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This story was originally featured at MotorcycleUSA
A while back I was sitting around daydreaming (as usual) and wondering what bikes I would like to have the opportunity to ride. It is sort of a quiet year for new bikes in the off road realm. While a new Suzuki RMX is somewhere on the horizon, most everything else is just carried over from last year.
Time to start thinking outside the box. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen a Christini two wheel drive bike in a while. I know Ben Smith and Wally Palmer had spent some time racing them, and of course Geoff Aaron campaigns one in the Enduro Cross series and other extreme races. Come to think of it, I must have Geoff’s’ number around here somewhere. Sure enough, one quick call and I was put in touch with Steve Christini and he lined up a bike for me to ride. This wasn’t just any bike, but Geoff’s actual race bike, the converted KTM 300xc.
My time with the Christini All Wheel Drive (AWD) ride was limited, so I won’t make any claim to understanding all its limits. What I can say is that with even just a couple days of riding, I can see all kinds of potential for the concept.
If you are a fashion designer looking to show off your latest designs, you hire a supermodel to wear them. The KTM 300xc is a supermodel with wheels, it makes anything look good. As the bike that took Geoff to his very first Enduro Cross victory against some very stiff competition, this thing is amazingly stock. Other than the FMF exhaust and a few pieces of protection, it is just as it came off the showroom floor. No motor work, no suspension, nothing. This is part of Steve Christini’s vision to really demonstrate the stand alone potential of the AWD system.
How does it work?
The concept and execution is pretty simple. The devil had to be in originally sorting out all the details to make the drive system effective and durable. In short; a drive chain takes power from the countershaft and delivers it to a transfer case located on the backbone of the frame, the power is then converted to a drive shaft that runs under the backbone and into the headset. That is again converted to a horizontal chain drive that is located inside the lower triple clamp. This chain powers the drive shafts that run down to the wheel along each fork leg and in turn powers the front wheel via helical gears in the custom Talon front hub.
The chain cover along the left side of the motor is one of the only indicators of what is going on underneath. Most of the parts are hidden away and therefore protected pretty well.
Does it work?
Yes, in fact the operation of the front wheel is very seamless. Only on rare occasions does the rider notice a pronounced action in the front wheel. Most of this because the front only engages when needed. The front is driven at a slightly lower rate than the rear, so it doesn’t actually start applying power to the front until the rear wheels spins faster than the front. The rest of the time it is essentially freewheeling.
Why Would I Want AWD?
I guess the best analogy I can think of would be to compare it to a car. Most AWD cars out there never see much dirt, but if you drove exclusively off road, would you like to have AWD? Of course, driving all the wheels provides a number of handling advantages. It seems to me that the cross over to bikes is very similar.
The most obvious benefit is traction. Driving both wheels will pull you through sections that might otherwise be impassable. Additionally the system lets you carry more speed though obstacles and this additional momentum makes everything seem easier. Maintaining something like a 6 mph speed average has many advantages over say 3mph, the bike just naturally rolls over the terrain better.
Did you ever stop to think about what is actually happening when you wash out the front end? As the front tire starts to slide, its rotation slows down or stops. With AWD, the drive system will kick in and literally pull the front wheel through the corner, drastically reducing the possibility of losing the front to a slide.
These scenarios are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to defining all the potential benefits, many of them are probably so subtle that the rider will not have any real perception of the intervention of the system. I liken it to the advent of the auto clutch; it has all kinds of small benefits that go unnoticed until you ride without it.
What is the Down side?
This was probably the most frequently asked question among people who saw the bike. Part of the system is a handle bar mounted lever that allows the system to be disengaged. So at any time the bike can be ridden in standard rear drive mode. The action can be switched on the fly, although Christini recommends only doing so less than 5mph just to insure no damage to the moving parts. So in that sense, there is really little potential for drawbacks.
The only negative riding impressions were:
– At times the front wheel will try to make the bike go straight instead of turning. This was only on flat ground when making a fast acceleration into a turn. I think this was a combination of the abrupt rotation of the wheel and the additional inertia of the spinning mass of the front hub.
– As riding speeds increase this mass tends to make the steering feel a little heavy.
– To get the most benefit out of the system, it is important to keep the front end on the ground when climbing. Nothing kills the drive faster than a wheelie
– As the conversion adds weight to bike, most of which is to the front end, it will inevitably have some affect on the action of the fork. On our stock 300xc model it may have actually helped the fork some. The ‘09 WP closed chamber system suffers from some harshness and the additional weight may have smoothed some of that out, just like on a four stroke.
– Access to the carb is limited without removing the three bolts holding the drive chain cover
Each of these are things that I think a rider would quickly become accustomed to and ride accordingly.
Over the long haul, the system adds lots of moving parts; chains, sprockets, bearings, gears and seals. These will all need regular servicing. Steve Christini tells me that overall the durability is very good and I have seen some other testing that confirms this. He recommends inspection and lubrication every 10 hours and says the most critical issue is to make sure the boots on the drive rods don’t get damaged and let dirt in.
Due to the freewheeling ability of the drive system, should any part break during a ride, it will not disable the bike. So you are not going to get stranded in the backcountry if something should go wrong.
What is the best bike for the AWD conversion?
KTM 300xcw, I mean is there a better bike for anything? Sure this is just my opinion, but it is based on the following criteria; weight, power, and versatility. The 300 handles the additional weight and diversion of power without issue. The wide ratio two stroke boasts an overall usability that is hard to match and the two position ignition mapping lets it go from single track to race track with a flip of the switch.
Initially I was sure that I would be able to detect some change in the power characteristics with the AWD engaged. But after a few rips across the open desert it was obvious that the XC version that we rode was just plain fast. That may be the best choice for professional level racers like Geoff, but for technical enduro use it was a bit aggressive. Once I took a few minutes to unplug the ignition wire to change to the soft mapping curve, things were much more manageable.
Did you know?
Christini AWD kits are available for late model KTM two and four strokes, as well as Honda CRF250x and 450x bikes.
The conversion adds about 15lbs weight.
They have sold bikes in over 15 countries around the world.
The biggest challenge to developing new models is the cost and time associated with producing a new fuel tank.
Christini is currently building a bike for a professional super moto racer in the U.K.
There is also a Kawasaki KX450f currently available.
How would I get one?
The system can either be purchased as a conversion to your current bike or you can buy a complete new bike delivered to you ready to go. Buying a new bike through Christini is the most economical method. Steve tells me they can deliver a KTM 300xcw for just about $11,000. That makes the total additional cost for the system a little over $2,000. Many people easily spend that kind of cash for accessories any way. Considering how much is involved to create this innovative bike, it seems pretty reasonable.
For those who already have a bike that they wish to convert, it requires sending your frame to Christini. Typically it is treated like a “core charge”. You get a different frame back and eventually your frame becomes someone else’s kit. This process helps keep the turnaround time down and lets the frames be produced in batches. The frame you receive back has been given the VIN number of your original frame so there are no paperwork hassles to deal with. Christini has covered all the bases for you.
At some point way back someone told me they figured a good yardstick for evaluating motorcycle stuff was simply: does it make you excited about going riding? As for the Christini AWD system, well I have to give that a pretty hardy thumps up. I can’t help but think about all the places I would like to try it; like Snowy trail up at Gorman, that would be a good test. Then there were all those races where I wish I could have had something like it, like the Quicksilver National Enduro at Coalinga with seemingly endless hill climbs, or the 2002 Czech ISDE where 250 riders DNF’d in the mud, I bet they would have liked it. So for me, when I think of the Christini AWD system, I just marvel at all the possibilities it offers and that makes me pretty stoked to go riding.