2019 KTM 790 Duke Reviewed On Home Court

Judging the 2019 Duke on the road that taught me to love riding.

You can still see the fire everywhere. Long drips of melted insulation swing off power lines. When wet clouds soak the south-facing slope of the Topatopa Mountains you can smell it too. A rich, earthy, and sodden charcoal smell. It fills your nose when you angle your head and drive it low into a corner. If your eyes look deep to pick your line, they’ll see wisps of scorched chaparral, denuded and black, and stripes of burned-over guardrail. But mostly you see road. Cambered and carving, a dark curling pen stroke, rolled out through bright rock.

Balanced, sophisticated, and absurdly quick in a canyon, KTM’s Duke 790 is easily one of the best middleweight motorcycles on sale today.
Balanced, sophisticated, and absurdly quick in a canyon, KTM’s Duke 790 is easily one of the best middleweight motorcycles on sale today.Yelena Sofia

In the lower reaches of Highway 33 there's not much for the 2019 KTM Duke 790's brilliant quickshifter to do. A corner is a one-click job, a downward stab to keep the engine spinning hard, and you gather the gear change back the instant you sniff an apex. Second, third, second, third, and so on. The new LC8 engine is a wonder. It's eager in a way that a single can't be, and urgent in a way that an inline-four seldom is. The power comes on quick (95 hp at its peak on our dyno, and 58.2 pound-feet of torque) and it never really signs off. The engine swells like it'll build forever until you're startled by a soft bounce off the rev limiter; but by then never mind: You're on the brakes and settling weight over the front end and looking deep into ashy corners.

Highway 33’s curves are flowing and fast, the perfect place to test KTM’s Duke 790.
Highway 33’s curves are flowing and fast, the perfect place to test KTM’s Duke 790.Yelena Sofia

It was all fuel. Tall grass and matilija poppy and head-high stands of bright yellow broom that clogged the sightlines up the winding highway. Before the Thomas fire ripped through these mountains and bore down on my hometown, driving out my parents and friends in a frantic nighttime evacuation, all that fragrant California scrub was a pretty conduit through which my favorite road flowed. The walls of brush made knowing the road essential, knowing where you could find a spritz of gravel left behind by heavy trucks, or expect a crumble of fallen rock at the base of a sheer cut through the earth, or find a sheen of water pressed out of the mountain to make the road buttery slick. That knowledge was the difference between enjoying the ride or doing it on tiptoes. But with the brush burned away and new, deep sightlines, there’s little but courtesy and good sense to slow me down, or the Duke—and the Duke has never cared much for either.

You seldom find a machine so perfectly paired to a set of corners. On the long climb from the valley floor, the Duke 790 is completely at home.
You seldom find a machine so perfectly paired to a set of corners. On the long climb from the valley floor, the Duke 790 is completely at home.Yelena Sofia

Some people get to know their machines by washing them; some people take them apart. I take them to Highway 33, the road that taught me to love motorcycles. It’s a rhythm road, but an imperfect one, and it will snitch on a machine’s worst traits. Shabby brakes are laid out by eye-widening decreasing-radius corners, cheap suspension by heaves and seams in asphalt that gets the roughest of treatment by heavy trucks and is scraped clean winter and summer alike by groaning Caltrans plows. You learn quickly that thoroughbreds and racebikes are undone by even good mountain roads, but Highway 33 has no complaints about the 790 Duke.

It may hint at practicality, with its rear seat, passenger pegs, and comfortable ergonomics, but the Duke 790 gives itself away as a back-roads brawler when you see the aggressive kneeholds built into the machine’s brawny shoulders.
It may hint at practicality, with its rear seat, passenger pegs, and comfortable ergonomics, but the Duke 790 gives itself away as a back-roads brawler when you see the aggressive kneeholds built into the machine’s brawny shoulders.Yelena Sofia

I’m quickly learning I don’t either. At a glance the Duke’s nonadjustable fork and KTM branded brakes left me wondering if too many concessions were made in an effort to cut costs. But that front end? It’s set up very close to spot-on for my 155 pounds. It’s firm and confident and when you’re hustling, that lack of adjustability just isn’t on your radar. Those brakes? They’re co-developed with Spanish manufacturer J.Juan and, despite their budget origins, totally up to the task. And the gadgetry. The list of electronic systems is just right for a fast middleweight. Lean-sensing traction control, cornering ABS, the modern systems that make bikes faster and safer and smarter. They all come together on Highway 33 to give a sense that the Duke 790 is made for roads just like this one.

Shared with the 790 Adventure, this new twin is a gem. Where other machines offer endless adjustability, the Duke offers technology and satisfying setup right out of the factory.
Shared with the 790 Adventure, this new twin is a gem. Where other machines offer endless adjustability, the Duke offers technology and satisfying setup right out of the factory.Yelena Sofia

Riding hard can be transcendent. It can set a hook. Almost 20 years ago, these 34 miles of climbing through California’s coast range and a then-new KTM Duke—the dinosaur Duke, all lurid colors and stripped of subtlety with a dirt bike’s thwocking 620cc LC4 engine—hooked me hard.

