Size matters.

The Potsdam Giants were unusually tall soldiers employed by Frederick the Great during the Austro Prussian war. Nicknamed lange keris [long men] by the local population, the Potsdam Giants, if they still existed, might be the kind of target customer KTM had in mind when they created the Enduro 690 – rugged men of action with extremely long legs in a readily accessible sales territory.

According to statistics I’m an inch taller than the average UK male, exactly the same height as the average Austrian bloke and just an inch shorter than yer average German but I still can’t touch the ground on KTM’s mid-sized trail bike. And when I say I can’t touch the ground I really mean it. Sat on the saddle the tips of my size 10 trials boots dangle helplessly in mid air as if I’m astride one of those pantomime ostrich costumes.

Now then, having done my research into the average height of European males I discovered a man’s inside leg measurement usually equates to 45% of his overall height. I’ll ‘fess up at this point and admit my inside leg is closer to 40% , proportionally shorter than most but still long enough to cock a leg over just about any road bike and the majority of off road machines.The KTM’s seat is a full English yard above terra firma yet the typical German male, statistically one of Europe’s tallest races, has an average inside leg measurement of just 32”. Do the math, as they say.

KTM jump big

There’s no way this geezer can get his feet on the ground on that thing

So, if it isn’t the Potsdam Giants, just who are KTM aiming the bike at? The Enduro I refer to belongs to my chum Rich who bought it new a couple of weeks ago. He’s a man with a keen eye for the aesthetic, an experienced road rider and is an outdoors enthusiast who wants to get into trail riding. With those credentials and at six feet tall he might just fit the profile of the ideal KTM 690 customer but even Rich can only just touch the floor when sat on his new bike. He tells me he will be buying a lowering kit for it. It’s a route a lot of riders go down nowadays and it begs the question why are manufacturers releasing bikes onto the market which need to be fundamentally altered to make them ridable by normal folk? Surely it would be more sensible to produce lower bikes by default and offer kits to raise the seat height should owners feel it necessary. I’d lay money there would be fewer owners raising the ride height of their bike than are currently having them lowered.

Rich Mountain Rd

Tall, dark and handsome and the KTM’s not bad looking either. As you can see Rich ain’t no midget and yet he’s already looking for a lowering kit for his 690.

KTM are by no means the only manufacturer guilty of making bikes which are too tall for the average person. Most big manufacturers offer bikes for road as well as off-road use which feature unfeasibly high saddles. BMW started it with the G/S which was/is too tall for the average bod . And if you thought the production G/S was a bit lofty, consider this: in their final incarnation, BMW’s Paris Dakar race bikes had an auxiliary tank under the seat raising the saddle height to almost 40”.

Spare a thought for diminutive Belgian works rider Gaston Rahier having to muscle his vertiginous Beemer across the desert. Rahier was just 5’2” tall and his starting technique on the big G/S was to stand by the side of the bike, pop it in gear and take off whilst simultaneously standing on the left pot and cocking his right leg over the saddle. If you’ve ever seen old cowboy films depicting pony express riders setting off you’ll get the picture. Fortunately with 60 litres of gas on board Rahier didn’t have to stop very often but when he did, the Belgian dwarf as he was unkindly known, would make a beeline for the service vehicle and stop with his bike’s handlebars resting against the truck. It’s a choice not open to most trail riders. Modern production GS’s wisely offer lowered suspension and low seat options.

BMW PD team

Gaston Rahier [centre] with BMW team mates. As you can see , the G/S is a little bit big for him. Respect to Rahier for grappling with that monster. Paris Dakar riders from that era were a very special breed

So why are modern dirt bikes so tall? Well, boxer motors aside, most modern dirt bikes are four stroke singles with relatively tall engine architecture. The current obsession with unnecessarily high ground clearances means engines are mounted high in the frame and the camshafts and throttle bodies occupy space traditionally taken up by the fuel tank. Certain manufacturers including KTM get around this by fitting ludicrously small fuel tanks amply demonstrated by their current 350 Freeride with its lamentable 5.5 litre fuel capacity. If I was being unkind I’d also say a small tank helps keep the quoted wet weight down. Now how did a trail bike with a such a meagre range ever make it past a design committee and into production? That said, plenty of riders find the tank range can be tolerated because the Freeride is such a sharp , competent bike. A lot depends where you want to ride such a bike, here in the Marches fuel stations are so far and few between a small tank really hobbles a trail bikes ability to strike out into the hinterland.

