ill fated 280i Explorer, Scorpa’s 250 Long Ride and, to a lesser extent Sherco’s excellent 290 X Ride.

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The grandaddy of them all. Gas Gas Pampera 320 MK1, the original EPB.

My mate John Strange very generously let me have a test on his brand new bike, I’d like to say John tossed me the keys and said enjoy yourself but the Montesa doesn’t actually have a key, and therein lies the first clue to its competition bike heritage. The other clue is the weight: at 81kg the Montesa simply has to be based on a trials bike because nothing else in this sector could even come near. These close links with its trials bike sibling are a double edged sword for the Cota for they are the key to its outstanding off road ability but also the reason for its limitations in other areas.

The 4 Ride is amazingly light for a road legal four stroke 250 but looking around the bike it’s hard to detect how Montesa have kept the weight so low. The axles, including the swing arm appear to be solid rather than hollow and the fasteners don’t appear to be anything exotic. Beautiful yes, but exotic, no. I can only assume there are some fairly tricky alloys being used for some of the bike’s construction and I’m guessing there’s some clever stuff in the motor. Sochiro Honda was a metallurgist by trade and his technical legacy lives on in Honda’s designs today. It’s worth noting the motor only has five gears, which would help keep the weight down a bit, and has no battery or electric foot, which would help a lot.

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A masterpiece of packaging and all beautifully put together.

Climbing aboard, the 4 Ride felt tall and narrow. It’s a masterpiece of packaging, with all the bits harmonised into one ultra compact, homogenous mass. It fired up very easily on the kickstart and I set off eagerly down our lane in search of some trails to get a feel for the bike. Predictably it went through the gears very quickly and by the time I hit 45 mph in top the motor was already sounding quite busy. Honda have retained the Cota’s close ratio trials ‘box with the exception of top gear, which is taller in order make it a bit easier on the road. Gear ratios on EPBs is a bugbear with me: when building these bikes the manufacturers invariably keep the original trials ratios but the downside is it makes road work tedious because you rarely have the right gear for a given corner. Gas Gas bless ’em designed a completely fresh set of ratios for the Pampera and inserted them in the TXT motor which is one of the reasons the Pampera is such a great all rounder. If you’re making a trail bike, this is the proper way to do it. If you’re not going to be doing significant road miles then the 4Ride’s close ratio ‘box probably won’t bug you but harking back to my experiences with Ossa’s Explorer I found the close ratio ‘box spoiled the bike for long distance trail rides.

Montesa clock and breather detail

The bike is ultra short with a riding position optimised for standing on the pegs and the abbreviated, elevated gear lever tucked up out of harms way once again shows its competition bias, along with the aforementioned short gearing.  I’d be happier if the 4Ride had another 10mph available for cruising and for the type of trails we have around here raising the gearing to achieve this wouldn’t do any harm.

Earlier in the day when we were out riding together John’s bike ran out of fuel at a point where the two accompanying Pamperas still had a good forty miles range. OK, the Pamps are equipped with Acerbis auxiliary tanks but it still makes me think Montesa have been a tad over zealous on keeping everything pared right down to save weight. Let’s face it,  if you’ve always got to carry a couple of kilos of spare fuel around with you the obsessive weight saving becomes a bit of a flawed concept. Somehow John had managed to fit a 1500cc container of fuel under the seat. I don’t know of any other dirt bike which could accomodate such a large object under the seat and it makes you wonder why the factory didn’t just fit a bigger tank to start with. I think 7 litres fuel capacity is an absolute minumum on a trail bike and preferably it should be 9 or 10 litres.

The engine is a peach but given Honda’s pedigree in this area I’d have been surprised if it wasn’t. Smooth and torquey with bags of instantly available grunt. No issues here.

Montesa gear lever

Chunky little gear lever gives away the Montesa’s competition credentials.

The 4Ride is not a comfortable bike for a long trail ride although I suspect John might disagree – he rides a Harley Bobber with the thinnest seat I’ve ever seen and so he likened the Montesa’s seat to being in a big comfy arm chair. Very few dirt bikes have comfy perches nowadays but the Honda is definitely at the less comfy end of the spectrum along with all the other EPBs.

Montesa sump guard and horn

This was the only bit of daft design I could find anywhereon the bike. I’ll give that horn a life expectancy of about 3 months.

So, would I recommend the 4 Ride? Well, yes and no: it all depends on what you want to do with it. The Montesa is very focused and extremely capable, so much so very few owners would be able to exploit the limitations of its agility, I know I certainly couldn’t. It would make a fantastic LDT (long distance trials) bike but anybody who fancies competing on one in the UK should acquaint themselves with the ACU regs because I suspect the bike is a tad short for the trail bike class. I seem to recall the ACU insist a trail bike should have a wheelbase of at least 1350 mm, the Montesa is 1333mm and therefore you’d be lumped in with pukka trials irons rather than the trail bikes. Same goes for the tank, the ACU insist on a 5 litre capacity and the Montesa falls short at 4.4. This lack of compliance with ACU regs is one of the reasons I used the word ‘play’ in my terminology. It’s too bulky for pure trials and not really comfy enough to do something like the Land’s End or Edinburgh Trials on therefore it has to be classed as play bike.

Montesa spokes

Tricky spoke arrangement for tubeless tyres.

If you’re bag is riding tight technical trails simply for the hell of it then the 4 Ride is going to make you very happy, it will romp up tricky single track and make light work of rocks, boulders, in fact just about any hazard you care to tackle and make you look like Dougie Lampkin in the process. My caveat to prospective owners would be this: remember that in the UK this type of really challenging terrain is far and few between and you rarely come across it during a typical day’s trail riding. On fast open trails the bikes short wheelbase would make it very choppy to ride and after a few hours this could get tedious. If long days in the saddle isn’t really your thing and you’d prefer to practice riding skills in your local quarry or know a friendly farmer with a bit of woodland to play in then the 4Ride will be in its element. The build quality and exquisite design details mean it will also provide a lot of pleasure of ownership and I must confess I’d quite like to have one in my garage for those days when I just want to go out and have a plonk around, particularly in the winter when the going gets tough.

