BIG BLOKE ON A GIRL'S BIKE

(I wrote this in 1998. Still got the bike. Still love it).

 The Yamaha XT225 Serow

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I dont know how to put this without offending some people's egos, but here goes - the Yamaha XT225 Serow is arguably the best trail bike in the world. A lot of people who have bought big, fast, powerful enduro machinery to go trail riding have probably chosen the wrong bikes.

But let me explain, before I am deluged by electronic hate-mail from hardened dirt enthusiasts.

Enduro bikes are increasingly single-minded machines, with suspension, frames and power plants designed to do one thing well: travel pretty damned quickly over fairly open rough terrain. Good trail bikes (dual sports) are gentler beasts by nature, and none the worse for it. They are simply designed to do a different job.

Encouraged by marketing hype, many riders figure that if a bike performs well at enduro, it should be brilliant for Sunday spins out in the backwoods. Well, not necessarily so .....

One week in May 1998, my little Serow and I completed about 700 miles of trail riding in the Picos de Europa mountains of Spain, in company with six guys on a pair of XR400s, an XR600, an XR250, a  a full enduro-spec DR350 and a stripped-down Honda Dominator 650. We had never met before and general opinion was that I (200lbs and then aged 47) might have trouble keeping up. As a self-confessed moderate rider who has hardly touched dirt riding seriously for 12 years, I had similar fears.

One XR400 rider got straight to the point and dismissed the little Yam as 'a girl's bike'. Two things happened that changed his mind forever. The first was a fast, four or five mile climb up a rocky and rutted mountain pass with 180 degree hairpins, which developed into something of a race. First to the top were the XR600 and DR350, with (much to their amazement) the Serow snapping at their heels. One of the XR400's was hard on my tail, but however much he caught up on the straights, the Serow left him for dead in the turns: and where the XR was forced to power over rocks at speed, the Yam went faster by swerving and skipping between them. The author of the 'girl's bike' jibe was left way behind.

The second thing that happened to the aforementioned XR400 jockey was that he was persuaded to try out the Serow on a steep and difficult climb. He arrived back with his mouth open in astonishment. 'It's just so bloody EASY. It's ... it's an unfair advantage,' was his verdict. The other XR400 rider had a try and came to a similar conclusion: 'It's so light and comfortable - I could ride this all day, anywhere'.

All week the conversation kept coming back to the Serow=s amazing agility, performance and toughness. There was not a single section of trail on which the little thumper was left behind, and many on which it sailed past heavier bikes that were struggling. What's just as important when riding up to eight hours in a day, the bike never made it hard work (which is more than can be said for my lack of ability on occasion).

OK, the Serow does have limitations. In really fast (40+ mph) motocross-type going, it would be outclassed by all the above bikes (except the Dominator, which is much too heavy and highway-orientated for anything serious off-road) by its lack of all-out power and suspension movement. But on Spanish trails that included everything from trials-type climbs over loose boulders and shale, to donkey paths and rutted jeep tracks, the bike was never once out-gunned.

 

SPECIFICATION

In a showroom full of muscle-bound enduro hunks, the 225 looks ridiculously small and under-powered. Only later does one discover that it=s a featherweight champion in disguise, that can punch way above its class.

Check out the specification and any 'serious' dirt rider would laugh: a two-valve, single overhead cam air-cooled 223cc motor putting out a puny 20bhp, with just 8.9 inches of movement at the front and 7.5 inches at the back, driving through skinny tyres. But with a dry weight of just 238 lbs carried low (at 5 ft 10 in I can get both feed flat on the ground with my knees bent) the power is more than adequate and perfectly matches the handling.

The suspension may be short, but it is sophisticated Showa stuff, with a multi-link rear end that keeps the back wheel in contact with the ground to an extraordinary degree. So often, where the more harshly-sprung and far more powerful bikes were fighting for traction, the Serow just dug in and delivered its full load.

The front end initially feels nervous compared with the planted feel of a big enduro, but the steering is precise and safe as well as being light. On loose-surfaced  turns it could be ridden inside the heavyweights, feet-up, at almost highway speeds, such was its balance. It may not have the grunt for broadsiding or monster wheelies, but it can jump gullies easily in the mid gears with a flick of throttle and a pull on the bars.

With so little weight, the Serow does not need huge knobblies and is perfectly suited to road-legal Pirelli MT21s, wet or dry (they stick pretty well on the blacktop, too). I did not have to adjust the chain once in 700 miles.

Like everyone else on the Spanish trip, I had my share of falls and stalls, and here comes one of the Serow=s most endearing features: a brilliantly reliable electric start. I've had my bellyful of trying to kick life into gassed-up bikes when I am stuck, exhausted, sinking steadily into a bottomless bog or slipping backwards on  some impossible climb. Call me cissy if you like, but give me an electric foot every time.

Once started, the engine just keeps going (one of the few thumpers I have ever owned that ticks over with total certainty). There are no flat spots, no power peaks, just useful power across an amazingly broad range, matched to a well-spaced six speed box. You can plod it over tricky stuff, short shift it or scream it in any gear without protest. On the road, it will touch 80 mph and cruise at 65-70 mph all day, returning anything from 70 to 90 mpg (Imperial) depending how you ride.

Nice touches for the dirt include sturdy lifting handles at the rear AND the front, with gaiters to keep the grit out of your fork seals. For the road, it has an excellent set of lights, lightweight indicators, useful mirrors and brakes that actually work (anyone who has used a Honda XR200's Teflon brakes and glow-worm illuminations will appreciate that).

When riding trails in country which is used by hikers, horse-riders, donkeys, farmers and their livestock, there=s another neat side to the Serow=s character: it=s easy to ride slowly and quietly when occasion demands. A few times on the Spanish trip I went exploring alone up tracks connecting high mountain villages: the Serow=s lack of visual and audible impact was partly responsible, I am sure, for many of the friendly waves and cries of 'Hola!' that greeted my passing.

In terrain that includes lots of fast open going, the Serow would make an ideal mount for a small, light rider or a beginner wanting to learn the ropes before trading up to something with more racing pretensions. Where the going is tougher (for that read Britain - mud, rocks, bogs, more mud), I would recommend the bike to anyone who favours riding enjoyment over machismo street credibility.

Incidentally, the Serow got its name from a small, nimble-footed mountain deer that is found all over South East Asia. A perfect description for a surprisingly great bike.

Footnote (written in 1998, so it may be a bit out of date)

The Picos de Europa is a stunningly beautiful area in Northern Spain, near Santander, with mountains to 8,000 feet and hundreds of miles of trails rising almost to the top in places. There are few tourists and living is cheap.

The trip was organised and led by George Cherry of Moto-Tours and cost 495 including hotels and return ferries from Britain to Spain. George will happily put together trail tours in Spain for all comers of any ability - including bike hire.

Contact him at 18 Scott Avenue, Stanstead Abbotts, Ware, Hertfordshire SG12 8BG, UK. Tel: 01920 871 988.