TEMECULA, CA – Some adventure riders take off-roading very seriously. Most use their bikes like SUVs for touring, commuting or “exploring” dirt roads, but there are a few who venture where only 250 cc enduro bikes or burros should go.
Some of the more hardcore types won’t hesitate to take the gargantuan BMW R1200GS Adventure on technical, single-track trails, or climb steep, rocky hillsides, or even use it as an oversized trials bike. And in the right hands, the big bikes are very capable off-road machines. The BMW, though, has the risk of heavy engine damage should you slam the undercarriage onto a rock: even oversized aftermarket skid plates mount directly to the engine case, since there’s no frame surrounding the boxer engine. A friend recently put a gash in the bottom of his GS crankcase after bottoming on a rock.
There are some other big-bore options for serious off-road adventure bike riders, including the Honda Africa Twin introduced last year, and now the new KTM 1090 Adventure R.
What’s new with the KTM?
KTM already had a few big adventure bikes in its line-up last year: the 1290 Super Adventure, the 1190 Adventure and the 1190 Adventure R. The two non-R models were better suited for the street, while the R model had the 21-inch front and 18-inch rear wheel combination to improve its handling off-road. It boasted 150 hp, which is really overkill when throwing a roost off the rear tire.
KTM reshuffled those big adventure bikes for 2017. There’s an all-new 160-hp 1290 Super Adventure R (now sporting off-road wheel sizes) for riders who want to use the rear tire like a Gatling gun, and for more sensible riders who are also on a tighter budget, a 125-hp 1090 Adventure R replaces both 1190 models. It’s that smaller bike that I’m riding at its launch event here in California.
The 1090 engine is a de-stroked version of the 1190 engine (63 mm versus 69) with a 2-mm smaller bore at 103 mm, and it uses a mix of parts from different KTM twins, like valves from the 1190/1290, and cams from the 1050. It produces 80 lbs.-ft. of peak torque at 6,500 rpm, and includes four ride modes (Sport, Street, Rain, Off Road) that adjust throttle mapping and limit output for the different riding environments. It also has switchable and adjustable traction control.
The chassis is tuned for serious off-roading, with those 21/18-inch wheels that sport tubeless Continental TKC 80 knobby tires. To reduce the risk of a flat at the launch event here, KTM installed inner tubes, though I question the logic behind that move – it’s easier to repair a puncture on a tubeless tire, unless it’s a tire-ruining slash, in which case it wouldn’t make a difference if there was a tube or not. And it wasn’t because they ran particularly low pressures since we were told the tires were set to 32 psi.
WP provides the fully-adjustable suspension with 220 mm of travel, though unlike the 1290, changes are made manually, not electrically.
To drop the price from the 1190 Adventure R’s $18,700 to a much more reasonable $15,500, KTM left out the cruise control and tire pressure monitor (no big deal), and used simpler traction control and ABS systems (neither is lean-sensing, and the ABS is not linked but includes an off-road mode). The larger, better-equipped 1290 Super Adventure R costs $19,500.
The 1090 comes fitted with crash bars, but if you do plan on going deep into the woods you should add the optional frame-mounted aluminum skid plate to avoid those dreaded adventure-ending crankcase punctures — our test bikes had the skid plates. Wider accessory footpegs were also installed since about 80 per cent of our ride route was off road.
Riding the 1090 where it belongs
We picked up the test bikes at KTM’s North American headquarters here in Temecula, California, and headed out on a two-day trek. We’d spend the night at a camp at Chaney Ranch, an off-road riding and training facility in Warner Springs, which is about an hour from Temecula as the crow flies but about a day away by our route. The folks at KTM weren’t kidding when they said we’d hit the dirt almost immediately: after leaving the parking lot, we rode on pavement for about 150 metres before turning onto a gravel road.
With a seat height of 890 mm (35 in.), the 1090 is tall, but the suspension squats considerably when seated, making reach to the ground easier. At six feet tall, though, I’m still on my toes. The riding position is more like a dirt bike, with low-mounted footpegs and a high-rise handlebar that helps stand-up riding, which is the riding position I was in most of the day. I’d consider a set of accessory risers to raise the handlebar maybe 25 mm, since I started to feel my lower back strain from bending over most of the day.
The only things that give away the 1090 as a big bike are its wider midsection between the knees, and, of course, its 207 kg dry weight, which is 3 kg lighter than the 1190 it replaces and 10 kg lighter than the 1290. Despite its heft, it handles remarkably well when the pavement ends.
Throttle modulation in Off Road mode is easily managed. This mode also lets the rear tire spin up considerably before the traction control intervenes, allowing nice long slides through corners, and easing steep uphill climbs. An accessory dongle was plugged into the bike that allows you to turn off the ABS (which I found no reason to do), and maintains mode settings rather than defaulting when the ignition is switched back on. A reminder that the dongle is plugged in is the “Not Legal” message that flashes in the dash display when you switch the bike on.
A large portion of our route took us along sandy trails, and sand isn’t my preferred terrain. Neither is it the preferred surface for the TKC 80s, which handle commendably on hard-packed and rocky terrain, but return vague feedback and sketchy traction when things get loose. Despite this, I charged along at a reasonable pace on the loose surface, with only a couple of sphincter-puckering front-end slides. I also discovered that my sand riding isn’t all that bad: I found the proper body language after riding on the stuff in Namibia and Mozambique, as well as the reflex of gassing it instantly as soon as the front end gives.
On hard-packed gravel roads and tighter trails, the 1090 feels more like a big dual-sport than an adventure bike. Its suspension soaks up most bumps and rocks effortlessly, though the fork bottomed with a loud clunk a few times when some wider rainwater ruts were gouged across the trail.
Day Two began in sub-freezing temperatures, which prompted me to raise the adjustable windscreen. This was simple: just release two levers and lift it. The taller height cut most of the wind from my torso until temperatures warmed up and I dropped the screen for more ventilation.
We rode more pavement on the second day, along very twisty canyon roads, and the 1090 surprised again. Despite its larger wheel sizes and soft off-road suspension, we maintained a pace that would make sport-bike riders sweat to keep up. It’s not a hard-charging, trail-braking kind of bike, but if you maintain your momentum, it flows through esses quickly and without wallowing. It’s only on tight turning transitions that you feel the bike’s height, when you arc high above the pavement coming out of one lean into another.
In Sport mode, the engine pulls hard in a linear manner and just keep pulling hard until well into the triple Imperial digits on our U.S.-spec machines.
Despite how cheesy this might sound, the 1090 Adventure R would be Goldilocks’ pick if she were a hardcore adventure rider. It slots between KTM’s 690 Enduro dual-sport bike, and the power-be-damned 1290 Super Adventure R, both in price and in performance.
Its closest competitor is the Honda Africa Twin, which costs $400 less, and on paper looks to be at least as serious an off-road competitor as the KTM (I haven’t ridden it yet, so can’t offer my opinion).
It’s more nimble off road than the BMW R1200GS, though the BMW has the edge in on-road performance and comfort. I was asked recently which BMW the 1090 Adventure R most closely resembles in off-road performance, and my reply was the discontinued HP2 Enduro, which was a limited-edition special that was a very capable big dirt bike, but was a compromised road bike. It’s no such thing with the 1090, which sacrifices very little in on-road performance in return for exceptional off-road performance. And now, it’s less expensive as well.