Can you name all the motorbike makes that have won the Dakar Rally since 2000? Let me make it simple. In fact just three letters… KTM.
From the late Fabrizio Meoni in 2001 to Sam Sunderland this year, the Austrian “Ready to Race” bikes have been the steeds of choice. The legendary Fabrizio died in the Dakar four years later – just one day after fellow KTM rider Manuel Perez lost his battle to survive internal injuries sustained on the seventh stage.
And at this stage you may be thinking that off-road riding – let alone the Dakar – is not for you. But there is a galaxy of difference between tackling the Dakar dunes and taking a rambling ride through the rocky ridges of the Cederberg mountains with the Cape Floral Kingdom as your backdrop.
Off-road biking can take you to the most isolated and beautiful places on the planet – and the good news is that KTM is not all about leaving rivals in the dust. The latest machines have taken safety to a new level with magic mechanisms that enable a novice to ride like a superstar.
Taking to the two-wheel challenge was a daunting prospect when Austrian engineer Hans Trunkenpolz bolted together his R100 prototype in 1951. Two years later, businessman Ernst Kronreif threw in a few bags of schillings, the serial production of the R100 started, and Kronreif & Trunkenpolz Mattighofen (thankfully abbreviated to KTM) was born. Twenty enthusiastic and dedicated staff managed to turn out three motorcycles a day.
They were no doubt inspired by the first race win shortly thereafter – the 1954 Austrian 125 national championship.
Expansion was relatively rapid – racing bikes, scooters, mopeds and even bicycles rolled out of the Mattighofen factory. But then one of those blips that have blighted the motor industry over the decades. Sales of the smaller models faltered, the Trunkenpolz dynasty had passed away, and in 1991 KTM hit the dirt with a thud.
They applied for insolvency and management was taken up by banks which split the company into four new entities – radiators, bicycles, tooling and, of course, motorcycles.
The bankers may not have known much about bikes, but a series of partnerships, joint ventures and acquisitions, primarily by Bajaj Auto Limited of India, have seen KTM AG rise to be Europe’s biggest motorcycle manufacturer with a trophy cabinet of more than 270 world championship titles –including South Africa’s Brad Binder, on two wheels since the age of 10, sealing the 2016 Moto3 title on his Red Bull KTM.
This is indeed the KTM decade. Sales have tripled to well over 200,000 units (including Husqvarna) since 2010, passing the billion-dollar revenue milestone in 2015.
The brand was first imported into South Africa in 1974 and became a full subsidiary of KTM in 2008.
“We are a dominant player in the adventure segment, thanks to a rich history in rally racing and our ‘ready to race’ philosophy throughout the range,” says Managing Director Franziska Brandl, whose vigor and love of the sport have seen KTM thrive locally.
It seems that, globally, an essential ingredient in the winning formula of daring dirt bikes, naked sportbikes and adventure bikes for the track less travelled came from a small design studio at the foot of Mount Untersberg.
Gerald Kiska has headed up the blueprint of every KTM since 1992, from the original Duke onwards. The legend goes that whenever the order goes out for a new orange and black model, his design company, KISKA, holds an internal design competition between a half dozen top creatives and the best idea wins the deal!
From there designers turn the basic drawings into 3D models which, in a strange reversion to days gone by, are then printed in clay to give a real life look. It is that look, along with an intimate understanding of traction, terrain and power that has seen Hans Trunkenpolz’s vision rise from the ashes.
But the new-age Austrians are not satisfied in merely catering for the adrenalin demands of ultra-competitive rough and ready bikers and professional racers. Their aim is to attract a new class of adventurer – the easy riders who put safety before white knuckle fever. Those who want to learn the skills of staying in the saddle on tar and secluded trail without a 10-year hard-knock course of bumps and bruises.
So the obvious idea is a de-tuned and safety-first motorcycle which will take you to utopia but at a leisurely pace. No, the obvious doesn’t seem to be on the drawing board in Mattighofen.
Enter, dustbowl left, the groundbreaking KTM 1290 Super Adventure S, recently launched on the scenic and testing Kogelberg mountains surrounding the Arabella Hotel and Spa in the Cape.
Once again the KISKA design team has created a 215-kilogram beast of breathtaking rugged beauty. The surprisingly compact 1301cc, two-cylinder, four-stroke engine is ensconced in an ultra-light tubular trellis frame. The sculpted bright orange and white tank flows onto the stylish saddle atop a silver silencer aimed at the heavens.
A staggering 160 horses and six gears make it one of the most powerful adventure bikes on earth. As a rookie rider, you feel that it may be a shame to cover this engineering marvel with dust and mud. But that’s when they look at their best!
But why is the Super Adventure S also heralding a new era in biking? And how can it appeal to such a wide cross section of rider demands?
In essence, this is a bike that not only thinks for you in every situation, but you can dial in the ride you are personally looking for and the computer takes over. As they say, all you have to do is focus on the road ahead – and hold on tight!
But you will have to select your mood and mode on the brand new LCD dashboard display with an anti-glare surface so you can glance at all the vital info in all conditions – even direct sunlight.
The ace in the pack is the Motorcycle Stability Control or MSC.
For the tenderfoot, like myself, braking sharply when your high revving machine is not in a straight line can have disastrous consequences. An elementary error is to grab the right-hand brake lever in a panic. It landed me in hospital with a broken collarbone when I braked and swerved to avoid a cyclist on the way to school in Bulawayo on my sixties Triumph Speed Twin. And again in Johannesburg when I braked at speed on a Honda CB900F in front of a roving pedestrian and ended up doing alternate somersaults with the bike along what seemed the length of Corlett Drive.
Where was MSC when I needed it? They claim you can “whack the throttle full on in a nasty corner. Brake hard while fully leant over. No harm is done – just grin and rocket on!”
Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) have been a feature on top-line bikes for many years – but MSC takes forgiveness to a new strata by understanding the safe braking parameters while the bike is inclined. A blessing for beginners.
But that clever MSC fellow is also in touch with the two LED lights at the bottom of the striking new headlight set – and they gain intensity according to the lean angle to give you outstanding visibility at night.
If using the clutch is too much of a hassle, the Super Adventure, with a basic price tag of $16,000, can be fitted with a Quickshifter for up and down gear changes with any load and at virtually any speed.
And that is just the start of a long list of safety and convenience features – like keyless start and a compartment for your cellphone to reside and catch a charge at the same time.
So, are you ready to reconnoiter the far flung gems of nature around Africa? Because, the truth is, KTM bikes may be “ready to race”, but they are now also more than ready to ramble.