Feeling like a factory rider … for one day
No doubt the factory riders of KTM were not very happy when they found out their ‘babies’ were being turned over to a bunch of journalists for a day. But a chance to try out the powerful machines of Red Bull KTM Factory Racing on the famous Eurocircuit in Valkenswaard is a unique opportunity that no journalist wants to miss.
Sometimes the right words just aren’t finding their way onto ‘paper’, your computer really needs an upgrade, and an interview you had planned weeks ago gets canceled at the last minute. Contrary to popular belief, the life of a motorcycle journalist is not always glitz and glamor. Luckily, just one simple email can make all that ‘misery’ disappear in a flash. Your whole week, or perhaps even the whole month, suddenly becomes sunny and bright again when you read the words ‘KTM’, ‘you are invited’ and ‘factory bike test’. Fifteen journalists were lucky enough to find this email, sent by the KTM Press/PR Department in Mattighofen, waiting for them in their inbox this summer. All they had to do was travel by plane or car to the south of the Netherlands in the middle of September. Five factory dirtbikes would be waiting for them there, which they could take for a spin around the legendary motocross circuit of Valkenswaard. A unique opportunity to experience first-hand what it feels like to be a factory rider like Jeffrey Herlings, Tony Cairoli, Glenn Coldenhoff, Pauls Jonass, and Jorge Prado.
“The preparation for this media test day started around three months ago”, explains Beatrix Eichhorn. She works as Event Manager at KTM and responsible for the entire organization of this factory bike test ride. Her main job was to make sure the three days went smoothly for everyone who took part in the event. But she didn’t do it alone: Eichhorn had the capable assistance of two colleagues from the Press/PR department of the Austrian motorcycle manufacturer. “They arranged everything that involved the press materials and the race department. Making sure the factory bikes were there for the test, for example, and working out which team members were going to take part. They took care of all that. Not an easy task by any means, because our motocross teams have a very busy Grand Prix schedule. But once we managed to find a date that suited everyone, then we started inviting the journalists and working out the program for the test.”
That was a tricky job as well, because with this type of media event a lot of things have to be organized behind the scenes. Even if you’ve only got a relatively small group of 15 journalists. “First you have to get the go-ahead to use the circuit, in this case the GP Eurocircuit in Valkenswaard, and then you have to arrange hotel accommodation for all the journalists and the support staff. And naturally you also have to arrange food as well, and find suitable restaurants. Plus, you have to organize transfers, journalist gifts and branding material.” Even after all these practical details have been sorted out, the team still had another challenge to overcome. They had to plan the start times for all the test runs and make sure everything was caught on camera. During the media event in Valkenswaard, for example, there were two photographers and two cameramen on hand to make sure the journalists got all the pictures and video they needed. “Putting together a timetable for the test runs can be a complicated process, because you have to make sure every journalist gets to ride every factory bike for at least 20 minutes and you have to consider their travel data.” Luckily KTM have had plenty of experience with this type of event. They do more than just organize one event a year. “We have to launch new (production) models, both offroad and street, and organize meetings and conferences throughout the entire year. So, this type of event is nothing new for us.”
When the journalists arrived at the hotel, they were welcomed with a refreshing cocktail and then treated to a gourmet dinner in the evening, joined by several surprise guests. Four of the five factory riders (Cairoli, Coldenhoff, Jonass, and Prado), who had generously agreed to ‘lend’ their bikes for this event, sat down with the journalists and answered all their questions in great detail. The only KTM rider not in attendance was Jeffrey Herlings; the young Dutchman had just been crowned the MXGP world champion the weekend before. However, the journalists were glad to learn that he would be joining them the next day at the Eurocircuit while the other riders got back to their training routine.
It was an early morning start for the test ride day, with a presentation hosted by Jennifer Dick, KTM’s Offroad PR Manager. After going through all the technical details of the bikes and the test ride program, she made a surprise announcement. In honor of Herlings world title, KTM had decided to launch a special limited edition of his KTM 450 SX-F. The journalists got a few moments to take a close look at the gleaming replica, and then it was time for them to suit up and get out on the track. The excitement was palpable and plenty of nervous glances were exchanged as the mechanics casually fired up the factory bikes. The motocross circuit had been sprayed to moisten the track, but the bikes soon blew up a huge cloud of dust over Valkenswaard. Not that it bothered Krzysztof Tomaszek, because he had been waiting for this moment all his life. He couldn’t wait to get on the five different factory bikes and share this unique experience with all his readers at scigacz.pl. By the end of the day, he was exhausted, but very satisfied. Going flat out for 20 minutes on five different factory bikes had made an enormous impression on the Polish journalist. “It was a fantastic day that I will never forget. I had never been on a factory bike before, and I have to admit I was pretty nervous beforehand. I’ve had plenty of experience with the production motocross bikes of KTM, but this was a completely different level.” Tomaszek was particularly surprised by the machine of world champion Herlings. “That was definitely the most difficult bike to ride”, he admitted honestly. “Very aggressive and you could tell it was a motocross bike that had been set up for maximum speed. Herlings’ KTM just wants to keep on attacking.”
