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The Dakar rally is without doubt the pinnacle of off-road motorcycle sport. It’s the Formula One of dirt bike racing, with crazy, unobtainable vehicles, heroic legendary riders doing obscene things at ridiculous speeds in the name of the ultimate challenge. There is nothing as big as Dakar. Bike sport doesn’t get bigger. It’s a race that reaches heights of fame that no form of dirt bike racing can imagine. It is genuinely famous across the world. So as a tester of many bikes, it doesn’t come any bigger, cooler or more exciting than Marc Coma’s 2014 KTM 450RR race winning machine. This is like Mercedes phoning you up to take Hamilton’s car for a trip to the shops. This is cool as HELL.
KTM dominate Dakar. They are the kings of the desert and now sit at 13 straight titles. It wasn’t always that way, but 20 years of racing Dakar have put them in a position where they know exactly what needs to happen to win. Last year it looked like they may be in trouble. Honda were strong, with an incredible bike and some of the quickest riders in Sam Sunderland, the slightly insane Joan Barreda Bort and the experienced Paulo Goncalves. Add into that mix the freshly departed Dakar legend, five time winner Cyril Despres, and KTM had some serious competition nipping at their heels.
But like all great teams and champions under pressure, KTM quietly went about improving what they had. It was common knowledge across the paddock that the old 450 Rally was exactly that, old. A bike over the hill, too gentle, too sluggish and simply not doing the business. They appeared at the very last race of the World Championship with a brand new bike, completely redesigned from the ground up; new frame, new engine. The move created scepticism. It appeared a rush decision and made the Austrian’s look scared. They weren’t. The end result saw KTM absolutely dominate. Extreme consistency put Marc Coma a country mile ahead of the field at the end of the event. Last minute addition to the KTM roster, Jordi Villadoms, claimed an impressive second.
The reality is that KTM’s new rally bike had been coming for a long time. That entire year was spent on development. The bike was built around lead rider, Marc Coma. What the team bought to the party was the Spaniard’s ideal rally bike; a true work of art with a stupendously powerful engine, stable chassis, incredible suspension and fantastic balance. It’s a true factory machine, purpose built to make hauling ass through the desert a simple and safe exercise.
Powered by a 450cc behemoth, as required by the FIM regulations, the KTM motor is a heavily modified version of their EXC dual sport lump. It started life somewhere near the MX engine but over time has moved toward the enduro incarnation. The engine puts out an impressive 68 bhp, has two oil pumps, six gears and uses Keihin EFI. Internally the bike uses the best components KTM can produce, with a special steel for the gears as well conrods and pistons from F1 specialists Pankl and titanium valves. These parts, surprisingly, are also in the customer spec bike that you can buy for a mere €25,000. The exhaust is a full titanium Akropovic system. The most impressive part is that one engine is more than capable of running the entire 10,000km race.
The bike holds a whopping 33 litres of the gasoline.
The block is held up by a road bike style trellis frame, similar to the KTM’s road bikes. The team say this design, something that KTM have used for an age, is far more stable and controllable at speed than an enduro style perimeter frame. The factory spent a long time testing both styles and the riders always come back to the trellis design. As well as stability it allows the bike to have an enormous radiator and oil cooler, keeping the engine at acceptable running temperatures.
Off the frame hangs the two front tanks, with the rear tank being a self supporting, subframe free design. It’s stronger, lighter and allows more fuel. The bike totals a whopping 33 litres of gasoline to give it the maximum fuel distance of 250km. Each tank has it’s own fuel pump and the riders have a switch on the handlebars to decide which fuel tank to drain first. This system helps eliminate the vapour lock problems that have plagued the teams since the event moved to South America. The riders tend to drain the rear tank first as this helps the bike handle better.
Keeping the 175km/h missile from spitting people into the desert are über trick WP Factory Spec 52mm Cone Valve Forks and Trax shock. The forks are held in place by great looking X-Trig clamps but the shock is one of the key changes on the new bike. It’s got a huge 330mm of travel, some 30mm more than the previous incarnation. The principle was to help improve the safety when the bike was fully fuelled.
