Words and images: Jason Macalpine - Gypsy Tales Podcast
It feels quite strange to be heading north up the Bruce Highway; growing up in Cairns, all the racing available to us was mostly south. But that’s about the only thing that is different about this trip to the race, everything else is business as usual, and I’m not mad about it.
My younger brother Matty (the fastest of our crew) has commandeered the steering wheel. Sam Moore is in the passenger seat, staring at his phone in order to keep his glove and flannel empire running while he’s away and I’m in the back with my room-mate and videographer for the trip Jackson. Papa Pete and my mum Liz are driving separately with the majority of the camping supplies and Matty’s - well Toby’s - KTM 450 SX-F.
I don’t exactly know how much of a race weekend’s overall fun lies in the road trip itself, but it would command a decent percentage. By the time we pull into Rockhampton, my stomach is sore from laughing and all of the terrible food we have eaten along the way. It’s always such an awesome feeling to pull up to the track for a race weekend. My racing over the last few years has been limited to Day In The Dirt and the other Transmoto events, so it is cool to switch it up and get back to some old school moto. We arrived just in time to be smashed by mosquitos as the sun was setting and discover that we had no bug spray. Perfect!
I talked about it in part one of the Three Fifty Diaries - if you haven’t read that just yet, maybe start there for the purpose of putting this into context. You can find part one here - but for me, racing is all about being with my friends and family, and this trip really embodied that spirit. The first night before the race was as classic an example of that as you could find. We set up our grossly oversized pit setup, rolled out the swags and gorged ourselves on mum’s stir fry. Chocolate cupcakes were served for dessert, and we all spent the evening fighting over the quickly fading LED lights as we did bike work that really should have been done during the week leading up to our departure.
I had a laundry list of work to do to the 350 SX-F. Air filter, suspension change and a full set of graphics from Rival Ink. Papa Pete wasn’t impressed at the amount of work to be done, but we got a laugh out of his carry-on all the same.
Being the typical Gypsy I am, leaving my suspension valving to the absolute last minute meant that Paul Baericke from MPE Suspension didn’t have time to revalve my forks or shock before the weekend. Luckily for me, MPE are an authorised WP Suspension stockist and had agreed to lend me a set of brand new WP XACT PRO Forks - in layman's terms, Cone Valves - that were set up for my weight and, I guess you could say speed. As a further stroke of some Gypsy luck would also have it, Paul from MPE’s son had just got a brand new KTM 250 SX-F, and he valved that shock for me and we did a clean swap.
I was so excited to see the 350 SX-F with the WP XACT PRO forks upfront, that Papa Pete and I tackled that job first. Switching suspension isn't a hard job, KTM actually pioneered the strategic placement of the shock in the chassis to allow for easy extraction, and forks are one of the more simple parts of the chassis to change. This had surely saved countless hours just in the KTM Factory Team testing and R&D over the years, and this is a benefit passed directly onto the customer of any new KTM motocross or enduro machine.
With that being said, the time in changing the suspension really did lie in the peanut gallery that assembled to give me a hard time during the swap. “The Gypsy is taking this race seriously, came with Cone Valves!” Was the audio I heard replayed what felt like 50 times while Sam Moore posted the perfect caption to match the story on his Instagram. We also managed to convince Todd Waters that I had ‘his’ Cone Valves and we managed to stretch that one out until lunch the next day. This was the perfect match to actually stealing one of his lightly used MAXXIS sand tires. I was going to buy one of my own I promise, but it was just lying in his workshop looking sad. With Todd in Rocky with his brothers and sisters, in true Gypsy fashion, I decided I’d take it for my bike. Thanks Todd.
The Rival Ink sticker kit went on last, thereby breaking the first rule of graphic installation. DON’T DO IT THE NIGHT BEFORE A RACE. Bonus negative points if you do it at the track. Luckily for me, Rival Ink leads the industry when it comes to technology in their graphics. Technology might sound like an overreach when you talk about stickers, but I can assure you, your mind would change if you visited their factory on the Gold Coast.
