Seven Adventures on a KTM 790 Adventure – 4. North Coast 500

Bridgestone Battlax AX41

With thanks to our sponsor, Bridgestone. The KTM used Bridgestone Battlax A41 tyres

 

My trip: 501 miles | Economy: 48.3mpg | Total mileage: 2433

At the 790 Adventure’s launch in Morocco at the start of the year, KTM said the new bike was aimed at two types of rider: the wannabe rally raider who dreams of conquering Africa, and the weekend green-lane rider attacking trails and Welsh hillsides. ‘Adventure harder,’ they said.

All well and good – but what about the long-distance road-rider who wants the comfort, luxury and practicality of a touring adventure bike and whose closest brush with dirt will be when they clean it? Which, to be fair, is probably most of us. After all, who buys an Africa Twin to actually bless the rains down in Africa?

So, my 790 Adventure adventure is to bang out some big touring miles and find out if the 790 is as on-road capable as it is off-road. “Adventure comfier,” – that’s what I say.

Touring miles in the UK don’t come much bigger or better than the UK’s favourite long-distance road ride – a one-day loop of Scotland’s legendary North Coast 500 – 500 miles starting in Inverness, hugging the scribbled, helter-skelter coastline of the northernmost mainland, and ending up back where we started.

It’s going to be a crazy ride on a crazy bike in crazy weather, by an idiot. But we’ll find out if the KTM can cut it on a tarmac adventure.

DISCUSSION: 7 adventures in 7 days on a 790 Adventure
The six riders who completed 3,500-miles in a week on the KTM 790 Adventure chat about the pros, cons and the details of their trips
FIT NC500 map

Above: You can find my NC500 route here

 

The Route

The NC500 loop starts and ends in Inverness, for convenience. It can obviously be ridden clockwise or anticlockwise (it’s a free country), but it’s traditional to ride west to east, for some reason. I’m not sure why – the best scenery and gnarliest riding is the western half, around Applecross and the Bealach Nåa Baa, Poolewe, Drumbeg, Durness and Tongue. The eastern side, from Dounreay, Thurso, John o’ Groats, Wick, Golspie and back to Inverness is more open and flowing – so it makes sense (to me) to save the best till last and reverse the ride, heading north up the A9 towards JoG first. Plus, for this ride the weather forecast suggests the east will at least be dry in the morning, with rain everywhere in the afternoon – so might as well get a few dry miles in, eh?

 

Of course it’s also traditional, and eminently sensible, to spend more time navigating the NC500 than just one day. Two would normally be the minimum, three is hasty, four is optimal for just enjoying the ride – but taking five or six is ideal if you want to spend time drinking in some of the astonishing views, stopping off at every stretch of pure white sand, and visiting the numerous local attractions.

 

But doing it in one go is a more of a challenge for both the KTM and me. And I – literally – can’t afford to hang around. Google says the 500 mile-loop should take around 13 hours. Any ride of 13 hours straight is in endurance territory – but, with much of the terrain single-track and hilariously lairy, staying awake won’t be a problem, even if the KTM is a snooze-a-rama. Which is most definitely isn’t.

FIT set-off

Above: One fully loaded KTM 790 Adventure, ready for an assault on the north face of the NC500.

 

How did we get here?

Standing outside the Old North Inn Hotel, just down the road from Inverness and in the chill morning of a fairly miserable summer so far, I’m summoning up the energy to get going on the NC500. Yesterday was a long ride to get here – a mere 448 miles from doorstep to hotel bar. I rode up with a stack of camera gear as well as underpants – and the standard 790 Adventure comes, of course, minus luggage. It has, however, a top box plate at the back, which makes strapping down two waterproof Oxford roll-bags and a pair of camera tripods easier, sharing the load with the 790’s pillion seat.

 

I’d whipped the seat off and added a Keis heated jacket lead to the battery (always a good idea; this is Scotland, anything can happen) to augment the factory-accessory heated grips – and, while I was at it, I put the seat on its high, 850mm position to give me more leg room for comfort.

 

At the front of the bike I plugged a two-way Interphone USB adapter into the 790’s 12v socket, located slap bang under the TFT screen. It’s not a very elegant place to put a 12v socket – plugged-in accessory wires dangle in full view. The USB port powers a phone, doubling as a sat nav and supplying Bluetooth music into ears via a Sena headset, but the USB also provides power for a RAM-mounted GoPro Hero7 Black with a 256Gb card which will, hopefully, record the entire lap. Basically, there are wires everywhere so I’ve cable-tied and gaffa-taped as much down as possible. 

