Looking For Travis: KTM 990, Transalp, BMW HP2

A KTM 990, Honda Transalp and BMW HP2 get stuck into the muddy action at the WRC Wales Rally as we go searching for freestyle legend Travis Pastrana


Rain like you can’t believe. Horizontal slabs of thick, juicy water, drops as big as Subbuteo footballs, rain so heavy that it makes you laugh out loud at the insanity of it all and you can’t see 30ft in front of you. It’s pitch dark at 6pm and the traffic on the M4 is sloshing through an inch of standing water nose-to-tail. Filtering is potentially deadly and the bow-wash from trucks completely blinding. My feet are making squelching noises already and we’ve only got another 150 miles to go. What’s truly ironic, I reflect inside the sodden haven of my helmet, is that less than 20 minutes ago I was on fire. I could really have done with some rain then.

We’re on our way to Wales to watch our first-ever WRC rally event and give three adventure bikes a healthy dose of, well, adventure along the way. KTM’s seminal 990 represents the pinnacle of what a true adventure bike should be, combining long-distance capability with aggressive styling and dirt bike toughness. BMW’s HP2 Enduro is the serious off-road tool here, stripped down, light weight and with chunky motocross tyres. And Honda’s new Transalp is waving the flag for the budget adventurer. Simple and unfussy it may be, but it’s got 20 years refinement behind it and shouldn’t be underestimated even in this company. Word has it that American freestyle legend Travis Pastrana is competing in the rally, and we’re determined to meet the man. Anyone who’s seen his wild nine-roll crash in his Subaru and get out whooping with excitement, or witnessed him complete the world’s first double back-flip in front of 50,000 screaming fans, or launch himself into the Grand Canyon with nothing more than a parachute to save his life, cannot fail to be a little bit impressed. So we headed west to Wales. Which is right about when it started raining.

Right now, I’m on the KTM 990 Adventure. I started the trip on the brand-new Honda Transalp (with heated handlebar grips it was a no-brainer) but after just five miles it became immediately apparent that something was very wrong with the photographer. I watched Geoff lurch out of the carpark on the 120bhp KTM and it was genuinely scary. Then I saw him fail to overtake cars that were doing 28mph on a completely straight road, and practically get off and push at the first roundabout we came to. So I waved him in at the M25 services. “Mate – when did you last ride a bike?” I came straight out and asked. “Um, in 1998,” came the reply. Fantastic. We’ve got to be in Cardiff before 6pm through Friday night traffic, it’s 3pm now and our photographer last rode a bike 10 years ago and is visibly quaking with fear. I give Geoff the more forgiving Transalp and we hit the road. When he disappears in my mirrors for the third time, I get pissed off and hit the throttle.

The KTM is a beauty. It’s rough and edgey with real bite to its character. Small amounts of throttle input send it surging forwards and it completely belies its huge physical appearance by feeling small and svelte to ride. It’s shaped like a wedge of cheese, and while it’s a bit of a clamber to get onto the 860mm high saddle, once you’re up there it’s simplicity itself to ride. Through stationary traffic it makes a mockery of other vehicles, the upright ride position giving you a commanding view ahead and allowing you to scythe past queues with suitable disdain. The angular screen kicks the windblast clean over the top of your helmet, and while the seat gets a bit brutal after 100 miles, it’s a glorious way of covering miles. In black the 990 looks seriously stealth, although with Geoff’s cheap carry-all strapped to the back it did tend to ruin the style somewhat.

Fortunately this wasn’t a problem for long. With the others fumbling around the M25 miles behind, I was making good progress on the KTM when I noticed that cars were giving me a wide berth and flashing me. I looked behind and sweet Lord! We were on fire. Proper, three-foot licks of flame out the back. Pulling over onto the hard shoulder it turned out that Geoff’s luggage had been ignited by the exhaust cans and had subsequently set fire to its entire contents and the numberplate assembly. I pounded at it with my boots and gloves, but the bloody stuff was like napalm and promptly set me alight as well. With my hands and feet now ablaze like the Wicker Man and laughing hysterically, I finally managed to put out the charred remains of the napalm bag and the back of the 990, then found a handy puddle to douse myself. Kicking the smoking remnants of Geoff’s clothes into the bushes, I re-mounted the flambeéd 990 and heading directly into the cloudburst.

