What's going on in the off-road bike segment?

Jul 24, 2017

I’ve said before that we live in a wonderful era of motorcycling.

All the machines of yesteryear are available if you want them, and the offerings today are so specialized and diverse. Hell, Triumph presently offers seven different models of the Triumph Tiger, (even more if you count the models that are larger than 800 cc!) and BMW sells the R nineT outfitted in five very heterogeneous forms. Hypersegmentation is the new standard, and we are all the beneficiaries.

Unless, of course, you ride trail bikes.

By “trail bikes,” I mean street-legal dual-sports (think “dirt bike with blinkers”) and their off-road-only counterparts. These are motorcycles sporting wide-ratio gearing, headlight, and sidestand. This market is so strange and homogenous, and contains some truly archaic options from a few of the full-line manufacturers, that I thought I’d put the quill to the ol’ vellum and grind out a piece that was a mixture of questions, answers, info, wild-ass guessing, and reader input. I feel the trail segment right now is the most woefully neglected corner of motorcycling.

Are adventure bikes slowly killing dual-sports?

The EPA said very plainly in 2004, “A number of additional models currently in the market may also meet the Tier 2 standards, depending on NOx levels, using combinations of catalysts, fuel injection, secondary air injection, and other engine modifications…”

As bike technology improves and emissions equipment proliferates, the idea of a bike that is large enough to house and protect the emissions equipment while also being durable enough to warrant the increased cost of the machine (an adventure bike) begins to look like a much more palatable option from the manufacturer and the customer viewpoint. Advances like cross-spoked wheels, 50/50 tires, and highly tuned powerplants have increased the off-road capabilities of the adventure class by leaps and bounds.

This confluence of increasingly dirt-worthy ADV machines, coupled with tightening emissions restrictions and power-hungry riders, has helped the ADV segment all but drive the dual-sport to extinction. Add in the slight bias to the road (and resultant comfort) most adventure bikes inherently possess (since the vast majority of bikes Americans buy are street-legal), and it’s easy to see that the dualie is an endangered species.

WR250R
We hardly knew ye. Photo by Kevin Wells.

Has the Yamaha WR250R disappeared for 2018?

If you wanted me to guess which quarter-bore bike Yamaha would axe for 2018, I would have said the TW200, followed very closely by the TT-R230. Both have air-cooled, two-valve engines. The TW200 is lardier. Both still have a carburetor and a drum brake. The XT250 would be another fine contender to be axed. In fairness, that bike has injection and dual discs, at least, but it still is powered by an air-cooled two-valver.

The last bike I would have expected to see gone from their trail/dualie segment would have been the WR. It was truly modern. Liquid cooling, fuel injection, inverted fork… hell, the WR even had a catalyzer in the exhaust. If you trawl the forums, speculation is that the WR has been killed off because it no longer meets some emissions regulations. (Japan is the current suspect.)

WR
This screen capture of Yamaha's site, taken on July 18, 2017, seems to indicate that the WR is discontinued, but that may not be the case, it seems. Yamaha images.

However, it appears that folks are drawing the wrong conclusion here. Just because the 2018 XT and Tee-dub have been announced yet doesn't mean that the WR has been axed. It may be receiving an update or (I hope) being replaced with a larger-displacement, higher-power-yet-same-weight dual-sport machine. I asked a Yamaha rep for some info on this, but he declined to comment.

Why can’t I buy a trail-ready bike off a showroom floor?

If there is one thing that most confuses me about trail bikes, this must be it. As motorcyclists, we are largely spoiled. You can buy bikes outfitted damn near any way you want them. (Remember that Tiger example above?) If someone could tell me why I cannot buy a trail bike that is truly trail-ready, I am all ears. 

Trail bikes are really not set up to actually go hit singletrack. Anyone who is even semi-serious about riding in the woods or desert makes the following changes, regardless of make or model: real handguards (with a frame), heavy-duty skid plate (not plastic or cookie-sheet-thickness metal), and if possible, a tail rack or fender pouch to carry tools and fuel. Since everyone adds all this stuff anyway, why haven't the manufacturers offered a bike that is already equipped to be trail-capable?

The other headscratcher for me is suspension. Everyone needs different springs, it seems. Yet most bike dealers are not suspension experts, and it’s a hassle to rip your brand-new bike apart, just to wait on some suspension tuner in Turkey Balls Falls or some place to (hopefully!) return it in a month or two. I understand that people who ride off-road are not all my size, but come on, we are not all 170-pound factory test riders, either. Why not send these things out sprung for riders who are a little chubbier than average?

