What does adventure mean to you? Wait, let me narrow that down: What does adventure motorcycling mean to you? Maybe your idea of adventure on a motorcycle is setting out, destination unknown with nothing but a paper map and the Blue Highways to guide you. Or maybe, to you, adventure means setting out across the American southwest with a few friends in tow, using trails and highways to connect yourself to our vast array of spectacular national parks. Perhaps your sense of adventure riding involves knobby tires, an ever-changing trail system of sand washes and fish tacos as you make your way down the Baja peninsula.

That’s just the point to touch on first and foremost – adventure riding means different things to different people. Marketing in the motorcycle industry would have you think you need to be jumping a 1200cc-plus, 550-lb, $18,000 “Adventure bike” over a mountain, through the woods, and to grandmother’s house (in Siberia) we go.

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For those who want to get their feet wet having an adventure on a motorcycle, or maybe just want to add a more versatile type bike to their garage, we put together a shootout of small-displacement motorcycles that point in three different directions to help you decide which bike would fit your definition of adventure best.

2017 CSC RXR

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

Let us start with a motorcycle that has been around for some time now yet may still need an introduction to some. The CSC RXR is a 250cc, single-cylinder motorcycle built in China by Zongshen that is small in stature yet, from afar, resembles many adventure motorcycles currently on the market. From its pronounced beak to its wire wheels, it certainly looks the part and is in line with today’s current interpretation of what an adventure bike should look like. It stands out from the other two here with its amazingly low MSRP of $3,495. That’s $2,200 less than the Kawasaki and $2,400 less than the Honda.

2015 CSC Cyclone RX-3 Review

Chinese bikes used to get a bad rap due to poor build quality, lack of dependability, and general moto-racism. Taking a closer look at the CSC RXR, it doesn’t look half bad up close either. This is a solid basic motorcycle, and for the money you will save compared to the other two competitors in this shootout, you can fund a few week’s worth of adventure if you plan right. Of course, if adventure riding is your plan, the RX-3 from CSC with the same engine might pique your interest. The RX-3 comes outfitted from the factory with a taller windscreen, luggage, and engine guards in addition to accoutrement found on the RXR at an MSRP of $3,895. “Our friend Joe Gresh has spent thousands of miles on these things,” mentions John Burns, “and documented most of them on YouTube, with zero problems.”

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

While the CSC and Kawasaki share relatively close fuel capacities, 4.2 gallons and 4.5 gallons respectively, the Honda is much more limited in range with only 2.7 gallons.

So, how did it perform against Kawi’s Versys-X 300 and Honda’s CRF250L Rally? Not bad at all. While perhaps the least refined, it was not badly outclassed. On the freeway, heading to our mountainous destination, the Zongshen 250cc Single was a bit buzzy and felt somewhat unstable with a slight input to the wide handlebar causing a nervous wobble from the front end. Slow things down a bit, and the overall package is happier to take in the sights cruising at 55 mph. Although, slowing things down a bit is no easy task.

“If getting up to speed wasn’t a priority for CSC engineers,” noted associate editor B. Jaswinski, “then neither was slowing down. The rear brake works fine, but the front brake requires a very firm squeeze of the lever to scrub speed.”

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

While the single-cylinder 250cc machines here produce similar power curves, the 296cc parallel-Twin in the Versys is in a league of its own by dint of its larger displacement and revvier top end. The Honda holds an advantage over the CSC from 5000 to 9000 rpm.

The exhaust note from the CSC sounds great, although its 363-lb curb weight coupled with 20.8 hp and 14.0 lb-ft of torque prove to be a bit underwhelming at WOT. Power builds slowly, but as long as you keep it spun up through the mountain roads, it will keep up with the Honda. “The power doesn’t flow quite as linearly as the Honda’s EFI, but it’s damn close,” said Burns, referencing the Honda’s slightly higher 22.0-hp rating.

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

The RXR offers a metal skid plate to protect its sensitive underbits, while the Honda has only plastic guards and the Kawasaki only offers a bit of plastic shielding around its headers.

