To Lake Powell and back, riding these latest big ADV machines on as much dirt as possible.
Editor’s Note: This story is from Cycle World Travel & Adventure, a special print issue chock-full of features dedicated to two-wheeled touring and adventure travel. Copies are available for purchase here.
So there I was.
It was dark, getting cold fast. The road had made a few splits and was basically deep beach sand. I couldn’t see or hear my “noob” riding partners who’d stopped earlier to attach some cameras for late, low-light shooting on the way to our intended camping spot on the edge of Utah’s Lake Powell. But I wasn’t worried a bit. About myself.
But for them, there was concern. Not because they really didn’t know where I was (I’d told them to follow my tire track, that I’d burn in a line at every turn). Nor was I too concerned that this was photographer Drew Ruiz and new riding buddy Joe De Briyn’s first real adventure ride on full-size, fully loaded twin-cylinder adventure bikes.
I was concerned because I was their tour guide—and I’m not a tour guide.
I’d put 600 miles on these new players in the hard-core adventure market in the days before our departure and quickly learned the ins and outs of these powerful machines. I also learned the KTM needed the beefier KTM Powerparts panniers for this trip, which I installed. I was confident the Kenda Big Block tires I’d fitted were good for another 1,400 miles, easy. Joe was between jobs, and this is what Drew and I loosely call work.
Our mission was to get to someplace in the desert, out of the Southern California basin and onto the dirt as quickly as possible. On the pavement the BMW is all about comfort, except for a seat that pushes you forward (both the stock seat and the optional rally seat on our bike do this). Our accessorized bike has a smaller tinted windscreen, which didn’t help wind protection but was still better than the KTM’s standard windscreen, even in the full-upright position. The GS sports a roomier layout and more of a dirt bike feel compared to the KTM, especially while standing. Rolling the bars forward from the standard position helped both bikes, but the KTM’s higher pegs, shorter seat-to-footpeg distance, and lower handlebar cramp the cockpit. It is, however, narrower in feel, which might help explain why this KTM’s road manners are much improved from its predecessors, the 950 and 990 Adventures. Vibration is low on either bike, and top-gear running at just-above-legal speeds is flawless.
On road, you can accelerate to jail-time speeds with ease (all that power has to be good for something, right?). The new BMW seriously outgunned the previous air- and oil-cooled GS we had along. And the KTM kills even the new GS. Both new bikes rev notably quicker in Sport or Dynamic modes, especially compared to the older GS. The BMW has three gears that will work for any speed or rpm, and it never feels like you need to shift. On the other hand, the KTM, with a wider power spread, likes and needs to be shifted. It begs for a downshift and a roll-on, leaving the BMW in its dust every time.
A valuable bit of information, as well as a disclaimer: Adventure bikes are not dirt bikes. On our first dirt stint across a rocky desert road near Barstow, the tire pressure dropped quickly (shown on the dash-mounted computer) on the KTM’s tubeless front tire. Upon inspection, I pointed out a fresh dent on the rim. Joe swore it wasn’t him. And I believe him, since he was thinking in standard dirt bike terms. But when you’re riding a 500-plus-pound, fully loaded adventure bike, it does not take much to bend a rim. Slow down and go around the rocks, not over them.
Nothing a crescent wrench and little silicone seal wouldn’t fix later that evening. The electronically adjustable suspension on the BMW and traditional clicker-type adjustments on the KTM are excellent at factory settings and don’t need to be modified for off-road use, at least if you’re riding like a sane person. For the most part, the changeable on-the-fly settings of the GS are really good, but most of the BMW’s “hard” settings are too stiff on the initial part of the stroke, transmitting shocks into the chassis. We preferred the “soft” or “normal” settings. And the KTM just works great everywhere. Both bikes will bottom (especially when fully loaded), but that is more a warning about your speed and ability at judging terrain than a performance concern.
This make-it-up-as-we-go route had to take into consideration many factors, such as my noob riders’ skill level, road conditions, range to next gas, our energy levels, and whether we would get anywhere in time to eat. I’d packed a few beers in case things went wrong.
