The start of every year is always filled with such high expectation of rides, adventures and quality time on your bike. But life is busy and it’s so easy for the summer months to drift past and you suddenly find yourself staring down the barrel of a UK winter without having achieved those exuberant made plans seven months earlier.
With over 10,000 miles covered on the KTM 790 Adventure R since its arrival at the end of March there has undoubtedly been plenty of time in the saddle, but inevitably they haven’t all been big smile miles, with plenty spent in motorway monotony.
Feeling the impending doom of winter edging ever closer, I managed to engineer some time to make a trip to Wales – destination Snowdonia - in a bid to ride the 790R as its creators intended.
With the bike's top end Bumot Defender Evo panniers (£949 including racks www.adventurebikeshop.co.uk) I hooked up with guys at www.ridethewild.co.uk who offer bespoke rides throughout Snowdonia whatever your level, whatever your bike.
It was also a day of reckoning for the 790R. Having been on the launch of the bike in Morocco I’d already had the chance to ride it hard, but riding super fast wide open pistes and sand dunes under the blazing Northern African sun is a world apart from sodden welsh track, ruts and rocks.
There is no getting away from the fact that the KTM is a tall bike. Its 880mm seat height combined with my 32" (812mm) inside leg means I can get my feet on the ground, but they are not always fully planted.
That’s nothing new to me riding big adventure bikes, but what makes it far less of a problem on the 790R is the balance of the bike with its low slung fuel tanks lowering the centre of gravity and making it feel incredibly manoeuvrable and agile even at low speeds.
But where the 790R really excels is the moment you stand up. KTM’s off-road pedigree runs deep and the riding position is unique among its adventure bike peers.
High foot pegs and compact ergonomics mean the distance from the front of the seat to the headstock feels short. This in turn means that when stood up, you naturally get a lot of weight over the front of the bike, which is key to its off-road strengths.
Being able to feel what the front tyre is doing because it’s loaded by the riders body weight makes such a difference and enables accurate steering and the added ability of the front end feeling planted, even if it’s scaling a rocky climb or negotiating a never ending rut.
We got lucky with the weather, too. Yes we got wet, but the rain was simply part of the day and easy to forget the moment the sun appeared to reveal the beauty of Snowdonia and the joys of riding in the UK.
KTM 790 Adventure R: The story so far
Update six: KTM Electronics on the fly
I still have mixed feelings over the amount of electronics and rider aids that are now so prevalent on modern motorcycles.
On one hand, you can’t fail to be impressed by the electronic wizardry and on point TFT dash of the latest BMW R1250GS but at the other end of the spectrum there is the no traction control, adjustable map free new Yamaha Tenere 700, which is a peach of a bike and should be celebrated for its simplicity.
KTMs are all about performance and the 790R takes that to another level, given its focus for competition, with many now being raced in big bike rallies around the globe.
Electronics-wise it’s fully loaded – quickshifter, autoblipper, adjustable maps, but the 790R takes it a step further. A first in its class, KTM’s latest offering has a specific ‘Rally’ mode as standard (I told you it’s got race bike pedigree) which is a separate mode that allows you to adjust the amount of slip/traction control yourself.
While that doesn’t sound that special, its USP is the fact that it can be done on the move using a simple up and down buttons on the left-hand bar. It’s so simple, there is no need to even look down at the screen which display’s what setting you’re in. There are nine levels to choose from – 9 being no slip/maximum traction control with level 1 a bare minimum of electronic intervention. You can also choose level 0 which turns it off completely.
So why I am I waxing lyrical about this? Well, it’s because in the real world of adventure riding, it makes a significant difference. Gone are the days of having to stop when the tarmac ends and the gravel starts (or vice versa) to fumble your way through a menu system to select a specific off-road engine map and traction control setting.
Now you barely need to slow down, as if the going gets tough and your suddenly faced with a steep loose climb out of the blue, you can keep up momentum - reducing the amount of TC as you go; helping you get up the hill without drama.
Update Five: Dirty tricks on the KTM 790 Adventure R
You don’t have to look at the 790R for long to appreciate it’s a bike built for the dirt. Yes it masquerades as a road going adventure bike – and to be fair it delivers on the façade. But, unlike the majority of adventure bikes on the market that are more show than go, when it comes to off-road, the 790R is the real deal the moment the wheels start kicking up the dirt.
