I’m about to live out a fantasy. It’s not a rude one and it’s not only mine. I say that because I think motocross fans all over the world would want to live out this fantasy (besides American ones because most of them can't see past their state line and the only Max, Tony and Jeffrey they know is Mad, Soprano and an illegal spliff of sorts). What I’m about to find out is how good those factory bikes are and in this case the factory bikes that dominated the 2012 world championship.
In a lot of cases in a lot of other sports the athletes are defined by their machinery. In car racing and on road bikes you can surround an average driver/rider with the best machinery and they can instantly gain great results and if you put an excellent driver/rider in the same position they get outstanding results.
The three riders whose bikes I’m about to test are each a testament to the weight that this theory may hold. Max Nagl came back from a very serious injury that kept him off a bike for months on end and slotted right back into the top three and even challenged TC222 on more than one occasion. Granted that Nagl's speed and ability has never been in question but would his comeback from such a serious back injury and long recovery have been as impressive on a different race bike?
Tony Cairoli is the boss! He absolutely killed it after the Sweden fiasco but let's not forget that before that he was nearly a whole GP in front in the points anyway. The guy is ridiculous and chicks get pregnant just from of his pure radness and he’s undoubtedly one of the best riders the world has ever seen! But is he helped to stamp that authority so hard by the sheer quality of his machinery?
And then there’s Jeffrey Herlings. No question the kid’s a badass! One of the youngest champions ever and the fastest sand rider in the… just, ever! But how can he go so much faster in the sand? He barely gets out of shape and rides with so much confidence it borders illegal! Bike? Or is it all Jeffrey?
I race at the highest echelon of British motocross and even did a stint of MX1 GPs this season. Using a Scottish unit of measurement, I have been a 'baw-hair' away from the front of the field all season at home in the domestic MX2 races and the same goes for cracking the top 15 in the GPs I contested. So the way in which I'm going to analyse these bikes is ask the question ‘are these bikes that good that they would have taken me from nearly man to an achiever of the goals that I fell so painfully short of?’ Let’s find out…
When I initially jumped on Herlings' bike on the way to the track entrance the first thing I noticed was that the kid likes his gear shifter set pretty high. Most will have theirs – myself included – in a pretty neutral and level position in relation to the footpeg but he seems to like his one notch higher which I can only assume is due to Jeffrey's hang-off-the-back style that he's adopted courtesy of all his sand riding experience. It will definitely make it easier for him to shift gears while he hangs out in the back quarter over the rear mudguard.
The other thing that was instantly obvious that differed to my personal preference was his choice in bar set up as he opts for a high and straight handlebar. Everyone has their own preference in bar bend just the same as people do with their coffee and it's just a case of each to their own to whatever suits their style.
Once on the track it only took a couple of straights and corners to unearth what I would consider as this bikes crowning jewel – its rev limiter, or lack there of! It's absolutely unbelievable how far and freely this bike will rev without the restraint of a limiter and trust me it's only a good thing. It allowed me to hold gears longer so while all of the competition disengages the motor by way of chopping the throttle or feathering the clutch to select another gear this thing just motors on.
I found myself playing chicken with her on a few occasions to see who would intervene first – me or the limiter – and I have to admit that I lost on every occasion. Think of it like an elastic band, you’re pulling the band tighter and tighter and wincing as you expect it to hit its maximum tolerance and eventually snap – that’s a pretty good analogy of what it felt like. It revved and then kept revving and the pitch of the motor was so high that I was scared to take it further in case – like an elastic band – it would eventually snap. This characteristic though along with its instant response and zero bog really makes Herlings’ 250 SX-F a premium starter.
On track the power was delivered smooth but strong off the bottom-end but at it's strongest in the mid-range it continued to produce power right up to and most likely beyond the point in the revs that I dared to take it whereas other bikes may have 'flat lined' by that stage.
It felt super light and nimble too and the real benefit of that came when entering turns and manoeuvring it in the air. I can see why the teenage phenom scrubs it so hard and tosses it about so easily as it is simply that – easy. This aspect also helps it turn – as the yanks would say ‘on a dime’.
