KTM 790 DUKE: A mountain to climb

After setting the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb outright motorcycle record in 2017 with the KTM 1290 SUPER DUKE R, KTM and Chris Fillmore return on June 24 with the new KTM 790 DUKE. Their goal – the Middleweight Division win and lap record. Ahead of this mountainous challenge, Chris talked to KTM BLOG.

Chris Fillmore (USA) KTM 790 DUKE © Brapp Snapps Media

There are a lot of challenging events that a motorcycle can be pointed at, but the Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb has got to be up there with the most insane.

The ‘Race to the Clouds’ is an annual invitational automobile and motorcycle hill climb to the summit of Pikes Peak – America’s Mountain in Colorado, USA. Celebrating its 102-year birthday in 2018, the PPHC is 12.42-miles and 156 corners of high-altitude, high-intensity challenge of man and machine. There’s little room for error to make it to the 14,115 feet finish line. And that’s a stark reality of this event.

Last year, KTM stormed to the outright course record along with the Heavyweight class and overall motorcycle win when former AMA Superbike racer, Chris Fillmore, piloted his KTM 1290 SUPER DUKE R to a time of 9:49.625. If you haven’t already seen it, watch this video …

As the READY TO RACE company, KTM thrives on new challenges – often coupled with a motivated racer like Fillmore. The idea to return to the mountain with the new KTM 790 DUKE to try and clinch the Middleweight Division win and course record soon had hearts within the company pumping orange blood with excitement.

The Middleweight class is open to 2- or 4-stroke bikes of 1 to 4 cylinders with a displacement of 501-850cc. The KTM 790 DUKE’s LC8c parallel twin engine comes in at 799cc, punching out 105hp and 87 ft-lb of torque. But with the huge rise in elevation over the course – beginning with a start line at 9000 feet – means there’s about a 3% reduction in performance for every 1,000 feet of altitude. Let alone the physical stress on the rider.

The Middleweight record was set in 2017 by Codie Vahsholtz, clocking 10:34.967 on a Husqvarna Supermoto. More impressive is that also last year, Davey Durelle was less than half a second behind with the Lightweight class record and he’s stepping up to the Middleweight division in 2018.

“Well, we could have gone back with the 1290 and tried to go even faster, but with the new KTM 790 DUKE arriving in North America later this year, we thought we’d give that a go and try and make more history,” Michigan-born Chris Fillmore tells us in his understated, laidback tone.

Chris Fillmore (USA) KTM 790 DUKE © Brapp Snapps Media

We caught up with 31-year old Chris on his way to work at KTM North America in California after returning from the Pikes Peak official ‘tire test’. Seat time has been limited for the #11 after getting the bike later than planned, so this important test was his final chance to get the setup perfect ahead of the event, beginning June 18 with the race held on June 24.

“There’s definitely a lot of competition this year in all classes and Davey is already going well,” Chris explains. “I think course records will be broken this year – well, hopefully not my outright record – but I’m hoping to win the Middleweight class with a new record and try to put it on the box in the motorcycle overall class. I guess we shall see!”

KTM didn’t design the KTM 790 DUKE to be a track weapon, but as the sportmotorcycle manufacturer that creates every bike in the READY TO RACE style, it didn’t take much to make ‘The Scalpel’ even sharper.

“The stock bike is already on a high level, I know, because I tested it on track in Spain with Jeremy McWilliams against competitor bikes which was very encouraging,” Chris says almost surprised. “We took the stock machine and raided the KTM PowerParts catalog, adding some Wave brake discs, rearsets, a single seat and some other bling. Along with those, we removed the lights, threw in some different spring rates for the suspension, different tires, a special full Akrapovič system and the Brembo master cylinder from the KTM 1290 SUPER DUKE R. After one day of testing at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, I was only two seconds off my fastest time on the 1290!”

KTM 790 DUKE © Bryan Mills

Testing on short circuits was one thing, but after the tire test at Pikes Peak – held over two days with the course split in half – Chris quickly discovered that a smaller bike required a much different riding style. In fact, a much more committed one.

“That was the big thing I was surprised about testing,” Chris explains. “This new bike is awesome; so agile and so easy flipping it from side to side. But I guess I could be a bit lazier on the 1290 and use all that power and torque and then just brake hard. With the KTM 790 DUKE I can carry much more corner speed and I’m going to need that if I want to get the class record and challenge for the outright podium.”

Chris points out that the middle section of the course – a lot of first to third gear switchbacks – is where he notices the power deficit between the 1290 and 790 more, requiring further commitment to make up the time. He’s got 20mph less top speed than the KTM 1290 SUPER DUKE R, so with less power the risks are almost increased as Fillmore will need to ask more from the front tire. Not ideal, with sheer drops surrounding parts of the course …

“All the heat is on the sides of tire after riding, none in the center. Which says a lot,” says Chris. “I need to be smoother. Less aggressive with the bike. I have to be a bit more methodical, think about things and concentrate on corner speed but I’m limited on grip, so don’t want to push the front.”

“Last year, my testing times weren’t the fastest, but why I think I did good in the race was that I was consistent across the whole distance and course. With a whole year under my belt, I know the course a bit better – especially the bottom part which is a lot of fourth and fifth gear corners. The 790 will be well at home there.”

Chris Fillmore (USA) KTM 790 DUKE © Brapp Snapps Media

With the bike arriving in the US later this year, Chris is fortunate to be ahead of his countrymen in spending a lot of time with the KTM 790 DUKE. So, what does he like the most?

“I like the handling. It’s strong point and it feels like a small bike; compact and maneuverable. Even pulling it off the stand and moving it around the garage is easy. I like the way it looks, too. At first, I wasn’t a fan of how it looks going from concept to production, but now I like it more than the 1290.”

Photos: Brapp Snapps Media | Bryan Mills
Video: KTM