KTM’s 790 Adventure Models: R&D Insight
Quinn Cody is a Southern Californian native who’s best known as a four-time Baja 1000 race winner, a Dakar Rally racer, and the maniac who chose to take a KTM 1090 Adventure R into battle at one of the world’s gnarliest extreme/hard enduro races, Red Bull Romaniacs. What many people don’t know about Cody is that he has also been instrumental in KTM’s Adventure-model R&D program for the past three years, and is widely credited as the guy who has ensured KTM’s new-generation Adventure models are as off-road capable as they are.
We sat down with the big, laconic American at the 790 Adventure models’ international launch in Morocco and got this fascinating insight into all-new 790 models’ development process…
“In my mind, the suspension performance defines the bike. Compared to the other bikes in its segment, the 790 Adventure R’s suspension is in a whole other league.”
Most people know about your off-road racing history, but not so much about your behind-the-scenes R&D work with KTM in recent years. How long have you been involved with KTM’s R&D program, and how did the opportunity arise?
My history with KTM goes back to about 2005. Officially, I’ve been working for KTM’s R&D department since 2016. Before that, I raced for KTM, and then worked on their rider development programs to mentor riders and help set up their race bikes. The Street department’s R&D program started up in North America in about 2015, after a bunch of KTM’s R&D bosses from Austria came over to the States and we took them on an adventure ride aboard 1190s. We took them up the mountains and into the desert, and they got to see what test terrain we had available and what North American customers wanted from their Adventure models. I guess they liked what they saw as they decided to shift some of their Street-model R&D from Austria to North America after that. Incidentally, KTM’s motocross-model R&D – largely suspension settings and durability testing – has been based in America for about 10 years now. Casey Lytle heads up that MX-bike program, while I now look after the ‘Street’ program, which includes all the Adventure models.
Because these 790 Adventure models come under the “Street” department at KTM, is your role primarily to ensure these bikes are as off-road capable as possible?
That’s definitely part of my role, but I’m not sure you’d say it was the primary role I play in KTM’s R&D program. Having said that, my off-road background was always going to mean I was pushing for the bikes to be really capable in the dirt, plus I knew that adventure riders in North America, Australia and South Africa all wanted KTM to elevate the off-road capabilities of their Adventure models, in spite of the European market tending to focus more on the bikes’ street-going abilities.
“My off-road background was always going to mean I’m pushing for KTM’s Adventure models to be really capable in the dirt, plus I knew that key markets wanted KTM to elevate the off-road capabilities of their Adventure models.”
Take us back to your first encounter with the 790 Adventure models.
Well, like everyone else, I’d heard rumours about these new models and I was super-interested in them because there was clearly a growing demand for a mid-capacity adventure bike that was lighter, easier to ride and more affordable than what was available. But it wasn’t until midway through 2016 that I first got to ride a 790 Adventure in Spain. The bikes were full-on prototype versions and really raw; they had welded-up aluminium fuel tanks and a bunch of hodge-podge parts on them. But straight away, I knew that these machines had real potential; they just needed to be refined. People would always be saying to me that I’m crazy for riding the big 1190 in the dirt. But a more manageable 790 made more sense to them, and I soon saw that this mid-capacity bike had to potential to help attract a lot of people into adventure riding. A couple of years ago, the 1090 Adventure R made adventure riding more accessible to the less experienced, and when me and Chris Birch started riding hardcore events – such as Romaniacs – on the 1090, off-road guys started to see what these bikes were capable of. By this stage, everyone seemed to agree that a 790 Adventure model could do an even better job of growing the demand for adventure models. But it wasn’t just going to happen by itself; we knew we had to get the 790 Adventure right.
“Riding a more manageable-sized 790 made more sense to more people, and I soon saw that this mid-capacity bike had to potential to help attract a lot of people into adventure riding.”
Take us through your experience with the development process for these 790 Adventure machines.
Well, the engine and chassis had essentially been decided by KTM’s engineers in Austria, as these 790 Adventure models needed to use the same platform as the 790 Duke. So our focus in the USA was with testing things such as the suspension package, the cooling system, the brakes, the egonomics, the wheels and tyres, and a whole heap of other little things that you can get lost in. Basically, everything on the bike has to be thoroughly tested. Coming from a racing background, it was an interesting learning experience for me because you can do whatever you want to make a race bike better, and because you’re making those changes only for yourself. With R&D testing for a production bike, however, you need to work within certain parameters – primarily cost considerations and whether certain parts will work for mass production. It becomes political in the sense that you really need to make your case for any component to the project leader, who then takes it to upper management. So to get your way on something can often be a long process, simply because there are checks and balances along the way. But that’s the only way to do it because any bike has to be affordable, both for the manufacturer and the end consumer.
So how hard did you need to argue your case to fit the WP Xplor suspension to the 790 Adventure R?
Super-hard [laughs]. I mean, that suspension was something really worth arguing for because it clearly improved the bike by a quantum leap. It’s actually a funny story because it was a real turning point for the 790 R. We were testing in Spain and weren’t even supposed to be testing the Xplor stuff because it was simply going to be too expensive for production. But we did. And it made the bike so much better. Immediately, I was like, “Guys, we have to use this Xplor stuff; it’s that good”. Fortunately, the project leader took our feedback seriously, and he successfully made the case that it was worth fitting these higher-end Xplor components – with fully adjustable preload on both the front and rear – to the production bike. In my mind, the suspension performance defines the bike. And compared to the other bikes in its segment, the 790 Adventure R’s suspension is in a whole other league.
“We weren’t even supposed to be testing the Xplor fork and shock because it was simply going to be too expensive for production. But we did. And it clearly improved the bike by a quantum leap.”
Tell us about the heat test failures in the USA. That was also a turning point for the 790’s development, right?
Yeah, it was. Funny story too. It was our first big test at our North American facility and basically we tried to kill the bikes. All the guys came over from Austria and we had a two-week schedule where we planned to test geometry, handling and a heap of other things, but heat testing was what we did first. I designed a heat-test course that was as extreme as it possibly could be. We rode the bikes in deep sand in 40- to 45-degree temperatures, and we killed the bikes. That two-week test lasted just two days, and I was initially concerned that it was the beginning and end of R&D testing at this facility [laughs]. But it revealed a weakness that we needed to find a solution for, and that’s what happened. I mean, we were halfway through the development process and what we discovered meant a major redesign and a major re-think of the project. The guys went back to Austria and got to work on solutions, which included fitting larger, more efficient radiators and better cooling fans.
And that prompted a shift in KTM’s philosophy for the bike?
It did. Combined with the decision to up-spec the suspension, the modifications the failed heat testing demanded absolutely prompted a shift in KTM’s philosophy for the bike. Instead of a building a bike that was comparable with what already existed in its segment, KTM committed to the idea that the 790 Adventure R would be the most capable and performance-oriented Adventure model they’d ever built. That shift meant the bike’s price point would jump significantly, but it was something KTM felt was necessary.
“We were halfway through the development process and what we discovered when the bikes failed the heat test meant a major redesign and a major re-think of the project.”
What’s it been like to observe the fruits of your R&D work here at the 790 models’ launch?
Really cool. It’s a great feeling to come out the end of that bike development process that you’re immersed in at a real micro level for so long, and then to hear all the positive comments about the bikes; especially because so many journalists made special mention of the Xplor suspension being one Adventure R model’s best attributes. I’m really proud of the finished product and about the role North America played in making it such a special model.
MORE ON THE KTM 790