Motorcycle Hillclimb

Total Deception

3205 days ago by Pole Position Raceway

It Looks So Much Easier on TV

By Grant Langston

Photos by Ken Faught

I have watched motorcycle hillclimbing on TV ever since my dad showed me the movie On Any Sunday as a little kid in South Africa. The big horsepower bikes with their incredibly long swingarms have always fascinated me, especially after I saw seven-time AMA Supercross champion Jeremy McGrath ride one at a North American Hillclimbers Association event in Montana about 10 years ago when he was still in his prime.

The bikes that McGrath raced were owned by five-time hillclimb World Champion Kerry Peterson. By most accounts, Kerry is considered the greatest motorcycle hillclimber of all-time, and still holds hill records to this day after retiring over 15 years ago. Simply put, Kerry is a badass. The five-time champ's legacy has continued through two of his son's Bret and Robie with both of them winning multiple National and International Hillclimb titles. Bret most recently captured 3 out of 4 N.A.H.A. National Hillclimb Championship titles and tied for the 4th in a dominant record-breaking 2012 race season.

Fast forward and I found myself sitting atop a Team Peterson 300-horsepower nitro-injected KTM 1190 at the base of a nasty hill in Beaumont, California. I was there at the invitation of Ken Faught, the former editor-in-chief of Dirt Rider magazine, who was also the one who arranged the unique experience for McGrath in Montana. My heart was pounding about as much as it was the first time I hit a triple in Supercross. This bike had five times the amount of horsepower as the Yamaha YZ450F I used with win my last AMA 450cc National MX Championship, and I had no excuses. All I kept thinking about was how it looked so much easier on TV, and now it was intimidating as hell.

The Team Peterson Malcolm Smith Motorsports KTM's are known to be some of the most immaculately prepared and competitive machines on the circuit, and the custom details are incredibly impressive. They have their own NASCAR-style transporter just like the factory motocross teams, with backing from some of the biggest names in motorsports like, Lucas Oil, KTM, Troy Lee Designs, K&N, Race Tech, Renthal, Yoshimura, Alpinestars, Dunlop, Renegade, Fastway, Hinson, Oakley and many more. It was literally a case of go big or go home, and I was both excited and nervous about the experience at the same time.


Hillclimbing is the oldest form of organized motorcycle competition in the United States as well as America's oldest extreme sport. The first motorcycle hillclimbs were held in the early 1920s although the exact location of the first event is at the center of much debate.

Traditional hillclimbs were all about riders trying to conquer a hill that seemed virtually impossible to climb. It was the thrill of watching daredevils cartwheeling down the side of a mountain that helped it grow in popularity before, during and after the depression. Harley Davidson and Indian were the dominant brands at the time, with both manufacturers fielding factory teams.

Today, the sport has many different aspects, and the two most-popular are actually divided by the East and Wests coasts. The sport on the East coast typically features groomed straight hills, with numerous jumps, where riders are scored by time. It’s usually not a question of whether the rider will make it to the top, it’s just a matter of how fast. In sharp contrast, hillclimbs on the West Coast are much rougher, resembling up hill motocross courses with many turns and challenging obstacles. Good suspension is just as important as big horsepower.

In the early days of the sport, it was all about big-displacement bikes running on exotic fuels. Now, with the increased horsepower produced by smaller single-cylinder bikes, there are three classes broken up by displacement along with a relatively new racing format called X Climb. In this type of competition, X Climb riders compete on extended swingarm 450s in side-by-side drag-race-style action. They can’t do it on the larger bikes because the roost thrown from a 300-horsepower monster would be too much at close range.

Because of the never-ending quest for horsepower, competitors have come up with all types of engine configurations including four-cylinder streetbikes, three-cylinder snowmobile powerplants, and exotic 700cc singles. Kerry Peterson at one time even worked with Pro Circuit’s Mitch Payton to run two Honda CR500R engines inline to make a bike that was an incredible 9 feet long. The twin engines ran on methanol and produced 150 horsepower on the Honda 1000.

The current Team Peterson stable of KTM's have supermoto spec engines in the 450 and 700 class with high rpm big horsepower powerbands and the mighty 1190 with its shrieking nitro injected v-twin. The 450 and 700 utilize production KTM 450 SXF frames with custom extended chrome moly swingarms, while the 1190 is in a complete custom frame with components to harness the massive horsepower and be able to use all its got in the dirt.

