Sports bikes eat your heart out, says Jacqui Madelin
Back in the late 1990s KTM's first Duke delivered a revelation to someone living on a gnarly New Zealand back road: hooligan performance dialled-in for real-world roads.
Pure sports bikes produce their best too far above legal speeds and handle with the trigger-happy nerviness of a bee-stung thoroughbred, more tractable dirt bikes trade agility for bigger wheels and knobbly tyres, and almost anything else requires a decent surface to be ridden with anything like commitment.
But not this 690 Duke, for it features manoeuvrable dirt-bike geometry along with a torquey motor and small, race-rep wheels clad in sticky rubber to encourage ever-madder lean angles, a recipe designed for my favourite tangle of back-road swervery.
This latest generation, priced from $13,990, tucks a single-cylinder twin-spark plug engine into that powder-coated trellis steel frame, the format trading lumpy low-revs performance and a tendency to stall at idle for a compact recipe and bags of torque - the 50kW and 70Nm plenty for the bike's 165kg weight; just compare that with your 1.8-litre Corolla at twice the power and eight times the heft to get some idea of how hard this thing powers out of corners.
Better yet, most of that single-cylinder punch arrives anywhere above 3000rpm, flinging you past traffic as you short-shift up the six-speed box to keep it in that hard-hitting midrange, the bike's aggressive looks turning heads and imparting a hard-muscled persona to its rider - my shoulders felt wider, my stomach flatter, my physique more toned, which was lucky as I needed my newly gung-ho attitude as the road tightened up into the hills nearing home.
For the combination of 17-inch wheels, sporting tyres and agile dirt-bike geometry backed by WP suspenders that absorbed every hit while keeping rubber stuck firmly to road means you can make the most of every kilowatt on offer, those wide bars tipping you into bends at a knee-skimming, sphincter-tightening angle, flicking you left, right, left, the single cylinder's torque punch hauling you out and delivering a mighty dollop of engine braking as you aim for that next apex, muscling the bike round bends with glorious disregard of surfaces that would have a sport-bike rider throttling off.
They might rule an open track, but they won't govern your average back-country road, nor deliver this much fun at anything like close to the open road speed limit, where the Duke feels like a consummate hooligan at almost any speed. Almost any, for it shows its blue blood at stop-start traffic speeds, that single-cylinder threatening to take a rest at just above idle and delivering the occasional throat-clearing jerk unless you're prepared to slip the clutch to keep it pumping inside its mighty bore. A heavier flywheel would help but blunt the response that's so much a part of the Duke's bolshy character.
Brakes? Yep, they're more than up to the job, though a nod to winter or city diesel spills comes courtesy ABS, which you can disable once in neutral - it will revert when you turn the ignition off.
More good news? KTM's dealt to the single-cylinder's typical open-road vibe, now only noticeable via the trembling mirrors. That and the comfy dished seat suggest Duke owners can consider longer distances, especially given a surprisingly frugal thirst that should deliver about 300km from a 14-litre tank, though you won't go far with a pillion on board as the rear pew's more an afterthought.
Frankly, few owners will care; they'll happily trade their solo status and poor low-revs pull for gridlock-busting manoeuvrability and the sort of mid-range delivery and supple handling that guarantees a grin.