2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke RSA Launch, Red Star Raceway

The 1290 Super Duke R was originally launched in 2014 and was not compared to a sexy lady, a loyal companion, a friend and a delightful means of transport. It was a homicidal maniac. A chainsaw savage. A fire breathing, skull crushing barbarian. Man it was good. Now there’s a new Super Duke. And it still wants to see your untimely death, but instead of simply ripping your face off with its bare hands, it has now taken a martial arts class.

Words: Donovan Fourie
Pics: Zoon Cronje

2017 KTM Super Duke 1290 R chassis
The 2017 Super Duke looks nearly as good stripped down as when it’s dressed.

KTM did very well with the 1290 Super Duke. It sold well, but more importantly KTM had the guts to defy tradition, to ignore all notions of discipline, responsibility and adulthood, and build something that is nothing but fire and emotion.

What always ends up happening is a manufacturer would bring in a well-performing superbike, take the fairing off, remove a huge chunk of power from the motor – cleverly but deceptively marketed as “retuning to make it more rideable” – and calling it a naked bike. Think about every naked bike in existence, and you will find exactly the same process.

Then along came the Super Duke. It was based on the now discontinued 1190cc RC8-R superbike, but instead of dumbing it down, they increased the capacity to 1301cc, increased the horsepower by 5hp and boosted the torque to 140Nm. If you want to know what it was like to ride, re-read the introduction to this story.

If it ain’t broken, fix it anyway

So, to this day, nothing remains as bonkers as the 1290 Super Duke – except possibly a green framed, supercharged Kawasaki but that is another whole kettle of sea monsters – and by all rights they could have kept it running with their heads held high, but this is KTM, the compulsive fettlers, and the thought of not improving something is seemingly foreign, alien even.

And so here it is, the improved Super Duke R in South Africa. More specifically, there was a row of them idling in the pitlane of Red Star Raceway for the South African launch. The word “idling” sounds terribly subdued, and normally it would be, but this is a row of 1301cc motors, each equipped with two 650cc pistons, thumping angrily, sounding like an ill-tempered pitbull behind the rusted fence of a greasy scrap yard.

They don’t look pretty – pretty is not the correct word. Buffalo Bill was not pretty, Nor was Ted Bundy, but you wouldn’t tell them that to their faces, nor you would you do the same to the Super Duke because it might just rip your liver out. It does look different – the side shrouds are bigger and pointer, like a dictator’s military hat; there are less plastics covering the tailpiece, making it look like a the stubby rear end of a muscular pitbull; the headlights are now twin LED, that look as though they are concealing a billionaire, playboy philanthropist. The reason they are twin LED lights is to make room for a gap between them that houses an aluminium cooling slot to keep at bay the massive heat generated by the LEDs.

2017 KTM Super Duke 1290 R headlight
The new LED headlight with the famous gap.

The bike is tall (seat height of 835mm), adding to the muscular look, and this is apparent the moment you swing your leg over and inadvertently kick the rear seat – a reason, perhaps, that they removed all the plastics around the subframe. The tank is narrow but tall, and the bars are now wider, lower and further forward.

There is a new TFT colour dash, not the quite the same nor at the same level as the new Super Adventure R (see separate story) but good nonetheless. Functions are again controlled by four buttons on the left handlebar, and while it might still be a bit of effort to change the electronic settings, it is a good deal easier than the previous model.

What is fun is the new keyless ignition – put the key fob in your pocket, push a square grey button and the lights on the TFT dash go through dial-up. Push the bottom of the emergency stop button and everything comes to life.

Please feed the animals

And so the line of Super Dukes made their way down pitlane, spitting and snarling like chained dragons incandescent with rage. The standard bike comes with three rider modes – Rain, Street and Sport, with Rain delivering “only” 130hp, Street delivering the full power and Sport delivering the full power but with a snappier throttle – but these bikes were equipped with KTM’s Track Pack that adds a Track mode to the mix that delivers the full power, the full throttle response (with the option of changing it if need be) and the full eight-level traction control, but with the ability to turn off the wheelie control without turning off the traction control.

Whoever thought up that idea deserves a medal and a statue in their honour.

Thus, as you zig-zag out of the rule-laden confinements of pitlane, you open the throttle in first gear, hear the snarl turn into a roar, feel the bike shoot forward and the front wheel shoot skywards.

The previous Super Duke pushed 173hp (originally, they claimed it was 180hp, but that figure was very quietly lowered on their spec sheet sometime after the launch) and 140Nm of torque, which was plenty, yet more is always more, thus has now been boosted to 177hp and 141Nm of torque. More significantly, it makes 100Nm at just 2,500 rpm. That means that you can open the throttle at nearly any speed and be bombarded with torque and forwardness.

The result of this is the front living the American dream and the rider throwing in some socialism by means of short shifting until third gear. This is aided by a quickshifter that came as part of a Performance Pack that was added to these machines to keep the Track Pack company. Also included with this package is a slip regulator that works with the slipper clutch to keep the back wheel stable under down changes by opening the throttle slightly when it feels the back wheel locking under compression. Then there is the new KTM My Ride system that connects the dash to your phone via Bluetooth and can then go through the music playing through your headset, plus tell you when your phone is ringing and who is calling.

