Italian with Austrian Power
Versatility and flexibility are virtues never to be under-estimated. In a world of fragmented off-road riding opportunities, the high-performance dual-sport machine has become the necessary alternative to obsolescing dirt-only motorcycles.
Fortunately, the dual-sport segment has seen the rise of ultra-competitive 95%-dirt/5%-street machines that have permitted the city dweller to link up fire roads and trails from the home drive-way or the office parking lot. Now, after work and early morning weekday rides are within reach. Cutting the umbilical cord from the truck and trailer, the high-performance dual sport bike is a liberating investment.
With the current emissions regulations and legislative loopholes, only a small handful of European manufacturers are able to supply street-legal versions of their off-road race bikes to all 50 states, and now this elite group is one stronger with the arrival of the Beta 450 RS. Importantly, Beta has made the 450 RS legal without too many odd bits and pieces hanging off the bike. Outside of the obscure observed trials scene, Betamotor S.p.A. is virtually unknown in the United States, but the Italian manufacturer has been producing competition and recreational motorcycles for more than a century. Annual production is 17,000 vehicles and 15,000 engines (many of them powering KTM sport minicycles).
American Beta has cultivated 20 full-service dealers, and is a promising niche player for the rider who demands a distinctive dual-sport experience. Sourcing high-end components from all over the globe, then built in Rignano Sull’Arno (near Florence), the Beta 450 RS is beautiful example of Italian design and ingenuity. From the unique air-intake duct on the rear fender to the tank sticker providing a place to inscribe the rider’s name and number, this is far from a mainstream dual-sport bike. The powerplant is a proven 2006-spec KTM EXC motor, known for its smooth and tractable power, reliability, and ease of maintenance.
Suspension is provided by 45mm Marzocchi forks coupled with a fully adjustable Sachs rear shock, bolted to Beta’s proprietary progressive link suspension. Stopping power comes from dual-piston Nissin calipers squeezing Braking wave rotors. Anodized black Excel rims attached to the billet aluminum wheel hubs complete the overall package and give additional credence to its inherent competitive nature.
Monday morning, donning a back-pack and a change of clothes, it was time to wheelie my way to the office on the RS. Somehow it still felt like the weekend as I whizzed through and around West Los Angeles traffic, knowing that I was riding one of the most exclusive street-legal motorcycles on the road. Customs are certainly attention grabbers, and this is something of an off-road custom.
The first thing I noticed is that the RS is quick, thanks to its torquey powerplant. 450cc singles are great urban assault powerplants, especially when they’re placed in a 255-pound motorcycle bristling with weight saving alloys. You truly feel as if you can go anywhere, and intriguing challenges such as staircases, curbs and traffic islands vie for your riding attention. Although easily capable of triple digit speeds on the highway, the bike’s real sweet spot is right around the speed limit. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of grip the DOT-rated Pirelli Scorpions provided on the wet tarmac.
The 40-mile commute to work was over far too soon, and with its 2.24gallon fuel tank, I had plenty of fuel to get home without a stop at the filling station.A smile came across my face when I thought about how fun my commute to work was this morning, but when dismounting the bike I noticed a slight aching from my backside,reminding me that this is a competition dirt bike, not a street cruiser! The ergonomics are great for more active riding than you usually do on the street,and the seat is especially hard. After spending much of my work day anticipating my eventual ride home that evening, I escaped a little early and headed up to the nearby mountains to sample the off-road mettle of the RS.
Navigating tight wooded single-track is nearly effortless, as the knife-like turning characteristics of the bike are readily apparent. The flexible powerband and smooth hydraulic clutch (still rare on dirt bikes) are a perfect match for the chassis. The overall light feel and narrow midsection of the RS make it obvious that this machine is designed as a race bike first, and a street-legal machine as an afterthought.
The turn signals are nicely tucked in and the rear view mirrors fold out of the way-essential in the woods. The brakes are adequate, the Pirelli Scorpions always find grip, and the plush suspension soaks up roots and small rocks with ease.The rocks are kept at bay by the alloy skid plate, though a front disc guard could help prevent a rugged ride from ending in a DNF.
In the high-speed open desert, the RS is a bit out of its element. Deep whooped-out fire roads and sand washes challenge the suspension and nimble chassis. However, with a few clicks on the adjustable forks and shock, the RS becomes more tolerant of the big stuff.
Accessory handguards, a smaller countershaft sprocket and, most importantly, the Beta-sold GPR steering stabilizer, take the RS further into the competition realm. The GPR settles the RS down nicely in serious whoops and makes long rides on the Beta less fatiguing. Gearing it down a bit sacrifices the triple-digit top speed in exchange for gearbox ratios that are even better suited to tight quarters. And, in those tight quarters, hand protection is a must when fending off brush and branches.
So are you a non-conformist? Are you a motorcycle enthusiast looking to link up your favorite off-road trails, or to simply have a little two-wheel fun during the workweek? The modern high-performance dual-sport bike is the answer, and the Beta 450 RS delivers a unique high-performance dual-sport experience, while being miles away from mainstream.
DECEMBER 2008 / JANUARY 2009 ULTIMATE MOTORCYCLING Photos by DON WILLIAMS