How hard can it be?
Thanks to the likes of Red Bull TV and, of course, YouTube millions get to watch hard enduro. But so few ride it. Given an opportunity to learn from two of the sport’s finest, Jon Bentman wasn’t going to turn down the offer, especially when riding the world’s first fuel-injected two-stroke enduro bikes. But would he regret it? After all, it’s called extreme enduro for a reason…
Words: Jon Bentman
“We look forward to welcoming you to the ‘Ride KTM EXC TPI with the pros’ event in Spain. A special opportunity to enjoy an action-packed riding day putting the world’s first serial production off-road competition fuel-injected two-stroke machines to the test with hard enduro pros Taddy Blazusiak and Jonny Walker.” Only an idiot would turn down such an invitation (wouldn’t he?). Wow, riding extreme enduro with two of the world’s best, on the brand new TPI-equipped EXCs – what could possibly go wrong?
Zero out of four
If you had to pick a starting point for extreme enduro it would have to be fitness. No question, this is hard work both in terms of strength and endurance. So you need muscle and aerobic proficiency to Olympic standards if you want to reach a professional level. You can then add advanced bike handling skills and finally a fair dollop of bravery. Out of those four requisites I’m not sure I score on any, call me zero out of four.
Anyhow, before we got down to business with Taddy and Jonny on just how to ride extreme we had a warm-up ride around a tricky little single track in the woods above the Bassella Experiences base (in Lleida, Northern Spain) where this ride with the pros day was taking place. Dry and dusty, with plenty of rock and roots and ups and downs, this trail certainly helped identify any rider deficiencies. For me, the first lap of this ten minute loop went well, at a trials pace I was scoping the obstacles and dealing fairly well with them. A couple of drop offs elicited a gasp or two (I was worried the front would tuck under) but actually these were safe. And there were a couple or three technical climbs that while not huge had a sting or two that could trip you up.
Second lap I put on a bit of speed but this wasn’t the best idea; at speed I wasn’t processing the detail of the trail quick enough and so lost accuracy on the climbs, necessitating some footwork. This then impacted on my fitness (or lack of) and so while pushing harder again on the third lap, determined to put in a good time, things got even messier as muscles wearied and the brain – no doubt wanting for more oxygen – failed to keep up. More pushing ensued, this time out of the saddle as well. For the fourth, and last, lap I took it back down to a steady trail pace, took the time to look and plan as I rolled up to the hills, and made my best lap of the set. Slower can be faster.
I’m by no means a novice in enduro, with at least 20 years of experience on and off since I came back to the sport after a good 15 years dabbling in road racing. And two years riding trials as a youth formed a solid bedrock of understanding of riding off-road. So I have a running start at this. Something that was evident when I chatted with fellow attendee Jordan, a writer for a national motorcycle newspaper, and a cyclist turned motorcyclist with just a couple years of gentle trail riding under his belt. He explained how the loop started with probably the most daunting challenge of all – riding a narrow trail with a precipitous drop of maybe a hundred feet down a near-cliff into a river below. It didn’t help that the trail had rock steps and loose rubble along its path. My years of riding seem to have taught me to never look down in those instances and it took me to go back and take another look at the section to see what he meant. And no, you wouldn’t want to slip. So yes, by comparison to some I’ve got a running start at this game.
With only a few hours to share in the direct tutelage of Taddy and Jonny we were never going to practice every kind of extreme obstacle, and with the group offering up a range of skill levels from an ex world championship trials rider through to trail newbie (Jordan) then the extreme stars had their work cut out. In my instance we chose to look in detail at two kinds of obstacle. For an artificial example – such as you see in indoor or arena enduro – we chose the tractor tyre pit and for a natural challenge a four-foot rock step encountered half way up a hill climb.
With Taddy as my tutor we looked at the tyre pit first. No question this was intimidating and I was not keen (at all) to give it a go. It’s fairly obvious what goes wrong here – your front wheel drops into a gap and you pirouette over the handlebars. Sure, the likes of Taddy can simply levitate over tyres but we’ve all seen enough of YouTube by now to know that mere mortals ALWAYS end up face-down.
Only here’s the surprise – there is actually a completely scientific explanation upon which Taddy’s capability to float over the tyres is based.
“It’s actually quite a simple technique,” started Taddy (although I was hardly convinced at this stage).
“You need to pick a line, approach steady, then accelerate slightly as you go in, keeping your weight at ALL times over the back mudguard.
“By accelerating you keep the front wheel light and it will then float over the gaps, while the rear suspension WILL deal with the holes and the positive thrust of the accelerating rear wheel will keep it up as well.”
With this instruction in mind, German journalist Frank and myself had a go at the tyre pit. Frank went first, he didn’t just accelerate, he pinned the throttle… Too much of course, so he skittered, slewed sideways then had to chop the throttle at which point the front dropped into a tyre and he pitched over the bars.
