By Pat Foster
Photos by Mike Emery
What a breakout year it has been for Zach Osborne! I know, it is a somewhat odd statement to make – for a dozen years now Zach has been extremely competitive and right on the cusp of success racing professionally both in Europe and the United States. But for whatever reason, there always seemed to be just a small piece of the puzzle missing. I know injuries have a played a role from time to time, but what was the overarching difference this year? Was it fitness? Desire? Confidence? The right equipment?
It's funny…I have never met Zach Osborne. I have not had the opportunity to interview him and ask him what the difference was that led to his dominance this year. But you know what? I don't think I need to. As a fan of the sport, I watched each round of the Monster Energy Supercross series and Lucas Oil MX Nationals on TV, both in which Osborne was super impressive. Watching the races alone gave a lot of insight into Zach's program, however I also recently had the incredible opportunity to ride his Lucas Oil Pro Motocross 250 Championship winning Rockstar Energy Husqvarna and I can tell you, it is amazing what you can decipher by just riding the man's bike. Those four critical elements I mentioned above came pouring out in the couple hours I got to spend on his machine. I'll explain.
Of course, as anybody would be, I was thrilled at the opportunity to ride the champ’s bike and the guys at Husqvarna could not have been more accommodating. 'Scuba" Steve Westfall, Rockstar Husqvarna's Race Team Crew Chief, came out personally to oversee the test and answer any questions we had. As is standard protocol when riding a factory bike, you ride it just as its racer does. There is no setting the sag, moving the bars, or adjusting the levers because then you are not truly experiencing his set-up and understanding what he feels on the track. And this truly was Zach's set-up. Scuba told me that the bike came straight off the track at the final National in Indiana, (after dominating 1-1 moto finishes to cap-off the season) received a quick wash, an oil change, and was delivered to us to test at Milestone.
It became clear to me the first time I sat on Zach's bike that Husky and the team sponsors will spare no expense in giving Zach what he needs to feel comfortable. For starters, Zach and I are built quite a bit differently. I am about seven inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than Zach. For me, the stock Husky is comfortable with ergonomics that are pretty neutral and accommodating for my size. When I sat on Zach's bike, it didn't feel anywhere close to any other Huskys I have ridden. The rider compartment is significantly tighter than stock. The seat is cut low with a hump positioned under his GUTS gripper seat cover to keep Zach planted right where he wants to be off the starts. His Raptor footpegs (which are razor sharp, by the way) are raised 5mm from stock, further tightening up the rider compartment. He runs Pro Taper handlebars with a crossbar (FCR Bend) which carries a relatively low profile but in a fairly neutral position, and he chooses to run 33mm bar mounts which are significantly lower than the stock 38mm. Everything feels low and condensed down. However, that is not the most notable aspect of the bars. His grips are tiny; like nothing I have ever felt on a full-sized bike. Zach has pretty small hands and to help accommodate him he has special bars made that have a diameter smaller than the typical 7/8". To make them work, he also has to run a special throttle tube and extra small Pro Taper grips. It felt closer to holding onto a single finger than the controls of a dirt bike. To be honest, I didn't even know such an option existed. Pretty cool.
The natural stance of Zach's bike favors a rear end bias, which means the front end sits higher than the rear – chopper style. He tends to run his sag at about 112mm-115mm. Although we didn't bother to check it, you can imagine that with my additional weight, the rear end was considerably lower than Zach runs it. It felt pretty squatty in the back. However, it was remarkably firm. I was a little taken aback at how stiff the compression felt on the rear end for a lighter guy. What was even more notable was how much rebound he had in the rear. It felt like Supercross suspension. The shock exuded such a "dead" feeling as I bounced on the rear end. It didn't move much at all. The forks were similar, maybe slightly plusher. However, it was evident that they were going to be rigid. Zach's set-up is definitely ready to hit bumps hard.
Just as I was reaching for the electric start to finally bring Zach's bike to life for the first time, Scuba advised, "Don't be afraid to rev this thing, she likes to live in the upper RPMs!" Note taken, although, I don't believe I took him serious enough. To be honest, I was anticipating this bike to have a ton of low-end grunt and torque off the bottom – maybe something that felt closer to a Husqvarna 350 down low. It would make sense that Zach would want to utilize third gear as often as possible through the corners and be able to roll-on some hearty, trackable power especially late in the motos when maybe a little fatigue was setting in…I couldn't have been more wrong. As I cruised the first few laps to get accustomed to the bike I thought I had enough speed to pull the gear I was in out of the corners. Nope! "Waaa, Waaa, Waaa," was what it sounded like as I fanned the clutch trying to get the revs up while the bike was falling on its face. It had terrible low-end and it reminded me of my days riding 125s in the 90s – obviously not that extreme, but, heading that direction. In fact, I would have loved to ride the stock Husky 250 back-to-back with Zach's bike because the stock bike has a considerably better bottom end power curve and is easier to ride out of the corners – so interesting.
