Lap Two. KTM 690 Enduro R.
Taller, firmer and slimmer - and that’s just the seat! Although the spec sheets suggest that the bikes are the same height, they aren’t. Where the Husky felt like a trailbike the KTM feels more like an oversize competition machine. The lighter weight is immediately obvious, as is the more aggressive riding position and the big step in power once you’re spinning the motor into its mid-range.
Despite packing 654cc of firepower, there’s very little bottom-end oomph from the 690 and if you’re expecting it to be a traditional stump-pulling single like the XR650 then you’re in for a surprise. Like their LC8 V-twin, which is much revvier than traditional vees, the LC4 motor requires a few more revs to really bring it to life. But you soon learn that, because holding it open reveals an incredible mid-range surge that builds into a fantastic top-end.
The same fireroad corner which nearly caught me out on the Husky again brings a nervous moment, not because I hit it any faster on the potent KTM but because I realise that the KTM’s front brake isn’t as sharp as the TE’s, despite its bigger floating disc. Thankfully its steering IS sharper, and its chassis more responsive, and that makes it easy to change line mid-turn.
The 690 is an utter joy on the firebreaks, especially those where the course winds through a series of sweeping turns. Stood up, weight forward, you can easily steer the bike through the pegs, before adding some opposite lock when the back-end drifts out, or countersteering to pull a tighter line. It isn’t as planted as the Husky but it requires far less in the way of input.
When we reach the rocky, puddle-strewn track, I up the pace and put the 690 through the exact same test I did the 630. Although the KTM runs 275mm of travel at both ends it is both sprung and damped far firmer than the Italian bike and, while the forks are perhaps a touch harsh, it was far less troubled by the big dips and high speed yumps and didn’t feel as if its weight and momentum was likely to get out of hand.
It’s less impressive when we reach one of the few parts of the lap where the ground is sodden. On slippery mud, slick grass and wet stone the bike is more of a handful than the Husky, as the front-end kicks off the bumps and slithers through the slop. There’s little point in us softening up the suspension though, as the rest of the lap is bone dry and much faster.
A brief section of road runs us past Kielder Water, where sailboats gleam in the summer sun set against the Royal Blue waters. As I turn off into the entrance to the forestry Alex pulls alongside announcing that he’s got a flat front tyre. Dammit. We’re not carrying a spare tube, nor the giant-sized Allen key required to undo the Husky’s front spindle (and it doesn’t come with a toolkit), but we do have a can of tyre sealant… which comprehensively fails in its task!
We tell ourselves that the next check can’t be too far away, and crack on with Alex taking the lead to set a pace that he can ride at. He puts on an outstanding display of how to handle a bike with a flat tyre, hanging off like a roadracer through the corners to keep the bike upright and the tyre on the rim, though the check is much farther than we thought.
We accost Martin Wittering from Torque Racing (spannering for the Desert Rose riders) to see if he has a tube, but all of their bikes are on mousses. He offers to help with the old Dakar trick of stuffing the tyre full of grass - there isn’t time to cram too much into it but if it’ll help keep the tyre on the rim then that’s cool with us. Harvesting handfuls of trail-side foliage generates some very strange looks…
I pull up to the line at the start of the special looking forward to the ride ahead. It was fun on the Husky, so it should be even better on the 690. ‘You can go when you’re ready’, suggests the timekeeper and I fire the KTM down the rutted trail. Up through the (notchy) gearbox, I’m focussed on the first turn when I hit an unseen rock with the front wheel and the impact clangs ominously up through the forks and into my wrists. I think little of it, and go back to my task of catching the bike in front. Almost as soon as I’m past him I stall the bike going into a turn and run wide, but it fires up straight away and I manage to exit the corner ahead of him.
Coming out from under the trees onto the harder ground I push even harder. The KTM inspires you to push harder. On the approach to an open S-bend I drift right to set myself up for the initial lefthander and then tip it in towards the apex. Whoooah sheeeeeet! The bike is having none of it and instead ploughs straight on into the undergrowth. It happens so quickly I don’t have time to think before I’m bisecting the track in the middle of the ‘S’ and careering off to the left. I plough blindly through the tall grass, steadily scrubbing off speed when it suddenly dawns on me that I might get away with this. I mean, you don’t often run through this kind of undergrowth without hitting something immoveable, generally a log or tree stump. It’s at that very second that the front wheel drops into a waterhole and I’m fired straight over the bars! A soft landing and hit of adrenalin means I’m okay, plus the bike’s unscathed and remarkably easy to remove from its boggy resting place. I can hear the guy I passed approaching and instead of questioning my unplanned excursion, I fire the 690 into life and emerge from the shrubbery as he pops into view. I last about 20 yards before exiting the track at the very next corner! Remarkably, I get away with it again, only this time it dawns on me: I too have got a flat front tyre…
That square-edged rock was doubtless to blame so I limp the KTM to a safe spot and wait a few moments for Alex to arrive, reasoning that if another racer comes across two slow moving bikes in the middle of a special test, it’s better that they’re together, and we make our way along the course, moving to the side whenever we hear anyone approaching.
A quick conflab with the marshals and we decide to ride the course back to the finish. It’s about the quickest way back, and it also means we’ll be credited with a ‘finish’ for the day even if both our test times are completely shot.
Back in the paddock I’m shocked to discover that not only have I forgotten our spare tubes but also any cutlery with which to eat our pasta dinner. Disaster! So having begged and borrowed a pair of tubes (plus the necessary tools to extract the Husky’s front wheel) from around the ever-friendly rally paddock, and mended the two tyres, we eventually sit down to eat using wooden chip-forks from the catering tent. This certainly wasn’t part of the plan!