by Paul Berglund 

I love autumn in Minnesota. It’s like our last meal before going into the solitary confinement of winter. Fall brings us milder weather, the changing colors of the trees; and stores start to sell clothing in my favorite color, orange.

Another big plus is all the bike manufacturers bring out their new models. I can’t wait to see pictures from the big international bike shows to see if my dream bike has finally been built. Here at home, dealers are making room for next year’s models so deals can be made on current stock. This is where our story begins. The good people at Starr Cycle in Mankato had a 2008 KTM 990 Super Duke that they were going to sell off. They asked MMM® if we would be interested in doing a review of it before it was gone. When the news trickled down to me, I did a happy dance that annoyed my wife and frightened the cats. If you’re not familiar with my proclivities from past bike reviews, I have a penchant for light weight sporty V-twins. Allow me to introduce you to the Super Duke.

The heart of the Duke is a fuel-injected, 999cc liquid-cooled 75° V-twin. Spinning DOHC in 4-valve cylinder heads, it compresses premium gas at 11.5:1. It has a 6-speed transmission and spins the rear wheel with a chain. It weighs 443 pounds and sends 115 horses and 68 ft-lbs of torque to that same rear wheel. It has upscale suspension and brakes that are equal to the top-of-the-line sport bikes from Japan. List price for the 2008 was $14,398; that’s a lot of cash. List price for the 2010 is still $14,398, so if you take inflation into consideration, the price is getting cheaper. 2010-spec Super Dukes are essentially unchanged from our tester. I don’t know what our test bike ended up selling for, but it sold halfway through our test. The guy who bought it drove in from out of state to pick it up, so I’m guessing he got a very good deal. Like I said earlier, good things happen in the fall.

What is it about V-twins that I like so much? It’s the way they make their power. I like the sound. Due to the percussive nature of the V-twin, the sound a KTM makes at full song will resonate in your chest as you ride. It aids in digestion. It can cure constipation, so at my age Super Dukes and Dr. Pepper are just what the Doctor ordered. The true power emanating from an internal combustion engine is torque. That’s what V-twins excel at: not screaming, frantic horsepower, but torque elemental. It propels you down the road like a rowboat pushed by a tsunami. I looked up the horsepower and torque figures above after I’d ridden the bike. It felt like a whole lot more. You really need to test ride one of these.

I should mention that our test bike came with some aftermarket parts installed. I wasn’t going to mention any of them, but I have to talk about the exhaust. It looked good, but it was unacceptably loud. It may have helped the Duke power-wise, but it hurt everyone who likes to ride motorcycles. The majority of people don’t ride motorcycles and if they have a negative opinion about bikes it’s mainly due to the loud ones. I like the sound of a V-twin as much as anyone, but every time you ride your strait-pipe bike you are contributing to every group that wants to ban motorcycles. Anyone who makes that much noise in public must have a huge deficit in some part of their life. I suggest when you see an unmuffled bike you salute the rider with your pinkie. Let’s call this gesture the “don’t make your personal shortcomings our problem” salute. Back to the Duke.

I was a little skeptical about how the Super Duke looked when it first came out, but now I really like it. Other companies (like Kawasaki’s Z1000) have tried to go for the same look and have failed. Standard or Naked bikes are my favorites. I want all the power, low mass and handling of a sport bike without the ridiculous seating position. The ergonomics of a sport bike don’t begin to work till you’re going over 80 miles an hour. Before that, you’re miserable. I ride on the street. I want a street bike, not a track bike. The big four bike makers give us several standards from which to choose, but the European bike makers give us a different kind of standard, the street fighter. That’s a sport bike with all the good stuff, minus the bodywork and a real-world seating position. That sounds like the Super Duke to me. At first I wanted a slightly taller bar, but when I jumped onto the free way it was perfect. There is no wind protection so some body lean is called for and I like the balance KTM gave us.

My biggest surprise was the seat. I’m guessing past seat designers at KTM have fled to Argentina to escape the authorities. The new designer they must have hired is as good as the competition. Industry-wide, most bikes rate a D+ on seat quality. I don’t understand why one of the most important components on a motorcycle is given so little attention or effort. Why would the Austrian makers of KTM not engineer a real seat? Instead it’s turned over to some blouse designer or marketing stylist. Perhaps it’s the same person that deletes all the center stands from bikes. That’s missing from the Super Duke too. They did manage to pack in a ton of fun into a 443-pound bike.

