Trail Riding on the Isle of Man

Yours truly and my good pal Andy taking a breather, somehwere in the far distance is Ireland, but then again it might be Scotland…?

The Isle of Man has a reputation as a motorcyclists paradise and a trip to ‘see the TT one day’ is probably on the bucket list of most riders. The Island is an alluring destination for bikers, I mean , who wouldn’t be drawn to an island featuring some of the best biking roads in Europe and which, as an added bonus, has no upper speed limit? Less well known is what the Island has to offer to those of us who look for our biking kicks away from tarmac and off the beaten track. A clue lies in the fact that the Island played host to the International Six Day Trial in ’65, ’71 and ’75 and numerous trials and enduro events feature in events calendar every year.

The Island is one of the very best locations in the UK to enjoy off road motorcycling and the extensive network of trails which cover the Island have much to offer the enthusiastic trail rider. Therefore, when my good chum and riding buddy Andy called me a few months ago and asked if I fancied a busman’s holiday and join him on one of his frequent visits to the Isle of Man I didn’t hesitate to accept the invitation. As well as being a TT regular during the 80s and 90s, in recent years I’ve been to see the Manx GP on a couple of occasions and have managed to squeeze in a bit of trail riding. This gave me a good idea of what the Island had to offer in the way of off road adventures and Andy’s plan was to time the visit to coincide with the GP and enjoy a combined trail riding/ race spectating holiday. What’s not to like?

The ‘Manx’ as it is known has always attracted a slightly older demographic than the TT and its emphasis on classic race bikes means the the general vibe on the Island after a day’s racing is less Wet T shirt competition and more of a Castrol R and Ovaltine type deal. It also attracts fewer visitors which means accommodation and ferry bookings are more readily available. That said, if you’re thinking of going to either event, you need to book a long time ahead to make sure you get the best choice of sailings and digs. This year’s GP featured top names such as Rob Hodson, Lee Johnston and Michael Dunlop and so we knew there would be some first class racing to watch in between our trail riding adventures.

Exciting stuff as riders peel into the very fast section at Hillberry, the faster riders will be approaching at 150+mph and the spectators are about a metre from the action. It’s one of the most impressive motorsport spectacles to be found anywhere in the world.
Racing on the Island is no place for the feint-hearted, it’s breathtakingly fast.
Fuel churns in place in the deserted pit lane shortly before road closure. In a couple of hours time this will be bedlam.

If you’ve never been to the Manx GP or the TT before it’s wise to tag along with someone who has. Getting your head around road closures and staying on the inside or outside of the circuit can be a bit daunting for a first timer. I’m relatively familiar with how it all works but Andy is a true expert and has a fantastic knowledge of the circuit, the trails, the riders, the bikes as well as the locations of the best chippies and cafes. All handy stuff. He also knows the best places to ride a trail bike.

Raised causeway crossing a marshy bog to the west of the Mountain Mile. Trickier than it looks in pic! Fall off this in winter and I reckon you’d have quite a battle on your hands extricating the bike and getting back on track.

The trails on the Island are, by and large, very well marked. The classifications differ slightly from the mainland and the main network of trails are officially termed ‘Greenways’. These are open to bikes but if you have a vehicle over 500kg you will need a permit. Obviously this is aimed at controlling 4×4 usage and doesn’t affect bikers. There are also byways, some of which are restricted. If you’ve got some experience of green laning on the mainland you’ll quickly get the hang of it. Maps of the Island are available in 1:25,000 scale and all the routes are clearly marked. A GPS is handy but not essential and could potentially save you a lot of time finding the various trails. Being a horse-drawn man I always favour paper maps but I have to confess Andy’s digital whotsit on his handlebars proved very useful and it’s a lot quicker than getting a map out.

Ben and Andy with Snaefell in the background.

The quality of trail riding on the Island is absolutely outstanding and comparable with the very best you might experience in the more remote parts of the UK. A lot of the trails are what could be termed ‘technical’ and are probably not suitable for beginners. Don’t let this put you off because there’s lots to go at and if you don’t like the look of something you can always turn back and find something more suited to your ability level. Many of the trails consist of loose boulders and these can be quite demanding, both on the bike and the rider. I suffered a puncture within the first 500 metres of the first trail and on day three the rear wheel bearings in Andy’s very well maintained Montesa gave up the ghost. Andy had brought his pal Ben on the trip, I’d already met Ben through AdventureRide knew he was a good guy to have around if the going got tough. Ben was a trooper on both occasions and with his help we managed to overcome these relatively minor difficulties but both incidents served to underline that the Manx trails can be harsh and will punish the unwary or the poorly prepared.