“Too fast,” said Taddy dryly.
My turn. I approached steady, then less than a bike length from the tyres gently accelerated and for half the length of the pit floated, only then, losing momentum and with the back wheel noticeably kicking around, I dropped into a tyre and stopped abruptly, ending up under the bike.
“Good start, but you did two things wrong – you stopped accelerating and as you did you moved your weight centre, a natural reaction but wrong, you have to keep accelerating and keep your weight back.”
Taddy demonstrated the technique – it’s a fine balance. He carries only so much speed and he accelerates in a very gentle fashion, carefully opening the throttle, not pinning it. He didn’t want to reach the far side of the pit – where oblique angled concrete beams awaited – with too much speed.
Giving it another go, Taddy’s instruction was starting to work. With just a little more confidence and a little more speed going in, followed by a steadily increasing throttle and weight resolutely sat over the back mudguard I was doing it! And added to that, as Taddy reminded me, by using that old nugget of looking up, to the end of the section – not down at the detail – I was projecting my path more positively.
And here’s the thing, at the outset I thought the best line would be the one where you hit the sidewalls of the tyres, avoiding the holes. That’s not the case, as Taddy explained. Sure that can help as you enter the tyre pit, but to do that the whole way is impossible, you have to accept that you will be riding over the chasms, but by keeping that throttle on and by keeping your weight back and head up you do float over. On the next two runs I managed exactly that. If I was younger, and braver I might have continued until I had the technique completely mastered. Instead, with age and a lack of fitness to bear in mind, and only so much courage to call upon (I’m a natural born chicken) I took my two successes as a win and retired ‘on top’. I try not to tickle fate.
A rock and a hard place
Next came the rock step on the hill climb. It was a real stopper and clearly an obstacle of worth as Jonny and Taddy took it in turns to hop up it, making little flourishes as they flew above it, the step needing real skills on account the landing area being just a bike length long. With an obvious chicken run to one side there was no way I was going to do it – leave it to the ex-world trials rider, I reasoned.
Only the guys weren’t having that. Frank, the German, had four-times more pluck then he had skills, and given Jonny and Taddy had offered to stand either side of the step as catchers he was happy to give it a go. Typical Frank he ran at the slope at some speed and when he got to the step – the crest of which is above your head height as you approach – he gave his KTM full gas. He didn’t just clear the step, he cleared the heads of Jonny and Taddy and incredibly his KTM ended up wedged in the branches of the tree a clear three feet off the ground. With the bike gone skyward Johnny and Taddy grabbed Frank instead, stopping him falling back off the step. It took all three to get the KTM back down.
After that display I surely did not want to try it for myself. But of course the group will was against me and there comes a time when having accepted an invitation to ‘ride with the pros’ that you have to step up, even if its wholly against your better judgment.
If I’d had better judgment I would have walked up to the step first, like a trials rider does, and scoped the terrain. But you don’t see that happen in extreme enduro, the riders accept a blind run as part of the job. Jonny was offering me an advantage anyway, pointing to the optimum line up the rock step and with a sweep of his arm indicating the best approach.
Jonny shouted first gear was just fine, and doing my best to keep a positive visualization in my head I started my run. First half of the approach was no drama, but all anticipation. Only as the yards counted down it started to dawn on me I was in trouble. The slope before the step was much steeper than it appeared from the bottom of the hill and so I was losing the momentum that I desperately needed.
At this point I should have aborted the attempt, gone back down and come back up at a better pace, but I suspect my brain simply can’t process fast enough to make such instantaneous decisions. Instead it waited until my front wheel was practically on the rock before accepting that at this point nothing less than a big helping of throttle would get me up the step, regardless of trajectory at the top. Sure enough the KTM launched itself up the step, but with the thrust being upwards rather than forwards it kept going up. Not to Frank’s near-orbit standards, but a good foot or two more than comfortable, leaving my right foot waving in the air desperately trying to find terra firma.
It was then a three-point landing – rear wheel and two feet – and by some miracle I was able to hold the KTM perpendicular until the engine stalled before lowering it. Half a step behind my heels was the edge of the rock – I’d only just made it over. In the words of an airline pilot, ‘any landing you walk away from is a good landing’. So I took my rock step ascent as a win. And again, rather than take more goes to perfect the technique, I figured one out of one equals a 100% success rate.
Our day riding with the pros ended with a great hour’s trail ride. It was probably longer than that as, like most trail riders, we were keen on pace, slack on the corner-man system of navigation, and so the group split and got lost repeatedly. However, given the extreme instruction we’d had we were picking tougher trails – that little instruction offering a better understanding, allowing us to keep cooler heads to tackle the challenges. Except Frank who stuck to his guns – more throttle everywhere!
