After doing factory bike tests for ten years I can promise you I’ve asked all the questions most of us would like to know the answers to. Such as how different the bike really is from stock, what fuel is used, what cranks, pistons, and cams are in there, how trick are the electrics, is the gear ratio different to stock, how many gears does the motor have, does the suspension make it easier to ride. Believe me, the list goes on.
But what we all really want to know is would the bike make you go any faster. The obvious answer to that is yes - if you could ride it to the same level as the rider it was built for. The average Joe might be able to go faster on a factory bike in a straight line but simply he wouldn’t be able to push the machine to get the best out of it around the rest of the track.
The main purpose of these bikes is to handle at high speed and allow the top boys to push the limits and feel comfortable in doing so. Unless a rider can push the bike to that level, they wouldn’t feel the benefits. And the firmer, harder feel just doesn’t suit when you’re travelling slower.
I’ve actually been banging on for years saying it’s not just the factory machine which makes the rider, it’s the full set-up - the team behind scenes. KTM knows this, so at the official test ride for the 2018 factory bikes they introduced the team behind the team - the guys that deal with R&D, the test team and the race teams. They also gave away more facts and information about the bikes than ever before. KTM realises that knowing what’s been done to make their factory race bikes so fast is largely academic if you haven’t got the team to make the changes happen, and the riders who need that level of equipment. KTM knows the vast majority of riders would be far happier on stock based bikes, set up for the individual rider.
KTM prides itself on customising their factory machines to the individual rider. The factory really goes that extra mile in giving the guys at the pointy end exactly want they need. And being based in Europe where most of the GPs happen, it’s easy to make quick changes. If a frame with different geometry is requested, it can be made and tested quickly. That’s something riders of Japanese factory bikes can only dream about.
The factory KTM riders have been able to race machines well in advance of the production bikes hitting the showroom floor. And well before the factory riders receive a bike, there’s been nearly a full year of testing and development by the test team. Even now, the guys already know there’s better equipment available for 2019 which will be tested at the end of the race season.
This year, KTM made big changes. Basically the 2018 factory bikes are based on the 2019 production bikes. These are a completely different to a 2018 with a brand new 450 engine and a new frame across the board. The frame might be new on the production bike, but the geometry from the previous model remains on the factory machines as the riders really rate it.
Using a frame with the geometry from the older model was something which KTM decided to try and all the team riders instantly liked it apart from Jeffrey Herlings. He took a little longer to decided he also wanted to go with it, and the rest is history.
Just a few days after Herlings became the first Dutchman to lift the premier world championship crown, I got to ride his bike in the sand of Valkenswaard and compare it to that of his team-mate Glenn Coldenhoff and rival Tony Cairoli who, you must remember, actually rides for a different team.
And I also got to try the two 250Fs of new world champ Jorge Prado – who rides for Cairoli’s Italian De Carli team – as well as the bike of 2017 world champ Pauls Jonass who is based in Holland along with Herlings.
Herlings’ world beater
After testing Jeffrey’s bike last year and describing it as a very unusual set-up, I was super keen to try the bike again. Jeffrey knew I found his bike a little awkward to ride last year and he even pulled me up on it at the Dirt Bike Show last year by saying: “I think you’re going to like the 2019 bike!” He’d been testing his new factory bike which was at the time based of the pre-production 2019 model and he knew it was much faster.
Jeffrey’s 2017 bike felt strange because he’d personalised the bike so much to his liking, it was more than a little uncomfortable to ride and the geometry was way different to everything else I’d ridden before. The front wheel was pushed out a lot which made the bike feel quite long. Also the suspension wasn’t as firm as you would have thought for a guy that goes so fast and hits things o hard. The power was different to stock and the motor packed a punch. I wouldn’t say it had more power or torque to the new 2019 machine, but had a very different feel.
The unusual bike was the product of a rider who was used to going incredibly fast on a 250F, but who then had a hand injury before the first GP. When he came back, his confidence had taken a hit and he was far from the Herlings we’d all seen dominate.
The turning point in his results last year was when he called up KTM and asked if he could adjust his bike significantly which they instantly agreed too. After two weeks of testing, he’d totally changed his bike’s geometry, suspension and power delivery. And Jeffrey admit he is still very grateful to KTM for that because he was struggling to get decent results after his hand injury and KTM still gave him their full support. He rode the bike like that for the rest of the year, meaning he had one less thing to worry about – and his results improved weekly.