We made it into Cardiff a full hour late. It hadn’t stopped raining the entire journey, and the World Rally people were genuinely aghast at our appearance. Our sodden galoshes dripped all over their paperwork and our dishevelled garments brought the tone of the media office down by at least 80%. We looked like trench refugees from the Battle of Ypres. Our Art Editor Barry is new to motorbikes and will gleefully ride anything you give him like an excited puppy, so I had given him the completely unprotected BMW HP2 Enduro to quell his annoying enthusiasm. Without the benefit of even a rev-counter to hide behind, Barry’s oversuit had held up but his backpack was literally full of water. Meanwhile, Geoff had to suffer the final ignominy of buying £100-worth of clothes from M&S, but his wardrobe was in need of replacement anyway.

One of the advantages of riding an adventure-style motorcycle in seriously grotty conditions is that their chunky, off-road tyres negate any chance of aquaplaning. Their resistance to mud and long-travel suspension also make them perfect for doing something as complicated as following a world rally event. And it’s a perplexing business, this rallying. Cars set off from the service area in Swansea, drive 30 miles on the road to the special stages, go absolutely and completely beserk down forest roads so slippery you can barely walk on them, then drive back to Swansea covered in mud. It became quite common to find petrol stations blocked with turbo-charged rally cars all queuing for the Super Unleaded pumps, which is something that happened rather a lot as the BMW has a tiny petrol tank and sucked it down like a Dyson.

I developed a bipolar relationship with the HP2 Enduro. I first rode it about two months ago when it had 17” road wheels on it, and absolutely loathed it. It staggered and weaved around the road like a tractor, looked weird and had no brakes. With its proper dirtbike wheels restored (17” rear, 21” front) and with enduro tyres on, the HP2 was much better and represented the pointy end of off-road bikes in this trio. As expected, it was a curse to ride down the motorway without a shred of wind protection, but once in Wales it was the bike to have. So I had it. Loads of power right off the bottom leading to an exciting top-end, heaps of torque and extremely capable off-road, with its knobbly tyres the BMW blew wet mud and leaves in the faces of the other two and would, quite literally, go to places that they couldn’t. For such a big bike it’s extremely light to ride, and the interest it got from the rally crowd was extraordinary. They’d clock the BMW logo, see that it was a boxer twin, and be all over it. Never seen that kind of interest over a dirt bike before.

After asking 15 Welshmen where to go, we eventually stumbled on the action entirely by accident at 2pm. Through the tiny village of Babel, turn right at the church, and lo and behold a sea of parked cars and stationary helicopters quite literally in the middle of nowhere. This is it! The bikes allow us to slither and slide our way past lines of cars and park close to the action. Down a vertical grassy hill (mostly on our arses) we find ourselves looking over a filthy, muddy track from a vantage point shared with about 200 drunken foreigners. Some are speaking Norwegian, some are French, all have been drinking red wine since early this morning and all are pissed. “This is a damn weird sight in the middle of a Welsh valley,” remarks Geoff, just as the drunken conversations of the hillside are shattered by a barking rally car, turbo wastegate chattering mentally. The bloody thing must be doing at least 90mph as it launches over a cattle grid before yanking on the brakes and kicking sideways round a 90-degree left. That was Marcus Grondholm, evidently in a hurry. Three minutes pass, then World Champion Sebastien Loeb blasts past, equally brisk. The speed they carry and ferocity with which they attack the mud-strewn tracks is incredible. “I think that was Petter Solberg!” I shout across the hill to Geoff, who’s down trackside with his camera. The entire hillside looks at me for the ignorant wanker I am. Bereft of much knowledge about WRC, I decide to keep my mouth shut from now on.

But no Travis Pastrana. Another 10 cars come through (the difference in speed between the top-level WRC boys and the production racers is a world apart) but no Subaru with the Stars and Stripes down the side. Time to move on. Down the A483 towards Llanwrtyd Wells I reflect how the little Honda is holding its own up brilliantly well in this muscular company. Small, un-intimidating and friendly compared to the other two, it’s also £4,000 cheaper than the KTM and an astounding £7,000 less than the BMW. The ride position is more cramped and there isn’t the air of utter indestructibility with the Transalp that there is with the others, but as a bike to take you to Wales in the middle of a monsoon with the minimum of fuss and even indulge in some gentle off-roading when you get there, the Transalp is brilliantly capable. The extra 40cc it gets for this year has given the motor a solid kick in the midrange, and while its soft styling and soft suspension are easy to mock alongside the punchy European bikes, only a fool would underestimate the Honda. Short enough to throw a leg over without needing a step-ladder to get on it and grunty enough to go everywhere the others went, the Transalp was the bike you got on when you didn’t want to prove a point or make any drama, but just get to where you were going.

