KTM 1290 Super Adventure R

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With its 2017 1290 Super Adventure R, KTM has an off-road conqueror that challenges even the most skilled riders to bring their A-games.

Extreme adventuring

By Bertrand Gahel

Spend some time with the top folks at KTM and you’ll quickly understand that when it comes to off-road related stuff, they live in their own world where racing (and the colour orange) reigns above all else. That “Ready to Race” slogan isn’t a joke. Last year I had the opportunity to interview Theresa Gstaltmaier, KTM’s global marketing person, and pressed her on the apparent conflict between that slogan’s off-road origin and the fact that you don’t race, say, adventure bikes. Which led to an unusually rich and frank discussion. 

She explained that, because of their growing street lineup, they thought about changing it. Actually, for a while, “Are you Ready?” could be seen on the Austrian company’s promo material. But they quickly decided to revert back to the original slogan for off-road and street products. 

“It’s us,” said Ms. Gstaltmaier. “’Ready to Race’ really does reflect who we are. I understand the apparent conflict with street bikes that don’t race, but what we realized is that those words are more than a slogan; they’re a state of mind. They’re our state of mind. “They’re how we approach everything. We approach issues and make decisions with a champion mentality, with the mindset of a competitor about to begin a race.”

That mindset represents the premise for the all-new 1290 Super Adventure R. To illustrate, KTM flew the motorcycle media to Paracas, Peru; a bumpy six-hour bus ride from Lima airport. That’s because the 1290 is KTM’s flagship adventure model and the press HAD to ride it in the desert where it belongs. With temperatures hovering around the 40C mark, we were instructed to drink a lot to avoid dehydration. A bowl of pills the size of your small finger was passed along just before the start of the test ride. “We suggest you down five. That’s what Chris Birch takes, so…” KTM reps said. 

Birch and Quinn Cody, KTM factory riders, world champions and racing legends were lead riders. In KTM’s world, extreme is normal. We spent very little time on pavement and quickly got to the rocky and sandy stuff. The bike’s 18-inch rear/21-front front tubeless rims were mounted with Conti TKC 80s, which didn’t feel completely natural on asphalt, but were indispensable where we were heading.  

I’ve never seen anything like it. Within minutes of leaving the pavement, all signs of civilization had disappeared. A semblance of path could be perceived on the ground, but just barely and all day I kept wondering how our lead rider knew how to orient. 

I knew better than to join group one and two led by the champions. Group three had a good pace: not too fast, not too slow, that allowed me to pay some attention to the otherworldly nature surrounding us. I’ve traveled a lot but never have I felt so far from anything man-made. It really was like riding on another planet. I’ll never forget it. 

The 1290 Super Adventure R is a big bike, but I was surprised at how manageable it is. I was expecting a monster. After all, the new R is based on the travel-oriented 1290 Super Adventure T, a huge and intimidating heavy machine I truly have no interest in riding on anything else than paved roads. The R feels like a different bike altogether. 

It’s still a heavyweight in the adventure niche, but not in an exaggerated way. Ergonomics play an important role in how welcoming it feels considering its proportions. Standing up on the pegs, flying across this beautifully stark Peruvian landscape with 100 kmh regularly showing on the great all-digital new display, the R felt like a properly capable off-road machine. 

The only time the suspension bottomed was at high speed when riding over a pronounced dip or hitting a rock I hadn’t seen soon enough. The rest of the time, including a few landings after both wheels left the ground, the ride was remarkably plush. The WP fork and shock (both offer a generous 220mm of travel) aren’t semi-active or even electronically adjustable (only manually), but for off-road riding they work magnificently. 

One very interesting characteristic of the 1290 Super Adventure R is that even with all its off-road capability, it still feels like a refined and sophisticated motorcycle and not at all like a sumo-sized dirtbike. For instance, cruise control is standard, there’s an optional quick-shifter I really got to like, various ride modes can be chosen from, etc. 

We basically spent all day in Offroad mode which is limited to 100 hp, but leaves the massive torque of the 1301cc V-Twin borrowed from the Super Duke R at the rider’s disposal. Maybe the coolest part of Offroad is the traction-control management: the bike almost feels as if there’s no traction-control as it seems to spin its back wheel at will coming out of turns, which, thanks to the massive torque, can be done in a number of gears and even from low revs. But TC is active, it’s just very well tuned. The 1290 SA R is also equipped with an electronic slip function that prevents the rear from locking up on closed throttle and in this case too, it just works. 

