The Super Duke R Experience

“… Just because some people own a motorcycle (I’m not saying everyone) they think they own the road and can speed, weave in and out of traffic and break all the laws on the books.

Well, think again. There are other people out there besides you. If you want to race and do wheelies, then go to a race track. Stay off the public streets …

– Paul J. Murphy, Letter to the Editor, Buffalo News, April 20, 2017

The KTM 1290 Super Duke R is a supernaked with the power delivery of a Thompson gun and the aesthetics of a switchblade—sharp and mean. That combination isn’t for everyone, but I love heavy firepower and I have a desk drawer full of tactical knives that would make John Rambo green with envy. I fell in love with the Super Duke as soon as I got aboard.

But I had a problem as soon as I got my hands on the bike: Where was I going to ride it?

I headed for Halifax. Nova Scotia’s back roads are in much better shape than the potholed parodies that pass for streets in New Brunswick. You just can’t ride the Super Duke R anywhere near its capability in my area. The Super Duke’s track-friendly suspension will batter your kidneys to a pulp.

En route to Nova Scotia, I quickly acquainted myself with the machine.  New Brunswick’s twistier back roads typically have a speed limit of 80 km/h, with 60 km/h cautions on the corners. The Super Duke will easily double those speeds, as long as you don’t mind riding faster than you can see. New Brunswick’s speed limit stops at 110 km/h on the four-laners; the Super Duke hits well above that speed in the lower gears on the ramp to the highways. It’s a lot of bike for this area.

Along with adjustable front forks, KTM has a TFT dash you can adjust with your smartphone’s Bluetooth connection. Luxury!

On the superslab, well into triple-digit speeds, the machine initially appeared to live up to its unforgiving image. At velocity, there’s no concession to comfort, not even a flyscreen. Unless you’re in a full race crouch, windblast starts to get unpleasant around 140 km/h and gets progressively worse from there. In fifth and sixth, with a healthy dose of throttle, the airflow around your head feels like a gorilla is wrestling with  your helmet, trying to  wrench it off and throw it in the ditch.

However, once the initial buzz wears off, it’s obvious this machine isn’t quite as edgy as it appears. There’s 177 hp on tap, but there’s also traction control, wheelie control, launch control and leaning ABS to keep you upright. The first time you really lay on the throttle in first gear, the wheel doesn’t loft sky-high, like you’d expect. In Street Mode, the electronics limit you to a few inches of stand (that changes if you put it into Track Mode).

Despite all that safety equipment, the 1290 urges the rider towards irresponsibility. Pulling up beside a police officer inside Halifax city limits, the bike sent me vivid mental images of a stoplight burnout, followed by a high speed chase.

I pushed the invading thoughts from my mind, not wanting to end the night in jail, telling the officers that normally, I don’t do things like this.

The bike didn’t just have this antisocial effect on me. When kids in hopped-up ricers pulled up beside me, the Super Duke R seemed to goad them into rev-happy drag race challenges. I resisted the challenge. Who knows where the madness could end, once you give in to the seduction of power?

It’s an aggressive-looking bike that grabs attention wherever you ride. When you stop, people want to talk about the bike.

Still, I did enjoy well-paved back roads, when the convoys of rubbernecking tourists’ cars cleared up. It’s impossible not to be happy aboard a bike like this. Handling is precise. The engine is smooth for a V-twin, unless you’re put off by corner exits akin to a test pilot’s rocket sled. Throttle response is instant: throttle-by-wire means no lag, and the powerplant produces its torque as fast as you need it in the twisties. When you’re riding the bike, you’re constantly aware that you’re sitting on a lot of power crammed into a small package. You feel like you’re straddling a nuclear bomb, screaming down towards unsuspecting Nova Scotia.

Even when you’re not running at warp speed, the bike is fun. You notice young dads sneaking longing glances out the car window as they drive by with a load of kids. And when you pull over for fuel, people come up and want to know about the machine. Non-riders geek out on the onboard technology, the trellis frame, the LED lighting, the aggressive stance, and the striking paint job. Other riders will comment enviously on how much fun they figure they’d have on the machine. It’s a bike that gets noticed, and admired.

It’s a hooligan at heart, but there are a few surprisingly practical touches on the Super Duke R. The fuel tank has a very usable 250+km range (lots more if you’re careful with the throttle). And, the tail section has these handy flip-out loops that make it easy to attach a bag. There’s cruise control, too!

The big problem

The major problem with this bike is that to fully appreciate it, you probably need to take it to the track.

The reality of Canadian street riding is that there are few places to enjoy a bike like this to its full capability, especially in provinces like Ontario with strict anti-speed laws. When the latest edition of the 1290 Super Duke R was released, KTM took all the journos to Losail Circuit to ride it, and with good reason. A machine like this needs a proper track for you to take advantage of the power, suspension, and electronic wizardry. A quickshifter is fun on the street, but it’s not really necessary. On the track, though, the bike really comes into its own, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes in the regional sARL series, where I’ve seen a SuperDuke spank a field of litrebikes.

But depending on your viewpoint, this might be a good problem to have. The reality is, when you’re riding this bike, you’re almost untouchable. Buy a SuperDuke, and you’ve got a bike that everyone else will admire, with more usable power than almost any other machine on the street. For many motorcyclists, that’s more than enough reason to buy one—unless you don’t have the $19,499 MSRP, which is another problem of its own.

Although Zac preferred touring on the GT, he found the R model was lots of fun with a minimalist tailbag.

The 1290 Super Duke R is priced higher than any litrebike on the Canadian market except the Honda CBR1000 lineup and the upgraded Suzuki GSX-R1000R (the base model Gixxer Thou comes in cheaper than the 1290). The Ducati 1299 Panigale models cost more than the Super Duke R, but the 959 is significantly less expensive.

The Super Duke R is also more expensive than most of the naked bike competition, including the Aprilia Tuono Factory, which is likely the machine closest to the the KTM’s performance and technology. The Ducati Monster 1200R costs more than the KTM, but has less horsepower (and also less weight). Of course, all the litrebike-based nakeds (BMW S1000R, Kawasaki Z1000, Suzuki GSX-1000F, etc.) are less money, but most offer far less performance and most don’t have the electronic stability packages (with the except of the Beemer).

But, for your money, you’re arguably getting the finest real-world street bike available, unless you want long-travel suspension or touring capacity. In the first case, there’s a good chance you’d be looking at KTM’s adventure lineup. In the second case, you’d probably be looking at the Super Duke GT, which I rode last fall.

Without riding them back-to-back, it’s hard to compare the two bikes, but I do think the GT still reigns supreme in my heart, as it offered a lot more protection from the wind, along with hard luggage. It’s another $2,000, but I think the suspension, bags, and bodywork are worth it.

For most riders, though, the R model is what they’ll want, as it’s far more suited for the stuff people buy these bikes for: hoonery, track days, and grabbing attention. If that’s your game, the 1290 Super Duke R delivers.


Check out all the pics that go with this story!



Join the conversation!