By Pat Foster
The text from swap came at 4:00 p.m. on a Monday evening: "Sorry, last minute. Dean Wilson's factory Husqvarna bike test tomorrow at Pala…asking you first."
"Yeah! I'm in!" was my response before I could even process what I had going on at work the next day, or the logistics of the six-hour drive each way. You see, testing new production bikes is an amazing opportunity, but testing a factory bike is next level. If you ever get that call, you drop everything and change your plans!
Although it wasn't a component of the test at hand, I was fascinated by the opportunity to do a three-way bike comparison. The stock Husqvarna FC 450 has improved exponentially over the last few years and was actually awarded our Bike Of The Year honors for 2017. It is an amazing overall package and one of my favorites. Last fall I was invited to go to Belgium to ride the factory MX1 and MX2 Rockstar Energy Racing Husqvarna race bikes in the legendary sands of Lommel. As good as the stock bike is, it was incredible to see the level of sophistication and detail put into the MXGP factory bikes. Max Nagl's FC 450 was easily the most powerful machine I have ever ridden. On the other hand, the suspension settings were so soft I could not comprehend how he could possibly ride as fast as he does. It has had me perplexed to this day and questioning everything I thought I knew about bike setup. I understand that the European tracks and riding styles are significantly different, which made me eager to see what the American counterpart of the Factory Husqvarna was like.
We showed up to Pala early on what they must consider "National Day." The track was cut a few feet deep, completely saturated with water, and littered with huge jumps not intended for the faint of heart. It was a normal workday for the Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Team, and I was on their time schedule. Dean went out as soon as the track opened, whipping his bike upside-down for our cameras for a well-deserved TransWorld Motocross cover shot before coming in and preparing for a couple 30-minute-plus-two-lap motos. I wasn't going to throw a leg over the bike until the early afternoon, which gave me plenty of time to ride our stock FC 450 for comparison.
The main track was brutal and packed solid with guys who were absolutely ripping! It was busy to the point of being difficult to pull onto the track, and I was one of only about eight guys riding who didn't race the Glen Helen National a couple of days prior. The ruts were engine-case deep and laced with square-edged acceleration chop, the braking bumps were gnarly, and the only breaks in the chaos were offered by the huge jumps that were all 75-foot booters at a minimum.
I was actually pretty impressed with how well the stock bike did. Sure, I bottomed out the suspension hard from time to time, had some wandering wallow in the fast, rutted straights, and of course got kicked and bucked just as I suspected I would, given the conditions. Based on what I knew though, the bike worked pretty well. Or so I thought!
I got to start riding Dean's bike at about 1:30 p.m. The track was pretty worked, but at least a lot of the guys training had cleared out by then, which made it easier to get in some actual testing. Sitting on Wilson's bike for the first time was pretty comfortable. His levers are positioned relatively neutral, as are his handlebars—running near parallel to the fork angle—although he does run a taller bar clamp that felt great. He runs a quick-turn throttle cam that ultimately allows him to get to full throttle quicker. It is also worth mentioning, you cannot find neutral on this bike. A false neutral on a jump face could be catastrophic, and the team takes no chances.
The most notable difference in his setup was the seat. Every seat I have ever seen has a smooth, tapered transition from the top of the seat that gradually gets wider at the base and follows the same taper into the side panels. Dean runs a gripper, pleated GUTS seat cover to keep him planted while sitting on the seat, but the sides bulge out a couple inches, mushrooming out over the side panels with soft foam. Think muffin top. Dean says it gives him something extra to hold onto with his knees as he stands up on the bike. Being tall myself, I often find that trying to squeeze the bike while standing leads to an awkward knock-kneed stance. I fell in love with his seat in two minutes. The grip and control was amazing.
I grew up with the impression that factory race bikes hit so hard they would want to rip the bars out of your hands. Nothing could be further from the truth with Dean Wilson's bike. The power is strong right off idle; however, the delivery is smooth and measured from the bottom and into the midrange. I was surprised at how easy it was to control. In fact, there were points in the powerband that I thought were actually stronger on the stock bike. For instance, I spent a little time on the vet track—which was extremely fast and smooth—to strictly concentrate on the power delivery with no other distractions. The stock motor was fairly progressive down low, but there was an aggressive surge in the midrange that made the bike consistently want to wheelie about 100 feet out of the corner; it required me to either slide my weight forward considerably or break the drive to the rear wheel with a quick stab of the clutch. Either way, it was extra work and less efficient. Dean's bike, on the other hand, felt every bit as fast; however, the linear delivery was much easier to control and kept the front-end down, which allowed me to twist the throttle hard and not think about playing defense. The geometry of the bike may have played a role in the front-end staying connected to the track as well—I will get into that in a moment. The top-end was just as versatile. It made awesome power whether I shifted or not. In fact, I couldn't find the rev limiter or a flat spot in the power—the bike pulled as far as I wanted until I ran out of straight. Although the bike ripped, the first words I would use to describe it would be user-friendly and efficient rather than crazy fast.
