Words: Broxy | Photos: Paul
Broxy, one of our original test pilots, threw a leg over Chris Birch’s KTM 250 XC-F…
In some countries, he is a proper celebrity, where a simple walk downtown would probably involve being asked for an autograph. Or, in particular places, being mobbed by fans when arriving at a race event. But going to the official Red Bull website and bringing up his bio will explain why. From winning the legendary Romaniacs in 2010, ahead of the equally legendary Graham Jarvis, or taking the top honours in the Roof of Africa three years in a row, you can see why.
The extreme enduro, requiring a true bike skills, resourcefulness and sheer determination, is a code that this kiwi helped pioneer.
Of course, we are talking about New Zealand’s own Chris Birch, an extreme enduro expert and multi-time New Zealand off-road champion.
So, when asked if I wanted to test his bike for this great magazine, you can imagine that there was never any hesitation.
Provided I didn’t have to ride off any waterfalls, that is…
My introduction to his machine was a fascinating one.
First and foremost, it was the massive 52mm Factory WP forks that “stood out like dogs balls”, as Chris would probably put it. Chris had first got his hands on these forks around the time that we first met, back when he was preparing for the 2014 X Games Enduro X. Even back then, I remember them looking incredibly oversized and they haven’t shrunk one bit, neither.
Really, there is no price you can put on these units, since the things are so special – to point out the carbon fibre internals only scratches the surface.
Further back is another exotic looking piece of bling in the form of a very special WP shock. It also looks oversized, thanks to a very large reservoir and more trick bits. Best of all, I had been given full permission to tinker with the clickers on these units. Yeah, it was going to be a fun day.
Even the graphics tell a story. Having your front guard decked out in Red Bull livery is always going to be cool, but the hint to its interesting history came just under the seat where the bike’s designation had been tampered with. The first digit in what you would expect to be a 350 or 250 XC-F had been cut off, leaving you to guess what the cubic capacity really was, as though Chris wanted to keep the true identity of his machine a secret.
But that might not have been too far from the truth.
From there, it was only an innocent looking set of Mitas tyres that made it different to a standard 250 XC-F, until I hopped on and felt its extra soft seat. This makes sense for a bike that you may be asked to ride more than six hours a day for four days straight. Its cushiness also meant that you didn’t need an extra grippy material to avoid sliding back on the seat. To be honest, I don’t see why every KTM rider wouldn’t want a seat like this.
Knowing that I wasn’t going to be tackling too many logs or rocks, the absence of some protective pieces such as a bash plate, beefy linkage and disc guards didn’t bother me at all.
Nor did the standard exhaust pipe, but with ‘SX-F’ printed on the side rather than the ‘XC-F’, even that had its own secrets. Sure enough it did sound more impressive than your usual cross country “can”.
Back to the mystery cc question.
Typically, due to the light weight and useable power, I would picture Chris tanging around on a 300cc two-stroke. Although, something about the current breed of three-hundreds being somewhat of a handful when getting pushed to the limit through the trees, which might explain his choice of the four-stroke.
Still, I was a little surprised that he didn’t mind the added weight of the XC-F.
But I was quickly corrected, as it turns out that the 350 XC-F is actually half a kilo lighter than the 2017 300 XC. I knew that the 2016 four-strokes had had lost a lot of weight, but I didn’t know it had gone to that kind of extreme.
But there was more to this twisted tale.
See, when the ’16 bikes were released, Chris had started out on the 350. But after trying his mate’s 250, he discovered that the smaller bike gave him everything he wanted. The 250 is another kilogram lighter than the 350 machine, making it 1.5kg lighter than the 300 XC, but it still has the ample power that is combined with a brilliant delivery of torque – that proved to be the deal breaker.
It is also something I got to verify after having a ride for myself.
For our test, I warmed up by popping over a skidder tyre and then a digger bucket, which saw the bike feeling quite agreeable. But it wasn’t ‘til I rode up the first bank and turned back around to jump back down, with very little run up on the way up and on the way down, that I began to realise how much confidence I had in the power. Even with the lowest rpm, I found the rear wheel could tractor the front wherever I needed it to be and pop off the bank without a hint of wheel spin, even on the wet clay. Perhaps it was the Mitas tyre, which Chris had chosen, was helping with that, but it was far from brand new.
Regardless of what tyre is on the rear, the tractability of the 250 four-stroke was quite incredible, but that is not to say it is slow like a tractor.
Out on the trail, there was certainly no lack of acceleration. While it was certainly not the arm-stretching grunt you would expect from a 450F, it eased its way into a decent midrange power and continued to build almost all the way to the 14,000rpm rev limiter. Not that I needed to go that high in the revs very often, though. As it was, it was pushing me along fast enough.
