Over the past decade, there has been much heated banter and verbal sparring among off-road purists aimed at defining and differentiating the "dual sport" and "adventure" motorcycle markets. Seemingly, the goal is to neatly compartmentalize two-wheeled consumers and target them with readymade products that are focused more on showroom emotion than throat-gripping performance.
Determined to form my own hypothesis, and armed with the KTM 990 Adventure, I set my sights on a multi-day expedition through the coastal and interior regions of central California. The ground rules were simple-250 miles per day, evenly split between tarmac and off-road terrain, while maintaining stunning views of windswept coastline and sundrenched vineyards in of my peripheral vision. In lieu of the optional KTM hard luggage, I decided to travel light and simply strap a waterproof duffle bag to the rear fender brace. A US Forest Service map, coupled with a handlebar mounted GPS, would be essential for the frequent navigational requirements necessary to link up the menagerie of coastal back roads and sandy mountain trails. Although the Austrian machine is branded "Adventure", its pedigree is derived from a long string of racing successes in grueling rally events held all over the globe. The 990 is not simply a street bike kitted with off-road components and marketing materials-rather, its DNA is solidly based on race-proven design concepts and engineered to provide for heightened sensations on all forms of terra firma. In doing so, KTM has eschewed many of the more luxury accoutrements of some of its competitors’ machines, such as heated grips and electronic suspension adjustment, in favor of a lower overall weight and a simpler design. Although not intended to satisfy the die-hard slab burner, the stability of the Adventure at freeway speeds was a welcome surprise. Once I became accustomed to the wind buffeting kicked up from the diminutive windscreen, miles of pavement clicked away beneath the Pirelli Scorpion tires. When the freeway traffic came to standstill, I quickly found myself knifing through cars packed with beach revelers; the reworked, now fuel-injected, LC8 engine induced a steady rush of endorphins beneath my helmet. At 106 horsepower and nearly 74 ft/lbs of torque, the 75-degree, V-twin, 999cc powerplant has plenty of punch to loft the front wheel, and the quick revving pull to pick the bike up out of the corners. Exiting US 101, I quickly glanced behind me before I stomped on the rear brake pedal and pulled the right hand lever with all my strength to test out the new two-channel Bosch/Brembo ABS braking system. The front worked well and kept the bike tracking straight, but the rear offered less stellar performance, as its oscillation rate between full lock and freewheel is abnormally slow. Thoroughly excited by its nimble-yet-stable showing on the street, I was eager to unleash the KTM through the rocks and ruts of my favorite Santa Barbara back country road. West Camino Cielo offers up stunning Channel Island views, as well as some great two-track-perfect to cut our teeth on. However, after forgetting to turn off the ABS, I completely blew the first turn and nearly ended the ride early, a few hundred feet down! A couple of deep breaths and a quick press of a button later, the ABS system was disengaged. I was happily slipping and sliding the rear wheel, yelling at the top of my lungs! This is where the KTM Adventure shines-it is completely at home on dirt roads and trails. Rocks, ruts, roots, and step-ups-there is nearly nothing an aggressive stand-up riding position and a little throttle control cannot conquer. After 15 miles of Santa Barbara off-road rally racing, I found myself rolling into the historical Danish village of Solvang, with a bakery-fresh aroma wafting through the air. I was having too much fun to stop, so I quickly made haste to the Pozo/La Panza OHV area, located in the rolling hills of Central California’s Los Padres National Forest. For the upcoming high-speed roads, tight single track, and long sand washes, I switched to a 990 Adventure outfitted with Dunlop Rally Raid tires. Shod with knobbies, the off-road capability of the bike is completely transformed. Wheelies, power slides, and late-braking berm shots are too invigorating to pass up. However, deep whoops and choppy braking bumps need to be approached with caution on any heavy bike, and are better saved for lightweight off-road machines. Turning the handlebars north, I trekked up the coast past Hearst Castle and San Simeon before eyeing a small gravel road-Forest Service Road 23S01-which cuts across the coastal ridges of the most northern section of the Los Padres National Forest. Twisting the throttle and again opting for human-modulated brakes over ABS, I quickly rallied up to 1500 feet above sea level, and then headed for the wine country of Paso Robles. I discovered that the wine I tasted was a Petite Sirah varietal, estate-bottled, very versatile, with myriad different food pairings-quite pleasing on the palette. I could not help but draw wine analogies in my head, and hopefully put the dual-sport/adventure bike debate to rest once and for all. Instead, the KTM 990 Adventure thwarted my ambitions. The bike does not fit into the commonly accepted "Adventure" category-it has much more off-road prowess than any other bike in its class-nor can it be considered a simple dual-sport bike, as that would be a gross understatement. It is engineered for much more expansive riding than simply linking up trails separated by street-legal tarmac. Therefore, I would like to complicate matters by adding a "Rally" category for the KTM 990, and recommend that each rider choose his own adventure.