2005 KTM Supermoto First Ride

Supermoto is a combination of two of my favorite things: Riding dirt bikes and hauling ass on asphalt. So, when KTM invited MotorcycleUSA to sample the latest versions of their SMR line-up, I was obliged to attend. Of course it took place in Las Vegas, which made the whole experience that much sweeter.

We were first introduced to our steeds by members of KTM’s media department. Tom Moen led the charge as he explained KTM’s subdued goal of complete domination of the supermoto market on a global scale, effective immediately. The $7,498 450 SMR and $7,898 525 SMR models received a host of improvements for ’05 aimed at facilitating entry into the sport for new riders, while giving experienced racers a platform from which to build a machine capable of challenging for a title in whatever class it is raced.

Unlike 2004, neither model will be offered in a street-legal version. These orange and black beauties were fully prepped and ready to rock and roll by the time we had arrived at the event. After an hour-long briefing it was time to choose a bike and hit the track, figuratively, of course. Let’s take a look at the inside of the bikes KTM believes will exceed the expectations of supermoto competitors around the world, before talking about how much fun it is to actually ride them.

Both the 450 SMR and 525 SMR models are kick-start only, liquid-cooled 4-valve, overhead cam, single cylinder 4-strokes. All that power gets pushed to the rear wheel via a 6-speed transmission controlled by a hydraulically actuated multi-plate wet clutch. The 450 SMR boasts a 95 x 63.4 mm bore & stroke squeezing the air-fuel mixture to 12:1 compression ratio. The 525 SMR uses the same bore and a longer 72mm stroke to reach 510cc displacement, with a lower 11:1 compression ratio.

You can tell the difference in the motors just by the way they feel when you twist the throttle. The 450 sends vibes out like a purring, tiger while the more-gnarly beat of the 525’s piston is reminiscent of holding onto an idling STIHL Magnum 880 chainsaw with a stuck throttle in each hand – scary. Acoustically, however, both machines were pretty easy on the ears. In the interest of meeting the low-sound emission requirements that have become a standard at race tracks around the world, the KTM Supermoto line-up features low db exhausts that meet or exceed Euro 2 requirements.

The chassis are identical. It all starts with a chrome-moly frame, removable aluminum sub-frame, inverted 48mm WPS fork, adjustable billet triple clamps, and KTM’s linkless WP shock absorber attached to their new and improved stiffer cast aluminum swingarm. Radial-mount 310mm Brembo front brakes provide the stopping power up front while a 220mm disc and single piston caliper pull duty out back. Rear wheel size is up to 5.5″, facilitating the use of the bigger and better race compound tires on the market these days. If all these goodies don’t get your competitive fires stoked, maybe an extensive supply of accessories including 540cc and 576cc engine kits, exhaust systems, 16.5″ and 17″ wheel kits, and a variety of other go-fast goodies will.

Riding Impression

The first ride of the day was aboard the 450 SMR. Right from the get-go the 450 was nothing short of an absolutely sweet ride. KTM’s 4-stroke powerplant provided gobs of useful torque, a throaty yet politically correct rumble from the big single, and its transmission and clutch were incredibly smooth and easy to operate, even while trying to acclimate to riding a new dirtbike very fast, on the street. The familiar off-road riding position fit me like a glove, even though I could barely touch the ground at a stop. Thank the 33.7″ seat height of both bikes for this inseam-stretching experience. Once the bike is leaned over in a turn however, you won’t give a rats-ass about how tall it is. Railing through a turn on a 250-lb machine gives new meaning to the term carving up the track. This thing flat-out gets it on and there are not enough adjectives available for me to get my point across, but I’ll give it a shot.

Members of KTM’s Media Department, clued us in on how the new SMR’s will deliver new riders an opportunity to enter into supermoto, while allowing more the more experienced a legit racing platform.

The 450SMR is rock solid and predictable, whether on the gas and building speed between turns, or on the exit and trying to reel in the dude ahead of you. The operative word here is predictability. The combination of Dunlop rubber and solid chassis allows you to come to grips with flogging this Thumper mercilessly on the street. The 450 has enough sack to pull a wheelie if you want it to, but it’s just mellow enough to keep the front end down if you don’t give it any reason to do otherwise.

I never experienced any headshake or unsettling of the chassis under acceleration, but acing deceleration takes a bit of getting used to. In the dirt, the earth softens the blow of rear-wheel chatter following a couple downshifts under braking,  unless you’re ripping through braking bumps, compared to a poorly performed downshift on a streetbike that instigates the irritating rear wheel hop. That’s what you have to learn to avoid when first trying to go fast on a SM machine. A deft downshifting foot and clutch hand are what you are searching for here.

One of the finer points of supermoto seems to be sliding, pitching the rear end out and looking like Wardy, but that’s where I needed a wee-bit more time to figure it all out. It may look simple enough to pitch the bike into a turn sideways and slide towards the apex with your footpeg grinding into the asphalt, but I’ll leave that to the pros.

The brakes on the 450 SMR are phenomenal. Certainly it is the combination of a light machine and quality components, but no matter which way you slice it these Brembo units get the job done with authority. They provide excellent feel, as if your finger is connected to the rotor without all the pain from the ensuing friction burn, while offering a butt-load of stopping power. If things get a little hairy or the front end starts to slide its easy to detect and remedy. It only began to exhibit fade towards the end of the day after all of us had our way with the feisty Austrian Single.

