KTM 520 EXC Cafe (Part 1)

By Craig Els | Published on 2020-04-12

KTM 520 EXC Cafe (Part 1)

Eish Wena...where do I start with this bike? It’s been in my life for about 20 years, I raced it in the Western Cape Enduro series in 2001/2/3 ish, won a 4 Stroke championship, and a few races in my class on it, and I have soooooo many memories, dare I say many good and some not so good.

But let me start right at the beningingi (for my SA friends) I guess, it was somewhere around 2001 if my memory serves me correctly and Ashley Baud had bought into the KTM franchise, and was still running the Ducati side as well. They had just moved into new premises in Cape Town City, a small shop on the main drag. Red and Orange bikes parked up front, it was awesome! It was virtually impossible to walk by and NOT look through the glass windows! I had to go in and see these pretty machines. Low and behold, as I walked in I saw that the new KTM950 Adventure bikes had just arrived, I mean hell, this was almost a 1000cc Off-road Biased Demon beast from the small Austrian manufacturer in a little town called Mattighofen, and yet here it was, right before my very eyes! I had to have one, in fact, I needed one in my life! And there and then, I signed the papers, a BIG silver 950cc monster to take home, and if not mistaken again, I think one of the bikes in the first batches to arrive on our sunny shores. I really loved riding the bike, it went like STINK! But as we know, newer models have some issues, mine didn’t actually break, but Ashley called me to tell me there was a recall on some head bolts that needed to be replaced on our models, so off it went back to the shop for a few days. And that’s where this love affair started with my beloved KTM520 EXC.

I arrived at the shop, got off my 950, walked in and saw this shiny Orange Off-road WEAPON right in front of me! And at this stage I was on an old Trusty Honda XR400, and deeply involved in the CSMX enduro committee, where setting the Enduro tracks was my thing, and this XR400 was like a Big unbreakable Hammer! The best tool in my toolbox at that stage. I was also thinking of getting back into racing anyway, as the pain of my broken neck from a bad fall in 1997 was long gone and forgotten, and besides, when I used to Marshal at the races, the XR400 could barely keep up with some of the Entered riders on race day, although I did beat a few of the guys racing and got into some shit for that too! They complained that the Marshals were overtaking dangerously and then they couldn’t get back passed them again, I guess I was just taking Patrick Jacobs’s lead! ( Rest in Peace my good friend )

The 520 wasn’t new, I could see that right away, but it was either never ridden, or seriously looked after and cared for. Only later on I learned that all the bikes ever owned by the previous owner, Martin Jones, were all in this kind of condition when he sold them off. I think Martin traded it in for something newer, certainly no Shinier, with Ashley and he was selling it on Martins behalf. I never got to meet Martin at that stage, but agreed a price, and the bike was mine, with all the manuals, tool kit and a few spares that didn’t need replacing, but they were dirty, so replaced never the less! This was it, I was going to race again, and this was my new Hammer! The racing was Absofrikkinamazeballs.... this bike was the shit man! My racing mates hated it, whenever we had a Mass start, I’d be at the cattle gate first with a 200m gap to the guy in second, Tony Chaplin will vouch this as he was one of them once, and at the end of the race he came to talk a bit and told me that he was with me for the first 10/20 meters and as I pulled away from him he had to close his eyes, for most of the start straight, involuntary of course, as the stones and dust were just too dangerous to stay behind me. I’m surprised though, because not much scares Tony!

I think that’s what kept me going back to the races all the time, the power this bike delivered was Insane, there was no flat spot, no break in the power, and NO END to the power throughout the Rev range at all, it was also a lot sharper than the XR, in that if I had to compare the bikes to Knives, I’ve always said it was like a Scalpel, and the XR a blunt Butter knife in the corners😜. That said, it was also never only about winning and being the fastest for me. On countless occasions, guys I raced against and many a spectator came to me at the end of a race and said if I was on a lighter bike, or a Smoker, I’d be so much faster. I didn’t want to be faster, I just wanted to ride and have the most bang for the buck, and I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “There’s just no replacement for displacement” or “There’s no substitute for Cubic inches” as the Harley guys would say, with Bugs on the back of their helmets! I still get asked today, “Why are your Forearms so well defined?” I give a one word answer.....FEAR! If I see a little confusion still, I’ll tell them “Go get a 520, or a 525 Big Bore Enduro bike, and ride it for a few years in anger, and you will understand!” I still think it wanted to kill me, it almost did a whole bunch of times, but I still love the bike! It does need some respect though.

I remember racing in Riviersonderend one year, and there were a few rest spots you got to take a breather from the hillclimbs and radical downhills with thick bush and lots of whooped out twisty sections in narrow PortJackson growth, these rest breaks came in the form of the smoothest surface jeep-tracks that were up to 1km long in some places, and what this did to one of my riding nemesis James McHarg, was that because he had a lighter KTM300 smoker, when we got to the tighter parts of the track, he would eventually get past and pull a small gap on me....but let me tell you, when we got to the little gifts that were the jeep tracks, it was another story! He would pull out onto the jeep track 30/40 meters ahead of me, by the time I caught him up, I was in 4th gear, leaving a rooster-tail out the back wheel, and as I passed, I’d pull a little on the Bars, crack the throttle to the stops, hook 5th gear and just keep it in the wheelie until I ran out of track. This enduro was a National event, so it was almost a full day of riding and we must have completed 8 or 9 laps of the track, and this battle with James had gone on the whole day, and then came the last straw that broke the camels back, the same thing had been happening all day and on the last lap, we pulled onto one of the last jeep tracks, I did what I’d been doing since the race started, and as I passed him, I looked back to see him sit straight up on his bike and his shoulders just dropped, he knew his 300 just couldn’t match this monster under my arse! I beat him that day, and ended up doing quite well overall. The bike pulled like a Freight Train, and that’s what I loved!