Taking the RXR off-road, the 31.3-inch seat height will likely make shorter riders more comfortable as they begin their off-road experience. However, you won’t want to be sitting too often. That’s not due to the seat, which is rather comfortable, but because of the lack of suspension damping which felt harsh on the street and was magnified in the dirt. The CSC offers adjustable rebound front and rear which allowed us to soften up the rear shock. However, while making a discernable difference, the CSC was still left ranked in last place in terms of suspension. Thankfully it’s 8.3 inches of ground clearance come with a small metal skidplate to guard against low-lying, case-cracking boulders.

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

It will fly too. Just keep it a little slower than the other two and you’ll be just fine.

While the CSC wasn’t bad off-road, both it and the Kawi would benefit from more aggressive tires. However, with the CSC’s 100/90R-18 front and 130/70R-17 rear, finding rubber to fit may leave you with limited options for the RXR.

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

Rebound adjustment is available front and rear on the CSC’s suspension. Preload adjustment is possible on the rear shock, but CSC tells us it has to be removed to do so.

Even with the laundry list of accessories available for the CSC which include luggage, heated grips, and up-spec suspension components, there seem to be a few things lacking out of the box. Our test bike came equipped with a passenger seat yet no passenger footpegs, and while this bike is positioned as an adventure motorcycle, there were no nooks or crannies to hook a bungee for strapping down luggage.

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

The CSC RXR feels light and easy to ride through the bends. Although we did notice an odd tip-in point while leaned into the corner. Burnsie suggested it was probably the tires.

The CSC RXR felt the smallest in terms of rider ergos, which made it easily flickable around town. Its wide handlebar was preferred off-road compared to the Kawi’s which has a more street-focused bend.

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

Overall, our testers were split regarding the RXR’s relative merits. Brent and I put the CSC in third place relative to the other two bikes, while John placed it right in the middle.

“For way less money than the other two, if the CSC pushes your buttons, I would not talk you out of one and would even condone your willingness to break from the herd,” proclaimed Mr. Burns.

2017 Kawasaki Versys-X 300

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

Kawasaki’s newest and smallest “versatile system,” the Versys-X 300 is a solid package. While it is undoubtedly more road-focused, it does a more than decent job holding its own on the trail against the other two “dirtier” bikes, especially considering it rides on the streetiest rubber.

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

We were thankful for the large rack on the Kawasaki, and when coupled with the passenger seat, the Versys has by far the most space for cargo.

The wee Versys is the most road-biased of the three, and it shows when you’re on pavement. The 34.6 hp and 17.4 lb-ft of torque from its 296cc two-cylinder engine pulls away from the competition effortlessly while on the street. These extra engine components do of course add weight, making the Kawasaki the heaviest bike in the test at 384 pounds.

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

We were most impressed with the Versys’ stiffer suspension, which worked best on the road yet, with a few more inches of travel, could have been the best off-road as well.

The suspension worked the best out of the three with its stiffer springs being preferred on-road and in some situations off-road. The riding position was noted as being very comfortable despite the incredibly hard seat.

“As roomy as the seat is, it lacks in comfort. The shape isn’t bad, as you can cozy right up to the tank, but the foam could be much softer. I found my upper inner thighs the most upset with the firmness,” mentioned Brent as he rubbed his sore thighs after a hard day’s riding. Also lending to the comfortable package of the Versys was the lightest clutch I think I’ve ever had the pleasure of squeezing. That coupled with its bigger, revvier motor made the Kawasaki a walk in the park (or National Forest) to ride.

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

No traction control on these three to get in the way while making tight U-turns.

The model we tested was equipped with ABS and retailed for $5,699, $300 more than the non-ABS model. The brakes felt great on the pavement, but we would have preferred to have been able to easily disable the system when venturing onto the trails.

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

Not a bad group of machines to spend Thanksgiving’s Eve with. Note the vulnerable header pipes on the Kawi.

Off-road, the Kawasaki had only a few issues to note if considering a healthy dose of dirt in your ADV plans. First, more aggressive tires would drastically help when ridden off-road. Second, the header and oil filter are front and center behind the 19-inch front wheel, protected only by a plastic belly pan which seemed to be more aesthetic than for protection. Anyone considering the Versys-X for much (to any) off-road exploration should consider investing in a skidplate to protect those sensitive bits. Thankfully, with the Versys-X 300 being such a popular bike in the small-displacement ADV/touring segment, the aftermarket already has a few options, two of which being a company named T-Rex Racing and another, Happy-Trail.