For a bike that I was somewhat apprehensive about riding in these extreme conditions because of its size and the model it’s derived from, the 1290 Super Adventure R pleasantly surprises by not being overly intimidating and, by the end of the day, allowed for a fun experience. That being said, it remains a big and powerful adventure machine capable of fulfilling the most challenging demands of even very experienced off-road riders. 

I witnessed this first hand when our lead rider got tired of the reasonable pace toward the end of the day. With everyone relatively comfortable with higher speeds by that point, he started to ride faster. I was exiting my comfort zone, but I kept up without too much trouble. Then he began to occasionally leave the barely visible path to free ride in the desert. I had no intention of following him, but the sight of his 1290 Super Adventure Rbzigzagging in the desert while roosting rocks and sand hundreds of feet long at well over 100 kmh was majestic. He’d rejoin the trail, wait for us a bit, then leave again and go crazy. 

Unfortunately, this situation didn’t end well for me. Riding faster than I had all day and without someone in front to show me the right path, I encountered a couple of sharp turns (yep, in the middle of the desert) covered with about a foot of sand. I managed not to fall when the bike snapped sideways three or four times, but ultimately I couldn’t overpower all that mass: I fell and tumbled a few times before coming to a dusty stop. Fortunately, I wasn’t too banged up and the bike showed only minimal damage and could still be ridden. The lesson, which I knew but was once again reminded: never get too confident; never ride above your comfort level. Ah well. 

The 1290 Super Adventure R is KTM’s vision of the ultimate adventure machine. Cool-looking, big, powerful and high-tech where it needs to be, it’s extraordinarily competent in its element, nature at its wildest. It’s not cheap at $19,499, but it’s not at all ridiculously priced either. It’s heavy, very tall and decidedly not for everyone. But for those who feel right at home when everyone else feels overwhelmed, there’s no substitute currently offered on the market.                  

KTM 1090 Adventure R

At $15,499, the new 1090 Adventure R is reasonably priced for a KTM, about on par with a Honda Africa Twin. While it seems very similar, style and specs wise, to the 1290 Super Adventure R, in reality, it’s a slimmed down, less expensive version of the now discontinued 1190 Adventure R. 

KTM used its Murrieta, California headquarters as the base for the new 1090 press launch. 

Within a few yards of company offices, we were already off-road and stayed in that environment for the better part of the two-day press event. Southern California seen from the trails rather than the road is just magnificent. It’s surprising as only a short ride is required for the scenery to appear genuinely remote and inhabited. 

Most of our time on the bike was spent on relatively rough trails that got more technical as speed increased. Melon sized rocks, deep ruts, tricky silky sand and dust were the norm on the hilly trails, all conditions the 1090 welcomed. 

Although only 10 kilos lighter than the 1290, the 1090 feels like a considerably lighter and more agile adventure bike, which for normal-skilled off-road riders like myself is a huge benefit. It’s still a very tall motorcycle because of the 220mm travel on the excellent WP fork and shock, but its light and narrow feel help what is still a full-size ADV model feel surprisingly manageable and nimble. 

The new 125-hp V-Twin is down 25 hp on the 1190 motor, but I’ve never felt like I wanted more, even in Offroad mode, which limits power to 100 hp. The way the entire motorcycle works in this mode— power delivery, throttle response, ABS calibration, traction-control tuning—is just remarkable and testifies to KTM’s off-road knowledge. It literally feels as though it’s been tuned to the race department’s liking, which probably isn’t far from the truth. The same comment can be made about the manually fully adjustable WP suspension.

The front bottomed a few times while riding over deep rain-eroded ruts, but the absorption was still good enough to avoid any damage to the tire or rim. For suspension with this much travel, I was surprised how well front-end dive is controlled on the street. 

Compared to the 1290 Super Adventure R, which is essentially KTM’s expression of the ultimate heavyweight adventure machine, the 1090 represents something more practical, more down to earth. It isn’t a model that’s all about a particular spec like horsepower or even about a particular technology like semi-active suspension. Rather, the 1090 is all about fun and efficiency in a true off-road environment. It’s sort of the dirt bike of adventure models, which is both its most attractive characteristic and its biggest downside: to regular motorcyclists looking at the ADV class, it’ll probably look intimidating and over-specialized. 

But to those riders who insist on getting up close and personal with cactuses, snakes and tarantulas, for those who tend to regularly break normal street-biased ADV bikes, there just may not be a better off-road tool than the 1090. It’s that good.