So is there a secret to extreme? Well, yes there are some secrets, those top boys are not going to tell all for want of retaining their hard-won position. But for us mortals both Jonny and Taddy were united in their advice.
“You must get the basics right, first and foremost. Practice throttle and clutch control, braking too. You have to refine your feel and control of those before doing anything tricky. We see lots of guys who turn up at schools just wanting to launch themselves over a fallen tree or up rock steps – but you can’t do any of that stuff until you’ve got the basic controls sorted.”
Indeed, there’s plenty the extreme enduro riders can teach us about control, a little of what they do will make us better riders. We should learn from them. But as for competing in hard enduros – no, not for me. They have my respect but, you know, I know my limitations…
KTM EXC TPI – two-stroke fuel injection
The TPI EXCs were of course great accomplices in all of this. How these bikes take the hammering they do and keep coming back for more defies belief. I started on the 250 EXC and really enjoyed it, light and snappy it makes for a racy ride. But I’m always more at home on the 300 EXC; while more powerful it happily accepts smaller throttle openings, making for easy trail manners. I’m always testing its low end pull as I’ll ascend technical climbs at a snail pace in second with revs just above stall – the 300 will do this all day. It’s an accommodating bike, even more so now that there’s no jetting to fiddle with. And with the much-improved fuel consumption that TPI brings you can take it for longer trail rides, matching the four-strokes.
I tried a 300 EXC equipped with the upmarket WP Cone Valve forks and Trax shock, too. That’s quality suspension, but I could tell it was tuned to suit a faster, better rider than I. It’s designed to work optimally at speed – only speeds I rarely attain. I’d say if you were a clubman level rider, riding trail more than racing, then the set-up would have limited value. KTM’s off-road product manager Jochi Sauer was in agreement.
“For sure the Cone Valve and Trax equipment is there to help the racer and it works so well for them. But we tune the standard suspension to work optimally for the hobby rider, which is the majority of our customers, so it works best at the speeds and on the kind of terrain they’ll enjoy. Even for me now (Jochi is a former European enduro champion), I prefer the standard suspension.”
Equally while the word is racers are looking for a snappier map on the fuel injection, for the vast majority the existing map, which seems to allow for a decidedly linear rev from bottom to mid, suits just fine.
Jochi Sauer: “We are working on a new alternative map and it will be a more aggressive one which will for sure suit the racers, but again I think for me the one we have now will remain my pick for my riding and I think this will be the case for most people.
“It’s still early days with the TPI bikes, so we are still building knowledge. And even among our test riders in the R&D department its not easy to get a consensus, no two riders like the same setting!”
There’s an interesting phenomenon with the KTM EXC two-strokes. I’ve been riding them since the late 1990s and the 300 in particular has always felt the same, year-in year-out. I can compare my experiences riding an extreme event in NZ back in 1999 (where only 150 from 500 finished – I can count myself as one of the 150 only on account the 300 EXC was so brilliant) with those of riding with Jonny and Taddy on this day. The basic formula has remained the same. But we know the latest bikes are better and for sure I appreciate the benefits of the fuel injection – the greater fuel range, the direct fuel injection (so no more fussing with premix) and no more need to re-jet according to conditions. I also appreciate that the EXC TPIs can get me to places few other enduros can – or at least for a lot less stress. It was an exceptional bike then and – thanks to TPI overcoming the latest emission regulations – it’s an exceptional bike now, and into the future…
Know thy enemy:
Taddy is the familiar of Tadeusz, by the way. Now 34, Taddy retired at the end of 2016 after a near 20-year career in trials and enduro. A highly decorated rider, he won the Erzberg Rodeo five times, the AMA EnduroCross Championship five times and the FIM Indoor Enduro World Cup six times. After a successful career in trials, including winning the European championship, he converted to enduro in 2007, then specialized on indoor/arena enduro over the last half decade, uniquely riding (and dominating) both the FIM and AMA championships each year. 2017 is a year off of everything said Taddy, but unable to sit idle he’s keeping busy mentoring Johnny Walker.
Jonny (26) is riding his seventh season of enduro, but already has amassed three wins at the Erzberg Rodeo, two wins at the Romaniacs plus many wins in other hard enduro events. Like Taddy, Jonny started in trials, reaching international standard before crossing over to hard enduro. Jonny still mixes indoor/arena enduros with the longer outdoor events and says he will continue to do so, he enjoys the variety too much.
Jon Bentman is the editor of RUST (a enduro and adventure specific online magazine) and a former editor of Enduro Extreme, Motorcycle Sport & Leisure, MotoX and Kiwi Rider. He’s competed in trials, then road racing, followed by enduro, adventure competitions and, more recently, started in rally raid. He’s staunchly remained a club-level rider throughout…