Words and images: Jason Macalpine - Gypsy Tales Podcast
I always assumed that I would be riding still, maybe I would have made the transition to mini-dad already by this point; but I had assumed, for sure, that my best days of Motocross were behind me. Maybe they are to a certain extent as is the nature of getting older, but to claim this, we would need to look at the defining metric of 'best'.
Maybe my best days of racing Motocross are gone in the sense that I'm not travelling 20 hours every 14 days to compete in the Sunshine State Series any more. Or that my ambitions of being a pro, getting a factory ride and living in the US; are also long gone. But I'm not sure that is the metric that I would use to define my 'best days of Motocross'.
If I define 'best' by my passion for the sport, my love of riding and my want to improve each time I'm on the bike; or the fact that I am still travelling with my parents to races at 30… Then maybe I could make the argument that I'm still right in the sweet spot for Motocross, and I'm in fact living through the period of 'best' right now.
Maybe I thought my best days of Motocross would be behind me because that's what you get told. You get told that you need to grow up, and some point and this notion is backed by the fact that you see the stars of the sport retire in their mid-twenties. The guys still racing at the top level in their 30's like Nate Ramsey and Mike Larocco are the outliers.
For a while there, in my late twenties, I had actually resigned to the fact that riding couldn't and wouldn't be as fun as it used to be and that my best days were behind me.
Thanks to a combination of factors, and regardless of what I've been told, I feel like my 30's might just be the most fun I'll ever have on two wheels. One of those factors is the reason for writing this article, and it comes in the form of a 2020 KTM 350 SX-F.
Before I get to talking about the bikes itself, I wanted to briefly map the road that it took to get to this point, to give some context of where I was at prior to this bike. I had all but quit riding and was focusing on other athletic endeavours, and it was really the community of Gypsy Tales that inspired me to keep riding.
I had just moved back from the US, and didn't really even have a bike, but I did manage to do the Transmoto 6-Hour in 2016 on a borrowed 250F on the promise that it would just be a bit of fun. A bit of fun was right, and it was the first time I had ever really gone to a race with the word FUN at the forefront of my mind. And while it was maybe one of the most fun weekends I have ever had on a bike, Jesus it was hard. I was still convinced that entering my 30's it would be pretty tough to enjoy racing like this as the years clicked on.
I loved the event though, and I vowed to do it again the following year and maybe even have a ride or two in the lead up to the race. The running joke became that I only rode 6-hours a year and for 2017 that wasn't far off true. My dad and I custom-built a Screamin' Eagle 2-Stroke for the event in 2017 but we only just had the thing ready for scrutineering and again the 6-hours a year joke rang true.
2018 was the year that changed everything for me and my want to ride. I had turned 30, and as I lined up for the Conondale 6-Hour for the third time, I was offered a Husky 300 2-Stroke and the 350 four-stroke to ride for the day, and everything changed. In the years prior, I struggled with crazy arm pump and I was physically so exhausted by the trails at Conondale, and I didn't really see it getting easier. Obviously, it's hard to expect to improve when you aren't logging a lot of bike time, but it kind of becomes a vicious cycle.
I threw my leg over the Husky FE 350 and set off on my first lap, and I couldn't wipe the smile off my face. It was this light bulb moment as I figured out that I just hadn't been on the right bike these last few years and that if I wanted to enjoy my riding again, I first needed to start with the right tool for the job. This 350 was the right tool.
I'm not sure why it was a lightbulb moment for me the way that it was. I had ridden at 350 before, and I absolutely loved it. While I was living in the US working for the JDR Motorsports team, I was able to ride a 2012 Factory KTM 350 SX-F when Tye Simmonds moved to the 450 SX-F for the outdoor season. I absolutely loved that bike, but it hadn't really occurred to me that owning a 350 would be the gateway into my best years of riding bikes.
