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Until now, trail riders had to make tough choices when choosing a four-stroke motorcycle.

Pick a light, nimble 250cc or smaller machine that excels in the tightest trails and toughest terrain, but get left behind when the trails widen and the throttles open. Or, buy a 450cc or bigger bike that eats up miles of sand, dirt and mud, but struggle with the heavy beast through single tracks strewn with logs and rocks. Between the two options, there was nothing.

Buyers also had to choose between an off-road-only machine that had to be trailered to the prime riding terrain and between trail systems, or a street-legal machine that could be ridden from home, but none had much real off-road performance.

With trail bikes getting more sophisticated and more expensive, it was hard to justify a ride that couldn't do much else, especially when it cost as much as a subcompact car.

Now, a new motorcycle class is emerging that eliminates these frustrating compromises. Meet the street-legal middle-weight 300-ish cc competition-quality motorcycles. They are allowed on roads, but built to dominate in the mud, rocks and logs with a blend of power and agility. Add a spare set of 17-inch wheels with road rubber to swap between the off-road-friendly 21-inch front and 18-inch rear knobbies, and the dirt racers becomes city slickers.


The race-ready commuter

Don't be fooled by the turn-signals and tail light. The KTM 350EXC-F lives up to the Austrian motorcycle maker's "Ready to Race" slogan as well as any bike in its lineup.

One racer who regularly wins Canadian enduros with the 350EXC-F intentionally leaves the blinker flashing, so fellow competitors on dedicated race bikes know he's passing them on a bike he could ride to work.

This is a highly strung thoroughbred with every bit of juice squeezed out of the 349.7cc fuel-injected engine. The braking system is the latest by Brembo, top choice for most F1, Nascar and MotoGP teams. They're designed so the pads can be changed without any tools. And the rear brake-pedal tip, a damage-prone part on any bike ridden on rough terrain, is bolted to the pedal arm instead of welded, so it can be replaced easily.

There are other little race-ready touches all over the machine. The spokes are thicker at the ends where they're more prone to snapping and shaved down in the middle to save weight. The hubs are similarly machined down to keep the wheels light, and the fasteners are kept a uniform size, to allow the wheels to be removed for flat repair with minimal tools and time.

The accommodating WP suspension also has a proven race pedigree to keep the 108.5-kg bike planted.

There is a price to pay, however, for all these race-ready features. At $10,599, it's the most expensive of the class. And, with the bike tuned to the limits of performance, it will need more regular maintenance to keep it in top form. It's best suited to expert riders, who want a bike they can race, but also zip around town and hit the trails without a tow.


The trusted trail steed

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Swedish-made Husqvarnas were the dominant name in off-road riding, and KTM was virtually unknown. Steve McQueen may have ridden a Triumph in the movies, but in real life, he preferred a Husqvarna.

The company split into several iterations, and now the Husqvarna name can be found on everything from chainsaws to sewing machines. The motorcycle division ended up in Italian hands and faded in North America, before being bought in 2007 by BMW.

Husqvarna today is no less serious about racing than KTM. It just takes a different route to the podium, preferring to finish every time than trying to be the fastest to the finish.

With this approach, the 109-kg TE310R has been built to bring reliable success in competition, with a bike that began life as a street-legal TE310R regularly beating 450s in the World Enduro Championships.

If the KTM aims to be a nimbler alternative to the 450s, the Husky aims to be a more aggressive 250, which is what its fuel-injected engine was before it was bored out to 302cc.

The Kayaba suspension front and rear are compliant and forgiving, but some racers who want more precision change them out. Like the KTM, the braking system is from Brembo, but an earlier design with proven longevity.

The sum of the package means more time riding, and less time wrenching. It's the bike of choice for the demanding recreational trail rider who wants a bike that will enhance their skills rather than test them. And, at $9,399, there are a few extra dollars left to improve its race readiness if the checkered flag beckons.

The exotic traditionalist

Beta is best known for obstacle-thrashing trials bikes; those seatless, featherweight oddities that defy gravity rather than speed traps. But the niche Italian manufacturer has added street-legal off-roaders to its lineup, including the generously named Beta 400 RS, which is 349cc.

Other than its rarity, two things set it apart: It has a traditional carburetor rather than fuel injection; and it has the lowest seat height of the three at 93 cm.

Although made by a small European company, it's built more like a mass-market Japanese bike, with common Nissin brakes and Sachs rear shock absorber. The Marzocchi front forks, however, are a more refined breed. The whole package weighs in at 112 kg.

Although it's available in the United States, its presence in Canada for 2013 is still in the hands of Transport Canada approval. If it does appear, look for it to be priced somewhere between the KTM and the Husqvarna. It would be of particular interest to the vertically challenged traditional individualist, who wants a quality bike of which few have ever heard.