The ten best off-road bikes I’ve ridden
By Tom Webb
I was sitting around the palatial offices here at Dirt Bike, chewing on a Cohiba and swirling a nice Shiraz when one of the pups on staff wanted my countdown to the ten best off-road dirt bikes that I’d ridden. That seemed like an easy pill to down, so with fingers blowing flames I proceeded to …struggle- just narrowing down the list to ten was like trying to pick my top ten songs of all time. My parameters were that the machine had to be off-road designated and not a modified motocrosser, which we did a lot of in the 80’s and 90’s.
10.) 1980 Can-Am 400
I had made the switch from MX to enduros in 1978 and was lucky enough to ride out of Kolbe Cycles. Andy was a great friend and helped sponsor my fledgling aspirations in the enduro world. This machine wasn’t the fastest, or the best handling but it made superb bottom power, was reliable (where the year before my 370 was really irritable) and was a full submarine in deep water. It helped me finish quite well in the District and California state enduro championships (actually won them both).
9.) 1982 Husky Auto
This bike was a full Jekyll and Hyde and could easily end up on my top 10 worst bikes! But when it was on it gave this So. Cal idiot the ability to dance with the big boys in northern California. In the tight stuff you kept it pinned, using the rear brake to turn and a total lack of power made for nearly 100% traction. I could hang with Dave Bertram, Henning and Sutliff when it got ugly. In the end I figured that I spent nearly 30-hours a week working on them and Husky finally quit shipping me clutches (which required constant attention and new springs and wedges) when I drained the parts warehouse of their stock.
8.) 1995 Honda XR600
This was an interesting machine for me. My good buddy DB (Dick Burleson) had an interest in Thumper Racing and through his enthusiasm I started riding one. The engine was magnificent and nearly impossible to stall, the fork was a cartridge unit and quite excellent. It was big, heavy and a beast yet I spent more time on that bike than any other off-roader that year.
7.) 2014 KTM 500EXC
Wow, love this wagon. In fact, any of the street legal EXCs fit into my top ten. In the current climate of off-road, where real estate is getting tougher to find and linking together trails is mandatory, the KTM 500EXC is one wicked machine being quiet, well suspended and road legal. It’s strange when you look at my buddies and myself, as everyone owns a moto bike and nearly all of them also have a plated KTM in their garage. Today if I was held to just having one machine it wouldn’t be close, I’d take a 500 EXC.
6.) 1994 Husaberg 501
I actually won the National Qualifier series 40-class on a 501 Berg. This bike had the motor from hell and flat ripped! Suspension wise it was weak, and the brakes were suspect but I fit Honda wheels and brakes and a Marzocchi fork with great results. This machine also makes me think of the incredible Qualifier series and races in the Washington and Oregon where I got to ride with LR, Danny Hamel, Charles Halcomb and DB for days. It never got any better!
5.) 2009 Husaberg 570
I really have no idea why this machine made my top ten other than the fact that it belched bottom power and was a riot to ride in tight, to medium slow off-road terrain. It carried the filter up high, sounded like an airplane turbine was gonna rip off your goggles, was fuel injected and incredibly oddly shaped in the engine tilt and design. It also had the odd flame out and would toss you over the bars since it made so much torque when it barfed. But for some reason, maybe because of its uniqueness, I liked it.
4.) 1984 Husky WR400 Twin Shock
Water-cooled, twin Ohlins shocked and rammed with Husky off-road heritage made the WR400 one of my all-time favorites. This bike craved enduros via an engine that oozed bottom to mid power. It was a little shortly suspended for the west coast, but I fit on a longer XC fork and shocks for our enduro series. This was the last of the real Husky’s that I dreamed about; the lineup seemed to lose momentum when they went single shock (I really didn’t’ mind the bulge of the outboard mounted Ohlins shocks).
3.) 1981 Husky 430XC
This machine was a game changer for me. I’d been a Can-Am guy since ’78 and started working for DB at the end of 1980. One of my first jobs was race testing a Husky at the National enduro in Tulsa, where Dick Burleson had a profound affect on my passion for off-road. The bike itself was phenomenally simple, incredibly adept and gnawed on the off-road world like a great white. You could change a top end in 15-minutes, do your own fork seals in twenty and this six-speeder made very proper power. I still think about the aluminum tank, the Ohlins shocks and the brakes that disappeared when someone sneezed.
2.) 2013 KTM 450XCW
At this point in the history of off-road, KTM is the Microsoft of the industry. Charlie Mullins dominated the GNCC world on a KTM 450XCF, the off-road version of motocross bike. I on the other had felt that it was way too much machine for me and totally craved the broad and totally useable 450 XCW. The green sticker legal machine is quiet, well appointed, fuel injected and button started. It’s a PDS machine meaning no rear linkage, but other than a tendency to stand up on decell and get loose in consecutive hits, the linkless system is quite tractable and plush in single track. And that’s my addiction.
1.) KTM 300
This machine is the hands down dominator in the T-Webb world. I can remember going to Blackwater with Rod Bush and testing their brand new 273 in 1986, raced the entire Qualifier schedule in ’92 aboard one and then did Six Days in Czecho. As the years have scudded by the machine has morphed from linkage to PDS and now offers both. The front end has evolved from Upside down WP’s to right side up Zokes, and then back. But the powerplant has always had one special attribute; it makes traction down low and pulls a higher gear in the tight ugly stuff. This was the main reason I love this machine both then and now!
(Note from the writer. There’s a distinct chance that I more than likely missed dates, screwed up facts or brutalized some important historical detail. Tough. This is how I remember the machines and how they rate in the Wolf world.)