KTM North America treats the dirt bike press corps to a day of unlimited laps at Red Bud: America’s Motocross Track and asks us to thrash their entire 2023 lineup.
Someone at KTM must have me confused with another guy, someone who actually knows what they’re doing because I’m on a Buchanan, Mich.-bound tour bus filled with riders who make a living offering their opinions on the qualities and characteristics of motorcycles. I make a living writing about people who were (and still are) far better at riding than myself. Many of these athletes sitting around me still have the speed to qualify for the Pro Motocross that will be held at the very track we’re headed to–Red Bud MX–less than two months from now.
As the coach rolls into “America’s Motocross Track”, and past the football-field-sized Star Spangled Banner that seems to ripple gracefully even when the air is calm, we can see the Ride Orange crew adding bikes to an already long row of 2023 model year KTM motocross and off-road machines. My imagination wanders and a funny visual pops in my head. I look around for a launch ramp because the row of bikes is so astonishingly deep that I thought maybe a daredevil act would be part of the presentation. The lineup of orange and white fenders is certainly longer than LaRocco’s Leap, the jump for which Red Bud is most famous.
But there will be no daredevilry today and jumping LaRocco’s Leap is strictly forbidden (damn, because I was sooo tempted). Our given mission is to simply ride as many of the 2023 KTM models as possible and offer our opinions and thoughts on them.
DISCLAIMER: my AMA Pro Racing license expired before many of the guys around me were even born so my opinion is going to vary greatly from, say, Josh Mosiman’s (Motocross Action) who begged (not an exaggeration) to be cleared for takeoff on LaRocco’s Leap. Unlike James Stewart in 2002, Mosiman actually listened when he was told not to jump the Leap.
That’s the moment I realize my opinion matters, too. Because I can no longer relate to a guy who’s willing to launch a triple jump that most full-time pro racers don’t even do. I also don’t have the testing acumen of Kris Keefer, whose lifetime number of different motorcycles ridden is greater than the number of paragraphs I’ve written in my 25-year writing career. I can’t wax on about chassis characteristics and how much better the centralized rotating mass feels in the new models.
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If you want or need that kind of analysis, definitely go read/listen to his work, too. These days, I’m an occasional weekend warrior, which is who many of my followers are; men and women who ride infrequently or are exploring getting back into riding after a lengthy layoff. They’re simply trying to make the best decision and they have an overwhelming number of choices in front of them.
All models in the 2023 KTM lineup are complete overhauls from chassis to engine to suspension, yet their tagline, “NOTHING HAS CHANGED”, reminds their competitors and loyal following that the company vision remains the same as it did when John Penton first imported the 125cc Six Days from Austria back in the late 1960s.
2023 KTM SX-F
We had eight models to choose from! I haven’t ridden a competition four stroke since two strokes were still winning AMA Supercross main events. Yeah, I’ll leave you to that math. It was a generation ago. I started on the 2023 KTM SX-F. I’m a two stroke guy but I was very keen on riding a four stroke and two stroke back to back. This is the first opportunity I’ve ever had to do that.
Given that knowledge, you can imagine my confusion upon swinging a leg over the seat. Lots of buttons and I don’t know what any of them do. Remember when the kill switch was the only button on the handlebars? And if we had cause to press that, something had gone wrong. I knew the kill switch got a companion several years ago (electric start button). But the new KTM SX-F line now has a four-button panel on the clutch side that consists of traction control, quick shifting and two different engine maps (1 = linear curved power; 2 = hope your helmet strap is double knotted).
Quickshift is for rapid upshifting without the clutch and traction control keeps the power to the ground and will be ideal in wet/muddy conditions, which we didn’t have on this day. There’s even super secret setting called launch control, which engages when the traction control and Quickshift buttons are pressed simultaneously. I was hoping this setting would help me clear all the steep jumps at Red Bud. Wrong kind of launch control. This setting limits the amount of power to the rear wheel. Combined with the Quickshift, it’s a holeshot weapon.
Hoping for more secret settings, I tried Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A then Start. Nope. No 30 lives. Nothing happened.
I skipped the daunting task of taking “beauty shot” photos of the clean bikes. For no reason other than to say I did it, I wanted to be one of the first riders on the track. This is a bucket list, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity:
- 62 degrees and sunny
- A fresh-out-of-the-crate motorcycle not available to the public yet.
- An impeccably groomed Red Bud course, five decades in the making, with dirt the consistency and texture of a German chocolate cake’s interior.
The track had the glassy-smooth feeling of water skiing at sunrise. I wandered all over the course, making big slalom slashes like a backcountry snowmobiler. And the four stroke did whatever I wanted it to, with very little effort. I forgot how easy four strokes were to ride. I can’t claim I got too cozy with the Quickshifter function because I barely shifted at all. I just lugged around the track, standing on the pegs pretending I was Stefan Everts. Without the speed. And style. And the four to five languages he speaks.
