I can now, for the first time, come up with legitimate economic reasoning for riding a dirt bike. I finally got to attend a new bike media intro, and man, now I know the other side lives very well. These media test guys, they get the treatment! For three days, Yamaha wined and dined us, they put us into a sweet hotel inside the best downtown in the U.S., and, of course, they gave us bikes to ride and mechanics and parts to fix stuff when we broke them. Further, by being part of a media intro, we were given access to all the free gear and goggles we would need for a lifetime. But more on that in a second. First, let’s talk about how you get to go to one of these intros.
You have to be able to ride a motorcycle.
Somewhat decently. I mean, really, only somewhat. Yamaha sent Racer X an invite for its 2019 competition off-road intro in South Carolina, and I volunteered to go because I knew an off-road event on familiar turf would be my only chance ever at reaching the somewhat-decent riding level required to do a test. Also, I really liked the idea of going riding for two days and calling it “work.” And Yamaha’s GNCC crew would be there, and those guys are my buds. Hey, I’m the boss around here, so I voted for myself.
Oh yes, the bikes. Yamaha has an all-new YZ450FX for 2019, which is the off-road racing version of the YZ450F motocross bike. That motocrosser was redesigned last year and the improvements were well-received, so this new Blu Cru off-roader is highly anticipated. How much? Factory AmPro Yamaha’s main 450 GNCC racer Ricky Russell said he didn’t even want to ride a 2019 yet because he knows he can’t yet race one and doesn’t want to fall in love, only to have to jump back on his 2018!
(Meanwhile, Ricky waits in anticipation of all the aftermarket parts he needs to make the 2019 race-ready for three-hour pro GNCC events.)
What’s the difference between the motocross bike and the off-roader? Not that much, and that’s the real key. For too many years, the Japanese brands turned off-road bikes into trail bikes, and they were too heavy and too mild to be effective off-road race bikes. Usually, racers just took motocross bikes and converted them with some mild mods—and that’s what Yamaha is doing here. It launched the YZ250FX back in 2015, which was the YZ250F motocrosser with some engine and suspension changes for off-road, as well as an 18-inch rear wheel and other off-road details. Soon, a YZ250X two-stroke and YZ450FX four-stroke followed in the same vein. Oh, and by the way, KTM and Husqvarna offer similar off-road race style bikes, and they’re very popular at races like the GNCC Series. Obviously, Yamaha wants a bigger slice of that market. The Yamaha officials were very adamant that this 2019 450 is every bit as capable and up-to-date as its motocross brother.
The 450FX was the main star of this event, but if Yamaha is going to fly a bunch of moto-journalists from California to South Carolina, they might as well roll out the YZ250FX (four-stroke) and YZ250X (two-stroke) off-roaders for some testing as well. We would spend a day riding the 250s, then try the new 450 on day two.
I had no idea the level of support the brands roll out for these media intros. Yamaha did this one right, starting with giving myself and Racer X marketing man/video shooter Justin Hale separate rooms at the Hampton Inn on the waterfront in downtown Greenville, South Carolina. Separate rooms? Racer X never does something like that—heck, when I was actually covering the GNCCs, we were often running four people to a room, minimum. Just sayin’. Hale and I then met in the lobby to head to the Yamaha reception, where I ate piles of free appetizers and started stuffing beers into my backpack to sneak home in a few days (have I mentioned that I’m cheap?).
Then my old friend Jason Raines, a former GNCC star who now runs Yamaha’s demo program, handed me a new set of Scott goggles. Scott’s John Knowles was a little late in shipping me my own set, although I found it odd that Knowles even cared if I had new goggles at all. Like, seriously, I’m slow as hell on a bike—no one is going to buy goggles because of the strap I’m running.
Soon, the veteran riders of these media intros informed me that having fresh, 2019 product to wear is imperative at these events. They then started talking about the multiple brands and colorways they would be busting out over the next two days. Vital MX’s Michael Lindsey talked about doing full wardrobe changes halfway through an intro so he could display more than one colorway in photos and video.
I didn’t have any 2019 gear. In 2017, I went mountain biking wearing a GNCC cycling jersey from 2001 and posted a photo on Instagram. Our man Jason Thomas went ballistic and sent me a bunch of Fly stuff for dirt bikes and bicycles. This 2017 stuff still looked good! Nothing torn or ripped! I brought that to this intro, not knowing two-year-old gear is grounds for treason.