Ben on his way down to Pert Erin, a typical Manx upland trail flanked by gorse and heather. The Island in the distance is the Calf of Man.
Ben and Andy with the broken Montesa on the seafront in Peel. I suppose there are worse places to breakdown. As ever, Andy had lured us to a location with promises of icecream but time and time again he failed to make good on his promises. When it came to ice cream procurement I’m afraid to report Andy proved to be reliably unreliable.

We crammed so much in to our five day trip it all seems like a blur but hopefully the pics will give a flavour of our Manx adventure. If you like the idea of combining first class trail riding with the most exciting motorsport spectacle on the planet the I would suggest booking your accommodation and ferry crossing now for either the TT or the Manx GP, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. Before I sign off I would like to thank our B&B hosts Chris and Lynn for the warm welcome they extended to us and also Juan Knight, trials legend and all round good bloke who opened up his workshop for us on a Bank Holiday weekend in order to solve Andy’s bearing problem. The Manx people are renowned for their hospitality and of you make the trip over there you can be certain you’ll be well looked after and made to feel at home.

Juan Knight pops a pair of wheel bearings into Andy’s Montesa wheel… on a Bank Holiday Sunday. Top man and a trials legend to boot. Like I said, the Manx people go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome.

BMW G/S. The making of a legend.

BMW R80 G/S Dakar (an unabridged version of an article written in 2012 for a popular UK motorcycle magazine)

During the past few years much of the success of the BMW GS has been attributed to The Long Way Round – a TV documentary about two motorcycling chums embarking on an intercontinental glamping adventure aboard a pair of grossly overloaded GSs. The intrepid duo abandoned their comfortable lifestyles to get away from it all, taking with them just a few essentials such as a film crew, a ride-along mechanic, assorted local fixers, a doctor, two 4×4 pickups, half a ton of spares, major corporate sponsorship and a couple of satphones. The pair head out into the wide blue yonder, record their trip for posterity and in doing so a legend was born. The success of the series generated a BMW GS sales bonanza known as the Ewan and Charlie effect. And what an effect it’s been; in 2011 BMW sold 26,000 units of their über trail bike with worldwide sales in excess of 260 million quid. Not a bad return for a judicious bit of product placement.

At its launch in 1980 the G/S created a new motorcycling genre; the supersized trail bike. The ‘G/S’ stood for ‘gelände / straϐe’ meaning off road/on road. Other manufacturers followed suit and soon a plethora of large capacity, road-orientated dirt bikes hit the market sporting wide handlebars, lofty seats, pseudo knobbly tyres and an attitude suggesting a typical riding weekend might be a quick raid to Marrakesh or a jaunt across the Picos De Europa. ‘Adventure bike’ became a new addition to the motorcycling lexicon. Regardless of the rough-rider image, big trail irons make great road bikes and within this burgeoning market sector the BMW reigns supreme. But now here’s the thing, BMW’s adventure bike concept wasn’t conceived by a marketing think-tank deep within the bowels of the Bavarian Motor Works. No, the story of BMW’s flagship model began at Moto Laverda in Breganze, Northern Italy…

Piero Laverda explains; “For a long time Moto Laverda enjoyed very good relations with BMW’s motorcycle division ̶ my brother Massimo rode a BMW in the 60s and was also a personal friend of BMW’s technical manager. Later, when we produced large capacity bikes we had informal meetings with BMW to provide feedback on our respective model ranges. Our bikes didn’t conflict in the marketplace and it was a valuable way for both companies to obtain constructive criticism.

In the latter part of the 1970s we [Moto Laverda] were competing successfully in the Italian Regolarità Championship. We also had a history of successful entries in the ISDTs. Around this time BMW were looking to develop a more competitive bike to enter high profile European events and they contacted us in spring 1977 to commision the development of two prototype enduro bikes fitted with R60 engines . BMW tested and raced these bikes during 1977-1978 and they became the foundation of their enduro bikes.

In hindsight I think our two prototypes can be considered the grandfathers of the BMW GS models”

The success of the Laverda-developed prototypes was followed a year later by the launch of the Paris Dakar Rally. The timing couldn’t have been better. This was an event favouring big capacity off-roaders where agility and nimbleness could be sacrificed for flat out speed and reliability. For the 1979 event BMW were represented by a private French team but the following year, coinciding with the official launch of the G/S, BMW France entered two works bikes prepared by the legendary tuning firm HPN. Bearing only a passing resemblance to the production model, the drum-braked bikes were the start of a dynasty of HPN-prepared bikes which came to dominate the rally during the 1980s.