The handling and suspension are what really set this bike apart from anything I have ridden. Dean switched the stock 22mm offset triple clamps in favor of more stability provided by a 24mm offset; however, to compensate for a lag in cornering, he raised the forks up in the clamps considerably for quicker reaction. The results were staggering. On the fast, rutted straights where the stock bike wallowed and drifted, Dean's bike tracked straight as an arrow, never even wavering from my intended line—but the cornering wasn't hampered at all. The bike carved the ruts hard, never exuding the lazy push sometimes encountered when the bike has too much offset. In fact, one of the most telling tests was actually on the vet track. By this time of the day, the slightly banked turns were hard, sunbaked and dry—no ruts or soft loam. I expected some front-end drift as I pushed harder and harder into the slick turns, but it never happened. The front-end stuck right where I put it and carved like I was on Velcro. The balance of the bike was incredible.
But the biggest difference between Dean's bike and the others was the suspension. To put it bluntly, it was like cheating. The first quarter of the stroke offered some reasonable plushness for comfort and feel, although you could tell there was some integrity behind it. As the action worked deeper into the stroke, it got progressively firmer in a hurry. The cool part was that there was no harsh point in the mid-stroke that is often found when trying to find the balance between a supple feel and good bottoming control. The action always felt smooth but was so substantial that bottoming out was never a consideration even on the biggest jumps. We have all gone long on big jumps before and felt the crack of a harsh bottom accompanied by a neck snap and a huge out-of-control rebound, right? Not on Dean's bike. The suspension soaks up the big hits and keeps the wheels on the ground—so confidence inspiring! I could ride so much harder into the turns because rather than skipping, and hopping, and pitching into the corners through the braking bumps, the Husky stayed tight to the track surface. Sure, you could feel the bumps, but the bike never reacted. It felt like riding a bicycle down a set of stairs: bumpy, but planted. The difference between the American factory bike and the European factory bike was amazing. While I think Max Nagl's bike actually had more power, I couldn't use it all. The suspension was so foreign to me I felt like I couldn't do anything right, where on Wilson's bike it felt like I couldn't do anything wrong. There was no excess. The suspension didn't move any more than it needed, the wheels seemed to always remain connected to the track, and it felt like I always had the right amount of power for the situation, no more, no less.
I wish everyone could have the opportunity to spin a few laps on a factory bike to see just how good a bike can be. It was an awesome experience. Thank you to the guys at Rockstar Energy Husqvarna and thank you to swap for the text!
Husqvarna FC 450 Specifications
Cylinder: OEM Cylinder Head: OEM with CNC Ports Crankshaft: Pankl Camshaft E/I: Husqvarna Factory Racing Throttle Body: OEM Ignition: Husqvarna Factory Racing Spark Plug: LMAR 9AI-8 NGK Exhaust System: FMF Ti Gearing Fr/Rr: 14/51 Chain: RK MXZ Transmission: Husqvarna Factory Racing Clutch: Hinson Oil: Bel-Ray Thumper 10W-40 Fuel: ETS Engine Covers: Hinson Clutch/Stock Ignition Tires (Front/Rear): Dunlop Race Spec Hubs: Talon/Dubya Rims: Excel A60 Axles: Titanium Spokes: OEM Brake Pads: Brembo Brake Discs (Front/Rear): Galfer Brake Master Cylinder: Brembo Brake Calipers (Front/Rear): Brembo Front Disc Cover: Acerbis Forks: WP 52mm Cone Valve Shock: Factory WP Trax Shock Linkage: OEM Triple Clamps: Neken Handlebars: Pro Taper Anderson Bend Grips: Pro Taper, Soft Throttle Tube: Pro Circuit Levers: Husqvarna Factory Racing Skid Plate: Akrapovic Chain Guide: Akropovic Assorted Bolts: Titanium/Aluminum Foot Pegs: Raptor Plastic: OEM Seat Cover: Guts Graphics: N-Style