KTM’s first full-on V-twin street bike was the 2006 950 Supermoto. I tested one and ran out and bought one. To this day, I laugh out loud in my helmet when I ride it. It reminds me of that goofy kid in high school that every body loves. They could always make you laugh; a blast to hang around with and the kid’s got game. The Super Duke is that kid back from four years of college. All grown-up, the Duke is more mature, less goofy, better looking, better manners, more sophisticated and a whole lot stronger. It’s the perfect companion for running around town or a road trip. The Duke doesn’t even blush when you call it a naked bike. It just nods knowingly. Duke is cool.

KTM Sidebar —

“KTM? Is that made by Kawasaki?”

This month’s test bike, the KTM 990 Super Duke, drew lots of attention. Thankfully the good kind, not the flashing red and blue light kind. I had people follow me into restaurants to ask questions about the bike. Most of the time I was asked, “What kind of bike is that?” I’d tell them it was a KTM, and they’d ask, “Who makes KTM?” A brief history lesson is in order.

KTM stands for Kronreif & Trunkenpolz, Mattighofen. Hans Trunkenpolz opened a repair shop in 1934, Ernst Kronreif invested in the company in 1955 and Mattighofen is the town in Austria where it all happened. Like a lot of other bike companies, KTM didn’t start out to make motorcycles. KTM produced their first motorcycle in 1953. In that same year, KTM took 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the 5th Gaisberg

Competition. In the 1960s, AMA hall-of-famer John Penton made a deal with KTM to sell their dirt bikes here in America under the Penton brand name. They quickly became the hottest ticket for riding off-road.
KTM remained the premier brand for off-road bikes when they began selling them under their own name. To this day, the characteristically orange bikes rule in the dirt. They made and continue to make a wide range of single-cylinder bikes for on and off-road use.

In 2003, KTM introduced the 950 V-twin Adventure, the Darth Vader of dual-sport bikes (see MMM #74). The carbureted 950 motor was used to expand the street bike line with the Super Enduro and the Supermoto. The fuel-injected 990 was initially put in the Super Duke and later spread into the rest of the line. The 950 was phased out and the 990 was beefed up. If you want extra beef, KTM also makes “R” versions of most of their 990 machines.

The most recent machines to join the stable are the 1190 RC8 and the 1190 RC8 R. These are 1,195cc V-twin powered, full-on sport bikes. I haven’t ridden either of the RC8s, but every time I get on one of the 990s (which are 999cc by the way) I have an absolute blast. In the movie Stand By Me one of the kids asks Vern what would he eat if he could only eat one thing for the rest of his life? Vern replies, “Pez. Cherry-flavored Pez.” If I had to pick one motor that would power all my motorcycles for the rest of my life, I’d have to say the KTM 990 would do nicely. What motor would you pick?

by B. P. Goebel

Track Review

One of the best-kept secrets in the wide world of motorcycling is the dual-purpose motorcycle. Dual-purpose, enduro, dual-sport, on/off, trailie; what you call it doesn’t matter. It will still do it all. And it will like it. It can be commuter, a dirt bike, a sporting bike, or a tourer. It is equally comfortable doing all of the roles. As long as you don’t push it too far in any one discipline, you will rarely want for more.

It was not always this way. The early dual-purpose machines were old tech. Born from dirt bikes, they had al dente frames and forks, slow-revving, low powered motors and were saddled with brake systems that were adequate in the dirt, but not so well suited to slowing one down from highway speeds.

As time has marched on, component quality has risen drastically and like most motorcycle types, the particular niche has become more targeted and specifically focused while still offering a wide range of different choices for different purposes. Manufacturers realized that very few of their large dual-purpose machines would ever get dirty, let alone would roost a rock off-road. They set about to make a category that would retain all of the best attributes of a dual-purpose machine: light weight, the commanding “look-over-the-top-of-cars” view, comfortable ergonomic layout and long travel, bump-eating suspension. With newfound freedom from the elimination of the dirt part of the design equation, they significantly upped the ante in on-road performance. The KTM Super Duke 990 is one of the new breed.

KTM offers many differently focused motorcycles in the dual-purpose style. The Super Duke 990 is the least off road-oriented offering. It is VERY pavement oriented. Little did I know just how pavement oriented it was. John Zender, owner of Starr Cycle in Mankato, ex-road racer and Bonneville Land Speed Record holder, did though. Knowing just how capable a sporting machine the 990 was, he let us take the bike to the track for some hard laps. While entirely competent on the street, the boundaries of the very large and oddly shaped performance envelope of this motorcycle cannot be safely (or legally. ed) sampled on the street.

