2018 KTM 1090 Adventure R / 1290 Super Adventure S

Text: Jon Beck • Photography: Jon Beck, Ely Woody

Both of these adventurers suffer from an enviable identity crisis. Either one can roam into the other’s terrain and feel quite at home. The crossover gap between the two machines widens in direct proportion to the difficulty of the terrain.

The KTM 1090 Adventure R Wants to be a Dirt Bike.

The 1090 Adventure R is most at home in the dirt. I took my first few serious rides on this bike during the filming of Backcountry Discovery Route’s Southern California project, where 250 miles of freeway put me at the start of the route. Just 20 miles later, the good dirt road ends and one of the most challenging portions of the ride begins. It’s a wilderness area, and the deep sandy wash through it is the stuff of an adventure rider’s nightmares—or dreams. 

Given the right equipment, this sort of terrain can be fun to ride, and KTM’s 1090 Adventure R is the right equipment. Fully loaded for a couple weeks’ worth of camping, I had the opportunity to run this section of sand wash with both stock and Konflict suspension setups. With full street pressure in either the Metzeler Karoo 3 or Continental TKC 80 tires, and nearly 100 pounds of gear strapped to the motorcycle, the 1090 Adventure R feels like it’s on rails. Rails which tend to drift a bit here and there, but rails nonetheless. The stock suspension is an amazingly robust out-of-the-box setup for this class. Adding Konflict modifications and a Scott’s damper improves on a good thing, too, and allows for finer adjustments to suit riding tastes.

Whether leaping the bike off ledges or bouncing rock-to-rock in stream crossings, I rarely reached the limits of the suspension. That’s 465 pounds of motorcycle, plus 38 pounds of fuel, 100 pounds of luggage, and 190 pounds of rider, which makes for a nearly 800-pound package, and I’m not even counting the riding gear! While I was trying to ride the bike within “typical” parameters for a fully-loaded adventure machine, the 1090’s legs allow for more spirited riding compared to most of the stock adventure-bike setups I’ve encountered. Only the most severe g-outs in the trail served as reminders that I was on an adventure bike with full luggage along for the ride.

A Windy Road

On the road, the smallish stock windscreen seems to modify helmet buffeting rather than reducing it. Twin-lever catch mechanisms allow for height adjustment while riding, although it’s not considered an “on the fly” adjustment system. Larger windscreen options are available which smooth out the highway experience a great deal. However, that same windscreen is exactly what’s needed once the tires leave the pavement and you get up on the pegs. It provides just enough space to shelter the dash and various bits, and it gets out of the way when you’re leaning over the bars in the dirt. 

Black text displayed on a gray background makes the info portion of the dash difficult to read in some lighting conditions, and nearly impossible to read under harsh backlighting. As I was heading west through the Mojave late in the day with the sun directly in my face, the dash presented little more than the hint of a shape between the clutch and the throttle. That said, I’m on a big dirt bike; and I rarely look at the trip computer on my 450 while desert riding. Ignoring “readout” information in favor of feedback from the machine feels quite natural to me. Occasional downward glances down at the behemoth Garmin 276Cx GPS do come in handy, however.

The KTM 1290 Super Adventure S Wants to be a Street Bike.

A simple ride around any neighborhood at hoodlum pace reveals this truth: As the 19-inch front wheel pulls the bike into corners faster than I’m expecting, it forces me to keep pace with the bike, and things cascade from there—each corner coming more quickly than the last. Visions of traffic violations are obscured by a full-color TFT display gleaming tack-sharp in broad daylight and, with the speedometer positioned like a red cape in front of a bull, you just keep charging. 

It’s a little scary, to be honest. I don’t know how to properly turn or brake at these speeds, and the mild chattering of the MTC/ABS systems helping control the machine at every change in direction reminds me of that inadequacy. Flashy bits on the dash indicating the traction-control measures are fixing something about whatever I’m doing turn the display into a disco ball for most of the ride. Learning to ride within the parameters of the technology packed into this bike goes beyond simply riding. While trying to unload the 1290 S from my truck, I couldn’t understand why the bike seemed to be fighting me until I realized HHC (Hill Hold Control) was active, preventing the bike from rolling backwards. A hint of sensory overload is also evident in the form of various whirrs and clicks coming from the machine, most noticeable when it’s slowing or stopped.

Semi-active suspension works in concert with lean-angle sensors tied into the computer, allowing you to choose from four ride modes. These same modes are available on the 1090 R and the 1290 S. While the former is geared more toward traveling the dirt and the latter toward the street, either bike can be set up with different wheels, luggage, and other bits to suit the type of riding desired. Once hardware is swapped, simply pick the desired mode on the dash.

Q&A with KTM’s Quinn Cody

KTM stands out as a brand holding records in an extreme range of categories, both off-road and on. The Dakar Rally is without contention the most grueling race of its kind in existence, and the annual Pikes Peak Hill Climb, which has been going on for over 100 years, is a terrifying “race to the clouds” up a 14,000-foot-plus peak. As of 2018, KTM holds the world records for the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, and 17 straight Dakar victories. Both of the machines featured here share the technology used in these victories.

Quinn Cody is a champion desert racer, a veteran of such grueling events as the Baja 1000 and Dakar Rally. In 2017, Quinn raced a 1090 Adventure R in the Red Bull Romaniacs event. It’s a hellish race on any bike, but riding a heavy, big-twin enduro over this course underscores the unique capabilities of this big dual sport. I had the opportunity to ride with Quinn, who currently works for KTM Research and Development, and ask him a few questions during the recent filming of Backcountry Discovery Route’s Southern California project.

