New breed of crossover mudbloods? By Richard Newland, Tim Thompson & Michael Guy Continued over
It’s a fantastic moment that never seems to lose its appeal – the post-mounted green rectangle with white lettering that reads ‘Byway’ creeps into view, one end pointing casually to the turning where your front wheel crosses that ragged transition from tarmac to green lane. It feels like freedom. Like you’ve managed to initiate yourself into a clandestine club whose members are allowed to go where others may not tread. And all you had to do was buy a bike capable of taking you there. But what should you buy?
It’s traditionally been a relatively clear-cut decision process. On one hand you had enduro bikes, evolved from motocross, and full of bark and bite that tear at the air and ground with barely tamed aggression. On the other you had trials bikes. Minimalist, devoid of road-going pleasantries or anywhere to park your arse – you stand for the duration, and in return they’ll get you into and out of almost anything. Neither option had ever heard the word ‘compromise’, and they certainly couldn’t spell it.
Then something odd started to happen. KTM released their Freeride, which looked like a slightly toneddown enduro bike, and which the Austrians claimed would dispatch tough terrain with softer manners. We all stroked our chins and thought that sounded like a good idea. Then Sherco released the X-ride, a crossover that looked like the trials and enduro parts bins has got mixed up on the production line. And just a few weeks ago Montesa (it’s a Honda really) rolled out the 4RIDE, a mildly reworked version of their 4RT trials bike, now with lights, indictors, mirrors, and somewhere to rest your glutes. So how do they compare? Over 100 miles of tarmac, green lanes, and a disused quarry, three variously talented riders should be able to split them.
For the ride
But it takes less than a quarter of a mile before the Montesa reveals a significant hole in its talents. Taglined ‘where on-road-meets off-road’ the 4RIDE promises a fair dose of both worlds, but it’s immediately torturous on tarmac. Shifting fast through the short trialslike ’box reveals a top gear that will allow a mere 80kmh (50mph). And it feels brutal holding it there. Trade 50 for 40, and a little more serenity returns, swiftly replaced by tedium. Off-road freshman Tim agrees: “The Montesa rules itself out the moment it sets its Dunlop D803 on tarmac. It’s gutless, barely able to maintain momentum in the face of long hills, and is barely credible as a road bike.”
Expectations shattered, we plough on with pedestrian boredom, eyes scanning the vanishing point for those green signs of hope. It doesn’t take long, and as those D803s fill their tread blocks with sumptuous mud it sucks it up like a camel that’s been ailing for water. That lack lustre power delivery suddenly feels pliant and usable, the squirming uncertainty of trials pattern tyres on tarmac giving way to logic-defying levels of traction. But the invigoration is short-lived. Every bank and tree stump looks more interesting than plodding along through ruts and puddles. Trials novice Tim is having an epiphany anyway: “Its agility is a revelation to anyone who’s never ridden a trials bike. Standing on the pegs, the strangely angled bars, exaggerated lock and featherlight steering make complete sense; there’s a natural balance that makes you wonder if it even needs a sidestand.”
As we pass through the quarry gates, and the 4RIDE’S nose starts to sniff out harder terrain, it feels most at home, and it’s the only environment where it comes close to rewarding you.
The X factor
The one-dimensionality of the 4RIDE is marginally broadened by Sherco’s X-ride. Faster on the road, it’ll buzz and hum along at a better lick, its taller fifth gear separated by a chasm from fourth, but there’s no great pleasure in it. “It’s tedious and demoralising on road,” echoes Tim, who is more used to the Freeride’s enduro-aping poke.
Light and lithe, the X feels almost toy-like, the 272cc two-stroke goading you into childish antics without feeling
‘There’s a natural balance that makes you wonder if it even needs a sidestand’
like it might bite if poked repeatedly. Despite three months of initiation on his Freeride, Tim looked instantly more relaxed on the Sherco, and couldnõt fail to notice it himself: Òits trials DNA and softer suspension help a novice like me waft it over minor obstacles, plug through boggy ruts and chug to the top of a daunting climb Ð all with more precision and confidence than the gung-ho KTM. I loved the X-ride for this.ó
That instant friendliness was endearing, but itõs cheapest of the three, and it looks and feels like it, too. While Shercoõs trials and enduro bikes are beautifully resolved works of art, the X-ride is more redolent of a Chinese enduro copy. It feels under-specõd and flimsy. The suspension is pliant, but lacks finesse; the styling is neither delicate nor brutish; the chassis and cycle parts fall short of pleasing, and the overall effect underwhelms. Itõs fun, compliant and unthreatening, but while compromise may be the name of this game, it means the X doesnõt feel inherently like a specialist anywhere.
The visceral shock of the Freerideõs fast throttle, archetypal enduro braap, and motocross stance set it firmly apart from the other two. Instantly lively, sharper, and insistent about wanting more throttle, and another gear kicked home, the Freeride is at the other end of the spectrum to the 4RIDE, the Sherco forming a bridge between them. In most environments it was the bike that topped all our preference lists, only falling short when the going got more trials shaped.
When the green lanes spat us out onto the tarmac the Freeride was the most adept, with enough guts to prevent you infuriating following traffic, and a riding position that feels more motorbike than mountain bike. Nose it back into the dirt and it inspires the most confidence on faster lanes and in deep ruts, but the sweet-smelling two-stroke feels focused like a motocrosser, not a friendly crossover leisure bike. Thereõs also a four-stroke 350 Freeride available and could well offer a more balanced option. But the 250 stroker is still Timõs favourite: Òfor me itõs the closest any of these hybrids come to doing it all Ð IÕD happily ride it 40 miles to an off-road venue. Rich and Michael donõt have much time for it Ð they wonder why you wouldnõt go straight to a proper enduro KTM. For me, though, its extra lightness and low seat are priceless. It canõt match the Shercoõs effortless agility on waterlogged trails or the Montesaõs trials ability, but itõs fun everywhere. I thought this sort of mud-based caper was for other people, but the Freeride has ushered me into a world I thought I would never understand.ó
So which one’s best?
All of them. And none of them. By their very nature, theyõre all compromises, never excelling in any one area. If you live in the Peak District and need to knit pockets of gnarly trials sections together with short sections of public road, then the 4RIDE comes closest. But weõd still choose a (much cheaper) pure trials bike and road register it. If youõre all about faster trails and more mud, then the Freeride is your friend. But weõd take the 350 EXC-F instead, because it does all that and more with dramatically more punch. If you want a leisurely green-laner that can deal with heavy trails, light trials, and longer linking roads, itõs the X-ride. Does that make the Sherco the winner? Probably, but the UK just doesnõt boast the terrain in which any of these mudbloods truly excel.