Fuel range was more of a concern with the KTM. We budgeted 200 miles for the 6.1-gallon tank, just to be safe. To be even safer, we carried 2 gallons with us to help match the BMW’s 8.7-gallon tank, which upon fill-ups regularly showed 300-plus miles in the range calculator. Both bikes ended up averaging better than 35 mpg and upward of 40 mpg when we were going slow off-road. The KTM is greatly improved from its thirsty predecessor, whereas the GS is essentially the same as before.
After a stop in Pahrump, Nevada, we decided to aim for the Bar 10 Ranch on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. We would spend much of the way there in light sand, the bane of adventure riders the world over. There would also be rocks, rutted roads, deep gravel, high winds, silt—all the good stuff except mud. Damn the drought.
Here is where the ever-challenging task of building a street-worthy bike that can still perform off road comes into play. The handling of these bikes is served in two different flavors: the light steering, lower center of gravity, and slower, more telling handling of the BMW versus the lighter, more nimble, quicker-reacting KTM. The 1190 does not give you as much warning that things are going wrong. Nor does it have that “take it easy” personality of the BMW. The KTM asks you to go faster with its sporty steering and racier power delivery. Yet in the end, both get the same job done once you are used to the feeling of each.
The BMW’s Telelever front does not dive under braking, and the Paralever rear copes with all the additional rear weight of the single-sided swingarm and shaft drive. Less complex, the KTM’s conventional chain does not give anything up in performance. Interestingly, neither bike uses a shock linkage nor did we feel either needed one. Compared to their predecessors, the BMW feels lighter and more nimble, whereas the KTM is heavier in feel, with more weight up high compared to the 990, even though the scale will tell you otherwise.
After sleeping in covered wagons and eating a hearty Bar 10 Ranch meal, we achieved two Colorado River views by flogging the bikes down even worse roads than those we traveled the day before. From here, we pointed to the north side of a very low Lake Powell for some camping in the slot canyons. We plugged a flat and used the bikes’ batteries to run an air pump. Our only maintenance during the trip was to tighten the bar ends on the BMW and adjust the chain on the KTM. The 1190 did seep oil at the junctions on the case but never enough to lower the level.
What is becoming apparent about these massive adventure bikes is the 90-percenters who will never take them off road are enticed by the increase in on-road performance. But luckily for those daring enough to really use the bikes as intended, both work in the dirt if you are careful with them. You can thank the electronics, which work flawlessly 99 percent of the time if you are in the right mode. Traction control tames the excessive horsepower that works so well for street riding.
The KTM systems are just a bit better overall. The computer’s control of the butterfly valves inside the throttle bodies is just a little less noticeable than the BMW’s. We like that riders are allowed to disable all the features, which comes in handy when a non-logical (to a computer) burst of power can get the bike out of trouble and save you. Good job, KTM and BMW, for understanding this. The clutch pull on both bikes is very light, but both machines tend to stall a little easier than their predecessors. Blame the lack of adequate flywheel weight, not the clutch. Shifting and gear spread are improved on both, and BMW widened the spacing so the bike needs to rev less on the road. Here it is a tie.
The same is true for the ABS on both bikes. In the off-road modes, you can lock the rear brake and the front will still provide magical anti-skid performance. You’ll rarely find a need to disable the ABS, but you can. The KTM brakes are a hair better than the BMW in reaction; otherwise both bikes’ binders are insanely good. The only thing we disapprove of is this: The KTM resets back to standard settings every time the key is turned off. Our BMW was running the Enduro Pro ECU plug that changes it from a standard key-off reset like the KTM to stay where you left it.
When packing these big bikes for travel, it’s easy to overload them. We did but only because of all the camera equipment. The extra weight was less noticeable on the BMW, whose handling characteristics were less altered by load. Remember, every pound costs performance. Especially when things start going bad. The luggage anchor points on both bikes proved strong, all able to survive low-speed tip-overs. Crashbars are standard on both bikes, working to protect the fragile plastic and vulnerable gas tanks, plus the jutting cylinder heads of the GS.
Is there a winner here, or are we comparing apples and oranges? On our ride, there was no clear favorite. And in some situations, the previous-generation GS we had along worked best, mainly in technical, first-gear sections where the added torque of the heavier flywheel made the bike easy to ride. If you’re about aggression and speed, you’ll appreciate the KTM. If you want cruise-along comfort, the BMW. The BMW is for the masses. The KTM is for the rest.