The KTM 1290 Super Duke R is back with a host of upgrades
Pre-ride press conferences can be as boring as watching paint dry. Most of the time they’re an excuse for company bosses to sprout why they’re so great and how good the company is doing and blah, blah, blah.
But you’d have to be stone motherless dead not to get at least a little excited when Thomas Kuttruf, KTM’s International PR manager and the man affectionately known as Mr KTM, looks you straight in the eye and sprouts the words, “This is the beast. It’s not a kid’s bike.”
We ride fast bikes all the time but there’s something about the KTM 1290 Super Duke R that’s always done it for us at Cycle News. Maybe it’s the edgy styling, the comfy ergos or the rip-your-arms-out 1301cc V-twin wedged in the orange steel trellis chassis.
It’s probably a combination of all three.
’Twas but three years ago in the sleepy Austrian town of Mattighofen that the KTM 1290 Super Duke R – the first of its name – hit the motorcycle industry like basketball-sized molotov cocktail. Its arrival meant the bike dubbed The Beast was instantly the largest V-twin naked on the market, but it’s seen little updates since that oh-so-memorable explosion in 2014. Step into 2017 and the Super Duke isn’t what you’d call all new, but it is refined in almost every area – from aesthetics to engine, chassis and especially, electronics.
The king of the Duke range gets a new TFT dash, three revised riding modes of Street, Sport and Track, Bosch Cornering ABS, a nine stage traction control system, anti-wheelie, launch control, cruise control and optional extras like Motor Slip Regulation (MSR, stops the rear wheel locking under braking), a quickshifter, keyless ignition and the KTM My Ride system.
The new electronics suite brings the Super Duke into line with the category’s electronic leaders in the Aprilia 1100 Tuono and the BMW S 1000 R and upgrades the old model from basic traction control, ABS and three ride modes. It already had the engine: now the most powerful V-twin in the KTM line-up produces a claimed 177hp and 103lb-ft of wheelie inducing, front tire saving torque, and if you delve into the heart of the beast and you’ll find evolutionary updates like new pistons, a slightly altered crank, intake work and a new exhaust.
There’s been subtle changes to the suspension, the ride is a touch more compact with the one-piece handlebar moved lower and closer to the rider, there’s all-new styling with a new, super-sharp LED headlight and colors that give the Super Duke R an even bigger “Get The F**k Outta my Way!” attitude than ever before with gnarly orange wheels (on the white bike) and that now exposed skeletal subframe that looks absolutely badass.
And we flew to Qatar to ride it.
A stroll with The Beast around Pearl Island, Doha
Qatar is a strange place. A combination of old Arabic tradition and new mega money propelled by the country’s expansive natural gas reserves (the third largest in the world), the main city of Doha has a Vegas-like feel to it crammed into the middle of what is a bloody inhospitable desert furnace in summer.
The ride location may feel a tad odd but the new Super Duke feels anything but. As we briefly cruise Doha’s Pearl Island on the day prior to our track session, the biggest difference at first feel is not so much the revised ergonomics but the engine, which seems to rise and fall in the rev range a little faster than the 2014-16 model. The throttle response is smoother off the bottom revs at traffic speed, a feat made possible by the resonator chambers mounted on the cylinder heads that help to massage out power pulses below 5000rpm, and the light mass of the crank’s flywheel. It’s still go that Nascar-style grunt the minute you crack the gas open – KTM claims the engine has a stonking 73lb-ft of torque at just 2500 rpm – and yes, that’s every bit as fun and potentially license crushing as it sounds.
Another welcome addition to the ride experience is the optional quickshifter. The previous engine’s gearbox action was one of its shortcomings but now the ratios slot in beautifully, although I admit I find it annoying the Super Duke’s quickshifter is an after purchase extra, considering the competition of Yamaha’s FZ-10, the BMW S 1000 R and the Aprilia 1100 Tuono all come with one as standard. I’d also have liked heated grips thrown in as well.
The new TFT dash has a quality look and feel to it and is a serious upgrade to the old analogue rev counter and digital speedo. At speed it’s easy navigate via the left switch block on the handlebar and it changes color from a white daytime background to black at night, with all the information neatly arranged and easy to read.
We cover all of 15 miles on the road due to the track biased nature of the test, but even with such a primitive distance it’s nice to see the Super Duke still has impeccable street manners – a trait that made the original 1290 such a superlative bike. The changes wrought to the engine, suspension and ergonomics give a comfortable, smooth ride – one you can ride to the café as easily as you can thrash the daylights out of on the track – just like the bike it replaces.
Toe-to-toe with The Beast 2.0 at Losail
Ready to Race is KTM’s motto. Has been for years. So there’s no better way to exploit this company philosophy than by banging its premier naked sportbike around the incredible track that is the Losail International Circuit, commonly known as the place MotoGP kicks off its season every year.
This facility is h-u-g-e. From the width of the racetrack to the run-off to the pit complex, it makes Laguna Seca’s facilities look decidedly second rate. And we get the opportunity to ride the Super Duke under lights, just like KTM’s new golden boy, Brad Binder.