The following year Frenchman Hubert Auriol brought BMW their first Paris Dakar victory, repeating the performance in ’83. But it wasn’t until the following season when Auriol teamed up with the diminutive Belgian rider Gaston Rahier that BMW and the Dakar rally became synonymous . Rahier was so short in the leg he mounted the bike by getting it rolling whilst running alongside before using the left hand pot as step up into the saddle. When it came to getting off he simply used a convenient wall or a support truck to lean on. HPN’s radically modified bike weighed in at 145kg dry, made 75bhp and carried 39 litres in the tank plus an additional 9 litres under the seat. With a towering 300mm of suspension travel it was little wonder Rahier struggled to touch the ground. Rahier and Auriol came first and second respectively with Rahier repeating his winning performance in 1985 prompting BMW to announce a Dakar version of the standard bike. As the old motor industry saying goes: “what wins on Sunday sells on Monday”.

At that time the basic R80G/S [not to be confused with the R80GS Basic, which was a later model] was built around a revised R80/7 motor fitted to an R65 frame equipped with the mono arm rear suspension and a 21″ front wheel.

The upgraded Dakar model had only a superficial resemblance to the works bikes – which had reputedly costing £500,000 apiece in their final Marlboro ELF incarnation ̶ but the improved tank range and handling which came with the Dakar option are worthwhile and can be easily fitted retrospectively to a standard G/S. The Dakar specification comprised of the distinctive 35 litre tank, a white rear mudguard, a single seat with a modified rack arrangement plus fork brace and a chrome exhaust with a black heatshield. The Dakars were only offered between ’85 and ’87 . It’s rumoured only ten genuine Dakar models reached these shores although quite a few have subsequently been imported from Europe and plenty of standard bikes were retro fitted with the Dakar options.

Rahier’s final podium finish on the rally came with a third place in 1987 by which time the G/S had become the ‘GS’. On the second generation GS the word ‘Dakar’ was dropped from the name at the behest of the Rally organisers and abbreviated simply to ‘PD’. The R80 G/S remains the purists choice, lighter than its successor and purer in concept.

The Dakar which Gary Burton kindly loaned for this feature started out life as standard R80 G/S, acquiring it’s Dakar clothes later in life. It’s an impressive looking device dominated by the gigantic tank. Gary once managed 345 miles on a single fill up which means you could actually get from Paris to Dakar on about ten tankfuls. Imagine the Nectar points on that lot. According to legend, each tank was signed by Gaston Rahier himself although Gary’s tank has Rahier’s signature faithfully reproduced on a vinyl graphic. Set against the late autumn backdrop of some Derbyshire woodland the orange white and blue BMW Motorsport livery of the Dakar looks stunning.

It’s over twenty years since I rode a G/S 80 and the immediate impression of Gary’s immaculately presented bike is that it’s a fair bit quicker than I remember. A gentle shudder at low revs provides a clue to the extra oomph. Gary has fitted the G/S with a Siebenrock 1000cc kit and the big pistons slugging up and down make themself felt at tickover, it’s no hardship and brings a tangible boost to midrange power.

Out of respect to the squeaky clean condition of Gary’s bike I kept the off road part of the test as brief as possible. My initial foray onto a green lane reminded me how intimidating a G/S can be off road. It’s a big, heavy bike demanding a lot of respect. BMW G/Ss are good at the straβe bit , but not so hot on the gelände . Apologies to G/S enthusiasts but it’s true. On a flat out blast along a Moroccan wadi I’ve no doubt it’s a formidable piece of kit but back here in Blighty the weight and sheer width of the bike can be a liability. I’ve owned one so I speak with some experience in these matters. Harking back to The Long Way Round the point is demonstrated when the photographer’s GS breaks down and the team buy a Russian-made 350cc Izh Planeta 5 from a Mongolian street market [you couldn’t make this stuff up] to tide them over until the GS can be repaired. The heavily laden Planeta romped off into the distance along muddy tracks leaving the big BMWs floundering and struggling for grip.

None of which should deter anyone from buying a G/S . If you’re concerned about the G/S’s off road capabilities you’re probably shopping for the wrong bike. There were plenty of very capable off-roaders around when the G/S was announced but few, if any could be considered long distance road bikes. What the BMW offered was a bike with off-road capability, albeit limited, but which would excel at long distance road riding. And on the road the G/S really does excel. Loping along perched high on the thickly padded seat the G/S offers a unique riding experience. Prodigous torque and excellent handling make an ideal combination for covering ground quickly, safely and comfortably.

Combined sales of the original 800cc Monolever version and the subsequent 1000cc Paralever amounted to over 67,000 units and these figures demonstrate BMW pitched the balance of the Gelände and the Straβe perfectly for its intended market.