Honda’s advertising strapline for the 4 Ride is ‘Venture out and beyond your comfort zone’. I’m sure they’re referring to the type of terrain it will cover but they could just as well be referring to the rock hard seat and the 45 mile fuel range!  If however, you’ve already made your mind up you can live with the 4Ride’s compromises I think you’ll probably love it…

Capacity 259cc

Weight 81 kg

Seat height 885 mm

Engine; SOHC 4 valve

Compression 10.5 :1

Fuel capacity 4.4 litres

PGM fuel injection

5 speed

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KAWASAKI KDX 200 on test.

Kawasaki’s KDX 200 is like the Cliff Richard of trail bikes… it’s been around for years but never seems to grow old. From the year of its launch in 1980 the KDX trail/enduro bike was a big hit with customers. Initially it wasn’t a 200 at all, it was a 175 which in turn was based on Kawasaki’s 125cc air cooled moto crosser- the KDX 125. The bike I’m testing here is a 1990 KDX ‘E’ – a model which was launched 12 months earlier following a major update by Kawasaki, the most significant upgrade being the introduction of water cooling.

KDX

Handsome, compact and light. Kawasaki’s KDX 200 was way ahead of its time and a nice tidy one like this won’t disgrace itself in more modern company.

Many hard core KDX enthusiasts prefer the earlier models to these later water-cooled versions. Personally I’ve got no prior history with any of the KDX models and therefore have no axe to grind, I remember them back in the day and my general impression was they were similar in concept to Suzuki’s legendary PE175 Suzuki – a tough reliable trail bike which would also double as a credible enduro tool for clubmen.

This particular bike belongs to my mate Gary (who kindly provided the Fantic featured in the previous test). It’s low mileage Japanese market grey import supplied by DK in Stoke-on-Trent and Gary has slowly recommissioned it during the past 18 months. For our test we took it up to the Kerry Ridgeway on the Welsh border to a section of the trail which contains some wide open flowing sections with a bit of nadgery, rutted technical stuff thrown in for good measure. There were also some deserted tarmac lanes on which to assess its road manners. In other words, fairly typical UK trail riding terrain.

Kawasaki quote a 910mm seat height but on this bike the seat has been modified to lower it. Once settled on its suspension the KDX felt perfectly manageable and I’m sure I’d have been equally happy with a standard seat. It fired up first prod and was soon burbling nicely through its after market pipe ( the only deviation from standard spec). Back in the day Kawasaki claimed a dry weight of 102 kg for the KDX, commendably light for its class and only 1kg heavier than the air cooled bike. To me, it felt a bit heavier but I didn’t have the opportunity to weigh it and check. It certainly isn’t a porker and if you’re thinking about buying one I don’t think you’d be disappointed by the weight.

Sidestand

Never mind the quality feel the width. This is what a sidestand on a trail bike should look like.

Pulling away it felt perky and responsive with bags of midrange and good low end manners, with these characteristics it’s no wonder these were such a hit with clubmen back in the day. On the trails it behaved impeccably, plonking along readily in the intermediate gears. Kawasaki introduced a heavier crank on the KDX ‘E’ and this seems to work very really indeed making the bike really tractable and smooth – perfect for trail riding.

brake light

I love this. This is how Kawasaki’s engineers decided to get around the problem of routing the brake light switch pull around the kick start shaft . I can’t make my mind up whether its lateral-thinking genius or unecessary over-complication.

Having given the bike a good workout on the trails I decided to head off on along some tarmac to see what it felt like at cruising speeds. Out on the open road it seemed reluctant to get up on the pipe and pull wide open throttle. The after market pipe is an FM Powercore unit which is known to work well with these models therefore we can eliminate that from the inquiries. The bike hadn’t been ridden for many years and so it might just need a good old Italian tune up, ie a ten mile blast along a dual carriageway to clear its throat. The motor was very quiet and ran perfectly well in the mid range which makes me confident it was nothing serious, it might just be a sticking valve in the Kawasaki Integrated Powervalve System (KIPS for short). The KIPS is worthy of a mention, it’s a clever arrangement designed to maximise torque and controls the exhaust port whilst simultaneously altering the compression and ignition timing. Clever stuff.

KIPS

Kawasaki Integrated Power System, a clever gizmo which simultaneously alters the exhaust porting, compression and ignition timing to improve torque.

The brakes were less sharp than most modern riders are used to but personally I prefer soft brakes on a trail bike – brakes which will stand a bike on its nose are all very well until you come to a slippy downhill section. By far the most most impressive feature of the KDX was the suspension and it’s possibly the most comfortable off road bike I’ve ever ridden. Now bear in mind this is a 29 year old design and it could be forgiven if it felt a bit harsh or bottomed out occasionally but it didn’t, it just soaked up bumps with a wonderfully fluid, progressive action. I spend a lot of time in the saddle and I reckon on a long day’s trail ride you’d be hard pushed to find anything which works this well. The KDX may seem long in the tooth but in my opinion they make a viable all round trail bike even when pitched against more modern bikes. They’re light, simple, very easy to ride and solidly built. Another major plus is Kawasaki can still supply virtually any part for them at reasonable prices. What’s not to like?

Gary is selling this bike to make some room for his new Fantic, if you fancy a reliable modern classic give him a call on 07906 049340.

gaz Ridgeway

Gary riding the KDX along the Kerry Ridgeway. He’ll never hear his ‘phone ring with all that kit on…

Fantic Caballero 200 Casa test. A modern day XL 185?