Highway 33 has been a litmus test ever since. For cars, for bikes. For romantic partners, even. My first date with my now-wife took me up Highway 33 to Rose Valley Falls. It worked out. So much and so many of the good things in life can be focused through the lens of that first ecstatic experience. Held up to it. Used to separate wheat from chaff, Highway 33 is unbeatable.

The Duke 790 is unmistakable, just like its single-cylinder LC4-powered predecessors. Even when winter rain brings new life to the national forest bordering the highway, you can see the fire’s telltale scars.
The Duke 790 is unmistakable, just like its single-cylinder LC4-powered predecessors. Even when winter rain brings new life to the national forest bordering the highway, you can see the fire’s telltale scars.Yelena Sophia

At the Sespe Gorge the road’s cadence changes. It tightens on itself, sends you working, shifting over the bike faster and faster with more conspicuous consequences for your failure to keep up. This section was, and is today, where a machine like the Duke shines. Broad bars give you the leverage you need to help direction changes along with subtle strength. Then, as now, the Duke loves to gently lift the front wheel on the throttle when you get hard on it after a perfect apex.

The lower section of Highway 33 is fast and open, setting up a thrilling cadence of lefts and rights. With undergrowth burned away, it’s much easier to see roadside wildlife, or trouble ahead.
The lower section of Highway 33 is fast and open, setting up a thrilling cadence of lefts and rights. With undergrowth burned away, it’s much easier to see roadside wildlife, or trouble ahead.Yelena Sofia

There are a dozen ways to get to a brilliant machine, and as many ways to thrill a rider on Highway 33. Making a machine yours is the easiest. Wild adjustability, like you find on an Aprilia RSV4, can set you up for success, and sand down the sharp edges of a track machine. Likewise, lowering the bar. Few things feel as foolishly fast or as hysterical in long, decreasing-radius sweepers like a dirt bike, with its long spindly fork legs doing their best to damp only slightly sticky dirt tires. The Duke 790 takes a very different approach from the Aprilia, and dirt bikes, and even its proto-Duke 790 ancestors. It’s good because it’s eager, balanced, and wasp-waisted. It’s good because its suite of modern electronics don’t intervene with your riding until they’re needed, or wanted. It’s good because, more than most any modern middleweight, it gets out of your way and just helps you ride its wheels off.

Lookouts are plentiful and spectacular.
Lookouts are plentiful and spectacular.Yelena Sofia

Head low, seeing speed-blurred green shoots of new growth reaching up and out of the charred roadside, I can’t think of a machine I’d rather be riding more. There might be a dozen. Bikes with more power, different character, different thrills on offer. But today? Those things don’t matter. Not even a little. That’s the thing that separates a good motorcycle from a great one, and what separates Highway 33 from every other road.

Gear Box

Brisk mornings are the norm on Highway 33. The road ascends to Pine Mountain summit, at more than 5,000 feet.
Brisk mornings are the norm on Highway 33. The road ascends to Pine Mountain summit, at more than 5,000 feet.Yelena Sofia
The upper sections tighten and demand that you work for your speed. Tight corners open to straights, making it easy to tap the Duke’s quick-revving twin.
The upper sections tighten and demand that you work for your speed. Tight corners open to straights, making it easy to tap the Duke’s quick-revving twin.Yelena Sofia
In places, Highway 33 looks completely alien. Even then, it still feels like home.
In places, Highway 33 looks completely alien. Even then, it still feels like home.Yelena Sofia
Nothing better than heading home.
Nothing better than heading home.Yelena Sofia

2019 KTM Duke 790 Specifications

PRICE $10,499
ENGINE 799cc, DOHC, liquid-cooled parallel twin
BORE x STROKE 88.0 x 65.7mm
FUEL DELIVERY Dual-stage fuel injection
CLUTCH Mechanically operated PASC antihopping clutch
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
FRAME Powdercoated chromium-molybdenum steel
FRONT SUSPENSION 43mm WP upside-down; 5.5-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION WP shock absorber adjustable for spring preload; 5.9-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE 300mm discs
REAR BRAKE 240mm disc
WHEELS, FRONT/REAR Cast-aluminum wheels; 3.50 x 17 in. / 5.50 x 17 in.
TIRES, FRONT/REAR 120/70-17 / 180/55-17
RAKE/TRAIL 24.0º/3.9 in.
WHEELBASE 58.1 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 32.5 in.
FUEL CAPACITY 3.7 gal.
CLAIMED DRY WEIGHT 392 lb.
WARRANTY Limited
AVAILABLE Now
CONTACT ktm.com