LET’S DO THIS
I won’t assume you’ve ever read an article I’ve written before, given I’ve not been employed as a moto journalist for the last ten years. And yes, I agree – who cares what some Johnny-come-lately you’ve never heard of has to say? But I was cool once – frequently published in most of the major dirt-bike magazines in Australia, testing nearly every new model motorcycle to land on our shores. Some would say I even developed a bad habit of taking magazine test bikes into the heart of racing; Enduro, Cross Country and Desert. It was my thing and readers seemed to be fascinated by the war stories I would write from the front line of competition.
That was then, but just recently out of the blue, KTM Australia afforded me the opportunity to test ride the new 790 Adventure R in Morocco. I’m not being paid – nor am I writing for any of the motorcycle media in Australia – I’m simply being utilised as what the modern world refer to as a “Social Influencer”. You know, like one of those travel bloggers with a phone camera raised out in front of them on selfie mode, documenting their every move. Anyway, the only catch is I must compile a written review on the performance of the new 790 Adventure R. And perhaps a mention of the standard 790 too.
So here I am at KTM’s International 790 launch in Erfoud, Morocco – laying eyes on the 790R for the first time! Everybody is dissecting, judging, stacking it up against every comparable model before it, all the while questioning it’s intended purpose. 10-years ago i’d be doing the same thing, but today, I’m going in a little easier, neither viewing it as a dirt bike or a road bike – I simply want to appreciate the 790R as a motorcycle. The kind of motorcycle I might spend years saving for and one day bring home to park in the lounge room. The kind of motorcycle I’d like to ride to the pub, park it up in full view of the beer garden and see what conversations it strikes up over a few drinks. I want to work out if it’s the kind of motorcycle I would publicly flaunt as my own.
In this light, I’m seeing the 790R as quite a rare beast, with it’s curvy, yet mechanised style. Ergonomically, it’s lines are tight where plastic moulding meets steel, so it doesn’t have that junky toy-shop look on close inspection. The inner components around the frame and engine are visible, but subtle fairing gives the bike a more bikini-clad look, than a naked one. In all honesty, I wasn’t attracted to the studio images of this bike on release to the media, but right here in the flesh, the 790R’s physique is growing on me.
With over 30 journalists from around the world, we’re separated into groups based on our willingness and ability to take on the Sahara desert with a twin-cylinder, 800cc Adventure bike. Without complaint I assume position in the first group, led by the legendary, 5 x Dakar Champion Marc Coma. Along with four other hand-picked journalists, our briefing was simple; “If you can’t ride fast, we will put you in another group. If you can’t handle crossing the sand dunes, then you should not be in this group”.
Bring it. If nothing else, the opportunity to ride with Marc Coma was not to be missed.
7:45am we roll out of the hotel and into the streets of Morocco. With heat-seeker tracking, my eyes are glancing off every dog, truck, donkey-cart, bicycle and child meandering before me. My concentration on the bike isn’t hindered by awkward component positioning or posture – the 790R fits me well and I’ve not adjusted anything. From the action of the gear lever, feel of the brakes and the relationship between the footpegs, seat and handlebar, I’m riding the bike subconsciously – allowing complete attention to the foreign African world unfolding before me.
The Moroccan bitumen is worn by the wheels of a million trucks and polished smooth by the winds of thousand sand storms. It’s the kind of surface you cannot trust, and on the exit of the first roundabout, intervention of the 790R’s electronics keeps my pride in tact as the traction control converts an abrupt crack of the throttle to a subtle drift of the rear wheel … opposed to a sketchy, groin-stretching step-out, which wouldn’t have looked good among the company I was rolling with.
“Ok, now we change to Rally mode” announces Coma, as we sit parked on a random track pointing straight into the desert. The functions and interface of the 790R’s digital display are easy to navigate. The screen is smaller than an iPad, bigger than a smartphone and completely free of any obstructing cables or brake lines. The customisation is extensive as I begin scrolling through and setting up my ride. Horsepower delivery modes are; Street, Rain, Offroad and Rally. I go straight to Rally mode, further enhanced by throttle response option; Rally mode – further refined by electronic intervention (Slip or traction control), which I knock down to level one. I set the ABS braking to Off-Road mode and I basically have an 800cc dirt bike.