When it comes to modern bikes, especially trail bikes, I confess my motorcycling palate has become a bit jaded. With just a few notable exceptions, bikes seem to be getting taller, more complex and with an unnecessary surplus of power, as a consequence very few contemporary bikes appeal to me. It would be good to see manufacturers concentrating on producing bikes which are simpler, lower and lighter but unfortunately I don’t see that happening any time soon. However, when my pal Gary brought over his brand new Fantic Caballero 200M Casa I was intrigued for here was a modern trail bike which, on paper at least, seemed to have addressed the needs of the average trail rider.

The magic figures for a trail bike are 100kg wet, 100 mile range and 60mph cruising speed. It might surprise you to discover how few bikes there are that meet these three criteria. Combining two is easy, it’s the 100kg weight which is the elusive one. There are sub 100kg bikes but they’re often too focussed to be viable for 100 mile road trips or sustained 60 mph cruising. The Caballero misses the 100kg threshold but only just. Filled with fuel and oil it will tip the scales approx 5kg over the 100kg mark. Close enough to warrant further investigation I reckon.

Gaz Fantic

Purposeful and well screwed together, The Fantic Cabellero Casa 200

Fantic only produced the Caballero 200 between 2013 and 2016 . It’s a model which seemed to fall between the cracks of their UK model range and consequently only a few made it to these shores. The Casa 200 was an upgraded version of their 125 cc trail bike and came with an interesting specification which included fancy forks shared with the current 250cc Casa model. ‘Casa’ in this context literally means ‘house’ as in ‘in-house’ or ‘works’. It’s a nomenclature a lot of Italian factories have used over the years and is usually applied to an upgraded version of a standard model. This particular bike came from Haines and Co Ltd in Cinderford , Gloucestershire who had it lying around in their surplus stock when Gary discovered it.

Lifting it out of the van, the little Fantic felt commendably light for a modern bike especially when you take into account it’s a four stroke (presumably having at least a litre of oil in the sump, plus the weight of cams, valves and an electric start) and is equipped with beefy suspension, twin rads and various other bits of kit to make it road legal in the UK. The engine is rather interesting, it’s Yamaha’s venerable 125 four stroke single factory-fitted with a big bore kit from the Italian tuning specialist Athena to provide a capacity of 183cc. Fantic decided to go with a 30mm Keihin carb instead of fuel injection on this model – it’s a good carb and ideally suited to this application.

I was curious to hear Gary’s fist impression of the bike … “ it’s very similar to my old Honda XL 185, dead easy to ride with plenty of torque low down, it’s just about perfect for trail riding…” Looking at the handsome bike parked outside the workshop there was little to suggest Honda XL185 to me but I can appreciate why Gary made the comparison.

The Caballero is a undeniably a looker. The red, blue on white colour scheme, simple graphics and black rims set off by the fancy red forks give the bike a very striking appearance. The detail engineering is impressive and well up to Japanese standards. Gary fired it up and it sounded good – fiesty but in a sensible, subdued way. Loud trail bikes just ain’t cool and it was nice to hear a pipe which strikes the right balance. Top marks to Big One exhaust systems who are Fantics’ exhaust provider.

Fantic engine

Nice detailing and beautifully packaged. The Italians do this kind of stuff really well.

Gary and I set off for a 100 mile loop around the Welsh Marches and when we reached a suitable stretch of single track Gary let me have the Caballero’s reins. I ride Gas Gas Pamperas most of the time which means I’m used to a low seat. It was a pleasant surprise to discover the Fantic also has a reasonably manageable seat height of 880mm which means most riders over 5′ 8” should be able to cope, if not it should be straightforward to fit some lowering links. I’d still prefer the seat to be an inch lower though. I’m 5’10” but with relatively short legs and, if my customers are anything to go by, my vertical dimensions are reasonably common in the UK . It’s something I wish more manufacturers would take into account. The average trail rider simply doesn’t need masses of ground clearance and most riders I’ve met would happily trade off a bit of ground clearance for a low seat height. With some clever packaging Fantic seem to have combined the best of both worlds and built a bike with a low (ish) seat and excellent ground clearance.

Fantic Athena big bore

Note the Athena logo on the barrel. Tried and tested big bore kit from a respected manufacturer provides a useful 183cc

We’ve had no rain in Shropshire for the past few weeks and on the day of the test the ground was rock hard. This showed up a potential problem with the bike because over some rough terrain the forks were extremely harsh to the point of being bone jarring. Gary reckons they’ll ease up but I’m not so sure. They seemed to have a lot of stiction and were reluctant to return after being compressed. This could be something very simple such as the front axle pinch bolts having being done up prior to the axle nut being tightened ( it happens) or it could mean some careful setting up is required. Time was short on the day and I didn’t have time to investigate but the good news is the Caballero has Fantic’s fancy FRS forks fitted and it should be possible to tune out the harshness. I’m confident it could be resolved therefore it wouldn’t put me off owning one

Out on the trail I really enjoyed the Caballero, the engine is a gem and if I hadn’t been told its capacity before riding it I’d have sworn it must be at least 250cc. The team responsible for developing the Caballero should be congratulated for they’ve created what is one of the most sensible, real world trail bikes I’ve ridden for quite a while. It will handle being left in third gear down to a relatively moderate pace ( say 12mph) and then pull away convincingly with no snatch or unpleasantness and yet the final drive is high enough to make 60mph cruising feasible. It’s got a surprising amount of poke for a small four stroke and on a typical AdventurerRide trail riding day I don’t think I’d find the bike wanting in any way. I particularly liked the way it felt when riding on and off the throttle along gnarly trails On a lot of modern high compression four strokes, shutting the throttle can have the bike pitching up and down on the suspension and this can get quite unpleasant unless you moderate the throttle very carefully. It’s one of the reasons I’m so fond of two strokes, they have such little engine braking they’re very easy to ride smoothly in such conditions.