Probably the MOST memorable time on that bike was and still is, ...up to now at least, was when I was invited to an Invite only ride with a new group of Eastern Cape riders that we had met on one of the Easter Bike SA Desert runs with Colin Stunden from Knysna. This ride was to take place in the middle of the Karoo on a private farm, and it would run for 3 days, called, “The Year End Function” and these boys can ride a bike. Dylan being 6 years old, kept asking if he could come with, “Please ... Please Daddy can I come ride with you”, and “But why?” when I said it’s only for adults.... Needless to say, we had both bikes loaded up on the trailer, and the two of us drove off into the Karoo in our new Pajero 3.2 Did that Dylan still drives today! So to say Nostalgia runs deep in our family, would be an understatement.

After a few days of riding in some of the most awesome terrain in the country, while Dylan and his little mate stayed behind at the farm house riding on all the farm roads, and having fixed too many of his punctures on the little PitBike, it was time for some free ride fun on the salt pan a few Km’s away. We headed off and the Riding there was awesome, pulling long endless wheelies against your mates always ends up being a competition, taking drinks breaks between Barrel racing, Drag racing and other crazy stunt riding attempts. It was on one of these drinks breaks, Dylan asked me if he could ride the 520, in my current frame of mind and not wanting to hinder the fun in any way, I said “sure, why not!” 6 years old....what could go wrong? I sat on the back, showed him how the clutch worked, and then the gears, and he was doing a wonderful job....so wonderful in fact that i told him to go down to 1st gear and go close past uncle JP who was standing there holding my Cappies and Coke, as he got there, I slipped off the back of the seat, and let him go on his merry way.....to everyone’s amazement, there was this little person, who could barely touch the foot pegs, riding this Monster bike, and doing it very well, going up and down the gears and even attempted a small wheelie...just like Dad! The next mission was to get him to come close enough to me so I could get him off the bike safely, and that took many more Cappies and Cokes!

This was one of many of these awesome weekends away with my bike, and Dylan in tow, until that one weekend we decided to go visit Uncle JP in Montagu for yet another weekend of riding and Party. It happened out the back of the Neighbouring farms, on a very tight twisty mountain pass with a smallish drop off to the right side of about 5 meters, we were Hauling ass, and I had Ludwig on a Bombardier 650 quad behind me, so I had to keep my pace up as a Bike could NOT lose to a Quad, never mind they had more traction and steering ability in the corners, but I held the Gas on until I got to one corner that was just too tight, it was to the right, and so was the drop off, I could see JP exiting the bend, and for a split second, although I knew I was in big POO already, I thought to myself “I can jump that gap and land in front of JP”....... it didn’t end that way, there was no lip on the road edge, I was coming in way too hot, and then instinct kicked in, I lay the bike down to the left side, but now I don’t have any steering or control....the worst thing about accidents is the quiet before the BANG and Pain! It went very quiet.....when I opened my eyes, and looked up, there I saw Chris, I thought to myself, but what’s Chris doing here, he wasn’t riding with us. I was out cold for about 30 min, in the bottom of this small ravine, and NOT very comfortable at all. JP had ridden back to the farm house to fetch our then mate Chris, who was a doctor at the time, not a very good one, but a doctor in any case. When Chris got there, he managed to wake me up and do a system check. Besides the huge burn mark on my forearm where the bikes exhaust pipe header came to rest, until they could get the bike off me, and the obvious cuts and scratches, I couldn’t really move my legs that well without some serious bone crunching and lots of pain. They got me to the Montagu hospital in no time at all, and I’d been there a few times already in the past, so they had all my detail already on the system, it turned out I had Cracked my pelvis in two places and Broken another bone in my Neck, just below the first break from 1997. A few days later, and one of the few trips out of my bed, I took the first real look at myself in the Mirror....if I put my right Arm up in the air, I was black and Blue, and already starting to turn a darker shade of purple, from my right Elbow, down my arm, all the way down my right side, and down to my right knee. The only reason I’m describing this, is that I actually found a photo of it in pics folder, but my loving wife, Vanessa said I shouldn’t post it as I was totally KalGat (nude) and my bum was sticking out, albeit Black and Blue!

So to say I have some history with this bike would also be yet another huge understatement, and like I said before, many good and only a few bad, And that’s not the bikes fault either. One day further down the history line, and after a few months of recovery from the Pelvis break, I test rode a newer model 450EXC and it was even sharper than my Mega Hammer Scalpel, certainly not the same power though, and at that stage I couldn’t afford to keep the old one and still pay for the new one, so I bought the new one anyway, skipped the kids school fees for a few months until one of my mates, who didn’t ride that often, bought the 520. Exit my beloved KTM 520 EXC.

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