We followed the herd and watched rally cars as day became night, but no sight of the American legend. The HP2’s pathetic tank range catches us out in the middle of nowhere, and we have to plead with an official WRC refueller for a drop of 102 octane at £10 per litre. Fortunately he loves bikes and fills us up with race gas for nada. Caught as we are between the refuel point and the start of the next stage at Epynt, we spend a surreal hour in the company of Loeb (who’s about to be World Champion again) and all the other rally legends as they prep their cars for the night stages. For a serious World Championship, rallying is incredibly friendly and accessible and I spend 10 minutes asking Petter Solberg idiotic questions while he clips his night-lights on. He’s so polite he doesn’t even tell me to go away, but starts asking questions about the KTM instead.

The next day dawns even wetter than the previous two. There’s a flood two feet deep outside our bed and breakfast, and our gear is still soggy from the day before. And it’s at this point that the HP2 decided to make itself un-lovely. I don’t know if it got water in the electrics or what, but it started to cut-out for no reason at idle and not re-start on the button. There followed at least three separate incidents of bump-starting a high-compression twin on muddy tracks. We turned west towards Swansea for the WRC service area, into the teeth of a side-wind so strong that it threatened to wash the front wheel out from underneath you. I was bent double on the HP2 into the gale at 80mph, my backpack trying to pull me off the bike and my arms burning with the effort of holding on. “Come on, then!” I screamed into the storm, the wind ripping the words from my mouth – if we were all going to die on this miserable stretch of the M4 it would be a hilariously pointless way to go.

We didn’t die, but we did lose Geoff on the Transalp who was so terrified by this stage that his frail heart nearly burst. After re-grouping we rode directly into the service area and bumped into Formula One commentator Tony Jardine, who’d just smashed his Ford Fiesta into little pieces. Seems like everyone was having a torrid day. After a long chat where he confirmed what we all know – that rally drivers are better than F1 drivers – he pointed us in the direction of Pastrana’s pit. Surely our quest was nearly at an end. And there he is! As Travis pulls into the pit garage in his Subaru I’m actually a little bit excited. I don’t get excited meeting people, it’s not me, but this crazy Yank is a genuine legend, capable of frankly impossible things on a motorcycle. He immediately spends five minutes signing autographs and having his picture taken. His rally manager, a likeable American fellow called Chris Yandell, ushers us forwards and we are bathed in the glow of Pastrana’s enormous smile beaming down at us from a lofty 6’2” frame. After a total of 3 minutes and 17 seconds, our time with the freestyle legend is done and he moves, smiling, on to the next acolyte.

If I had to do this trip again tomorrow, I’d call up KTM, book a 990 Adventure and be in Wales within two hours. It’s a truly brilliant machine, full of character and supremely good at what it does. It’s a little intimidating for some and that’s fine, KTM don’t do soft motorbikes, and out of this trio it was unquestionably the best bike. But there’s a slight snag: at £9,000 it’s effing expensive and the humble Transalp does 80% of what the KTM does for £4,000 less. The Translap isn’t very pretty, neither is it over-endowed with power or attitude and will certainly never be lusted after like these two European bikes. But it just keeps going, never fell behind (unless Geoff was having one of his heart attacks) and instilled in me real affection for its good, honest values. At a little over five grand, you simply cannot argue with the price. And the £12,000 HP2? Fantastic in its element with a great engine and serious attitude, but the lack of any wind protection seriously limits its usefulness and, well. It broke down. Not what you expect from the mighty BMW.

THE SCARIEST RIDE OF MY LIFE - GEOFF WAUGH, PHOTOGRAPHER

DISTANCE: 00.00


“Bastards, bastards, bastards!” I yelled into my rain-streaked visor as I peered as far down the motorway as the terrible conditions would allow. Smeary tail-lights looked like one big acid trip as they flashed on and off. I couldn’t see a thng. How could that bastard editor do this to me? I mean I didn’t ask if we were going by bike and they took it for granted that I rode a bike. Well I did. I rode a bike 10 years ago! A piddly little DR350 at that. Since then all my travel has been in the comfort and shelter of a car or on a pushbike. This was bad, really bad.

DISTANCE: 10.00
I wobbled out of the TWO car park on the KTM Adventure as stiff-backed as El Cid at the end of the film. I’m pretty sure Cantlie noticed this and he immediately put me on the smaller Transalp. Better, but I was still hypersensitive to everything around me. Around the M25 I actually passed the editor. He was on the hard shoulder laughing into his mobile. Why? Because my overnight bag containing my only clothes had just caught fire and the ashes were being scattered towards Slough. Great. I had flu, I was bricking it and now, the final ignominy: I had to cadge a lift from the hotel landlady and deck myself out in the finest Marks and Sparks clobber. Ladykiller!

