Okay, I know I’m privileged to have the wonderful gig of being a test rider for Dirt Bike Rider – really I do – so it wasn’t as if I deliberately missed my flight to Milano to test the MX1 and MX2 world championship winning bikes belonging to Antonio Cairoli and Marvin Musquin. As I ran through the airport in a vain attempt to catch a flight I knew I’d already missed my heart was revving and red-lining like I could only imagine the bikes would – if I ever got there!
But seven hours later I was airborne and on my way, a little calmer and relishing the prospect of the following day’s test schedule – even if I was flying ‘Dyin’ Air’…
After one too many custard croissants washed down by strong coffee, the next morning my heart was racing again like it was back at Stansted. Luckily, I’d levelled out by the time I hoisted my fat ginger ass onto Marvin Musquin’s all-singing, all-dancing 250SX-F. When the day was done I’d concluded this could be the shortest bike test I’ll ever write – there wasn’t much to say because in all honesty there’s hardly anything negative to say.
I said it way back when I rode the stock bikes in May that KTM have worn down my resistance. I’ve always admired their efforts but there was just something about them I didn’t like. Originally it was the look of them (they’ve since revamped the look to my taste) and I was never convinced by the PDF suspension system, especially on the four-strokes – and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. The stock models won me over back in May but not to the point of becoming a real unbridled passion – it was more of a girl next door thing if you know what I mean? A safe, strong reliable bet for a good future rather than the risk of heartache.
Marv’s machine however? Let’s just say she’s more racy – in every sense! She’ll put more than a smile on your face. And then she still might break your heart. Blow your mind and then blow you out!
It’s no wonder that Marvellous Marvin is nearly always leading or near the front as they come out of the first turn. What is he, five stone soaking wet or something? And he’s holding onto a fully-armed missile! It’s one of those things that’s difficult to put into words. It’s just so strong. Right from the bottom, I mean the moment you just even tickle the throttle you know it’s got everything you’ll ever need from a bike in that capacity class. Put it this way, I could do everything I needed to do around a rough and ready Mantova GP circuit in third gear and still be just as fast or maybe even faster than on a ‘normal’ bike with a full set of gears. And this is just the smallest bike remember – Cairoli’s and Nagl’s bikes were just the same but with even more power.
The power delivery was pin sharp and it just revved to the moon if you wanted to ride it that way but with so much torque you don’t have too. I tested Mike Alessi’s factory KTM 250 back in 2005 at Lake Elsinore and I remember being really impressed with the power of that. Musquin’s bike makes that seem like a 125 in comparison. It’s almost laughable and I couldn’t help but go away thinking how much work the other riders and teams have got ahead of them this winter if they are going to stop Ken Roczen who is stepping on to what will undoubtedly be an even better bike next year.
If there was one negative of the whole test regarding the bikes it was Marvin’s suspension set-up. Thing is it’s hardly a negative because clearly it’s what suits him but it was so bloody stiff and not only that it didn’t even seem that plush, particularly the front forks. I’ve got to be honest that surprised me because Marvin is such a super fly guy. It had a real supercross feel to it. I could really feel every little sharp-edged bump through the bars and it took me a while to get used to jumping it because it just didn’t soak up take-offs or landings, it seemed to have the rebound of a new pogo stick. But that’s the thing with race spec bikes, factory ones in particular – they are set up for someone else and I can safely say they are riding at a speed considerably faster than the safe and steady Perrett approach to motocross.
After my blast on MM’s bike and a quick isotonic quencher to flush out all of the caffeine from earlier I took the bold step to go straight from the 250 SX-F to the mighty 450 of Nagl. Good job I had flushed the coffee through because this thing was like a laxative! If Musquin’s bike was like a rocket then this thing was like hitting interstellar overdrive. I reckon it could outrun the Millennium Falcon – it was mentally, mind-numbingly quick. Then you have to consider that Max is a slight fellow too and again it’s hardly surprising he’s usually right up there in the betting stakes for the holeshot.
What made the power even more intimidating was the fact it had one the lightest throttles I’ve experienced and that, my motorcycle loving amigos, isn’t the safest combination. I rolled around the first corner, already half-petrified after opening it up to the stop up the start straight, then hit a sharp edged bump which made my arm pull down and it took off like a bat out of hell. My arms blew up like Popeye just trying to stop the bloody thing before the next corner as I grabbed everything but the throttle in an attempt to save my life – frightening times. Once my pulse stopped throbbing like a drum n’ bass night I got to grips with this immense power and it was great.