I had mixed and matched bikes in those years and would jump on a mates 450 to see if more power was the answer. Maybe that extra torque would smoothen out the ride, and take away the need to really keep the thing going; in turn, saving energy. It's good in theory until you inevitably do get tired, the extra weight starts to sap your energy and that extra power that let you stop overriding is now getting you into a new kind of trouble. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. It took one lap, and a flashback of that 2012 summer on the JDR KTM 350 SX-F, to realise that if I wanted to really enjoy my riding, I was going to have to be on a 350 long term.
Unfortunately, I wasn't in a position to own a 350 straight away. I went back to riding an old 450 in an effort to try to ride my way back into shape and to be fair, I did start to enjoy riding a 450 the more time that I spent on it. But the reality was that no matter how much I rode, those bikes would always be too much. Sure I could get away with riding them, and I could still have fun, but I was never going to be good enough to really enjoy riding 450's full time.
At the end of the day, I don't get to ride as often as I want and getting time to travel to a track, pay the fee, do the filter, clean it once I'm done, wash the gear etc. gets harder and harder. So to even have the risk of getting to the track and feel like a 450 rode me around, and not the other way around, is just too much. I want a 1:1 ratio of riding:fun at this stage, and I've made up my mind that a 350 SX-F is going to give me the best shot at that ratio.
In 2020 the opportunity came to work with KTM on a 350 SX-F project bike, and it was an absolute no brainer. At 32, the summer of 2020 will be the summer of love. I write this just days before my first real Motocross race since 2008, and I am as excited as ever to be behind a gate once more.
In the interest of full disclosure, I need to mention that I got off to a rocky start with the preparation for this race. On my first ride on the 350 SX-F I made a judgement error on a jump and that, coupled with the unfortunate location of a fence, caused me to hit the ground hard and fracture my hip and tear some ligaments. It's important to note that this is just the nature of the beast and not something you can put down to anything other than rider error.
Regardless of hitting the deck on day one, I was determined to get through the required rehab and race back to the bike as fast as I possibly could. The stoke was real! I had put enough time on the 350 SX-F to know that I had made the right call, and now it was just a matter of time until I could throw my leg back over and keep the good times rolling. I have been back on the bike for a month and put 13 hours on the 350 SX-F before we head to Rocky.
One of the main takeaways from my time living in the US in regards to Motocross racing at the grassroots level was the health of the racing and participation in the 30+ class. In Australia, the Vet classes start at 35, and I have long thought that this is a flaw in the system. At least for the people I know, 30-35 is their last taste of freedom before the pressure of family and kids start to limit the time available to actually race.
I know for me personally, the idea of lining up to race against a bunch of 17-year-old kids who are still chasing the dream, and won't hesitate to take you out on the first lap after a bad start, or worse if you're in the way while being lapped. So there is this five-year window that I would have had to wait until I could, in fact, join the sensible crew of vets who all have work on Monday and have no aspirations of a factory ride.
I have long been campaigning for a 30+ class, and the King of Capricorn event crew in Rockhampton were kind enough to entertain my idea of running a 30+ class for this weekend's racing.
Since getting the KTM 350 SX-F and doing the grand tour of public QLD tracks, I've been hit with a lot of questions about the bike, and hopefully, I will be able to touch on most of them over these articles. The one consistent thing is people thinking that the 350 SX-F sits directly in between at 250 SX-F and a 450 SX-F, so that might be the place to start.
Put simply to wrap your head around the 350 SX-F and understand what it is, you need to understand what it's not; and it's not a bike that sits in the middle as most people think. You need to think of it in terms of a Mortal Kombat character that you are selecting to fight with. In the same way that characters have a sliding scale health, attack, recovery and stamina; the 350 SX-F is its own character with its own sliding scale.
If you have put seat time in on both a 250 SX-F and a 450 SX-F, then we could have those bikes as our start and endpoints of our character attributes.
When people have asked me about the bike, the first question seems to always be about to motor. You could just put the motor down as an attribute, but I think that it needs to be split into two categories. Torque and Revs.
The motor has less overall torque than your standard 450 SX-F, but it has a heck of a lot more than even a modified 250 SX-F, like a lot more. More than enough torque to ride it in that part of the powerband and really move. If you tried to do that on even a modified 250, you wouldn't be able to get away with it in the same way. The 350 SX-F though has enough foot-pound of torque that you can base your riding style around it.
