REAL WORLD TEST
STORY CONOR FRASER PHOTOGRAPHY ADAM SPENCE
Within a stone’s throw from Australia’s largest city, the Southern Highlands is probably better known for its cellar doors, historic towns and expansive private manors than as a hotspot for off-road motorcycle riding. We were recently invited to KTM Australia’s 2020 Media Trail Ride, where we set off from historic Berrima, NSW on the new EXC-F and EXC models in some of the best trail riding conditions we have experienced in recent times.
Given a late call up for the job after some unfortunate events for our Content Manager Matt Bernard, I was eager to hit the trails on the new models. Waking up before the sun, I packed my gear bag with some fresh threads thanks to the team at Alpinestars and hit the M4 for what was about a 2-hour trip down to Berrima from my place in inner Sydney. Following the gentle winds of the Old Hume Hwy into Berrima, you can immediately notice that things take a little slower pace in the quaint town. In desperate need of a coffee, I strolled into the Magpie Café, which looked to be the only option open at 7:30am on a Tuesday morning. Flat white in hand, I was persuaded by the owner to try one of their homemade beef pies, which in-fact was the perfect start to the day that lay ahead!
It was only a short 5-minute drive south of the town, before a series of KTM feather banners marked our taking off point for the days tailride. At this stage, what had been quite a dreary morning with on and off rain was starting to clear as, GK (Glen Kearney) and Rob-T (Rob Twyerould) opened up a forum on the new models, giving a brief overview of each bike and answering perfectly all my fastidious questions about frame flex and electronic differences from the MY19 range.
For 2020 the EXC-F range has four offerings: 250 EXC-F ($13,395), 350 EXC-F ($14,295), 450 EXC-F ($14,695) and the 500 EXC-F ($15,195), whilst the EXC range has a new little brother in the 150 EXC TPI ($11,795) alongside the existing 250 EXC TPI ($13,395) and 300 EXC TPI ($14,695) models. All 7 bikes are a new generation from the previous year, mimicking the appearance of the SX range in terms of bodywork, with chassis and engine upgrades also present across the board.
THE RUN DOWN
After a quick debrief on the corner-man system and overview of the days ride from GK and the property owner Robbo (Steve Robertson), it was time to select the first machine we wanted to test from the range. Being the logical being that I am, I decided to start on the smallest capacity machine, the 150 EXC TPI and work my way up through the range to finish on the 500 EXC-F at days end. A quick press of the start button fired the little bike into life, sending me into a frenzy as I played around on Robbo’s sons training track whilst the others finished getting ready. With everyone mounted up and ready to go, we darted across a series of paddocks and onto a quiet private road that lead to our first river crossing of the day.
Given that there was a photographer amongst the group, it was determined that this would be a great opportunity for our first shots of the ride. As first bike off the rank, I hastily entered the water which was deeper than I initially expected. A quick handful of throttle to keep the front-end steady across the uneven surface underneath resulted in a barrage of water from my front wheel soaking my gloves 5 minutes into the days riding.
With the group safely through, we headed out onto the Hume Hwy and southbound to Belanglo State Forest for the start of the days “real riding”. My earlier decision as probably the largest rider of the group deciding to jump on the smallest capacity machine was immediately regretted as we hit the Hwy. Channelling my inner American flat tracker, I slid back on the 150 until my chest was on the tank, placed my left hand on the fork leg to reduce drag, and held the throttle on the stop just to keep up with the group who were comfortably cruising at around 110klm on the larger capacity machines.
GK out front and leading the way into the Belanglo State Forrest, we kept a reasonable pace into some awesome single trail loops amongst the pine trees, you just had watch out for the odd wombat hole! With the corner-man system working impeccably, it didn’t take us long to cover the first leg of the ride where GK brought the group to a stop on top of a large rock, nestled deep in the forest. A welcome breath of fresh air and sunshine from the dappled light and steamy conditions of the pine trees, offered a perfect photo opportunity for the keener riders. I used the stop to throw a pair of dry gloves on before hopping onto the 250 EXC-F for the next section of the ride.
As we once again played follow the leader with GK at the head of the group, I quickly approached a vertiginous drop- off from the aforementioned rock that GK descended without a 2nd thought. Slightly intimidated, but without the time to show it, a quick clench of the buttocks and some faith in my own ability saw me hurtle down off the rock and back into the single trail amongst the pine trees. Another 20 – 30 klms of winding single trail followed as we skipped across access roads and cut corners for position and to assert ourselves as the fastest media outlet (as if our mental ages had become redundant) on the ride.