 

FIT first miles

Above: Getting to know the 790 Adventure is important – first impressions matter.

 

The NC500

The weather forecast is a bit grim. I saddle up and set off, safe in the knowledge a) my Keis heated kit will keep me warm, b) my Spidi oversuit and Alpinestars waterproof boots will keep me dry and c) everything else will get wet. Last night I parked the 790 next to a KTM 1050 Adventure that happened to already be in the car park. I can’t help but compare looks – never thought of the 1050 as being a handsome machine, but compared to the 790 Adventure it’s a masterpiece of styling. The 1050 makes the 790 look small, squat, massively moobed and damn fugly. Not to mention cheap. Which, at £11k, it certainly isn’t.

 

The run up the east coast towards JoG starts on the A9, a major trunk road. We navigate morning traffic until the A9 crosses the Dornoch Firth and the first decent corners appear as the road narrows. Traffic is left behind, and the KTM stretches its legs for the first time on the route.

 

The Adventure’s 798cc, 285° parallel twin is lifted wholesale from the 790 Duke, but with its top end trimmed off via fuelling and engine management changes to keep it down to 94bhp for A2-licence compliance (should you wish to restrict it down to 47bhp, ahem). It’s still a healthy, vibrant, whacky, crackers little unit, supplying just enough 75° V-twin-style vibes to feel alive and interesting, but smooth enough to keeps hands and feet completely un-numbed. The gearbox is tight and clean (shame about the quickshifter packing up, but hey ho), the throttle response is great and at no point am I wishing I had another 30bhp under the bonnet. Overtakes at 70mph need a cog or two dropping, but this is a sub-100bhp motor; that considered, it’s decently flexible.

 

The motor feels looser, feistier and more raucous than Honda’s smoothy Africa Twin or BMW’s F850GS; the 790 has a punky attitude to which you’ll either warm or tire. It really suits the 790 Duke, but in the Adventure you might want something a bit less busy.

 

As faster, wetter corners appear on the run up from Golspie, Helmsdale and on the run into Wick, the KTM’s handling is mostly safe and secure. The tall suspension is a bit floppy – there’s a lot of weight transfer movement under braking and on the gas; it’s that spindly, vague feeling that comes with riding adventure bikes on 21in front wheels like they’re a sportsbike. Usually that’s just because the rider is a freeloading journalist detached from reality riding harder than the bike’s design warrants – but the in KTM’s case it’s often because their motors actually do feel like they’re a sportsbike unit on stilts. Of course you’re meant to thrash them.

 

In longer corners the 790 has a tendency to drift wide and, in the wet, there isn’t the confidence in front end feedback to rein it in and tighten the line. No dramas, just a slice more forethought and less casual slingability than maybe adventure bikes with 19in front wheels.

So far everything is very comfy – the seat feels great, there’s room to move about... one tiny complaint is legroom is a slightly limited even on the high seat setting. This is an area of off-road/road compromise; give a bike decent ground clearance and the pegs will have to be fairly high. But if you want the bike to also be accessible for a wide range of riders, you want a low seat. That means the bit in the middle gets squashed, and the rider’s knee angle suffers. The 790 Adventure is nowhere near cramped, but it’s not as roomy as an Africa Twin. The seat is much comfier tho – it’s relatively wide and well-padded. At no point in the following 13-or-so hours does my arse ache. And that’s impressive.

 

The 790’s screen (two-way adjustable using Torx fasteners, so not on the move) delivers a fair bit of buffeting and noise even on its low setting (I suspect it might be worse on its high setting; adventure bike screen often are) – you get the feeling the screen didn’t have a lot of love and attention bestowed on being optimally shaped. And the heated grips have plenty of heat in them but the switch looks like it’s from a Christmas cracker and unglues itself. You’d expect a more quality from a factory accessory on a flagship machine.

FIT heated grip switch

Above: For a factory accessory, the heated grip switch is a bit tatty. Plenty of heat in the grips tho.

