This is the first year that I’m not spending the majority of my riding time on a two-stroke. The truth is, I got smoked when the new machines got divvied up amongst the Dirt Bike staff. The new TBI machines got sucked up by Ron and Mark, which was okay since I had pinched the 300 TPIs since 2019. And, Ryan (Koch) pleaded for the 300 XC-W. Again, another good move since he’s doing a long-term test, and he puts more hours on his machines in a week than I do in a month.

So, in my garage sits the 2023 KTM 450XCF-W. And truth be told, I love this machine. The power is super smooth and very tractable, if not a bit soft for some of the hill-climbing that we like to do. It’s very adept in the tight stuff, resists flame-outs and has two power modes with traction control. The Soft mode really doesn’t get used too much out here in the desert, whereas the Power mode is well suited for my trails, throttles down nicely, and has an okay upper hit. I’m on the fence with Traction Control mode. It does seem to help a bit in slippery terrain, but hampers big, sandy hill-climbs where you’re fighting to keep the tires spinning. In TC, it limits the spin load and will leave you gasping when it muffles the power to the rear wheel. It’s super quiet, has a great gearbox, superb clutch and comes with a fan to keep it cooled when abused under hard loads.

In stock trim, the suspension is far too soft for my hefty build. Also, I’m cramped on the machine, a fact that I have dealt with for decades. With my bad knees, I have always run taller saddles, and since I had them replaced, they work better, but I must have them at 90 degrees when seated. So, I spend considerable effort on my setup, getting the ergonomics dialed in so that I’m comfortable going from seated to standing.

Over the last few months I have focused on the suspension setup, ergonomic fitment, increased protection for key areas and giving the ultra-smooth power a bit more muscle without ruining the superb low-to-mid flow.


My first attempt at improving the power’s girth (meaning more meat to the hit) came with a muffler change. I knew that in stock trim the power was never lean, coughed or bogged, so in my mind that meant that the ECU was set properly to the muffler. I was nervous that switching to a freer-flowing FMF 4.1 (with the SA which helps with keeping the sound level acceptable) would get a lean feel, which usually translates into a machine that tends to flame out when attempting to carry a tall gear in tight terrain. Overall, the power definitely was stronger, but felt tinny and made me nervous in the tight zones where you want to carry a tall gear. Mid to top was definitely stronger, but I would not sacrifice the healthy and clean bottom roll-on for more on top.

Phase two had me fitting in a Vortex ECU from Tokyo Mods. The unit controls spark timing and voltage output, along with fuel mapping. They claim more power, easier starting, improved stall prevention and, important to me, increased power in the enduro map for enhanced throttle response and traction. It comes mapped for the FMF 4.1 exhaust, plugs directly into the bike’s standard wiring harness and interfaces with all the standard engine sensors, such as ECT (Engine Coolant Temperature), IAT (Intake Air Temperature), MAP (Manifold Absolute Pressure), TPS (Throttle Position Sensor) and CPS (Crank Position Sensor), to adjust fuel and spark timing for optimum power delivery in all weather, altitude and load conditions. The Vortex ECU and FMF exhaust made a dramatic change in the power characteristic, and it was all positive! Down low it chugged stronger in Map 2 (Enduro mode), allowed for pulling a tall gear, and yanked harder and stronger from mid to top. In Map 1 (Power mode) it made a substantial gain from mid to top, and frankly was more than I could ever use on the trail. For GPs and the occasional moto, this was ideal.

Price: $799.95, Vortex ECU

Price: $649.99, FMF Factory 4.1 RCT titanium anodized SL (slip-on) w/carbon cap



We’ve had good experiences with Brian Bolding from N2Dirt Suspension. Brian is an accomplished rider, and we feel that this helps him dial in the proper valving and spring rates. The fork is set up with their Open Chamber conversion package. They install the necessary parts and settings to make the forks symmetrical, meaning compression on both forks is on the bottom and rebound on the top. N2Dirt uses factory WP parts to put a strong amount of adjustment back into the system. Their passive compression adjustment makes tuning-compression feel on low-speed movements and chassis pitch one of the top features of their suspension tuning. Mid-speed and high-speed movements are done by way of shim settings and float height. All these settings and adjustments are analyzed with in-house software to optimize rider comfort and feel. This will also ensure that the fork and shock are consistent and resist cavitation.

The shock package includes a re-valve that incorporates a new four-port piston for better holdup and control. N2Dirt uses a K-Tech bladder kit for increased oil capacity and, most important, lower operating temperature to mitigate shock fade. Brian noted that frequent service is recommended on these smaller shocks.