If there’s no space for a decent sized tank the next best option is to carry the fuel under the seat . It’s not a new idea, Honda did it with the Goldwing years ago. Stowing fuel under the saddle is tempting for manufacturers and makes a lot of sense from a packaging point of view. It helps centralise mass, which is usually a Good Thing. KTM  decided to go for an under the seat fuel tank on the 690 and therein lies the problem. They’ve produced a great trail bike with a reasonable range but unfortunately the location of the tank has raised the seat to such an extent you need to be a lange keris to ride it. It’s a great shame because it spoils what could be one of the truly great dual purpose bikes. It’s fast, grunty and light , beautifully made and not too expensive. If it wasn’t so damn tall I’d buy one myself. As it is, I’ll stick with my old 640 Adventure [complete with lowered suspension] until KTM et al wake up and start building bikes for normal people.

Rich Shelderton

KTM are ploughing a lonely furrow offering bikes only fit for giants

Ride Smart. The art of adventure riding

Brooding skies

CCM, GS and a Triumph somewhere in Shropshire. Don’t forget your brolly.

Post a thread on any internet adventure bike forum inquiring about the off road capabilities of big trail bikes and you are guaranteed to arouse passionate responses. Dare to question the effectiveness of an 1190 Adventure or a GSA 1200 on technical off-road trails and you’re likely to attract responses ranging from a polite but firm rebuttal from BMW GS enthusiasts to poison pen letters and death threats from the online KTM community. OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, not all KTM riders are psychotic but you get the picture, it’s a sensitive subject . The issues surrounding the off-road performance of adventure bikes bikes stem from too much power, too much weight and not enough grip for the job in hand. This shouldn’t deter you from taking your big bike off road, but if you understand the limitations you can plan days out on your bike which play to its strengths rather than amplify its weaknesses.

Dab.jpg

This, believe it or not is a puddle on a trail 1000′ above sea level. Trail riding can be unpredictable…

For those unfamiliar with trail riding allow me to share one or two observations about riding the green lanes you are likely to encounter in the UK. Our unsurfaced roads [ the technical definition of a green lane] are often narrow and rutted and can become waterlogged, which is the reason they become rutted in the first place. These ancient rights of way have often been in use for centuries and sometimes sit well below the level of surrounding fields because the passage of traffic over time has actually worn a deep groove in the countryside. This encourages water to collect. There are lanes close to where I live which never completely dry out and are tricky to navigate on a big bike even in the middle of summer.

The problem is, you won’t find this information on any OS map or your GPS, you have to ride the trail to find out and there’s the rub – half a mile down a narrow track you might suddenly find yourself in a deep muddy rut struggling to find traction . On a typical 110kg trail bike you can simply dismount at this stage, lift the back wheel out of the rut and then do the same with the front and continue on your way. If you’re riding a 200+kg adventure bike you now have a pretty serious problem on your hands, especially if you decide the route is impassable and you need to turn back.

Strata

Bad enough on a 90kg trail bike, on a big adventure bike you would now have your work cut out  . This was taken on Strata Florida in Wales.

Of course we also have access to hard packed trails and forest fire roads in the UK and these aren’t such a problem on an adventure bike, but be aware it’s not possible to do these easy routes in isolation and sooner or later you’re going to come across mud , soft ground and some tight technical trails. This is why taking a big bike off road needs careful thought and planning.

The trick is to avoid getting into a difficult situation in the first place. For instance, if you sense a trail is becoming narrower or getting too muddy stop immediately and go and inspect on foot . If you don’t like what you see don’t be afraid to turn round and find an alternative route. I can’t stress how important this is on a big bike, it might seem a bit feeble, especially if your leading a group but it can save a lot of potential heartache. Getting bogged down in deep mud and unable to go forwards or backwards is a frustrating and exhausting experience.