I did have one set of 2018 gear, courtesy of my buddy Randy Richardson, who grabbed Fly gear in the same color Justin Brayton used to win the Daytona Supercross, and then had a custom “El Cheapacabra” butt patch sewn onto the back. This was all supposed to be a joke, but at lease it was 2018 gear—I would have to use it on both riding days.
Meanwhile, the rest of the testers talked about piles and piles of boots, helmets, goggles, gear, gloves, and more they had back in their garages at home. Apparently, you tell a gear company you’re riding at a media intro and they pretty much stuff the whole warehouse into a UPS truck and send it to your house. Who knew?
I was worried about this, so I settled down for some comfort food. Yamaha was treating us to dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse! I still wonder about the ’s in the name and how someone named Ruth apparently owns someone named Chris. Our shooter Justin Hale, who is trying to save up for his wedding in December, was scared of blowing his budget on a $48 dollar steak, not aware Yamaha was paying for this! And the drinks! Then we got to go up to a rooftop bar and do more drinking on Yamaha’s tab! We were such rookies to this media intro experience!
The next morning, I ate breakfast at the Hampton Inn and then stuffed my backpack with more food for home in a few days. Then it was off to Randy Hawkins’ private riding facility about an hour away. A quick primer on Yamaha in South Carolina: Hawkins has a great riding spot at his house, a second great riding spot on this second piece of private land, and Raines also built a training facility nearby. This, folks, is GNCC country, and that’s why Yamaha brought us here. As if on cue, it started raining as we rolled up to the track on Wednesday morning. A little extra mud, mist, and slime on the trail made this feel as East Coast as it gets (later, the searing humidity would finish the job).
Hale and I stood around ready to put our (old) gear on until we noticed all the other media outlets dragging the bikes out from under the AmPro tent to get some cool photos. Oh, so that’s what you do at these things!
So we took photos and video… then noticed everyone else was still shooting, so we just kind of stood around holding cameras to make it look like we still had stuff to shoot. I mean, I put my camera on full auto, snapped a photo, and I was done. My “photoshoot” took about three seconds to complete. What was the delay?
Finally, I put my El Cheapacabra gear on—much to the delight of Randy Richardson himself, the man who got that butt patch made for me. Randy was attending the intro working for Keefer Testing Inc. Randy and I spent three days trying to decide if Keefer Testing is indeed its own separate company or perhaps part of the greater PulpMX banner. Randy then grabbed a Pulp sticker and put it on the bike just to freak Kris Keefer out. Hey, trust the process!
Finally, everyone else had put their fresh 2019 gear on and we were ready to ride. I was very, very aware that no one from the California moto media corps had ever seen me ride, so the pressure was on. I was sweating this for days—if I totally gooned out at this intro, I’d be running an El Chumpacabra butt patch for life.
Aha! But that’s why you step up and ride at the off-road intro! I knew I could start a bike, run it through the gears hard in front of everyone, then disappear into the woods. We would also need to shoot videos for the bike test, but hey, you can only go so fast in tight trees, so as long as you look like you somewhat know what you’re doing, it’s okay. The simple litmus test of badassery on a dirt bike is jumping jumps, and we didn’t have any at this event. I was safe in more ways than one.
The pressure ramped to its highest on Wednesday afternoon when I pulled the YZ250X two-stroke out for a ride. Electric start four-strokes have made us all lazy, and I had not kicked a two-stroke over in a few years. I would have to remember to actually give the bike gas as I kicked. As I swung a leg over the YZ, I noticed Transworld Motocross’ Donn Maeda off to the side. If I couldn’t get this bike started, he was going to witness it. This would be my one chance, ever, to prove I knew how to actually ride a dirt bike. I said a prayer, took a deep breath, and cranked that SOB to life on the first stab. I clicked it into gear and cruised through the field into the woods, a huge grin on my face. I passed the only test anyone on hand would ever witness.
