Just of late I’ve been leaning toward the opinion that smaller is better when it comes to adventure bikes. That comes from having been – since Covid – riding the relatively tight and/or technical trails in the UK more than my usual fodder of Continental and other international trails (which have been mostly wider, faster, smoother and less technical). As well, being constantly bombarded by TET social media has again been reinforcing the notion that enduro or light trail bikes are king.
However, more recently riding my Yamaha Ténéré 700 long termer around UK trails has gone a long way to keeping my mind open on this light/heavy debate. I love the Ténéré’s motor, plus it’s a comfortable ride and it’s confidently ridden up and down some crazy trails while remaining a proper mile-muncher for those long road rides home. So I thought, ‘yeah let’s call 700cc the upper limit of practicality’. But this past week I’ve ridden over 1250 miles on and off road on KTM’s 1290 Adventure R in something of a ‘revisited’ test (having previously UK tested it here) and that experience has revised my thoughts again. Yeah, to heck with it – big or small, it’s all good. So if like me you’ll find yourself on a 1290 R on a UK trail – yeah, you can have a whole bucket-load of fun.
What’s the key win with the 1290 R? Easily its off-road manners. KTM have got it right with the R, equipping it with serious off-road spec wheels, suspension and geometry that works. It’s crazy for a bike of its size, but it gambols down rocky trails like one of its EXC-enduro siblings (almost). Where some adventure bikes might bury their front end in technical going, or bottom out on their soft suspension – stuff that makes you seek the slowest, lowest rut for safety’s sake – on the R you can stay on the high line, or swap from one side of a trail to another with relative ease. And if things get real sketchy, the R does that enduro thing where a handful of throttle generally sorts the situation. Y’know the 790/890 Adventure R has gained the reputation of being KTM’s adventure strike force, but this 1290 is just as dynamic. It’s crazy, but it really is like one supersized enduro bike. So much of adventure riding is defensive in nature, but the R allows you to go on the offensive, and that makes it fun.
I came to love the R’s Off-Road rider mode. It’s lowers the power output (to 100hp as I understand), softens off the throttle response and generally makes the whole bike more manageable. I like too that once you set a mode, even if you switch the ignition off, it remains in that mode, so there are no lost minutes trying to reset the selection each time you switch off (and on again). Combine this with keyless ignition and the R became a press button and go proposition, so zero faff. And when we’re talking wearing adventure suits with hundreds of pockets, it’s another time saver not having to search for the ignition key every time you approach the bike. Even the steering lock is keyless. It’s bliss!
That said, the R’s motor is still a touch feisty. Where the Ténéré would happily plod on low rev, the R needed to rev and this could lead to occasional loss of traction (spin!) on slick rock or in muddy conditions. Nothing you couldn’t overcome, but it took some considered and judicious throttle control at times.
The ABS in off-road setting was damn reliable. You could lean on the front brake confidently knowing that the skid-release cycle was short, so you know you won’t suddenly be overshooting a sketchy tight downhill switch-back turn.
Having previously been ambivalent about KTM’s Quickshifter+, I think I’ve made my peace with it. After a week on the R I came to rely on it to the point its use became second nature. Close the throttle and just tap down the gears, leaving the auto-blip function and slipper clutch to deal with the physics and mechanics of deceleration. The clutch was only used for take off and stopping, and occasionally when wanting to lightly fan the clutch to resist stalling in tight situations, although I don’t recall stalling the R once the entire week. The clutch was light enough in action too, never an energy drain. Off road too, I was swapping gears clutchlessly without thought. It took getting back onto the Ténéré to recall our time-honoured analogue method of changing gear.
Damn it, I even made my peace with Hill Hold Assist. I’d railed against this innovation a few times on the older model 1290 R I’d had as a long termer (one time finding myself jammed in a lane sideways, not able to roll backwards as I intended), but this time I came to appreciate the help it offers just when I need it (such as traffic lights on a steep gradient) and when it cut in on those times when I didn’t need it I found the smallest rev and slip of the clutch was enough to disable it. On balance, I’d say now that it helps.
Fuel economy was pretty decent too. Because I was riding in company with the Ténéré the fuel stops typically came at the 150 mile mark (while the R’s 23-litre tank could go much further) and for this distance the R would typically drink 1.5 litres more than the Ténéré’s 13-litre refill. And even with that 23-litre tank filled it didn’t feel overly top heavy. I like, too, that the new heat ducts crafted into the fuel tank work so well, not only is the engine heat efficiently directed away from the rider’s knees, or nether regions (as previously), but the heat dissipation from the new radiators was good enough not to require the assistance of the auxiliary fan during any of the trail rides.
It’s a small thing, but I’m very happy to find KTM could find their way to fitting a 21/18-inch wheel combo – with tubeless tyres. After puncturing the Ténéré’s rear tube and needing to divert off trail to find and fit a new tube, the plug-and-play nature of fixing a tubeless puncture really appeals!
In all I came to love the KTM 1290 Adventure R. Maybe two things I didn’t like – one strongly, the other just a matter of preference. My strong dislike – the front headlight. It works well enough, very well in fact, but the aesthetic, even after the best part of a year coming to terms with it – no, I still don’t like the design. It spoils an otherwise handsomely proportioned and crafted machine. The other matter? The footpegs feel a bit high, which with a low-ish set of handlebars make for a slightly stooped standing ride position. That’s not a major thing, in fact I think the standing ride position actually engages you better with the machine when riding off-road, but when seated on the road I’d like a little extra legroom.
Those minor matters aside, it’s all good. It’s easy to argue we don’t need 1200+cc adventure bikes. They’re overkill. But they’re not. The KTM is actually a triumph of technology, it delivers a great ride and being a keen off-road adventurer I really like its strong trail skillset. It doesn’t monster you, instead it breathes confidence into you which makes for a calm ride experience. Unless, of course, you choose to exploit it’s full 160hp, which is just a few menu choices away – to have that potential on top of everything else, well, I’m not complaining!