When getting a bit lazy on the down changes, I did stall the bike a few times, which just tells me it hasn’t been down tuned from the moto version a lot. The claimed 45 horsepower from this version is quite incredible, delivered in an easy to use package, with all of that low down torque needed to get Chris up the gnarly sections.
Speaking of such section, after playing ‘round at some slower speeds, I did get the bike to blow some radiator fluid out of the overflow. Either the radiator fan had stopped working, or I was just mucking around way too much, but overheating would be my main concern when comparing this to the two-strokes – but only when things get really bad.
On the other hand, the clutch never flinched. Its coil spring design continued to give strong feedback for the whole test. The front brakes were also strong, just as you’d expect, but without being touchy.
The time had come to hit the trails in earnest. But, first, I needed to play with the clickers on the suspension. Chris had warned us that they might be set on some fairly wacky clicker settings from someone who’d taken it for a spin. Before making any changes, I rode it for a couple of hours, just to see where I was starting from. Sure enough, it was doing some weird things, which saw it blow through the stroke, so out came the tools.
Out the back, the shock was very user friendly, with only one allen key needed to adjust the high and low speed compression. Unfortunately, the forks were not so easy to adjust. Situated directly underneath the oversized ‘bars, the upper clickers either needed a special disc style screwdriver or the removing of the handlebars.
But my effort was richly rewarded.
The last rider – who was, obviously, not Chris – had backed many of the settings right off to soft. I put them back to something more middle of the road and was soon rewarded.
Despite the recent heavy rain, I quickly found myself hitting fresh trails at race pace, thanks to the planted feel and combination of the capable suspension, tyre choice and frame. It was strangely cool to not know what kind of terrain was coming next, but attack it anyway, because I felt like we could handle whatever we were likely to hit.
Normally, I would say it is impossible to truly explain how much of that confidence came from the works forks and special shock, as so much of that usually comes down to personal setup. But, after riding this bike and talking to Chris, I can see how that attitude can be proved wrong.
For quite some time, Chris has been working with Ray Clee Motorcycle Performance to fine-tune the WP suspension and they seem to have it pretty dialed. By no means would I say that his set up is on the soft side, even though it is plush enough to soak up the nasties that would normally punish firmer suspension like this.
It is the combination that riders can endlessly chase around in circles with normal suspension: being good for rocks and tree roots, or good at the fast terrain, but rarely good at both. I was informed that the reason he could find the best of both worlds is the especially trick and forgiving forks and shock enabled them to set it up fairly firm, while still able to soak the nasties.
Oh, to be full factory…
On another very cool note, Chris personally tuned the compound of the Mitas rear tyre, which was found on this bike. While living in South Africa, Chris helped develop the design, which combines a motocross-style knob design with a softer compound. The goal was to combine the wide spacing between knobs to clear the mud but have more traction that you get from the softer rubber.
That explained what I was feeling.
In my enthusiasm, I misjudged the depth of one rut and had to get going from the bottom of what looked like a particularly slippery hill. Fortunately, I have the mindset of giving everything a chance, because I treated the hill like any other and was rewarded with an easy ascent. Time after time, this was backed up, on the trails and in the quarry.
On hard ground, the tyre might have the tendency to roll, but that is not what we had at Pirini or what Chris normally rides. He reckons the tyre lasts a surprisingly long time, to the point where he is known to have won two championship-level events in a row without changing tyres.
How much you put that down to his riding talent versus the bike and tyres is up to you, though.
A side note is that Chris was running tyre balls, in both the front and rear, which allows him to run the equivalent of a low pressure without the risk of puncture. You just run more or less balls in each tyre, according to the feel you want. During the test, the front was definitely getting a bit sad; but, come race day, he would be able to get it back up to speed in no time.
It was a real eye-opener to ride the preferred setup of a rider like Chris, who has so much overseas experience and dominance on the Kiwi scene.
Whether it was a gouge in the fenders or a broken footpeg brace, like a battle-scarred tank, there were sure signs of the extreme enduro events that this bike has endured. Yet, the bike still ran and looked like a race-bred stallion. Considering how little he had to change, along with how much punishment he would have given the bike, that is a good testament to the bike that he chose.
Say No to Slow
As a multi-time New Zealand champion, Red Bull athlete and KTM stalwart, Chris Birch has a long and storied career both domestically and internationally that continues to this day. In recent years, he hasn’t raced the likes of Romaniacs and Ersberg, but that doesn’t mean he has slowed down. These days, Chris focuses his energy on training enduro and adventure riders, across the globe, but he can still be found racing certain events that make him smile. If you want to learn more bike skills that be used in almost every kind of motorcycle riding, talk to Chris about saying no to slow, which is his speciality!