First stop for fuel is just south of JoG, at a 24-hour Tesco (worth remembering if you ever find yourself north of Wick and low on fuel late at night!). The 790 has just done 234 miles (with some on the previous day’s journey) on its 20-litre tank; it refills with 18.16 litres, which is 58.7mpg. The trip says there 12 miles’ range which, with two litres actually left, is pessimistic. The fuel gauge only registers the last half of the tank, and dropped like a stone over the last 80 miles – creating a mild will-it-won’t-it panic. But better safe than sorry up here. As we blast across the barren fields towards JoG, you really don’t want to be running out of gas.

FIT JoG

Above: The famous signpost, which you have to queue up to get a photo with. In the old days you had to pay an on-site photographer to take a pic, but now it’s a free-for-all. They have a Starbucks at JoG now, too. Progress, eh?

Away from JoG, and we’re now heading across the roof of Scotland. The landscape is still low and flat, and not what you’d expect – it’s more like the Fens than the Highlands. But gradually, as we nip through Thurso and pass Dounreay’s nuclear power station, the terrain rises and becomes more scrubby and rocky – and the road starts to wind back and forth with increasing urgency.

Agility starts to play a part. The KTM isn’t a big bike, whatever its seat height – and 850mm isn’t particularly tall; the Africa Twin Adventure Sport goes all the way up to eleventy-eleven and the KTM is much closer in terms of seating altitude to something low, like Triumph’s Tiger 800 XCA.

 

But, unlike the Triumph, you sit on the 790 Adventure, not in it. On bikes with limited fairing coverage, such as most adventure bikes, sitting deep behind a fuel tank is usually a good thing because it means you’re at least slightly protected from the elements (Ducati’s Multistrada 1260 Enduro is probably the most extremely scalloped riding position – it feels as if you’re sitting in the just above the transmission). But the 790 Adventure’s fuel is mostly held in those pendulous plastic boob-tanks on either side of its engine, so it top tank profile is flat, slim and unobtrusive – and much less sticky-uppy than something like the 790 Duke’s fuel tank.

 

So when you get on the 790, the first thing you notice is the absence of mass directly in front of you; as a result the bike gives the impression of being compact; there isn’t much of it. It also feels light, agile and responsive – if, on the motorway, the 790 Adventure is no armchair adventurer, and doesn’t glide with the serene, well-mannered obsequience of bigger, more sophisticated rivals, the flipside is on the back roads where light weight, a punchy motor and – frankly – the 790 Adventure’s naked streetbike Duke origins reap big rewards.

 

As a result the 790 flicks and flacks across the now single-track strip of tarmac with a fluid dynamism – I’m not riding aggressively, but maintaining a decent momentum that feels slow and deliberate to me but probably looks incredibly rude to the motorhomes and German bikers I’m carving past. Ah well, tough.
FIT Malfunction

Above: There may be trouble ahead... electronic niggles in the shape of no cornering ABS or traction control, no quickshifter and no riding mode selection. Just when you really want it, too.

For most of the journey so far the KTM has been suffering with the same electrical issue Michael Mann noted on his Isle Of Man ride. The 790’s IMU appears to have thrown a wobbly and packed up, resulting in the same traction control and cornering ABS failure warning signs; clearing them off the TFT screen leaves just the amber idiot lights showing. Standard ABS still functions (I jab the brakes on to test it), but the KTM’s up and down accessory quickshifter is also no longer functioning. Neither is it possible to adjust riding modes on the move – you’re stuck with what you’ve got.

 

If that doesn’t say much about the KTM’s electrical resilience, the result says a lot about its throttle response and mechanical traction – even in the sopping wet, as we traipse at high speed past Tongue, through another fuel stop at Scourie and, at Unapool, onto the NC500’s appendix section – a berserk loop of what might laughingly be called the B869 towards Drumbeg, around Clachtoll and back onto the A837 to Inchnadamph. This is a ridiculous road – impossibly tight, gnarly, up and down, left and right, often all at once. I can’t imagine too many Ferraris and Lamborghinis completing the NC500 in its totality if it includes this section. Their undertrays would be shattered.

 

Anyway, the point is it’s the one section you’d most want traction control and cornering ABS maxed out – especially in the wet. But the 790 Adventure, dash lit up like a Belisha beacon, loses no grip, has not a moment of skiddage, slithers not a jot and remains firmly connected to the road. Mega. I can’t say I’d have been any happier or more confident on any other rival bike – or any slower, come to that – but the 790 Adventure stuck to the task – literally. Respect.


