The KTM 500 EXC: Why You Want A Road-Legal Dirt Bike

I’m going to lay it down quick and simple for you. The Japanese manufacturers do not make excellent dual sport bikes. The WR250R and DRZ400 are both good dual sport bikes, but I have yet to see an owner (especially in the motovlog community, it seems) that hasn’t invested a fair amount of money into improving the power output, suspension, and handling characteristics of those bikes. As you mod, you sacrifice reliability, increasing horsepower means you’re harder on a generally rather small motor. Yes, your valves don’t have to be lashed until 20-40,000 km, but I’ve seen at least 3 people need to have their entire head rebuilt when it’s time to do a valve lash. Splain me that one, Japan. Some people are going to tell me this is all bullshit, and I don’t care, I’m going to tell you why you want a road legal dirtbike with the same engine, chassis, and suspension as the enduro bike parked next to it in the showroom.


1: Power, Torque, Surprising Durability (if you’re not racing)

KTM tells us that the 450 and 500 EXC (in north America we only get the 500 because reasons) are the cream of the open-class crop. And they are. Guys like Ned Seusse and Toby Price are racing these bikes at mind-numbing speeds across Baja and the Finke Desert Race in Australia, and these engines are the basis for the lust inducing, world-championship winning Dakar bikes for a reason. They’re really, really good. KTM’s been running the same (510.4cc) bore and stroke configuration in the 5xx engines for a long time, so they know what they’re doing with this displacement. The mechanically simpler SOHC head makes checking and adjusting valves easier than its 350 EXC cousin. While the single cam doesn’t allow the same WILD rpm, it doesn’t really need those revs. The only problem with the KTM 500 is that you need to be in the right gear. Fortunately, there are 3 right gears for any given situation. Many owners report that even with frequent checks, the valves on The Powerhouse rarely need adjustment if the lesser services (clean Motorex synthetics, new filter, and a clean air filter) are done at the recommended interval. And these guys are at or above 100 hours on those engines!

2 Sublime Chassis

No linkage? No problem. The 500 EXC has KTM’s linkage-less design, which has the rear PDS shock mounted directly to the swingarm. The advantage? No snagging on rocks, roots, logs or any other obstacles you may encounter. The suspension is set up from factory/PDI is pretty close to the mark, I tweaked around with mine for a bit and found a very, very sweet spot. The suspension DOES take time to break in, with some riders reporting up to 25 hours of ride time before the shock and forks are settled in, fortunately for me, I’m obsessed enough with this bike that it won’t be long at all until that’s settled. KTM has also addressed traction and feedback/front end feel issues by increasing the rake to 26 degrees this year, and introducing a smaller 22mm front axle that was introduced on the MX range in 2015. The only downside, is that neither the aftermarket nor KTM has decided to alter their hub sizes to match just yet, instead giving a suggested part number for 2016 wheel spacers on factory wheels and hubs.


3 Speaking of Aftermarket

Everyone and their dog has parts to sell for these bikes, in a variety of price ranges to suit monsieur or madame’s taste. While the dealership network may not rival that of much larger Japanese manufacturers, the aftermarket gives those of us who bleed orange a fine chance to add orange billet things to our bikes. And KTM’s popularity in offroad racing of all sorts means there’s a lot of places to draw inspiration from when you decide to add a little protection or bling to your orange pony. The other benefit I’ve found is that KTM owners seem to be a fine collection of resourceful maniacs, with plenty of pro and amateur racers popping up on forums to impart wisdom, quell the unruly, and soothe the trolls.


4 This thing is FUCKING FUN.

Do you like being looked at like a crazy person in traffic? Do you like dusting cruiser dads at the lights? Do you like wheelieing past clip on turds from the 70’s with electrical tape X’s on the headlights? Prepare to bask in all the dirty looks from castrated soccer dads and bathe in all the slow bike tears. These bikes get up and GO like an open class dirtbike ought to, the chassis is flickable, the brakes work fantastically (and of course there’s room to upgrade because, well, KTM has factory teams and supermoto teams). So burn through town, take your favourite secondary highway out to the trails, clock up a little freeway time and freak out some suburbanites in SUVs. This bike does everything. It does dirt best, and I can think of better ways to spend a day than racking up 600 miles of freeway on one, but Adam Reidman rode one 7000 km across Europe and the Middle East unassisted on one. And he just finished crossing the Mongolian desert on one. This bike has maximum adventure bike potential, tremendous offroad abilities, and works pretty dang well slicing and dicing morning traffic, then going to the MX track after work to put in some laps. Yes.


5. The Dual Sport thing

Yes officer, the bike is legal. See? On road registration, 17-digit VIN. Yup. It came like this from the factory. No problem, have a nice day.


So, you have a durable bike (that you have to do fairly quick, fairly easy maintenance on). It does all of the things pretty well. It does the dirt thing exceedingly well. It will not be impounded because you’re riding something dubiously plated or insured. It’s EPA and CARB legal. It goes like stink. It is beautiful and majestic, and gets you to places that’ll shrivel the reproductive equipment on most adventure bike riders. You get a fuckin’ race bike with lights, bud.

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