Then it was time for Jeffrey Herlings to take his bike out onto the track and show them how it’s really done. Instead of a few steady exhibition laps, Jeffrey Herlings thundered around the circuit at the outrageous pace that has made him the seemingly unbeatable champion he is. So, no throttling back only two days after winning his first MXGP World Championship title. His dominance at Valkenswaard has been impressive, with an amazing seven Grand Prix victories in a row on this track. “The MX2 motocross bike of KTM has a very strong engine setup, and that really makes a difference in the heavy sand of Valkenswaard. That’s when you need to use all the horsepower you can get”, explains Herlings. “In the 450 class, the competition is a lot closer together when it comes to pure power. That’s where the total package of KTM makes it stand out from the rest. We’ve got a great bike, a strong team, and of course the best riders.”
The highest level
One journalist who has been in the saddle of a factory bike before is Paul Malin. The former GP motocrosser from Great Britain switched to a career in the media, including MotoX Magazine, after retiring from racing, and he now mainly works as a commentator for the MXGP races. “I’ve just been on the bikes of Pauls Jonass and Jorge Prado, and you can definitely feel the difference. They have exactly the same engine setup, but they don’t handle the same. It’s to do with the rear gear wheel, because Jorge uses one tooth less. This gives his dirtbike more punch, a slightly sharper response in third gear”, explains the winner of the MX of Nations in 1994 in more detail. Although Malin has definitely been there and done it, he still always considers it a privilege to be able to ride these types of bikes. “You won’t find better motocross bikes than these, this is the highest level. And each one has its own distinctive feel. Although the bikes are fundamentally the same, they handle completely differently. That’s because each rider has a setup to suit their personal style. It’s about combining all the little details in the right way to produce the right package.”
Another veteran in the world of offroad journalism is Toine van Dijk, who has tried out numerous factory bikes over the years. “But it’s still a very special feeling every time”, according to the test ride editor of the Dutch Noppennieuws. “I’ve been doing this work now for 23 years, but I still get a thrill every time I ride these types of machines. And this year is particularly special for me as a Dutchman, with Jeffrey winning the world championship. I missed out on a chance to test Herlings’ MXGP motocross bike last year, so I was even more excited about getting to see his machine this year.” Van Dijk was also surprised by the noticeable differences between the factory bikes of KTM. Each of the three MXGP motocross bikes he took out on the circuit had a completely different feel. “The setup of Cairoli is of course adjusted to his size, like the lower back side. So, somebody of my size [Van Dijk is a good 1.94 m] is better suited to Herlings’ bike, because he’s tall as well. These personal preferences of the riders are what make each bike feel so different.”
With his many years of experience in the offroad world, Van Dijk is able to spot the improvements from one year to the next. “You really notice that with the production bikes. It always amazes me, how the engineers are able to achieve progression time and time again. You would think, after a while, that it would simply not be possible to make it any better. And yet they still manage to come up with a new model that takes your breath away. I think that is where KTM really shines. They get input from so many different perspectives, including the factory riders. So, they are able to just keep on getting better and better.”
After a long day on the Eurocircuit, it’s time to go back to the hotel and take a long shower to get rid of all the sand. Refreshed and redressed, the journalists enjoy an evening looking back over the day’s events. During the farewell dinner, there is a lively exchange of stories all around the table. The permanent smile on the suntanned face of Christoph Bertrand shows he also enjoyed getting on the KTM factory bikes today. And naturally, just like all the other journalists, he had his own favorite dirtbike. “It was the last bike I rode today, Jorge Prado’s bike. For me, that was the only machine that was reasonably suitable for an amateur rider. The suspension was a bit softer and I felt more comfortable with that. I could have a lot of fun on that bike”, admits the former GP rider and writer for mxmag.be. “If you put Herlings’ bike in my garage, then I would probably just leave it there. It’s such a beast, you’d have to be a rodeo rider to control that dirtbike. If you’re not in top physical condition, then don’t even think about getting on it. That’s what makes it so great to be given a unique opportunity to ride the factory bikes of a factory team. Just a few minutes hanging on to the handlebars of these GP bikes is totally exhausting. Never mind for half an hour at full throttle. Any respect you had for these boys before only gets bigger once you’ve had a chance to ride their bikes. That’s when you realize how good you have to be to make these dirtbikes go that fast.”
Photos: Ray Archer | Jarno van Osch/Shot Up Productions