This is good, because things didn’t go so well in the woods. About 15 minutes into the first day of riding, I slid on a tree root in a corner and careened right into a tree. Luckily, I have a lot of experience screwing up corners and crashing into trees, so I ejected at the right time and avoided injury. However, when I tried to remount the poor YZ250FX, I realize the left radiator shroud was sticking way, way out… because I had smashed the radiator on the tree. Okay! I broke this brand-new bike within 15 minutes of riding it!
The Actual Bike Test
Yes, now for the reason Yamaha brought us to the event: testing the bikes. Coming into the week, I didn’t think I even needed to ride the bikes to learn anything. Before I had even ridden them, I already I knew I would say the following in our post-ride video: “The four-stroke 250F was fun and easy to ride, the 250 two-stroke was way too much of a handful in the woods, and the 450 was way, way, way too much of a handful in the woods.”
At that point we would cut the camera so I could curse myself for sucking at riding and not being able to enjoy two of the three bikes at the event.
Well, guess what? It turns out there’s actually a reason why you test ride bikes. That is not at all the way things turned out. In fact, if I were to rank the three bikes, I’d actually go in complete reverse order. The 450 was my favorite, the two-stroke was second, the 250F was third. This makes no sense whatsoever.
One caveat here: I rode the 250F first when the trails were muddy. The trails were better later in the afternoon when I was on the two-stroke, and then “$48 steak at Ruth’s Chris”-good the next day when I rode the 450. Also, due to my desk-jockey life, I never get to ride two days in a row. It’s possible that riding on the second day was the first day in my life I wasn’t actually knocking some rust off—so maybe I just felt way better. I also missed half of my riding time on the 250FX when I smashed into that tree. I cruised back to the pits and the AmPro Yamaha mechanics sprung to life, and they had the radiator and shroud swapped out within ten minutes. Meanwhile, Yamaha R&D man Travis Preston, best known as the guy who beat James Stewart for the 2002 125 West Region Supercross Championship, stood back, saying “wow” about 50 times. Preston says in all of the testing on these bikes, no one had ever managed to break a radiator like that. Ever. Hey, TP, get me a job in Yamaha’s testing department! I’ll put a bike through its paces!
But that 450—wow. During the Yamaha technical briefing, they explained that the bike’s ergonomics and frame were designed to make the machine feel slimmer and nimbler than the previous-generation bikes. They also talked about refining the YZ450F motocross powerplant into something more off-road oriented with mapping changes and a wide-ratio gearbox. I knew those changes would help make the big 450 feel lighter and more manageable, but only within reason. Well, I was wrong. This bike was much, much easier to ride than I had imagined—and indeed, it felt better than the 250F.
First, the redone ergos and chassis are sweet. The bike doesn’t feel big at all. Second, that 450 tractor power really helps when you get into trouble. In the woods, I like to run a gear tall and let the bike pull you along. On a 250F, that means you need to be ready with the clutch at all times in case you need a sudden burst of power or momentum to get over an obstacle. With the 450, that grunt was a twist of the wrist away—but it never felt uncontrollable, either. Also, it’s fun! Lately, I’ve noticed bike tests explaining the low-end power of the bike as “excitement.” That’s accurate. The 450 feels alive and ready to rip whenever you want to go.
The mapping helps. The 450 lets you choose between two maps on the fly by pressing a button on the bars. That’s just the beginning, as the 450 also hooks into Yamaha’s Power Tuner app, which I downloaded on my phone to make additional bike changes. Besides the two stock maps, the Power Tuner app features four other pre-set maps, as well as the option of custom-building your own maps. You might think designing an engine map is beyond your understanding, but it’s actually easy. You get to change the fuel mixture and ignition timing at different RPM at a 1-5 scale. Just change some numbers, ride it, and see how it feels. Don’t worry—the app won’t let you tune the bike so outside the box that you blow it up. However, it’s on you not to smash into trees radiator-first.
I tried two additional maps compared to stock—the torque-y map and the mild-power map. Because the 450 is so powerful, I expected the mild-power map to be great, but I actually didn’t like it. The bike just didn’t want to rev the way I wanted it to. It felt like the bike was on a leash. For certain riders and situations, that could be great, but it wasn’t very fun. The torque-y map was great, though—my favorite one to use. This map makes you feel like a hero. You can chug along at a safe, controllable low RPM, but whenever you want to feel fast and give it a twist, the bike comes to life. You’re in complete control over the fun, and I loved it.
