2015 KTM Freeride 250 R

POACHED!

Words: Mark “Cabin” Leishman | Photos: Alick Saunders Photography

Ever wanted to ride a moto on Rotorua’s pristine mountain bike trails? Well, we did, on KTM’s Freeride 250 R – and, yeah, it was just as much fun as you could imagine!

Long twisting ribbons of endless manicured single track. Flowing berms weaving their way through native forest linking rollers, table tops and hip jumps… any dirt bike rider who has ventured onto New Zealand’s ever developing network of mountain bike trails will understand the temptation this forbidden fruit provides.

Can you imagine being the guy who was allowed to ride a dirt bike on these tracks?

Well, I am that guy – but, please, don’t hate me.
Yes, I am the one who is fortunate enough to have legitmate reasons to ride the trails on my dirt bike, even if it’s only on very occassions. Although, with the chance to do so comes some responsibility, and a need to use the most appropriate tools for the job – enter the KTM Freeride 250.

WHY ME?

Wind back the clock 20 years and you’ll find a 15 year-old version of myself riding moto with my beighbour, who happened to be a young man by the name of Paul Whibley, one of New Zealand’s most successful dirt bike riders. But, really, saying I rode with Paul would be somewhat misleading. To be more accurate, I rode in the presence of Paul – more often than not, it saw me struggling to get up the slippery clay tracks to his playgrounds than actually riding with the same speed or skill.

Paul went on to become, well, Paul Whibley. I, however, got an mountain bike, started racing, and did okay. I enjoyed some success, internationally, as an cross country mountain

bike racer, and XTERRA (off-road) triathlon. I built a career based on consistency and reliability, from not taking risks, being sensible and, yes, okay… by being boring.

But with that has come a few benefits. Now pretty much retired, I like to help where I can. And being based in Rotorua, I now have one of the most envied jobs amongst my peers: course clearance and Lead Moto for two mountain bike events companies, Nduro and 2W Gravity Enduro.

WHY THE FREERIDE?

The demands of course setting, clearance and safety on a moto create some interesting requirements. The race courses for a mountain bike event are usually wide and varied in their makeup: tight and technical single track, with big hills, all tied together with fast open 4WD and forestry metal roads.

On the one hand, you need a bike that will create minimal impact to both the trails and other forestry users. Years of lobbying and goodwill for trail access could be thrown out the window in a moment of carelessness. So, naturally, a trials bike would be perfect, which is why such bikes are used for World Cup XC events. Except that, sometimes, course marking is not where it should be (or missing entirely) and the ability to get around quickly is important to rectify situations, which is why an enduro or motocross bike is a better option. Most of the time, I am happy on my trusty KTM 125 SX, which is a fun and capable machine.
But it is far from ideal for this task.
See, it demands some pretty serious self-restraint to control to ensure no acceleration induced damage to the trails. Also, a two-stroke motocross bike doesn’t really like extended periods of low rev trundling through trails. To avoid fouling plugs, a bit of a squirt to clear the throat on open forestry roads becomes almost a necessity, but the noise is guaranteed to raise someone’s blood pressure and generate complaints.
One of my favourite tasks is to course sweep for the 2W Gravity Endur, which is the mountain bike equivilant of motorcycle enduro, seeing riders completing six special stages of demanding trails all timed to the split second.
As February’s edition crept closer, rumours ran rife this would be the most demanding yet. The event organiser wanted to double check that I could get down all the legal trails in the forest on my Moto.
Hmm…
There is some pretty gnarly stuff, for sure, and pushing my 125 didn’t sound appealing.

Putting my thinking cap on and the Freeride seemed an ideal choice. After all, with trials tyres, plush suspension, low seat height on a well balanced machine that has a very capable yet user friendly power plant – what’s not to like?
Would it really measure up?
These opportunities to course sweep provide a very unique testing environment to see just how well the claims measure up, so I was about to find out.

PUTTING IT TO THE TEST

It was 7:30 in the morning when I headed into the forest to sweep the course. It is always a calm and peaceful time that can be a little too relaxing.
Dropping into Taniwha, a National Downhill track, I was immediately forced to wake up. It’s a trail jammed full of ruts, steep chutes, and small drop-offs into corners. After a sustained dry spell, it was also deep in loam and powdery dust. Dropping into a tight left hander, I was promptly slapped in the face with a reminder of the major difference between mountain bikes and motorcycles: weight.
Also: momentum.

What would have been a mildly amusing stall on my mountain bike, instead became a “lose the front and slide off the trail and down a bank” moment instead. On a positive note, the excellent front headlight on the KTM that shining into nearby trees quickly alerted me to its resting location. Sure, maybe that’s not the intended function of the headlight, but it is appreciated all the same.

