For the past few years I’ve watched my buddy Tricepilot Bob ride his KTM 500 EXC on our adventures in Mexico and have been impressed every time with the capabilities of the bike. It didn’t matter what we rode – serious class 3 dirt roads or 400 miles of pavement in a day – the little 500 EXC handled it all with ease. Who knew that a 260 lb, dirt-bike-with-blinkers would work so well as a lightweight adventure bike? After an exploration trip to Mexico in October 2016, where we spent a bunch of time riding steep and rocky class 3 dirt roads in the mountains, I determined that my Husqvarna TR650 Terra was just too darn heavy for this type of riding. I decided right then that I too was going to get a 500 EXC. I located a lightly-used 2015 model in November, made a deal on it, and began building it to suit my needs.
The previous owner was running her in Supermoto form. Here’s what she looked the day I brought her home.
My intent for this bike was for it to be my “trailer bike”. What that means is that if I’m trailering to the riding area – say to Big Bend, or Arkansas, or the Rocky Mountains – this is the bike I will take. I don’t plan on doing long distance touring on this bike. For example, I never expect to ride it the 500 miles from my home in central Texas to the Big Bend region of west Texas. That ride would be made on another bike, like the previously mentioned Husqvarna TR650 Terra. But if I’m trailering there then the 500 is the bike I’ll be loading in the trailer for that trip.
I also expect to use it as my Mexico exploration bike. During our adventures seeking out new areas and roads in Mexico, there is no telling what difficulties me might encounter and I want the lightest, most capable dirt bike I can get my hands on for those trips. I’ve watched my buddy Bob on his 500 enough to know that it is a great choice. Conditions where my 404 lb. TR650 Terra is a handful are much easier negotiated on the 260 lb. EXC. Plus I don’t need help picking it up when the inevitable drops occur.
Clearly, the bike needed a plethora of modification to make it suitable for my purposes so with my intent firmly in mind I began the build process.
Wheels and Tires
The first thing I needed to do was to replace the supermoto wheels with proper dirt bike wheels. Luckily, the previous owner included the stock tires and wheels with the purchase so that was an easy change.
Even though I average a bit more than 50 miles to the gallon with the EXC, the 2.5 gallon stock fuel tank was too small for my needs. I prefer a 200 mile range on my adventure bikes so I added a 5.3 gallon gas tank from Acerbis. That seems like a big difference – and it is – but surprisingly the 5.3 doesn’t look huge or out of place on the bike because it replaces both the stock gas tank and the plastic shrouds that attach to the stock tank. The 5.3 is a bit wider in front than the stock tank + shrouds, but not objectionably so.
As an added bonus, the 5.3 gallon tank provides some stout protection for the radiators.
There are smaller aftermarket tanks if 5.3 seems like overkill to you. For example, Acerbis also offers a 4.1 gallon tank and a 3 gallon tank for the EXC. But, as my buddy Bob likes to point out, there is no law that says you have to fill the 5.3 gallon tank up. If you only need 3 gallons of gas, then you can just put 3 gallons in. However, on those occasions when you need 5 gallons, you have that option with the 5.3 but not with the other, smaller tanks.
Hard luggage doesn’t seem like a good choice for the 500. The bike is too light and the subframe is likely not strong enough. Plus there is the pesky problem of hard bags breaking your ankle when riding in the dirt. For these reasons, I opted for soft luggage.
However, you need a way to strap the soft luggage to the bike and, of course, you don’t want the exhaust to melt your soft bags. To address this issue I added a rear/side rack from Globetrottin’. They make a particular smart, good looking, functional one-piece rear/side rack for the 500 that comes with a lower attachment point for bags like the Giant Loop. It’s a well-designed and thought out piece of kit and it has been a great choice for me.
The EXC doesn’t come with a windscreen of any kind. When riding the stock bike you have constant wind pressure on your torso, pushing you backwards. To alleviate this I added a MRA Roadshield RO Universal Motorcycle Windshield from Twisted Throttle. I’ve tried various bolt-on, universal windscreens over the years and find that I like the MRA best due to it’s mounting system. This particular model is small but surprisingly effective and fits well with the overall minimalistic functionality of the EXC.
It took me about a month to make the above changes whereupon I took the 500 to Big Bend for its inaugural journey.
Ready for her first trip to Big Bend
Here she is overlooking the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park from Old Ore Road.
In the above photos I’m running the Wolfman enduro tank bag, the Wolfman E-12 saddle bags, a tail bag from Dowco, and a spare tube bag on the front fender.
Ouch, my butt hurts
The stock seat is narrow and hard. It’s not terrible for off-road riding since riding in the dirt tends to require both lots of standing and constantly moving around on the seat when siting. On pavement it’s a different story though – even 30 minutes of riding becomes quite uncomfortable since you tend to sit in one position the entire time. And sliding forward or backwards doesn’t help since the seat is the same width its entire length.
