Written by Martin Hodgson
The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb joins the Isle of Man TT as the two most prestigious and legendary time trials in all of motorsport. The ‘Race to the Clouds’ pits man and machine against 156 unique turns on the way to climbing nearly 5000ft in altitude before reaching the summit, high in the Rocky Mountains, some 14000ft above sea level. The demands on the motorcycle are only exceeded by those on the body and tragically some won’t make it home. But for Thomas Kendall the call of the mountain was strong and he re-built his 2008 Yamaha YZ450F in preparation for his first attack on the lightweight class.
For most of its near hundred-year history, the climb up Pikes Peak was a mixture of gravel and paved roads. But by the end of 2011 the road up the mountain had been given a coat of asphalt all the way to the top. But the brutal climb, rising altitude and sheer diversity of the corners mean the versatility of Naked and Supermoto bikes has them selected over the typical road race machines. In the lightweight class, motorcycles with either two or four-stroke engines that do not exceed two cylinders, with a displacement of up to 500cc can be entered.
But while most select a factory Supermoto bike and modify it to suit, Tom was already road racing his YZ back in California. So sticking with what he knows he underwent the enormous task of re-purposing the Yamaha to not only meet the rule book but to be capable of doing the job, quickly and safely. “This provided the opportunity to build something unique for the lightweight class… the bike became a mashup of super-single and tracker style,” Tom explains.
The stock aluminum chassis remains, but most of what makes the YZ such a good performer off-road would have to go to bring it up to speed for the run up the hill. The entire front end is replaced by a Yamaha R6 setup, with the upper triple clamp with risers machined by CNC gurus Cognito Moto. On top, Tom stuck a set of Renthal Fat Bars equipped with a Brembo RCS master cylinder and lever combo and Woodcraft lever guards.
The all-important foot controls are Valter Moto R1 rearsets that fit the bike thanks to a set of custom adapters. With braking taken care of by a single R6 caliper and wave rotor at the front, Brembo rear setup and HEL lines to help prevent fade. The rear shock is one of the single most important changes to a race bike and no expense was spared with a custom made Ohlins TTX unit called on for duties. An Ohlins steering damper also helps tame the beast and the bike rolls on an R6 front and Galespeed rear wheel.
The stock 449cc five-valve DOHC liquid-cooled engine is considered powerful and yet tractable, but that’s just not enough to climb Pikes Peak. Cracking the engine open Tom has kitted her out with a high compression Wiseco piston. With the head now sporting a pair of Hot Cams stage 2 bump sticks, Kibblewhite SS valves and valve springs, all fed by a Lectron Fuel Systems carburetor with a Graves Motorsport carb catch tank.
But making power is one thing, keeping the engine alive is another and a Boyesen water pump and Tusk oversize radiators help keep things cool. Sounding great, boosting power and looking a treat is the full DRD titanium exhaust. While a Wiseco clutch basket holds the power and an STM slipper clutch prevents the rear wheel locking on heavy downshifts. All of which are made smooth as silk with a Graves ignition module and Dynojet quick-shifter.
The bodywork is all about functionality, but Tom’s ride still looks trick as hell thanks to his clever selection of parts. The modified KTM RC390 belly pan is not only for the look and aero but also catches any fluids should the engine let go. Up top the fuel tank is hidden underneath a Roland Sands super single tank cover. With an Airtech Streamlining tracker seat featuring carbon mounts and only the barest of padding. While an R6 carbon front fender and custom carbon pipe guard keep the weight low on this already super-slim machine.
Painted up in blue and with his custom carbon number plates and sideboards in place Tom was ready for the trip to Colorado. A bunch of safety wire and a few sets of Metzeler slicks and it was time to twist the throttle. The Yamaha ran flawlessly all week and in his rookie year, Mr. Kendall cracked the 12min mark with a stunning 11.50 in trying conditions. Sadly the 97th running of the PPIHC ended in tragedy with the four-time winner and all-round great guy Carlin Dunne killed on the very last turn as he was set to eclipse the overall record on his prototype V4 Ducati. It’s a cruel reminder of just how dangerous the event is, but racers have it in their blood and Tom will return in 2020 with an all-new bike to catch the clouds even faster again.