Photography by Jeff Allen
It is my belief that this highly tuned factory 2012 KX450F has helped re-elevate Ryan Villopoto to the high expectations set by his previous Lites-class dominance. His performance during the final rounds of the 2011 AMA Motocross Championships and his Monster Energy Cup $1 million sweep showed the speed that had so impressed the world during the 2007 Motocross of Nations.
We are once again seeing that Ryan Villopoto, the one who races with confidence and determination matched with a smooth and accurate style.
Seeing that transformation convinced me that I needed to sample what could only be described as the coolest motocross bike in the world. So we spent some one-on-one time at Southern California’s Pala Raceway with Villopoto’s mechanic, Mike Williamson, and the winning machine.
The biggest improvement brought by the new KX-F was its redone chassis. Villopoto switched to the 2012 model at Unadilla, round 9 of 12. Prior to that, Williamson explained, a harshness problem was beating Villopoto up. “The old bike was really rigid for him,” he said. “And about the 20-25 minute mark, it would just wear him out. When we switched to the 2012, it seemed to [soak] up a lot of the small chop and it was more forgiving.”
Even looking at the bike up close, it’s hard to decipher what is a factory race item and what isn’t, but Williamson says more than 50 percent of the bike is stock. “We have to stick to the rules. Basically, we take a lot of stock parts and modify them. We replace the triple-clamps and the [shock] link. All the hardware is titanium, and we use works hubs.”
The factory suspension is something you can’t buy; same goes for the handmade footpegs and brake pedal. Kawasaki Japan supplies the transmission and will build custom parts or even supply drawings, depending on the team’s request. With magnesium, titanium and unobtainium parts, the bike drops roughly 10 pounds from stock, so figure 229 lb.—nowhere close to the minimum weight set in the AMA rulebook.
The first thing I noted when throwing a leg over Villopoto’s bike is the low seat height, a result of the modified subframe and altered shock linkage.
Kick-starting the bike is like starting a KLX110—seriously, a kid could start it. The action of the kick lever is ultra-smooth with little feeling of compression. Williamson acted surprised when I asked him about it: “Smooth? It could be the cam setup, just deburring everything, good oil [Maxima]. It could also be the decompression system compared to stock; it is a little bit softer, so that is probably what you’re feeling.” Whatever it is, it’s nice.
We tested the bike exactly as Villopoto rode it, and because I’m taller than he is, the riding position was a little awkward for me. Most annoying was the seat bump the 5-foot-8 rider uses to keep his weight forward on starts. It’s right where I wanted to sit. The handlebar is also tilted back and set low.
But forget about the ergonomics. On the track, this bike is amazing, the best I have ever ridden.
Everything is smoother than stock, which makes it easy to ride fast. Take the engine: Even with tall first and second gears, the engine just pulls where the stock engine would bog. There is absolutely no hesitation—it’s always putting out power. And the power is not abrupt, but soooo smooth.
In fact, exiting corners during my early laps reminded me of the first time I rode a four-stroke moto bike. Like, “Dang, this thing is sweet. It just hooks up!” The race motor makes other four-strokes feel peaky and spin-prone like a two-stroke. It makes any stock 450 feel like a turd.
After the power untangled my arms from the cramped handlebar position, I realized just how great this bike turns. I appreciated the lower seat height, as it helped to get the bike turned quickly, like a mini-bike that you can whip through a corner. It’s also super easy to correct for errors. You can almost be crashed— falling over falling over falling over—and the bike pulls out of it. It is almost indescribable.
The factory suspension is doing the job here. The bike feels so stable and firm yet never harsh, not even when coming up short on jumps. The chassis was almost always level, not diving during braking or squatting under acceleration. It has shown me a new level of predictability.
The roller whoops gave the best indication of how good the suspension really is: The KX just skims across the tops of the whoops, like, wow! If I dropped a wheel in or even the whole bike, it wouldn’t bottom harshly; it would just come out and stay straight, keeping on with its business.
I used to think some other bikes were perfect. No, all other bikes suck. Villopoto’s KX450F made me feel more comfortable than any other bike I’ve ever ridden.
And I’ve ridden some pretty well-done bikes before, but this one is at a different level. It doesn’t give the impression that you are riding fast, when, in fact, you are. Villopoto has proven it.