With its modest capacity the Caballero doesn’t suffer from this snatchiness and was smooth and very easy to control on the nadgery stuff. The brakes were particularly impressive being very progressive in application and quite gentle – perfect for the job in hand. Fierce brakes are the last thing you need on a trail bike, especially if you’re new to the sport.

Fantic linkage

Nicely engineered bottom linkage. It’s a conventional design which shouldn’t give any problems in service.

When we filled up at the end of the day I was astonished to calculate the Caballero had done 85mpg. For the performance on offer that’s a very impressive figure and means its range is somewhere in the region of 120 miles to a tank. Very handy if you’re out in the boonies.

Having experienced problems with a brand new Ossa I purchased a few years ago I would normally advise caution when looking at specialist products from low volume manufacturers because the customer often ends up being an unwitting development rider. In the case of the Fantic I would say this won’t be an issue, the engine is a long-established Yamaha unit and therefore should be bombproof. The rest of the running gear looks more than man enough for the job and Fantic UK appear to have established a network of experienced off road dealers who should be able to provide decent back up and support.

Gaz Giants Grave

Gary aboard his latest purchase somewhere in the Welsh Marches.

Overall I was very taken with the Caballero and would happily have one or two on the hire fleet should the supply of decent Pamperas dry up. If you’re looking for a good all rounder with the focus on trail rather than road it would definitely be worth seeking one out. Fantic haven’t imported very many of the 200s so that might be easier said than done. Don’t despair if you can’t find one, I notice Fantic’s current 250 Casa is only a few kilos heavier which would make it a very interesting alternative to Honda’s rather porky CRF.

A modern day XL185? Possibly… I can see where Gary’s coming from but I’ll admit that whilst I never wanted to own an XL185, I’d be very happy to have a Caballero in my garage.

Fantic Caballero Tech Spec

Engine Euro 3 compliant

183 cc 4T

Electric start

Claimed Weight (dry) 96kg

Tank capacity 7.5l

Estimated range 120 miles

Seat height 880mm

Will it fit in the van? 2040 mm long

Carb Keihin 30mm

Forks Fantic FRS USD 41mm

Wheel base 1395 mm

Frame material CroMo

Brakes Front 260mm disc, Rear 220mm disc

Size matters.

The Potsdam Giants were unusually tall soldiers employed by Frederick the Great during the Austro Prussian war. Nicknamed lange keris [long men] by the local population, the Potsdam Giants, if they still existed, might be the kind of target customer KTM had in mind when they created the Enduro 690 – rugged men of action with extremely long legs in a readily accessible sales territory.

According to statistics I’m an inch taller than the average UK male, exactly the same height as the average Austrian bloke and just an inch shorter than yer average German but I still can’t touch the ground on KTM’s mid-sized trail bike. And when I say I can’t touch the ground I really mean it. Sat on the saddle the tips of my size 10 trials boots dangle helplessly in mid air as if I’m astride one of those pantomime ostrich costumes.

Now then, having done my research into the average height of European males I discovered a man’s inside leg measurement usually equates to 45% of his overall height. I’ll ‘fess up at this point and admit my inside leg is closer to 40% , proportionally shorter than most but still long enough to cock a leg over just about any road bike and the majority of off road machines.The KTM’s seat is a full English yard above terra firma yet the typical German male, statistically one of Europe’s tallest races, has an average inside leg measurement of just 32”. Do the math, as they say.

KTM jump big

There’s no way this geezer can get his feet on the ground on that thing

So, if it isn’t the Potsdam Giants, just who are KTM aiming the bike at? The Enduro I refer to belongs to my chum Rich who bought it new a couple of weeks ago. He’s a man with a keen eye for the aesthetic, an experienced road rider and is an outdoors enthusiast who wants to get into trail riding. With those credentials and at six feet tall he might just fit the profile of the ideal KTM 690 customer but even Rich can only just touch the floor when sat on his new bike. He tells me he will be buying a lowering kit for it. It’s a route a lot of riders go down nowadays and it begs the question why are manufacturers releasing bikes onto the market which need to be fundamentally altered to make them ridable by normal folk? Surely it would be more sensible to produce lower bikes by default and offer kits to raise the seat height should owners feel it necessary. I’d lay money there would be fewer owners raising the ride height of their bike than are currently having them lowered.

Rich Mountain Rd

Tall, dark and handsome and the KTM’s not bad looking either. As you can see Rich ain’t no midget and yet he’s already looking for a lowering kit for his 690.

KTM are by no means the only manufacturer guilty of making bikes which are too tall for the average person. Most big manufacturers offer bikes for road as well as off-road use which feature unfeasibly high saddles. BMW started it with the G/S which was/is too tall for the average bod . And if you thought the production G/S was a bit lofty, consider this: in their final incarnation, BMW’s Paris Dakar race bikes had an auxiliary tank under the seat raising the saddle height to almost 40”.

Spare a thought for diminutive Belgian works rider Gaston Rahier having to muscle his vertiginous Beemer across the desert. Rahier was just 5’2” tall and his starting technique on the big G/S was to stand by the side of the bike, pop it in gear and take off whilst simultaneously standing on the left pot and cocking his right leg over the saddle. If you’ve ever seen old cowboy films depicting pony express riders setting off you’ll get the picture. Fortunately with 60 litres of gas on board Rahier didn’t have to stop very often but when he did, the Belgian dwarf as he was unkindly known, would make a beeline for the service vehicle and stop with his bike’s handlebars resting against the truck. It’s a choice not open to most trail riders. Modern production GS’s wisely offer lowered suspension and low seat options.