2017 Kawasaki Versys-X 300 ABS Review

While we managed to choose our lines carefully as to not inflict too much damage on the undercarriage of these bikes, I did find myself rolling through a downhill rock garden on the Kawi, enjoying the day’s testing when, thud! And the bike shut off. Oops. Once I rolled the Versys down the rest of hill, I flipped the gear shift into neutral and it fired right back up like a champ. Off we go, but as I pressed the shifter into first, it shut down the engine again.

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

Just a snip here and a splice there. We were back on two wheels in no time.

You see, most modern bikes include a safety switch on the sidestand that will shut down the engine if it’s put into gear with the stand down to ensure you won’t ride away, hit the stand on the ground, and topple over. When riding off-road, these vulnerable safety switches can get smashed and trick the motorcycle into thinking the sidestand is permanently down. After quick inspection, it was clear this was our issue. Miles into the trails on the side of the mountain, we decided to cut the wires, and splice them together to complete the circuit. Voila! Trail fixes are the most rewarding kind of fix. “You off-road guys live for these trail fixes,” mocked Burns. That’s not entirely untrue.

Kawasaki says the Versys-X 300 was built for any road, and with a little extra protection underneath and better off-road rubber, the little Versys-X is capable of much more than just paved roads.

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

“It’s definitely the streetier of the three, but with a slightly wider handlebar and maybe a pair of TKC80s, I don’t think it would be any less effective in the dirt. In fact, what I love about these three is when you get stuck between a rock and a hard place, instead of toppling over and breaking something, I found I could put a foot down, roll back a foot or ten, and try again,” surmised Burns.

2017 Honda CRF250L Rally

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

The Honda CRF250L Rally easily took the top step of the podium from all of our test riders in the cool factor and grin factor portions of the scorecard. Our subjective scores were backed up at nearly every gas or food stop over our two days spent on these bikes by passerby’s stares and questions about the Honda – it’s a looker for sure. With it’s radical styling based on Honda’s HRC rally bikes, the CRF250L looks almost every bit the part of a Dakar-trouncing off-road motorcycle.

2017 Honda CRF250L Rally Review – First Ride

The Honda CRF250L Rally easily took the top step of the podium from all of our test riders in the cool factor and grin factor portions of the scorecard. Our subjective scores were backed up at nearly every gas or food stop over our two days spent on these bikes by passerby’s stares and questions about the Honda. It’s a looker for sure. With it’s radical styling based on Honda’s HRC rally bikes, the CRF250L looks almost every bit the part of a Dakar-trouncing off-road motorcycle. 2017 Honda CRF250L Rally Review – First Ride

John Burns was the only tester to rate the comfort of the Honda less than the Kawasaki. I can only assume it’s due to his battle-hardened ass from (many) years of motojournalism.

What may surprise some to hear was just how well the Honda performed on the road. The seat was the most comfortable despite being somewhat slim, while the suspension soaked up bumps along the freeway and kept the bike feeling stable at 75 mph, although we thought it was too soft front and rear. The initial bite of the Honda’s single 296mm front rotor via the twin-piston caliper felt the strongest of the bunch, followed closely by the Kawi. The wonderfully wide-open steering lock made tight maneuvers and lane-splitting a breeze. Speaking of breeze, the CRF-L’s windscreen did a pretty great job deflecting wind for us, from 5-foot 7-inch John to 6-foot 1-inch Brent.

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

The only suspension adjustment you get on the Honda is preload in the rear, but altering its setting is a convoluted process.

The soft non-adjustable suspension was the cause of most of our beefs. “My main complaint is its high seat and soooooft rear shock, which uses up about half its long travel as soon as you climb on,” groaned Burns about the issue we tried to fix before departing toward the mountains. With no adjustments in the front and only preload in the rear, which was set to full soft, we thought we could up the preload a bit, “but only if you want to take apart your whole subframe and airbox,” pointed out Jaswinski. While that may be an exaggeration, the process requires the removal of the side panel and rear brake reservoir, which will leave a window big enough to get a punch through. While we would definitely prefer stiffer springs front and rear, the Honda still didn’t have any issues off-road, floating over boulders like they weren’t there. On road, however, in the faster, twistier sections, the soft suspension was definitely a detriment to its overall handling.

