2023 KTM 250XC 2-STROKE: RACE TEST

By Nic Garvin

You don’t often get a phone call from your boss asking if you want to test a new-model motorcycle at a race, let alone at a GNCC. At the moment, you almost stutter, asking yourself, “Wait, what?” I live on the West Coast, and racing in the trees for two-plus hours isn’t within my normal comfort zone. Two things clinched the deal: the event and the bike. I would be racing the Ironman GNCC, reputed to be the largest off-road race in the world. The bike would be the all-new KTM 250XC two-stroke. How often does a desert rider get the opportunity to race a GNCC? With that in mind, I threw a gear bag together and stormed to the airport for my trek across the country. I can’t say that my excitement level was at an all-time high. I’ve learned that if you set expectations too high, it can end in disappointment. My objective for the trip was to experience something new, test an unfamiliar motorcycle, and try to be competitive if my comfort level allowed.

The 2023 KTM 250XC is completely new for 2023, with throttle-body fuel injection, an electronic power valve and a chassis straight out of Supercross.

 

THE XC FACTOR

A big part of the appeal was the bike. The 2023 KTM 250XC two-stroke is a completely new bike, and I had never even seen one in real life. This year KTM redesigned all of its competition bikes. No model got more change than the 250XC. The frame is new, the rear suspension is new, the swingarm is new—pretty much everything aside from the WP Xact air fork is new.

Over the years, the previous version of the 250XC had developed a reputation for diversity. It had become the bike of choice for trail riding, racing, motocross and even hard enduro events. The new motor was designed around an electronic power valve—no more springs and preload screws. Then there’s the all-new throttle-body Keihin electronic fuel injection tuned with a Vitesco ECU. Transfer port injection is gone, at least on all the race bikes. This advancement has given the 250XC a clean-running motorcycle with no issues trying to fine-tune a carburetor. The throttle body has increased to 39mm and uses a design similar to KTM’s four-stroke models. A double injector is positioned to ensure the most productive flow into the combustion chamber, which helps create a smoother and more consistent overall power delivery. Matching the EFI is the electronic exhaust port manager that eliminates the spring power-valve adjustments and helps alter port timing according to engine rpm and throttle opening. It also features a two-map switch on the handlebars, just like the four-stroke models. You can give the motorcycle a more aggressive setting or ride in the mellow map, which adjusts the mapping to make the bike more manageable to ride for your liking. One essential item on the KTM two-stroke is the counterbalancer shaft, which helps eliminate the vibration found on most two-strokes and makes the ride much more enjoyable. The XC model comes with standard handguards, a 2.24-gallon fuel tank and an 18-inch rear wheel, assuring that it is an off-road model.

The KTM 250XC sells for $10,799.

 

RENDEZVOUS WITH AN IRONMAN

When I arrived at Ironman Raceway the day before the race, I was greeted by what I could only imagine what Woodstock was like in 1969. There were flattened cornfields with thousands of motor homes, racers, fans and spectators in every direction. It could have been a small city. The air was filled with the sounds of dirt bikes, quads and live music filtered through semis, tire trucks, parts tents and food vendors. They lined both sides of the road for more than a mile. I’ve raced at the International Six Day Enduro and the Baja 1000, and even made my way into an EnduroCross at the series’ height. I can tell you I have never seen so many race fans in one place for an off-road event; it was mesmerizing and a noticeable difference from what we in the West are accustomed to. My first look at the track revealed chaos. While quads were terrorizing the racecourse and splitting trees at 50 mph, I noticed a vast number of spectators filtering through the woods. One thing that caught my eye was the allowance for riding e-bikes on the live racecourse. Usually, practice comes within the schedule at a race in the West, but when you have over 3500 entries that combine quads and motorcycles over two days, that eliminates any time for practice. Instead, racers get their first view of the course by riding their bicycles. This goes on throughout the weekend.

After some setup, my first experience with the bike was on the jetting loop, a two-mile section through some tight trees, which we would later use for race day. WP suspension is equipped on the KTM 250XC, and the standard 48mm air fork has a split damping feature to help keep the bike from bottoming on bigger hits. After I set the proper air pressure, I discovered that the fork was more consistent at a low-speed pace and felt more attached to the ground. Helping contribute to that is the all-new frame design, which centers the rider and provides anti-squat characteristics with a more rigid feel. At slow speeds the motorcycle doesn’t lose front-end traction, which improves rider confidence. The bike comes stock with Dunlop AT81 tires, which is appropriate for an off-road model. The Xact rear shock mates with the fork well, with 300mm of suspension travel at each end. After setting the sag in the 106mm range, the shock was a bit unpredictable. A neat feature of the Xact shock is the hand-adjustable dual-compression control knob, which makes on-trail adjustments easy. With the turn of the knob, I made slight adjustments to make me more comfortable for the next day’s race. After a short stint testing and making adjustments, I was ready to go for my first GNCC.