“Ok, keep at least 20-30 seconds gap for the dust” The Dakar legend cruises off like a businessman going to work. I’m parked a wheel-length ahead of the next visible journalist and without hesitation, fire up my 790R and latch onto Coma’s dust trail before anyone else. It’s in these times a pecking order must be established. I have no idea who these other journalists are, but I’m not about to eat their dust unless they try and make me. There’s enough breeze to push a clear line of sight, so I can easily see the baked earth is scattered with fist size rock. There’s old wheel ruts deep enough to mess with your front end as the track splits into parallel paths. Coma’s dust is moving further ahead. I’m standing on the pegs trying to get a feel for the chassis and suspension, occasionally dropping into the seat and checking my mirrors for riders in tow.
I’ve long clicked 6th-gear and the engine is just purring at about 100kph. I’m aware of my surroundings yet cautious of this new beast beneath me, but the 790R is giving no reason to hold back. A cross wind is now peeling the dust off Coma’s back wheel and I have him in direct line of sight, which means the riders behind have the same view of me. I lean forward, knock it back to 5th, feed the throttle and start moving into the 130-140kph range. The 790R’s mass isn’t bashing through the terrain – it’s skipping across the desert floor like a boat skimming a gentle swell and I’m yet to feel any nervousness in the front end.
About 30km’s in Coma pulls up for a regroup. “Now we head across riverbed areas toward the dunes, you will get a small taste of the sand”. Coma takes off and I latch straight onto him. He looks over his shoulder as I put one hand up to my helmet cam, insinuating that I’d like to track him for the sake of capturing footage of a master at work. I get the thumbs up, he leans forward and opens the throttle.
Ok, here we go, it’s either keep up, or get swallowed in the dust like a fool and have no usable footage.
Patches of fesh fesh (bull dust) are exploding off Coma’s rear wheel and spilling into my line of sight. It’s his pace or nothing, so I let the engine hit the limiter, grab another gear and slot-in over his shoulder. ‘Don’t f%k this up’ I think to myself and go into full attack mode. The sand is getting deeper and the corners softer, but the 790R is tracking really well. With more speed my front wheel is starting to tuck and the bike is showing it’s weight in the whooped sand, but I lean back over the seat and put a bit more faith in the rear shock. It’s now I discover the 790R’s most standout feature – the WP fork and shock. Finally, a twin-cylinder adventure bike with suspension matched to it’s power and weight. I’ve tried to attack terrain in this manner on other adventure bikes, but it’s generally short lived by a horrible case-out or deathly tank-slap. Not today – the 790R is taking hits like a seasoned pub fighter – doubling bumps and belting erosion ruts, hard. It’s a level of fun I didn’t expect to have with this class of bike. All the while riding with the legend that is Marc Coma.
SEA OF DUNES
In good time we arrive at the remote control – a mud and straw exotic hotel, straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. This is both our first photo point and lunch stop. The other groups are yet to arrive, so the photographers cash in on the morning light and begin herding us into action points. It’s slightly chaotic as we’re trying to understand what they want, but we take turns charging into the immediate sand dunes, hoping to nail a worthy shot. A few of us crash and burn, bend some bikes and earn some bruises, but we get the shots we need and roll out into the next loop as the others begin to arrive.
I’m feeling very in tune with the 790R and more aware of it’s capabilities. I’ve developed a new respect for it, a respect I didn’t think I’d have the first time I saw images of this bike. I thought I was looking at an 800cc version of it’s bigger 1090R sibling, but it’s much more than that. The 790R is it’s own beast, which surprisingly leans more towards it’s EXC cousins than it’s bigger twin cylinder brothers. In terms of it’s 195kg dry weight, the 790R is a lot heavier than any of the 100-120kg EXC models, but it hides this weight well behind exceptional handling. The combination of the developed WP suspension, stable geometry and Rally-bike inspired fuel tank are the 790R’s secret. The front to rear balance is so spot on, the bike doesn’t demand drastic input – You can hold your speed between changing surfaces without too much shift in your body position.
“Ok, now we cross the dunes” announces Coma.
This will be interesting, it’s approaching mid-day and there’s minimal contrast in the sand. It’s hard to judge the point at which the dunes rise and fall. We take off in a sand-train behind Coma, letting the experience of a Dakar champion cut a path as we figure out how the 790R wants to behave in this bike-swallowing sea of dunes. I’m pulling second gear and finding a balance between wheel-spin and hanging my weight over the rear. The tyres fitted to the bike aren’t providing much drive, but the engine is producing enough tractability to keep me moving. I roll off the throttle as the bike starts to ride on top of the sand. It seems as long as I can keep this pace, the 790R is tracking well and steering predictably, but it’s a game of skill as we have to carry momentum right to the crest of each dune, then make an evasive line choice based on how steep it drops away on the other side. We find a rhythm and start free-ranging behind Coma. Once again, the 790R is behaving like a much lighter machine – bikes this size aren’t usually so manageable in an undulating sea of sand.
