KTM bills the 2015 1190 Adventure R as both "the world's safest motorcycle" and "without doubt the twin-cylinder enduro with the greatest offroad ability." Backing up the first claim is one of the first lean-angle sensitive Cornering ABS systems to hit the market, and backing up the second is a pair of big, tubeless spoked rims with aggressively knobby tyres on. In the right hands, this thing is a dune-destroying cross-continental touring weapon, a true superbike for the dirt. Loz Blain's hands are not the right hands; he's spent precious little time on the dirt – but he's always up for an Adventure...
This review came as a bit of a surprise to me. The plan was to finish 2014 by riding what I'd heard was the craziest thing on two wheels: the KTM Super Duke 1290 R. The BMW S1000R scared several different shades of bubbling dung into my leathers earlier this year, and I'd heard tales of hardened bike journos jumping off the KTM weak-kneed with terror and hopping on the BMW to calm their nerves a touch. The Super Duke R was clearly a bike I needed to experience.
But due to a mix-up between me and Team Orange, a brand spanking new, zero kilometer 1190 Adventure R rolled up instead. I was disappointed for about four seconds before realizing here lay an opportunity to ride something way outside my comfort zone.
I've been getting a little narrow in my focus lately – sportsbikes and tourers have been dropping off the list a bit in favor of big-bore naked hooligan machines, because that's where I get my jollies. My entire experience of adventure riding consisted of maybe a dozen times when I'd accidentally pointed a big-bore naked hooligan machine down the wrong road and ended up on dirt.
But I've watched as much Ewan and Charlie as the next guy. I've dreamed of mountaintop goat tracks and river crossings, of pacing myself against wildlife, of cooking eggs on hot engine casings and killing my own meat, of staring into a sunset with a grubby face, of running naked and wild-eyed in the scrub, of getting myself a two-wheeled four wheel drive and suddenly unlocking a vast network of tracks I never knew existed in between the twisty roads I love, each promising new degrees of manly adventure and hearty campfire laughter.
An Adventure had landed in my lap, so by gum an adventure it would be.
The Adventure in question is a 2015-model 1190 R. After all, if you're going to get into dirt riding, you might as well start out on a 217-kg (478-lb), 148-horsepower, twin-cylinder orange-blooded widow maker. This bike and I share a lot in common – we're both oriented toward the dirty end of the scale. For the KTM, that manifests in big spoked tubeless rims with dune-hungry knobby tires and a massive 21-inch front wheel. For myself, it mainly manifests in juvenile fart jokes.
It's a giant bike. At nearly 6 foot tall, I have to think twice about where I put a foot down. The seat height is 890 mm, to give it a bit of clearance in the rough stuff and allow extended suspension travel of 220 mm front and rear. It rides a good inch higher than its more road-focused non-R brother, which is a big old boofer in its own right.
I fired it up and took it out for its first ever ride. I figure it's quite a privilege to break a bike in, so I plonked it immediately in Sport mode, turned off the traction control and chucked a welcome wheelie before it had even turned its first corner.
The LC8 superbike engine is just a pearler. 1195cc worth of Austrian v-twin makes a rowdy 148 horsepower, but with a creamy flexibility that gives you multiple gear options for most situations. With the knobby tires on, anywhere on the shouty side of the tacho will get the rear tire spinning up on corner exits on or off the road, or the traction control light flashing an angry red at you as it grips and goes. In fact, the tire even spins up in 100-horsepower "off-road" mode at about 50 percent throttle, so you're probably gonna need to put stickier road tires on to get the most out of the engine.
On the tarmac, the seating position is lovely, the motor is extraordinary and progress is rapid. It feels like a very civilized way to eat miles. Mind you, to a road rider who's used to race-profile sticky rubber, it feels odd to turn – 21 inches at the front and 19 inches at the rear is a big old pair of gyroscopes you're trying to tilt at speed, and you sure can feel them resisting your steering efforts.
The knobby tires dip you into the turn a little quicker than you asked for, and at higher lean angles you swear you can feel the little knobs of rubber twisting to pull you around. I can certainly see how a road rubber-shod Adventure 1190 standard with the 19-inch front wheel would give me a more secure feeling for fast road riding, but you can put different rubber on the R if that's your bag, and I found myself having a fair bit of fun on the street regardless.
I met another Adventure R rider in my travels at one point, who told me the knobbies and big wheels didn't slow him down at all on the road. I chose to take this as meaning he wasn't very quick to begin with, to protect my fragile ego.
My only real complaint for road riding is that it runs hot enough to be a real drag below freeway speeds in hot weather. I was thankful I didn't have to commute on this one in the baking Aussie summer.
When the bitumen runs out … Well, that's what this bike lives for, but I was never going to push its limits. I was acutely aware at all times of my rubbish off-road abilities and the price tag of my gleaming, borrowed steed. Still, I sacked up and gave it a red hot go.