Alex Dorringer, KTM Team Manager explained why. “We found that, with a normal length 300mm shock, the riders were having a lot of problems soon after refuelling. The weight increase meant the bike was more likely to bottom out and kick badly. It’s always a big aim for us to improve safety for the riders and by increasing the shock’s length we’ve improved performance immensely when the bike is full of fuel.”
170kg with fuel makes the KTM a hefty beast.
Without doubt, our favourite part of the KTM is the carbon fibre navigation tower. Using CF instead of the traditional folded Aluminium plate provided a stronger, more reliable design that is easier for riders to repair post crash. More importantly, it’s cooler than anything else. The new bike has a clear screen too. It’s a new fad started by Honda and is catching on quickly, with riders claiming it makes reading the terrain easier.
The wheels are KTM hubs, shod with Excel rims and wrapped in Michelin Desert Race Tyres and Mousses. The rear wheel has a rubber cush drive system to help dampen the impact on the gear box and both wheels are stopped by Brembo brakes grabbing onto some hefty 320mm front/260mm rear MotoMaster discs. Keeping the bike straight and true is a lovely Scotts/Ohlins Steering Damper. Protecting the engine is a substatial carbon fibre skid plate that holds the 3 litre plastic water container all bikes must have. The seat is made by Selle Dalla Valle.
The most noticeable difference between KTM’s purpose built rally bike and the privateer enduro bike based efforts, is the size of everything. Tipping the scales at a hefty 170kg, there are plenty of dramatically lighter options out there. The entire design of the bike is built with strength in mind. The swingarm is a huge, thick, lump of a thing, the engine mounts are substantial and stiff, the fan on the radiator is from a Vauxhall Corsa and the navigation tower mount is 7mm thick.
The other noticeable element is the finish. Every element of the bike is rounded and soft. There are no hard edges. Every detail has been thought of and that gives the KTM 450RR a polish that very few bikes have.
This was meant to be the best bike in the world and it felt like sh*t
They are engaging in a full gas, berm exploding, dune leaping, whoop skimming, style of racing and that is entirely what the KTM bike is built for. From the very first crack of the throttle the engine barks a deep, vociferous note. It drops into gear with the lightest of touches.
I bumbled down the first rocky track. The bike was twitchy, uncomfortable and confusing to ride. My brain was working overtime, rapidly attempting to compute what my body was feeling. This was meant to be the best bike in the world and it felt like sh*t. I clicked into second gear. When wobbling along at tick over the 450RR was all over the place, skipping off every bump and rain rut. The suspension was barely moving underneath me. Things did not feel good.
As the track opened out, the speed picked up. I made a few laps of the smaller test track, slowly growing in confidence. And then it clicked. Something in my head made me turn the gas. I won’t say hard because that would be a lie. It would also imply it went somewhere near the throttle stop. It didn’t. With more revs, a lot more speed and a touch of bravery thrown in, a monster emerged beneath me.
The harder you pushed the more normal the bike felt. When you stopped worrying about little ruts and rocks, shifted down a gear and attacked, everything began to work. You had to ride the bike like you were in race mode at all times. It’s the only thing it knows. Full attack, smashing through rocks, launching jumps, braking hard, accelerating forcefully. At all times the bike wanted 100% effort in. There is nothing but pure bred race weapon in that chassis.
When you put the effort in the KTM 450RR patted you on the back, whispered a gentle “Well done” in your ear and suggested you go faster. That is a horrendously terrifying feeling. In my motorcycle testing career, never had I met an engine like this. Pushing almost 70hp from a 450 is impressive. Getting it to last 10,000km even more so, but doing it with the incredible acceleration, torque and spread of power the bike has is downright ridiculous.
It took me 40 minutes of riding this thing to stop short shifting
The KTM will pull gears like no bike you’ve ever ridden, but at the same time is the freest revving four-stroke I’ve experienced. It ranges from torquey and easily manageable to absolutely screaming without any qualms. The real fear inducing issue is the outright speed. On a fast track like we had to test on, most people would have little issue putting the throttle to the stop on a regular dual sport 450 and working through the gear box. At the point a normal 450 hits the stop, the KTM 450 RR is barely halfway. The speed and rate at which it gets there is incomprehensible.
