By Ron Lawson
Photos by Simon Cudby
I looked at the log the same way that I might look at a freestyle ramp at the X Games. “In another life, I might clean that,” said the thought balloon over my head. Behind me, Ryan Sarancha read the thought balloon and simply shook his head. It was a 15-inch log laying across the trail. I was on a KTM 390 Adventure with around 7 inches of ground clearance. I indulged in a brief fantasy in which I stood the KTM up on its rear wheel and jumped to the top of the log, pausing momentarily with perfect throttle control and striking a silhouette exactly like the little plastic rider on a third-place trophy. In that scenario, I shamed Ryan into cleaning the log as well. He was on a 350EXC, and the log was well within his capabilities, but he was horrified by the prospect of me bending the 390 into un-rideability. We still had about 50 miles to go and not a whole lot of daylight left. Ryan is the Product Manager for KTM North America. He has a master’s degree in rhetoric and composition, which might or might not give him the ability to create a leg splint from the broken remains of a KTM crash bar. There was no way he would attempt the log for fear that I might attempt the log.
All these thoughts were interrupted a few seconds later when Chris Birch rounded the turn on a KTM 1290 Adventure. He paused for less than a full second, digested the scene, and cleaned the log with perfection. That whole daydream with the trophy role play went live right in front of me. Birch looked back, said something in New Zealandish, and disappeared down the trail.
That’s the KTM Adventure Rally in a nutshell. There can’t be many other organized events that would place three such different riders on such different bikes in the same place at the same time. This is an annual gathering of adventure bikes, dual-sport bikes and even some preposterously unsuited street bikes. It is promoted by KTM and open to anyone on anything, taking place over three days in different locations each fall. I had been to one in Steamboat Springs, Colorado many years earlier. This one was in Idaho, based out of the Tamarack Ski Resort. The real key to the success of the rally is that it can be custom tailored to virtually anyone. The organizers have figured out that the participants span a wildly diverse spectrum. On one end, you have the retired CEO with a Multistrada who has very little off-road experience. On the other, there might be a double-A enduro rider on a barely legal dual-sport bike. Some riders want to be pampered; others want to be challenged. The riding is correspondingly diverse, and so are the accommodations. You can book a suite or bring a tent. At its most bare-bones level, the organizers provide a GPS route, food and a certain degree of safety via chase vehicles and provisions for medical emergencies. Riders are encouraged to ride in groups, but it’s not a follow-the-leader procession.
The Idaho event also featured a few limited-availability features. You could go tent camping with Pikes Peak Hill Climb winner Chris Fillmore or ride the most difficult route with Chris Birch. There are always a number of guest celebrities to ride with. This year’s list included Dakar winner Kevin Benevidez, Quinn Cody and Taylor Robert. There was a Jimmy Lewis riding class, a vendor row with virtually anything you might need, and lots and lots of riding.
That’s the true appeal of an event like this. If you just stumble into a beautiful area and hope to find good trails by accident, you might get lucky, but you might not. In this case, Quinn Cody and the KTM crew have spent days beforehand finding different routes with alternates for different skill levels.
In my case, I had never ridden in that area of Idaho before, so I spent more time rubbernecking and taking in the scenery than concentrating on the trail. The 390 isn’t renowned for its trail capabilities, so I decided to take the B route on day one. It had rained the night before, so there was no dust, and most of the riding was all about taking you to amazing places and beautiful overlooks. On day two, I was ready to ride, so Ryan and I took the A route. Aside from the occasional log, it was well within the 390’s comfort zone. For the record, I never cowboyed up and jumped the log like Birch. Ryan and I found a safe way around. I am who I am, and the 390 is what it is. In the end, it didn’t matter what I was riding. It was still a fantastic experience that I hope to make an annual habit.
KTM 390 ADVENTURE IMPRESSION
The KTM 390 Adventure is proof that you don’t need to be a retired CEO to participate in an adventure bike ride. This bike is basically a repurposed commuter bike with new bodywork and suspension. That’s the secret to its success, though. By not going all- out with a massive, new, purpose-built adventure bike motor and chassis, KTM is able to offer the 390 Adventure for an affordable $6799. That’s less than any dirt bike in the company’s lineup above the 85SX. I was riding with guys on $25,000 BMWs and Ducatis. I could go the same places, do the same things and do them all pretty much as well.
The KTM 390 was originally built in India with cheap transportation in mind. In its initial incarnation, it was called the 390 Duke, which sells for even less than the Adventure. To make it into an adventure bike, KTM gave it new bodywork and a different riding position. The motor is a DOHC, 373cc single with a 6-speed gearbox and a 10,000-rpm redline. It’s said to produce about 42 horsepower. The suspension is what WP calls its Apex line. The fork has the compression-damping clicker in the left side and the rebound in the right. The shock is very basic with nothing other than a step-cam preload adjuster and a rebound clicker. It bolts directly to the swingarm sans linkage. The brakes are Bybre, which is an Indian subsidiary of Brembo. My bike was set up with a few aftermarket components. It had a tall one-piece seat, an Akrapovic exhaust and, most important, Conti TKC80 tires.
You have to be in the right frame of mind to properly enjoy the 390 Adventure. You don’t ride it like a dual-sport bike, and you don’t ride it like a full-size adventure bike. Dirt bike riding style calls for a foot out in the turns. That doesn’t feel right on the 390. Adventure bike style calls for standing up almost all the time. That’s not right on the 390 either. It doesn’t sound proper, but the 390 responds best to a lazy, sit-down style. All the controls and the footpegs are angled and positioned for that. The motor makes plenty of power, but you have to rev it and shift frequently. When you do it right, you can keep up with bikes that make twice as much power and cost four times as much money.
As with most adventure bikes, there are several electronic modes to choose from. The most critical one to address for off-road riding is MTC. It has to be turned off in the dirt. Don’t even try it otherwise. Off-road, anti-lock braking is also a good idea. I actually liked the power delivery best in the “Street” setting.
If you are an expert-level enduro rider, you probably aren’t the right person for the 390. If, however, you’re an adventure-curious trail rider who doesn’t want to invest the price of a small airplane in an untried activity, the 390 allows you to get your boots wet without raiding the 401K plan. Where you go from there is up to you.