Here’s What It’s Like to Ride a KTM 450 Rally Bike
We test the latest KTM 450 Rally Race Bikes on a Dakar-style rally course.
No manufacturer in the history of the Dakar Rally has dominated quite like KTM. With the completion of Dakar 2016, KTM has now kept their winning streak alive for an astonishing 15 years. Not only did they win again this year, but KTM riders secured five of the the top 10 positions.
Over the years, rule changes in the Dakar Rally have been put in place to increase competition and make it less of a one-manufacturer race but KTM continues to find ways to win. Talented riders like Marc Coma, Cyril Despres and Toby Price have had a lot to do with that success, but one thing all three champions have in common is that they won it on the KTM 450 Rally.
Last month we were invited to the US Dakar Media Event, where I got the opportunity to test ride both the first and second generation designs of the KTM 450 Rally in the deserts of Southern California. A full day of rally training and testing allowed me to feel what it’s like to ride a proper rally bike. The experience also gave me a first-hand perspective on how the KTM 450 Rally has evolved over the years.
First Generation KTM 450 Rally (2011-2014)
When Dakar Rally organizers changed the rules in 2011, limiting the displacement to 450cc, KTM had little time to develop a new race bike. To meet the new rules, KTM took their current championship-winning 690 Rally chassis and swapped the engine for a 450cc from their motocross line. The first generation KTM 450 Rally runs on a carbureted 450cc twin-cam engine that produces roughly 70 hp. Power is transferred to the ground via a 5-speed transmission and the bike has a fuel capacity of 9.5 gallons (36 liters).
The KTM 450 Rally uses a steel trellis frame similar to the KTM 690 Enduro R and like the 690 Enduro no rear subframe exists, just a heavily-built rear tank that can support the weight of fuel and rider.
Bumps are handled with 11.8 inches (300mm) of suspension travel in front and 12.2 inches (310mm) in the rear, which gives it a very tall 38.6-inch (98cm) seat height. A beefy linkage-type swingarm provides a long wheelbase for extra stability at speeds as high as 110 mph.
Everything on the bike is reinforced and overbuilt to allow it to withstand the abuse of a 5,500 mile off-road race. All this equipment results in a dry weight of 320 pounds (145 kg) and when fully fueled, the bike weighs roughly 385 pounds (175 kg). For perspective, that’s 50 pounds (23 kg) heavier than a KTM 690 Enduro R and 150 pounds (68 kg) more than a KTM 450 SX-F motocross bike.
Updates for the 2015 KTM 450 Rally
For 2015, KTM completely revamped their 450 Rally and designed it from the ground up to work with a smaller 450cc engine. When the Dakar Rally moved to South America, the terrain became tighter and more technical than the wide-open spaces of Africa. This led KTM engineers to focus on more nimble handling rather than high-speed stability. The new bike is lighter, narrower and has a shorter wheelbase and lower center of gravity than its predecessor.
One of the most noticeable changes is the beautiful carbon-fiber navigation tower that helps reduce weight up top and offers more durability in a crash for the vulnerable navigation equipment. A new clear plastic windscreen also improves visibility in slow-speed technical sections, allowing riders to see what’s directly in front of them more clearly.
The second-generation KTM 450 Rally engine receives fuel-injection and utilizes a single cam instead of twin cams. The engine produces roughly 68 horsepower and is mated to a 6-speed transmission. A more-efficient engine allows the bike’s fuel capacity to be reduced to just 8.7 gallons (33 liters), which results in a weight of roughly 365 pounds (166 kg) when fully fueled.
Riding the First Gen KTM 450 Rally
After receiving some brief instructions on how to use navigation equipment on a Rally Bike, it was time to gear up. Journalists would navigate an authentic rally course, each accompanied by an experienced Rally Racer that would assist us if we got lost or confused. I was lucky enough to get paired with the highest placing American to ever race the Dakar Rally, Danny Laporte, who finished second in the 1992 Dakar Rally.