Jon Beck: The 1090 Adventure R seems much more “refined” than the 950/990 platform. The 950 allowed for huge wiggle room in suspension adjustments, whereas the 1090 R gives very immediate and direct feedback, both good and bad, when adjustments are made in proper or improper ways.

Quinn Cody: The new-generation Adventures were designed with modern suspension components and a more modern ergonomic setup (similar to modern dirt bikes). Like a modern dirt bike, they are very sensitive to balance, if you have incorrect balance, either from overloading or making the wrong suspension adjustments, it can really throw off the handling of the motorcycle. At the same time, the bikes are very adjustable, which allows them to fit a wide range of riders and riding conditions.

JB: I rode the 1090 through the sandy wash at the beginning of the SoCal BDR filming on two separate rides. Both times I was loaded up with around 100 pounds of gear. The first time I had the rear preload cranked all the way down, and the second time about mid-stroke. The bike worked vastly better with the lower preload setting in the sand. Why?

QC: Again, it comes down to balance. The rear shock preload adjuster not only controls the ride height of the rear of the motorcycle, it also has an effect on how much weight is transferred to the front wheel. If you have too much preload on the rear shock when riding in the sand it will transfer a lot of weight to the front wheel. When you add 100 pounds of gear, what’s happening is when you close the throttle the rear spring is unloading and transferring all the weight of the bike, rider, and all of that gear directly to the front wheel. This is causing the fork to dive and the front tire to dig into the sand. When you ride in the sand it’s important to keep the front end as light as possible, so naturally if you have less preload on the shock, there will be less weight transferred to the front wheel making the bike much easier to ride in deep sand.

JB: On the last day of filming CABDR, when we were playing around in that stream crossing, I overshot part of it a bit and “bounced” out the other side. The bike didn’t feel like it got squirrelly or bottomed out, yet at other times I could distinctly feel it bottom over severe g-outs, even when riding less aggressively and at much lower speeds than when we were going through that stream crossing. In terms of suspension, what’s happening with the big dual sport that requires a more careful approach to hitting lower-speed square edge cuts in the road, versus being able to send the thing over relatively big obstacles with no problem?

QC: This comes down to available suspension travel. When you jumped into that stream you were in the air and the forks were fully extended so you had a full 220mm of available travel. When you landed, even though you were fully loaded, the suspension had enough travel to control the weight of the motorcycle and you didn’t bottom out too hard. On the other hand, when you are going downhill or breaking hard, the front suspension dives, reducing your available travel. When you hit a sharp bump in this situation you may only have 100mm or less of travel—and with all of that weight behind it, the fork will for sure bottom. When I ride aggressively off-road on big adventures, I always try to keep the bike as level as possible, and back off when I know that I’m in a situation where the suspension travel is reduced, like a steep downhill with sharp water bars.

JB: What modifications/upgrades were made to your 1090 R for Romaniacs?

QC: We tried to keep the bike as stock as possible, mostly just removing unnecessary parts. I think we shaved around 50 pounds off of the overall weight of the bike. I used my personal suspension settings, and we ran off-road tires with mousses, but other than that it was pretty stock.

JB: On a couple fast stretches of dirt road, I got the 1090 up to 120 mph and noticed that while holding the throttle wide open and accelerating just north of 100 mph I could distinctly feel the bike slow for a moment before it started speeding up again.

QC: When riding at those speeds on dirt, wheel spin becomes a big factor, and as the horsepower and rpm build and you get close to peak horsepower, sometimes the rear wheel will begin to spin heavily. Once the engine reaches a certain rpm, the power may begin to fall off a bit, reducing the amount of wheel spin and actually causing the bike to accelerate. I know it seems strange, but less power can be faster.

Q&A with KTM’s Chris Fillmore

Chris Fillmore has spent years racing motocross and as a professional AMA Supermoto and Superbike racer. Working for KTM on the press side, Chris decided to step out of the office and race the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in 2017. It was his first attempt at this race, and he set a new world’s record aboard his KTM 1290 RS.

Jon Beck: How similar is the engine in the 1290 Super Adventure S to the Super Duke 1290 RS you raced at Pikes Peak?

Chris Fillmore: Overall, they are pretty much the same exact engine. When you ride them, you feel the similarities. The SD-R is tuned for more peak performance and the S is tuned for more all-around riding. They bring the torque down in the rpm so that it rolls on smoother when riding a gear or two high.

JB: What modifications did you make to your 1290Rs for Pikes Peak?

CF: The motor was untouched. Majority of the materials came out of KTM Powerparts collection: WP fork carriage kit and race shock, triple clamps, full Akro exhaust, rear sets, Brembo master cylinder, Galfer wave rotors. We used a Rottweiler Performance intake, Sprocket Specialist helped with sprockets, and Super B supplied a lightweight battery. Bam, race bike!

JB: How would you compare the riding experience aboard the 1290 S versus the 1290 RS?

CF: The reason I like our V-twin platform so much is that they all feel familiar and have similarities when you ride them, but they are tuned and built with different goals in mind, and to me those are all obvious. I would be completely comfortable racing the 1290 S up Pikes Peak. It’s one of those things though: the bike is capable of it but not really intended for it, so I race our naked bike instead, because those bikes are lighter and fit better for racing.