The KTM 790 Duke around Kyalami at night
“Well this is bloody daft!” are not the thoughts racing through my mind while the bike speared down the pit straight of Kyalami. My actual thoughts contained far more expletives than could ever be repeated here. The TFT dash began flashing orange, signifying a gear change was imminent, as the speedo scribbled past the 200km/h mark. The track is wide at this point, but somewhere here is a kink, a slight kink, but failure to tip the bike here will mean a rather life altering encounter with a steel barrier.
This all sounds quite simple – just tip the bike you damn fool – but the problem here is that I can’t see a bloody thing. It’s seven o’clock on a winter’s evening. The air is thick and bracing. And dark. Ever so dark. The blackness is like a thick treacle, splitting as you pass through it and closing in again to completely engulf you. Even the superb LED light is completely overwhelmed and has to succumb to it.
This might sound like hell on earth and may perhaps involve a touch of masochism, but man was it fun. Track riding is all about pushing yourself, and scaring yourself in the process, and I was terrified. Every corner contained new levels of butt clenching. Even the straights had their white knuckle moments. It was track riding turned up to 11. Every track experience should be like this.
I will admit that 11 is a thrilling number, although 12 would send it over a cliff. I suspect that a superbike through the pitch black of Kyalami would have had me leaving bodily releases from various sources followed by a gentle sob somewhere near a tyre wall. A KTM 790 Duke on the other hand…
KTM 790 Duke majestic arrival
It’s finally here, the bike KTM has been teasing us with for two years since Brad Binder unveiled that magnificent first prototype at the EICMA Show two years ago. The first one had race number boards and an underseat exhaust that was 3D printed. Sadly, the underseat exhaust had to go because apparently people buying the bike would prefer to be able to hit bumps without said exhaust being flattened by the rear wheel, thusly KTM moved that lovely sex symbol slightly to the right. It’s not quite as Megan Fox as the prototype, but it is still Scarlett Johansson.
They also removed the number boards because people riding at night want to see where they are going, especially when hauling around Kyalami in the dark. They’ve fitted KTM’s now signature twin LED headlights, and it is this that led us to be racing in the black unknown. Last year, KTM partook in the 24 Hour Endurance Race at Red Star Raceway on a 1290 Super Duke. While other teams fitted extra lighting that made their bikes brighter than the sun, KTM left their bike standard. And they remained one of the fastest teams out there even in the middle of the night. It was this that inspired Riaan Neveling, KTM’s brand manager and 24 Hour veteran, to send a group of journalists out at night on one of South Africa’s most daunting circuits. The main straight, at 200 km/h, may have been ominous, but at more reasonable speeds, like in corners, the track was lit up like a Daft Punk concert.
KTM 790 Duke corner cutting
Speaking of corners, there were some on the night. This leads me on to one of my pet hates – I hate it when manufacturers use cheap slogans to illustrate the characteristics of their motorcycles, and hugely sensationalise them in the process. For example, KTM use the term ‘The Scalpel’ to describe the 790 Duke, meaning it is as precise and cutting as the instrument used by surgeons during delicate procedures that could affect a human’s life, possibly in a terminal sort of way. I mean, honestly? A scalpel? That’s pushing it a bit far. What annoys me even more is that KTM were exactly spot on with this metaphor. It goes exactly where you want it to go, at the speed you want it to go, at the lean angle you want. That’s annoying.
Even in the black of night, you never feel overwhelmed. You can run hard into the corners knowing that even if something goes wrong, everything will probably be okay. Some mild adjustments through the bars and the throttle, and everything will be fine. It’s exact. Like a scalpel. Damn it!
The only gripe was the rear suspension that was a tad on the soft side. The WP shock has 150mm of travel which is a shed-load – some adventure bikes have 150mm of travel. This means that there is a good deal of movement when gassing it out of a corner but, on the other hand, at no stage does it get unruly. Also, during a ride from Kyalami to dinner in Rosebank later in the evening, there were absolutely no bumps or grooves, just smooth road. This is complete rubbish, because no road in South Africa is completely smooth, but the 790 does a good job making you think it is.
