The 2019 KTM 790 Duke has been on my short list of “must ride” motorcycles ever since the stunning concept motorcycle was first shown to the public at EICMA 2016. The concept immediately garnered attention—useable, meaningful power in a dashing, flickable chassis. It’s the kind of riding experience that only a thoroughbred performance middleweight can offer.From the moment the KTM 790 Duke was officially announced at EICMA 2017, the excitement for the middleweight Duke was more than apparent. Fans of the class were positively gleeful, and I was right there with them.
The prospect of a parallel-twin Duke with a full suite of electronic aids to take on other extremely impressive bikes, such as the Triumph Street Triple, the MV Agusta Brutale 800 and Ducati Monster 821, was too much to ignore.Though unveiled as a 2018 production model, the North American market had to wait nearly a full year before we would rest our eyes on the Kiska-designed 790. Like many other riders, I checked off the days on a calendar and wrote several volumes of ruminating poetry about my longing for the Duke.Okay, I didn’t do any of those things, but I sent more than one inquisitive e-mail to the KTM PR guy, and that’s essentially the same thing in my world. With all of that built up anticipation, undoubtedly, the bike could never live up the lofty preconceived notions we had about it, but in many ways, it does.Once I had my grubby mitts on it, I did plenty of canyons runs, not-so-boring commutes, as well as a track day, to put this machine through its paces. By the time the KTM PR guy asks about this bike’s whereabouts, I will have changed my name and moved to Mexico with the Duke in tow.Fastrack Riders accommodated my need to do a full-test of the 790 Duke and spin some laps at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. Fastrack Riders is one of the premier track day organizations, offering a safe riding environment for enthusiasts of all skill levels. They also provide coaching and rider training programs.KTM has earned quite the formidable reputation for its potent single-cylinder and powerful V-twin engines; it is part of the brand’s identity. The Duke lineup has been integral in building that legacy and, until now, has always used thumper motors (the Super Dukes have been V-twins). The LC8c (Liquid-Cooled 8-valve compact) at the heart of the 790 is KTM’s first parallel-twin powerplant.The new Duke breaks tradition in other ways, too. The LC8c engine is used as a stressed member, allowing engineers to do without a trellis frame, which has become something of a hallmark for the Austrian brand. To further improve on weight savings, the subframe and seat-pan is one single aluminum unit, helping create a Spartan, almost weaponized appearance.The 799cc engine is a thing of beauty, and it’s a shame it took KTM this long to try its hand at this engine configuration, as it can be thoroughly deemed a success. KTM took its time with this powerplant, developing what could be considered the most technologically sophisticated parallel-twin currently on the market.KTM engineers wanted a rapidly-revving, snappy engine in their middleweight—aptly dubbed The Scalpel—and that’s what they’ve created. To that end, lightweight forged pistons boast DLC coated piston pins simultaneously reduce reciprocating mass and friction. The forged connecting rods are cracked at the large end—yes, cracked—which creates a unique pattern that removes the need for locating pins. Less material means less reciprocating mass.The pressure-cast cases have been horizontally split with the cylinders built into the upper case. The cylinder heads are sleeveless and rely on a Nikasil coating, not only to reduce weight but also improve heat dissipation.To reduce vibration and overall buzziness that is stereotypical of p-twin engines, the dual-camshafts lobes are trimmed down and paired with DLC coated finger-followers. The final touches regarding ride quality come in the form of two counterbalancers—one by the crank and the other is on the exhaust valve cam. All of these additions make for an incredibly smooth ride, anywhere in the rev-range.As if that weren’t enough, you get a mechanical slipper clutch and KTM’s Quickshift+, otherwise known as an up/down quickshifter as part of the standard package—an addition that the Super Duke R offers as an optional extra.Where the tech mumbo-jumbo begins to come into focus for the rider is with the forged crankshaft’s 75-degree pin offset and 435-degree firing order. One of the main goals was to create a connection to the personality and sound of KTM’s V-twin engines, while also retaining the lightweight, free-revving characteristic central to the 790’s charm.That 435-degree firing order pays off in another way as well—exhaust tone. Hit the ignition, and you’ll be met with a burbling, blatting exhaust note that becomes more satisfying as the rev counter climbs. That, friends, sets the mood of the whole ride.The true joy