DISTANCE: 20.00


The next day was worse. A heavy squall was coming off the Bristol Channel and blowing directly across the M4. The wind sock at Port Talbot stood at 90 degrees to the pole and high wind warnings appeared on the bridge before we got into Swansea. I lost sight of the TWO boys (they never slowed down and called me names when they did) but it didn’t matter anymore. I was going to die. I was going to be blown into a horrible tank-slapper and be wiped along the road. In camera terms my arse was wide open. F2.8 and puckering. I cursed everyone I could think of. Even Travis bloody Pastrana, who was somehow responsible for this apocalyptic jaunt.

DISTANCE: 20.00


Riding in the mud of a Welsh moor felt insanely safe after that baptism of fire, and it was a relief to climb off and ditch ,the bike back at TWO HQ two days later. My boots creaked my knees creaked, I had cramp in my hips, I was prune wet and to compound matters the gloves they had lent me had short fingers so I had hands like Jimmy Krankie. I came over all feeble and dropped the bike, but I was ALIVE! A cup of tea never tasted so good. Six sugars mind; for the shock you know…

That 3m 17s Travis Pastrana interview in full...

When was the last time you saw rain like this?


“Oh man! I’m from Maryland so we get a lot of rain there, but this is absolutely unbelievable. The fog the first day was intense, we were doing 100mph and I couldn’t see 10ft in front of the car. I heard that there were some guys riding motorcycles in this (‘yes, that’s us’ I interject). Well hell, you’re tougher than I am for sure!”

Is this rallying relatively new for you, or is it something you’ve been into for a while?


“When I was two years old I had a go-kart and I’ve been driving cars a lot, drove a WRC car here in Wales when I was 17 and have been rallying in the US for the last five years. I won the last two US rally Championships, so it’s definitely something I’ve been into for a while and it gets more exposure than being on two wheels, that’s for sure.”

What experience are you transferring from your motocross experience into rally driving?


“Most of it’s about reading terrain. I have a lot of trouble on circuit racing on asphalt, on bikes and cars. If I have to stay in line with everyone else I’m just not as fast, it’s not my thing. But on a motocross track, every lap the line changes and when I can be creative, when you’re looking for the best line, the least rough, that’s when I come alive. In rallying it’s the same thing – you come over a crest, you recce’d it three days ago and now there’s a load of standing water there or spectators in the way. It’s always changing, and I like that.”

Isn’t this a bit safe for you?


(Completely misses the irony in the question)


“Yeah, it’s really good. I’m scared more in a car than I ever am on a motorcycle. Usually on a motorcycle you know where the limits are, you know if you’re exceeding them and you know if it’s worth it. But in a car, you’re hitting jumps at 120mph over a jump you’ve never seen before, and you just have to trust the guy to your right and hope he’s read his notes correctly!”

Any plans to shoot any more Crusty Demons stuff soon?


“Those guys are who got me started in the freestyle, they’re always fun to shoot with because it’s a party 24/7 when they go out filming. I still ride almost every day, so yeah, I’m sure I’ll shoot some more with them sometime. I’ve got to go get some food, man.”

MODEL SPECS

BMW HP2 Enduro


Price: £11,995


Engine: 1,130cc, air-cooled, DOHC, 4-valve, boxer-twin


Power: 105bhp @ 7,000rpm


Front suspension: 45mm Kayaba forks, 230mm travel


Rear suspension: Air monoshock, adjustable via pump, 240mm travel


Front brake: 305mm disc, two-piston caliper


Rear brake: 265mm disc, two-piston caliper


Dry weight: 175kg


Seat height: 920mm


Fuel capacity: 13 litres


Top speed: 115mph


SUPPLIED BY: Vines of Guildford
target="_blank">www.vinesofguildfordbmw.co.uk


Honda Transalp


Price: £5,399


Engine: 680cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC, 8-valve, 52° V-twin,


Power: 60bhp @ 7,750rpm


Front suspension: 41mm Showa forks, 177mm travel


Rear suspension: Showa shock, adj for compression damping, 173mm travel


Front brake: 256mm discs, three-piston calipers


Rear brake: 240mm disc, single-piston caliper


Dry weight: 200kg


Seat height: 841mm


Fuel capacity: 18 litres


Top speed: 122mph


SUPPLIED BY: Honda UK
target="_blank">www.honda-eu.com

KTM 990 Adventure


Price: £8,995


Engine: 999cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC, 8-valve, 75° V-twin