The front WP forks have 140mm of travel, which is also more than your average sports bike, but KTM make up for this by giving them progressive spring rates. This means that they are soft and cushy at the beginning of the down stroke, such as when you are riding over bumps in the road, but when you load the front suspension on the brakes for Turn One at Kyalami, the bottom of the stroke becomes stiff and supportive, meaning you never feel as though you are going over the bars. The forks also have split functions, meaning the one tube deals with compression damping while the other handles all the rebound, a trick that is becoming more and more common in fork making.
The suspension is attached to a signature steel-trellis frame with a motor acting as a stressed member. The seat height is 825mm, making it not too tall but a good deal away from a minimoto also. There is a lowered seat option and a lowering kit for the chassis that will bring it down to 780mm.
KTM 790 Duke forwardness
Then there is the motor. It is a 799cc parallel-twin, a first for KTM. The parallel part means it is hugely compact, so much so that KTM have labelled this motor as LC8c with the “c” meaning “compact”. It is smaller than everything else in its class, and only slightly bigger than the 390 single. That’s some good work from KTM. They took this new layout seriously, wanting to get it right first time, thus the factory did 604,800 km of dyno testing and 900,000 of road testing over 111,111 hours to ensure everything works.
The parallel-twin does put the 790 in danger of losing the KTM V-twin feel and sound that everyone loves, but they get around this by offsetting the crank pin by 75º meaning the cylinders fire every 435º creating an irregular firing order mimicking a V-twin. It does sound very V-twin-sh, and if someone had said this is a V-twin while hiding the motor, you would most likely be fooled. The only major difference is in how smooth it is thanks to the addition of a secondary balance shaft.
The other unique addition is the cracked conrods. This might sound like more of a problem than an addition, but it has been used in the car industry for decades already. Instead of simply cutting the big ends of the conrods and then adding a guiding pin when bolting them on to the crankshaft, they use a complicated process where they freeze the metal and then apply a jolt in a specific place causing it to break where it would have otherwise been cut. The upside of this is that the two pieces are paired and fit together perfectly without the need for a guiding pin.
The motor pushes 105 hp and 86 Nm of torque putting it in the category of “exciting but not too terrifying” which makes it the perfect night-time-at-Kyalami bike. Down the suffering-darkness main straight, with a rider not renowned for his streamlined figure, the 790 notched fifth gear and the digital speedo clicked over to 213 km/h before it was hard on the anchors for Turn One. There was still some way to go in fifth gear and an entire sixth gear ready in waiting, so we will leave you to speculate the top speed.
KTM 790 Duke wiring
KTM certainly hasn’t skimped with the electrickery giving it the full-house from Bosch, featuring a lean angle sensor controlling the traction control, the cornering ABS and the motor slip control that works with the slipper clutch to stop the back wheel locking under downchanges. On the models used at the launch, KTM had also fitted their both-ways quickshifters that offer clutchless upshifts and downshifts meaning the clutch is only necessary with stopping and going again.
An interesting side note – KTM have fitted the 790 Duke with a cable clutch instead of the more regular hydraulic clutch. This sounds like a backward step but, according to KTM, the cable clutch works better on this model. During their million hours of testing, they tried everything and said that the cable option was more reliable and easier to use. Why this is, no one knows, but no one complained about clutch trouble.
On the launch there were a few wheelie manics popping front wheels on every straight. The wheelie control is able to be switched off, but there was still interference from the electronics. It was only when the traction control was turned off also that the wheelies went on unhindered.
KTM 790 Duke out on the streets
The evening ended with a ride to dinner in Rosebank. It was an official launch, so the group leader, Riaan Neveling, led everyone in a calm and dignified manner. Actually, no – it was complete chaos, but hilarity did reign.
We’ve already touched on the cushioning nature of the suspension, and the light handling and small stature of the 790 made it even more of a giggle. The motor is still smooth and fun, and if you turn off the traction control you can quite easily lift the front wheel, as was the wont of various journalists (and the odd KTM brand manager) from every set of lights. The dash was alive and flamboyant, the ergonomics were good and everything was well.
What this was was a group of riders on giggle machines blasting through Johannesburg at night time, followed by a joyous dinner and much ragging. This is a heart and soul of motorcycling. It’s why we do it and it’s why we ride. It’s made yet more fun on a mad little machine made by one of the world’s maddest motorcycle manufacturers.
Life can be made better for R148,000.
Image gallery – click to enlarge: