How KTM’s new 125 XC stole my heart.
Photography by Shan Moore
I’m a grown-ass man, and I am madly in love with the 2021 KTM 125 XC.
You might think I’m crazy—you’re not alone. But I assure you I want to take our relationship to the next level. I want it to share my last name on its registration paperwork, take selfies with it, and possibly get matching tattoos. I want to stand on top of a mountain and tell the whole world that we’re in a very serious relationship.
I’m also already married to a fine human, and we created very fine smaller humans that we basically take equal credit for. So, I really shouldn’t be looking to upset the homelife. But it was an accident! My wife is very aware of my new love interest. She is strangely not concerned.
But she doesn’t know the time this 125 and I had in the cornfields and woods of Indiana for the Ironman GNCC morning race. She didn’t hear it all day with me. She didn’t feel it carburet and sing to me through six gears of satisfaction. She didn’t laugh with it. I did all that. It was two hours of GNCC courtship that I’m having a hard time letting go of (clearly). Infatuation is too weak of a word. It’s love. I love this bike.
I know it doesn’t make sense. After all, 125s are for kids, right? They’re too slow, and you certainly can’t use them off-road because they don’t have the torque, and they’re just basically slow, and if you weigh more than 150 pounds, you’ll be too big for it because it’s slow. Man must have 450 (grunts).
Have you ridden a 125 lately? They are not slow. Not to me. And I’m 180 pounds without my knee braces or pants on because, well, I love cookies and beer and consume them whenever I want (sometimes without pants on)—like a grown-ass man can.
The point is if you’re not considering a 125 because you think they’re slow, the reality is you’re slow. Just admit it. You can ride a 125 if you try hard. It’s not as easy, maybe. But the 125 will not be the real problem in this equation, I assure you. Plus, when you figure it out, you have a new best friend. Or, if you’re like me, a mistress.
I’m really not that fast. But I passed many people at the Ironman GNCC in the morning race (that’s the reasonable one without the pros in it). There were 947 people on the course at the same damn time, so I had many chances for passing. Guess what? The 125 passed people just fine in the woods and the open cornfield grass tracks. It also got a great dead-engine start (like top-three). In fact, thanks to GNCC racing’s welcoming class structure, I was also passed numerous times by small-bore two-strokes in the 125-150 range. I battled with the Schoolboy and non-pro Women’s classes that seem to be the hot zone for small-bore two-strokes, and I had a great time.
I’ve raced a few GNCCs in my day. It’s one of my all-time favorite forms of motorcycle sport. Don’t be a pansy. Try it sometime. And I think this was my best result ever. I will be hard-pressed to recall a more enjoyable GNCC trip than my four laps of Indiana fun this fall, that’s for sure.
So, what makes this particular 125 so dreamy to me? Plainly, it’s my favorite motorcycle platform (KTM XC) with an extra dose of fun applied courtesy of an engine you actually have to engage in. If you’re a romantic, like me (wife leaves room laughing), you live for this stuff. You want to be part of the experience and in touch with all points of what’s going on in your propulsion process.
You have no choice but to be engaged with a 125 and a carburetor. The clutch is your throttle to some extent, and the left foot lever is very busy. It’s amazing to try to be that in-tune with something for a couple hours. And if something is just terrible with the bike in this experience, you’re going to notice it very soon.
You know what’s wrong with the 2021 KTM 125 XC? Nothing. The KTM crew swapped some jetting to the SX specs to sharpen the response a bit, and I switched the e-start button/kill switch locations on the handlebar for the dead-engine start. Otherwise, I raced a stock beauty queen at the GNCC, and I like her that way. I even ran the stock Dunlop AT81 tires even though I’m not super in love with those. Thankfully, Indiana’s dirt is basically glue that holds your tires down.