For the “Wolfster,” Brian went to several steps stiffer on the springs, both fore and aft. I told him I like it plush, but stiff enough to stay up in the stroke. One ride and I came away impressed. The wallowy feel of the stocker was replaced with a much firmer gait, and the bike stayed up yet worked well in the rocks with great feel in the first third of the stroke. High-speed hits were gobbled up comfortably, with one of the top features being the planted feel. I felt that cornering improved, as did balance, and the lack of a severe diving front end under braking and nasty downhills was a big plus. I ran the rear sag at 105mm and played with the fork settings only slightly, as it felt pretty sweet the way I got it.

One note here: we ran N2Dirt’s Pro Tech full-wrap fork guards. They offer more protection as they wrap around the back of the tubes, and Brian told us that his fork-seal repairs have lessened with customers who use the guard. Nicks from the front wheel flicking rocks onto the tubes is a major cause of fork damage and leaking.

Price: $829, fork mod; $664, shock


I fit on a Seat Concepts Comfort Tall saddle with a little Wolf mod. It’s 17mm taller than stock (5/8 inches), but this is still a bit low for me. I unbutton from the back, peel back the foam and add an additional 20mm under the center section of the saddle. This is a total pain, as stretching the cover is a tough job. I have been doing it for years and have an upholstery stapler, which makes the job easier. The saddle itself has the best cover and foam in the business, offering great caboose traction and feel.

Price: $324.99, complete seat

I’ve been running Flexx handlebars after trying several handlebar clamps that offer additional flex over a rigid clamp. Since my hands have been abused for years, arthritis is an issue, and I needed some reduction in both vibration and impacts. The Flexx bar is a beefy unit (quite heavy), but offers immediate gratification to your hands. It is tunable via different elastomers and has become a key for my ability to put in some long rides that hammer my wrists and fingers. I run the 12-degree Enduro bar (standard height) with Enduro Engineering 10mm spacers under the bar mounts. The Enduro bend has more real estate available, which is crucial for starter buttons and handguard mounts.

Price: $399.99

With a footpeg change, I can immediately give myself some additional legroom. I’ve been running the Fastway Evolution 4 footpeg. It features a stainless steel body, has a wide base, replaceable cleats, and set in the low and back mode, it’s perfect for taller riders looking for additional cockpit space.

Price: $144.95; $20.95, fit kit

I went with SXS for skid-plate protection, as their unit is incredibly strong (made from 1/4-inch UHMW plastic), lightweight, and offers better armor for the ignition and clutch side of the engine. I also chose their Burly Vented shields (1/4-inch UHMW slideplate material) over the stock, rather flimsy KTM wings. These will bolt right onto the stock KTM mounts, or you can use their Beefy aluminum mounts.

Price: $135, skid plate; $55, Burly hand shields

With the chainguide, I ran the stocker for almost four months with no drama. Once worn and tattered, I went with the TM Designworks unit. It’s flexible enough to take a hit, but is incredibly durable. To protect the front rotor (to be honest, I’ve not bent too many), I’m running the Ares unit. It uses an aluminum carrier and a front fin made from the same thick material SXS uses on their skid plate. Out back, I have an Enduro Engineering shark fin that’s been well used on several of my KTMs. It’s beat up, but strong and effective.

Price: $152, Ares front disc guard

Price: $109.95, Enduro Engineering shark fin

Price: $99.95, TM Designworks chainguide

Overall, I’m totally pumped with the KTM 450XCF-W and the modifications I have made to the machine. The suspension updates were mandatory for me, and the performance updates were not critical but definitely upped the fun factor on the machine. The doodads, protection, tires, and Nitromousse inserts are simply part of the cost of riding off-road. I need it to hook up, and I hate having my days infected by a flat.


Ryan Koch, our elite off-road tester, manhandles T. Webb’s 450 with adept hands, despite being nearly a full person smaller than the Wolf. The goal with the machine was stronger yet ridable power, suspension set for a larger pilot, ergonomic upgrades for the same reason, and defense against terrain-inflicted wounds.

Armor-wise, an Ares front disc guard proved sano, SXS guards at the hands, and engine are thick and strong, Nitro Mousse inserts are a must, and for Webb’s riding zone, he likes the Goldentyre Fatty front and an IRC Evo M5B out back. N2Dirt suspension helped keep the machine up in the stroke for the large-bodied Wolf, proving to be just soft enough for tight trail work. Flexx bars using Enduro Engineering spacers and a tall comfort Seat Concepts saddle with low-boy Fastway pegs proved crucial for better ergonomics.



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