Styling aside, the Super Duke is a very minimal design. Function and form work hand-in-hand. The bike almost disappears from view when you sit on it. The seat/tank waist is very narrow, giving a shorter rider a chance at riding a bike this tall. Riders coming from just about any other kind of motorcycle will be amazed at the lack of bulk and mass. The seat area itself is not defined to one position, it easily allows for the lateral body/weight shifts (hanging off) necessary to get the most from a modern sporting machine. The bars are wide and provide a great deal of leverage. If you are not used to a wide, dirt-style bar, it is very easy to oversteer the bike until you get used to the light touch that the wide bar demands. Body position is upright and relaxed with some forward cant. But not nearly as much forward cant as any pure sportbike. Not even close. As it should be with a bike that has sporting aspirations, all components in the cockpit are of high quality and have a very solid feel. Very confidence inspiring.

Powering the 990 is KTM’s 999cc 75º V-twin. Don’t let the V-twin part fool you. This ain’t your Grandpa’s Harley. More like your black sheep uncle’s Ducati instead. The fuel-injected twin spins up effortlessly and quickly, serving up nice doses of torque with every piston hit.

Riders of in-line fours will not be disappointed. Nathan Zender, Starr Cycles’ sales manager, says a large number of KTM twin sales are to former inline-four owners. Nearly the same power is available without the need to wind it out so much. It is not necessary, or advantageous to constantly row through the stolidly precise gearbox to keep the engine on the boil. Pick a gear and ride. This is very relaxing and frees up crucial mental energy to deal with the many other aspects of high-performance riding. The wide spread of power lets you grunt it out in slow corners or wick it up in high speed corners. Your choice. Power delivery is linear, always coming on but never in a big hit. V-twins are famous for lean angle tractability. You can get on the gas harder and sooner without fear of lighting up the rear tire. Unless you want to. Then this lean angle tractability allows you to get on the gas harder and sooner without fear of lighting up the rear tire uncontrollably.

Key to KTM’s proud racing heritage has been a balanced mix of motor and a high level of handling prowess. On the Super Duke, this level of handling is due to a high quality chro-moly trellis style frame and the use of premium quality, adjustable suspension components, front and rear. The suspension feel is a taut suppleness that offers detailed feedback as to what is going on at the traction patches. While the almost six-inches of travel can’t suck up bumps like one of KTM’s dirt bikes, it does away with pavement irregularities that would have a pure sport bike tied up in knots, chattering for the rapidly approaching outside edge of the corner. Call it a sportbike for the real world.

Gone are the performance limiting, spindly, large diameter front tire and knobby rear of the dual-purpose of yore. The Super Duke can wear out super sticky sportbike rubber in modern sport bike sizes. Because there is nothing to ground out: no pegs, no mufflers, no center stand, you can lean the bike as far as the tires will grip.

Cornering is precise and not at all wallowy. Wide bar, easy body position, fat torque spread, great tires and suspension means that the bike demands very little from you to ride it fast controllably.

When the time to slow comes, it comes fast. The brakes are super high performance Brembo radial-mount brakes. These speed erasers would not be out of place on any top-of-the-line liter sportbike. This doesn’t mean that it’s too much brake though. Radial-mount brake caliper technology is a massive step forward. The extreme precision and control that it confers in hard braking is astonishing. Lever effort is low. It is a true one-finger brake. You can generate maximum braking power with the input from just one finger. One finger or four, it does take a deft touch. Luckily, the radial brake system makes it easy to be a braking hero. It makes that tiniest bit of lever travel seem about a mile wide, giving you seemingly infinite control of the fine line between adhesion and not. The bike will erase speed almost faster than you can comprehend. If coming from a conventional brake system, you will positively need to recalibrate your mind and your braking markers/points. The Super Duke can deliver one-finger stoppies (at the track).

This do-it-all handling dynamic is no surprise to dual-purpose riders. What is surprising is how far it can be pushed. All the while communicating with the rider, letting the rider know what’s coming and where the edge is. If you can’t take the impracticality of a pure sportbike, but still want to get close to the same level of performance, the KTM Super Duke 990 can accommodate you comfortably.

MMM® sends big thanks to John Zender and Starr Cycle for the chance to test the KTM Super Duke 990 on the track. Starr Cycle can be reached at 507.385.1990 or


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1 Comment

  1. What a superb bike! I am really going to share this one, it really amazed me.

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