I've been a test rider for the world's greatest off-road magazine for eight years now and I've loved every minute of all it brings to my existence. I guess over this time and through my many adventures and tests I have grown to lust after the ‘perfect test’. In a perfect world I would like all our tests to be over a few days in different conditions with a blend of great riding and great photography to make the test great for the most important people – that's you lot, the readers.
And so, to my point. After a few conversations with my good friend Chris Denison at Dirt Rider mag in the USA I decided to book myself some flights and get out to California on another adventure. The lure of dirt biking in California never leaves you once you've tasted it and I have been drawn back there many times ever since my first taste in 1999 on Steve Peat's YZ250 around a gorgeous Glen Helen race track.
The thing about testing in California in January is the fact that you can find just about every condition in the book. Chris had a few plans for some adventures on my trip and although we didn’t get to complete all my missions I will be going back to race later in the year and I will take care of the rest then.
The good thing about this adventure was the lack of a solid plan and that suited me just fine. Between Chris, Jimmy Lewis and Scotty Denison we were going to ride, surf, mountainbike, watch supercross and work. Imagine a day when you get up, the sun is shining, you eat breakfast, go surfing at Newport Beach, then sip a beer by the ocean before heading straight to Anaheim Stadium for round number one of the supercross season. A dream? Yes. But dreams do come true sometimes and this was one of mine which the Dirt Rider crew made a reality. Good times.
Could things get any better than that? Well it would be tough but it seemed they could...
The next day the work kinda had to start as it was off to Bean Canyon in the high desert with Chris, Scotty, Sticker Tod, Kyle Redmond, Factory KTM’s Kurt Caselli and a few others for the ultimate day's riding and testing. And the test? How does a UK exclusive first ride on KTM's 350XCF grab ya?
The KTM 350SX-F was launched last summer and, as we all know, Tony Cairoli guided his orange, high-revving missile to the world MX1 title. Well there have been a lot of these sold to people who race off-road at three-hour cross country style events and although they are pretty good they are just not made for some of the unique types of going you find in these races.
My view on the 350SX-F is that it's a very fast 250F rather than a slower 450F. The revving style of the motor is great but in technical off-road situations it is well over-geared for the low-speeds involved and can make life difficult for rider, clutch and general enjoyment.
Now KTM could never be accused of sitting still when it comes to making bikes for every style of riding and racing. The two-stroke XC models arrived during 2010 offering tweaks from the full motocross versions and they have gone down a storm. But what could KTM do to prepare their 350SX-F for XC competition? I have spoken to a lot of people who share my excitement at the prospect of such a machine.
In theory the project is exciting but the reality? Well, just one look at the lines and XC touches take this bike to a different level. But could this bike perform in every situation - from massive jump-filled motocross tracks to the high desert sand taking in all the streams, rocks, climbs and gnarly going in between? It was my aim to find out...
The bike fits when you first sit on it. Ass to peg height is good and gripping the bike is easy to help ease fatigue and aid with more precise riding. The bars are a tad straight and low for me but that's personal. The controls as per usual are all fantastic - light and positive. Basically, if you find a hand or foot control to be wrong on most modern bikes it's only a small adjustment away from being perfect. From the first turn of the wheels the bike is ready to go wild.
There is a friendly power from the motor which is not arm-ripping but in no way is it slow. The engine on the XC is almost exactly the same as the SX version except for the semi wide ratio gearbox. KTM have worked the ratios in the gearbox so the motor needed no tweaking in the power department to pull each gear to its optimum from the very slowest going to the absolute flat-out stuff. And when I say flat-out I really do mean head-shaking, eyeball-rattling, flat-out stuff. The high desert is huge!
The bike pulled in every gear perfectly and although a lot of the desert terrain demands a lot of power the 350 with its fuel injection working well only felt like it was lacking in power on one or two of the massive hillclimbs where the slightly lower amount of torque compared to the 450s out there would allow the bike to lose grip and start spinning. To be fair I'm talking about massive, loose, rock-filled climbs - great fun to attack but not the kind of thing found in any races over here.
We covered a lot of ground over the day and at times we were riding through a couple of feet of snow. Fantastic terrain and amazing test conditions. The fuel economy was brilliant on the XC as we were killing it for hours and the fuel level was not racing down as you would normally expect with a carburetted bike. During the day I got to ride a carb bike and we were going so high it would actually run out of fuel and stop on the climbs as the air was getting so thin the demands for fuel delivery from the carb couldn’t keep up. That’s pretty wild going.
As with most of the bikes I test, the suspension was slightly too soft. The bike has balance as it is but I would have to make a significant change of a couple of spring rates harder on the forks with a rate harder on the rear to keep the balance while allowing high-speed sections to be attacked. If I was riding the 350 in the USA the first aftermarket part I would be bolting on would be a steering damper to ease the butt-clenching moments while wide open in the fast stuff. At the end of the day in the desert I had a great feel for the 350XC and I was not disappointed in any way with the only negative being the slightly under-sprung forks.
The second day's riding on the bike was again in the high desert just off Highway 15 en route to Las Vegas. The track myself, Kris Keefer and Chris Denison tested at was Racetown and it's an amazing place to ride. I nearly had a nugget at the size of a couple of the jumps and I was ready to use the good old ‘it’s a cross country bike’ excuse if I didn’t start nailing 'em but after a couple of laps the bike was taking the lead on the loamy dirt and everything was falling into place. The 350 ate the track up and inspired confidence for jumping and turning. What an absolute delight to cut loose on an amazing track and ride a bike as hard as it would go.
I started this feature talking about perfection and my search for the perfect test. Well this KTM 350XCF test in association with Dirt Rider magazine in sunny California may well be the holy grail of my career as a tester. But that won't keep me from continuing to search for perfection. That's my passion...