As we bomb along the faster, more open road towards Ullapool, I realise we’re some five hours into the ride, with another four and a half to come. I’m a bit frazzled but it’s impossible to say if I’d be any less wasted on an Africa Twin or F8050GS; I suspect not. The KTM is more insistent than them, but it’s also it’s also bloody good at just belting along and getting on with the job, come rain, sheep, cows or the odd mardy old grouse.  
FIT Chips

Above: The Chippy in Ullapool. Best chips in Ullapool, if not the west coast, if not Scotland etc.


Out of Ullapool, and a quick wee stop. It’s the only one of the day, which probably isn’t healthy – but we’re on a mission; ain’t got time to pee. The road is relatively busy and the KTM’s motor is asked to overtake again, with its thrumbling, revvy drive and eager bustling. A left onto the A832 and we’re hugging the coast again, up and down and round in a dizzying array of twists and turns. Beaches, as pure as the finest Colombian marching powder (but which turn you into significantly less of a wanker), lurk splendidly around every other corner and never cease to surprise with their dazzling white sands. I want to stop, I really do – but time is pressing. 
FIT Beach 2

Above: Life’s a beach, etc.

 

Eventually we pick up the coastal run to Applecross, tracing the final edge of the west coast before heading inland, over the famous Bealach Nåa Baa. It’s one of the UK’s steepest climbs, with truly spellbinding views from a precarious single-track road. It’s not as challenging as stories would have you believe – there are only three or so hairpins of serious note and, while they might warrant a steadying foot-down from a less experienced rider on a tall bike with lots of luggage in the wet, they shouldn’t pose a problem for most. And besides, the views are worth it.

The final run is through he village of Lochcarron, then along a tunnel of rhododendrons with fallen pink petals strewn along the roadside as if paving the way for royalty before the A890 picks up into a wide, open – and, yes, fast – route back towards Inverness. The final spurt through Garve on the A835 is on autopilot. Just for a laugh, the weather clears up and it stops raining. Cheers for that.

Verdict

Back at the Old North Inn Hotel, after 9 hours and 20 minutes of actual riding (13 hours and 23 minutes in total, mucking about with video and taking photos... oh, did I mention that?), I’m shattered. But that’s just the exertion of riding at pace over crazy roads in the wet for so long – the KTM 790 Adventure has, at the very least, safely facilitated an exercise in silliness, and probably augmented it with its punchy, controllable motor, great mechanical traction, agility, comfort and decent tank range. I haven’t personally fallen crazy in love with the Adventure because I’m shallow and would demand good looks as a minimum, with build quality, a centrestand, heated grips and cruise control as standard a close second. And electrics that work. But professional respect? Oh yes. And is the 790 Adventure compromised by its off-road expertise? No, it’s not.

Three things I loved about the 2019 KTM 790 Adventure

  • Punchy, flexible, versatile and economical motor
  • Seat – no aches or pains in over 30 hours and 1500 miles across three days
  • Throttle response – the 790 Duke was said to be snatchy, but the Adventure is pure butter

 

Three things that aren’t so good…

  • Electrics failing – whatever the reason, it’s bad
  • Build quality – mirrors, screen, plastics are shonky
  • Extras – heated grips, centrestand, hand adjustable screen – all the least we should get for the...
  • ...price. North of £11k is too salty

 

2019 KTM 790 Adventure specification

New price

£11,099

Capacity

799cc

Bore x Stroke

88.0mm x 65.7mm

Engine layout

285° parallel twin

Engine details

8v dohc, l/c

Power

94bhp @ 8000rpm

Torque

66 lb.ft @ 6600rpm

Top speed

135mph (est)

Average fuel consumption

57.5mpg

Tank size

20 litres

Max range to empty (est)

250 miles

Rider aids

Traction control, cornering ABS, rider modes

Frame

steel tube trellis

Front suspension

43mm WP usd forks

Front suspension adjustment

none

Rear suspension

WP monoshock

Rear suspension adjustment

preload only

Front brake

2 x 320mm discs, four-pot caliper, cornering ABS

Rear brake

260mm disc, two-pot caliper, cornering ABS

Front tyre

90/90-21

Rear tyre

150/70-18

Rake/Trail

25.9°/107.8mm

Wheelbase

1509mm

Seat height

830/850mm

Kerb weight (est)

209kg

Warranty

unlimited miles/2 years

Website

www.ktm.co.uk

 

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