BMW PD team

Gaston Rahier [centre] with BMW team mates. As you can see , the G/S is a little bit big for him. Respect to Rahier for grappling with that monster. Paris Dakar riders from that era were a very special breed

So why are modern dirt bikes so tall? Well, boxer motors aside, most modern dirt bikes are four stroke singles with relatively tall engine architecture. The current obsession with unnecessarily high ground clearances means engines are mounted high in the frame and the camshafts and throttle bodies occupy space traditionally taken up by the fuel tank. Certain manufacturers including KTM get around this by fitting ludicrously small fuel tanks amply demonstrated by their current 350 Freeride with its lamentable 5.5 litre fuel capacity. If I was being unkind I’d also say a small tank helps keep the quoted wet weight down. Now how did a trail bike with a such a meagre range ever make it past a design committee and into production? That said, plenty of riders find the tank range can be tolerated because the Freeride is such a sharp , competent bike. A lot depends where you want to ride such a bike, here in the Marches fuel stations are so far and few between a small tank really hobbles a trail bikes ability to strike out into the hinterland.

If there’s no space for a decent sized tank the next best option is to carry the fuel under the seat . It’s not a new idea, Honda did it with the Goldwing years ago. Stowing fuel under the saddle is tempting for manufacturers and makes a lot of sense from a packaging point of view. It helps centralise mass, which is usually a Good Thing. KTM  decided to go for an under the seat fuel tank on the 690 and therein lies the problem. They’ve produced a great trail bike with a reasonable range but unfortunately the location of the tank has raised the seat to such an extent you need to be a lange keris to ride it. It’s a great shame because it spoils what could be one of the truly great dual purpose bikes. It’s fast, grunty and light , beautifully made and not too expensive. If it wasn’t so damn tall I’d buy one myself. As it is, I’ll stick with my old 640 Adventure [complete with lowered suspension] until KTM et al wake up and start building bikes for normal people.

Rich Shelderton

KTM are ploughing a lonely furrow offering bikes only fit for giants

Planning a ride.

It’s a relief when everyone gets back safely from a ride . With everybody still buzzing with adrenalin  there’s always lots of lively banter as the adventures of the day are re re-lived . People enjoying themselves is a wonderful thing to see and the satisfaction of a job well done is one of the things I enjoy most about this job. Organising a trail ride is fun but it can also be challenging. It’s the responsibility of the ride leader to make sure the day runs smoothly and everything goes to plan. If you’re thinking about organising a ride for your mates here’s a few pointers to make sure your day out is a success.

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The Route

Obviously the most important aspect of any ride is the route itself so try not to leave the planning of it to the last minute. Consider the sequence of the ride, particularly the technical sections. If you’re likely to have  inexperienced riders in the group remember most riders and especially beginners are happier riding up a steep rocky section than down one so factor this in when planning the direction of your ride. I work on the premise that an accident ascending a hill usually happens at a slower speed than one coming down it ! Conversely, if you’ve got some big trail bikes coming out give consideration to whether there are any long muddy climbs to tackle. Big bikes will struggle to find traction on greasy uphill sections and a bit of thought on which direction you will be tackling a hazard from can save a lot of grief.

Team Offa

A diverse bunch of riders and bikes and as nice a group of people as you are likely to meet. In case you were wondering the big GS went everywhere the little bikes did. Steve with the Beemer, is a first class rider and needed no route ammendments, he just rode it as if it was a 450!.

If you’re planning some river crossings think about putting them in the afternoon section of the route. There’s no point in getting soaking wet at the start of the ride if you can avoid it. Quite often it simply isn’t practical to plan around all these eventualities but it’s worth weighing them up and deciding which is the best set of compromises for your situation. I believe the modern parlance is risk assessment . Be considerate when passing through farmyards or past dwellings. It’s legal to ride on a byway through a smallholding at 7.30 am on a Sunday morning but it certainly ain’t cool. Try to be reasonable. Always try and have a few route options up your sleeve in case of disasters. A couple of punctures or an accident can really throw your intinerary out of whack and it pays to have a plan B.

Fuel and spares

This is very basic stuff I know but make sure you know where fuel can be obtained on the route and whether it will be open. Many rural petrol stations have limited opening hours.

115

I like to refuel here because they have quadruple Green Shield stamps

I always ask riders to make sure they turn up at the start with enough fuel for at least 70 miles, if their tanks aren’t big enough they need to carry an auxiliary fuel cannister. Advise all the riders to bring the correct kit to deal with a puncture, even if they’re not able to deal with it themselves. It’s not fair to rely on other members of the group to carry spare tubes etc. Everybody in the group should be encouraged to be as self-reliant as possible. Riders will always pitch in and help each other but it’s always good to know the person in distress has at least attempted to avoid relying on the kindness of others.

Majesty refuel Edinburgh

“riders should carry an auxiliary fuel cannister…”  Yours truly on the Edinburgh Trial some years ago  . Spontaneous combustion was an ever present threat on these long distance trials

The briefing

Make sure you hold a rider briefing before setting off , this might seem a bit OTT if you’re just going out with a few buddies but trust me, it’s worth doing even if it does make you feel like  Captain Mainwaring . Firstly make sure everyone knows roughly where you intend to take them, where you’ll be stopping for food , refreshment etc. Appoint your tail-end Charlie, contrary to popular practice the fastest rider should be at the back, not the slowest. This is because the tail-ender can sometimes be delayed at traffic junctions and will need to get a move on to catch the group up. If the slowest rider is at the back this just adds to the delays.

Position the slowest rider directly behind the leader, one way or another the group is going to have to travel at the pace of slowest rider and if he/she is positioned directly behind the leader it becomes much easier to adjust the pace of the group to suit.

Explain to everyone what your preferred method is for dealing with gates. If someone is clearly struggling to get on or off their bike [it happens] or has problems parking it on rough ground my advice is to excuse them from gate duty because they’ll just hold up proceedings and affect the flow of the ride.

Make it clear what the procedure is when you come across walkers/ equestrians / cyclists/ livestock.