Fast forward to the new 2018 factory bike and it was a chance to really get it set up right, thanks in part to Herlings’ renewed confidence. And it’s very different from last year’s bike, that’s for sure.
The frame geometry is the same as the rest of the factory bikes but still feels a little long compare to Tony’s bike. The suspension is firmer, especially on the front, and the rear is hard too. But it still sits quite high and it has a plusher, faster feel that you’d expect. It’s firmer than last year for sure.
The power is still very hard hitting so when you crack on the throttle, the thing fires you out of the turns and down the straight. The motor has the same characteristics as last year but it’s just faster. The new stock engine has more torque and top end power so the factory have just added even more to an already rapid machine. The motor is dialled in for the start with one aim - for Herlings to win the race to the first corner and control it from there. Starst have often been Herlings’ Achilles heel in the 250 class, possibly due to his size, and he wants to make sure he has no such problems on the 450.
KTM’s telemetry specialist explained that it’s incredible to see where Jeffrey makes up time on the track, when looking at data. This year he rode the power range perfectly as he was always in the correct rev range for maximum power. Even just before landings from jumps, the throttle is held on at 9000rpm to propel him to the next section of track and then he carries so much momentum.
All that power is no good if the bike doesn’t handle well and suit the rider, and Herlings’ bike is set just how he likes it. His footpegs are in a standard position but the frame has a few different sections in it because Jeffrey likes his bike to move and flex more on track. Even the engine mounts provide more flex. You can really feel this and I personally found it a little nervous in some sections. I found the brutal power and flexy frame a bit too sketchy and unsettling coming into corners. But this is how Jeffrey likes his bike – and it obviously works for him.
No Hassle with the Hoff’s 450
When you think of Glenn Coldenhoff, it’s easy to think of him as a support rider – always playing second fiddle to Herlings. But he’s been having an awesome year, finishing seventh the world. That’s impressive with the depth of competition in MXGPs, with four of the six men in front of him already world champions. That’s Herlings, Cairoli, Tim Gajser and Romain Febvre who have 16 world titles between them.
Glenn’s machine is full factory spec as he access to all the same parts that Herlings does and he likes to run the motor set-up in a very similar spec. The power is insane like you’d imagine any factory bike to be, but his 450 is more rideable and controllable than Jeffrey’s monster machine.
The easiest way to descried Coldenhoff’s machine is that it has a standard sand set-up. That means there is hard front suspension, a firm rear that rebounds slowly and the bike is angled so your weight is mainly transferred to the rear of the bike. That even goes so far as the cockpit set-up with high levers to make you move to the back of the bike.
In fact, Coldenhoff’s bike feels just like most riders imagine a factory bike to be. Madly quick and with very stiff suspension so you can hit things as hard as you like.
Cairoli’s Italian stallion
Tony Cairoli’s bike may come from the factory in Austria but it’s at the De Carli team base in Italy where it’s fine tuned and customised. You don’t become a nine-times world champ by luck - it comes from talent and a lot of hard work from all involved. And lots of bike time, testing and fie tuning set-up as well as rider skills and fitness. It’s hard to image precisely how much timer Cairoli has spent in the saddle over his career.
All that bike time means he must have an incredible feeling for what a bike is doing and he wants to improve it. Getting to know what you need from a bike is an art and the data and knowledge Tony has in his head must be insane as he’s spent years on the GP circuit working with the best in the world.
Last year I raved about TC’s world championship-winning bike and this year my jopinion is the same. It’s incredible, and the power is so strong. But because of the way it’s delivered, the bike is actually very rideable.
It pulls higher gears with ease and allows you to over-rev the motor if you wish. There is a power hit, but it’s more manageable compared to the bikes of Herlings and Coldenhoff. But this delivery is deceptively quick and the bike covers ground fast.
The power different to Jeffrey’s bike as the machines use the same bottom end but Tony has a different spec head. In fact, it’s nearly the same engine as the one he won the world championship on last year. Cairoli asked the team to make the bike’s motor as close to the 2017 bike he loved and they did it for him.