A CLASS OF IT’S OWN
Back at the photo point, lunch is a Moroccan banquet of exotic dishes among the buzz of an epic ride. To round out the day, we’re looping back to our hotel via an ancient prison in the desert. It’s also the next photo point and our last chance to explore the performance of this impressive machine. I’m really seeing the 790R’s true colours now – it’s earned my respect as an extremely capable dirt bike and very comfortable road bike. As mentioned earlier, when I first saw studio images, the 790R’s styling didn’t appeal to me. But attach a rider to it, watch the thing move through the desert and it’s immediately obvious KTM have designed it to be a Rally bike. The engine is compact to keep the bike’s centre of gravity low, complemented by the tear shaped tank, which keeps most of the 20-litre fuel capacity below the seat height. With that, the bikes core mass is centralised in front of your knees, keeping the rear of the bike very light to enable aggressive riding. You can step this baby right out in rough terrain and it won’t bite back like some of the other heavier, more unbalanced bikes in it’s class. You don’t have to take my word for it, google the specs on every other 800cc off-road twin whose manufacturer has released weights – the KTM790R is the only one with a dry weight under 200kg.
Not once have I bottomed the suspension or had the back-end try to eject me over the handlebars on surprise kickers. The 790R is by far the best handling adventure bike I’ve ever ridden. The delivery of it’s 95 horsepower engine is a perfect match for the chassis and suspension, because it’s not too fast for itself. You can use all of the 790R’s power as the chassis and suspension will handle the speeds this engine propels the bike to. It really is in a class of it’s own and I think this may be the bike to finally convince the hardcore off-road rider to enter the Adventure bike game. Those riders who like me, once viewed ‘ADV Riders’ as old farts fooling about on road bikes fitted with knobby tyres and loaded with luggage. I’m lucky that through my current work in motorcycle film production, I’ve been able to experience the fun and adventure of riding big off-road motorcycles. I totally get it now, and at this stage of my life have fallen in love with these twin-cylinder, off-road-freedom-machines. They’re cool. The 790R is really cool, and yes, if I could afford the $23’000 price tag, I’d gladly roll up to the pub and park it next to a bunch of Harleys, Ducatis or whatever. Because to me, the 790R holds it’s own as a respectable motorcycle. It will do everything a road bike needs to do, safely and efficiently, all the while armed and ready as a serious off-road weapon.
NOT SO HARDCORE?
If the 790R sounds a bit beyond your intentions as a motorcyclist, then the 790 Adventure is probably your thing. They’re basically the same bike, with slight differences to highlight their intended purpose, which is more street focused for the standard model.The KTM 790 ADVENTURE has a different front fender, mounted closer to the wheel. The suspension has less travel for better feel on the bitumen, and apart from pre-load adjustment, the damping control is not adjustable.The 790R has fully adjustable WP XPLOR suspension with 240 mm of travel, compared with 200 mm on the standard version. Physically, the chassis and swingarm are identical on both bikes, but the ‘R’ has slight geometry changes; wheel base of 1,528 mm (compared to 1,509 mm), steering head angle of 63.7° (compared to 64.1°), trail of 110.4 mm (compared to 107.8 mm) and benefits from a ground clearance of 263 mm (compared to 233 mm).
The design of the seats differs; 790 runs a split design with a pronounced step to separate passenger and rider and the pilot’s seat is height adjustable between 830 mm or 850 mm, featuring an underseat phone pocket (USB charger also available as a KTM PowerPart). The 790R has a seat height of 880 mm and uses a one-piece design with only a small bump stop to allow maximum movement for the rider. Both bikes feature a comprehensive suite of electronics, but only the 790R has the new Rally ride mode installed; an option on the KTM 790 ADVENTURE. The 790 is navigation ready thanks to KTM MY RIDE, only requiring an app for onscreen, turn-by-turn directions. All said and done, the 790 Adventure standard model is still off-road capable, just not as extreme adventure focused as the 790R.