Taming the Hooligan!

Yesterday I ventured down the rabbit hole on my quest to find the elusive unicorn that so many of us overlanders are looking for. I know I’m very unlikely to find a unicorn in a rabbit hole but, right now that’s what it feels like.

I’ve come to accept that whatever I find it will be a compromise. It’s either going to be dirt focused and not so good on the road or road focused and not so good on the dirt. Either way it has to be a compromise that I’m happy with, one that I can accept and one that won’t constantly bug me during my trip to Mongolia and general riding at home.

So, as I’ve already written here somewhere, there are a number of bikes on the list, namely the Husqvarna 701LR, KTM 690 Enduro R, KTM 790 Adventure S/R and the Yamaha Tenere 700. These can be grouped into two groups, dirt focused and road focused. You can work out for yourself which fall into which group.

Today I had the opportunity to test ride the KTM 790 Adventure S, not the model I am actually interested in but, the only one available for test ride, more than good enough to give me an idea of what the bike is like and one that falls into the road focused group.

KTM 790 Adventure S

Throwing a leg over the the KTM and planting my pert cheeks on the seat I was immediately made aware how hard the seat is, it’s solid, there’s no give in it whatsoever, it’s like planting your posterior onto a plank of wood.

When you buy a new car it comes with comfy seats, not once in my life have I bought a new car and immediately had to go out and buy new comfy seats so, why is it that new bikes today mostly come with seats that are so uncomfortable you immediately have to dash out and buy a new seat to make your new steed comfortable? A bike costing over £10,000.00 should come with a comfy seat, after all it’s sold as a long distance touring capable bike so why doesn’t it come with a comfy seat?

This annoys me no end as you can probably tell.

Back in the old days the seats on nearly all bikes on the market were super comfy, even luxurious compared to today’s standards. It’s time for manufacturers to stop expecting people to spend another £400 on a comfy seat and provide them as standard.

On a positive note, one good thing is that I can get both feet on the ground on the 790 Adventure S, a rarity for me these days on adventure bikes.

Initial shock over I turned the key and pressed the starter button, this is where shock number two hit me. The engine sounds like a sack of spanners when cold. The top end is so rattly anyone would think the valve clearances needed some serious adjustment. I’d already been warned that mechanically KTMs were noisy but, I never expected it to be so bad. Perhaps it was because it needed a service, which I was constantly reminded about on the dash.

Service!

Heading out onto the road I settled in and made my way to a nice little route I like to use when test riding new bikes. It’s a mix of dual carriageway, country back lane and single carriage way A roads. A good mix of surfaces and speeds.

Heading out of town I immediately noticed how twitchy the throttle is in street mode. For every lump or bump in the road that I hit the speed would increase or decrease due to the slightest throttle movement. Trying to hold the bike at 30mph through the town was almost impossible as the bike would constantly surge up and down. The fuelling at slow speed isn’t the best, mixed with the twitchy throttle it becomes a handful at anything below 3500RPM.

Putting the bike into rain mode removes much of the twitchy feeling and smooths out the whole throttle management considerably, it’s still not perfect by a long way but, it’s considerably better than street mode.

Progressing out onto the dual carriageway and giving it the beans to get up to speed it immediately becomes obvious that the power delivery is brutal, its not refined in the slightest, the power comes in hard and it gets bonkers very quickly, so you’d better be prepared.

Powering on and once over the 4000RPM the engine smooths out nicely and the noise reduces considerably however, don’t get fooled into a false sense of security because at 6500RPM the vibrations come back with a vengeance and the whole bike is consumed by high amplitude vibrations that go right through your body.

From the foot pegs through to the seat, tank, handlebars and just about every other part of the chassis, massive vibrations come in and continue way up into the rev range. I initially found it really disconcerting and couldn’t believe how vibrant the engine was. Shock number 3 had arrived.

Pulled over by the Orwell Bridge to gather my thoughts

Determined not to be deterred I pressed on and headed off the dual carriage way onto the small B roads. Once in the twisties and keeping the revs in the smooth zone I began to appreciate how good the suspension and tyres are on this bike. The handling has no right to be as good as it is. With the huge 21in front wheel it shouldn’t turn in anywhere near as well as it does. The steering damper helps to smooth out the steering transitions from side to side whilst the clever lean sensitive traction control and ABS makes sure the rear end doesn’t get too out of shape. It really is a joy in the twisties and grabbing handfuls of throttle coming out of tight turns in low gears will put a smile on anyones face.

The bike feels well planted even on poor tarmac surfaces and gives the rider plenty of confidence. Feedback is good too, considering the mass of electronics on this bike you don’t feel detached at all. Being progressive through the bends even on inverse cambers you know when you are getting close to the limit but, the well mannered handling keeps surprises at bay.

With the power delivery being so brutal it is far too easy to make the frontend lose contact with the road surface but, the great thing is that at no time does the bike feel like it’s getting out of hand. With all the clever electronics it is extremely well mannered on the road and you can get away with a lot more than you should be able to.

After a good few miles it becomes obvious that the switchgear feels cheap compared to other makes of bike that I’ve owned. The indicator button doesn’t have a positive feel to it at all and the menu selection buttons are the small movement PCB type. With thick gloves on you’d be hard pushed to know if you’d pressed the button or not as there isn’t really any positive feedback. On the other hand the menu system is simple and intuitive which is great as some manufacturers have ridiculously complex menu systems making them almost impossible to use on the move, fortunately the KTM isn’t in this group.