It took me a little time to get used to the feeling of both wheels slithering and sliding beneath me, but before too long I found myself blasting down loose, lightly rutted gravel roads well. Switching between riding modes is a fiddly job on the KTM, but once in Offroad mode, traction control allows your rear wheel to spin exactly twice as fast as the front and no more before it intervenes. What that means in practice is that an unskilled moron like myself can whack the throttle open on a corner exit and spin the back wheel up a bit without worrying that it's going to try to overtake the front. It builds a lovely illusion that almost convinced me I knew what I was doing, but the flashing red light on the dashboard winked the truth at me.
And of course, any delusions of adequacy went out the window when things became steep or twisty or deeply rutted or muddy or wet or poorly cambered. In these instances I found it much easier to make progress standing up – but the ergonomics weren't quite right. I think I'd want higher bars for a more relaxed upper body, and putting weight over the front was tougher than it should've been due to the wide tank forcing my legs apart. I might consider bigger footpegs if I was going to do a lot of standing up. Then again, I might also consider wearing offroad-friendly riding gear instead of race boots and road leathers, complete with vastly pointless knee sliders.
Thighs beginning to burn, I pressed further onward, picking out a narrow single trail with some steeper sections, the odd broken log and some small jumps. Here I really appreciated the long-travel WP suspension. I've never ridden a KTM whose suspension I haven't loved; WP is a class act. I got some very mild air on this 217 kg behemoth at one point, and our smooth landing did nothing to discourage me from trying it again. I puckered my fundament and gassed it through several meters' worth of mud puddle I couldn't see the bottom of, and although the whole contraption went a foot sideways, it pulled us through as sure as a freight train. Well, it was sure in hindsight, anyway.
On the slow end of the scale, I was amazed how compliant the engine remained at low revs. At one point, negotiating a tight bit of trail, I took it down near walking pace in second without pulling the beautifully light clutch in. When it started chugging a bit, I dropped a gear only to glance at the dash and discover I'd actually been in third. That would simply never happen on, for example, a Ducati Multistrada. This kind of flexibility is part of the magic that takes a raging off-road superbike and makes it a genuinely friendly experience for an inexperienced, fearful traction junkie like myself.
Apart from the spot-on fuel mapping and power curve, the other major part of the magic is the electronics. The Adventure 1190 R is a flagship for all of Bosch's top shelf safety systems. The mode-sensitive traction control is so good you can hardly tell it's operating, on or off the road. You're just catapulting out of your corner extremely quickly, with only the red light to let you know it's not your godlike throttle skills keeping everything in line.
For 2015, the mode-sensitive braking system now offers cornering ABS, or the ability to mash your brake lever like a chimpanzee even when you're fully leaned over. The Bosch system smoothly applies the amount of braking it calculates your tires can handle, bringing you to a safe stop without having to stand your bike up and run wide. Did I test this system by mashing the brake lever like a chimpanzee while fully leaned over? Hell no. I'm a fool, but not a suicidal fool. The ABS did however save my trembling bacon several times in a straight line on the loose stuff, and that's more than enough ABS testing for my pay grade.
There's other luxuries too, like tire pressure monitors, a tank that's good for almost 500 km (311 mi) of freeway riding and a sturdy rack and pannier mounts, which add to the overall feeling of class and competence this machine exudes. Even the underseat tool kit is special – it's the best I've ever seen on a motorcycle bar none.
All adventure bikes must at some point be compared with the BMW R1200GS Adventure, the boxer-bellied giant that kicked this whole category into second gear. The KTM is more than 40 kg lighter and its RC8-derived engine puts up a good 23 peak horsepower more than the GS. With just a 19-inch front wheel and road-focused tires, the BMW is probably the superior roadbike, although the non-R version of the KTM would likely leave it long behind. The 1190 Adventure R is certainly built to be king in the dirt.
At one point, I found myself punting along at a decent pace with a six-foot tall emu jogging lop-sidedly up the track in front of me. In well over a decade of riding on Australian roads, I've encountered scores of kangaroos, cows, sheep, wombats, goannas and even the odd echidna, but I can honestly say that emu was a first for me.
May there be many more emus, and may there be many more bikes like this thing. Extraordinary power and acceleration, gentleman's-express levels of comfort, enough off-road capability to live out all your Dakar fantasies, but packaged and controlled in a way that's about as accessible as I could have hoped for from a colossal, 150-horsepower adventure bike. I feel my horizons broadening every time I throw a leg over it, and while it flatters my meager skills at this early point, I can also see how it might make a better rider out of me.
My interest in adventure riding is officially piqued. Once I'm finished playing with this wonderful 1200cc KTM, I suspect the missus will catch me searching the local classifieds for something smaller and older that I can fall off of with merry abandon in pursuit of some actual skills.
Check out our full video review of the KTM 1190 Adventure R.