If you’ve been on a trail in the USA any time recently, you’ll see the same people riding dinosaur trail bikes: the overweight, over-the-hill gang. (Note that I am considering myself very much a member of this group!) The lighter, super-in-shape riders all can make use of the flyweight MX or competition enduro machinery. Also, every damn one of us has tools, tubes, and a hydration pack on. That’s gotta be 20 pounds over the “average” MX rider right there. If the less-advanced trail bikes all are ringing in at a lardy 300 to 400 pounds, why not stiffen up the springs a little, eh? I can deal with some fat on a bike if the bike can deal with some fat on me. Just sayin’.

I’m surprised bikes with some of these features haven’t been demanded by riders. 

Beta
The Xtrainer offers more reasonable ergonomics, friendlier power, and a nicer price tag than many of the other two-stroke enduro machines on the market. Beta photo.

Why is Beta the only manufacturer that seems to be focusing on the the towering size of full-size dirt bikes?

The Beta Xtrainer is a bike that mainstream motorcyclists have never heard of. But for those who are interested in trails, this bike is explosively exciting. The frame is 10 percent smaller than a full-size frame, leading to a seat height of just 35 inches and change. This is important. Right now, if a rider wants a bike with a seat height under 37 inches or so, the only option is a 250 trailie, which really limits performance. The engines are not in a particularly high state of tune, and as we also discussed, suspension (like the brakes) is not up to really hardcore trail action or light race use.

The Beta’s 300 cc two-stroke engine is supposed to be a tractor, the exact opposite of what everyone thinks it’s like to ride a smoker. The bike has electric start only (great for repeated drops in the tricky sections), electronic oil injection (no mixing!) and weighs in at 218 pounds. Everyone who has ridden the bike seems to love it. Everyone who hasn't ridden it wants try it. This bike is so popular that Beta has removed it from its BYOB (built-to-order) program. I think it’s the only bike they won’t custom build for you. I guess demand is outstripping supply.

I can’t tell you why smaller-framed (but modern) dirtbikes are not a priority right now, but I think the only competition Beta has comes from the KTM Freeride. (And the Freeride ain’t a super-direct competitor; it's much more trials-based.) Underserved customers and little competition is a wonderful situation for a manufacturer to find itself in. How many off-road newbies are going to buy a true dirt machine if they can’t even mount it in the showroom? Further, how many off-road vets are going to switch brands of bike to get a modern bike that’s just easier to use on trails for non-competition use?

At least enough that I can’t seem to find an Xtrainer in a showroom, it seems.

Orange bike
Orange is a common color to see in the woods these days, and it's got nothing to do with the hunters. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Why is every off-road race a sea of orange?

This one I think I can answer for you. On the two-stroke side of things, KTM offers the widest array of bikes suitable for trail use. Their machines are light and powerful. The powerplants are pretty low-maintenance, though the chassis are built a bit light to save weight. KTM has generally been good about making their parts backwards-compatible, meaning keeping a bike for eight or 10 years isn’t too difficult. And compared to the boutique brands (Beta, Sherco, Gas-Gas, etc.), KTM has a far larger dealer network.

When it comes to the four-cycle machines, often the KTM options are lighter and more powerful than the competition. Their modernity has not gone unnoticed by buyers. Who’s going to buy a carbureted, air-cooled Honda XR650L (35 horsepower, 349 pounds), when a fuel-injected, liquid-cooled 500EXC-F (58 horsepower, 251 pounds) is an option? Sure, the KTM is a lot more money. But lots of people don’t mind paying a few bucks so they’re not tired and in last place in the local hare scramble. KTM has continued to innovate in the trail category, and because of that, they are able to extract more money from customers for their motorcycles.

Competition machines are lighter and faster than the non-competition offerings, two characteristics which make any day on the trails a little more enjoyable. KTM has grown so much because dirt riders don’t give a shit about amenities, nor do they care about comfort. Fast and light are the factors that sell bikes.

Conclusion

Off-road riding is not dead by a long shot, but there’s a sore need for some fresh bikes. Earlier this year, Powersports Business Magazine reported that “Off-highway and dual-purpose motorcycles were the only categories that saw increases in the first quarter of 2017.” I have to think that some R&D is coming to these segments in a big way right now. I’m eagerly anticipating the manufacturers answering some of these questions not with statements, but with motorcycles.