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

While the Honda’s suspension is fairly mushy, it still offers enough travel to keep it from bottoming out as editor Jaswinski sends it.

The Rally is built to be the most off-road-oriented bike in the test and also when compared to its little brother, the CRF250L. Adding $750 to the MSRP of the base CRF250L, the Rally offers its namesake styling, a 2.7-gallon gas tank compared to 2.1 on the base model, and about an inch extra suspension travel front and rear, resulting in a ground clearance of 10.6 inches. When we weighed the Rally it scaled in at 340 lbs with its tank full, which puts it 13 pounds over the base CRF250L that we put on the scales in February of 2016. We tested the non-ABS Rally, but Honda also offers the Rally with ABS for an additional $300.

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

The Rally will go just about anywhere you want and, at an average of 60 mpg, it gets great gas mileage. Just keep in mind the tank holds only 2.7 gallons.

Even without the additional optional ABS, the Honda CRF250L Rally is the most expensive bike of the bunch at $5,899 ($6,199 w/ABS). If your destinations have you off of the pavement and into the dirt more often than not, it is certainly the most capable with nearly double the suspension travel of the Kawasaki (even if it is so soft that it becomes less when a rider is mounted), and DOT knobbies out of the box. With 22.0 hp and 15.7 lb-ft of torque, it’s not a screamer and down on hp by 12.6 ponies to the parallel-Twin Kawi, but it feels more competent when riding off-road.

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

There’s quite a bit of light shining under that Honda, with a claimed 10.6 inches of ground clearance. The CSC offers 8.3 inches; 7.1 inches on the Kawasaki.

Brent and I were looking forward to the off-road test the entire time, which may explain our interest and excitement with the Honda, while John Burns wasn’t thrilled with its high price and lofty 35.2-inch seat height.

“If we’d been able to dial up more preload, the seat would’ve been really up there,” said Burns. “For short people, no bueno. This one looks like a mini Africa Twin and everybody loves it; I do too, but I’m not seeing the value when it’s nearly twice as much money as the CSC.”

Looking toward the scorecard for answers, Brent and myself ranked the Honda higher than the Kawi on our subjective cards. JB the iconoclast chose the Versys.

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

In the accompanying video, Brent and I both said we would opt to put the Honda in our garage if we had to choose, while John picked the Versys-X 300 for his more street-biased idea of adventure. Brent had this to say: “It would be a great quarter-liter, do-it-all adventure bike if Honda offered adjustable suspension or if you swapped out the springs for stiffer ones and uncorked the pipe to let it breathe better. I thought it was the most fun and comfortable to ride overall.”

Conclusion

2017 Lightweight ADV Shootout

In the final analysis and after adding up all the numbers (twice), it’s the Honda CRF by a nose! The  Versys-X 300 was right on its tail, though, losing out by just 1.1% – with the Chinese entry bringing up a distant third. Actually, not even all that distant: The CSC got a 70.7% overall ranking to the winning Honda’s 84.5%, but it costs just 59% as much as the Honda. Each of these motorcycles falls into its own little sub-niche, really. They aren’t so exactly the same that it is a perfect comparison for everyone (as it rarely is). It all comes back to your idea of adventure and what you are planning to do with your motorcycle.

The CSC RXR is a great option for the budget-minded beginner or for the riding veteran looking to add an alternative style of motorcycle to his garage without a significant investment. Should your adventures see you bouncing through boulders, sand washes, and pitted-out fire roads, the Honda CRF250L Rally will work best. If you feel the wind of adventure beneath your wings while headed out onto the open road with nothing more than a tent and a sleeping bag strapped to the back of your motorcycle, ready to ride down whichever dusty road you find at the end of the pavement, Kawasaki’s Versys-X 300 will do it for you.