DSC_9197

These riders were correctly briefed and knew that if we encountered horse riders the instruction was to stop and kill the motor. Sensibly, the lads at the back have removed their helmets, this helps to calm horses. The result is an exchange of pleasantries  rather than a potentially hazardous disaster waiting to happen.

Most importantly stress to everyone that as ride leader you cannot be expected to know what is going on at the back of the pack. It is up to each rider to look out for their buddy riding behind and to do this by frequently checking over their shoulder to check all is well. If a problem occurs they should stop immediately and if everybody adheres to this procedure the message will soon get through to the ride leader. This prevents the potentially dangerous situation of somebody riding like a bat out of hell to catch up with the leader to inform them of a problem. Remember to warn the group that if they’ve stopped to fix a problem and have got it sorted be very cautious about setting off down the trail to catch the leader up, they might just meet them coming briskly down the trail to find out whsat the problem is.

The ride

Once you set off don’t panic if it’s all a bit shambolic for the first hour or so . In my experience this is perfectly normal and a group eventually settles into its own rhythm. Don’t be afraid to show leadership, within reason people respond better to clear concise instructions. A riding group invariably has one guy who is always first to take his helmet off and last to put it back on. Over the course of a day these small delays accumulate and end up eating into the riding time. One of the skills of the ride leader is to identify the source of these delays and neutralise it. Which isn’t to say kill the person , just make sure you gently chivvy them along and encourage them to get their arse in gear. When tackling a technical trail always try to explain beforehand the nature of the hazard ahead and provide as much info as possible. It’s not patronising, it’s simply common sense and most riders will appreciate the heads up on any potential hazards. Better to be seen as a bit of a mother hen than have to deal with somebody’s broken collar bone in the back of beyond.  Where possible lead from the back. For example, when you know a trail has a definite and clear end such as a T junction or a gate wave everyone through and let them blow off a bit of steam if they want to. This lets the more excitable riders burn off some energy without putting the leader under any pressure. It will also enable you to observe and evaluate the ability of the group and amend the route if necessary. On a practical level it’s always much easier to deal with the aftermath of spills if you’re bringing up the rear. Enjoy yourself and ride safe.

Man down, again

It’s easier to deal with the aftermath of an accident if you’re bringing up the rear, it also provides a golden opportunity to capture on camera someone else’s misfortune.

Ride Smart. The art of adventure riding

Brooding skies

CCM, GS and a Triumph somewhere in Shropshire. Don’t forget your brolly.

Post a thread on any internet adventure bike forum inquiring about the off road capabilities of big trail bikes and you are guaranteed to arouse passionate responses. Dare to question the effectiveness of an 1190 Adventure or a GSA 1200 on technical off-road trails and you’re likely to attract responses ranging from a polite but firm rebuttal from BMW GS enthusiasts to poison pen letters and death threats from the online KTM community. OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, not all KTM riders are psychotic but you get the picture, it’s a sensitive subject . The issues surrounding the off-road performance of adventure bikes bikes stem from too much power, too much weight and not enough grip for the job in hand. This shouldn’t deter you from taking your big bike off road, but if you understand the limitations you can plan days out on your bike which play to its strengths rather than amplify its weaknesses.

Dab.jpg

This, believe it or not is a puddle on a trail 1000′ above sea level. Trail riding can be unpredictable…

For those unfamiliar with trail riding allow me to share one or two observations about riding the green lanes you are likely to encounter in the UK. Our unsurfaced roads [ the technical definition of a green lane] are often narrow and rutted and can become waterlogged, which is the reason they become rutted in the first place. These ancient rights of way have often been in use for centuries and sometimes sit well below the level of surrounding fields because the passage of traffic over time has actually worn a deep groove in the countryside. This encourages water to collect. There are lanes close to where I live which never completely dry out and are tricky to navigate on a big bike even in the middle of summer.

The problem is, you won’t find this information on any OS map or your GPS, you have to ride the trail to find out and there’s the rub – half a mile down a narrow track you might suddenly find yourself in a deep muddy rut struggling to find traction . On a typical 110kg trail bike you can simply dismount at this stage, lift the back wheel out of the rut and then do the same with the front and continue on your way. If you’re riding a 200+kg adventure bike you now have a pretty serious problem on your hands, especially if you decide the route is impassable and you need to turn back.

Strata

Bad enough on a 90kg trail bike, on a big adventure bike you would now have your work cut out  . This was taken on Strata Florida in Wales.

Of course we also have access to hard packed trails and forest fire roads in the UK and these aren’t such a problem on an adventure bike, but be aware it’s not possible to do these easy routes in isolation and sooner or later you’re going to come across mud , soft ground and some tight technical trails. This is why taking a big bike off road needs careful thought and planning.

The trick is to avoid getting into a difficult situation in the first place. For instance, if you sense a trail is becoming narrower or getting too muddy stop immediately and go and inspect on foot . If you don’t like what you see don’t be afraid to turn round and find an alternative route. I can’t stress how important this is on a big bike, it might seem a bit feeble, especially if your leading a group but it can save a lot of potential heartache. Getting bogged down in deep mud and unable to go forwards or backwards is a frustrating and exhausting experience.

A pal of mine was out trail riding recently and stopped when he saw something sticking out off a particularly deep muddy bomb hole on a trail. On closer inspection he realised the object was a Land Rover’s roof. Try to picture the consequences of simply ploughing into a similar rut on a big GS hoping it will all sort itself out.

Trail riding can involve a lot of manhandling of the bike. For instance, pulling up to a gate on a steeply rutted lane and stopping the bike often means getting off and having to drag the back wheel around until you find a suitable place to deploy the sidestand. Again, not an issue on a lightweight trail bike but on a heavy adventure bike this type of thing can become very tiring so keep your eyes on the trail and plan well ahead, look where the best grip will be for a restart will be and where you can park the bike and dismount easily. It can be a lot less stressful to stop well short of a gate at a suitable spot and walk the last few yards to open it. When you restart the bike this will usually give you a nice clean getaway instead of having to struggle in the mud and ruts created by all the other vehicles who drove as close as they could to the gate before stopping. Always seek out opportunities to save energy, you don’t know when you might need it. Once fatigue sets in it the possibility of falling off big heavy bikes increases dramatically.

