When I was stationed in Hawaii 25 years ago, I had a car to bop around in. But motorcycles were my primary mode of weekend transportation. A bunch of my friends were divers or surfers who owned only motorcycles. So come Saturday we'd swap wheels. And now it seems that most of those friends had really big bikes. There was a GS1000, a KZ750, and both a CB900 and a CBX900 in the mix. If you've ridden them, you know that these are fast and stable bikes. (The KZ may have leaned more toward the fast than the stable.) In my memory, they are very quiet compared to their modern counterparts. My point is that I did not intend to be untruthful when, preliminary to borrowing a 2008 KTM Super Duke from Destination Motorcycles in Lenoir City, I initialed a box on a form promising that I had experience riding high-performance motorcycles. High performance is relative.
The KTM Super Duke 990 is a beautiful monster. The word "ride" may not be the best one for what you do with a vehicle like this. (Is there an active verb that works for human interaction with a friendly volcano?) The bike is extremely powerful, with amazing acceleration and handling. The geometry of bars to seat to tank to pegs is marvelously engineered to bring your body's center of gravity low and very close to the machine's. So it feels like you're driving it with your mind instead of your body. It's a surprisingly comfortable posture, and also functional. If your weight was posed even just a little more vertically, it's very easy to imagine this motorcycle launching itself forward, right out from under you.
The Austria-based KTM is an unusual motorcycle manufacturer with an atypical business model. Unlike most of the familiar bike-makers, who cultivate racing bikes and teams to draw attention to their mass-produced models, KTM seems to have been driven to selling badass racing bikes nominally modified to street specs as a way to pay for their racing jones. Honda's website homepage says "Find yourself." KTM's homepage says "Ready to race."
"What's it for?" I ask Milt McNally, owner of the shop.
"It's for losing your license," he says with a straight face. After a pause to allow for the implied rimshot, he adds, "It's also really good for going fast on steep and winding mountain roads." Of which there are plenty nearby.
Time constraints kept me close to Lenoir City. But none of the claims made on the bike's behalf seemed unreasonable. Ready to race. Losing your license. Going fast on steep and winding roads. I found the bike's design to be especially body-friendly, particularly the location and arrangement of controls and levers. From turn signals to front and rear brakes to the grips themselves, everything is just right there. And you're saying, "Of course they are, they're right there on all bikes." But you know they're not. I've been on bikes where even though the signal switch is on the left, it's easier to operate it with your right hand. Flying through a strange subdivision on the Super Duke, trying to keep the front wheel on the ground, it was comforting to not have to search or grope for anything. If I rotate my right foot forward, mechanical interaction I need not witness or understand should cause this thing to slow down. I did and it did.
Basically, it simply felt as if the engineers spent a lot of time on the bike at high speed before turning it loose.
KTM makes three Dukes, one with a 654cc motor, and two with 999cc motors. I rode the Super Duke 990. The Super Duke 990R has, among other performance enhancements, a solo seat and 130 hp as opposed to the 118 hp of the bike I rode. Suffice it to say that I never felt under-gunned. The bike wants to go very fast very NOW. The 990 weighs just over 400 pounds, and I weigh just over 200. The thrust powering us all down the road was instantaneous and not of the sort you normally associate with the internal combustion process.
Though the exhaust exits beneath the seat, the muffler is on the very bottom of the chassis, beneath the two-cylinder V-75° motor. It's about as far from your noggin as it can get, with almost the entire motorcycle between your ears and the muffler. So the beast is surprisingly quiet. Granted, F-14 pilots can't hear their engines either. All the aerodynamic styling gives the bike something of a raptor attitude. But there are a couple of ounces of plastic for which I was grateful during my December ride; a sculpted chevron just above the headlight, about the size of a ballcap visor, does a great job as an invisible fairing.
The display is functional. The nature of this kind of motorcycle has the rider farther forward than he or she would be on a cruiser or commuter bike. So the display is well beneath your field of vision if you're looking straight ahead. The tach is analog and the speedometer is digital. Both decisions seem sound. You can sense the movement and angle of the tach needle in your peripheral vision. And I liked the digital speedometer mostly because after all the frontside talk about this motorcycle's speed and power, I was afraid that an analog speedo might have gone up to 280 mph.