Once I realized that "Scuba's" direction to "rev-it" should have been taken more as an order than a suggestion, the bike became unbelievable. This thing absolutely screams! I would downshift to second every corner, sometimes first in the really tight insides, and just rev this bike to the moon. The harder I revved it the more effective it was. It wasn't as though I was disheartened to round the corners in second and have to grab a shift to third before the next jump – I could just leave it in second and it would keep ripping – forget the shift! There was no flat spot at the rev-limiter…I couldn't find the rev limiter. I thought the piston was going to come out of the top of the cylinder. I felt a little bad actually – I was assaulting this bike! I pulled to the side of the track near Scuba for a moment thinking he may be upset at me and he nonchalantly says, "It sounds like you are starting to rev it a little better." Sheeesh…Game on!
Once you keep the RPM's up coming out of the corners the power builds like a dragster through the rest of the curve. The mid-range pulls extremely hard and as you can imagine, the top-end is unbelievable. The stock Husqvarna already utilizes an incredible platform for top-end power in stock condition, but Zach's bike was another level. The one downside I noticed, which is typical when a bike is revving hard, is the shifting can be stubborn – and that was the case from second to third if I was on it hard. Scuba's advice? "Slam that shift up! Don't mess around!" He said that transmission durability is a major focus for them with Zach's shifts being as aggressive as they are. "The transmission can take it – trust me," he said.
Handling-wise, I have always gravitated towards bikes offering a more rigid feel and generally utilize stiffer settings and more rebound than most. I find a lot of benefit in having a "calm' bike and although Zach's settings were pushed a little further extreme than I typically go, (which was surprising, given that he is lighter than me) it validated a lot of my opinions about set-up. Bottom line, I loved it. This bike is not built for comfort at all. The suspension is not plush, it isn't smooth – this thing is purpose-built to go fast. The faster you go, the better it feels. It was so effective at keeping the rear wheel planted and connected to the track surface under acceleration. Of course, you could feel the rear end impacting the chop coming out of the turns, but the dead feeling offered by the firm compression and abundance of rebound kept the bike driving straight with no pitching front to rear which was also germane on the braking bumps. The bike stayed level, linked to the track, and grabbing hard under braking. That was another place that the firm suspension was a notable benefit – landing hard off of jumps the suspension absorbs everything with ease with no bounce and virtually no lift making the wheels light. Often on a stock bike, when you land hard the bike may have a tendency to bounce a little or even just get light momentarily as the suspension reacts, not on Zach's bike. You could land off a hard jump and dive to the inside while on the brakes and the tires would consistently grab hard – so effective! It helps that his Galfer brakes are incredibly strong, 260mm rotor up front and a larger than stock – 240mm rotor in the rear. Both were extremely grabby. I was actually a little surprised that Zach's rear brake pedal needed to be pushed down as far as it did before it actuated, but once I felt how gnarly the stopping power was, I got it. He has some extra room built in so he doesn't accidentally hit it on the face of a jump while scrubbing.
In theory, Zach's bike should not have cornered very well for me given that the front-end was already relatively high with his set-up before my additional weight is taken into consideration. However, it cornered great. The front end traction was considerably better than I thought it would be and the bike carved both outside berms and inside ruts aggressively without wanting to push or stand up. The biggest issue I had was more ergonomically. Naturally, the bars felt low, the pegs felt high and as a result I didn't have the best leverage over the bike in all cases. I found myself perched up on top of his bump seat a lot because I gravitated a little further back on the bike than he typically does. You know what, though? The ergonomic issues didn't really bother me. The bike was so fast, tight, and consistent. There was no excess – the bike didn't do anything I didn't expect. It was really fun to ride something so effective. I didn't even mind the tiny grips. It actually made it easy to hold onto the bike without having to grip too hard – although I never got used to the feel.
So, was Zach's success this year more attributed to his fitness, desire, confidence, or the right equipment? Clearly, after riding his bike, it is the culmination of all four. The current crop of top riders in the 250 class are savages ready to sprint the entire 30 minutes plus two laps – and that is exactly how Zach has his bike set-up. It is set-up to sprint. There is no smooth torque down low or plushness in his setting – this thing needs to be revved to the moon and manhandled. He is clearly confident in his fitness because there is no contingency built into his set-up for fatigue. Which also means he is putting in the work during the week. While most of the class is in unbelievable shape, Zach is the one usually making moves late in the moto. He wants it bad… How bad? How about his last lap pass in Vegas for the Supercross Championship? And to round it out, it is evident that not only is Husqvarna willing to give him everything he needs to feel comfortable on the bike, they have put in unbelievable hours to make sure that his bike holds together in the manner that he needs to ride it. The fact that he didn't have a string of DNF'S to bike failure speaks volumes to the effort that goes in behind the scenes – which once again contributes to confidence.
As I helped push the bike up the loading ramp and into the back of "Scuba's" van, it was pretty surreal knowing that it had just done its last laps on a motocross track and was going to be featured in the main lobby of the Husqvarna Headquarters from here on out…. Thanks for the opportunity guys!
Video by Chase Curtis