As a motorcyclist, nothing is more enjoyable than exploring every aspect of the machine and our chosen sport it embraces. Just going out on a weekend ride of various scenic views and challenging terrain makes a week of work disappear and melt away. As a street-legal off-road bike, it opens the doors to the best of both worlds, known today as Dual Sport.The latest KTM 350 EXC-F could be described as a race bike with lights, an enduro, a trail bike, and even a commuter bike. It does it all very well despite having a relatively small displacement. It can also be described as a pleasant joy for a weekend ride. And in our current pandemic, it gets you out and away like the answer of the ideal vaccine.
In stock showroom configuration, the 350 EXC-F performs at one end of the spectrum as expected in emissions-fanatical California. With little effort and minor changes, an owner can transform it into a true trail-weapon race machine. I personally lean to the race spectrum end of dual sporting, and have my rear-linkage suspension of the 2020 Husqvarna FE 501s—a cousin of the KTM—modified for that purpose. Still, I don’t always want to be in attack mode and the milder 350 does what most want from a midsize dual-sport perfectly. My previous bike was a 2013 350 EXC-F and the 2020 edition is a great improvement.The KTM’s are equipped with a linkage-less rear suspension providing better clearance for trail obstacles and are loved for that reason by the serious single-track enthusiast. That crowd already knows what it’s looking for in a high-performance off-road motorcycle. Instead, let’s get back to the weekend warrior and occasional commuter looking for the capable ride their hard-earned money deserves for the getaways they seek.I started six months earlier after riding it home on asphalt from the outskirts of Los Angeles to the mountainous area I reside in on the southern tip of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. Between the two locations are the winding canyon roads through the Angeles National Forest, long straight stretches through the Antelope Valley, and back roads dotted by wind turbines in the Tehachapi Mountains foothills. The tighter the canyon drive, the more fun the carving is on a nimble and narrow single-cylinder dual-sport motorcycle. Another hour or two later, and I’d be competing with the frenzied long-distance commuters in their hurry to arrive home and relax.After a few errand runs made into town, the KTM 350 EXC-F and my Husky FE 501s were loaded up to head towards the mountain community of Frazier Park with my 20-year-old son in tow. We were there to visit my old friend Paul and a chance to ride both paved routes to the beaches of Ventura and ride the trails of the Tejon just across from his home.My son Brayden got the 350 EXC-F to ride the whole trip and we both traded a little with Paul’s KTM 690 Duke. Brayden’s learning has been on 50cc, 80cc, 100cc trail bikes, and finally a Honda CRF250X. Now, he has been getting time on the EXC-F with his friend on the CRF. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect based on what he has been doing on his bikes in our somewhat open field areas or his street experience while I work, but my nervous concern was about to learn.The street ride between Frazier Park to Ventura is also through mountainous canyon routes of the Los Padres National Forest, through Ojai, and onto the fast highway lanes to coastal U.S. Route 101 to our marina destination for a seafood lunch. Brayden did his best keeping up with two seasoned street riders who have both attended Keith Code’s California Superbike School at Laguna Seca.Stock gearing on the 350 is best suited to slower speed and trail riding—my old 2013 350 was not. To pass EPA sound and emission requirements, gearing was for road to keep sound levels down. Now, the motorcycles are even quieter and gearing went back to trail speeds for the targeted buyer.With the higher motor revolutions, Brayden felt vibration in the pegs at 55 mph and felt it revved too high. Even with six speeds, the shifting is short on the 350 and high revs come quickly. This was fine the next day on our ride up the steep, loose single-track trails, something Brayden does not have much experience on. The lower gearing for trail work was ideal, but the block-pattern ADV tread on the stock Continental TKC 80 tires was not. Damn compromises!The 350 EXC does not arrive with much hand protection. If dropped, the grip ends are going to get chewed up and your hands may be whacked by sturdy scrub brush on tight trails. The bike is also choked up with a screen at the exhaust tip and a 2-stroke-style reed-valve in the air intake boot. Again, it is all about passing EPA regulations to sell for public street use.I replaced the stock exhaust tip with a Best Dual Sport Bikes Power End Cap for the muffler that I can also use on my Husqvarna. I also replaced the tires with Metzeler 6 Days Extreme rubber—a low-profile FIM- and DOT-approved enduro knobby. It’s just perfect for the 350 and additional power gained with the exhaust change. It’s still not in race mode, but it is improved for off-road use. Now my son can get a bit more traction in his riding around our house and still be street legal—as long as no one checks the exhaust too closely.Next, we took the 350 and Brayden to the Sequoia National Forest for the fire roads and trails in a system I’ve been riding for 30 years. A quick road ride, and we were soon in the trees and dirt for more saddle time. The EXC-F sits a bit tall for my 5’ 6” son, so I lowered the seat height by reducing preload to the point the spring was almost loose and raised the forks up the triple clamps to where they almost hit the handlebars. For him, it worked fine.Brayden enjoyed his day, following me on tight, winding single-track while I kept my speeds down on my 501s. We got into a few rough, steep