I have run Seat Concepts seats on previous bikes and found them to be an adequate-to-good solution depending on the bike. For example, the Seat Concepts on my Honda XR650L was particularly good. But on my Husky TR650 Terra it was only merely adequate.
I suspected that the 500 would need a bit more than a Seat Concepts upgrade in order to achieve a “good’ comfort rating so I decided to give Fisher Seats a try and have been happy with the results. I haven’t tried the Seat Concepts on a 500 so I can’t compare it to the Fisher but my buddy Bob has the Seat Concepts on his 500 and after riding my bike told me the Fisher seat is noticeably more comfortable.
One thing to note is that the Fisher seat is about 10 inches wide at the widest point versus 7 inches for the Seat Concepts upgrade. If I were jumping the bike a lot or riding seriously hard dirt (i.e. needing to get my weight back) then neither seat would likely be a great choice since the extra width would hinder moving your body back. But since that’s not the type of riding I do, the Fisher works for me.
With the major upgrades made, I was pretty happy with the bike. Still, there were a few smaller things I thought the bike needed (or that I just wanted).
I added a Scott’s steering stabilizer with riser which raised the bars about an inch and a half or so. The stock bars are too low for me when standing so I deliberately chose the risers with the stabilizer. The stock cables fit fine with the risers.
The 500 vibrates. A lot. It’s very noticeable in the handlebars but you can also feel it in the foot pegs, the seat, and when you press your knees against the gas tank. Objects in the mirrors are very blurry.
I point this out because vibration can be a challenge when riding pavement, especially vibration in the handlebars. While all bikes vibrate, some vibrate more than others or vibrate at a frequency that can cause your hands to go numb. One reason I stopped riding the DRZ400 was because the handlebar vibrated at a frequency that quickly put my hands to sleep. I tried various fixes but never found an adequate remedy so I got rid of the DRZ. Luckily, while the 500 vibrates more than I prefer, it’s not at a frequency that causes my hands to go numb.
I prefer to use handguards to protect the levers during a drop. I’ve had good experiences with the Cycra brand on other bikes so I ordered a set of their Probend handguards that, to my great surprise and joy, came with bar end weights. This is the first set of Cycra handguards I’ve bought that came with bar end weights and after installing them I happily discovered that these little weights did a great job of taming the handlebar vibrations. Candidly, I wasn’t expecting much when I first put them on but they made a big difference. So much so that I can ride the bike comfortably any distance that I want and never suffer any vibration induced hand/arm fatigue. I highly recommend this mod.
I don’t ride rocks a lot but when I do I want something protecting the engine cases from being punctured. In the past I’ve run heavy, thick, aluminum skid plates. They work well and are very stout but they add weight to the bike and reflect a lot of engine noise up towards the rider.
This time around I decided to give one of the new 21st century plastic skids plates a go. They are lighter than aluminum and are reputed to be quite tough. As you can see in the pics below, it not only protects the bottom and front of the engine, it also provides some side protection too. This particular plate is from TM Designs and seems very strong.
The Wolfman E-12s saddle bags are fine for warm weather day rides but too small for cold weather riding days when I need to pack additional insulated clothing and too small for multi-day rides. After seeing a set of Mosko Moto Reckless 40 bags on a Husqvarna 701 Enduro and discussing their advantages with the owner, I decided to give them a try. I have yet to try them on a multi-day ride but so far they have been fine for the day rides I’ve used them on.
I also changed out the Wolfman tank bag for the Giant Loop Fandango tank bag. The Fandango is larger (but not too large), has a bigger map display area, an internal divider, a better zipper, an entry point for a charging cable, and seems to be more water resistant than the Wolfman bag.
It’s too hot
The exhaust melted the right rear blinker – an apparently known issue with KTMs. I swapped the rear blinkers for some smaller units from Sicass Racing and that seems to have solved the issue.
I knew before I bought the 500 EXC that it would be a very good dirt bike – far superior in the dirt to any other street legal bike I’ve ever owned. And it is. What I wasn’t prepared for was how good it is on pavement. I was shocked to discover how capable this bike is at highway riding. The wide ratio 6 speed transmission is better at highway speeds than any of the Japanese thumpers that I’ve owned ( 2 x KLR, 2 x DRZ, 1 x XR650L). In fact, the 500 tranny is more versatile than the KTM 690 transmission and rivals that of the might Husqvarna TE610. With the addition of the MRA windshield, the Fisher Seat, and the bar end weights, this little bike definitely punches above its weight.
That’s not to imply that I’m going to start using this bike as a lightweight adventure touring bike, loading it down with gear and regularly riding it hundreds of paved miles to places like Big Bend or northwest Arkansas. It is still my “trailer” bike. But I know that whatever amount of pavement I end up doing on this bike will be done noticeably more comfortably and capably than I ever imagined.