A pal of mine was out trail riding recently and stopped when he saw something sticking out off a particularly deep muddy bomb hole on a trail. On closer inspection he realised the object was a Land Rover’s roof. Try to picture the consequences of simply ploughing into a similar rut on a big GS hoping it will all sort itself out.

Trail riding can involve a lot of manhandling of the bike. For instance, pulling up to a gate on a steeply rutted lane and stopping the bike often means getting off and having to drag the back wheel around until you find a suitable place to deploy the sidestand. Again, not an issue on a lightweight trail bike but on a heavy adventure bike this type of thing can become very tiring so keep your eyes on the trail and plan well ahead, look where the best grip will be for a restart will be and where you can park the bike and dismount easily. It can be a lot less stressful to stop well short of a gate at a suitable spot and walk the last few yards to open it. When you restart the bike this will usually give you a nice clean getaway instead of having to struggle in the mud and ruts created by all the other vehicles who drove as close as they could to the gate before stopping. Always seek out opportunities to save energy, you don’t know when you might need it. Once fatigue sets in it the possibility of falling off big heavy bikes increases dramatically.

Lands end Bishops wood 1

Once fatigue sets in the chances of falling off a big bike increase dramatically! This is yours truly on the Land’s End Trial a few years ago, my first attempt at tackling serious off- road stuff on an adventure bike.

If you find yourself on a tricky section of steep trail with lots of rock and mud and you’re wondering where to find grip a good tip is to follow the route of any  water flowing down the lane. Water will usually wash away any mud and I find if I need to make a quick decision on which route to take through a hazard there’s usually grip to be found beneath flowing water. On technical trails pick up momentum when you can get traction and then allow the bike to roll along on a neutral throttle over sections where the grip will be compromised. It’s all just common sense really but riding smart can make the difference between having a chilled and enjoyable day or a brutal, unsatisfying slog.

At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, planning routes is very important, much more so than if you were on a small bike. I’ll happily set off on my own on one of the Adventure Ride Pamperas and go and busk it, exploring new routes and going wherever my fancy takes me but I never do this on the KTM 640. I’ll speak to other trail riders and ask them what lanes they think are suitable for big bikes. If you can see from the contour lines there will be a steep ascent, think about planning your route to tackle this lane in reverse so it becomes a descent. If I’m planning a big bike day I’ll look stuff up about the route on the web and ask questions on forums. Forewarned is forearmed.

Descent

Descending can be easier than climbing. This is JP, one of BMW’s off-road instructors making it look easy on a Triumph XC. There is no way this bike would have gone up this slope. Take into account the gradients when planning your route. [photo courtesy of Bike magazine and photographer Chippy Wood]


Don’t be tempted to simply pick out a few Byways on an OS map and head off into the wild blue yonder. Gather as much intel as you can, believe me it will pay dividends.
Before setting out make sure your bike has decent lifting handles and if it doesn’t, fit a lifting strap to the rear of the bike. When possible, leave your adventure style panniers at home, they’ll catch and snag on ruts lifting the rear and losing grip. Do everything possible to minimise getting stranded with a puncture. Pushing a big adventure bike with a flat tyre off a remote trail to the nearest garage will definitely spoil your day. Make sure you know how to remove both wheels and have the tools with you to do so. If you’re serious about going off road and haven’t yet changed a tube on your bike practice in the comfort of your garage. Far better to learn how to deal with a puncture listening to Radio 4 with a cuppa to hand than out in the Brecons with the rain lashing down your neck and dusk approaching. Carry a spare tube [or a tubeless repair kit]. Don’t rely on Co2 cannisters or a tyre repair cannister. By all means take some but for goodness sake carry a mountain bike pump as back up. Treat the tubes with a sealant such as OKO.

I would also strongly advise you don’t ride alone, trail riding isn’t a dangerous activity but in my experience it can be unpredictable. I’ve seen people break bones after an innocuous- looking fall and this would be very bad news if you were riding solo.
Drop the tyre pressures, I find 15psi each end works well on my KTM, don’t be tempted to go too low – unless you’ve got security bolts fitted the power of a big bike can spin the wheel in the tyre and tear the valve out. And don’t forget to put some air back in for the journey home. Ride smart and arrive home in one piece.

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Photo courtesy Bike magazine and Chippy Wood