Lands end Bishops wood 1

Once fatigue sets in the chances of falling off a big bike increase dramatically! This is yours truly on the Land’s End Trial a few years ago, my first attempt at tackling serious off- road stuff on an adventure bike.

If you find yourself on a tricky section of steep trail with lots of rock and mud and you’re wondering where to find grip a good tip is to follow the route of any  water flowing down the lane. Water will usually wash away any mud and I find if I need to make a quick decision on which route to take through a hazard there’s usually grip to be found beneath flowing water. On technical trails pick up momentum when you can get traction and then allow the bike to roll along on a neutral throttle over sections where the grip will be compromised. It’s all just common sense really but riding smart can make the difference between having a chilled and enjoyable day or a brutal, unsatisfying slog.

At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, planning routes is very important, much more so than if you were on a small bike. I’ll happily set off on my own on one of the Adventure Ride Pamperas and go and busk it, exploring new routes and going wherever my fancy takes me but I never do this on the KTM 640. I’ll speak to other trail riders and ask them what lanes they think are suitable for big bikes. If you can see from the contour lines there will be a steep ascent, think about planning your route to tackle this lane in reverse so it becomes a descent. If I’m planning a big bike day I’ll look stuff up about the route on the web and ask questions on forums. Forewarned is forearmed.

Descent

Descending can be easier than climbing. This is JP, one of BMW’s off-road instructors making it look easy on a Triumph XC. There is no way this bike would have gone up this slope. Take into account the gradients when planning your route. [photo courtesy of Bike magazine and photographer Chippy Wood]


Don’t be tempted to simply pick out a few Byways on an OS map and head off into the wild blue yonder. Gather as much intel as you can, believe me it will pay dividends.
Before setting out make sure your bike has decent lifting handles and if it doesn’t, fit a lifting strap to the rear of the bike. When possible, leave your adventure style panniers at home, they’ll catch and snag on ruts lifting the rear and losing grip. Do everything possible to minimise getting stranded with a puncture. Pushing a big adventure bike with a flat tyre off a remote trail to the nearest garage will definitely spoil your day. Make sure you know how to remove both wheels and have the tools with you to do so. If you’re serious about going off road and haven’t yet changed a tube on your bike practice in the comfort of your garage. Far better to learn how to deal with a puncture listening to Radio 4 with a cuppa to hand than out in the Brecons with the rain lashing down your neck and dusk approaching. Carry a spare tube [or a tubeless repair kit]. Don’t rely on Co2 cannisters or a tyre repair cannister. By all means take some but for goodness sake carry a mountain bike pump as back up. Treat the tubes with a sealant such as OKO.

I would also strongly advise you don’t ride alone, trail riding isn’t a dangerous activity but in my experience it can be unpredictable. I’ve seen people break bones after an innocuous- looking fall and this would be very bad news if you were riding solo.
Drop the tyre pressures, I find 15psi each end works well on my KTM, don’t be tempted to go too low – unless you’ve got security bolts fitted the power of a big bike can spin the wheel in the tyre and tear the valve out. And don’t forget to put some air back in for the journey home. Ride smart and arrive home in one piece.

home

Photo courtesy Bike magazine and Chippy Wood

KTM 640 Adventure

Stretton anon

By and large my motorcycling activities have been relatively injury-free. However, towards the end of last year’s riding season the KTM 640 I use for AdventurerRide’s big bike off-road days reminded me big singles need treating with respect .
A tell-tale clicking from the starter solenoid informed me the KTM’s battery had become discharged and and the only option was to revert to the analogue starting procedure. Standing fully erect on the kickstarter I brought a hefty 90kg to bear with as much force as could be mustered. Somewhere close to the bottom of the swing the KTM gave a mighty cough and launched me in a reverse trajectory skywards to the garage roof breaking my ankle in the process. Painful? Oh yes…
Of course if I’d bothered to read the handbook I would have known not to open the throttle during the starting procedure. Although the 640 has a good old fashioned carb, it also has a TPS [throttle position sensor] which I suspect threw the ignition to full advance creating a spark at the wrong time. I don’t think I’ve been hit so violently since the days I was taught by Catholic clergymen.
Some months on and still limping it’s time to reflect on the 640 Adventure and give a few riding impressions. I bear the bike no malice, but the fact a modern bike can deliver such a debilitating wallop to its unsuspecting owner underlines the KTM has no frills. No electronic trickery to minimise the possibility of kickback, no clever little cams which lift a valve to ease the starting procedure as found on some Japanese bikes . Nope , the 640 Adventure is a rugged , take-no-prisoners bruiser which the Austrian factory have kept down to a commendable 150kg.

KTM map

A GPS isn’t OE on the 640 Adventure but no matter, the Ghobi panniers are double skinned and can carry water/petrol/wine in the void between the two skins. The two screws at the base of the pannier are to fit an external tap. Now I ask you, would you rather have GPS or the ability to carry two two litres of Rioja with you on your adventure?

The low weight comes with a corresponding lack of refinement. At first acquaintance the 640’s single cylinder engine feels crude, specially when compared to something like a Yamaha 660. Its balancer shaft doesn’t eliminate vibes quite as well as the equivalent Yamaha or BMW single and the rider is always aware just one cylinder is doing all the work. A Jaguar car engineer once told me you can’t have refinement without weight and so it is with the KTM, it’s 30kg lighter than the equivalent Yamaha Tenere and there is consequently less mass to dissipate vibes. Compared to the Yamaha’s counterbalanced smoothness the raw -boned KTM feels visceral and uncompromising.