With the rain almost 100% cleared, and perfectly presented trails, I was left asking myself in my helmet why I haven’t spent more time exploring this part of the country on a bike? Back on some more substantial fire trails and access roads, the group slowed as we approached a series of tree loppers set to clear a portion of land we needed to pass through. There was a short exchange of words between the loppers and our local guide Robbo, before a compromise was made as we darted past the workers and towards a private motocross track nearby.
Marking another spot for a bike swap, we used the time at the private facility to quiz Rob T on certain aspects of the bikes that we had ridden so far, and revelled at the opportunity to take a few different models around what was actually a very fun and flowing private motocross track. With everything from , flat turns, long ruts and elevation changes, the track was a welcome change from the trails that we had been riding and a great simulation of a special test (minus the triple jump in one of the straights).
Marking the halfway point of the day, we took another trip this time back up the Hume Hwy. This was a lot more enjoyable for myself as I was now on the 300 EXC TPI, a bike more than capable of carrying me at a reasonable pace on the tarmac. No matter how many times you experience it, there is something nostalgic about 10 enduro bikes winding through a country town, eventually pulling up at the pub for one of Castlemaine’s finest (XXXX Gold) and a chicken schnitzel.
A few tales over lunch and some insight into the history of the town from GK and Robbo left us all with some added knowledge for our next visit to Trivia night. All the while Rob T and the rest of the KTM team made sure all the fleet were re-fuelled and any bent levers etc changed for our afternoons ride. As we remounted for the afternoon, GK advised that we may want to drop any bags or heavy jackets as the difficulty was about to increase slightly.
Heading north out of Berrima, we wound our way along Old Mandemar Road and towards the small township of Joadja. After around 20klms of sealed and un-sealed roads, we finally entered some single trail that resembled more of what I was used to here in Australia. With the Southern Highlands sitting smack bang on the Great Dividing Range, the afternoons ride featured a lot more elevation changes than what we had experienced prior to lunch. A strange mix of very snotty / rocky hills and almost sandy single trails provided the perfect scenario to test what these bikes were built for.
THE BLACK RUN
The ride once again continued at a reasonable pace as GK and Robbo deliberated on routes and we climbed higher and higher. A recent bushfire had cleared a lot of the forest floor and made it easy to keep tabs on the riders around you as the bush was quite sparse. A decision was made to visit a nearby waterfall, but not before mention that the trail was a little difficult ahead. We dropped down into a gully only to be greeted at the bottom by what looked to be a never-ending single trail littered with rocks, and no option other than to ascend it. All it took was for one rider to dab a foot and slow the pace down enough that we all found ourselves stationary on a section of trail that we would like to have hit with some momentum. None the less, everyone worked together to lift/carry bikes over sections to difficult to ride and helped each other navigate tight rock walls with some serious consequences if you were to get it wrong.
There was nobody around, the sky had now cleared and was perfectly blue, and the sound of rapidly flowing water emerged as the final bikes came to a stop. We had arrived at an amazing rock formation that boasted a waterfall flowing down into a sizeable swimming hole. This was a welcomed sight after the series of events prior. Nobody seemed to find the courage to curse out GK any longer once we knew this was what he had planned for us all along. More photo opportunities followed and some inspired words that riding down a portion of the waterfall would make a great image was all that I needed to nearly sink a brand-new EXC 450 4T. None the less a few attempts later and direction from some slightly more capable riders than myself, produced the results that we were all after.
It was my turn on the 450 EXC-F, and with that we headed back out of the tight single tracks and towards Wombeyan Caves Road, where GK knew of a special test loop with a reasonably long lap time. As we pulled off the main road and onto some single trail, my smile immediately grew from ear to ear as we rode out onto what was a near perfect sand track. There was some stagnant water about from the overnight rain, however some creative lines meant these areas could be missed quite easily and made for a fun half hour or so ripping around.
With the sun getting lower in the sky and the promise of the last loop of the day being the best, we all once again swapped bikes and headed from the special test area into hands down the best single trail I have ridden in a long time. The rain had meant that the sandy soil provided enough give to push into turns but also provided all the traction you could possibly want on exit. The trail flowed effortlessly back and forth, and you were often greeted by the sight of the other riders as you snapped back 180 degrees at a time before darting off another direction. As the trail began to open up and we got into some fast uphills, where drainage bumps offered up the opportunity for a bit of airtime if you were keen enough.