I didn’t have to change gear much on Musquin’s bike and I really didn’t have too on this. I pulled several third gear starts and it was a breeze, even with my barrel belly. With Max’s six-pack being driven off the line with this thing under him again it’s hardly surprising he’s normally a shoo-in for the holeshot. Unlike Musquin’s bike the suspension was much more to my liking – a lot. I run my suspension softer than what my weight would suggest and this was a great ride. It was plush with no hard areas like Marvin’s bike and soaked up the sharp edged smaller bumps lovely. Then as you pushed through onto the harder impacts and take-offs it was very hard to bottom right out but at least it felt you were using all of the stroke. I reckon I must have been about 2mm off bottoming it.
By the end of my session I felt I could do pretty much anything I tried on the track with confidence and with a little more time, well actually quite a lot of time, could be going really well on this bike and show glimpses of a so-called heyday long gone.
Next up was the bike that I was really trying to ride without any preconceptions but, let’s be honest here, it’s hard not to swing a leg over Antonio Cairoli’s MX1 world title steed without certain expectations. I absolutely bloody loved the stock 350 so I was excited about this one and it didn’t disappoint. In fact, this thing can’t be too far off being the perfect motocross machine for all conditions. I seriously believe that KTM will be finally making waves in America with this bike, it’s that good, especially with Roger De Coster fronting up the programme and the usable power it has for AMA supercross.
As much as I liked Nagl’s bike, doing a supercross race on it would be like trying to drive a top fuel funny car dragster around the roundabouts of Milton Keynes with balloons for hands and bowling balls for feet. With the sublime natural talent of Cairoli on board it’s no wonder Stefan Everts is proud of the bike he calls ‘his baby’.
It’s bang smack in the middle of Musquin and Nagl’s bike on the powerband. So basically where Marvin’s bike would struggle to have the raw oomph to get over some obstacles and Max’s bike would be too much, this would be ideal – and I mean ideal. Unless the tracks start having even bigger jumps or longer straights (and I hope for the sport they don’t) then you have everything you want right here and I think Cairoli knows it.
Right from the bottom it’s just there for you. Like all the bikes the gear shifting is smooth and precise and it’s much harder than a stock bike to hit neutral. The cranks and the motor are synced up so well and you seemingly never lose drive between gear changes. It’s stupidly responsive and that gives you the confidence to feel invincible because you just know how the bike is going to react time and time again. With Antonio’s confidence steering it forward it’s no bloody wonder he always looks so relaxed. All the bikes just seem to have endless, progressive power. There doesn’t seem to be any weak spots in the motors where it drops off, it’s like a constant flow.
Like Nagl’s bike Cairoli’s suspension was more to my liking. It was a little stiffer than Max’s but had the same plush feel. I liked that because it matched the bike. No question, you can definitely ride the 350 more aggressively than the 450 and the suspension set-up reflected that. The front forks and rear shock were well balanced like Nagl’s but unlike Musquin’s bike which definitely felt lower at the rear with a juddery front end (not sure if ‘juddery’ is even a word but let’s run it anyway, eh?).
The factory-spec Brembo brakes were awesome and the hydraulic clutches were like grasping at fresh air. It’s kind of weird but it’s always the brakes that define a factory bike for me. Over all the sublime suspension and stupidly strong motors it’s the anchors that give them that ‘special’ feel.
Once again they are set up for each individual. For example Musquin’s front brake is much sharper than Cairoli’s or Nagl’s. They still stop you the same, it’s just that Marvin’s works earlier on the pull of the lever than the others. And Nagl’s rear brake lever worked much lower than the others, you had to really point your toe downwards to lock it up. Of course, you can tailor any stock bike to your needs but factory riders get to have a bike built to their specific requirements and you really can tell that when you get the opportunity to ride three factory machines back-to-back.
After a hearty pasta lunch and a reload on caffeine consisting of far too many hits of espresso I finished off my day riding Steffi Laier’s championship winning bike and I was loving it until I tweaked my knee thinking I was all quick again. I blame the coffee and the confidence from the other bikes. Laier’s bike is built on the 2009 spec and I thought it wouldn’t be a stitch on Musquin’s but to be fair it wasn’t far off it. In fact because of the much more forgiving suspension I really liked it and I think I may had been able to turn quicker laps on it.
Steffi’s bike seemed to turn a little tighter which suited me – especially once I’d hurt my knee and was looking for smoother lines. The power wasn’t quite as strong as Marvin’s bike but, by Jove, you’d all be thankful of a motor and bike as strong as this! It has more than enough for a British championship contender and yet again with the slight frame of Laier on board it’s no wonder KTM took the women’s world title too. Not taking anything away from Steffi but she definitely had a bike that gave her every opportunity and few excuses. The suspension was plush, the power great and controls and brakes made everything that little bit easier – just like with the bikes I rode before it.
Like I said, there aren’t any real negatives to talk about from this test other than my knee has now finally given up the ghost after years of thinking I’d got away with it. That and the seven-hour wait in the departure lounge at Stansted…