The odd detail about riding the 250 SX-F that stuck with me was how little I used the front brake. Which is odd for me. I like to charge hard and brake hard coming into corners. I don’t always exit them gracefully but I like coming in hot. Instead, I let the engine brake for me. I let myself be lazy. I also had trouble reaching the front brake but that’s easily adjusted on both levers and requires no tools.
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LONG LIVE TWO STROKES
After 10-12 laps on the 250 SX-F, I noticed that the 125 SX looked lonely and this was the bike I was most excited to ride. Only one of each from the two stroke MX line (125, 250, 300) were available and they were pre-production models. We were told the dealers will have them in August or September.
Old habits die hard. I reached for the kick starter that wasn’t there. The entire two stroke line has electric start. And not that I would know how to do this anyway, but I didn’t have to worry about the jetting being right on this cool morning because electronic fuel injection eliminates that tedious task completely. And like its brothers, the two strokes have two mapping choices.
Heading down the straightaway and into the second turn, the voice inside my head screamed YES! YES! YES! YES! I felt alive and engaged and I ran it into the second turn so hard that I did a stoppie trying to tuck into the rut. Coming out of the groove, I nearly fell off the back. The 125 SX is a torque monster that pulls and pulls and pulls and it felt so much lighter and nimble than the 250 SX-F (the engine alone is 18-lbs. lighter). And that was all in map one. I didn’t switch to map two. But, I’ll be honest, I forgot it was even an option and I didn’t have unlimited laps on the 125 like I did on the four strokes.
To give all the test riders a chance to ride each two stroke, we were asked to limit ourselves to one session of five laps, a rule I admittedly broke. I really wanted to understand how it felt to go back and forth and this is what I discovered: as I fatigued, I struggled to enjoy the 125. The 250 SX-F wore me out, yet it was easy to ride, easy to lug around in the sand (Red Bud is far sandier than it was 25 years ago). It doesn’t mind going any speed you want to go.
The 125, however, wants your undivided attention at all times. I want more time on the 125 SX because my friends and social media followers are all asking me the same question: how does it compare to the 2022 Yamaha YZ125? Last November, Yamaha invited me to Glen Helen to ride the bike, which was overhauled for 2022, the first full refresh since 2005.
This comparison is tough. If it was the ’22 YZ against the ’22 KTM, I’d go with the YZ. The YZ packed in all the fun I needed and at $6,899, I’d get to put almost a grand back in my hand against the KTM. But the ’23 KTM, with EFI, electric start and more major system upgrades than I can count on all my fingers and toes, it’s worth the $7,949 price tag (only $200 more than the ’22). Because I’m not that nostalgic for firing up my motorcycle with my foot. To me, using a kick starter is sort of like eating an ice cream cone; the first couple of licks are the best. After that, your tongue gets numb and the thrill is gone.
And you’re telling me I don’t have to worry about jetting ever again? I think I want in on the massive technological two stroke advancements, which also includes new power valves, centralized rotating mass and a more stable chassis. Again, I want more time on the ’23 125 but sometimes, like with a new smartphone model, you just know you want the latest tech.
KTM 300 SX AND 250 XC-F
You’ll be disappointed to learn that I didn’t ride the 300 SX, which is the second most asked question I’ve been getting. By the time I had an opportunity to try it out (it was a popular model), I was simply too tired and didn’t want to get in over my head. But the other riders loved the bike and a few noted that it wasn’t simply a “faster 250”. Kris Keefer, of Keefer Inc. Testing, admits he’s not a two stroke guy, doesn’t get nostalgic for two strokes and would choose to ride a four banger every day of the week. But in power characteristics, he said the 300 SX felt more like a 450 SX-F to him and he enjoyed it a lot. He even officially named it his favorite bike of the day because he got all the feels of a four stroke with the lightness of a two stroke.
But I did ride something that none of the other riders touched: the 250 XC-F. Yup, I took a competition trail bike out on the Red Bud Pro Motocross track, kickstand and all. The orange hand guards were the only constant reminder that I was ripping ruts and tackling tabletops on an off-road bike. I couldn’t tell I had a larger fuel tank between my legs (8.5 liters vs. 7.2 liters). And I very much enjoyed the softer suspension and 18-in. rear wheel. The bike felt exactly the same and a KTM official mentioned the 250 XC-F is a top seller. If you like splitting your time between enduro/hare scrambles/moto, the XC-F can do all of it.
As I type this final paragraph, it’s been 48 hours since I did my last lap at Red Bud, a track I rode at least once a year while growing up in Mid-Michigan. My fingers still ache because I literally rode until I couldn’t feel my hands. I’m not quite in the same riding shape as I was at 17 but the fun factor is even higher because I’ve learned to appreciate these moments and opportunities a lot more than I did when mom and dad bought the bikes and drove me to the races. The person I don’t envy at the moment is the one trying to decide which model to put in their garage. Because they’re all outstanding. And all for unique reasons.
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