Stories from Silver Class – Rob Nowak’s Red Bull Romaniacs experience on a KTM 450 EXC | Features
How did the world's biggest KTM 300EXC two-stroke fan end up on a 450EXC four-stroke for arguably the toughest hard enduro race in the world?
Words: Rob Nowak
How did the world’s biggest KTM 300EXC two-stroke fan end up on a 450EXC four-stroke?
I was out on a trail ride with one of my mates who was riding a KTM 450 EXC. He crashed and hurt himself so I had to ride his bike out of the forest. It’s pretty rare that I ride a bike that feels more comfortable than my own but I gelled instantly with his 450F.
I’ve been on a 300 two-stroke for my entire extreme enduro career, probably the last six-years, but something just clicked when I jumped on the 450. I called my local KTM Dealer (Bolton’s Motorcycles in Kyneton) to see if I could demo one and the rest is history. After that I was officially a four-stroke convert!
I know it’s probably not the best bike for all kinds of extreme enduro , but I just enjoyed riding it, so I bought one and set it up to my liking. Romaniacs was a huge test for the bike but I was confident. The 450 felt good at home and there wasn’t one minute where I thought I was on the wrong bike.
Why does the 450 suit you specifically?
I’m a 110kgs, 6’6, and the size of those mountains in Romania, you really want to get up them easy without using a lot of energy. So this bike, the way it’s designed and the way it gets drive, it’s so effortless to get up a hill. It’s really easy and loves the technical terrain, so that’s why I chose it.
And I was right, the stuff they sent us through, being my weight, the 300 would have struggled in some sections and I would have lost a lot of time. But the sections where the 300 would have been quicker, I wouldn’t have gained much more time or saved much more energy. So, I think I chose wisely.
Why don’t the pros ride 450’s?
I’m not a normal person, at my height and weight I shouldn’t even be riding a dirtbike!
The 450F is pretty heavy so if you were doing the nasty sections of Gold Class, where you’re pushing and dragging your bike, that’s where the 300 shines. The terrain in Silver was still very challenging, but I didn’t have to get off my bike much and push it.
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I was feeling pretty average the day of prologue. One of the other riders I travelled with had the flu which he kindly passed on to me! Shout out to Dylan Reinshagen who gave Silver class a massive crack!
It was raining, the prologue looked pretty nasty. I was nervous because it had been two years since I’d competed due to a shoulder reconstruction.
It’s a crazy event, people crashing everywhere and there’s 35 riders in the final so you don’t really know where you are, it’s hard to keep a follow on the lead. I just did my own race. I thought I did okay but was surprised when the official pulled me aside and told me to wait there for presentation– I’d come second! I had no idea! I was shocked! It was a good start to Romaniacs 2018.
In 2016 I entered Gold Class and after a massive crash off a severe downhill and I was unable to continue Day 2. Each year these events get harder and harder, so not knowing the level, I dropped back to Silver Class, just learn from this experience and see where I was at. Luckily, I did because Day 1 Silver Class was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done on a dirtbike!
It took me 10.5 hours to finish the day, ideally, it would have been easier if I was feeling better but there was also the heavy rain we had overnight, making the trails super wet. The climbs were steep, the descents were slippery and it just never let up.
It was a really hard day both physically and mentally, but I got to the end…barely. I was cooked, in every way shape and form. I had no energy, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t see – I was exhausted! It was harder than the 2016 Day 1 Gold Class. I knew the level was going to go up, but I never expected it to be this hard. Laying on the ground all I had going through my head was ‘how am I going to do this again for the next three days’
I wasn’t the only feeling it though…only 13 out of the 130 Silver riders finished in time that day. And only two out 105 Iron Class riders finished.
Getting up for Day 2 was pretty tough, I got as much recovery as I could. As soon as I got back to the hotel I ate and went straight to bed. This is where your support crew are paramount. My bike was being washed and worked on by the race crew and my wife took care of everything else. Riders briefing is at 9pm at night and your alarm is set for 4:30am. Everything about this event is designed to test you.
Day 2 was set to be just as hard but not as long. Day 1 we did 236km, Day 2 was only 136km. The weather was better and the rain cleared. I started off pretty steadily because I felt pretty average but about an hour in I came good. I started to find my groove. The trails where pretty tough but after starting in 11th I made it up to sixth or seventh by lunch. After the mandatory 20 minutes lunch/service break, the trail got really hard but I felt really good. Much better than Day 1 and I made a few passes and pushed through some really gnarly sections. I ended up crossing the finish line in third position. I had the fastest times for the final two checkpoints in Day 2 and they were the hardest for the day so this gave me confidence I could make it to the end.
Day 3 was a huge day. We were up on the bikes by 6:30am as there was a liaison to the start line. We were way up high in mountains with some off-camber trails that just kept going. It went for two or three hours and if you dropped your front wheel off the edge you’re not getting back up. I just didn’t feel comfortable so I lost many positions in this section but I rode safe.
Once we got out of this section it got into terrain that I was more familiar with and felt more comfortable so I started making those positions back. I got to lunch/service point in eighth or ninth after I had even gone back as far as 15th. But I used the break to re-group and prepare myself to smash the afternoon section. The next section was high speed, still with some nasty sections but it suited my style. There were four of us going hell for leather the whole afternoon and I managed to pull a little bit gap on the other guys by the end of the day. I was really pleased with this because compared how I rode in the morning it was a really big challenge mentally to recover from that and regroup.
I crossed the finish line on Day 3 in fifth position, seventh on corrected time.
