KURT NICOLL ON EVO BIKES:An old bike can bring hours of fun if you understand how to ride and maintain it
The world has gone retro mad. From fashion to technology, cars and even high-tech kit like digital cameras, retro is the thing as the rose-tinted spectacles of yesteryear make many a rational human yearn for the joys of things from the past. And of course in motocross, retro is booming. The Vets Nations at Farleigh is the most over-subscribed race of the year as lots of riders – young and old – look to reliving past glories or even just experiencing how things used to be for the first time.
With modern bikes costing the thick end of seven grand and losing almost half that in a year – never mind the cost of a rebuild if your fuel-injected wonderbike goes wrong – then an older bike can seem like a real bargain. Cheap to buy, easy and understandable to maintain, and of course not dropping in value like a stone. And if you turn up at your local track on a 30-year-old bike, there’s no shame in not attempting all the tabletops and doubles. It’s not what those old bikes were made for.
While twin-shock bikes of the 1970s can take a certain sort of committed rider to maintain and actually ride sympathetically, a 1989 EVO bike is a much more modern machine. Upside down forks, linkage rear end, disc brakes, watercooling, powervalves, the lot. On paper, a 2017 two-stroke 250 doesn’t really offer that much more technology. The reality is not quite so wonderful, though, as tracks have changed, riders have got used to more modern four-strokes and old bikes are just that – old. They tend to take more maintenance, more care and more understanding if you are to get the most out of them.
That’s the findings of former British champion Kurt Nicoll, a famous two-stroke racer who came tantalisingly close to winning the 500cc world championship in the late 1980s before doing what the rest of the world was doing and dropping down to 250s. After winning the Motocross des Nations in 1994 for Team GB, Nicoll eventually retired and started work for the KTM factory. And he was instrumental in developing KTM’s first range of modern four-strokes that led to the orange firm’s global domination in off-road sport. He saw the advantages of the four-stroke Yamaha YZF400 that had been launched in 1998, then came up with KTM’s rival offering two years later which offered lots more power and lot less weight. The blueprint of the modern KTM you can buy now.
Nicoll, who now works for Travis Pastrana’s Nitro Circus team in California, still rides almost every day on modern bikes. He’s never been tempted back onto old bikes, until now. After buying his own 1989 Honda CR250, stripping it down and getting it rebuilt as a racer, then riding it hard and racing it, he’s in a unique position. He rode bikes like that when they were current. He never stopped riding though, so despite being 51 years old is totally in line with modern bikes, riding and tracks.
“The biggest differences are the riding position, setting up suspension up to stop it bottoming while still keeping it soft enough, and the power delivery – you have to change gears all the times. And most people ride four strokes now so it’s a big change going back to a two-stroke,” said Nicoll when we joined him at a riding session in the UK. Here’s his thoughts on how to get the best out of an EVO bike.
1 Get used to the riding position
“Rather than being flat like a modern bike, the seat goes down and sits you in the front so it’s difficult to move around on. It feels like you’re on an armchair. The seat is softer too, but nowadays bikes are much flatter thanks to the frame and lower subframe, so you can move around. It’s easy to get lazy and get stuck sitting down on the older bike. You have to physically get up and make sure you’re in the right position. “
2 Constantly tweak the suspension
“How you set up the suspension is key. A modern bike with air forks and modern shock are so much better! To stop the old bike from bottoming you have to have it hard. If you want it plush, you have to put up with bottoming. A modern bike will ride every track well without you having to do too much work. You have to do a lot of changes track to track. The suspension on my bike is the genuine 1989 stuff, just serviced. It’s the most stock bike out there! A modern shock or different fork internals could make a big difference, but I just like to ride it as it was.”
3 The bike wallows more
“There seems to be a lot more movement on an old bike – much more transfer from front to back and then from the back to the front under acceleration and braking. It feels like the bike is just busy, and just feels like it’s moving around a lot more. You have to get used to that more loose feeling rather than fighting it.