The way in which it reacts is predictable too, because Tony has built a bike on which the suspensions does all the work. His set-up his all about precision and rigidity. He uses more burly engine mounts and stiffer, reinforced frame sides to make the bike little less flexible than Jeffrey’s. I felt this give more stability and allowed my body to move more, even with higher-mounted footpegs he runs. The suspension doesn’t kick at all and the balance is good which helps compliment the motor by giving more drive from the turns. The bike is very energy-saving but still allows you to attack when you want to because the firm set-up means there’s no risk of blowing through the stroke.
Tony runs a different linkage and pull rod to stock which allows the bike to sit lower at the rear. His clutch and brakes have a good feel to them, too. Light, precise and controllable.
With a different frame, engine spec and suspension, the bikes of Cairoli and Herlings are very different but both effective at giving the rider the exact feeling they want to ride at 100%.
Prado’s prefect 250
If KTM had allowed me to take one bike home to ride, it would be Prado’s world championship-winning 250. The difference from the 2017 bike which was run by the Dutch side of the operation, to this 2018 De Carli machine is massive. It all comes down to the suspension and balance of the bike as it has gearing and linkage to match my style.
It felt so good to ride around Valkenswaard and honestly any bike would struggle to compare. The motor is good and I know Prado’s bike is the same spec as Pauls Jonass’ machine but the gearing made a huge difference to the rev range. It seemed the bike pulled from off the bottom and never stopped, making third gear so long. The bike revved so much that the factory guys keep the figures a secret. They officially claim it’s 14,500rpm but trust me, this probably revved more to 16,000.
Going one tooth smaller on the rear sprocket compared to Jonass’ bike helped the engine as the bike rolled better into the turns with very little engine braking. And you could hold third on even more as the engine revs perfectly due to having a lower gear holding it back.
Jorge worked a lot in the winter on his suspension set-up and it showed because the machine rode like it was on rails. The WP factory stuff works incredibly well, soaking up bumps and hard landings with ease.
The cockpit set-up was good with nothing too high or low and the braking and clutch pull was good. The only thing which you notice is the lowered, flat seat which Jorge seems to be a massive fan of. And I have admit I see why as it holds you low and positions you well in the turns.
Jorge uses a different pull-rod and linkage to Pauls. Just like Tony uses a different link to Herlings on the 450s, the Prado 250 has a pull-rod which makes the bike sit lower. This helps give the bike a more planted feel when coming into and through the turns. De Carli has this set-up dialled as the rear kicks less into the corners and drives much better coming out. It delivers the power better to the ground so you make up meters of ground instead of wheelspin.
Jorge’s and Tony’s bikes both give a more predictable feeling and you could let the suspension do the work. They are more rigid and stable, and the team don’t run the optional carbon engine mount brackets as they feel it give the bike too much flex.
Perhaps one reason why Prado did so well this year is that he got to use the bike set-up knowledge of Cairoli and the De Carli team to build a machine that handles so well. I felt this bike could beat any bike - 250 or 450 - at Valkenswaard because it really is that good.
Pauls’ refined ride
Last year I remember Pauls saying no one would like his bike set-up as it’s very different to what most riders like, with odd-bend bars and funky lever position. He was right. But a year on and that’s changed on the 2018 machine. Yes, he still has a few personal touches that some wouldn’t like, but this year I jumped straight on to the bike and was right at home.
It’s well balanced and the bike’s levers, bars, seat and footpegs were pretty much all in a natural position. The bike encouraged you to go fast as you felt right at home.
The gearing was a little different to Prado’s. Jonass goes one tooth bigger at the rear, but the engines were the same spec. Pauls seems to like that little bit more of a hit from bottom and it makes you ride higher up the rev range.
I remember the suspensions feeling really hard last year on the factory MX2 bikes but I didn't feel that was the case this year. The suspension was hard obviously due to the speed these guys go, but Pauls’ bike felt a lot easier to ride.
It goes without saying the engine is just incredible. Last year I raved about it pulling like a train and revving to the moon and it’s up on power across the board now.
What impressed me the most was the amount of top end speed the motor has. The bike has a five-speed gearbox but it doesn’t really need it. Due to the wide rev range, third gear pulled me all the way around the fastest parts of the track without even coming close to the limiter.
It’s like the bike has a boost button because where a stock motor signs off, this thing just keeps revving and pulling. It’s so good, it almost feels like cheating.