Give some thought to what you really plan to do with these motorcycles, not what a marketing department says you should do. Do some research and take some test rides if you can. Decide what adventure you want to have and head out toward the horizon. It’s guaranteed to be time well-spent.

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  • Gabriel Owens

    I would much prefer the Kawasaki and its not even close.

    • Travis Stanley

      If the Rally had a 3.5 gallon tank, I could forgive the weak engine.
      Versys is the best value, because there are so many slightly used bikes out there that can out perform the Rally with a few mods and still be $1,500 less.
      From the WR250R and all the way to the DR650.

      With the X 300, you can basically keep up with a DL650, but be 90lbs lighter and be like $4,000 less. Amazing value with the Kawi.

      • Chris Weiler

        Having owned a 2013 vstrom650 and now the X300, the versys is the exact same bike as it……just a little bit less with the same off road capabilities.

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    • Born to Ride

      While I agree, I wish the Kawi had the nice Goldilocks suspension travel of 7.5-8.0”. Wouldn’t mind a 34” seat height if I got some real nice suspenders out of it.

  • James D. Becker

    Thank you for a good, honest review. The CSC RX3 comes with the whistles and bells for adventure riding. Otherwise it’s the same bike and is a good deal for the price.

  • aaMOron

    The Honda would be great with stiffer suspension and the 286cc mill grom the CB/CBR300. For a big dude like me, it just doesn’t work. I hopped on one and rode down the street and turned right around it was so slow.

    Finally hopped on the Versys 300 the other day and was shocked how well good it felt. Everything had a light feel and that engine seems peppier than the Ninja 300. I’d really enjoy that as a commuter/back road blaster.

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      • Jon Jones

        Did your rash “down there” heal yet?

  • Starmag

    Only $1300 more than the Versys for a KLR650.

    • Travis Stanley

      Very different bikes.
      Heavier and a much higher COG.
      The X is a soft roadie, and the KLR is a pure ADV Bike.

      • David K

        I agree, I had a 2008 KLR and it is pretty much pure street.

  • Travis Stanley

    Excellent selection.
    Next year should also include the G310GS and Royal Enfield Himalayan.
    It’s a good time for Adv Touring!

    • michael32853hutson@yahoo.com

      totally agree on next year reviews! i’m very curious about both the Beemer and the Enfield,not least because they are both Indian bikes-the review above has convinced me both the Chinese and Indians are serious contenders in the world market(and i would really like to see that Indonesian Honda CBR250RR make it stateside too)

  • Travis Stanley

    Some good things about the Rally, much much longer service Intervals than the Versys X. ABS version allows the rear to be turned off.
    I really like the Rally, but the fuel cell is just too small. It’s only 33% bigger than the base MC. Also, the 286cc engine is really needed. It’s already set up for the Rebel 300.

    The 300 is the bike for my needs and riding style.

  • W Donald

    Now how about a 650 Rally

  • that is a lovely lightweight review. great help for someone who is into getting one of these 🙂

  • JMDGT

    I haven’t ridden a dirt bike for a long long time but the idea of having real knobbies and being light weight always stuck out as being paramount to a pleasant off road riding experience. All these small adventure bikes do an adequate job. I never thought it would be an issue but I am too big for these machines.

  • Vrooom

    Excellent comparison test. For me it would be the Kawasaki, I do like riding in the dirt, but the size of the Honda tank would leave me seriously limited. With 4.5 gallons the Kawi would do 270 ish miles till bone dry, the Honda 162. Figure you’re looking for gas 30-40 miles before empty (presuming they both get 60 mpg), and the Honda is not going to allow for a lot of remote destinations. Agree on the skid pan for sure though.

    • Travis Stanley

      Agreed. I’m more disappointed in the small fuel cell than the small engine.
      However, if someone wanted a local bike to go explore with and commute around town, the Rally ABS would be my pick. Commanding views.
      ABS (rear can be shut off)
      Excellent service intervals
      Ok wind protection.
      With a sprocket switch out, the bike would be more relaxed at 70mph speeds.
      Easy to pick up if all alone in the middle of no where.