My ride on the rally course is a 2014 KTM 450 Rally, the training bike of American Dakar Rally Racer Carroll Gittere. Immediately you notice how tall the bike is when you try to throw a leg over it and even at 6’2″ (1.88 meters), it takes some effort to mount. With a 34″ inseam, I can touch both feet on the ground comfortably but it makes me appreciate the skill required of 5’4″ (1.62 meters) Carroll Gittere to ride such a tall bike.
Another thing that takes some getting used to is all the navigation equipment that reduces visibility significantly. And leaning the bike from side-to-side it becomes clear this is no light-weight dirt bike.
Heading down the road, the suspension feels tight and firm like a race bike should. Through a long set of whoops, I slowly increase my speed and the bike remains rock solid and arrow straight. I continue accelerating faster through the whoops, but the 450 Rally maintains complete composure and the suspension never feels like it is getting close to bottoming out.
Transitioning from turn to turn, the Rally Navigation equipment is a lot lighter than it looks. Even with the top-heavy equipment, it can be flicked around rather easily. The bike tracks through sandy turns like it’s on rails and everything feels balanced, stable and precise.
A long straight dirt road is my first opportunity to open up the bike and see what it can do. If you are used to riding 100+ horsepower adventure bikes, the power won’t impress. But it’s much faster than you would expect a 450cc to be and at least as fast as a KTM 690 Enduro R. Pushing 5th gear, the bike seems like it’s ready to shift. But there’s a lot more power on tap in the high-revving 450cc. At high speed, the bike feels extremely stable and planted to the ground, and it tempts you to keep twisting the throttle further.
After riding the KTM 450 Rally for several hours on many different types of terrain, we end up riding through a sandy wash where there are two large boulders that create a tight squeeze. Confident this is the route the organizers intended us to take, I assume the bike can handle it. Bracing myself as I shoot the gap, I expect a large thunk on the over-sized skidplate. But the high ground clearance allows the bike to clear the rocks with room to spare.
Later on the course, I make a navigation mistake and end up taking a wrong turn on a steep rocky hill climb we were never intended to go. Off to the left is a sharp drop off and as I climb, the trail begins to fade away as if it hasn’t been ridden in years. Big rocks in the trail jostle the suspension but the 450 Rally maintains its forward progress. As the incline gets steeper, it’s time for a downshift yet I am too focused on counter balancing to get my foot in position. I’m expecting a stall from bogging the bike, but the 450cc motor shows off it’s low-end grunt and lugs its way to the top of the hill.
High on the mountain top, it becomes clear this is a dead end with nothing but sheer cliffs between me and the next waypoint. Danny Laporte arrives shortly after to confirm my suspicion that we are on the wrong path. Heading back down the hill, it becomes clear I’m not the only one that made the mistake as I see several other journalists struggling to make it up the rocky path. But oh what a fun mistake it was!
Trail Testing 2015 KTM 450 Rally
Back at camp, it’s time to swap bikes and test out the latest iteration of the KTM 450 Rally. I ride the 2015 model for several miles over sandy single track, whoops and long straight dirt roads. The difference in handling between the two bikes is quite dramatic.
The flickability and fast handling of the second generation 450 Rally is incredible on slower technical terrain and the bike feels much more like a 450 Enduro Bike. It’s easier to manhandle through technical terrain and it reacts instantly to rider input. Accelerating up to speed on a long straight, the bike doesn’t feel quite as powerful as the carbureted twin-cam motor of the first generation bike. At high speeds, it also feels more twitchy and requires more of your concentration.
Which KTM 450 Rally Is Better?
Both bikes were amazing to ride and it’s hard to choose between the two. It really comes down to riding style and usage. In a race on technical terrain like the South American Dakar Rally, the lighter and more nimble 2015 KTM 450 Rally is clearly a better choice. The first generation bike was designed for the deserts of Africa and its poise and stability on wide-open terrain is extraordinary. It is also more versatile on different types of terrain and would make a fantastic Adventure Bike.
KTM builds only a small batch of 450 Rally Bikes each year and they cost roughly $35,000 new. New bikes are made available to only a select few race teams. If you can find a used KTM 450 Rally for sale, expect to pay somewhere around $20,000. Start saving your pennies!