Footnote: When I wrote this article just over ten years ago I struggled to find a good original PD model for the photo shoot until Gary Burton offered to loan the bike in the main pic. I’m delighted to report that Gary is still in business selling top quality BMW adventure bikes, his website is www.bamw.co.uk and if you’re looking for advice on buying a top quality G/S I would suggest you give Gary a call, he’s an acknowledged expert on the GS range and also a very decent guy.

Gary Burton from Bavarian Adventure Motorcyle World

Pampera frame malarkey.

Mechanical failures are relatively rare on the AdventureRide fleet of Gas Gas Pamperas, testimony to the inherent simplicity and strength of the original Gas Gas design and hopefully an indication they are maintained properly by yours truly. For sure they consume wheel bearings and rear suspension linkage bearings at an alarming rate but other than that, the Pampera reliability record has been commendable, especially when you consider the amount of use they are put to.

To give an idea of how tough a Pampera is consider this: each bike on the fleet is identified by the name of the county from where it came and ‘Cornwall’ has been been on the fleet since I started AdventureRide ten years ago. This particular bike has probably participated in over 900 trail rides. I purchased the bike in 2012, collecting it en route because I had an entry in Land’s End trial. I rode a MK2 Pampera in the event that year and that bike suffered a rare DNF due to a head gasket failure (a common problem with the MK2s) In hindsight I should have ridden the freshly-acquired Cornwall and I reckon it would have come away with a medal straight out of the box..

Cornwall was pressed into service with AdventureRide the following week and has been on duty on almost every AdventureRide outing since then. During its tenure on the fleet it’s consumed a host of consumables (obviously) such as tyres, chains, fork seals,sprockets and wheel and linkage bearings but the non service-related parts are confined to one piston, a set of clutch plates, and a fan. And that’s it. Most of the other bikes have a similar tale to tell and this is why I’ve stayed faithful to the Pamperas and haven’t been tempted to replace them with newer bikes. There is simply nothing like them on the market, everything else is either too heavy, too tall, too expensive or too focussed on either trials or enduro to be a good all round trail bike for then typical kind of trail riding we have here in Shropshire.

However, what I want to talk about in this blog is a frame problem which has recently manifested itself on a couple of bikes. Two bikes have suffered catastrophic failures of the rear linkage mounts although surprise to say, on each occasion both machines made it back to base. The damage on both machines was virtually identical and whilst I had my theories as to the cause I decided to consult my local frame guru, Malcolm Shepherdson of Metal Malarkey in Bishop’s Castle.

One of Malcolm’s frames with a Triumph engine installed. Simple, elegant and beautifully constructed.

Malcolm is a first class engineer and his past experience includes working at MRD Metisse overseeing the production of their famous Rickman style race frames. Since starting his own business Malcolm has become an established frame builder/designer in his own right and his artistry is frequently featured in the motorcycle press. In short, Malcolm knows his way around a bike frame

After pondering the damage Malcolm expressed concern that the Pampera frames might have an inherent weak spot. When I explained the level of use (and sometimes abuse) the bikes were subjected to we both agreed that after almost twenty years service, the frame failures could reasonably be put down to fair wear and tear! As previously mentioned, some of the bikes have been ridden by almost nine hundred different people…

The problem seems to have occurred due to excessive stresses being channelled through the frame-mounted rear linkage bracket, possibly as a result of a seized linkage bearing caused by water ingress following repeated river crossings.

It would have been simple enough to repair the frames back to original spec but on the basis of ‘whilst we’re at it’ I asked Malcolm to look at improving the original design. Space is tight around the area of the bracket but Malcolm came up with the idea of four strengthening gussets welded in place to brace the linkage mounts and also the outer frame rails. Before bracing anything it’s essential everything is correctly aligned, particularly in a design like the Pampera where the location of the engine, the swing arm and the linkage mounts are all inter-related. Malcolm devised a very neat but effective jig which replicates the engine mounting bosses and ensures that once the frame is repaired , the engine will fit back onto it’s original mounting points.

Neat jig designed by Malcolm which replicates the position of the Pampera engine mounts.

Broken engine mount welded back in place with strengthening gussets to combat stress.
Malcolm with a brace of modified Pampera frames.

The modified frames will enter service during the next few weeks, just in time for autumn and winter season season which is often my busiest time of the year. This often surprises people but the reason for the increase in bookings is a lot of road riders like to keep their eye in over winter by doing a bit of a bit of trail riding. With eight Pamperas on the fleet I’ve adopted a policy of restoring one or two bikes at a time and re-introducing them into service when other bikes become due for a major overhaul. One of these modified bikes is going to be rebuilt into a sort of Pampera Evo1 incorporating a number of technical modifications based on the experience I’ve gained over the past ten years but I’ll cover all that in a separate blog.

Malcolm and Metal Malarkey can be found at http://www.malarkeyengineering.co.uk

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