At this point, I was cooked. Cheeks are heavily fatigued from laughing, my eyes are tired from the drive, and I found myself as excited as when I was as a kid to sleep in my swag. Going to sleep anticipating being woken up at first light by the hum of generators and the sound of KTM 50’s free-revving as the excited mini dads wake up and make sure their weapons are ready for battle. Mum’s bacon and egg rolls and the promise of a solid flat white also make the decision to turn in early just that bit easier. This is what it’s all about, this is what i remembered race weekends being like as a kid. I love it!
If you haven’t watched our VLOG from this trip, I will now deliver indirect quotes, the exchange between my mate Sam Moore and I after the first practice session:
“Sam, rate your practice”
“minus four” Sam replied in a somewhat dejected fashion.
“Out of…” Hoping that it was some kind of trick statement, and he wasn’t as defeated as he came across.
“Out of ten”
Ok, so yeah. He is as defeated as he sounds.
It wasn’t just Sam that was defeated. My brother Matty (who earned the #57 in his peak racing years) was laying on the floor contemplating moving into the support class. As for me, well I was shaking as I was trying to hold the video camera up to eye level to film Sam for the VLOG.
I can hand on my heart say that I have never struggled to ride a motocross track that bad. I hadn’t ridden in a couple of weeks, I’d never used a sand tyre, the track felt like quicksand and my arms feel like concrete. This was the real deal, and we had two days of this stuff.
I need to reiterate that this was practice. Four laps.
It’s crazy what the added nerves and self-inflicted pressure of a race weekend can to do you. Before this, I would say I’ve been riding some of the best I ever had, but there were a lot of chinks in the armour exposed in that short practice.
While Matty and Sam both pulled out of a class, I decided that I would have a crack at sticking to my guns and ride both classes. I had been pushing for the 30+ class and then signed up for the Clubman Opens as well. Although practice was rough, I was sure that over the weekend I would start to feel more comfortable, and that as the track wore in it would get easier to ride.
The track did get easier to ride as the day went on. There is a sweet spot on every race day where the track is bedded in enough to give you something really stable to hook into before it gets too rough and you’re almost back to the helpless feeling of practice. Rocky got mint on that first day, and so did the 350 SX-F.
I knew for absolute sure that I was on the right bike. As I type this now, the thought of having to ride a 450 around that track makes me shudder. Call me what you will, but it’s just too much.
I honestly was worried that I wasn’t going to make the moto’s and as the first day of racing went on, I would have the two, 30+ moto’s and a Clubman Open race. I am stoked to say I made it through every lap and I felt like I was racing, not just riding. The Cone Valve Forks were incredible, and Paul nailed the shock setting. Day one was in the books and I had four separate sessions on the track, and I was really stoked to get through my first day of racing in years unscathed!
But goddamn were we tired. I felt terrible that Matty actually had to race the pro class. This was his last ride before a full shoulder reco and he hadn’t had any bike time, and Sammy works about 90 hours a week, so he gets a full pass on bike fitness.
Regardless, we were all keen to hook in again for another day of racing. That is until we saw that they were leaving the track unchanged, with minimal to no track maintenance for day two. Wow! This wasn’t what we had in mind as we all chowed down on bacon and egg rolls.
I spoke a lot about the bike in the first part of the ‘Three Fifty Diaries’ so I don’t want to be redundant. That was before I had the Cone Valves on the bike, so I will talk about those and who I think they are for.
Firstly, they are really good; and that shouldn’t be a surprise. They are what the KTM, Husqvarna and GASGAS Factory Racing Teams are using, and for good reason. You are paying more for more exclusive materials, coatings, CNC over cast and a lot more damping on the internals. Are they better than stock? Yes. That yes shouldn’t come as a surprise, they are more expensive and highly specific. When I posted a photo of the bike with the Cone Valves on my Instagram, I was inundated with messages.
