2014 KTM 690 Duke Review | Noblesse Oblige

KTM 690 Duke Motorcycle Test

There is something appealing about revisiting your roots, particularly when they welcome you with open arms. Having started motorcycling on four-stroke dirt bikes and single- cylinder dual-sport bikes, I have a natural affinity for the strong pulse of a thumper.

For sport bike enthusiasts, big singles have been in short supply. This has left us to find happiness on twins, triples and fours, which step into the breach with a high-revving authority. In past years, KTM has kept us satisfied with its supermotard/supermoto-inspired Duke series, which debuted nearly 20 years ago.

Lately, though, the Duke has been AWOL from the American market. Happily for riders like me, those who appreciate a bike that has plenty of low-rpm torque and a redline (and price) that is well short of five figures, the 690 Duke is back on our shores.

More recently, the Duke has morphed into a pure sporting street machine — a “Naked Bike” according to KTM—with a trellis frame, underslung-pipe, lower road-going seating, shorter suspension, and tire-hugging full front fender. Additionally, the displacement is now a full 690cc, for that extra oomph that is advantageous on the pavement.

Despite its noble title, the Duke gives off an immediately accessible vibe, beckoning one to climb aboard and get comfortable in the friendly ergonomics.

It reminds me of my first dual sport bike — a slim frame, wide bars, a seat under 33 inches high, and peg positioning that puts you in a stance that makes you feel like you are in total control of the (claimed dry) 330-pound bike. There is no intimidation factor here; just an open invitation to come have fun, and that is what the 690 Duke delivers.

The single-cylinder upright mid-sized naked bike is a blast to ride in the canyons, perfectly suited for around town jaunts, and equally capable as a suburban commuter. Surprisingly, KTM doesn’t have to fend off competition from other manufacturers for this slice of the market.

With plenty of torque from the big thumper, the Duke moves eagerly off idle. The bottom ratios are short, so you won’t spend much time in the lowest cogs, even when riding through residential neighborhoods. Low speed situations such as parking lot maneuvers are stress-free.

Vibration from the single cylinder makes itself known above 5000 rpm, both in the bike’s appreciably comfortable and supportive seat, and at the mirrors; the former is just a footnote, but the latter means you won’t be keeping track of much behind you as the mirrors blur at freeway speeds. At lower rpm, the rearward reflection is sufficient, and KTM gets two thumbs up for the no-tools-necessary grip-and-twist mounting.

One of the best things about the deceptively casual 690 is the amount of excitement it can create at lower speeds. The Duke has the agility and torque to put a big smile on your face without causing a single gray hair, while still exuding an indisputable cool factor.

Although there are times around town where the WP suspension feels a bit rough, it is dialed right for aggressive riding in the hills. The taut suspension gives a good feel for the ground through the excellent Michelin Pilot Power rubber.

The Duke holds its line solidly in fast sweepers, inspiring you to keep it leaned and on the gas. When the asphalt tightens up, transitions can be deftly executed as the featherweight bike is easy to throw around in corners, and it does not have to rely on a short wheelbase or steep fork angle to quickly change direction. Although the pegs feel low, cornering clearance is sufficient.

The Duke can’t compete with the multis in pure acceleration—the high-strung steeds will leave the Austrian Duke in the dust—but they require a lot more attention. The responsive thumper encourages you to work the throttle of the 67 horsepower short-stroke engine and slingshot out of turns with abandon, its single cylinder profile acting as de facto traction control.

There is a rush of power above 6000 rpm, so be sure to tap into it. The radially mounted Brembo caliper on the single 320mm rotor does a great job, mainly due to the Duke’s lack of mass. At the same time, the ABS will kick in if I get too aggressive on the binders, particularly the 240mm rear disc, which will start to lose touch with the ground when tugging hard on the brake lever. I can also downshift with impunity, as the slipper clutch ensures constant traction. Suffice to say, there are a lot of ways to slow the Duke down efficiently and predictably.

The Duke makes its way through the twisties at sane speeds that retain an adrenaline rush that is out of line with how fast you are actually going. The chance of collecting speeding tickets is reduced, and you have additional reaction time available if your find yourself in a sticky situation.

In town, the Duke’s upright seating position affords a good vantage point, and its slim physique makes navigating busy streets more fun than effort. Rather than focusing on shifting or staying comfortable, you can give your full attention to the competing traffic. Pulling away from a green light or stop sign, the temptation to loft the front wheel is nearly irresistible. I like it.

If you are lucky enough to have a full-speed freeway running through an urban center, you’ll arrive bright-eyed and energized at your destination thanks to the bracing blast coming over the front of the unfaired bike; the Duke is not for touring.

There is a certain organic magic that comes with the singular heartbeat of a big thumper. KTM taps into the visceral appeal of a solitary 102mm piston moving its way through the bore, bursting with excitement at every spark of the plug.

Almost 20 years into its development, the KTM 690 Duke takes its place as a monarch, ruling proudly over all road-going singles

Photography by Don Williams

Riding Style:

  • Helmet: Arai Vector-2 Loop
  • Eyewear: TAG Heuer Reflex
  • Jacket: Dainese G. Cage Pelle Lady
  • Gloves Dainese Redgate Lady
  • Pants: Ugly Bros Aegis-K
  • Boots: Sidi Fusion Lei


Story from the November/December issue of Ultimate MotorCycling magazine. For a digital version, click here.