Another critical component is the chain that takes a lot of abuse. Team Peterson actually get their chain in bulk because they have to be extended every time the wheelbase is changed. For example, the wheelbase of a 2015 YZ450 is 58.3 inches. Team Peterson’s KTM450SX can run anywhere from a 64 to 72 inch wheelbase, and the 1190 can be stretched all the way to 82 inches long.

You will also notice that the rear sprocket is sandwiched between two aluminum discs called pie plates. These are designed to help keep the chain on the sprocket as the long swingarm moves up and down under extreme load. The 450 for example produces 70 horspower with Renegade SX4 race gas. The 660RFS competes in the 700cc Exhibition class produces 120 horsepower with Renegade K16 Race Gas and Nitrous Oxide Injection. The badboy of the group, is based off KTM’s 1190 RC8 superbike motor which normally produces 170 horsepower, but with the motor modifications, and the Hilborn Nitromethane injection, it cranks out 300 horsepower. This uses a 50/50 mixture of Nitromethane and Renegade Methanol with Propylene Oxide. We are talking about fuels and technology that you would normally only find at a drag strip and as Bret Peterson stated " You absolutely cannot explain the adrenaline rush of grabbing a 300 HP handful of throttle and pointing it up the side of a mountain"


My day started off on Bret Peterson’s highly modified KTM 450SX with its long swingarm and offset rubber paddle tire. The power of this machine was exactly what I expected, and it took me a while to get used to the longer wheelbase and overall steering and handling. In Supercross, we changed overall wheelbase by millimeters at a time, and the differences were huge. After all, the wheelbase changes your steering and overall balance of the machine. On these hillclimb bikes, they make changes in inches, plural, at a time. In fact, some of the bikes I rode were about two feet longer than a conventional motorcross bike.

“The overall length of the bike is extremely important,” said Kerry Peterson who is a five-time champion and still holds the record for the fastest time over the top of the world-famous Widowmaker in Utah. “We have to change wheelbases and find the right gearing for each and every hill.”

The goal is to find the right compromise where you can lay into the throttle hard, and yet still have maneuverability to navigate the course. If the bike is too short, it will want to lift, and if it’s too long, you can’t use technique to loft the front end over difficult obstacles.

I followed Bret around a 500-acre playground near the old DeAnza Cycle Park, and tried to stay in his lines. I was surprised at how much side bite the staggered paddles provide. I really wasn’t expecting the bike to hookup as much as it did, nor was I expecting it to keep climbing at slow speeds. In areas that I would normally “dig in” on a conventional motocrosser, the hillclimb bikes would keep going.

But let me assure you, it’s not all bike. I always thought that if I had the chance to ride a hillclimb bike, that I could do all of the things that the top guys could. Boy was I wrong. Bret climbed up some vertical ledges that I wouldn’t even attempt. He also had the ability to turn the bike way quicker than I could, and this was especially important when side-hilling. My bike would want to just go straight, and he was somehow able to use throttle, clutch control, and body technique to finesse the bike up the hill.

It’s also on these bikes that the riders in the North American Hillclimbers Association compete in X-Climb. It’s a side-by-side drag race up the hill that sometimes include freestyle motocross ramps at the base. This is one of the crazier aspects of the sport, but one that I think is really cool.

Next I rode the 660, which is an incredible all-around bike with significantly more horsepower than anything I have ever ridden in the dirt. It produces 120 horsepower through nitrous oxide injection and handles exceptionally well even with all that power.

“I was really impressed with the way that Grant was riding,” said multi-time NAHA National Hillclimb Champion Bret Peterson. “He seemed really comfortable and was willing to try almost everything that I was climbing.”

What I wasn’t expecting was the 1190 KTM. This is basically a superbike engine running  on a 50/50 mix of nitromethane and methanol with propylene oxide. Just sitting on a bike with 300HP is intimidating, even before I put it in gear. By the way, it only has a one-speed transmission, up for in gear and down for neutral, there is such an abundance of power it will literally pull any rear sprocket you put on it, just depends on how fast you really want to go!!

So after a day of riding these things, what do I think? I was literally blown away with the overall difference between these bikes and normal motocrossers. Although a lot translates from motocross to hillclimbing, a tremendous amount does not. I have gained a huge amount of respect for guys like Bret and Kerry Peterson, and am equally impressed with their customized bikes. I can now scratch that off my bucket list, and when my kids grow up and watch On Any Sunday for their first time, I can tell them first hand what it’s like to ride one of those crazy nitro-burning bikes with the ridiculously long swingarms.