It’s all in the DNA
Despite their big budget MotoGP project, KTM are synonymous to off-road success - just take a look at their unprecedented win rate in motocross, enduro and of course Dakar (18 consecutive victories). It’s fair to say that their off-road pedigree runs deep throughout their range, but the 790R takes that to a new level and has been sprinkled with extra 'Ready to Race' sachets of off-road DNA.
It may still weigh in at a hefty 189kg (dry), but in comparison to a BMW R1250 GS Adventure it’s a featherweight. The low-slung fuel tanks make it quite wide, but with the advantage of much of its weight sitting low, it adds to its lightweight character. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a big bike with a 880mm seat height, but it carries its weight well, making it more manageable and manoeuvrable than any 200kg bike has a right to.
Once you get over the initial trepidation, the 790R slowly starts to re-build any flailing confidence. It’s certainly not the soft option when it comes to adventure bikes, but it is unquestionably the most capable when it comes to off-road. And the harder you ride it, and the quicker you hit obstacles, the more your confidence grows and you are rewarded with a whole new level of off-road capability. A level that the big 1000cc plus adventure bikes can only dream of.
It’s not long before I’m eyeing up drop-offs and climbs that felt well outside my comfort zone when I first arrived at our off-road afternoon playground. Stood up, the riding position is natural, yet purposeful - meaning that any foot peg pressure has instant results and with your elbows up there is plenty of leverage on the wide bars to enable you to pick lines accurately or man handle things back into shape, should they go a little wayward.
In an age where motorbikes are becoming ever more dominated with electronics, the KTM has jumped firmly onboard that band wagon. In addition to a choice of fuel maps (focused for on road performance) there is an off-road specific map, plus a Rally mode which gives you all the power available and the rider the ability to dial in or dial out the level of rear wheel spin on the fly. It makes you feel more like a factory Dakar rider than ever before.
Update Four: Scratching the surface of the KTM 790 Adventure R
Whenever I look at the 790R I’m hit my a momentary pang of guilt. It’s not because I haven’t cleaned it, or oiled the chain as often as I should, it’s because I haven’t used it for what it was intended. Yes I’ve clocked over 4000 miles in the last two and half months, but apart from a few hundred metres of gravel trail, it’s all been on road.
Don’t get me wrong, the 790R is an absolute hoot on the road, with its seriously lively motor and relatively light weight. The new Pirelli Rally STR tyres fitted are a game changer, with more grip than their nobly profile would ever have you believe. It’s even doing the business on my motorway dominated commute to work, too, with the newly fitted screen from a standard 790 giving me some much needed wind protection.
But, if I wanted a road focussed adventure bike, there are plenty to choose from and the 790R would be quite a way down the list. In terms of focus, the 790R is about as extreme as they come, but I’m yet to tap into this world of off-road potential.
So, with the weather finally improving, plans are now taking shape to hit the trails. The aim is to take the 790R on to the TET (Trans Euro Trail) which is a community derived fully legal, predominantly off-road route across Europe.
It incredibly runs for 38,000KM from the UK to Scandinavia, Spain, Italy, Romania, Greece and everywhere in between. Unfortunately, I don’t have a year off to ride it all, but there are plenty of adventures to be had on your door step, so the idea is to head to Wales to ride the TET and have at least three days of on and off-road adventure.
In terms of prep, there really isn’t much that needs to be done. The 790R comes standard with hand guards and the frames for the high quality Bumot panniers already fitted add to the amount of crash protection. There are still decisions to be made though – tyres are a big one and also whether I’ll opt to camp and carry all the subsequent kit or treat myself to a cheap B&B each night.
The good thing is that all this planning has at least eased my guilt levels – I haven’t done what the 790R was built to do yet…but the day for an adventure is only getting closer.
Update three: Prepping the KTM 790 for adventure
There is no question that the KTM 790 Adventure R is the sharpest tool in the adventure bike class. With seriously punchy motor, relatively lightweight and stiff suspension it makes its intentions clear from the moment you set off. But, while it’ll undoubtedly be a weapon when I get to take it off-road, I haven’t done that yet. Instead, the majority of my 2700 miles have been accumulated on motorways and fast A roads at best.
My biggest single gripe of the bike is the screen. While it works with the Dakar looks, it’s ineffective regardless of whether you have it in the low or high position. Off-road, I’m sure it’s great, because it’s low and out the way, but at motorway speeds it’s not just the lack of protection, but the turbulence it generates. It's both unpleasant and fatiguing.
