By John Basher
What’s the greatest bike you ever rode? Answers vary.
Perhaps you’re a 450 four-stroke lover, or maybe you’re one
of those two-stroke advocates that bleed Castor 927. Heck,
some guys get through the work week by daydreaming about
romping around the track on their beloved Maico. Whatever
the case may be, motocross riders love the ones who love
them back. Of course, no relationship is perfect. Amicable
companionship takes hard work. It’s not much different than,
say, a happy marriage. Fortunately, your bike won’t yell if you
leave the toilet seat up.
“WHEN YOU HAPPEN UPON PERFECTION, YOU
SHOULDN’T LET IT GO. FOR THIS REASON, YOU LIKELY
WISH YOU STILL OWNED YOUR VERY FIRST BIKE.
OLD IRON IS A TIME CAPSULE FOR THE SOUL—A
NOSTALGIC WAY OF PRESERVING THE PAST AND
CELEBRATING ONE’S AGE OF INNOCENCE.”
I have friends who married their first love, and others who
will likely never settle down. The same goes with motocross
bikes. Variety is the spice of life. However, heed the advice of
an experienced dabbler. When you happen upon perfection,
you shouldn’t let it go. For this reason, you likely wish you still
owned your very first bike. Old iron is a time capsule for the
soul—a nostalgic way of preserving the past and celebrating
one’s age of innocence. Sadly, the garage of life isn’t big
enough for treasured possessions and your wife’s SUV. Nine
times out of ten, old junk recedes in the wake of responsibility. That’s why some of my buddies will never tie the knot.
Their garage is a sanctuary—a sliver of motocross nirvana.
When loneliness sets in, they hide away in their man space
and stare at their moto menagerie. Only the masters of this
universe balance selfish desire with their wife’s needs. I’m not
quite there. A stack of tearoffs leans against my wife’s sewing
kit; baby toys are bookended by MXA helmets. Marriage, like
motocross, is a give-and-take.
Like you, I have loved and I have lost. I’ve played the field,
ridden a bunch of machines and moved on. That’s what an
MXA test rider does. From pit bikes to 500cc two-strokes,
I’ve been there and done that. I’m not gloating, rather explaining the breadth of my experience. Some bikes were completely tragic—the 2005 Kawasaki KX250 two-stroke and any
Italian-made Husqvarna FC250 still haunt my dreams—while
others were the absolute model of excellence. Do you own a
2008 Honda CRF450, 2016 Yamaha YZ250F or any YZ125
after 2005? Heed my advice: hold on to it forever. Get rid of
the old pile of MXA magazines to clear space for any one of
those bikes in your garage. You’ll thank me later.
I’ve tested bikes that were great on paper but duds on the
track. Conversely, I fell in love with bikes that were too big,
too slow or too quirky for any sane person to enjoy. The heart
wants what it wants. My tastes changed with the snail-like
developmental progression of the Kawasaki KX450F. I liked
that robust, ill-handling porker since it had a four-speed transmission. In subsequent years the KX450F gradually improved.
An explosive powerband couldn’t mask the bike’s faults, but I
learned to love its peccadilloes. For 2016 Kawasaki shaved
weight off the KX450F, mellowed out the powerband and
tightened up the handling. Guess what? I don’t like it. I miss
the previous-generation KX450F. Go figure.
Factory bikes are considered the epitome of motocross
machinery. They blend power, handling, outrageously expen-
sive parts and the latest technology into one package. If you
believe that factory bikes are a dream to ride, then you are
sadly misguided. People want what they can’t have. Just like
a supermodel, a factory bike is attractive on the outside, but
personality makes a difference. The truth is, you couldn’t get
James Stewart’s forks to budge or Ricky Carmichael’s bike to
turn. Two of the sport’s brightest pupils had their preferenc-
es, and somehow those settings worked for them. Trust me;
they won’t work for you. While it’s nice to dream about
throwing a leg over a factory bike, find solace in the fact
that your bike is better for your needs.
At one time I kept a running tally of all the factory bikes I
tested, but I round-filed the list years ago. No one cared what
I rode, anyway. It’s much more enjoyable talking about good
bikes or, better yet, horrible clunkers. Nothing brings riders
together like mutual disdain. I made a lot of friends in causal
conversations about the 2009 Honda CRF450. That bike was
a wheelbarrow. While it’s hard to discuss factory equipment
with fellow throttle twisters—testing a race bike isn’t like
buying soda out of a vending machine—it’s nice to reflect
on past machinery.
Every once in a blue moon a great white elephant comes
along—a factory bike that works splendidly for mere mortals.
I can count those experiences on one hand. Ryan Villopoto’s
2007 Pro Circuit Kawasaki was one of my favorites. The
technical experts at Pro Circuit developed a sterling package—blazing-fast engine, solid handling, unbelievable brakes
and suspension that absorbed heavy impact while breezing
through small chop. Next came Justin Barcia’s 2012 Geico
Honda CRF250. Although not as good as Villopoto’s steed,
it encouraged me to twist the throttle without suffering any
Factory 450 four-strokes are another story. Up until
recent years race teams put a ton of emphasis on horsepower
numbers. As a result, there was no way anyone outside the
top 10 in the 450 class could handle the raw power of a factory bike. Even now, 450 race bikes are too high-strung for
me. For that reason, I wear a St. Christopher necklace and
say a few Hail Marys before putting knobby to dirt whenever I
get the chance to ride a works 450 four-stroke.
I don’t want to ride Ken Roczen’s RCH Suzuki RM-Z450 or
Eli Tomac’s factory Kawasaki KX450F. Instead, let me throw
a leg over your bike. We’ll meet at the local track, then we
can talk about all of the modifications you chose after much
considerable deliberation and research. After a few motos
we can compare notes and make any changes you want to
your bike. Once the day is done, let’s talk about all the terrible
bikes we have ridden. Like I said, shared experiences of bad
equipment have a way of binding us together. It will be fun.