The flipside to the KTM’s diamond-in-the-rough demeanour is its off-road capability which is outstanding for a bike of its size, a true adventure bike in fact. The 640 will launch you down fire-roads floating imperiously over ruts and bumps which would have lesser bikes tied in knots. It will also plonk through deep mud and scabble up rocky inclines finding grip where you’d swear there wasn’t any. It’s this pedigree which helps generate the almost fanatical devotion of KTM’s partisan fanbase.
One of the quirks of the Adventure’s LC4 motor is the way it gets noticeably smoother when thoroughly warm. By thoroughly I mean after about 100 miles. A pal of mine restores vintage aero engines and knows a thing or two about motors and what makes them tick . Back in the day he bought a new LC4 Adventure and mentioned this characteristic of the LC4 engine, explaining that some engines behaved this way. It’s the kind of ‘character’ the Japanese endeavour to engineer out of their bikes. I’d completely forgotten about it until I went for a long ride on mine and after a couple of hours the whole plot settled down and smoothed out. At this point the 640 feels as if could thrum along all day eating the miles, which is something the Adventure excels at . It’s never going to be as smooth as the Yamaha or indeed the BMW 650 which has an engine of similar pedigree but it’s on the right side of acceptable. Of course it might just seem smoother after a couple of hours because your arse has gone to sleep.

big trail bike

Somewhere in the Welsh borders. On these kinds of trails in this type of country the 640 has a lot going for it.

On short gearing [standard gearing is too tall for serious off road use] the Adventure will buzz along happily all day at 60 to 70mph with 80 plus being available for short bursts of overtaking. Although the KTM is happy to rev, it’s a brave man who ventures anywhere near the 8500 rpm redline, 4000 to 6000rpm is the sweet spot and anything above this is unnecessary and can feel harsh.
So, having established the 640 Adventure is an agreeable, if not particularly quick road bike what’s it like off the tarmac? Bear in mind I’m not a fan of big bikes for serious trail riding, spoilt as I am by the 90kg Pamperas on the AdventureRide fleet. Therefore I approached the KTM with a degree of caution before doing anything serious off-road. On standard road gearing the 640 is unhappy in second gear on technical trails, I’ve rectified this by fitting a 15t front sprocket. Caution should be exercised on technical descents because the “stall speed” is relatively high and if you’re going slowly on slippery surfaces the engine’s high compression can lock the rear wheel and stall the engine.  The answer is to acquaint yourself with the arcane art of deploying the decompresser to prevent stalling. It’s an acquired knack needing a delicate touch but once mastered is a useful technique to know and might help avoid an embarrassing low speed spill.

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Pressed into service during a recent photo shoot for Bike magazine. The 640 was a used as a mule carrying photographer Chippy Woods tripods, lenses and cameras.

During my six month tenure with the KTM I’ve done one or two minor maintenance tasks such as wheel bearings and starter clutch and have to say the bike is , on the whole, a joy to work on. Well engineered, robustly made and sensibly laid out, the KTM is a quality product. The paintwork in particular is stunning, it looks like standard KTM orange from a distance but in fact has a subtle metallic flip flop effect which looks fantastic in sunlight. However, like most bikes, the 640 ain’t perfect and scores low in certain areas. Particularly annoying is the seat retaining bolt. KTM’s designers have seen fit to retain the seat by a single hex-headed 6mm bolt located in the centre of the rear wheel well facing downwards to the tyre , perfectly situated to get coated in mud and road crud off the rear wheel every time you ride the bike. The battery lives under the seat and it’s feasible you might need to access it when out on the trail and finding the bolt can be difficult. I’ve slotted the head on my seat bolt with a hacksaw and Araldited half a penny washer to it so a] so I can find it and b] so I don’t need to use a spanner to undo it.
Other gripes include the fiddly oil change and filling procedure. Google it if you’re curious. It involves [amongst other things] bleeding air out of the frame via a hard to access bleed screw in the headstock. No big deal but not exactly user friendly or intuitive.
I would also criticise the left hand kickstart [OK it’s got a leccy starter so perhaps I’m being picky] the overly fierce front brakes – great on the road but a liability off it – and finally ,and this is a big one, a disappointing lack of flywheel mass. KTM are not the only manufacturer who are guilty of this. Yamaha, BMW , Suzuki and Honda all make big singles which are lacking in the trouser department when it comes to flywheels. The result is an engine which needs knocking down a gear on long ascents and judders when asked to cope with large throttle openings at low revs. On tight nadgery trails this is exacerbated by the large jump between 2nd and 3rd gears. A decent flywheel would solve all this.
The problem is, on all these bikes, the space normally occupied by a flywheel is now taken up by an electric starter sprag clutch mechanism. I suppose it’s the price of progress and instead of firing every lampost, modern big singles now thrive on revs and make their torque higher up the register. I’m afraid it’s the modern way. The sprag clutch  is notoriously fragile and mine needed replacing almost as soon as I got the bike. Starter clutch life can be prolonged by using the decompresser briefly whilst spinning the engine up on the starter motor. Pop the decompresser off and the engine usually fires instantly.
In summary I’m extremely happy with the 640 Adventure, it’s a true dual purpose bike in that it’s capable of being driven very long distances on the road, up to 300 miles with its 28 litre tank, and still make a decent fist of tackling quite technical trails when you get to your trail riding destination. Most important is that it’s actually fun to ride, unlike some of the 250kg big traillies which have to be treated with a great deal of respect on loose surfaces. Of course the larger capacity bikes will cover big miles cosseting the rider in a way the 640 Adventure could never hope to match but if you’re looking for a bike which is genuinely enjoyable to ride on or off the road you could do a lot worse than look out for a used Adventure.

Pye corner

And some final food for thought. These original 640 Adventures are starting to be seen as classics and hold their value very well. You can’t beat a bit of depreciation-free fun.