downhills he wasn’t comfortable with. However, with more practice, he’ll master both bike and trail. Then, the suspension will be put back for more aggressive speeds. A permanent seat height would be in order if the bike was to be owned, with professional suspension work and maybe a lower seat profile.The next trip was again with 63-year-old truck driver Paul. Starting from our base in Kernville, we ventured into Sequoia NF for a multi-day ride through the canyons up and over the mountains. We had the dual sport bikes and his pair of KTM 690 Dukes.It was truly the best of both worlds for four days, splitting them between two days on both dirt and street. Paul rode the KTM on the dry loamy soil single-track between thick trees, rocky climbs over tree roots, and, in some spots, very deep silt. He rated the KTM 350 EXC-F as the perfect trail bike for those conditions with no complaints, except higher speeds needed for highway use and his few snags on a couple of rough, rocky sections. Paul is a heavier rider and he probably got a plusher ride, compared to my shorter, lighter son, who has difficulty with the 37.8-inch seat height of the 350. For a starter bike, the 350 may not be the perfect choice without a lowering kit.Moving back and forth with lowering and raising the suspension between two different riders, I finally got in my days to ride the 350 EXC-F. I’m 6-foot and an accomplished rider (or so I tell myself), and I feel a little more cramped even on the tall seat height. The pegs seem high, and I have to lean down for the bars. Perhaps lowering the pegs, taller seat foam, and bar clamp extensions would solve that for me, but I wouldn’t want to raise the seat height any more than it already is. I also wouldn’t want to lose any ground clearance, so I’m left with the choice of taller bars, and perhaps knee pain.Opening up the motor’s breathing abilities by removing the air-boot reeds and purchasing an Athena GET ECU for richening the fuel delivery is a must, as the motors are mapped lean for the stock emissions system and EPA regulations. You can’t tamper with the stock ECU mapping, so to bring it to race mode, you need to get to the injection fuel delivery mapping via an aftermarket ECU. Of course, this is for off-road use only, at least according to the authorities.I went through all this with my 2020 Husqvarna FE 501s and am very happy with the gained performance. I’d do the same with the 350 if it was mine, with the hope I wouldn’t lose that pleasant feeling it had at stock form—just more available horsepower when I get that feeling. I’d also add the steering damping equipment, which also raises the handlebar with the proper mount. The motor should come alive and rip like my 2013 350 did. Still, I enjoyed the newer 350 EXC-F without all the attack mode mods.The suspension is perfect for every condition in typical riding speeds, though race speeds require firmer settings. Not too harsh and not too soft is always the goal in suspension settings, and use as a track or desert race bike may take it all away.However, it was after I changed the rear sprocket from the OEM 52-tooth to the 48-tooth I took off the 501 that made a difference to my taste. With the higher final gearing, the 350 EXC-F still performed well in both tight trail sections and the highways I took to get to them. I rarely had to downshift to first gear in rock gardens, unless I lost my footing. Most trail work was in second gear for a decent pace. On highway, the motor revved more naturally between 55-and-65 mph. The bike just makes simple exploring fun again, if I didn’t already say that.The 350 motor is strong enough in stock form throughout the rev range for beginner and novice riders, yet smooth enough not to intimidate. Even seasoned veterans can appreciate that. The modifications I made on my 2013 made it scream to the 13,000 rpm it is capable of reaching. I rode it like a two-stroke, with quick short-shifting. For many, a 500cc dirt bike is much more than they will ever need in their real-world adventures. They may even weigh the same, but the smaller displacement feels lighter and more nimble thanks to less rotating mass in the motor.The 2020 KTM 350 EXC-F weighs in at 251 pounds with a full tank and all its liquids. That is light compared to the earlier generation standards of trail bikes, and you’re getting longer suspension travel with a high seat height. A full tank may give you 100 miles of range. One warning is the seat; you’re going to start feeling pain after a long ride in the saddle. I learned a few tips in my days of riding 300 days in a year, and this seat may need changing. I always recommend seats without seams and ridges for the longer distance rider. Shorts without seams in your “seat patch” is also suggested. The narrow motocross-style seats just look stylish in the showroom.Breaking them in may be a while, just saying.Photography by Damon Powell2020 KTM 350 EXC-F SpecsENGINE
Type: Single cylinder
Bore x stroke: 88 x 57.5mm
Compression ratio: 13.5:1
Valvetrain: DOHC, 4 valves
Starting: Electric w/ Lithium-ion 12-volt 2 Ah battery
This week, Senior Editor Nic de Sena rides the all new Ducati Monster. Big changes have been made by Ducati–has the company ruined the considerable heritage of the iconic Monster–or are the changes worth it? In the second part of the show, we chat with Nick Ienatsch, Founder and Head Instructor at the Yamaha Champions Riding School. He says: “We aim to change your riding life by introducing you to Champions Habits: The techniques, approaches, skills, and the mindsets of the best riders in the world. These Champions Habits are the foundation of safety and consistency to whatever speed you ride, in any venue on any bike. Street riders, this is just as much for you as track riders. The best way to make safe riders is to make good riders.“ We hope you enjoy this episode!