June, spring is fading as summer once again moves in to take over the temperate days. It is also the season of new bike introductions. And I find myself singularly disinterested.
When I started out to play moto journalist years ago, task numero uno was to test motorcycles. Now that was no small feat, you don’t just sign up, it requires an invite. To get the invite you have to show that you have something to offer. For most manufacturers it is a matter of what you have to offer, like a big audience and the ability to play ball.
Anywho, I made some in roads into that arena. Mostly with KTM and small brands which worked well because they had interesting product to ride. But ultimately I was too small and too candid for most company’s purposes. And that is fine.
Today it all seems like a long time ago and I have moved on to things that I find of personal interest. I ride and write for mostly for my own gratification. But that isn’t what I came here today to talk about; I came to talk about the draft. They got a building down New York City…..
Sorry, been listening to my geezer IPod collection too much. But it is sort of like a draft. Which motorcycle am I going to choose to ride next? For those who may not know, I have a fleet of “business” bikes. Honestly, it really is business. From that fleet I have many bikes to choose from.
So why is it that I am scraping my knuckles and spending more money than can be justified on a 40 year old Bultaco while the 2018 KTM 350xcf sits neglected in the corner? I guess it is for the same reason that I find myself unmoved by the annual parade of new machinery.
Maybe I am broken somewhere inside. It seems downright unpatriotic not to fall in love with the newest motorcycles. I can’t help but ask why and wonder if I am not the only one. In many ways I fall smack dab in the middle of the aging demographic that represents most of the spending in the industry. It also represents the trouble in the industry, lack of new and younger buyers.
Perhaps I simply got left behind. It makes the most sense. It certainly represents what I see when I look around the world in general. Neena and I make the same comments almost daily, thankful that we grew up when we did. Just today I was reading Mike Rowe’s story about growing up in a family that cut fire wood to heat the house and the life values that came from it – “cutting wood heats you twice”. Physical activity, self-sufficiency, frugality, all values I grew up with. But that’s not what I came here today to talk about.
When I walk into the garage I have a choice of bikes. First, one of the dozen RFS bikes I use for my Baja fleet. Whether it is the 400, 450, or 525, each has its sweet spot. I can take any one of them and enjoy it for what it is. I have long talked about my love for the KTM RFS bikes, particularly the 2005-2007 models. I use less energy to ride them than any other bike I know. The old school motors stand alone with their muscle car feel, big, torquey, smooth. They don’t feel super modern but have great charm of their own.
The RFS bikes never break, but they require lots of attention. They are easy to work on and most everything I can do myself. But as they age the problems get more frequent. Carbs need a full rebuild as the mid-body gasket fails (Zip Ty Racing). Cams and water pump seals are frequent repairs as are countershaft seals, kickstarter seals, all the exterior motor seals.
Next on the list is the 2015 KTM 450xcw. While I have never quite found the same passion for this bike, in truth it may be the best enduro bike ever built. The motors are bullet proof and last forever. It is difficult to get a consensus on engine life because they last so long. They don’t get rebuilt very often, typically when they do, they did not actually need anything. You may recall we tore one down a few years ago with 250 hours on it. It showed no wear, piston and cylinder still had factory machining marks on them.
When it comes to no fuss, no maintenance riding, the 2012-2016 350/450/500 models are going to be hard to beat. Valve adjustment interval can typically be stretched to 100 hours. Put in a new injector once in a while and change the fuel filters, that is about it. This generation bike was also a big step forward in overall handing.
Finally I have the 2018 KTM 350xcf. This is my latest project bike. I am still debating where I stand with it. It is by far the lightest, fastest and best handing of all the bikes. All expectation is that it should be a durable engine too.
But I also have some issues that are keeping me from falling in love. Each new generation bike becomes lighter and smaller. One of the side effects is a decrease in general ergonomic comfort. The pegs are high, the seat is little more than a plank and the whole bike feels cramped. The AER air fork is still a work in progress. At times it is amazing, but it tends to build up air pressure during the day. Even a small change in pressure throws the handling into disarray.
As an xcf model it has a six speed transmission, but the gear ratios are narrow. It is somewhat stall prone. The Steahly flywheel weight helped a bunch, but the issue is not totally cured. Even the best aftermarket seat isn’t that good because there is so little seat base to work with. But I am trying to convince Seat Concepts to engineer a true “touring” seat for the current models.
If you have not guessed where this is going, the point is that I typically grab one of the RFS bikes when I go riding. Part of it is the practical need to ride the company tour bikes and make sure they are set up and running well. But frankly, I love riding them.
I guess I am getting old and tend to place comfort over performance. But as for the question of performance, I don’t go any faster on the newer bikes, except perhaps in a race situation. I don’t have any desire to go faster. My fastest days are behind me.
The same can be said of the fun factor. At the end of the day, the bike is only a small part of the riding experience and the joy I derive from it. I can’t help but feel that this is somehow the heart of the matter right here. New bike deosn’t equal more enjoyment for me.
I find myself enjoying a day’s ride in ways I didn’t before. I love to ride hard and really push myself. I love sharing that experience with others who feel the same. I love being outdoors. But it isn’t so much about just going fast. It is about adventure and going new places. It is the whole experience, not just the bike.
There is another point that has been nagging at me too. Did we reach a pinnacle, a new high water mark, somewhere along the way and now we are having difficulty climbing higher in a technological sense? New, lighter and faster, but is it really better? Yesterday one of my friends put his 500exc up for sale claiming he was getting a new one. All I can think is that if I had that nice low hour bike, I probably would just keep it.
I also realize many riders get joy just from the sense of having a new motorcycle. I have been there myself, but the memory isn’t as strong as I think it should be. I have only purchased a handful of brand new motorcycles in my life and when I took the 350xcf home a few months ago, it was strangely anticlimactic.
I could literally be more excited about finding a really clean used 400exc, they are getting hard to come by. I would feel the same if I could find a smoking deal on a late model 350xcw. Those will soon become the unicorns of our world. 350 buyers know what they want and they are not parting without asking a small ransom.
Maybe there something more to dirt bike life than just lighter and faster. Do you buy a new car for those reasons? We are riding bikes that are fundamentally designed to win motorcycle magazine motocross shootouts. I think technology is moving along faster than my body can keep up with and it leaves me wanting for something. Certainly for comfort, maybe for nostalgia. But there is more, some sort of intangible that will reach out and call my name, force me to want it. But I don’t quite know what that is.
It is probably just me. In truth I know plenty of riders who love their new bikes for looking, sounding and feeling fast, even when going slow. You see this is all the fault of summertime when we don’t ride in So Cal, not riding and too much time left alone with my thoughts.