BY TRAVIS FANT
We got a chance to ride the 2022 KTM 350XC-F in what turned out to be the most demanding GNCC of the year—the rain-soaked finale in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Dirt Bike videographer Travis Fant volunteered for the duty and came back with some advice for anyone who hopes to survive the worst that the Grand National Cross-Country Series has to offer.
The KTM 350XC-F Factory Edition is an incredible bike, tailor-made for the typical GNCC event. No motorcycle, however, can guarantee success when a very atypical storm turns what is usually the most rider-friendly race in the series into a survival run. Here are some of the things I learned at the 2021 Ironman.
1. Preparation. I mean this in two facets: One side is the bike, gear and protection. The other is mental preparation. I was able to take what I had learned racing the 24 Hours of Glen Helen and apply it to the Ironman. A lot can go wrong, and problems will arise. I suggest attaining a relaxed mental state beforehand; maybe a warm-up race or some hard riding on your own terms to get ready. I’m already fairly fit from cycling around 100 miles a week, as well as riding my dirt bike. I knew physically I was more prepared than some others. You need to be in shape enough to not only lift yourself out of a hole but pick the bike up and physically move it on your own. Andy Jefferson and Braden Herr helped me prep on race day. They assembled tear-off goggles with dual-pane EKS Brands to help prevent fogging. I had spare goggles and gloves ready for me in the pits. I taped my boots up with duct tape to keep water out, and I wore a water-resistant KTM jacket. The bike already had a skid plate and handguards. We set the sag and levers for me, but the bike was ready to go out of the box. It really was about how quickly someone could adapt to those types of conditions.
2. Know your strengths and weaknesses. I am a moto kid. I’m no pro, but I have a good amount of seat time on a track. I knew if I could be patient in the more difficult sections that I could make up time in the motocross-style portions. These are open areas of the track that have huge rollers filled with water and a ton of ruts. That’s similar to a moto track back east. I knew I wasn’t the best in the tight woods, but I was confident in my abilities on other parts of the course. I made up a lot of ground in the cornfields and downhill sections that resembled moto tracks. You really have to accept the fact that you can’t go the same speed as others in the super-tight sections that are more technical. That is just not the type of riding I am used to. I did my best in that stuff and was able to push harder in other areas.
3. Find a fast guy. I was in a fast class and happy to follow. The riders up front included Kailub Russell, Quinn Cody and Axell Hodges. The last thing I wanted was to be closer to the front and have the pressure of them riding my coattails as I learned the course. You’re blind going into the first lap; no practice, no warm-up. My plan was to hook up with guys who were good. I wasn’t able to hang with them long, but I was able to follow them long enough to see how they navigated the course and chose lines I never would have seen on my own. At one point, I really felt like I was flowing on the course because of this strategy. There were tons of line options on the edges that got me through quicker and dryer (if that’s believable).
4. Manage your body and the bike. Getting worn down is easy on the course, especially in the conditions we were faced with. The mud holes would range from 2- to 4-feet deep. The ruts were easily up to the shrouds in places. I got stuck several times and had to get off the bike. Once I remounted the motorcycle, I was sure to take it easy for a couple of minutes and get my heart rate down to a more comfortable zone. I didn’t want to go further down the course feeling completely spent and unable to make quick decisions. That goes for the whole race. Managing how I felt on the bike kept me the most alert and aware of what I was doing.
5. Talk it out. For this part, I was very fortunate. I had a leg up over the average rider. I walked over to the Factory KTM pits and spoke with Josh Toth, Ben Kelley and Kailub Russell about the course. I asked about what I should expect and some techniques they use. The average guy won’t have this luxury, although most off-road guys are super nice, and even the factory riders would gladly give advice if asked. If I came to the race not under the KTM umbrella, I would ask a friend or rider who has done a GNCC before: What is the start like? How do I keep the bike warm before we take off? What gear should I take off in? What is the first lap like? What are some techniques you do to save the bike and your body on race day? After the race was all said and done, I was happy that I had guidance from others who had done the race many times before.
6. Expect the worst. Everyone is different, and I get that. The way I was able to go into the first lap and entire weekend was to expect the worst. I expected the weather to not be good, the course to be insanely challenging and to get stuck multiple times. All that happened and more, but I went into it knowing I had work to do. When something happened, I laughed and took it as a challenge. It wasn’t as much of a surprise to me when problems arrived. When the rain started to dump Sunday morning, I was already in a mental state of “This is going to be tough.” The rain didn’t make me as nervous, and the 400-foot, water-filled ruts on the starting line didn’t scare me. I expected it long before I was faced with it.