The brakes work so well as there isn't much in the way of weight behind it to make it hard work on the Brembo stoppers and so getting stopped for turns is easy! Unlike the bigger bikes the mass behind it is relatively low therefore if I missed the braking point or felt unsettled entering a turn for whatever reason, if I got a little firmer with the brakes, continued to commit to the turn and just tipped it in anyway I could make it work with a little extra brute force and ignorance.
In all honesty the suspension was a hard one to analyse as the track had been mostly prepared for us arriving. However there were a couple of sections left roughish and there were a lot of jumps to contend with – none of which caused any concern for the WP system that was bolted in and it was consistent and predictable on all the various take-offs and landings with no bottoming.
The couple of spots that were left rough were fast straights that had us braking into short, sharp uphills followed by Talladega type turns. The elements of the high speed approach and then hard braking combined with the natural squat of the bike as it went through the transition from the flat to uphill proved a pretty decent test. Although like I mentioned it was naturally squatting it never once bottomed causing any nasty kicks. It gave consistency lap after lap which ultimately breeds confidence.
Jeffrey Herlings’ bike was a real treat to ride and in a quick sum up it was all about the lack of limiter and weight. You could hang on to gears forever on the thing and it felt as light as a 125 allowing you to literally place it wherever you wanted. Whether it be upside-down in mid air, attacking the biggest, gnarliest, roughest section on the track or puckering up my butt hole to try make in inside line if I just committed to it anyway I could just muscle it in making it easy to be consistent and that combined with the power characteristics would definitely bring out the best in any rider.
Max Nagl is another guy with a very different handlebar than what I'm accustomed to and from just looking at it on the stand I could see that his bars almost bend up making me think that he has them rolled pretty far forward in the clamps. I was right and the first couple of laps I took some time getting used to the ‘cow horn’ feel with handlebar. Initially I thought it made the front end feel strangely light on the track and difficult to steer but soon managed to adapt and overcome that but I never felt fully comfortable.
Nagl being a smaller dude I just assumed would go for the ‘slammed’ ride with cut sub-frames, plenty of sag and maybe even a low seat foam but I was surprised at how I never noticed any of that jazz and it actually felt pretty tall – maybe even the biggest bike on the day.
Once I had a few laps under my belt and settled in on the big girl I started stretching the cable and was blown away with its top-end speed and strong mid-range power. It wasn’t a complete torque monster with a massive bottom-end power hit but just having 450cc stowed away was more than enough grunt in an instant. The mid-range however was ridonculous! Once I built up the courage to try ride fast I found it was putting that much power down on the exit of turns that I was forced to drag and feather the clutch to keep the front end down making me feel like I was putting out an aggressive body language look.
After each time I had just tamed the powerhouse and regained composure I was quickly in to the limiter and throwing another gear at it – third. Unlike the 2013 production 450 SX-Fs which only has four gears the factory KTM has a five-speed box and I found myself using mostly second and third gears and maybe only hooking fourth just once per lap. Although if I wasn’t feeling very Olympic on a particular day I think I could have got away with using only third for an entire lap as it was strong enough to pull out of the slower turns with the need for only a little light clutching and I could of just screwed it on and bounced the valves for a couple of seconds if I wanted to avoid touching fourth. But I was using second gear mostly for braking surprisingly.
With this being the heaviest of the three bikes the brakes naturally felt the weakest due to the effort it is to stop man and machine at the sheer velocity of which you amass and a couple of times I wasn’t quick enough to judge my speed and missed my early braking point and subsequently my desired line. So to assist the Brembos and myself out a little I was dropping it down that extra gear into the turns to add a bit of engine braking and increase my control which settled me down and allowed me to consistently hit my lines after that. So funnily enough I was using the low gear more for the approach of the turns than the exit.