On the bike as it comes out the factory there are 3 riding modes available, Street, Rain and Off-Road. These clearly are labelled wrong and should be “Hooligan”, “Semi sensible” and “Take your life in your own hands”. More modes can be added by the dealer by plugging in a computer and downloading the data to the ECU but, you’ll have to part with a fair amount cash to add them.

The 3 standard riding modes available for free!

The instrument display is clear and easy to use whilst riding but, the fuel gauge only showing the level from half full onwards seems a little bonkers especially as it goes down quicker for the last half than it does on the first half. Once you get used to the bike it’s best to zero the trip meter at every fill up and then watch the miles rather than rely on the fuel gauge.

The brakes are stunningly good, they’re in the super bike class for sure. They’ll bring you to a complete stop from just about any speed in an incredibly short distance. The ABS isn’t intrusive either and it works incredibly well. On the standard bike there isn’t any real adjustment available for the traction control/ABS system apart from preselected changes depending which ride mode you select. If you want to have greater control over the TC/ABS system then you need to purchase the “Rally Pack” at a cost of £174.00.

Although the brakes are great on the road I personally think they’re too much for off-road riding, they lack the finesse and feel you’d normally find on more dirt oriented bikes. This of course is one of the compromises you have to make when choosing your bike for long distance overland adventures, there is no unicorn!

Another thing that is missing is cruise control, since it’s a ride by wire throttle you’d expect it to be available on the standard bike but, once again it’ll cost you!
For a mere £217.00 you can have it “enabled” via a computer link to the ECU. KTM certainly make the most out of squeezing every penny out of you to enable the “extras” on this bike.

The gear box is sweet, the shifter is light and direct and not once did I hit a false neutral, it really is a peach. I did find myself having to shift up and down the gears quite a lot to keep the engine in it’s sweet spot and you definitely don’t want to let the engine lug as it all gets rather clunky and nasty, but shifting up and down all the time is great fun and it keeps the ride alive.

The gearing is quite high and very road oriented, you’d probably want to change the sprockets for off-roading unless you’re looking to absolutely send it all the time.

You can also have the quick shifter enabled for a mere £349.00 if that tickles your fancy.

So the question that needs answering is “Is this my bike of choice?”

Well the hooligan in me is screaming “YES!” and wants all the extras to make it even more fun. At a base price of £9799.00 OTR and about £1000.00 more to “enable” the extras it’s a lot of bike for the money however, the more sensible and wise old man in me is saying there are too many things about the bike that I don’t like and it would end up annoying me, especially on a long trip so, at the moment it’s firmly on the back burner.

In summary, the KTM 790 Adventure S is a great road bike if you are willing to put up with the massive vibrations that will plague you every time you want to wind it on. You also have to be willing to absolutely send it every time you ride the bike and don’t mind the clatter of the engine.

Handling is superb as are the brakes but, you will want to do something about the comfort if you’re planning on riding the bike for any amount of time.

Only time will tell if the switch gear will last the course or not and it’s probably worth spraying a little WD40 behind the buttons every now and then to stop the PCB contacts corroding.

The other thing to keep in mind about this bike is that it will raise the risk of you loosing your licence considerably as it needs to be ridden hard to get the best from it, it really is ready to race!

That bitter sweet moment …

Today was the day that Sean came to collect my CRF250 Rally that he purchased ready for his trip to Mongolia. It was a bitter sweet moment for me, sad to see her go but, excited about what I would get to replace her.

Sean, moments before he headed off to Wales

The CRF250 Rally has been a fun little bike to own, we’ve spent many hours and over 5000 miles tootling around together. It’s also been a great little project upgrading the suspension, fitting the crash bars, skid plate and pannier frame along with many other little extras that turned the little bike into a true adventure machine. There’s a great CRF community online and it’s been fun sharing ideas with them all.

I will miss it for sure, although I won’t miss the bum killing seat!

Sean is a really nice guy, if you ever have the opportunity to meet up with him then do it, you won’t regret it. He’s a true biker gent and I hope we cross paths during our adventures to Mongolia and back. It would be great to ride some miles with him.

“So, what now?” I hear you say, well I’m not too sure … I have some thoughts on bikes that may meet my requirements and an even bigger list of bikes that won’t. Unfortunately there is no unicorn bike out there today, there are lots of bikes in the adventure sector but, none come close to the sub 140kg, 70hp unicorn that we’re all hunting for.

What next?

With both my Honda CRF250 Rally and Kawasaki Versys 1000 GT now sold it’s time to seriously start looking at a new adventure bike for the trip and general riding here in the U.K.

Currently on the list are the following:

Yamaha Tenere 700 Rally
KTM 790 Adventure R
KTM 690 Enduro R
Husqvarna 701LR

I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of KTM or Husqvarna but, they have to be in the running as they currently have some impressive machines in the adventure market.

The Husqvarna 701 range are actually KTM 690’s rebadged and the only real advantage of the 701LR is the long range fuel capability. Whether this is enough to swing my brand choice remains to be seen

The Yamaha Tenere 700 Rally is currently my favourite. Having owned and really enjoyed a Tenere 660 I know the Yamaha will be super reliable and well put together.

Price wise the KTM 690 Enduro R is probably the cheapest with the Husqvarna and Tenere 700 coming in a close second and the KTM 790 Adventure R being the most expensive.

So it’s now time to start researching, riding and seeing which I prefer!

More soon …