of a middleweight is having power that a rider from anywhere on the skill-level spectrum can enjoy. Featuring claimed peaks of 105 horsepower at 9000 rpm and 64 ft/lbs of torque at 8000 rpm, the 790 Duke hits that perfect spot regarding power that will please steely-eyed canyon dwellers and newcomers alike.It doesn’t matter the setting, the 790 Duke’s powerplant makes itself invaluable. Below roughly 5000 rpm, the middleweight Duke is happy to plod along at your average urban pace, unphased and docile enough to make the ride friendly. Once you’ve put civilization in your mirrors, you can finally get a real taste of the motorcycle and explore it to your heart’s content.Twisting the throttle of the 790 becomes almost game-like, in that sense. At your wrist is power that gives you confidence. In the canyons, you’ll continue pushing, grabbing virtually perfect upshifts and downshifts, railing into canyon corners, only slowed by the prospect of yet another blemish on a motorcycle-cursed driving record.I was pleasantly surprised while riding the 2019 KTM 790 Duke at Auto Club Speedway. It’s a circuit that’s often best paired with liter-bike power due to its most prominent feature—a long, banked straightaway. On the track, I was able to toss the Duke into corners and rely on the motor’s exhilarating acceleration to launch me off the apex while getting the front end light, offering more than enough grunt in the tighter sections of the course.Although the 790 lacks the sheer power to put up a fight when in a drag race to turn 1 with a superbike, in the right hands, it’ll run circles around a liter bike everywhere else.The ride-by-wire throttle is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to electronics. Riders have four riding modes at their disposal—Rain, Street, Sport, and Track. Rain cuts power and maximizes intervention while the other modes scale their intrusion accordingly. All preset modes enable wheelie control.Other standard issues items include Bosch IMU-supported lean-angle-detecting traction control and cornering ABS, wheelie control, launch control, and MSR (Motor Slip Regulation is an electronic supplement to the mechanical slipper clutch that opens the throttle bodies to help further mitigate wheel-hop during deceleration).Track mode gives you the ability to adjust your nine-level traction control, choose any throttle map of your liking, disable wheelie control, and disable ABS completely. You can also engage Supermoto mode, which removes ABS from the rear only.The electronics package is to be commended—the ABS doesn’t intervene unnecessarily, even when trail braking hard into corners, and the adjustable TC is entirely predictable. In the higher settings, the TC will reduce drive, as you might expect, though it scales well. I spent most of my track time in level 2 and 3, combined with Dunlop Sportmax Q4 tires and didn’t experience any difficulties.Handling on the 790 Duke is precise and sharp, while remaining controlled and predictable. The lengthy 58-inch wheelbase—one of the longest in this class—is coupled with a steep 24-degree rake to make something that is both balanced, yet ready to aim squarely at any apex ahead of it.Unlike the 1290 Super Duke R, the 790 Duke lacks the brutish, unrestricted power of its V-twin powered big brother. The middleweight Duke rewards riders who adopt a riding style that relies on sweeping lines, entry-speed and maintaining corner speed, as opposed to expecting massive horsepower figures to hurl you out of the corner. It’s in those moments in the canyons or tracks where the nimble 790 can show off its strengths, as its steering is best described as effortless.The non-adjustable 43mm WP fork and spring-preload adjustable shock deal with the suspension duties. For the most part, the duo keeps the chassis inline, while edging towards a sportier one-size-fits-all setting.The rider will feel rough patches of asphalt or compression bumps mid-corner, and the KTM can shimmy underneath you a bit, though it is never to a point where your confidence is sapped—thanks in part are due to the 790 Duke’s steering damper. With moderately clear asphalt ahead, it’s sublime and you’ll make quick work of the twisties, shaming your liter-bike owning friends in the process.Despite that, the 790 remains a versatile machine, fit for duty in the urban environment or track. Those are worlds apart regarding suspension requirements, and this is one area where KTM had to make compromises.To help alleviate those pangs, KTM had WP use progressive-rate springs. On the street, the KTM soaks up just about everything with that soft initial portion of the suspension stroke, making city life more than acceptable.When the paces pick up, the soft initial portion of the progressive springs can cause some wallow. In the case of Auto Club Speedway, I first noticed it where a quick chicane is coupled with some battered tarmac.The middleweight Duke will wallow a bit and reinforce the notion