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

Performance Bikes (UK) - - CONTENTS - Words Chris New­big­ging | Pho­tog­ra­phy KTM

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.”

The bike

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.

The race

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

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