It took me 40 minutes of riding to stop short shifting, swallow my proverbial spoon of cement and put the throttle to the stop. I got so close to the speed of light time slowed down and that is how Coma won the Dakar. He slowed down time. The end result was a series of exhilarating and adrenaline filled moments followed by two short shifts, just to make sure I wouldn’t enter hyperspace. What is more impressive than the speed or immense torque is how incredibly manageable the power delivery is. It’s not just manageable for a quick bike, it’s more controllable than every bike. Throttle control and position seem almost irrelevant which made power sliding and technical riding easily achievable and therefore massively enjoyable.
The KTM 450, once you moulded your brain around the size and the constant desire to attack, is the type of bike that makes you feel heroic. As I hustled it around the loose, rocky fire roads, braking hard and power sliding around every corner with ease I became Marc Coma in my helmet. It’s easy to change direction on and amazingly comfortable in the air. The weight balance from front to rear feels perfect, it floats predictably and never feels cumbersome. It does however lull you into a false security. Every so often you’ll jump off a rain ditch, kick the back wheel out and it suffer a moment of panic when it doesn’t return to straight. It likes to remind you that it’s still a bike you’ve got to respect.
The suspension is the area that really marks this bike apart from every other bike I’ve ridden. You expect the engine to be strong, but the suspension is so very different to how you’d imagine. With a long tough race like Dakar you’d think there would be an element of comfort built in but it’s just not there. The first part of the travel is outrageously stiff and requires an attacking attitude for it to reach a part of the stroke where it’s vaguely pleasant to ride. If you aren’t attacking it’s punishing you, the front wants to wash on small impacts because you aren’t trying hard enough. If you ride too slowly it’s simply crap.
The harder you push the better it gets and it could take punishment way beyond my ability level can reach. Third gear, on the gas, rocky ski jump?No problem. Nasty downhill, big hit in a rain gully? Nailed it. No kick, no fuss. It’s so hard to wrap your around the idea of needing to constantly attacking the terrain on a bike this big. That characteristic has bred in me an even deeper level of respect for the guys that hustle these bikes across the desert.
Another area where the suspension really shines is in the corners. The shock is exceedingly progressive. That makes it an easy bike to control when the rear end starts to slide. It’s the exact opposite of an enduro bike, where it squats, unloads, squats and to control a powerslide well you have to be precise with balance, footpeg pressure and throttle. On the 450 you can almost exist and make the thing slide well. It transforms those treacherous, slippery, rocky tracks into trails of pure, awesome fun.
Those last two words are the standout feature of the bike. AWESOME FUN sums the KTM 450RR up perfectly. It is without doubt one the most enjoyable riding experiences I’ve ever had. It’s a grin maker from the moment you understand it and terrible until you get there.
It’s a ridiculously fast, amazing well suspended, remarkably well braked, desert crunching weapon. The RR was so fun I was crushed everytime I had to give it back. There is no adrenaline rush like speed and going as fast as you can bring yourself on tree lined, treacherous mountain tracks, jumping off every lump and bump in sight, mashed in with skids and wheelies, is an immense buzz.
The bike itself is by far the most awe inspiring bike I’ve ever ridden. Everything, from that preposterous engine to the savage brakes, is designed to be ridden as fast as the best rally riders in the world can bring themselves to. When you throw into the mix the reading of a road book, the observation of terrain, whilst fighting the dust and managing their immense fatigue, things begin to fall into perspective.
The KTM 450RR, in this factory guise is not a bike for the normal man. For someone of my level it’s on the edge of being too much. It’s so aggressive, the suspension requires so much input, the engine wants to be revved to the moon and that would eat me alive over the course of several ten hour days. I doubt I’d be able to push that hard and navigate safely. You’d need to be world class athlete fit, a great rider and still have room in your head to read the road book. Those guys really are special.