Power: 98bhp @ 8,500rpm


Front suspension: 48mm WP forks, fully adjust, 210mm travel


Rear suspension: WP shock,fully adjustable, 220mm travel, all the trimmings


Front brake: 300mm discs, two-piston Brembos


Rear brake: 240mm disc, two-piston Brembo, ABS


Dry weight: 199kg


Seat height: 860mm


Fuel capacity: 22 litres


Top speed: 135mph


Supplied by: Bracken KTM
target="_blank">www.bracken.co.uk

Rain like you can’t believe. Horizontal slabs of thick, juicy water, drops as big as Subbuteo footballs, rain so heavy that it makes you laugh out loud at the insanity of it all and you can’t see 30ft in front of you. It’s pitch dark at 6pm and the traffic on the M4 is sloshing through an inch of standing water nose-to-tail. Filtering is potentially deadly and the bow-wash from trucks completely blinding. My feet are making squelching noises already and we’ve only got another 150 miles to go. What’s truly ironic, I reflect inside the sodden haven of my helmet, is that less than 20 minutes ago I was on fire. I could really have done with some rain then.

We’re on our way to Wales to watch our first-ever WRC rally event and give three adventure bikes a healthy dose of, well, adventure along the way. KTM’s seminal 990 represents the pinnacle of what a true adventure bike should be, combining long-distance capability with aggressive styling and dirt bike toughness. BMW’s HP2 Enduro is the serious off-road tool here, stripped down, light weight and with chunky motocross tyres. And Honda’s new Transalp is waving the flag for the budget adventurer. Simple and unfussy it may be, but it’s got 20 years refinement behind it and shouldn’t be underestimated even in this company. Word has it that American freestyle legend Travis Pastrana is competing in the rally, and we’re determined to meet the man. Anyone who’s seen his wild nine-roll crash in his Subaru and get out whooping with excitement, or witnessed him complete the world’s first double back-flip in front of 50,000 screaming fans, or launch himself into the Grand Canyon with nothing more than a parachute to save his life, cannot fail to be a little bit impressed. So we headed west to Wales. Which is right about when it started raining.

Right now, I’m on the KTM 990 Adventure. I started the trip on the brand-new Honda Transalp (with heated handlebar grips it was a no-brainer) but after just five miles it became immediately apparent that something was very wrong with the photographer. I watched Geoff lurch out of the carpark on the 120bhp KTM and it was genuinely scary. Then I saw him fail to overtake cars that were doing 28mph on a completely straight road, and practically get off and push at the first roundabout we came to. So I waved him in at the M25 services. “Mate – when did you last ride a bike?” I came straight out and asked. “Um, in 1998,” came the reply. Fantastic. We’ve got to be in Cardiff before 6pm through Friday night traffic, it’s 3pm now and our photographer last rode a bike 10 years ago and is visibly quaking with fear. I give Geoff the more forgiving Transalp and we hit the road. When he disappears in my mirrors for the third time, I get pissed off and hit the throttle.

The KTM is a beauty. It’s rough and edgey with real bite to its character. Small amounts of throttle input send it surging forwards and it completely belies its huge physical appearance by feeling small and svelte to ride. It’s shaped like a wedge of cheese, and while it’s a bit of a clamber to get onto the 860mm high saddle, once you’re up there it’s simplicity itself to ride. Through stationary traffic it makes a mockery of other vehicles, the upright ride position giving you a commanding view ahead and allowing you to scythe past queues with suitable disdain. The angular screen kicks the windblast clean over the top of your helmet, and while the seat gets a bit brutal after 100 miles, it’s a glorious way of covering miles. In black the 990 looks seriously stealth, although with Geoff’s cheap carry-all strapped to the back it did tend to ruin the style somewhat.

Specifications

BMW HP2 Enduro

Price: £11,995
Engine:
1,130cc, air-cooled, DOHC, 4-valve, boxer-twin
Power:
105bhp @ 7,000rpm
Front suspension:
45mm Kayaba forks, 230mm travel
Rear suspension:
Air monoshock, adjustable via pump, 240mm travel
Front brake:
305mm disc, two-piston caliper
Rear brake:
265mm disc, two-piston caliper
Dry weight:
175kg
Seat height:
920mm
Fuel capacity:
13 litres
Top speed:
115mph

Honda Transalp

Price: £5,399
Engine:
680cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC, 8-valve, 52° V-twin,
Power:
60bhp @ 7,750rpm
Front suspension:
41mm Showa forks, 177mm travel
Rear suspension:
Showa shock, adj for compression damping, 173mm travel
Front brake:
256mm discs, three-piston calipers
Rear brake:
240mm disc, single-piston caliper
Dry weight:
200kg
Seat height:
841mm
Fuel capacity:
18 litres
Top speed:
122mph

