Second Opinion: James ‘Barni’ Barnicoat
Phewee! A 250 two-stroke shootout was always going to be a fun-filled day full of on-the-pipe adrenaline rushes, out-of-powerband pratfalls, raucous laughter and rorty exhausts. Chuck in some fast ‘n’ dry hardpack, slow(er) ‘n’ wet woodland, and riders ranging from Championship to Sportsman, and you’re guaranteed a brilliant day. We had a blast.
A return to the RUST shootouts of the good ol’ days, things got off to a slightly iffy start when I forgot the all-important cakes and certain importers forgot to send their bike..! Still, after a brief moan and a few choice words about the lack of French Fancies (see what I did there..?) we got down to the serious business of falling in puddles, roosting each other, and clocking up as many laps as our dubious fitness and battered bodies allowed. Then having a breather and doing it all again. It’s not rocket science, but it does allow you to get a darn good handle on what you like about each machine, where its foibles lay, and which you’d buy if you were in the market for a new quarter-litre enduro smoker. So what would I have?
It’s hard to argue against the KTM. I like the tall-in-height, short-in-length feel to the chassis which makes it seem as if you’re perched on top and really dominating the ride. The light yet precise steering is excellent, if a little nervous at times, and the brakes - not always to my tastes on EXCs - were absolutely spot-on this time.
And the motor? The motor is an absolute doozy. Ordinarily there’s a real tractability to the EXC’s bottom-end that allows you to lug your way through tough or technical going rather than using the top-end. This one came Ready to Rip, meaning it made immediate power at any point in the rev range. In amongst the trees this necessitated a taller gear or a dab of clutch to modulate the punchy power, though on the open tracks you could give the super-light throttle a cheeky tweak and just hang on tight. Then, diving back into the woods, the supple WP suspension smoothed out the small bumps and soaked up the landings from the bigger jumps. Lovely.
Aside from a rather weird bend of bars, there’s not much I disliked about the Gas Gas. That said, it didn’t really stand out for me, either. Easy and efficient to ride, if you rely on a stopwatch rather than the seats of your pants then it’s arguably right up there. The handling’s predictable; the brakes are top notch; and the motor makes more than enough power to get you going very quickly without scary you witless. It’s always been a fantastic clubman racer and it still is. But for me it just lacks the X-Factor of the orange bikes.
The Beta was the oddball. Set up to work for Championship-class racer Lee Edmondson, and the way he has his rear suspension set (feeling quite low, with lots of rebound damping) dominated the ride and the riding impression. To me, it made the bike seem longer than normal, with a slightly wooden feeling to the shock. And the front brake, whilst powerful, felt just a bit wooden too.
That’s the complaints over with, because despite the funky set-up I actually liked the Italian machine. The firm forks willed me to hit things harder and faster, and the bike felt stable when pushed. Which was just as well, because the motor is incredibly deceptive - smooth and tractable, with a deeper note than the rasping opposition. Riding the Beta you don’t hang onto gears and thrash it, you feed it another gear at two-thirds throttle and it surges forward on its mid-range torque. It’s this feature which, in my mind, elevates the Beta to second place behind the KTM. And, just like the shootouts of old, that’s at odds with what everyone else was thinking.