As Chris Walker heads for the dirt ramp flat-out, the tiny Yamaha whose neck he’s wringing starts to sound like a distressed tumble-dryer at full chat. A tumble-dryer that’s about to launch itself into the air on a trajectory that will take it perilously close to our heads.
Before I can act on the idea that it might be sensible to move out of the way, the screaming four-stroke single has landed with a thump and a squirt of dirt from the rear tyre. Even behind the goggles and mask of mud, I can see Walker is wearing the same childish grin he’s had on all day. " That was fun! " he exclaims. " What’s next? "
I’m too gobsmacked to answer. In the space of one day I’ve ridden through streams, up hills, down hills and over sand, shale and dirt. I’ve gone from an off-road novice to enduro wannabe. I can now see why Walker takes to the rough stuff to escape the pressures of being a world-class road racer.
It’s even more attractive when you do the sums. Walker may earn more in a season than most of us manage in five years, but he’s a working-class bloke at heart and he’s just as keen on a bargain as the rest of us. And these four used machines – Yamaha’s Serow 125, Honda’s CRM250, Kawasaki’s KLX250 and KDX200R – are serious bargains, sourced straight out of MCN Bikemart.
They haven’t been tuned. They’re not even new. But they are cheap and they’re more capable than I’ll ever be. At between £1300 and £1900, each has already reached its price plateau, so you’ll lose maybe a couple of hundred quid if you buy one now and sell it on next year. And don’t worry about dropping them, scraping them or riding them through bushes. They’re built to take that kind of abuse and it won’t stop the bloke you sell it to handing over a wad of notes to take your battle-scarred hero off your hands.
The cheapest is the Yamaha. It’s also the friendliest, and throughout the day it proves to be Walker’s No1 choice, though with 225cc of gentle four-stroke it has the smallest, least powerful engine. But off-road, smaller is better. Walker says: " It’s hard to get your head around at first, but the big 500 two-strokes and 600 four-strokes are really evil and hard to ride. " And that’s from the man who rides a 170bhp World Superbike.
Alistair Mackenzie, of The Off Road Centre in Mansfield, Notts, which supplied us with these bikes, agrees. He said: " We get so many people in our shop who’ve just started, and they’re like: ‘Give me the biggest machine you’ve got.’ They assume that because they need a big bike on the road, they’ll need a big machine on the dirt as well. A 250 is more than you’ll ever need. Anything bigger gets real dangerous, real quick. "
The last thing the Serow could be accused of is intimidation. Cock your leg over its diminutive saddle and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re on a mountain bike, it’s so narrow. Unlike the other three, it comes with a battery and a starter motor. A quick stab of the button and it coughs into life with the same sort of noise my 40-a-day grandad used to make. Following Walker and Mackenzie isn’t a problem, even though they have more off-road skill in their little fingers than I can muster in my entire body. The Serow lets you concentrate on the trail ahead. The saddle is not uncomfortable, but the moment you hit the dirt, you feel the urge to stand on the tiny pegs and let the suspension and your legs smooth the ride out. Considering this bike is so flattering to beginners and simple to ride, Walker is well impressed.
He says: " It’s an absolute mountain goat! There’s nowhere you can’t go on it. My only criticisms are the suspension and the brakes. If you don’t ride it too hard, the suspension isn’t a problem. And later models have discs front and back, rather than a disc and a drum like this. "
The other four-stroke on test, Kawasaki’s KLX250, feels far more purposeful. The suspension is harsher, demanding more input, and the engine responds much better to a heavy throttle hand. If you let it rev, the KLX will happily keep up with the more powerful two-strokes. It feels a lot more like a " real " motorbike than the Yamaha, with a more substantial seat, taller riding position and more weight.
Mackenzie says: " It’s one of the few bikes at this price you could take out and compete with. It’s well capable of a clubman enduro or two, as well as anything else you fancy doing off-road. "
The liquid-cooled 250 is much more capable than the Serow’s 225cc air-cooled motor, but the lack of electric start quickly makes itself known. Attempting to chug up and over a narrow gap in an embankment, I hear the telltale thud of the rider on the other side crashing. In a bid to stop before rolling over the crest and flattening the unfortunate friend, I end up stationary and stall. In such a precarious position, starting the KLX proves scary. I can’t safely get off, I can’t make it over the crest without power, and I can’t get my balance for the 30-second battle with the kickstart. In the end, my only option is to roll backwards down the slope.
The KLX gets harder to start the hotter it is. After taking the bike off Mackenzie or Walker, who both thrash the machines far harder than I ever could, it’s almost impossible to get it going. Funnily enough, after putt-putting around for 10 minutes under my wobbly control, it’s much easier to spark it into life.
The other Kawasaki is different again. The biggest change is the two-stroke engine. The KDX200R has the smallest capacity of the four, but arguably produces the most power. And a major advantage of that miniature engine is that it can be set zinging with only a half-hearted prod of the kickstart lever.
The garish pink machine feels very similar to its green four-stroke sibling. A tallish riding position and solid suspension help it handle ruts, bumps and jumps with the minimum of fuss, which you’ll really appreciate if you’re a newcomer to off-roading.
When you open the throttle, though, the difference between the KLX and the KDX becomes all too apparent. Where the KLX would push you forward whatever the revs, the KDX requires a lot more attention to gears and speed. Open the throttle in too high a gear and the only thing that increases is the engine noise. Instead, you find yourself stamping down the gears to find the powerband. When you’ve found it, the front goes light and the engine changes note completely. It’s a thrill when you get it right, but a pain when you get it wrong. Approaching a shallow pothole or ditch in the wrong gear on the KDX can spell disaster, with the motor lacking the oomph to lift the front wheel over the obstacle. Walker and Mackenzie are using their talent to keep the engine singing in all situations, often slipping the clutch to keep it in the powerband. I find my concentration distracted by the sheer challenge of keeping it upright.
Walker loves it. " It has a mean turn of speed when you want, " he says. " I got it up to nearly a ton on the Tarmac, and it goes like the clappers on the rough stuff as well. Just a shame it’s pink – I could never spend money on a pink bike! "
Honda’s CRM250 is far less peaky, but still not as torquey as even the undersized Serow. The smoother power delivery means there’s less of the KDX’s buzz, but it’s easier to ride because of it. Like the other three machines it has discs all round, though brakes are far less important off-road than other factors like suspension and tyres.
This bike is fitted with dual-purpose tyres that rob it of potential off the beaten track. But the two-stroke Honda still makes us all smile.
" I really rate the Honda, " says Walker. " It’s one of the best trail bikes ever made. It’s a legend. You can buy one as your first off-road bike, then kit it out and improve it as you go. You could even go so far as say it’s all you’ll ever need. You can buy official factory pipes and ignition kits to give more power, as well as different suspension if you start getting tasty. "
" It’s definitely one of the most popular bikes in the shop, " adds Mackenzie. " They’re solid performers that you can’t fault. The fact they’re absolutely bulletproof helps a lot, too. "
But which one would you buy?
" That’s a difficult choice, " muses Mackenzie. " It would be between the CRM and the KLX. They’re the most professional bikes at this price, and you’re speaking to someone who’s been riding and racing for years. You could pick one according to which colour is your favourite and still be over the moon. "
Walker agrees. " There’s no way anyone could be disappointed after buying any of these. You can have just as much of a good time in winter on one of these as you can in summer on a superbike. I like the KLX and the CRM, but you get what you pay for and those two are going to cost £1800 and £1900. That little Serow is easily just as much fun and it’s only £1300. In fact, I’ll just have the Serow – it’s wicked! "