The motor is entirely new for 2023, with an electronic power valve and throttle-body fuel injection.
The XC line is made for cross-country racing. In that role, it gets linkage rear suspension and an aggressive power delivery.

 

RACE TIME

Sunday morning came pretty quickly; getting up and heading to the track was something I’d missed in recent times. About a year and a half before starting with Dirt Bike Magazine, I experienced some wild ups and downs. I’d swept the two opening rounds of the Best in the Desert series, I was finding my bearings at the National Hare and Hound series, and was consistently running up front. Unfortunately, at the Baja 500, I went head-on with a UTV, which resulted in two-broken femurs, five broken hand bones, a dislocated wrist, a broken tibia and a shattered knee cap, to list a few. The Ironman GNCC would be my first race back, and my first time riding for such a long duration in some time. One thing I find so intriguing about a GNCC is that there are over 600 racers on the track at one time. Lining up with the Industry class was also going to be exciting; not only did I race with the other media groups, but I got to race old-time series champions like Barry Hawk. As the rows started going off one by one and the silence of dead engines overwhelmed the crowd, the loud call of “10 seconds” echoed through the cornfield. At Hare and Hounds, every race has dead-engine starts, so my experience level was high.

When the green flag dropped, I hit the start button on the right side of the bars, and before I could open the throttle, the bike was fired, already rolling forward. Having a hydraulic Brembo clutch on a dead-engine start is critical, as its smooth transition and point of engagement make for a consistent release. One thing about modern two-strokes that leaves some puzzled is that there is no kick-starter attached anymore. All starting is done by button. Counterintuitively, that actually slows down the launch, even if only by a fraction of a second. As we entered the first few corners, I was filtered into the second-place position and instantly felt comfortable with the conditions of the Ironman. Typically, GNCC courses are overly wet, filled with grime and mud to make for a slower-paced race, but this year Indiana was in the middle of a drought. Many locals say it had been 10-plus years since they’d seen dusty and dry conditions like we raced with. Fortunately, conditions were familiar for me, and I found my way into the lead of our group entering the second tree area. Although my experience in the woods was minimal, I was still racing a dirt bike. After over 200 racers had started in the rows ahead of us, it was simply chaos out on the racecourse. I have never seen so many people upside down, hanging in trees from crashes or on the ground and being run over by a freight train behind them.

SETTLING IN

As we approached Ironman Hill, the conga line had already started to form. I slowly found my line, grabbed third and gave it hell. The smooth power delivery and the soft release of the Brembo clutch were a recipe for success every lap on that hill. While I started the race on the aggressive green map, I eventually realized that the bike’s full power could only be utilized in a few faster cornfields of pure silt. I quickly engaged the gray map, also known as the mellow map. On the fly, the bike went from being too abrupt in the tight and technical terrain to having a nice, smooth throttle, which made for a less frantic ride. My long, unused racer instincts began to awaken, and I started working my way higher through the waves that had started before me. As the laps clicked off, the course began to deteriorate drastically. Roots, trees, rocks and whoops all became more prominent. All the hills were cluttered with racers who had either given up or left their bikes buried to the frame. Spectators were picking racers up one by one, as some could not reach the top without help. One thing that stayed the same was the 250XC. Its overall comfort and rideability were unchanged. With each lap, I became more in tune with the bike. In the second half, my confidence and my smile were bigger than ever. As the final lap board came out, I realized I wasn’t that far behind Barry Hawk. The old me might well have gone a little crazy trying to close the gap, but I knew better. It was my first race in a year, and I was a long way from home. I chilled out, finished the last lap in one piece and fell back to third in Industry class and 30th overall on the day.

Overall, experiencing a GNCC was an absolute all-time high, and I couldn’t be more thankful to the KTM USA group for inviting me out. The 2023 KTM 250XC proved that it can be a versatile machine and could conquer any form of terrain in its way. Between its two-map options, clean-running electronic fuel injection and electronic port timing, it places this 250 in its own class. Switching maps at the easy touch of a thumb is a huge technological advancement that has not been this effective on many two-strokes. It made racing, riding, and finishing that much easier and enjoyable. Till next time! 

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