A few quick recalibrations of my perceptions and I was on my way again. First impressions were proving to be correct as I allowed myself to get properly acquainted with the bike. It is very balanced and centred, with an incredibly nimble feeling. Simply put, I didn’t feel it needed too much in the way of body English to direct it where I wanted it to go. Instead, I could select what looked like the best line and finesse the bike to where I needed it to go. The brakes were strong, but predictable and progressive. The gear selection definite and the clutch action light, too.

Whilst my number one priorities are always focusing on the track, its markings and carefully avoiding trail damage, the Freeride was very quickly changing my perception of the task from “work” to being a fun enjoyable trail ride. In fact, I may possibly have double-checked a few of the trails, you know, just to be sure…

KATAORE

However, the serious test was still to come, and one I was a little nervous about.
Why?
Because it is on Kataore.
It was the very presence of this trail in the event that prompted me to seek out the Freeride, ‘cause it is a very famous and super tricky trail in the forest that challenges even the best.
From the highpoint of the forest, it traverses beautiful native forest before plunging more than 300 vertical metres down to Blue Lake, all in less than 2km. With that, it is also steep, off camber, full of roots and tight 90 degree turns down seemingly near vertical chutes. It is difficuly on a nimble bicycle wieghing 12kg, so you can imagine how it would be on a motorcycle weight almost ten times that.

Now, I’m no Chris Birch (who was actually racing the event, finishing with a very respectable top 25 placing), but I am a competent intermediate rider, at best. I would have got my 125 down, but I would have been off and bull-dogging the bike frequently.
So, what about on the Freeride?

I dabbed four, maybe five times, but that was it.
Birchy may well have cleaned it with his feet up, but I was stoked, nonetheless. At no point did the size and bulk – or lack thereof – feel over powering. It was quite the opposite, with the bike being confidence inspiring. If I had less respect for the trails, I would have turned around and tried to ride back up. Instead, I quickly shot back up the access road so I could ride again. After all, you never know when a direction arrow may have fallen off a tree…

THE REAL PROOF

Perhaps the ultimate proof of the Freeride’s user-friendly usability came in a photoshoot we did in the days following the event. By then, we had developed couple of issues with this particular bike. Firstly, a battery that no longer wanted to hold charge, so would require crash starting. This is not a huge deal, but remember we were special guests on an MTB trail, where we needed to absolutely minimise trail impact. In a low speed photoshoot, where you repeatedly ride the same trail, we needed to avoid stalling the bike.

That’s when the next problem arose.
During a carefully made a 180-degree turn, the hydraulic Formula clutch lever suddenly came to the handlebar. The joint between clutch hose and master cylinder having failed without warning as Dot4 splashed down the plastics. So, there we were, with no starter and no clutch on a tricky narrow and rooty singletrack through native forest requiring multiple turn arounds and ride pasts.
The shoot was over, right?
Wrong.
In an earlier test, the fellas at DRD said that “with the trials-like ability of the two-stroke powerplant meaning you can trickle along at walking pace,” which is why I thought I’d give it a shot.
I found that, yes, you really can.
No, I mean you really can, even on a root infested trail, dodging and turning around trees, in the undergrowth – all while barely leaving a mark.
That powerplant, coupled with an incredibly centred and balanced feeling, slender frame and tight turning radius meant a situation that could have been a nightmare became almost enjoyable.
It does what it says, and it says what it does, just another reason I need to figure out how to add a Freeride to the fleet on a more permanent basis.

KTM Freeride 250 R

Price: $12,499

Engine

Design: 249cc single-cylinder, two-stroke engine
Bore x stroke: 66.4mm x 72mm
Starting: Electric starter
Transmission: 6 gear, claw shifted
Engine lubrication: Mixture oil lubrication (1:80)
Cooling: Liquid cooling system
Clutch: Wet multi-disc clutch CSS / Formula Hydraulik

Chassis

Frame: Perimeter steel-aluminium composite frame
Fork: WP Suspension 4357 MXMA with 250mm of travel
Shock: WP Suspension 4618 PDS DCC with 280mm of travel.
Front brake: 260mm disc brake with radially mounted four-piston brake caliper
Rear brake: 210mm disc brake with radially mounted dual-piston brake caliper

DIMENSIONS

Wheelbase: 1,418mm
Ground clearance (unloaded): 380mm
Seat height (unloaded): 915mm
Total fuel tank capacity: 7L
Weight without fuel: 92.5 kg