Us motorcyclists have a beautiful way of anthropomorphizing our bikes, don’t we? Headlights become faces, tail sections are as admired as derrieres… and the list goes on. We even find ways to personify its engine character and or its handling. Guess, that’s one of the things that makes motorcycles and the lifestyle so enjoyable, doesn’t it? Every bike that you spend time with, earns a place in your mind and soul just like a friend or a family member, leaving you with experiences and lessons that you’ll remember for a lifetime. The KTM 390 Duke has been one such motorcycle for me, that, over the last decade, came into my life as a teacher, an acquaintance, and a friend.
After 10 long years when I saw the first-gen 390 Duke, the old memories came rushing in. Back in 2013, when I was looking to get my first motorcycle, I knew it had to be a KTM. A short spin on a friend’s new 200 Duke introduced me to an experience I could have never fathomed before — going at 136 kph on a two-wheeler. When I went to the showroom, the sales manager was more than happy to give me the 390 Duke for a test ride. And the cocky me, jumped at the chance, only to come back shell-shocked, and thankfully, without soiled pants.
The 390 Duke had the energy of a Labrador that has been waiting all day at home for his play time. Just like one excited puppy, the Duke leaped ahead, leaving the untrained me to gather all my strength to tame it. Everything was becoming blurry and all throughout, I was struggling to keep up with it. What the first-gen 390 Duke taught me was, I wasn’t ready for the power and the responsibility. It humbled me, and taught me a lesson that has always stayed with me. And after all these years, the OG 390 still feels as entertaining as it did when I first rode it. It just doesn’t want to go slow. The tight wheelbase and a curb weight of just under 150 kg gives it the poise of a ballerina when pushing through winding roads. And since the engine feels very grumpy below 6000 rpm, going slow is not an option.
2017: The same friend who had the 200 Duke, got himself the second-gen 390 Duke. It looked sharper, flaunted a TFT console, and LED illumination all around… and was a lot more orangey than before. Thanks to my experience with the OG 390, I was super cautious with this one. However, I was in for a pleasant surprise. The energetic Labrador I knew, now felt like a trained Doberman. It wasn’t as frantic as before, but it was quick. It was more composed, yet sharp and precise with its movements. It almost felt like it wasn’t the Duke I knew… and I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In the next four years that followed, the Duke received a few minor updates, and I moved from being an IT guy to an automotive journalist. And that meant the Duke and I were going to spend a lot of time together, and we did. This included some track time too, and that’s when the second-gen made me understand how much of a Duke it was. With no threats of jaywalkers, dogs or douches, I could unleash the demons inside the both of us, boy was that fun! Though it wasn’t as grumpy as the older one when riding under 6000 rpm, screaming at the redline was the only thing that it craved for. And I didn’t want to rob it of that joy, partly also because every time I gave it the beans, I found myself laughing hysterically.
Wheelies, small skids and slides and those moments when the H-rated Metzeler M5s just couldn’t handle the performance added to the whole experience. But despite all that, I yearned for something more from the bike. The 390 Duke was etched into my soul as a bike that tempted you to take not-so-right decisions and also saved you so that you have a story to tell for years. This second-gen bike felt so clinically precise compared to the first one that it almost never scared me.
Five years into the job, I had experience with big bikes and also quite a lot of saddle time on my ledger. Meanwhile, the Duke now sported a bigger engine, looked like it had been practicing calisthenics, with all those well-defined lines, and of course, was more orangey than ever. Though it looked big, once I was perched, it didn’t feel big. In fact, the seat seemed too small for me. It left me no room to adjust, and I was locked in one place. But the handlebar was wide enough and the footpegs weren’t too rearset for me. All those memories came rushing, the fun, the close calls, the rush… it was like it all happened just yesterday. And with that, I started the bike.
I could feel that Labrador energy of the Duke again. It wasn’t unhappy going slow, but it felt the best when I let it do what both of us loved — keeping it in the red zone of the rev band. And like a labrador, it can be clumsy sometimes. Under rapid downshifting, the rear wheel would lock and slide, despite having ABS and slipper clutch. Though it was unnerving at first, eventually it became enjoyable. The second-gen was already quite precise with its movements… but this one? It is almost telepathic. All I had to do was glance at the next corner, and the Duke would almost immediately align itself to cut through the apex. Then there are the sharp brakes and the electronic nannies that do their job just fine.
Finally, there’s adjustable suspension too to fiddle around. It was nothing like the first-gen Duke. The new one had a bigger engine, better suspension and brakes, electronic aids… and inferior tyres. Yet, the new one reminded me of my first-ever ride with the 390 Duke. Although, both of us were now all grown-up.
My days with the third-gen Duke was like the two old friends catching up. We reveled in the stories of our childhood and how immature we were. We laughed about how little we cared about life, or rather how little we knew about the consequences of our actions. How, over the years, we grew serious in life, and how today, both of us, despite looking all grown up and mature, still have managed to keep those adrenaline-seeking immature kids in us alive.