In my personal experience, it has more than enough torque to ride it in 3rd gear around even the tightest inside ruts. It doesn't have the arm-jerking torque of a 450 SX-F, and I'm totally fine with that. At this point in my riding life cycle, it suits me just fine to base my riding style around the lower end of the rev range, with my focus being smooth and precise riding.
The real meat of the power beneath the bonnet of the KTM 350 SX-F though is when you start to enter the upper rev range, with the bike making its peak horsepower at 13,500 RMP. This thing really revs, and if you want to get the absolute most out of it, you are going to spend some time amongst the double-digit rev counter.
How does this unique power plant translate on the track? For a practical example, I will talk about how I use this motor on one of my favourite tracks - MXFarm in Gympie. In the last sections of the main track there feature a series of tight switchbacks that always develop deep inside ruts. It then opens up to a triple into a long bermed turn that floats you over a downhill double, into another banked left-hander, over a scrubby double and then up the hill into a 130ft uphill triple (maybe the most fun jump I've ever hit).
All of this section is done in 3rd gear using the motor from rolling into the first of the ruts at idle, all the way to what I would guess is about 11 thousand revs heading up the triple. This is done without much of a need to use the clutch or even thinking about changing gears. The delivery of torque through the inside ruts is smooth and predictable each lap and the motor revs freely en route to the triple. It's a great example of the versatility of the engine on the 350 SX-F.
While I love this motor, it might be what happens when you try to stop and turn that makes me appreciate this bike every time I ride it. If we go back to our scale and look at how we colour our braking, turning and handling sliders, I am going to put them all basically bottomed out of the 250 SX-F end of the scale. This is to me where the juice is with this bike.
I don't necessarily feel like I'm on a 250 SX-F, the 350 SX-F is obviously heavier on a set of scales, but I never find myself wishing the bike would stop better, or even that it's heavy and tiring. These things simply become a non-issue for me, and I feel confident to focus on riding the bike. In my time riding 450's I've always just felt the weight under braking and into the turns. This never inspired the kind of confidence that would let you just ride the bike. It even felt like the motor was still wanting to push me forwards even with the clutch in and on the breaks. Every blip of the throttle mid-turn made it feel like the bike wanted to release from my desired lean angle and head back to vertical. I'm well aware that this could be put down to a lack of skill, but hey, it is what it is… I still want to be able to enjoy riding.
So what have we done so far to the 350 SX-F? Some pictures accompany this article from our initial rides were the bike was deadstock, with the addition of an FMF 4.1 slip-on exhaust and a set of Renthal Twin Walls (which were subsequently bent day one SMH). Other than that I bought a few Funnel Web filters and an air boot cover for when it was time to wash up, and that is it. I wanted to spend a bunch of time with the bike in the stock form before we did anything else.
The only crease that I would like to iron out of this bike is in the rear shock. I know it could be fixed with simple valving adjustments, but in stock form (me weighing 75kg) it seems to kind linger in the middle of the stroke through turns. This makes it feel high in the rear mid-turn when I would rather feel it gradually sitting down, ready for me to get on the power. Instead of getting that nice squat, I feel like it starts to rebound.
Maybe for a heavier rider, this might not be the case at all, but for me, this is the only thing that I would say I want to change on the bike.
Apart from getting the suspension valved more for me and keeping good rubber on the bike at all times, I don't see the need to do a whole lot more to the 350 SX-F. As I write this before the King of Capricorn race, I have 13 hours on the big girl, and I'm so excited to head North up the Bruce (Highway) and have a crack at another gate drop. Racing a KTM 350 SX-F in the 30+ class really does feel like the sweet spot for me!
You might notice a little extra bling on the bike in some of the photos before the race (WP Suspension Cone Valves -cough-cough), but we are going to get to that in part 2 of this 350 SX-F build. Thanks for reading so far and I'm excited to bring you all more information on an incredible bike!