SMITH OFFROAD >> Why I chose a KTM as my first dirt bike [2008-12-17]

After 30,000 miles on sporty street bikes, I wanted a motorcycle for more challenge and adventure.
This story starts about a dozen years ago when I first got into motorcycles-- road bikes. I bought a '89 Honda CB-1 (400cc I4) just before grad school, and used it for commuting to school and sport riding around Madison, WI. When I moved to Colorado and got my first real job, I bought a gently-used '98 Honda VFR800. In the next few years, I put 20,000 miles on the VFR and another about 10,000 on the CB-1. I did the commuting thing, sport riding, track days, and touring around most of Coloado with the Colorado HSTA group. After a while, I lost interest in zooming around roads. My experience at track days showed that it was hard to test the bike's or my limits on the street- and impossible to do it safely.

I started looking at 650 cc class dual-sport bikes. The new fuel-injected KTM 690 Enduro and the BMW G650 X-Challenge both caught my eye. I mainly wanted something more fun, and I had no dirt-riding experience (other than riding a XR100 for two days at the American Supercamp in 2000).

The first bike that piqued my interest was the fuel-injected 2008 KTM 690 Enduro.
I even looked at some of the factory supermoto bikes. They looked like a kick in the pants. But I wanted the ability to ride off-road, which ruled those out unless I wanted a second set of wheels. As I talked to my friends who have dirt bikes, they kept telling me that 650 was too big for trails, and a 450 was the best compromise for the range of trails and rides that we can do out here in Colorado.

My other intense interest is competitive shooting. The types of events that I prefer are both technical and physical, with cross-country and endurance aspects. One thing I've learned is that there is no substitute for competition in terms of learning at an accelerated pace. Competition provides concrete and objective feedback, and there are always people who are faster or better to learn from. Enduros and hare-scramble races appealed to me.

Both the '09 Husaberg FE450 and the BMW G450X incorporate radical new technology, which some have described as "game changers." Lack of local dealer support, aftermarket parts, and immediate delivery ruled them out for my first dirt-bike purchase.
So I needed a bike that was decent at dual-sporting (and thus street-legal and plate-able), competent on the typical Colorado and Wyoming off-road trails, and decent for enduros or hare scrambles. In order to avoid the hassles of mixing gas, it had to be a four-stroke. It needed to be good to go from the box, without complex modifications. I also wanted to make sure there was good dealer support as well as aftermarket support for things like larger-than-stock fuel tanks, and so forth.

This narrowed it down to the enduro/trail models in the 400-550 cc range, with a weight under about 260 lbs. KTM had the 400, 450, and 530 XC-W. Husqvarna had the TE450 and TE510. The new Husaberg FE450 and FE570 looked great, and pictures of the BMW G450X were just coming available. The Husqvarna had decent local dealer support, but significantly less aftermarket support and the gas tank was less than 2 gallons. The Husaberg looked awesome and had excellent reviews. It's probably the most advanced enduro 4-stroke bike out right now, and about the same price as the KTMs. For me, the Husaberg was ruled out because it wasn't quite available yet, and there were zero local dealers. Also, there is virtually no aftermarket support, and getting a larger tank would have been very difficult. The BMW was a non-starter because even the local dealers had no clue when it'd be available. There is an excellent local KTM dealer, Elite KTM, in Loveland Colorado. The guys there are very helpful, knowledgeable, and no-pressure.

Now that I had decided on the KTM, which model should I choose? KTM has a dizzying array of dirt bikes. They have the SX, SXF, XC, XCF, XCW, and EXC model lines, with displacements from 125 cc up to 530 cc. The SX series is for motocross- it's fast revving, sprung stuff, and has a close-ratio gearbox. One thing is clear: KTM is serious about off-road motorcycles and fills every niche in that market.