The 450SMR was impressive, with great handling and controllable power.

The chatter I experienced under braking from the back half of the bike in my early sessions turned out to be a matter of understanding how to slow the bike down and work the gears during deceleration more than anything else. The optional slipper clutch makes a huge difference in this department. I did get a few laps on a kitted version and it was a lot more user-friendly. On the stock bike, you can’t bang down a couple gears and dump the clutch at the entrance of a corner, unless you’re going about 30 mph faster than I was,  or you will get chatter rather than a slide.

After a while, I did get used to the bike moving around a lot, thanks to the predictability of the slides. About that time things started to feel even more fun than they did in the early going,  if that was even possible. As far as I can tell it opens up another whole dimension to the riding experience after you start to slide further and wider. At this point it was just amazing that I wasn’t getting arm-pump and that I was able to soak in what it’s like to ride these amazing machines in such a short period of time.

In a nutshell the KTM 450SMR is one of the most incredible bikes I have ever ridden. If the goal from KTM was to convert a couple non-supermoto riders into the cult, shave my head, burn my 501s, pluck my eye-brows, wrap me in dead cow-skin and call me Kalakant Tejpaala Mahiraj (Translated from the ancient book of names means: Kalakant = A cuckoo: T: Controller of power M: One who rules the world.) Yeah, it’s that good. 

I spent the entire day switching off between the 450 and the big-bore 525, so you can imagine how tired I was when they finally pried the 450 out of my grasp. But I’m not done yet. After spending about an hour on the 450 I was aching to check out the 525 monster, since I absolutely loved the 525 EXC Enduro we tested in 2004.

Things start getting even more fun in supermoto, once you pick up the finer nuances of the slide. Apparently Ken needs to work on it a bit more still.

From the moment I kicked the Bavarian beast to life I knew I was in for a wild ride. Making my way onto the course it was apparent this bike was a tad-bit more unruly than its little sister was. The motor transmitted much deeper and more violent vibration through the bars, and just the twist of the wrist sent the front end skyward in either of the first two gears. That extra torque would pay off big time in the fun department later on.

For the first few laps it was all about keeping the five-two-five pointed in the right direction and motoring out of turns with judicious use of the throttle so as to keep the power slides and wheelies in check. Oh yeah, there were some long, low wheelies just about everywhere in between each turn because, no matter what, the bike is just prone to wheelie. Now, I want to make it clear that I am not the big wheelie clown in this circus, but when you have this much power and this little weight, it makes anyone feel like Goy. I wish.

In the end the 525 was a bit overkill for me personally. Although wildly fun it was, dare I say, it may be too much fun. There seemed to be so much torque on tap that it took a lot of energy to ride. Plus, it seemed to work better the harder it was pushed, so to ride smooth it had to be ridden fast, unlike the 450 which was easy to ride smooth right off the bat. Like I said, this wasn’t so great since it really sapped my strength just hanging on for dear life. I was only good for 4 or 5 fast laps until I was exhausted, so I had to pick my favorite sections and push through those in order to get the hang of the way things are done in big-bore-ville.

Slowing the 525 was nearly as effortless as the 450, but the bike got going so much faster so quickly that I often found myself a little panicked on the brakes. Despite this, the bike handled it all in stride lap after lap. The chassis and brakes work superb on both machines,  the radial mount front brakes require only a light pull to begin slowing, after which they scrub off speed rapidly if you dare to give it full tug. The motor was strong enough that it wasn’t always necessary to be in the perfect gear to get a good drive. Factor in the fact that a good drive was always accomplished on one wheel once you get the hang of things.

The 525SMR demands a lot of strength and stamina from the rider. Running it around the track all afternoon gives you a greater appreciation for the pros.

It became obvious in the latter stages of the day that it was better for me to ride a gear high on the 525. This reduced the vibes and the fatigue in my arms, while allowing me to take note of the things it does well. Holding a line is one of those things. Pour on a little throttle while cranked over in a turn and the 525 will start to accelerate while sucking the suspension down a bit, making it easier to stick a leg out and get pointed towards the next turn. It was also a bit easier to ride in the dirt section as well.

Riding in the rock-hard dirt on slick tires is hard enough, but trying not to look stupid on camera adds a bit of extra pressure that no journalist can avoid. By keeping the speed up and a gear high, the 525 allowed me to get more comfortable in the moto-section during the later stages of the day. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t jumping with reckless abandon like some of the more experienced moto-journos were. I was feeling just fine clearing the table-top and urban-cross jumps after putting on such a pathetic performance on those obstacles earlier in the day.

The whole big-bike experience started to become less overwhelming and more fun the more time I spent on it. Make the mistake of stalling the 525 and you’ll be wishing for an electric start. The combination of short legs and an obstinate SOB of a bike once its hot was frustrating a couple times. Why they aren’t equipped is surely a weight savings issue, but for the sake of all things holy, it would be worth its weight in gold.

In parting there is one subject I must point out: This bike is not for wimpy Nancy-boys (or girls for that matter). This is a bike for experienced riders with strength and stamina to spare. Watch the pros in the Unlimited class after riding this bike around all day and you will understand why burly guys like Kurt Nicoll are champions and the rest of us can only look on in awe.

Before I knew it the event was over and I had only just really started to come to grips with the bikes. I had a notepad full of notes and a story to tell, but I felt something was still missing. I didn’t want to stop but I had to. On the way back home, all I could think about was how much freakin’ fun supermoto really is. I want more.