Qatar has one of the longest straights I’ve ever been on and even on a Super Duke it takes quite a while to get down it. But it also has one of the hardest braking points of any MotoGP track in the world immediately preceding it, and here the Super Duke really shines.
The engineers from WP have used a heavier spring in the fork to allow a bit more track prowess and you can feel it in the 2017 version. It will hold itself up a bit better under brakes than the 2014-16 machine and when matched with the slipper clutch and the optional Motor Slip Regulation (MSR), which cracks open the throttle butterflies just a touch if the reverse torque under braking becomes too high and causes the rear wheel to lock, the KTM stays true to its line and won’t tie itself in knots on corner entry.
Conversely, it’s nice when you get on the gas and the weight shifts to the rear, combining with the new traction control settings and a revamped, stiffer shock to lay the power down thick and fast as you feed the rear tire to its death one revolution at a time.
The new Super Duke doesn’t feel overly faster than the out-going model on the track – which means it’s still sublimely, stupidly quick all through the rev range – but it’s definitely smoother in acceleration, as noted on the road ride. The Super Duke feels eager to rev, and you can take the action 500rpm higher than before thanks to the revamped pistons and combustion chambers before you hit the soft-action rev limiter.
Playing around with the Super Duke’s new electronics is great fun – you can really tailor the ride to your style, and as such for my time at Losail I settle on traction map two out of nine, anti-wheelie off and ABS on Supermoto mode. The nine-stage traction control system is excellent in that it’s so unobtrusive it’s hard to feel the system working below level three, although above level four any hard yank of the throttle will have the yellow traction light flashing up on the dash rather quickly.
New also for the electronics suite is the launch control, which we experiment with in a quick two-man, two heat drag race down Losail’s massive straight. Launch control systems vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, and KTM’s works by having you pin the throttle to the stop, dumping the clutch and never backing off. That last point can’t be under-estimated.
The trick to getting a Super Duke off the line smoothly, in my experience of owning and racing the original model, is to go old school. Don’t keep a constant rpm but rather rev it – bam, bam, bam, bam – and as the light goes green, drop the clutch and catch the engine’s revs as they rise, hopefully about 6-7000rpm.
Launch control is different. The KTM’s ECU will hold the revs at about 6500rpm, and once the light turns green you feed the clutch out fast, keeping the gas on. Once you hit third gear, the system will turn off. Remember how I said keep the throttle pinned? The reason being if you back off, even a touch, and then give it full throttle again, the system disengages and you get… you guessed it, full power! Depending on your chosen anti-wheelie map (many journos ran with it off, including me), you’ll get a face full of front wheel as the bike tries to loop itself and you do your best Max Biaggi impersonation. It happened to the guy I was drag racing…
Despite the on/off nature of the launch control, the overall electronic suite is vastly improved on the 2017 1290 Super Duke R. The traction control has a deft touch, the wheelie control works well but can be a little abrupt, launch control works if you follow those guidelines and the three engine modes give you plenty of customization options. The electronics give the Super Duke a more refined feel, and bring it a little further into the 21st century.
Overall, that’s what the new Super Duke is about – refining an already brilliant package into something that can play ball with all the tech heads of the class but still remain relevant to its brutal, in-your-face V-twin roots. The best thing is KTM hasn’t copped the nuts off the Super Duke in any way when they created the new version. The engine is still sublime, the chassis too, and now the electronics have joined the party. KTM’s made a great bike even greater, and we are all richer as a result.
KTM 1290 Super Duke R PowerParts model — Oh yes…
One of the great things about KTM is they back up their products with a massive arrange of aftermarket go-fast bits via the PowerParts catalogue. The new Super Duke is no different, and in the Qatar pits sitting next to a bog-stock streetbike, equipped with a European license plate, is a worked Super Duke that looks rather close to my own, PowerParts-equipped first generation machine.
This Qatar bike is equipped with the WP Super Competition Shock, WP Competition Cartridge Kit, full titanium Akrapovic Evo race exhaust, PowerParts triple clamp set, and a host of other bolt-on parts including the brake and clutch lever protectors, brake and clutch fluid reservoir cover, PowerParts race brake pads, rearsets, different brake discs, carbon front guard, and the solo race seat and Dunlop slicks.
The on track performance is sublime. It really is night and day difference to a standard Super Duke. Everything about the performance is ratcheted up to 10 – the engine pumps out more ponies, the suspension takes the braking, cornering and acceleration abuse far better than a standard bike and the fitment of slick tires presents ever more extreme lean angles and I crank the bike over, and over, and over, and it still keeps gripping.
The extra traction control options are a welcome addition with this race-inspired model. On my first generation bike, running with the traction control on with brand new tires generally makes the system kick in more than I’d like. This new generation machine has the advantage in that I can dial the amount of slip I want, and maximize the drive better.
Aside from the electronics and the better throttle response, this bike feels very similar to what I raced at Pikes Peak in 2016. It’s sharper, faster and more fun than a standard Super Duke by a long, long way. But then again, if you tallied the parts up, you’re looking at over $30K. So you’d want it to be good…