7. Don’t wait; just go for it. I learned this at the 24 Hours of Glen Helen. For whatever reason, riders will decide to stop and look ahead at a difficult section. At Glen Helen, it’s always the silty hills with ruts. Back east, it was the hill-climbs and downhills with roaring rapids of water in them. Why wait? You know you have to do it anyway. I came to spots like these so many times on courses and passed huge groups of riders sitting. I would look ahead and choose the safest path and move on. The longer you sit and stare at something, the more you psych yourself out. I do the same in moto. If I don’t do all the jumps at a track by the second lap, I probably won’t do them at all. You’ve wasted too much time freaking yourself out on something that isn’t that bad if you just go for it. Was I intimidated going into spots on the course like this? Absolutely. But, I had to keep going, and that’s the mentality you need to have.
8. Coming to terms. You need to accept that you’re about to race something really tough. Regardless of the weather conditions, it’s going to be a hard event to participate in. I raced the 24 Hour just prior to the GNCC and came to terms through that. In Indiana, we were faced with some of the roughest conditions at the GNCC since 2013. Don’t take my word for it. Kailub Russell told me that on race day he hadn’t seen anything this bad in a very long time. Accepting the challenge of the weather and understanding all of us have to race the same course brought me comfort while I was on the line. A lot of people had done it before, but that didn’t mean it was going to be any easier for them. We all were sitting in 2 feet of water on the starting line.
9. Don’t race everyone. Compete with yourself. I just didn’t really care who beat me or who I beat. I just wanted to leave knowing I tried my hardest and did my best under the circumstances. Racing everyone is great if you’re in year 10 of this style of riding, but my first go was to say I achieved something. I accomplished what I set out to do, which was to participate in a GNCC. I didn’t want to pull off the track or give up. I challenged myself in areas of the course to be better. I told myself to scan for better lines, make smart choices to save the bike and, on lap two, to try to beat my lap-one experience. It’s a long race of absolute chaos. There are riders in so many classes on the course at the same time, there is no point in worrying about where you are. It was a better game plan worrying about how I was personally doing on the motorcycle. Was I looking ahead enough? Was I keeping my feet up in ruts? Did I stand through portions? How was I managing the throttle in the wet conditions? And, most of all, was I having fun? I was smiling the entire time.
10. Put into it what you want to get out of it. This is also a life lesson in general, but for GNCC purposes it means whatever you do before the flag waves will give you a better outcome when the checkers run across your bike. I prepared on the bike as much as I could in California by racing off-road and riding in the hills. I was diligent on the road bike to make sure my cardio was on par. I went into it knowing the weather was going to be harsh. I had my FXR gear, USWE bag, Gaerne boots and EKS Brand goggles all ready to go days before the race. I got a good night’s sleep before and warmed up on race day. The best thing I did was have fun Friday and Saturday.
Did it all work? Yes and no. In a race like this, random chance plays a big role. In the Pro race at 1 p.m., both Ben Kelley and Grant Baylor sucked water into their motors. They were stuck for 20 minutes before going again. I felt like I was doing a great job to avoid all the things that would end my race, but eventually I made one big mistake on line choice. That led me into a hole so deep I submerged the bike and my entire body. Eventually, I had to get towed out and take a DNF. Going insanely fast won’t win you the race if you make a bad decision or don’t keep the bike in mind. The bike and your body can only put up with so much abuse before they quit.
I still can call it a success. I gave myself the best shot at having a successful weekend because I was enjoying myself. When I got off the bike after sinking it, I was disappointed for sure. I almost lost it for a second and reeled myself back as I sat in the woods—soaked and waiting for a tow. I shrugged off the negativity and just laughed. Look what my career in motorcycles has allowed me to do. It is truly a blessing to have this job. By the time I rolled into the pits, I was smiling from ear to ear. My entire body got pressure-washed by one of the KTM employees. I grabbed a change of clothes, and then I watched Ben Kelley take home a GNCC XC1 Pro Championship. The challenges or negative parts were so buried that all I could think of was how fun the Indiana Ironman GNCC event was—and how to plan for the next one.