KTM 990 Adventure

Price: £8,995
Engine:
999cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC, 8-valve, 75° V-twin
Power:
98bhp @ 8,500rpm
Front suspension:
48mm WP forks, fully adjust, 210mm travel
Rear suspension:
WP shock,fully adjustable, 220mm travel, all the trimmings
Front brake:
300mm discs, two-piston Brembos
Rear brake:
240mm disc, two-piston Brembo, ABS
Dry weight:
199kg
Seat height:
860mm
Fuel capacity:
22 litres
Top speed:
135mph

Fortunately this wasn’t a problem for long. With the others fumbling around the M25 miles behind, I was making good progress on the KTM when I noticed that cars were giving me a wide berth and flashing me. I looked behind and sweet Lord! We were on fire. Proper, three-foot licks of flame out the back. Pulling over onto the hard shoulder it turned out that Geoff’s luggage had been ignited by the exhaust cans and had subsequently set fire to its entire contents and the numberplate assembly.

I pounded at it with my boots and gloves, but the bloody stuff was like napalm and promptly set me alight as well. With my hands and feet now ablaze like the Wicker Man and laughing hysterically, I finally managed to put out the charred remains of the napalm bag and the back of the 990, then found a handy puddle to douse myself. Kicking the smoking remnants of Geoff’s clothes into the bushes, I re-mounted the flambeéd 990 and heading directly into the cloudburst.

We made it into Cardiff a full hour late. It hadn’t stopped raining the entire journey, and the World Rally people were genuinely aghast at our appearance. Our sodden galoshes dripped all over their paperwork and our dishevelled garments brought the tone of the media office down by at least 80%. We looked like trench refugees from the Battle of Ypres.

Our Art Editor Barry is new to motorbikes and will gleefully ride anything you give him like an excited puppy, so I had given him the completely unprotected BMW HP2 Enduro to quell his annoying enthusiasm. Without the benefit of even a rev-counter to hide behind, Barry’s oversuit had held up but his backpack was literally full of water. Meanwhile, Geoff had to suffer the final ignominy of buying £100-worth of clothes from M&S, but his wardrobe was in need of replacement anyway.

One of the advantages of riding an adventure-style motorcycle in seriously grotty conditions is that their chunky, off-road tyres negate any chance of aquaplaning. Their resistance to mud and long-travel suspension also make them perfect for doing something as complicated as following a world rally event. And it’s a perplexing business, this rallying.

Cars set off from the service area in Swansea, drive 30 miles on the road to the special stages, go absolutely and completely beserk down forest roads so slippery you can barely walk on them, then drive back to Swansea covered in mud. It became quite common to find petrol stations blocked with turbo-charged rally cars all queuing for the Super Unleaded pumps, which is something that happened rather a lot as the BMW has a tiny petrol tank and sucked it down like a Dyson.

I developed a bipolar relationship with the HP2 Enduro. I first rode it about two months ago when it had 17” road wheels on it, and absolutely loathed it. It staggered and weaved around the road like a tractor, looked weird and had no brakes. With its proper dirtbike wheels restored (17” rear, 21” front) and with enduro tyres on, the HP2 was much better and represented the pointy end of off-road bikes in this trio.

The scariest ride of my life - Geoff Waugh, photographer

DISTANCE: 00.00

“Bastards, bastards, bastards!” I yelled into my rain-streaked visor as I peered as far down the motorway as the terrible conditions would allow. Smeary tail-lights looked like one big acid trip as they flashed on and off. I couldn’t see a thng. How could that bastard editor do this to me?  I mean I didn’t ask if we were going by bike and they took it for granted that I rode a bike. Well I did. I rode a bike 10 years ago! A piddly little DR350 at that. Since then all my travel has been in the comfort and shelter of a car or on a pushbike.  This was bad, really bad. I wobbled out of the TWO

DISTANCE: 10.00

Car park on the KTM Adventure as stiff-backed as El Cid at the end of the film. I’m pretty sure Cantlie noticed this and he immediately put me on the smaller Transalp. Better, but I was still hypersensitive to everything around me. Around the M25 I actually passed the editor. He was on the hard shoulder laughing into his mobile. Why? Because my overnight bag containing my only clothes had just caught fire and the ashes were being scattered towards Slough.  Great. I had flu, I was bricking it and now, the final ignominy: I had to cadge a lift from the hotel landlady and deck myself out in the finest Marks and Sparks clobber. Ladykiller!

