KTM’s new 1090 Adventure R is the adventure bike that actually works off road. We ride it on the actual Californian trails where KTM developed it...

Photography Adam Booth and JP

by Jonathan Pearson |

Adventure Riding Social

What’s it like to ride these West Coast desert trails? Navigating Southern California’s tracks and trails is easier than you think and it is certainly less complex than the United Kingdom. Where you can and can’t ride is regulated and mapped. They are follow- your-nose sort of trails and because they are relatively well used they are also usually clearly defined and signed when riding isn’t allowed. ‘Off Highway Vehicle’ (OHV) routes are sign posted with the type of vehicle allowed on that route shown on the signs which sit at the start of trails and often also with difficulty ratings. It’s a system we could well do with in the UK. Sometimes that means all vehicles, others are restricted by width and you can find yourself on a trail only motorcycles can use. You can pick up guide maps and obviously there are GPS tracking routes that are easily findable online. Useful Googling ohv.parks.ca.gov should be your starting point for official proof and up-to-date info. Riderplanet-usa.com is a good source for legal routes across North America too, but there are others.

'R' is for adventure

Where do I get a bike? Eaglerider.com. Eagle rider run six and eight day ‘Dual Sport Explorer’ tours which take you on and off road from San Diego on a BMW GS only (at time of writing). From just over $2000 you get most of your expenses covered (not flights) and a guide from San Diego down across Donald Trump’s favourite border into Mexico and back. The same operators hire out a range of bikes including KTM 1190 R from their base in Murrieta, CA. which is the same town where KTM’s launch, and my route started out. From $149 per day for a 1190 R. San Diego based 360motorcycleadventures. com have a range of adventure and dual-sport bikes for hire. Rent by the day or longer (five/ eight day rental of an R1200GS is $169 per day), they also run guided tours, rent clothing and are a good source of info.

When the four times winner of the Baja 1000 Rally tells you, ‘this next one’s probably one of my favourite trails in the world,’ it has to prick up your ears. Winning one of the planet’s most iconic off road events not only means this guy can ride a bike pretty good but that he also knows a thing or two about what makes a good trail. We’re more rock skimming than climbing along the Thomas Mountain trails, in sight of the San Jacinto mountain range, the Tahquitz Peak and Suicide Rock. Both are well-known to the rock climbers of California and the world beyond. Cold morning low cloud thankfully evaporates to reveal sweet-smelling pine forests and the kind of beautiful trail you dream of at night. I have to confess I climb off my bike, kneel down, take my glove off and feel the dirt between my fingers. It’s good.

'R' is for adventure

We thread away on the trails for a couple of hours before eventually finding tarmac and the Lost Valley Road (as lost and unused as you’ll ever find any road) which tassels down to Warner Springs and a two mile, 70mph, pinned throttle, soft sandy blast. My brain fizzes as I snake through the ruts, weight back over the pillion seat. I’m wide-eyed as wide-eyed can be across a genuine prairie (like you see in films). Who needs drugs? Not here. Not now. That’s for sure. KTM’s decision to launch their new 1090 Adventure R in the hills and deserts east and south of their North America base at Murrieta, California was no random choice. This location offers up a wild mix of road and off-road motorcycling across desert planes, mountain tracks and trails. It is exactly what adventure bikes are made for. But these aren’t the dirt tracks and full-on terrain you might associate with real dirt bikes (or me), they are the kind of tracks and trails where you can exploit and appreciate a bigger bike. Truly, if ever there was a place to let an adventure bike off the leash this is it.

‘Southern California is so vast, we have so much area to work with. We have areas of desert that go for hundreds and hundreds of miles so if there’s something specific we want to test then I can go to that location,’ says KTM development rider Quinn Cody. It’s exactly why KTM use Cody and these dusty and hot conditions to test their ‘street’ bike range – including the Adventure models. Quinn continues, ‘even on the street bikes we run them through desert and dust to test for intrusion. It sounds completely mad to be running a Super Duke down a dirty and dusty road, but we have to test for that as much as we have to test for traffic light to traffic light at 40oC.’ The 1090 Adventure R replaces the 1190 R and nestles among the 1290 R and standard 1090 and 1290 models – keeping track of KTM’s ever-changing range of adventurers can be challenging, but this latest line-up has been simplified thanks to just two engine sizes which power road, touring or off -road biased models.