But back to the track – after a brief but glorious spurt of torque and acceleration, we got on with the job of traveling in a vaguely circular motion as fast as possible. The previous Super Duke was fun in the corners, but there was a slightly disconnected feeling that usually stems from something being a genuine road bike. The suspension was a touch soft, the steering is a little delayed and there tended to be movements when there shouldn’t be. It wasn’t as bad as you might visualise it after a sentence like that, but it was there.

2017 KTM Super Duke 1290 R corner
The smoother motor is just one of the reasons that the new Super Duke is a formidable track machine.

With this new one, they’ve re configured the WP suspension, especially the front forks. The bike feels more stable, more nimble, more confident. What’s more, the large bike sitting in pitlane has turned into a nimble little racer on track. The handlebars are further forward than on the previous model, but are far from far away. When you get into the rhythm of track riding, they seem to disappear from your vision, leaving nothing but the panorama of track before you.

The brakes use M50 calipers, the top of the range from Brembo, that are aided further by KTM’s clever cornering ABS. Plus the quickshifter is a both-ways system with an autoblip downshift, so braking involves no clutch action and only the blip of an auto-throttle invoking more snarling and growling from the engine.

The traction control has been better dialed to be less intrusive and smoother, which was a problem on the last one but not so much on this one. Especially with Track Mode activated, in which you can adjust the level of slip on the fly by simply pressing the arrow buttons on the right handlebar. This feels very MotoGP-like, where riders adjust the traction control according to the degradation of the back tyre and the track conditions. It’s probably less necessary for us mortals, but is does feel like we are living the MotoGP dream.

Making the traction control’s life easier is a throttle response that picks up quicker, but also in a smoother manner. Where turning the throttle on the previous model simply incited violence, this model gives you some hair raising and growling before it gives you violence.

Red Star is a fantastic circuit for honing your riding skills, getting the hang of your technique and ensuring that every other track henceforth will be a doddle. The only issue is that, with its many corners, its intensity can be a little taxing on the body and mind.

Although the Super Duke adds the sit-up position that physicists associate with bad aerodynamics, chiropractors will praise it for not destroying the riders’ physique. The truth is, as someone who doesn’t get much time as he’d like on the track these days – and even less in the gym – five laps on a modern superbike around Red Star has near crippling effects. However, ten laps later on the Super Duke, and I am annoyed that the chequered flag is out already.

Part of the reason for this is the easygoing handling that’s synonymous with naked bikes, plus the fact that you tend to not concentrate that hard on lap times and more on simply enjoying the experience. The tight hairpins of Red Star are easier to get your head around, and the exits are chance to lift the front wheel on the power in second gear and holding it through third using the quickshifter. The grunt of the engine means that you need not hammer down 12 gears in the braking, nor have to scream the thing everywhere. It tractors out of corners, churning the tar in its wake.

It’s a toy, a plaything, not a serious track machine, as naked bikes should be. You are already compromising lap times by daring to not have a fairing, sacrificing time for fun, and this is where the Super Duke thrives. It’s a capable track machine, but not a compulsory racer.

That’s half the joy of the Super Duke. The other half is what happens when you are not on a track…

Always be irresponsible

2017 KTM Super Duke 1290 R dash
The day/night settings of the new TFT dash

Naked bikes are compromised. Their brick-like aerodynamics, their non-laydown seating and the added comfort all don’t bode well for track riding. And yet, many a manufacture insists on equipping their bike for it at the detriment of their road handling. And this is where the Super Duke has thrived – the previous one was not the best track tool. It was fun around the track, but I fear that there were a handful of rivals that could out-laptime it. They were sharper, more refined and had a better handling and electronic package.

What they lacked, though, was Super Duke’s ability to be fun everywhere. Ride one of these rivals down to the shop and they would be good, but would not necessarily induce huge smiles, never mind flat out, mischievous laughter.

From the moment you hit the starter button and it grunts into life, you feel entertained. Roll out of your driveway, with the two grizzly bear pistons growling, and you smile. Open the throttle and immediately it shunts forward riding an aggressive wave of torque, and you cannot help but giggle like Dennis the Menace with a handful of stink bombs.

It ticks all the grown up boxes too – it’s comfortable, it handles traffic easily and, should you choose to, you can average 26 km/L if you stick to the speed limit on the on the freeway. Although it’s nearly impossible for the human hand to hold the throttle still enough to not accidentally break the speed limit, thus the option of a cruise control helps immensely. When the fuel tank does need a topping up, there is still no need to reach for the key because the fuel cap is electronically locked. It opens when the ignition is on and for ten seconds after the ignition is turned off.

There is one niggle, though – the motor is strong and aggressive, and an industrial amount of torque comes, seemingly, with an industrial gearbox. Where other bikes change gear like oiled-up silk, the Super Duke seems to do it by moving two giant chunks of metal via the foot. While seeming to be very meaty, the gearbox does require some work. Although, these bikes were very new, and KTM gearboxes tend to smoothen out with mileage.

All good things don’t always come to an end

2017 KTM Super Duke 1290 R motor
The masterful 1301cc motor.

Apart from this, the Super Duke is pure joy. It is the sort of bike you want to ride all the time, in any circumstances and in any conditions. This isn’t your trusty friend or faithful companion. It is the bad kid that wants to lead you astray. It’s the kid that your parents warn you to stay away from, the one that is sitting giggling next to you in prison, the one that drags you out of the house when you should be doing homework. You might not get any doctorates, but you will gain many a good memory.

Owning one makes absolutely no logical sense, but that is what makes it so damn good.