“So you have to pick lines more carefully as what it tends to do is throw you more forward into the corner so you have to hold yourself back more with your arms. And under acceleration it does the opposite, throwing you to the back so you have to hold yourself forward. On a modern bike you sit more in the middle of the bike and it feels more solid and in unison. It’s a lot more work on a 1989 bike.”
4 Cornering is different
“The old Honda corners well as it goes so low in the corners. I feel like I can take tight lines but once you come out then the front tends to steer out of the rut and you can’t steer with the rear wheel. You steer much more with the front end.
“The tyres have improved a bit. There are some things we’ve tried to do to make it more modern, like fitting modern tyres for more grip. The rear end traction is better than it used to be which gives it the feel of a more modern bikes.”
5 Get used to changing gears more
“I’ve been riding on a modern two-stroke recently and there really is a massive difference in power – you can hold the gears much longer. The biggest thing I remember on an old 250 two-stroke is short-shifting all the time. On a short straight I’m doing second, third, fourth then third and back in to second. All the time.
“On a modern two-stroke you could get away with one gearchange less per straight as they rev harder and pull longer. It’s so totally different to a 450 four-stroke as you can ride in one gear most of the time. You can come out of a corner in second and hold it there for the length of a relatively long straight. One gear on a 450 is like shifting twice on this!”
6 Get ready for the power surge
“The power delivery is much more abrupt on an older bike, so it’s more difficult to control. A 450 has beautiful power that comes on steady. Even a modern two-stroke is more progressive. There’s less power on the old bike, too. There’s about 45bhp at the top which isn’t bad but off the bottom, you’re clutching two or three times to keep the bike on the boil. I don’t use the clutch on a 450 – you just accelerate without the clutch. That’s probably the biggest difference to an old two-stroke. You’re busy on this bike all the time compared to a modern bike and you have to get your gear changes and clutch perfect to get the power down right.”
7 Choose the right bike
“I rode 500s for 13 years and I just don’t have any good memories of them! I’m 51 and remember them being a real handful when I was 28. I want to have fun and I don’t think it’s so much fun on a 500. I know lots of people ride the EVO 500s but I think most riders would have more fun and go faster on a 250.”
8 Modify your braking technique
“The old brakes are not very progressive. They stop well – Honda brakes were always good – but you get an on/off feeling. You have to think a bit more. And you have to be progressive with the foot rather than the brakes being progressive. And with less engine braking compared to a four-stroke, you have to perfect using the brakes.”
9 Traction is key off the startA
“The clutch feels like it needs two hands to pull it and I get left arm pump! Off the start the bikes goes good and clutch feels modern but you’re short shifting up the straight. It’s much more difficult to get maximum traction as the power is abrupt and it wants to step out all the time. And it runs out of power quicker. You’re all the time fighting for traction, getting your weight over the back for more stability. “
10 The old bikes fly differently
“I haven’t done any backflips on the old bike – but I haven’t on a modern bike either! When I first got on the 250 I found it light on the front in the air, probably because I’m more used to a four-stroke. You have to learn how to correct it in the air a lot of the time. When you go up the face it jumps front end high so you have to adjust yourself. It’s just getting used to the feeling again.”
11 Get busy with the tools!
“It’s an old bike so you have to think a lot more in terms of maintenance. It takes me back to looking after bikes. You can’t just throw a jetwasher at all the bearings and carburettor as it’s just not sealed as well. On a modern bike you just wash it as it’s so well sealed. I don’t look at bearings on my new bikes, but if you ever have to take them apart, the grease is still in there. On an older bike you need to take it apart and pack it with grease. You have to wash gently!”
12 Enjoy the experience!
“It’s definitely an experience to ride and remember how it was. I had a lot of fun building it and remembering how it was to ride – how much effort compared to a new bike. It’s a lot of fun.”