WHAT WOULD I BUY?
Peeling back onto some sealed roads, the sun was all but set as we began the now very cold trip back to Robbo’s property in Berrima. I think it’s important to note that of all 7 bikes in KTM’s EXC range, there is not a single bad performer. Each bike has its own characteristics that suit different situations, however throughout the day and different models I wasn’t greeted by something that I adversely didn’t like. The beauty of having 7 bikes in the range means that you can find the bike that suits your needs perfectly.
For me, and the type of riding I enjoy the most, I would lean towards the EXC 250 TPI as my bike of choice, but I am also a massive fan of the 350 EXC-F. The KTM EXC 250 TPI is incredibly exciting, you can ride it in a higher RPM than the 300 and the throttle response was impressive on this particular ride. The 350EXC-F just feels right. It does everything well, it’s the easiest bike to trailride and has more than enough power to get the job done. Regardless of your decision on which model suits you best, this new generation of KTM EXC’s are considerably better than their predecessors and will not leave you disappointed on any front.
THE KTM RANGE
150 EXC TPI ($11,795)
Although the smallest capacity bike in the range, the 150 EXC TPI is no slouch if you ride it correctly. The addition of TPI broadens the power, however it does still make you work hard to keep the bike in the meat of the power especially if you are on the heavier side like myself. Unexpected obstacles or where power is required instantly can prove a little more difficult on the 150 than the larger capacity bikes.
250 EXC-F ($13,395)
The quarter little four stroke offering from KTM certainly has its place in the market, for 2020 the throttle response is improved and like the other bikes in the range, the ergonomics have been narrowed improving the on-bike feel. For lighter riders or if you like holding a bike higher in the rev-range the 250 EXC-F could be for you. What you lose in power you make up for in weight, as this bike is far lighter than its big brothers, making a noticeable difference while riding, especially in tight & technical terrain.
250 EXC TPI ($13,395)
The 250 EXC TPI is probably the most exciting bike in the range to ride. Its light, nimble and has more than enough power to tackle any obstacle easily. Its lively engine encourages you to ride it higher in the rev range than the 300 EXC TPI and we really enjoyed this characteristic. Throttle response is incredible which we can only attest to the TPI and now that you don’t need to mix fuel, there has never a better time to jump on a 2 stroke enduro bike.
300 EXC TPI ($14,695)
There is a reason that the best hard enduro riders in the world ride 300 EXC’s. It’s the easiest bike in the TPI range to ride due to the fact you can carry a gear higher (or 2 even) than required and it will lug you out of any situation. Drop it down a gear and you have more than enough power to get you out of a sticky situation or lift the front wheel over a waist high log. As per the rest of the range, the 300 EXC TPI, is lightweight, corners impeccably and cover’s the broadest spectrum of suitability for varied riding conditions.
350 EXC-F ($14,295)
Some bikes you just hop on and they immediately feel “right”. For 2020 the 350 ECX-F is one of those bikes in my opinion. Its engine is more than adequate in the power department and the lively delivery really suits my riding style. It is noticeably lighter than the 450 and 500 meaning that it feels right at home on tighter more technical terrain. The addition of a stiffer frame for 2020, along with the new WP Xplor 48mm fork and shock has resulted in a bike that handles on a knife edge and provides a heightened level of confidence whilst riding.
450 EXC-F ($14,695)
Often used as the benchmark in the range, given the other manufactures offerings and the capacity rules for racing worldwide, the 450 EXC-F is a very difficult bike to fault. For me last year’s bike didn’t do anything wrong, and once again I am left with the same impression, only for 2020 its 15% better across the board. Power delivery, handling and even the peg/seat/bar relationship was greatly improved for me. An unbelievable trail bike, highlighting why it has been the benchmark for so many years.
500 EXC-F ($15,195)
The most comfortable bike of the range, the 500 EXC-F really excels when you as a rider are feeling a bit lazy. With a silly amount of power with just a quick flick of your right wrist, proper gear selection is almost unrequired as the torque delivered is enough to carry several gears too high through most sections. This bike is the heaviest of the range, and yes you can tell when riding the bikes back to back. The balance of this new 2020 chassis fools you into thinking that this bike is lighter than it is and short of some very rocky uphills I never noticed the weight as a hindrance