History tells us the R is the one with the sportier skills, and this from a manufacturer traditionally known for operating at the sportier end of the adventure bike market. With greater off road potential thanks to proper size wheels, superior ground clearance and WP suspension the ‘R’ has won over adventure riders who want genuine off road ability – this in a world which often wears its off road cred only skin deep. With narrower, spoked front wheels, stiffer and taller suspension, crash bars, bash plates and narrower seats the feel as well as the look of KTM’s Adventure R models has always been properly purposeful.

'R' is for adventure

It’s also no secret that they’re not everyone’s cup of tea – hence the more varied options for road these days. Day two and warm coffee kickstarts a cold pre-dawn departure, but it doesn’t take long for the temperature to rise as we drop down into real desert country. The Anza- Borrego Desert is a proper desert but with a roundabout for a tourist resting place, rare cactus flowers and Ricardo Breceda’s iron sculptures of sea monsters, dinosaurs, camels and prancing horses rusting in the baking heat. It makes for a surreal and exciting combination.

To a northern European such as me the realities of genuine desert trails add an element I don’t normally worry about: cacti plants. They reach out to attack, some even throw spines. It doesn’t detract from the riding but every now and then, if I run a little wide or close to the trail edge, I find myself jinking my body away, checking a slide to stay within the limits. It’s an off road version of the stone walls on the Isle Of Man TT course. Sure, stone walls are harder than textile-piercing spines, but these guys hurt big time. That’s not all. While there are no Manx cats hiding in the undergrowth here, there are rattlesnakes. Imagine crashing, tumbling through an agonising acupuncture session, spannering yourself on some rocks and just as you’re lying there wondering WTF’s happened there’s a rattling sound coming from somewhere near your elbow.

The beauty of KTM’s newest Adventure R is that it fulfils sportier on and off road requirements in a way I can’t say any other adventure bike manages. The smaller proportions and healthy 125bhp 75o V-twin make this latest R agile and alert where others are over-proportioned and harder work. Much more than that the WP suspension, developed on these Californian trails of course, is progressive and simply holds itself better under different riding conditions. On and off road it easily pips the older R models and dual sport rivals. Suspension is not active by the way, so there are no fancy electronics controlling things. There’s just conventional, well- sprung, very well-damped and fully adjustable forks and shock absorber. Go crazy and try to ride it like a regular dirt bike (which it readily encourages) and you’ll find the bumpstops on heavy landings. But let’s be clear here it really does take some very un-adventure bike-like riding to get that far through the suspension stroke. Pretty much everything you should rightly ask of this suspension gets absorbed in a way only conventional forks and shocks can deliver.

Occasionally the steeper rocky descents test the ABS beyond its limits, and the bike runs on faster than it would without ABS, but it’s a rare occurrence. You can turn the ABS and traction control system off, and selecting full power ‘sport’ mode delivers a lively time of it. Despite the more suitable (US-models only) OE-spec Continental TKC 80s the 1090 R is all too ready to snap sideways on the dry and rocky track in full power mode. Off-road mode makes life less hectic. Even on the road you can easily push that rear tyre beyond itself on the slower, lower gear corners.

You don’t have to ride like that of course, and other KTM models are available. But surely R stands for ‘racy’ or ‘raring to go’ or ‘really rather ride robustly’ (although having R R R R on the side panel could get untidy). Dropping from 1190 R to 1090 R might strike you as a negative move from KTM but as a dual sport bike, capable of hitting the trail as much as the road, the lower capacity, less power but lighter weight mean better handling and that plays into the rider’s hands. Along with the best adventure bike suspension I’ve tested off road the 1090 R’s best attribute is to be more fun and more capable as a true go-anywhere adventure bike.

Given this was the best set of trails during the course of any one day on an adventure bike I’ve ever ridden, I’m going to suggest things don’t get much better than this. I’m not giddy with the bike, I’m giddy with enjoyment and this bike got me there. Get yourself a ride on the new 1090 Adventure R and, ideally, get yourself riding in SoCal while you’re at it.

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us