Beta 520 RS Motorcycle Test
When Cody Webb — endurocross, extreme enduro, and observed trials triple-threat — raced, and won, the gnarly King of the Motos race in California’s expansive Johnson Valley OHV Area on a Beta, it awakened many people to the brand that is a bit of a mystery to most motorcyclists.
In addition to its RR-series off-road race bikes, Beta has a three-bike street-legal RS line for those who mix pavement with dirt. Dual sport motorcycles bridge that gap between adventure bikes and purely off-road enduro machines.
I chomped at the bit to ride the 520 RS — the largest of the line, above the 400 and 450—and was wobbly right out of the driveway, due to its light weight (claimed 246 pounds, dry), nimble chassis and fully knobby tires.
Highway riding quickly brings to attention the need to have the wheels balanced, or you can do what I do — remove the rim locks. The sheer strength of the seriously oversquare 497cc motor is a real turn-on, making for an enjoyable street experience.
Switchback turns give the smooth and powerful 520 that opportunity to bring the front end up in one corner, and lean it into the next. However, my experience of cleaning city streets from past love-of-speed exhibitions keeps a leash on euphoric pavement rides – it is best to save that desire for racetracks.
Near the Napa and Saint Helena wine country is the Knoxville Recreation Area, a BLM range that offers some rocky and loose red gravel trails—a challenge to any bike’s tractability. The motor—which is fed by a 39mm Keihin FCR carburetor— passed, finding traction wherever possible.
Although the 520 RS is not fuel injected, it is capable of maintaining steady revs at all levels of low-to-mid engine speeds. Give it some throttle and it moves along quite aggressively — we are talking 497cc, remember.
Cold mornings require the carb to be choked and warmed for a minute or two. Once warm, the Beta motor never hiccups from jumping or quick twists of the throttle. The exhaust is loud by Japanese dual sport standards, though quieter than a race bike — I prefer lower dB.
The hydraulic clutch works great and the six-speed transmission is awesome. How nice it is to have that 6th gear at highway speeds, and no gaps in the lower cogs while trail riding.
The 14-tooth primary sprocket works fine in the tight stuff and on the highway, and I never felt the need to replace it with the supplied 13-tooth piece.
Sachs suspension is fitted, and it is fairly softly sprung—probably the least race-like aspect to the bike — making the ride a bit hard, as the bike sits low in the stroke.
The linkage rear shock is fully adjustable, including both high- and low- speed compression-damping circuits. The forks are also damping- and pre-load-adjustable, and have friction-killing TFX technology.
While the Beta RS is not quite a race bike, it is close. On the trails at non-competitive speeds, it is outstanding. For an open-class bike, it’s exceptionally agile and friendly, in both handling and power delivery. When the speeds get slow, its gets hot between the legs from air passing through the radiators. Beta’s optional fan is ideal for the tight gnarly trails.
Which brings up a great feature the boutique Italian brand offers — the BYOB (Build Your Own Beta) program. Beta presents you with the opportunity to customize your machine straight from the Paso Robles, Calif. distributor with many great options, ranging from a 3.1-gallon IMS tank to a Rekluse clutch, Marzocchi 48mm closed-cartridge forks and a Fox RC3 shock, FMF Powercore 4 muffler (more grunt and sound), and an aluminum license plate support.
That last item could have come in handy. Upon returning from the Knoxville trails, I was missing the license plate—a possibility American Beta warned me about. The lowest portion of the fender extension holding the plate below the signals and illumination is weak. Serious off-roaders will want to bolt the plate on the extension above the signals and out of harm’s way in tight brush, and remove the lowest extension.
Oh, and I would have liked that 3.1-gallon tank. Just a mile from my parked motorcycle carrier and I was tipping the bike over to get every last drop into the petcock side of the tiny two-gallon tank.
Luckily, the reserve side of the petcock is reversed and flipping it delivered more fuel to the float bowl for a happy return back — try that on a fuel-injected bike. If I had my way, Beta would offer a five-gallon tank for those of us who are serious explorers.
Lacking handguards, BYOB comes to the rescue again. Various brands of guards are available, and I feel naked riding the RS without them, as my knuckles have been whacked repeatedly.
For long multiple-day rides there is the need for a wider, softer seat foam and cover; again, BYOB is there. The anti-slip, textured seat cover has seams that are destined to cause a case of the dreaded monkey butt. A one-piece, pliable material is preferred. On the upside, it takes just a single push of a button to quickly release the seat and access the battery and air filter—no need for tools.
For dual sporting, the 520 RS has something we all can use on rides in unfamiliar areas — a Trail Tech Voyager GPS display loaded with data and readouts, including coolant temperature. Distractingly, the speedometer wasn’t cooperating and the readings fluctuated all over the place.
The mirrors are great, and I prefer them over the little aftermarket plastic ones; I like to see who is coming and going. The handlebar height doesn’t cramp my six-foot frame, and the unladen 36.6-inch seat height is accommodating for people not quite as tall as me.
If you are out after dark, lighting is not great and stronger LED products would be the hot setup, maybe in a small rally fairing. The choice of DOT-compliant Michelin Enduro Competition tires is much appreciated on the trail.
I do not have to tell you about the aesthetics—this is an exotic, beautiful, sexy Italian motorcycle. Underneath the beautiful exterior, the components are well engineered and the finish is top quality.
We will surely be hearing more Beta wins in various racing formats in the future, and that will drive interest to the brand. KTM should be on its toes, as serious dual sporter enthusiasts now have a viable alternative—the Beta 520 RS.
- Helmet: Bell Moto-9 Carbon
- Goggles: Smith Optics
- Jacket:M-Tech Adventure Protective
- Gloves: Dainese MX
- Pants: M-Tech Protective Waterproof
- Boots: Sidi Agueda
Photography by Don Williams
Story from the latest issue of Ultimate MotorCycling magazine. For subscription services, click here.