DISTANCE: 20.00

The next day was worse. A heavy squall was coming off the Bristol Channel and blowing directly across the M4. The wind sock at Port Talbot stood at 90 degrees to the pole and high wind warnings appeared on the bridge before we got into Swansea. I lost sight of the TWO boys (they never slowed down and called me names when they did) but it didn’t matter anymore. I was going to die. I was going to be blown into a horrible tank-slapper and be wiped along the road. In camera terms my arse was wide open. F2.8 and puckering. I cursed everyone I could think of. Even Travis bloody Pastrana, who was somehow responsible for this apocalyptic jaunt.

DISTANCE: 20.00

Riding in the mud of a Welsh moor felt insanely safe after that baptism of fire, and it was a relief to climb off and ditch ,the bike back at TWO HQ two days later. My boots creaked my knees creaked, I had cramp in my hips, I was prune wet and to compound matters the gloves they had lent me had short fingers so I had hands like Jimmy Krankie.  I came over all feeble and dropped the bike, but I was ALIVE!  A cup of tea never tasted so good. Six sugars mind; for the shock you know…

As expected, it was a curse to ride down the motorway without a shred of wind protection, but once in Wales it was the bike to have. So I had it. Loads of power right off the bottom leading to an exciting top-end, heaps of torque and extremely capable off-road, with its knobbly tyres the BMW blew wet mud and leaves in the faces of the other two and would, quite literally, go to places that they couldn’t. For such a big bike it’s extremely light to ride, and the interest it got from the rally crowd was extraordinary. They’d clock the BMW logo, see that it was a boxer twin, and be all over it. Never seen that kind of interest over a dirt bike before.

After asking 15 Welshmen where to go, we eventually stumbled on the action entirely by accident at 2pm. Through the tiny village of Babel, turn right at the church, and lo and behold a sea of parked cars and stationary helicopters quite literally in the middle of nowhere. This is it! The bikes allow us to slither and slide our way past lines of cars and park close to the action. Down a vertical grassy hill (mostly on our arses) we find ourselves looking over a filthy, muddy track from a vantage point shared with about 200 drunken foreigners. Some are speaking Norwegian, some are French, all have been drinking red wine since early this morning and all are pissed.

“This is a damn weird sight in the middle of a Welsh valley,” remarks Geoff, just as the drunken conversations of the hillside are shattered by a barking rally car, turbo wastegate chattering mentally. The bloody thing must be doing at least 90mph as it launches over a cattle grid before yanking on the brakes and kicking sideways round a 90-degree left. That was Marcus Grondholm, evidently in a hurry. Three minutes pass, then World Champion Sebastien Loeb blasts past, equally brisk. The speed they carry and ferocity with which they attack the mud-strewn tracks is incredible. “I think that was Petter Solberg!” I shout across the hill to Geoff, who’s down trackside with his camera. The entire hillside looks at me for the ignorant wanker I am. Bereft of much knowledge about WRC, I decide to keep my mouth shut from now on.

But no Travis Pastrana. Another 10 cars come through (the difference in speed between the top-level WRC boys and the production racers is a world apart) but no Subaru with the Stars and Stripes down the side. Time to move on. Down the A483 towards Llanwrtyd Wells I reflect how the little Honda is holding its own up brilliantly well in this muscular company. Small, un-intimidating and friendly compared to the other two, it’s also £4,000 cheaper than the KTM and an astounding £7,000 less than the BMW.

The ride position is more cramped and there isn’t the air of utter indestructibility with the Transalp that there is with the others, but as a bike to take you to Wales in the middle of a monsoon with the minimum of fuss and even indulge in some gentle off-roading when you get there, the Transalp is brilliantly capable. The extra 40cc it gets for this year has given the motor a solid kick in the midrange, and while its soft styling and soft suspension are easy to mock alongside the punchy European bikes, only a fool would underestimate the Honda. Short enough to throw a leg over without needing a step-ladder to get on it and grunty enough to go everywhere the others went, the Transalp was the bike you got on when you didn’t want to prove a point or make any drama, but just get to where you were going.

We followed the herd and watched rally cars as day became night, but no sight of the American legend. The HP2’s pathetic tank range catches us out in the middle of nowhere, and we have to plead with an official WRC refueller for a drop of 102 octane at £10 per litre. Fortunately he loves bikes and fills us up with race gas for nada. Caught as we are between the refuel point and the start of the next stage at Epynt, we spend a surreal hour in the company of Loeb (who’s about to be World Champion again) and all the other rally legends as they prep their cars for the night stages. For a serious World Championship, rallying is incredibly friendly and accessible and I spend 10 minutes asking Petter Solberg idiotic questions while he clips his night-lights on. He’s so polite he doesn’t even tell me to go away, but starts asking questions about the KTM instead.