The KTM SXF series - the 450 is shown here - is tighly focussed on motocross and supercross racing, and would be a handful on trails and offroad.
The XC models have a more tractable motor and are sprung a little less hard, but still has the close-ratio gearbox. The XCW and EXC models have the most tractable motors, a more plush suspension, and a wide-ratio gearbox good for both tight singletrack and highway speeds on the street. The EXC and XCW models are almost identical. The EXCs come with lights and other equipment required for the street, including higher gearing. It has jetting and emissions equipment set up for the street. I definitely wanted a street-legal bike, but in Colorado, it's easy to plate almost any dirt-bike. The dealer could take an XCW and added the minimal set of street-required equipment, and send me on my way with the paperwork for the DMV, as well as deliver the bike with a temp tag.

The only remaining question was what size engine to get, 400, 450, or 530. The 400's hadn't been delivered yet, so it was out. So, 450 or 530? Most people usually recommend the 450 because they are lighter and have less rotating mass. however, the 530 KTM weighs the same as the 450, and the new '08 and '09 engines had even less rotating mass than the '07 RFS motors. In the end, I figured it didn't matte too much, and the 450 would more likely be better on tighter trails than the 530. I walked into Elite KTM in the mid afternoon, told Don I wanted an '09 450 XCW with the street kit, and it was "so." The paperwork was quick and painless, and by 5 pm, Roger had delivered the bike to my garage in Fort Collins.

KTM's XCW series is sprung and tuned for trail riding, offroad/enduro racing, and has a wide-ratio gearbox so dual-sporting is tolerable.

I've put about 900 miles and about 40 engine hours on the 450 XCW. About 25% of the miles are race-track miles, either racing or practice. The rest are split evenly between off-road trail miles and road miles (mostly commuting to/from trailheads). Since I had really no dirt experience to start, my riding mentor Adam started me on super - I mean super-easy - trails and progressed at an alarming rate to some of the hardest rocky singletrack in northern Colorado, such as the Donner Pass and Lookout Mountain trails. I've also raced some hare scrambles, and hit some practice days on the motocross track and hare-scrambles course.

I bought a 2009 KTM 450 XCW, then added a minimal street-legal light kit and had it plated. I can ride it to work, hit the trails, and ride enduro races. Here it's pictured during my first trail ride.

At first, simply the seat height of the dirt bikes was really intimidating. Coming from street bikes, a big deal is always made about having a low seat height and being able to touch the ground with both feet, or even flat-foot the bike. My inseam is about 30 inches and there are relatively few bikes I can flat-foot with both feet.

I added an Ohlins SD MX 2.0 steering damper for less deflection off rocks, roots, and ruts.
The 38 inch seat height quoted on the KTMs seemed totally crazy, but I basically just manned up and figured I'd deal with it. First, one thing to realize is that the bike sags when you sit on it, and secondly, the suspension will break in and then it will sag a little easier. However, I think most people really over-emphasize the need for a short seat height. With a light 250 lb bike, it's no problem to just be able to touch the ground with one foot (or toe), and you can lean it over a little bit more without the danger of it tipping over like a 500 lb street bike. Off-road, I hardly ever noticed the high seat height, partly because there are often rocks or logs to rest a leg on. The suspension is critically important to off-road handling and being higher above obstacles leaves more suspension travel to soak up hits.

For the first month, the KTM blew my mind every ride on new terrain in terms of what it could handle. Obstacles which I thought there was no way in hell I could make it over, the KTM would just float over if I could keep the bike moving and upright. When I was in high-school and college, I road a lot on my hard-tail mountain bike and when I was a kid, I raced BMX. I had some idea what a two-wheeled vehicle could do, but a modern dirt-bike is totally amazing and blows what I could ever do on a mountain bike out of the water.

KTM knows how to build dirt bikes, there's no question about that. My bike is shown here on snowy Donner Pass in Colorado behind an '07 450 EXC.
I never felt the relationship between a street motorcycle and a bicycle-- but the KTM feels a lot just like a "big" mountain bike -- except it has about a foot of suspension travel front and rear, whereas my mountain bike only had about three inches of front travel. The biggest adjustment was to realize that the bike can make it over a lot of large objects, if I'm willing to ride over them. I set the suspension at the KTM "standard" settings and then added one turn of preload on the rear to get my race sag set closer to correct.

