PIKES PEAK KTM
KTM kept a lid on the 790 Duke’s harder edge to make it more accessible than their usual hatstand naked creations. But Chris Fillmore knew there was a race bike underneath the mushy suspension and soft brakes, just waiting to get out and win the Pikes Pea
PB rides the class-winning 790 Duke, and asks why they don’t sell them to everyone.
WE FOUND THE 790 Duke a touch disappointing. It might be light, powerful and agile as middleweight nakeds go, but in order to sell it to price-conscious, possibly inexperienced customers they didn’t built the sort of bike we’ve come to expect from KTM: a company almost exclusively staffed by rabidly enthusiastic riders, who we’ve come to find are often ultra-talented and/or lunatics. They build incredibly good bikes to meet their own expectations, never mind anyone else’s. But the 790 isn’t built for their kind, or ours.
Mushy suspension, soft-biting brakes and crummy tyres are the sacrifices needed in order to make it cheaper and friendlier to new customers beyond the usual KTM fans. And it’s sold loads: they obviously judged that market right, but that doesn’t stop us wishing for a bit more.
And the core engineering is definitely good enough to sustain a higher-spec Duke to really live up the ‘Scalpel’ marketing. The firm’s first parallel twin makes 99bhp at the tyre, and using the crankcases as a stressed member means the tubular steel frame can be simpler and lighter. It only weighs 188kg full of fuel: the lightest multi-cylinder road bike we’ve measured. Chris Fillmore – an ex-supermoto and AMA rider, now a KTM employee – saw that chance for it to achieve more than satisfy commuters. In 2017, he won the Pike’s Peak International Hillclimb in Colorado, USA on a 1290 Super Duke, setting a new course record. Bloody impressive, given that it was his first time on the course. For 2018, he targeted another class. The 790 fits neatly in to the hillclimb’s sub-850cc middleweight class, so he flew to Spain to test a pre-production bike.
“I knew straight away that it had the potential,” Fillmore said. “Jeremy McWilliams was doing some development riding on the 1290 GT, and I was staying with him. OK, he would get away from me in a straight line, but I could easily pull back some time in the corners. I was like, ‘Are you fucking with me or something?’ But he was riding hard – the bike was so strong in the corners that I was able to do good lap times, and I knew that, with some changes, it could do what I wanted it to.”
TWO PROBLEMS PRESENTED themselves: firstly, ’Muricans get KTMs a year behind Europe, so the new-for-2018 790 wasn’t available through normal channels. So he sweet-talked the bigwigs into sending a Euro-spec bike across. The other issue is parts: very little was available to race-prep it, as it wasn’t on sale anywhere at that point, and also due to KTM’s insistence it’s not aimed at hardcore riders, so go-faster accessories weren’t a priority.
More taking advantage of contacts and position was required: WP Suspension is owned by KTM, so Fillmore tapped them up to replace the unadjustable shock and fork internals with something that would provide the support he’d need to ride to race it on slicks.
The forks were gutted and fitted with a split damping cartridge set-up – each 23mm piston is solely concerned with either rebound or compression adjustment, like many other KTMs. The rear shock is a unique build for the bike, utilising parts from various shocks WP make for other bikes, just to get something to match the mounting points and fit in the space available. By their own admission, it could have been better: the steel body would ideally have been aluminium, and the spring they used was also substantially heavier (in mass rather than rating) than they’d have liked.
They did manage to fit it with a larger 23mm shock shaft (standard is 16mm) for a more rigid connection, and the 46mm piston has adjustable compression and rebound damping as well as preload, so it at least provided Chris with the adjustment he wanted.
Galfer-made Powerparts discs provide a worthwhile weight saving over stock, and race-compound pads were fitted to the standard J.Juan calipers. The master cylinder was replaced with a Brembo radial 19x20 part. Chris says it was just to get a remote span adjuster on the bike, but it won’t have harmed the performance...
A full exhaust was a must, but again nothing was available off the shelf. A prototype Akrapovic Evolution titanium system was coaxed from the Slovenian tube-benders, but they hadn’t signed off on an appropriate map to match yet, so a Power Commander V was fitted to get it fuelled right. The rest of the engine was left standard, right down to the air filter. One tooth less on the front sprocket, and one more on the Vortex aluminium rear was the only other change to get it hauling up the 13-mile course that bit faster.
Handlebars were swapped for a slightly narrower, lower set, and any road parts that could be junked were. The pillion seat was swapped for a cowl to save some weight, and a lithium battery now lives under it instead of the lead-acid original.
A final upgrade came from the UK, in the form of a set of Dymag UP7X forged aluminium wheels. They were the last part fitted in a build carried out over weeks, rather than months: they arrived stateside just three days before practice began.
DESPITE THE PRESTIGIOUS-sounding name and status as the second-oldest race in the country, the Pike’s Peak International Hillclimb remains something of a gritty, grass-roots event populated by more dedicated amateurs than big teams and manufacturers. KTM’s effort is one of around five similar teams – the rest of the 30-strong bike entry are there for the joy of it. And even Fillmore’s ‘team’ was him and couple of helpers working out of a Sprinter van...
The organisation is very peculiar: the course is a toll road run by the National Parks authority the rest of the year, and they cream a tidy sum from tourists who want to drive up the highest-altitude road in the country, or do outdoorsy things on it. The race happening every year is a condition of them being able to run the toll the rest of the year, but it’s not exactly a week that’s eagerly awaited.
“You almost get the feeling they don’t want you there,” says Chris. “Practice starts at 5am, which means getting out of bed at 2am to get up there and get the bike ready on warmers. The course is divided in three for practice, so each of the three mornings you only ride one part of the course, and because another group of racers will be practicing on the other parts, there’s certain corners you don’t practice on at all. Then you’ve got to be off the mountain by 8am, or pay the toll charge – if you don’t pay it, there’s a big fine. If you drive the course, you pay the toll like anyone else.
“It’s not the friendliest – it takes some adjusting to, and if you go in telling them that it’s not good enough, they’ll probably kick you out.”
The race went according to plan: the bike worked well despite the 7000ft peak robbing the bike of about 21bhp by our reckoning, and Chris won his class by 34 seconds. He was third overall in motorcycles, just four seconds off the winner on a Multistrada 1260.
“I was much more comfortable this year – I knew the course and the event much better. But I had to ride much harder – it was all about braking earlier, and setting up for higher corner speeds, and using more of the road than before... The 1290 was more about late braking and using the torque, so I had to change my lines, especially for the hairpins nearer the top.”
An overlooked problem for the two-wheeled competitors is the timing of their run. They’re first on track on race day: all 30 competitors hurried up the mountain in less than an hour, so the cars can compete at their leisure for the rest of the day. Without a break. On a peak with only one road up…
‘You’re up there for over 12 hours by the time you can ride down. At that altitude, cold, fog, rain and snow can close in, and there’s only a tiny souvenir shop for shelter. We had a snowstorm come in, and it blew the bike over! There was a spectator with a bottle of whisky: he soon had a lot of friends...”
Hang around at the summit waiting to descend from your run, and you’ll see snow