Standing proud on a paddock stand in Kiska’s lobby is KtM’s 790 duke ‘concept’ bike. the Youtube sensation (search KtM 790 duke prototype), the one that transferred so easily between wheelie and stoppie, the one that got my excitement about KtM’s twin- cylinder naked boiling over. the finished 790 is a great bike – it won Bike’s 2018 Bike of the Year award – but this working concept is on another level.
Craig dent, a Kiska director and creative lead, sees me staring at it and grins. ‘did you see the videos? We were shocked when we saw them. this is a one-off hand-built concept... and KtM send it crazy in front of a camera.’
Bikes aren’t all Kiska, the company, design – there’s a gargantuan ride-on lawnmower parked outside to illustrate the point – but that doesn’t stop motorcycles being a massive part of the company. Back in the 1990s, Gerald Kiska won a competition to design the face of KtM. it was Kiska who chose the orange KtM bikes are now famous for. He was thrown into the firm’s off-road culture and helped create their first road bike – the 1994 620 duke. a carb-fed 55bhp SoHC single.
Fast forward through some remarkable machines – 950 adventure, 690 duke, rC8 – and snap back to the present. KtM and Kiska have both bulked up and diversified. their current close working relationship manifests itself as a large, multi-person operation and the two men who head it up are the Brits i’m meeting today: FireBlade owner Craig dent, and cool jacket owner Reno Wideson. Reno says he ‘borrowed’ a colleague’s Husqvarna Vitpilen 701 for the day, but actually rides it like he stole it.
Craig introduces Reno as – get ready for it – leader of the strategic product management service. ‘Sounds serious,’ agrees Craig, ‘but actually it’s trying to answer one question: what do our clients need? You would think KTM have their own ideas on that, but Reno’s team have the advantage of being able to think beyond the world of KTM. And that leads to some cool designs.’
Reno’s description of what Craig does is much quicker. ‘He leads the design here. He’s got an army of designers and they make shit hot designs.’
Shit hot designs, penned inside a white block of a building in a Salzburg suburb, northern Austria. The block’s tinted windows reflect the brutal, hulking mountains that surround it, and which we’re about to ride into. Craig and Reno’s bikes are lined up against the reflected peaks – the 2018 Husqvarna Vitpilen 701 for Reno, and Craig’s own 1992 Honda FireBlade.
‘I was eleven when the FireBlade first came out,’ says Craig, the grey top and design glasses he was wearing when we met have been replaced with a well-used Dainese two-piece. ‘My dad took me to Alexandra palace to see it on Honda’s stand. It was slowly rotating on a rostrum. I remember it well. Before 1992 everything was fat, heavy and focused on straight line performance. But here was a beautiful bike that promised light and responsive handling. I fell in love.’
In fact, this FireBlade in this colour was the bike in the poster above his bed when Craig was eleven. It’s a 26-year-old machine, but that doesn’t stop him revving the engine, nodding to Reno and shooting out of the Kiska car park with its carefully-arranged parking spaces. I’m still doing up my helmet strap and race to catch up on this large, galloping Super adventure. Craig and Reno keep the pace hot, pelting between villages and hurrying through traffic. They’re obviously loving the idea of a Friday afternoon in the mountains.
There are no foothills here. the plains are interrupted by near- vertical slabs of rock like so many decommissioned star destroyers parked vertically on end. our road picks its way into their interior, the temperature remaining a pleasant 18°C. We stop at a red light.
Reno leans over to me and points up a grassy incline: ‘this is where we go skiing at lunchtimes!’ Sounds better than a corned beef sandwich and crisps.
The next left takes us down a quiet B-road past a small sign announcing we’re in Germany. another left leads us onto the start of the rossfeldstrasse. Incredibly, this ten-mile snarl of pristine tarmac is a private toll road. The boys pay the toll, tell me there’s no upper speed limit and bezz off. As i kick the big KtM into gear, a road sign makes me double-take. ‘Rossfeldstrasse route 999,’ it says. It’s a subliminal message: 999, emergency services, danger! One false move up here and you’d be Supermanning into the open doors of a German ambulance. I feel for the reassuring edge of my European Health insurance Card – it’s safely stashed in a jacket pocket – then roar out of the gate after the others.
Pine trees whip past as the Super adventure growls through the first corners. No need to check the massive tFt speedo, so i just pin the thing and crack up through the box. Where have the Kiska boys got to? I lever the KtM into corners and it purrs through them, solid. So that’s what a perfect road surface feels like. Riding in the UK I’ve almost forgotten. Then sunlight slaps itself across my visor. The trees are thinning and the huge views that open up reveal how precarious a ledge of tarmac I’m riding on. And there’s Craig, arse-up on his FireBlade, tiptoeing through a damp patch next to a sheer drop. Route 999, route 999 starts repeating itself in my mind. Mantra-like.