The next day dawns even wetter than the previous two. There’s a flood two feet deep outside our bed and breakfast, and our gear is still soggy from the day before. And it’s at this point that the HP2 decided to make itself un-lovely. I don’t know if it got water in the electrics or what, but it started to cut-out for no reason at idle and not re-start on the button. There followed at least three separate incidents of bump-starting a high-compression twin on muddy tracks.

We turned west towards Swansea for the WRC service area, into the teeth of a side-wind so strong that it threatened to wash the front wheel out from underneath you. I was bent double on the HP2 into the gale at 80mph, my backpack trying to pull me off the bike and my arms burning with the effort of holding on. “Come on, then!” I screamed into the storm, the wind ripping the words from my mouth – if we were all going to die on this miserable stretch of the M4 it would be a hilariously pointless way to go.

We didn’t die, but we did lose Geoff on the Transalp who was so terrified by this stage that his frail heart nearly burst. After re-grouping we rode directly into the service area and bumped into Formula One commentator Tony Jardine, who’d just smashed his Ford Fiesta into little pieces. Seems like everyone was having a torrid day. After a long chat where he confirmed what we all know – that rally drivers are better than F1 drivers – he pointed us in the direction of Pastrana’s pit.

Surely our quest was nearly at an end. And there he is! As Travis pulls into the pit garage in his Subaru I’m actually a little bit excited. I don’t get excited meeting people, it’s not me, but this crazy Yank is a genuine legend, capable of frankly impossible things on a motorcycle. He immediately spends five minutes signing autographs and having his picture taken. His rally manager, a likeable American fellow called Chris Yandell, ushers us forwards and we are bathed in the glow of Pastrana’s enormous smile beaming down at us from a lofty 6’2” frame. After a total of 3 minutes and 17 seconds, our time with the freestyle legend is done and he moves, smiling, on to the next acolyte.

If I had to do this trip again tomorrow, I’d call up KTM, book a 990 Adventure and be in Wales within two hours. It’s a truly brilliant machine, full of character and supremely good at what it does. It’s a little intimidating for some and that’s fine, KTM don’t do soft motorbikes, and out of this trio it was unquestionably the best bike. But there’s a slight snag: at £9,000 it’s effing expensive and the humble Transalp does 80% of what the KTM does for £4,000 less.

The Translap isn’t very pretty, neither is it over-endowed with power or attitude and will certainly never be lusted after like these two European bikes. But it just keeps going, never fell behind (unless Geoff was having one of his heart attacks) and instilled in me real affection for its good, honest values. At a little over five grand, you simply cannot argue with the price. And the £12,000 HP2? Fantastic in its element with a great engine and serious attitude, but the lack of any wind protection seriously limits its usefulness and, well. It broke down. Not what you expect from the mighty BMW.

That 3m 17s Travis Pastrana interview in full...

 When was the last time you saw rain like this?

“Oh man! I’m from Maryland so we get a lot of rain there, but this is absolutely unbelievable.

The fog the first day was intense, we were doing 100mph and I couldn’t see 10ft in front of the car. I heard that there were some guys riding motorcycles in this (‘yes, that’s us’ I interject). Well hell, you’re tougher than I am for sure!”

Is this rallying relatively new for you, or is it something you’ve been into for a while?

“When I was two years old I had a go-kart and I’ve been driving cars a lot, drove a WRC car

here in Wales when I was 17 and have been rallying in the US for the last five years. I won the last two US rally Championships, so it’s definitely something I’ve been into for a while and it gets more exposure than being on two wheels, that’s for sure.”

What experience are you transferring from your motocross experience into rally driving?

“Most of it’s about reading terrain. I have a lot of trouble on circuit racing on asphalt, on bikes and cars. If I have to stay in line with everyone else I’m just not as fast, it’s not my thing. But on a motocross track, every lap the line changes and when I can be creative, when you’re looking for the best line, the least rough, that’s when I come alive. In rallying it’s the same thing – you come over a crest, you recce’d it three days ago and now there’s a load of standing water there or spectators in the way. It’s always changing, and I like that.”

Isn’t this a bit safe for you?

(Completely misses the irony in the question)

“Yeah, it’s really good. I’m scared more in a car than I ever am on a motorcycle. Usually on a motorcycle you know where the limits are, you know if you’re exceeding them and you know if it’s worth it. But in a car, you’re hitting jumps at 120mph over a jump you’ve never seen before, and you just have to trust the guy to your right and hope he’s read his notes correctly!”

Any plans to shoot any more Crusty Demons stuff soon?

“Those guys are who got me started in the freestyle, they’re always fun to shoot with because it’s a party 24/7 when they go out filming. I still ride almost every day, so yeah, I’m sure I’ll shoot some more with them sometime. I’ve got to go get some food, man.”