Final Day – my body was feeling the best it had felt the whole time I was here. My cold was getting better and it was easier to breathe. I was in 10th position but I wasn’t far away from getting into the top five.
Starting from seventh position I quickly made my way up to third at checkpoint two and was chasing second position before lunch. I didn’t see this next part until it was too late, someone had knocked over a small dead pine tree with broken branches right on the exit of a corner.
I came around the corner and there’s this broken branch right at my head height! I didn’t even have time to know what had happened. This branch hit me fair and square in the face and I was instantly blinded on my right eye. I thought the stick had gone into my face, it was pretty painful. Thankfully there was no stick lodged in my skull but then came the realisation that all my hard work this morning had just been ruined. I was trying to keep moving but I could barely see. Eventually the guys I had passed caught up, I tried following them so I would have some sort of reference of where I was going. It was hard to see, it was blurry and my head was killing me but all I could think was to keep moving and make it to lunch where I could get it checked out. This is where my day went really, really, really bad.
The guy who passed me was in fourth position so I hooked in behind him. Unfortunately, he had missed the turn for the lunch point. Apparently, it was a really hard to see but it meant we missed checkpoint five by just 107 meters, where all our support, fuel and food was waiting. In my mind I was telling myself it will be okay, we will reach lunch shortly. But the checkpoint never came.
He pulled away from me and I was left to navigate this course by myself. I’m trying to ride these nasty lines with one eye not knowing if I’ve damaged my eyeball or just bruised it. The more it went on the more my eye keep closing over. I finally arrived at checkpoint seven (the next checkpoint after lunch) and I could see a light that’s not usually on and I realised it was my fuel light. The checkpoint officials told me I’d missed the fuel stop and checked over my eye. They didn’t have fuel at this checkpoint but Rider 188 Evan Ask from USA pulled his fuel line off and gave me half a liter of fuel so I could keep going to checkpoint eight. A massive thanks to Evan as he had to give up time in his race to help me! After sitting at checkpoint seven for 45 minutes, and knowing my eye was pretty damaged but my eyesight was intact it gave me the confidence I needed to get back on my bike and keep going.
It was only 2.5 kilometers to checkpoint eight so I put my bike in eco mode and thought I would just cruise. The adrenalin was wearing off and the pain was kicking in and those 2.5kms of trail were insane.
I made it to checkpoint eight, which came out on a main road. Thankfully my wife and friends were following the live timing app and knew something was up when I missed lunch. So, they brought fuel to this checkpoint as it was accessible by car. My wife had no idea I was injured, she just thought I’d missed the service point. She burst into tears when she saw my face and didn’t want me to continue. The officials wanted me to go to the hospital but I refused. I didn’t come all this way to abandon on the last day and DNF. They refueled my bike, I smashed down a snickers bar and I rode off very slowly. I was so disappointed at this stage as I had had a phenomenal ride up to this point. The bike hadn’t missed a beat and besides the exhaustion I was uninjured. I could have easily been in top two.
I salvaged the day getting through the final checkpoints and made it to the finish line arena with the large uphill and obstacle course. These are pretty sketchy when your healthy let alone injured and half blind.
Sitting at the bottom on the final uphill I wanted to do it but I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. If I went faster than 10km/h everything became blurry, that was fine in the bush but now I had everyone around watching me, I wasn’t sure what to do. I could either go the main line or use the chicken line around. I thought ‘stuff it, I’ve come all this way!’. Throughout my training, making it to the top of the final hill at Romaniacs had been something I’d thought a lot about.
I lined it up and gave it my best run. I lost my balance on the first hump before the start of the hill, I couldn’t see anything but I just held it on! Once I passed the first bump it was pretty easy to stay on the right line. I kept the power on and the 450 EXC found excellent drive.
I clicked third gear as I approached the big wall, preloaded the suspension and bounced my way. I couldn’t believe I made it. Then there were a couple nasty downhills on the other side of the big hill, which they don’t show on the videos. I approached a doubled step up and asked the official ‘do I have to go up this?’ and he responded ‘all silver and gold must make this line to finish’, great!
I had one go at it and didn’t even see the second step up, I thought it was just one. I got to the top and fell off before realising I wasn’t even half way! I went back down, looked at it and went ‘Rob if you don’t get this in one go, you’re going to hurt yourself so you better get it in one go’. So, I just broke it down, the first step up I had to get perfect then get on the gas to clear the second one all with a two meter run up to this wall. I surprised myself and did it perfectly, I probably couldn’t have done it any better with full vision. The final bit was the obstacle course with the bridge and the water section, which was pretty easy compared to what they had sent us through that day.
When I crossed the finish line I didn’t have the normal emotions, it felt good but I didn’t have that sense of achievement after how my day went. I was happy I didn’t lose my eye but there’s something there that makes me want to go back and get some kind of redemption. Knowing what I know now, I’ll be able to go back reach that dream of making Top-3 in Silver class.
The Verdict on the 450
Everyone thought I was crazy riding a 450 at Red Bull Romaniacs but it just felt right. It’s easy to ride, it doesn’t want to boil, it doesn’t want to stall as much as other four-strokes, though more than a 300 two-stroke. I didn’t have any mechanical problems during the 36 hours of racing – it’s a bloody good bike!
Finishing this event just cemented my belief that 450F is the way to go. It was seamless through those hard terrain checkpoints on Day 2, even the prologue, especially in the wet, I couldn’t believe how well it handled.
It’s almost standard too. In fact, all my modification testing at home actually made it worse! Aside from a few small tweaks here and there this bike is stock. When you’re travelling half way around the world the last thing you want to be riding is a highly modified machine that needs a suitcase full of parts.
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