Boutique brands like Sherco and Beta dominate extreme off-road racing

The main venues for motocross racing have been motocross and supercross for nearly a century now. In these areas, Japanese manufacturers Yamaha, Honda, Kawasakiand (less and less) Suzuki populated the stands and the podiums, with KTM and sister brands Husqvarna and GASGAS has only made substantial progress over the past 10-20 years (depending on how you define “substantial”). Against this backdrop, the rapid rise of lesser-known manufacturers like Sherco and Beta to the upper ranks of tough enduro and endurocross racing is all the more impressive.

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On an unnamed horse

2020 GASGAS TXT Race Trials
GASGAS

Photo of a test rider climbing a rock on a 2020 GASGAS TXT Racing model

Aside from the odd Beta or Fantic entry ranking in the lower to middle ranks of MXGP in Europe, the only bikes that seem to have a chance in moto are from one of the four Japanese factories or one of the triads of the KTM brand coming out of Austria. PIERER Mobility Group. In the decades that this precedent was set, brands like cherco and Beta have been relegated to the fringe world of trials, a motorcycle business in which well-dressed riders scale massive obstacles at low speeds with near-flat tires and open-faced helmets. Cool, sure, but not exactly a stepping stone to lining up for holes next to Hondas at Unadilla National. At the same time, as motocross progressed further and further out of the reach of new OEM entrants, a new breed of racers and off-road enthusiasts were bred in the mountains and in smaller stadiums. The sport of extreme enduro was born.

Related: KTM releases 12 new MX bikes for 2023

Enduro Racing reaches new extremes

Trystan Hart 2022 Red Bull Outliers KTM
KTM

Photo of KTM’s Trystan Hart navigating endurocross style obstacles during the 2022 Red Bull Outliers competition

The names are fluid in motorcycling, as anyone who has tried to define “enduro” in conversation has found five or ten minutes in a debate about what the word actually means. As a context, motocross activity has split into quasi-official designations “motocross” when done outdoors, and “supercross” or “arenacross” when done indoors. Likewise, this last segment of motorcycle madness which we will call “extreme enduro” has two tentacles: “hard enduro” in the hills and valleys, and “endurocross” (US) or “super enduro” (global) taking it inside. Motocross and enduro events have a lot in common, but in extreme enduro of any kind, you can’t visually scan pits and quickly identify bikes by color. While it’s impossible to miss Yamaha’s BluCru at the Monster Energy Supercross, a blue fender at the Erzberg Rodeo could belong to a TM, Sherco or, in the rarest case, a Yamaha. Red will indicate GASGAS or Beta at least nine times out of ten. You can meet the friendliest people on a Honda, but you probably won’t meet an endurocross racer on a CRF450R.

Related: The 2023 Yamaha YZ2023F outshines the competition again… rear-facing!

Orange Are you glad I didn’t say Suzuki?

Hixpania Hard Enduro 2022 Lettenbichler KTM Manual
KTM

Photo of Manuel Lettenbichler on his way to winning the 2022 Hixpania Hard Enduro

Before praising too much small bike manufacturers, we must recognize the common thread running through motocross and enduro winner circles: KTM. The Austrian factory has built its racing reputation through motorcycling as aggressively as it has expanded its brand portfolio, with parent company PIERER Mobility Group now owning Husqvarna and GASGAS motorcycles as well as WP Suspension. While the Japanese brands allocate resources to developing their bikes as well as designing lawn mowers, boat motors and pianos, KTM has stuck mostly to one-wheel drive. Not just a slogan of “Ready to Race”, KTM offers a diverse model portfolio to suit all riding and racing tastes. In contrast, Kawasaki or Suzuki enthusiasts should customize their tall, stiff, aggressive motocross models into race-capable racers by softening the suspension and installing large fuel tanks, among countless other mods. Despite their unique focus on the track, the Japanese OEMs weren’t able to keep the orange bikes at bay, with the KTM 450 SX-F winning the 2019 AMA Supercross Championship under Cooper Webb and winning the MXGP title in 2018 and 2021 driven by Jeffry Herlings. KTM, Husqvarna and GASGAS are each better motocross and supercross bets than Suzuki, which is cutting the racing budget these days.

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Enduro becomes extremely European

WESS Championship 2022 Lettenbichler Roman Hixpania
KTM

The 2022 WESS Championship podium of KTM, Sherco and Husqvarna, respectively.

Off track, the KTMs did even better. Currently, the biggest and worst enduro racing series is the World Enduro Super Series (WESS), which takes place in some of the toughest terrain in the northern hemisphere. From the Austrian “Iron Giant” Erzbergrodeo to the Spanish Hixpania Hard Enduro Series Finale, KTM took most of the wins and led team rider Manuel Lettenbichler to his second WESS Championship. The only thing more striking than the lack of Yamahas or Hondas on the podium (or even the entry sheet) was the ubiquity of Sherco riders pecking at the heels of KTMs and Husqvarnas. Sherco, the modern descendant of your grandfather’s Bultaco, has signed serious names and won (or almost won) big events. Take, for example, Sherco’s Mario Roman, who won the opening round of the 2022 WESS series and came second for the grueling championship in eight rounds. All of this on a French bike that most casual Anaheim Supercross fans would probably mistake for a Husqvarna.

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A bull in a taco shop

2022 WESS TKO Cody Webb Sherco 300 SE
Red Bull/Future 7 Media Content Pool

Photo of Cody Webb riding a Factory Sherco 300 SE at the 2022 Red Bull Tennessee Knockout

Several factors are pushing Sherco to the top of extreme enduro racing. First and foremost, the racing team has a roster full of top talent. Cody Webb, Mario Roman and Wade Young are consistently in the top 10 in the hard enduro and super enduro rankings aboard the French-made machines. Second, Sherco, much like KTM, offers models geared towards several specific areas of off-road racing, while many other brands start with a motocross-focused blueprint and soften from there. From versatile 300 SE two-stroke models to SEF four-stroke models in 250, 300, 450 and 500 cc, cherco offers the right blend of competitiveness and compliance for any task, from endurocross to Dakar. Finally, the company makes no apparent compromise by outfitting its Factory SE and SEF steeds with components that make a difference. Topping the list is KYB’s state-of-the-art suspension technology, similar in design to the Yamaha YZ fork and shock that have received top marks for many years. Sherco also made a strategic move to allow KTM to iron out bugs with two-stroke fuel-injection technology while forged French smokers continue to rely on well-established Keihin PWK carburetors.

Related: The best enduro bikes in 2022

Beta is second… for now

Abestone Hard Enduro Jonny Walker Beta 2021
Red Bull/Future 7 Media Content Pool

Photo of Jonny Walker climbing a massive hill aboard his Beta 300RR at the 2021 Abestone Hard Enduro

The trend of smaller European manufacturers making hay on the motorcycle scene seems to be getting stronger over time. At the time of this article, the current AMA Endurocross Championship standings show Beta’s Jonny Walker in second place and Sherco’s Cody Webb and Cooper Abbot fourth and sixth respectively. Even small Italian brand TM has a foothold, with Ty Cullins in 10th place (and on the loudest bike in the building). The rest of the top ten are either KTM, GASGAS or Husqvarna entries, with KTM’s Trystan Hart leading the series by one point over Walker. However the series shakes up, it’s remarkable to see these brands on the podium under stadium lights in the United States, where Japanese outfitters normally hold an indoor racing oligopoly. Whether smaller European OEMs will enter AMA Motocross or Supercross significantly remains an open question, but it seems at least as likely as an HRC Honda or Star Racing Yamaha overtaking a Sherco or Beta in extreme enduro of if early.

About Frances R. Smith

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