Long-term test update 2: KTM 690 Duke

A month of firsts: first service, first track day on this bike and the first faulty dash seen by KTM

SORRY if it’s been a while, I’ve been away on a couple of launches recently – for the updated Honda CBR500R/CB500F, new Suzuki SV650 and Moto Guzzi V9.  That means less time spent riding the 690 Duke, but even so, I think it’s safe to say that we’re still firmly in the honeymoon phase.

It’s because the KTM has so much character – it’s punchy, light and engaging and so far it’s been capable of putting a smile on my face every time I’ve ridden it - and that includes a fair few dreary morning commutes into central London.

After getting back from the above launches and jumping back on the KTM, I can’t help but feel pretty smug about riding something that I find so entertaining. It’s a bike that’s a potent distillation of all the fun stuff I like about riding bikes.

It’s recently been back to KTM HQ for its first service, which was the ideal chance to start changing things. After the bike had been given the once over, I ditched the standard silencer in favour of a carbon-tipped titanium Akrapovic can, which weighs slightly less and looks loads better than the original item.

It’s not much louder than the standard silencer, but does pop a bit during down changes and on a closed throttle – something that I’m quick to try and induce at any opportunity. I need to get rid of the removable baffle, which looks like it can just be unbolted but one end is riveted in so needs drilling out to unleash a more meaty engine note.

I took the KTM on a track day at Brands Hatch Indy just a couple of weeks ago. I wouldn’t usually be that keen to take part in a March track session, but with the KTM serviced and all its revs available guilt-free, I couldn’t help myself.

I wouldn’t want to ride the 690 at a top-speed track like Silverstone but round Brands Indy, it was superb, with the layout feeling like it catered well to the Duke’s agility and engine.

Handling wise, the 690 proved itself a peach round Brands Indy because it revels in being thrown about aggressively, something that’s no doubt partly due to how light it is. It’s a bike that can be hustled round with absolute compliance on track and road. One of the things I particularly like about it is that its deftness at changing direction doesn’t require face melting speed to become evident – it’s there at any speed and the feels as alive and engaging at 40mph as it does at 95. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so enjoyable on the road.

Round the circuit there was always enough grunt on tap for surging drive out of every corner. The power was really easy to exploit too, feeling well matched to the Indy layour, and although the 690 isn’t going to smash any top speed records, it never felt breathless or underpowered. Obviously I got outgunned coming on to the start/finish straight, but as soon as I was entering Paddock Hill Bend again, the Duke’s poise, brakes and exploitable punch soon put me back on equal terms.

The suspension deserves a mention too, with the non-adjustable USD WP fork feeling supportive under hard braking because it compresses in a controlled, predictable way. I’ll need some more track time before I decide whether I’m missing out not having the tricker adjustable front forks on the R model. I left the preload adjustable shock alone because it felt like it was working well for me – telling me what the rear Metzler Sportec M7RR tyre was doing, or possibly about to do when driving out of corners.

For the most part, my first thousand miles on the 690 have been joyous, but the bike isn’t perfect and the most prominent reminder of that currently stares me in the face every time I turn the key in the ignition.

The LCD display is soon to be replaced because after switching the ignition on one morning, I noticed that it had developed a line of dead pixels near the top of the screen. It still works as it should, but needs sorting. KTM told me it’s the first problem they’ve seen with the 690’s LCD instrument panel and judging from the reaction of the mechanics at KTM UK HQ, I’m sure mine was the first duff dash they’d seen. There’s a new one the way from Austria.

I’ve been getting a few gear change niggles too. On the road, changing from first to second can easily yield neutral, sometimes even with a very firm snick of the lever.

On track, the gearbox had several unrefined moments. It gave me a lot of false neutrals, most noticeable when changing down two or three gears in one go on the approach to Druids - I’d change down a couple of gears and let the clutch out to be greeted with nothing, unless I’d gone through every gear individually and blipped the throttle as I changed down through the ‘box.

I’ve also experienced a fair few false neutrals. It mostly seems to happen when the engine is being worked hard, and always at the optimum time to make me look like a prize tit, with the bike hitting the limiter as I coast past an old people’s home or school.

Although it’s only on occasion, it is frustrating because it detracts the bike Duke’s otherwise fairly precise nature. I’m going to try adjust the gearlever in the hope it might make some difference. I’ll let you know.

Along with the new dash, I’ll soon be getting the track ‘Track Pack’ – the electronics update that gives the bike traction control, ride modes and supermoto ABS. If getting that put on doesn’t sound like another excuse for a track day, I don’t know what does.

Next up, I’ll let you know about the mundane stuff – living with it on a daily basis, commuting and fuel economy. If there’s anything you want to know, please get in touch via email (simon.greenacre@crash.net) and ask.

Brands Hatch track day

I got on track courtesy of MSV, who kindly gave me a place on one of their novice track days.

I’ve ridden on track a few times, but wanted to do one that was specifically geared up for people with less track time under their belts. MSV’s novice day at Brands seemed like just the ticket and as soon as the briefing started, I could quickly tell that this was a day that was totally tailored to making track newbies feel at home about riding on circuit.

The briefing was geared up to make everyone feel at ease about riding on track. Alongside all the standard safety stuff, it paid special attention to the idiosyncrasies of the track – with the instructors giving very detailed accounts of every corner and letting everyone know how best to get the most out of the day. It made the whole experience feel like it should – exciting and approachable, rather than intimidating.

MSV also put three cones at every corner of the track – one for braking, one for turn-in point and one for the apex. It was a simple thing, but an enormous help when it came to learning how best to ride the track and learn my way round it.

One of the day’s most valuable features was the track riding advice sessions – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. One focused on body position cornering, while the other was about track riding in general.

Both sessions were led by an ACU instructor and lasted about 30 minutes. I found them useful because they contained loads of information that was easy to put in to practice during subsequent sessions. The most important thing I took away from them was something that can sometimes escapes me on track: not to force my riding, just take my time and the speed and rhythm of the circuit come to me.

The guy leading the talks was Giles Olly and I grabbed him for a few minutes to find out what his top five tips are for track day first timers Here’s what he said:

1. Don’t expect too much from yourself. Don’t expect to be as fast on the track as you are on the road because riding on a circuit is a different kind of riding.

2. Absorb as much info as you can throughout the day because there’s more to it than a road with no cars.

3. Talk to other riders and get to know them because track days are a friendly place to meet other riders

4. Don’t give up and don’t be afraid to ask for help with any issue you might be having – be that a specific corner, body position, confidence or whatever.

5. Make sure your bike and kit are fit for purpose.

There were also instructors on hand all day. For £25 a session, you could hire one to follow you round the track and then they’d feed back about your riding.

If you're tentative about riding on track, then I highly recommend coming to a special novice day like this because it's geared up to remove any apprehension you might have about track riding, so you can just enjoy being on a circuit and using your bike without fear of cars or speed cameras.

You can click here to have a look at MSV's bike track day calender, but if you're interested in the next few novice events, they are at Cadwell Park on April 3 and again on April 18, at Oulton Park on April 19, Snetterton 300 on April 24 and Cadwell Park on May 16, and they all offer the same great experience that I got at Brands hatch.

There are loads of regular track days taking place between all those dates.

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