The hare scramble course at VDR in Berthoud Colorado uses the motocross track as part of the course. I've also ridden the MX track quite a bit for practice. The KTM 450 XCW is soft sprung which shows up on the jumps, but other than that it handles pretty well. It's important I set up corners properly so the suspension isn't working against me. I think the other dedicated MX bikes make more power, but I'm not wringing out the XCW motor either. Since even little 125 two-strokes motor by me from time to time, I know that I am still the slow part of the package.

All in all I am very pleased with the KTM 450 XCW. The motor has more than enough power, but not so much that I lose traction all the time. The suspension is amazing and will float over most obstacles. The bike is not very tighly focussed like a motorcross bike or two-stroke pure trail bike-- it seems to do it all well and it's a pure dirt machine. Those guys at KTM know how to make a dirt bike.

For racing, all I do is remove the headlight and replace it with a number-plate, and remove the license plate so it doesn't get caught on stuff. Everything else is left the same. I usually run 12 psi front and 10 psi rear for tire pressure. At my somewhat slow race pace, I get about 35 miles per gallon, which means I can race a two-hour hare scramble without refuelling the stock 2.4 gallon tank.

For racing, I bought a set of new graphics from PowersportGrafx with pre-printed numbers. Got to have some bling.

I'm willing to take some risks, but I'm also wise enough to know my limits most of the time. I don't want to get hurt when it's preventable. Thus, quality safety gear is key. From top to bottom: Arai VX3 helmet, Scott 87 OTG goggles, Thor chest protector, Klim riding pants, Asterisk knee braces, and Sidi Crossfire boots. I also usually wear either Klim, KTM, or leather work gloves. The Asterisk knee braces/pads seem expensive at $600 a pair, but they quickly pay for themselves ten times over in terms of preventing injury.


My riding mentor Adam has a KTM 200 EXC which he uses for trails and enduro races. It weighs about 20 lbs less than my 450 XCW and the mechanical simplicity of a two-stroke can be an advantage when things go wrong on the trail.
Now the question is-- What dirt-bike to buy next? There's certainly nothing wrong with the KTM 450 XCW, and it'll serve me very well. But there are reasons to have more than one dirt bike. The maintenance schedules are pretty tight and it's not unheard-of to have a bike out for repairs for a period of time. With time a precious commodity, it can make sense to have a back-up bike. Also, it can be nice to have a second bike for a buddy to borrow-- maybe he'll get hooked too. A lot of dirt riders have several bikes, each focussed on a different purpose. Here's a list of possible categories:

Adventure - Rally: 600-700cc big singles with large fuel capacity and more high-speed and long-range ability at the expense of tight trail maneuverability and weight. The KTM 690 Enduro, BMW G650 X-Challenge, KLR 650, and XR650 and their respective "Rally" versions fit this use. A Husaberg 570 or KTM 530 might fit in this category with a well-integrated Rally kit.

Motorcross Racing: These bikes make great power and have suspension set up ideally for motocross tracks. They are usually four-strokes for power delivery. While a 450 would seem redundant, a 250 - 450 MX bike would handle a lot better on track.

Lightweight Trail: This is code for lightweight two-stroke, such as the KTM 200/250/300 XC.

I like the idea of having a dedicated race bike, so a smaller 250-400 cc KTM SX, SXF, XC, or XCF might fit the bill. If Husaberg comes out with a FE390 in 2010, that might be a good choice.


KTM says, "Guided by expert hands, the 250 XC-W can easily take on any 450 4-stroke. Its low maintenance requirements and light weight makes this motorcycle the first choice of obsessive perfectionists. Also here the new cylinder delivers even more draft and top performance."

Yes, I picked up a new 09 250 XCW, the 250-cc two-stroke intended for enduro/cross-country use. The engine is mildly tuned for best control, traction, and drive-ability. I'll write more about the 250 in future articles.