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THROTTLE JOCKEY / SUSAN CARPENTER

Structured for streets but ready to chase jack rabbits

July 05, 2006|SUSAN CARPENTER

THE sign for Thomas Road didn't exactly say come hither. It was hammered into the ground behind a hodgepodge of rusting mailboxes, pieced together from stick-on letters and ringed with barbed wire.

On a street bike, I would have taken the hint and ridden right by -- but on a dual sport, it called to me. There wasn't a private property sign or car in sight, just an endless swath of grit switchbacking toward the horizon. So I pulled off the pavement and headed in to see if the KTM 950 Adventure lived up to its name.

In the world of dual sports, the trick for manufacturers is finding the right balance between on- and off-road performance and, until the relatively recent arrival of adventure motorcycling, that balance had always skewed in dirt's favor. The tall seats, the bump-gulping suspensions and small, single-cylinder engines made handling nimble and rocky roads feel like marshmallow. But they had the opposite effect on the street, where the bike's upright positioning left riders whipping around like windsocks and sore from a saddle about as comfortable as a bare-backed horse.

The 2006 950 Adventure is designed for riders who want to carve canyons and also pop the curb, and it brings more street into the on- and off-road mix. At 942cc, the V-twin four-stroke triples the displacement and doubles the weight of an average dirt bike. It's also closer to the ground. From dirt to skid plate is 10.28 inches, and the seat, at 33.86 inches, is about half a foot closer to the earth than a garden-variety log-jumper. That means it won't be clearing any fallen redwoods, but it could be worse: Some of the lost ground clearance is made up for with a sprocket-driven camshaft that minimizes the cylinder head height and allows for a more compact frame, and a dry sump that doesn't need a drip pan because there are no drippings.

Out on Thomas Road, in the rain-deprived scrub of Riverside County, my Adventure was the only action around. I powered by a smattering of trailers a couple of miles up, but no people. Just a bunch of surprised jack rabbits and lizards scrambling across the dirt to get out of my way. The adjustable open-cartridge fork tube, which encloses a second fork for double the dampening, made the suspension quick on the rebound and the steering so easy all I had to do was hang on. Still, I was aware of the bike's 450 pounds as I fishtailed around gravelly turns and dug through sand. The all-terrain tires weren't as gnarly as I would have liked in order to feel entirely comfortable in the soft spots, but that's part of the dual sport trade-off. The tires are rated for the bike's maximum speed of 130 mph, so they aren't knobby so much as deeply grooved.

An aluminum skid plate was protecting the engine from anything trying to wreak havoc from the bike's underbelly, while a splash protector in the frame triangle let airborne rocks know they weren't welcome to mess with the airbox or electrics.

I didn't take a tumble, but if I'd had a face-to-face encounter with an animal, vegetable or mineral, the partitioned fuel tank is built from break-resistant nylon and fitted with crash guards at their bases so the bike's orange paint won't look like a worn manicure after impact. The grips are also protected with hand guards to stop pesky branches from poking at your fingers and, in a fall, to prevent the brake and clutch levers from curling to the point of uselessness.

Heading back out to the two-lane asphalt and picking up speed on my way toward Idyllwild and into the paperclip turns of the San Bernardino National Forest, the acceleration was fast and smooth and the shifting was effortless. On straightaways, the power delivery was more than torque-y enough to pass lollygagging tourists with confidence. And in corners, it was flickable as a sport bike, thanks to a compact and unusually light 120-pound engine and the partitioned tank, which lowers the weight of the gas from the middle of the bike to the sides and keeps the bike narrow.

Four hours in, I was beginning to wonder if there was anything the Adventure couldn't do. As I settled into the saddle for my long ride back to L.A. on the 10 Freeway, I got my answer. My tuchis was tweaked. And while the windshield deflected head-on turbulence, the bike was a bit too upright and lightweight to avoid getting roughed up from the sides.

That problem is pretty fixable. Just pack a set of saddlebags (which come with the bike at no additional cost), add an adventurous passenger, harden the adjustable pre-load and hit it.

Contact Susan Carpenter at susan.carpenter@latimes.com.

*

2006 KTM 950 Adventure

Price, as tested: $13,898

Engine: Two-cylinder, four-stroke, liquid-cooled, DOHC, V-twin, four-valve cylinder

Displacement: 942 cc

Transmission: Six speed

Bore and stroke: 100 x 60 mm

Maximum torque: 70.1 pound-feet at 6,000 rpm

Seat height: 33.86 inches

Dry weight: 436 pounds

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