How much better are they? Would you buy a set for yourself? Who should buy them? Can only pro’s make them work? So let’s dive into that here, keeping in mind that I am just your average rider.
Firstly, how much better are they? This is a hard one to quantify, but they felt a lot better to me. Keeping in mind that the forks I came off were completely stock and the WP Xact Pro Cone Valves had an MPE setup in them. They were a noticeable improvement over the stock fork components. The easiest way I can explain this is, whatever you think a bump is going to feel like when looking at it, it does. I notice with all stock forks sometimes you will look at a bump or hole on the track and you predict how it is going to feel when you hit it. Most of the time that feeling correlates to your expectation, but sometimes it doesn’t, and you get a sketchy little surprise. This can translate into a lack of confidence if you are second-guessing the speed at which you can hit sections of the track and most certainly an increased chance of getting arm pump. It wasn’t until I rode the 350 SX-F with this suspension setup that I could understand when people would talk about wanting predictability from their suspension.
Can only pro’s make them work? No. Just like any suspension, you can get it tuned for your weight and ability, and it will work.
Finally, would I buy a set for myself? Yes. I would 100% love to own a set of these bad boys. For me, it is about safety. I felt more confident because of the predictability that I mentioned, and I don’t think that can be overstated. Let’s not beat around the bush here, Motocross is a dangerous game, and if there is anything out there that can make the overall riding experience safer, then I am in.
It’s like in boxing, the one that knocks you out is the one you didn’t see coming. The extra sense of predictability by running the Cone Valves seems to fit that old adage.
After two, long and hard days of racing, I was completely beat. We all finished the weekend in one piece though, and the beers we drank when it was all said and done were some of the tastiest in recent memory. I regrettably had to swap out the forks and return to stock trim, but in speaking of how good the Cone Valves are, I am pretty damn stoked on the stock WP Suspension too. The ease of changing the bike’s balance with one tool is a pretty incredible piece of technology.
We packed the van, and while the rest of the crew headed South, Sammy, Jackson and I decided to keep the good times rolling all the way up to Cairns to get even more riding in - i was going home. After a rocky start to my riding in 2020, it felt amazing to be going on a trip home with bikes loaded. We would be riding some of the tracks I grew up putting hundreds of practice laps on, and I was pumped to be able to show my best mates, not only the tracks from home, but the whole region of North Queensland. How good are bikes!
The vast majority of you that are reading this now are either KTM owners or dirt bike owners at least. There might be some of you who have stumbled upon this article and don’t yet have a bike… If you made it this far, I’m going to assume that you want one.
You know by now about the reasons I think you should own the KTM 350 SX-F in particular. They are obvious. Front and center and at times shameless. But what might be less noticeable is that there is a message here in why you should just buy a bike. Any bike. Not just this one.
When you buy a bike, you’re not just buying a thing. You’re purchasing the nucleus of an atom with a bunch of extras that rotate around it to make it whole. You’re investing in the reason to stay in shape - the reason to plan trips away. You start to gravitate towards people doing a similar thing, and if you’re open to it, soon enough you are living a much different lifestyle that is suddenly filled with these things that seem to add up to this overall package.
And if you own a bike, but you aren’t riding it as much as you want too, then I hope this short series of articles has inspired you to get the crew together, get back out of your comfort zone and to the track enjoying everything this great sport has to offer!
Motorcycles and my 30’s have so far gone together rather well, and the ‘Three Fifty Diaries’ project has been such an amazing reminder of what a motorcycle can add to your life. This was a six-month test but I am struggling to part ways with the KTM 350 SX-F. Like the foster dog you look after as a volunteer but end up buying because you fall in love… This 350 will be staying in my shed a little while longer after shelling out my hard-earned cash to call it my own!
I think the 350 SX-F is my sweet spot.
Until next time. Ride safe and see you at a track somewhere soon.