It seems only one of our group is impervious to subliminal messages: Reno’s ahead, powering his borrowed Vitpilen out of tight corners on the rear wheel. He looks totally comfortable, like he does this every week. Well i’d know what i’d go for if the choice was blowing off steam on the Rossfeldstrasse or tearing Brexit a new one at the watercooler. And so it continues: Reno pulls power wheelies, Craig nurses the old girl up to 1570 metres above sea level and I flap at the back, staring open-mouthed at this amazing wide-angle scenery.
We reach the peak of the Rossfeld road and park on the footpath. On the other side of a wooden barrier unfolds an uninterrupted drop to the valley a kilometre below. We’re four miles from the town of Berchtesgaden and three miles from the Eagle’s nest. Hard to believe these incredible views are just 30 minutes from Kiska’s reception desk.
I almost feel silly asking them what it’s like living here – the answer’s pretty obvious...
‘Bloody amazing,’ says Reno. ‘this is my second time working for Kiska. I went back to the UK and did four years freelancing, two years in-house at Triumph, but kept on coming back here for holidays. I mean, just look at the place. We’re actually lucky to be riding up here. The last few years the Rossfeldstrasse has been covered in snow at this time.’
Craig: ‘It’s very different to the UK. the tempo is very slow. Salzburg is very slow.I used to live in the big cities – grew up in London, then Frankfurt and Tokyo – and i thought i’d be missing out on life, culture, movement. But it’s not like that. You’ve got all the mountain sports to get on with like mountain biking, snowboarding and skiing. There’s no crime. We leave our motorbikes outside at night and don’t even lock our cars. I have three girls and Austria provides them with the perfect childhood.’ I venture Kiska HQ have invested in smart fingerprint locks. ‘We need to be a bit more secure,’ replies Reno with a grin.
It’s fair to say the Kiska boys have their work-life balance sussed
‘We take confidentiality seriously,’ agrees Craig. ‘It sometimes feels confusing because it’s an informal work environment. It’s got to be flexible enough to keep the huge number of nationalities that work at Kiska cohesive.’ How does that work with KTM added to the mix? ‘There’s a process in place that governs how we interact. But that process is a guideline. it can be intervened with at any point. Nobody’s shot down for voicing a big idea, or opinion.’
Tea and cake is our next big idea. Reno’s used up most of the fuel in his colleague’s Vitpilen anyway. ‘That’s why it’s doing such good wheelies,’ he confides, as Craig lets out the choke and gets a head start on his sofa-cum-sportsbike. Behind him, Reno and i start paddling, engines still off. Soon we’re the only two entrants in the inaugural Rossfeldstrasse gravity race. At first the road is steep, and the only limiting factor is how little you dare apply the brakes before the next switchback. Then the track gets shallower. He’s better on the turn-ins thanks to the light Vitpilen, but soon the extra weight of my Super adventure trumps his skill. We’re flying. Craig is totally bewildered when we both slide past, flat to the tanks, without making a sound. They take me to a café in Hallein. It’s 5pm and the light’s fading behind the mountaintops. We’re deep into a trio of delicious tiramisu when i ask them what good motorbike design is.
‘It’s making effective changes in the simplest of ways,’ muses Craig. ‘The 450 rally is a great example of this. We got the rally team in and asked them, “How is your bike? What do you do with it? What do you need from it?” All the riders said the bike was perfect. But at one point Marc Coma mentioned the rally stages were getting shorter, with tighter corners. “When you get to the really tight corners,” he said, “the big road book restricts your vision. For the last fifteen metres into the corner you’re blind.” So we messed around with their technical package behind the handlebar: GPS, datalogger, flares. We turned the package 90-degrees, so short and wide became slim and tall, and the front fairing we turned transparent. Even though the bike got longer, you could see so well you felt like you were on an enduro bike. that’s the kind of input we can give to KTM. that’s real design.’
‘You can see a lot of those same design ideas in the new 790 adventure,’ says Reno. ‘The other bikes in the 790’s segment are built for travel. they’re soft, comfortable, approachable. The KTM is built to go anywhere, and it can. We can’t design a bike that looks like it goes off-road when it doesn’t.’
This puts Kiska in a difficult position: they could push for a soft, comfortable mini Super adventure that would sell, or a new rally bike that might shift fewer units. Have decisions like this ever created conflict? Reno laughs. ‘We deal with this every day. But because we’re not part of KtM we can step back and remind them nobody else designs bikes with their level of focus. Yes, the results are more niche, but that’s why customers come to KTM.’