In the air I could feel the weight underneath me and tentatively laid it over on some of the bigger hits for fear of not getting it back. Don’t get me wrong this isn’t a heavy bike by 450 standards but I guess I was thinking that maybe a weight advantage might have been this bike’s greatest characteristic because after all how much faster do you want a bike to be?
The suspension was a touch too hard for me on the rolling bumps dropping down a couple of the hills and I had to be up out of the seat sharpish to avoid any harsh rebounding which would result in a loss of forward drive. Flat landing or jumping into the brakers was a zero stress affair as the big fo’ fiddy absorbed them like a complete champ.
So in comparison to the production 450 I was riding late this season there wasn't a massive difference between the two particularly in the chassis which left me a little disappointed. I didn’t notice any difference in weight and only very marginally in the power which was improved but not too far ahead of an off-the-shelf bike. Don't get me wrong I'm sure the factory bike of Nagl's is definitely a special bike but out of the three on the test this one was the one that closest resembled a production model in terms of power and feel. But that could be a good thing, no? It might just mean that the new production 450 is the closest thing to a factory bike yet...
Tony Cairoli’s 350 was the one I was looking forward to the most! I had so many questions that I couldn’t wait to get answers for. Now I’m not lying when I say this but as soon as I sat on the #222 I instantly thought this is ideal. It was the smallest out of all of the bikes instantly giving me confidence that I could ‘man-handle’ and bitch it about. Everything up front felt comfortable and where it should be. I’m pretty sure it would be exactly how I would set my bike up.
I took to the track in anticipation and within corners I was already shredding the ‘gnar’ after needing no time to adapt. It was an instantly comfortable ride and with my first load of air I ‘tossed a little phatty’ (that means I done a little whip – easy Jim) and landed with the binders on to make a tight inside line and so quickly made my mind up that it felt way more like a 250 than a 450.
I could confidently move it about in the air for the rest of my allotted time, dragging it out a few extra feet if need be when I was coming up a little short on something and whipping it easily without fear of it not coming back. Equally as easy to stop as Herlings’ I was surprised to find it actually then turned a little easier. That may relate back to the low/small feeling of the chassis, his sweet bar bend or maybe it is just a combination of it all and it’s literally just easier...
Regardless, I wasn’t bothered and started pushing it more and more. By now there were more braking bumps forming and the faster you hit them the better the suspension worked. If I attacked them with speed the suspension would almost get on top of braking bumps like a section of whoops with the front and back wheel tapping the top of each bump on the way through giving it a very confident and consistent feel as opposed to dropping to the bottom of the holes and rebounding too fast, missing a couple and unsettling my balance.
Again this just injected confidence in me and I even found myself pushing it a wee bit too hard for the circumstances and had to remind myself of why I was there – also I wasn’t completely sure where KTM stand on the standard bike borrowing rule of ‘you bend it you mend it’ because I’m sure it wouldn’t of been a cheap accident had there been one.
The motor is so impressive too sharing the same smooth but strong power off the bottom that seemed to be consistent with all of the bikes. The 350 puts just as much power to the ground as you would expect – somewhere in between a 250 and a 450 but I kinda liked it! It was stronger than the smaller capacity bike but was more manageable than the bigger by not requiring any clutching or aggressive body language to keep the front end down – just point and shoot!
The most impressive thing about this bike though is how it shares a little element of something from each of its siblings. The rev range is like a 250F, in fact it probably revs as high as my own MX2 bike did this season and the strength in mid-range power and top-end speed is scarily close to the 450 making it super easy to get to speed with the least amount of effort possible. That would answer all the questions to how TC222 gets good starts on a bike that’s minus 100cc – the fact that it puts the power to the ground well without having to fight to keep the front end down and he can hang on to a gear while the rest of the guys will be shifting.
In a nutshell I’d have to say that Tony Cairoli’s bike was the most impressive. It’s clear that although he is an absolute badass, if his bike was a football sticker it would be a shiny! It’s so easy and comfortable to ride, everything is positioned where it should be, it does what it should be doing and puts manageable power to the ground with the least amount of effort making it nigh on impossible not to improve any rider. It ultimately makes going fast easy.