that you need to be smooth with your inputs while keeping the suspension loaded. Sure, you can muscle the 790 around, but it’s so easy to flick from side to side that you’re more likely to unsettle it than be rewarded with faster lap times.In all, the non-adjustable suspension does well, while showing its weaknesses due to a lack of adjustability. I also didn’t feel that it held me back, though it’s easy to see where it can be improved with what normally would be a couple of quick turns of a wrench and that stings.Outside of that, KTM’s Chris Fillmore piloted a 790 Duke to victory at the 2018 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb with little more than a handful of components from KTM’s PowerParts catalog. There were no changes to the chassis, motor, or swingarm—just race suspension, slicks, and ditching unnecessary bits. If you questioned the potential of this machine, just put those anxieties to rest.When asked why this bike didn’t receive adjustable suspension, we were told it was due to price considerations. In for a penny, in for a pound, I say. If this bike is on your radar, you’ll pay the extra couple hundred for suspension you can dial-in. Perhaps an up-rated “R” version will be offered in the future.The brakes are another point where KTM chose to save on production costs, but in this case, the downside isn’t there. Spain’s J-Juan Brake Systems was tapped to develop calipers, working in close association with the Austrians to create the KTM-branded calipers. The front uses dual four-piston radially mounted calipers clamping down on 300mm floating rotors. In the rear, a dual-piston caliper works with a 240mm disc.The radial master-cylinder has a noticeable amount of movement before the soft initial bite takes place. It’s a bit jarring at first, but something that was easy to acclimate to. The brakes have a progressive feel and offer more than enough stopping power.I was thrilled to discover that KTM included some steel-braided brake lines, which resulted in braking performance that was the same on the street and track.Speaking once again to its versatility are the ergonomics, which offers a comfortable, upright, riding position. The 32.5-inch seat height might make prospective riders with shorter inseams questions its applicability. However, thanks to the narrow chassis, I’m confident shorter riders will do well in the 790’s saddle.Riders who want to fine-tune their riding position can move the handlebar clamp forward or back to taste—a cool personalization feature. For my dimensions, I was content with the standard position.Excessive knee-bend isn’t an issue, as the 2019 KTM 790 Duke is reasonably spacious. It makes for a bike that can be ridden all day without the pain your friends on supersport motorcycles may feel. The downside is that on track, you need to be keenly aware of your foot placement, as you can drag your boots, especially in corners where you’re leaned over and need to grab an upshift.The other notable issue is that your right heel conflicts with the exhaust muffler, which restricts your movement. You can work around it, but I’d opt for the PowerParts rearsets and the Akrapovič muffler to remedy the situation.The dash has been borrowed from the 1290 Super Duke R, and has an identical interface. Even in direct sunlight, it’s bright, legible and intuitive; poke around for a minute, and you’ll figure out its functions.In our initial test of the 2019 KTM 790 Duke, I was immediately smitten with the machine. I’m happy to report that with more time in the saddle, those feelings haven’t waned—quite the contrary. Its handling prowess married to a motor that will have you itching for your next ride and those are qualities that are not to be taken lightly.Adding to that already enticing prospect is the extremely sophisticated electronics package, which allows riders to push the envelope that much further in any environment. Yes, the lack of significant suspension adjustment is a spot of bother, yet at $10,499, the KTM 790 Duke doesn’t just make a compelling argument—it’s shouting at you to take it for a ride.Street and still photography by Simon CudbyTrack photography by CaliPhotographyRIDING STYLE (Track)
This week, Senior Editor Nic de Sena rides the all new Ducati Monster. Big changes have been made by Ducati–has the company ruined the considerable heritage of the iconic Monster–or are the changes worth it? In the second part of the show, we chat with Nick Ienatsch, Founder and Head Instructor at the Yamaha Champions Riding School. He says: “We aim to change your riding life by introducing you to Champions Habits: The techniques, approaches, skills, and the mindsets of the best riders in the world. These Champions Habits are the foundation of safety and consistency to whatever speed you ride, in any venue on any bike. Street riders, this is just as much for you as track riders. The best way to make safe riders is to make good riders.“ We hope you enjoy this episode!