My first attempt at fixing this was to fit the screen from the standard non R version. It’s significantly bigger and while it hasn’t turned the ride in to a cosseted and cocooned BMW GS, it’s better. Wind noise remains high, but the buffeting is now minimal and I now feel much happier embarking on a big mile trip. It’s not done much for the bikes overall looks, but at the end of the day I like to ride bikes more than look at them.
Getting a grip
The standard Metzeler Karoo III tyres are designed to be all things to all riders; capable of delivering both on and off-road. I’ve done quite a few miles on them on a number of different bikes and while their off-road performance is solid, on road they quickly feel out of their depth.
I’ve replaced them with the Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR and can’t recommend them highly enough. Coming from the Karoo III, everything is better – from turning in, braking, drive and edge grip.
As with any adventure bike, there is a plethora of luggage options available and after scouring the marketplace I was really taken with the Bumot Defender Evo system. There really is a lot to like about it; from the easy-to-fit and well engineered racks, to the beautifully assembled, sturdy and secure lockable hard cases.
The racks themselves have an option that includes a generous tool box. There is also a soft pannier option for more off-road use that securely fixes to the same rack, making it a well thought out and truly versatile option. While it’s not cheap, it’s competitively priced and the quality is undisputable. Cost for the racks and hard cases is £949. Add £110 for the tool box.
Update two: KTM 790 Adventure punches above its weight
I’ve been lucky enough to have covered big miles on the majority of class leading adventure bikes for over ten years now, but the arrival of the new 790R has put the biggest smile on my face.
Having been slightly at a loss as to why the class continues to see engine capacity and kerb weight climb, the 790 is different. I'm now 1100 miles into my journey with the Austrian middleweight contender and there’s plenty of reasons to be cheerful along with a couple to make me glum.
Although I have ridden the bike off-road on the launch in Morocco all my mileage on my 2019 long term test bike has so far been on the road. The biggest thing I’m struggling to comprehend is how a 94bhp parallel twin motor can feel so strong.
In comparison to bikes such as the Honda Africa Twin and BMW F850GS, which both have the same claimed power – the 790 feels like it’s got an extra 20bhp. Some of that is down to its 189kg claimed dry weight, but the rest is down to sharp fuelling and seriously quick revving motor.
As a result, it’s fast and responsive throughout its rev range. The sharp power and direct throttle connection is complimented by a fast turning, responsive and stiff chassis set-up.
Despite it’s 21" front wheel you can hold a line accurately and it changes direction quicker than it has any right to. The stiff suspension also means there is not a ridiculous amount of front end dive under braking despite having 240mm of fork travel.
While the 790R is certainly delivering in the fun stakes on my daily commute – it’s not all perfect. My biggest gripe is the screen. Although it completes the Dakar inspired look of the bike, it doesn’t actually fulfil its role of protecting the rider.
Initially run in the higher position it’s acceptable until you get to motorway speeds where the wind noise, turbulence and buffeting are shocking. I’ve subsequently tried the screen in the lower setting in a bid to alleviate the buffeting, but unfortunately only noticed a very minimal improvement. I’m now planning on fitting the significantly bigger screen from the standard 790 Adventure in a bid to cure my motorway mile blues.
My other easily fixed gripe is the OE Metzeler Karoo III tyres. Designed to perform on and off-road they do neither particularly well. On the launch of the bike they were tellingly replaced with the Continental TKC80, due to the off-road nature of the test, and on the road, especially in damp cold mornings, the traction control has been working overtime to control spins and slides. I can’t wait to get the Pirelli Scorpion Rally STRs fitted next week.
Update One: Introducing the KTM 790 Adventure R
There’s no escaping the fact that my ideal world is populated with adventure bikes, off-road riding and big road miles. And the new KTM 790 Adventure R is the bike I’ve been waiting for since I nearly bought a 640 Adventure fifteen years ago!
I have a big commute and use my bike for everything, meaning I’ll be racking up a lot of miles on tarmac, but also plan some multi day European off-road adventures where I will carry everything I need in terms of cooking and camping equipment, and would love to ride it to Romania.
I’d like to hook up with Dakar rider Lyndon Poskitt, who is riding a heavily modified 690, to compare his highly evolved bike with a production 790, find out if it really any good off-road, hit the trails in the UK, and see if it’s anywhere near as refined on the tarmac as its bigger stablemates.
- Key stats: • £11,999 • 94bhp • 65ftlb • 880mm seat • 189kg (dry)
- Rider: Michael Guy (46, 5ft 9in, 70kg)