Did you catch that e-start button reference above? Yes, this is an electric-start 125 (with a kick-start backup). Some think that’s silly to have a button to start a 125. I say silly is awesome to those people, and there’s no reason not to have it. GNCC’s are a dead-engine start race. So, I practiced starts kicking in first gear, button in first gear, and finally kicking+button in first-gear before the race to see what would fire the fastest. I couldn’t tell if anything worked better than the button in my tests, so I just went with that. When the flag waved, it ripped! The bike fired immediately, and I was shifting through second and into third in no time after dragging the clutch out off the line to get it up to speed. Easily the best GNCC start I’ve done in my life. Not silly. Awesome.
This is broken record time, but the XC lineup of KTM’s competition dirt bike range is very well outfitted. Handguards, side stand, 2.64-gallon fuel capacity in a translucent tank, 18-inch rear wheel, the best Brembo brakes setups in the industry, dialed-in hydraulic clutch, and a durably proven history. I’ve taken XCs to motocross tracks happily and also to the tops of very tiring mountains, but rarely has the opposite occurred. When it comes to purpose-built machinery for competing off-road, little can match KTM’s track record. There’s a reason every other brand has a model of motocross bike variation with “X” in it now.
For 2021, the XC gets all the SX updates, including refined suspension settings (XC-specific) and components like linkage bearing seals and other hardware. I think it’s worth mentioning that this was the best XC suspension I’ve ridden in the WP AER fork technology era. The changes KTM and WP are making to the Xact fork are working better than ever, and we’ve seen the same at the MX track on the SX-F models. From new mid-valve systems and updated air/oil bypasses and more, these are really feeling like and/or better than spring forks now. Plus, they’re still pounds lighter than any available spring fork.
There are engine changes compared to last year’s 125SX models apparent in this new beast, as well, including a new harder piston, new throttle assembly with roller actuation for smoother cable stretching, heavier-duty clutch components for more durability, and that’s about all.
I think it was lap two or three (I completed four laps that morning) where I knew I was in love for reals. About that time, the 947 other riders on the course had beaten the main line down. Very annoying chatter bumps formed on corner entry and exit as the sit-down-and-throttle contingent did their best to brake hard and gas hard out of every turn. I’ve been beaten by Adventure bikes in turn-heavy tracks enough to know there are smarter lines than the main one, so when I wised up and started drifting and crossing, the 125 and I truly synced.
The thing about a 125 is it’s very easy to change direction. It’s up for anything. You want to party on that line, it’s down to party. You want to hold the gas on to pass a 450 before hitting a tree? It will comply and stop in no time. It’s the perfect companion—selfless. Numerous times I decided to change lines at the last minute, jumping out of the woods outside the main line, avoiding acceleration whoops, and smoothly stacking gears as I passed others mired in their traction-sapping misery.
The same was true in the thick of it in the trees. You’re bound to be behind a bottleneck or two at a race with nearly 1000 others. But a 125 makes for a very accommodating go-arounder. Don’t like where you’re heading? Go around it. Stuck behind some dudes in a rut? Go around it. Stalled your bike and have a bunch of dudes stuck behind you? Hit the button before they go around it. This bike just doesn’t really lose.
I can honestly say, and this just isn’t the post-fling euphoria talking, that the engine characteristics and chassis dynamics of the 2021 KTM 125 XC left me wanting nothing on the course of the most difficult off-road series in America. I never felt like I was missing low-end torque or top-end speed. I never hit a limit where I felt I was at a disadvantage, including a dead-engine start with multiple manly large displacement bikes on it.
And here’s the real truth. I’m not good enough to just make 125’s work like Shane Watts did in his prime—probably still does today. I don’t have that. I have bad habits, and I get freakin’ tired. So, the bike has a lot to do with how well this race went for me. It made me feel great. And it made me look pretty cool, too.
Like I said, it’s love!CN
2021 KTM 125 XC Specifications
|Bore x Stroke:
||54 x 54.5mm
||Electric and kick
||Mikuni TX 38
||Wet multi-disc DS clutch, Brembo hydraulics
||Central double-cradle type 25CrMo4 steel
||Neken, aluminum Ø 28/22mm
||48mm WP Xact USD fork
||WP Xact monoshock with linkage
||1.60 x 21 in. Giant
||2.15 x 18 in. Giant
|Steering Head Angle:
|Triple Clamp Offset:
|Weight (dry, claimed):