Also, we know the real reason why the app rules: In everyday life, you can pull out your phone and tell everyone that you “ride motorcycles” and that you “can tune your bike from your phone” with some “settings that Yamaha sent you.” Instantly, you’re the life of the party.
A 450 in the woods still seems like an intimidating prospect, especially to a C class rider like myself. I can tell you where the big bike helps, though. Doing a bike test, you actually spend a lot of time stopping and turning around for photos and video, and very little just straight riding. I’d often run 50 feet of single-track trail and then have to bushwack around a hillside to get the bike turned around and back on the trail. The 450 is such a tractor in that stuff, and you can trudge up a hill, get traction, stomp over some rocks or logs, and get back where you need to go. For technical stuff, I really liked it. Was I willing to see what this 450 and the wide-ratio gear box could really do in the open stuff? Hell no. I pinned it wide open for a few moments, but I definitely never explored the top of the gear box, which has ratios that would still work for high-speed desert running. You can test out that part, Ping.
What about the 250s? The four-stroke 250FX was good; I did get some ride time in after the mechanics fixed that radiator. Don’t worry—unless you’re me, you’re not going to bend one. The mechanics, by the way, were Cory MacDonald and Ryan Belue, who were actually top GNCC minicycles prospects back in the day, and I used to interview them on the podium weekly. This is when they were like 12 years old. Now they’re full-grown men who could surely kick my ass. I’m very lucky that they fixed the bike with smiles and got me back out there. Preston, by the way, just kept saying “wow.”
The YZ250FX four-stroke was good, but in the conditions we had at Hawkins’ place, the two-stroke was better. We had tight single track and tacky dirt, and the two-stroke felt like a scalpel or a bicycle. It was so easy to place the front wheel exactly where you wanted. Four-strokes, oddly, took over the GNCC Series last, as even when four-strokes had clearly become the best choice for supercross and motocross, a lot of woodsmen stuck with the 250 two-strokes. They’d always explain to me that there’s just something about sticky, tight, muddy, rutted conditions that worked for the two-stroke. That spirit was still alive here. The YZ250X just felt light, flickable, and awesome.
That said, if I were to actually race a GNCC on one of these bikes, I might pick the 250F. Hawkins’ place is trails heaven: There’s fresh single track, great dirt, and some bumps. GNCC racetracks are basically lined with bomb craters and grease in comparison—they’re insanely rough, and you never quite know how much grip lays around the next corner. The two-stroke could prove to be a handful there; it was much easier, of course, to light up the rear tire, and it wasn’t nearly as stable in the rough stuff as the four-strokes. We hit a rocky water crossing several times and the four-strokes motored through as if on auto-pilot, even the slippery, wet rocks. The two-stroke, meanwhile, was bouncing all over the place in comparison. With my advanced crashing skills, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the two-stroke sent me into a few more trees on a rough, slick, fast woods track. Your results may vary.
I would have liked to have gotten on the 250F again after riding the 450 to do a same-day comparison, but, jeez oh man, I had so much fun on the 450 that I didn’t want to get off of it. Also, our last riding day, September 6, was also my tenth wedding anniversary, and I had strict orders from the wife to not have to spend the evening at a doctor’s office. We all know what happens when you grab a bike and say, “Yeah I’m just gonna go out for one more lap.”
I would need some more comparisons to decide if the 450 was really the best bike for me, and if Yamaha wants to send me all three bikes, I’d be happy to learn more. In the meantime, I’ve learned something big: Bike technology advances in ways you can’t understand until you actually ride the bikes. What I expected to be a big, heavy, fire-breathing 450 has been refined into a user-friendly machine, yet somehow it’s actually still really fun. The changes that led to this seem minor—from the 2018 to the 2019, the changes are big, but they feel even bigger than that. And from the YZ motocrosser to the FX off-roader, the changes again seem minor—refined engine and suspension settings, bigger tank, skid plate, kickstand, and 18-inch rear wheel, but they really make a difference.
So I learned that, and I also learned that if you want free meals, drinks, and gear, you need to ride well enough to attend one of these media intros. I barely made the cut, but it was worth it. Now it’s time for lunch—still a small slice of $48 steak in my backpack.