  • RyYYZ

    I’m not sure why the Honda gets a better grade on the torque front than the Kawi. Looking at the dyno charts, it appears to me that the Kawi beats the Honda for torque, too, at every RPM except around 6,700 where the two curves touch. Everywhere else the Kawi’s curve is above the Honda’s.

    • john burns

      because it’s the ratio of torque to the weight of the bike, and the Kawi weighs a bit more than the Honda.

      • clydelunsford

        The RXR is rated at 24.8 hp on the CSC website. The specs in this article list the RXR at 20.8 HP. 4HP is a big deal in the on bikes this size.

        • john burns

          that’s probably crankshaft hp. We run them on a rear-wheel dyno, which usually reads 10% lower.

          • Rocky Stonepebble

            And, you know, you guys aren’t dopes.

      • RyYYZ

        But that’s at peak torque. The Kawi is actually significantly torquier pretty much everywhere else, including at lower RPMs. By 50% or more at, say, 4,000 RPM. In fact, pretty much everywhere other than at the lowest RPMs, and at the Honda’s peak, the Kawi holds a significant torque advantage. Larger than the % difference in weight between the bikes, especially with a rider.
        Ah, well, it’s a minor quibble at worst, and only one minor aspect of the overall ratings.

  • Rocky Stonepebble

    I had some Zongshen for lunch.

  • Mk Vz

    KLX250s?????

    I guess this bike doesnt compare to the rest????

    • Old MOron

      His Dukeness had a great ride on the KLX in early October.
      http://www.motorcycle.com/manufacturer/kawasaki/manufacturerkawasaki2018-kawasaki-klx250-first-ride-review-html.html
      He really made a good case for that bike.

      But I can see why they chose the Versys for this shootout. It gives a broader view of the ADV market, from budget-focuses to dirt-focused to road-focused.

      • Kevin Duke

        If we included the KLX, we would’ve used the CRF250L, not the Rally. And then we would’ve included the WR250R, which is a shootout we’ve previously done. This one is sort of new.

  • Old MOron

    Great write up, Ryan. Really good.
    I’ll have to wait til tonight to Czech out the video, but the airborne pics sure are fun.
    I think I’d get the CSC. It’s price is right.

  • marylander

    It would have been a winner if only Honda fitted 300cc engine from CB in CRF. There are too many places with 75, 80 and 85 MPH speed limit for it to be at home at.

    Now good set of tires and skid plate for Versys is an easy fix, and you can soften seat with a rubber mullet.

  • MyName

    I understand the Versys. It’s an inexpensive, surprisingly capable mini adventure bike. Compared to the big boys, it’s light, cheap, and keeps up reasonably well except for higher speed riding. I don’t really understand the CRF Rally. It’s a small dual sport with a body kit (albeit, one that looks awesome), so it isn’t as good at dual sporting as the standard CRF and it isn’t really that great at adventuring. If you stick to the road mostly, the Versys is the obvious choice. If you ride mostly dirt, the CRF is better without the extra Rally weight. A CRF with a $300 gas tank and a $30 windscreen would be a better bike for both!

  • Craig Hoffman

    Stick the new Ninja 400 motor in the Versys please!!! Or slap some modded MX bike suspension on a Honda 500X…

    Back to reality, the Honda would be cool with the 300 motor, and a simple spring swap for it’s suspension. The 300 engine may be out of reach, but springs are easy/peasy. At least it has some travel. Even it’s road hugging weight is not half bad, as it actually helps on the street.

    I had an ’83 XL600, which was an incredibly versatile bike. Heavy enough to not get blown around on the highway, and capable enough off road. Have not ridden one, but a great overall bike that in this vein is the Husky TE610/630.

  • Tanner

    so… nobody thought the Honda was underpowered?

    • Jon Jones

      This is an issue, indeed.

    • Campi the Bat

      That CSC mill will make anything feel adequate by comparison.

  • Andrew Capone

    I’m in the Burns situation. At 5’ 8” the Honda is way too tall for me. I got on it at the NYC bike show and almost dumped it. Kaw is a good looking machine, throw a few bucks at it and it would go anywhere. Kudos to CSC, good showing and will improve every year, I bet. I may treat myself to one of their TT 250 Enduro- esque bikes.