I have what some bike nuts regard as the ultimate day job: testing the 1290 Super Duke R, Super Duke GT, 1190/1290 Adventure and now the new 790 range. I work with the R&D team and project leaders at KTM who are tasked with developing the road bike range and Customer Racing department where we develop road bikes, like the RC390, for racing. Yes, there is a lot of pressure to get it right but there’s plenty of job satisfaction if the bikes are well received by the press and owners.
The R&D department does an outstanding job; every aspect of a bike is evaluated. They can replicate real road riding on test benches in their new facility. The department has grown from about 40 people when I started to more than 500, with many smaller departments within it dedicated to data recording, brakes and wheels, chassis, motor, electronics, suspension... Test riders evaluate everything – tyres, traction control and ABS, chassis, suspension, handling and brake performance, ergonomics KTM – usually at different proving grounds through Europe.
We work with the team to improve the bikes before they’re approved for production. Tyres, for instance, have to pass stringent testing in all conditions at every lean angle on road, track, wet and dry handling courses. How they perform at tip-in, how much effort is required, how they react to rider input, do they have self-steering tendencies or any lift up under brake and acceleration? Where one tyre might outperform another in the dry it won’t make the final list if it doesn’t perform in all conditions.
When your 9-to-5 involves pushing new bikes to – and beyond – the limits of traction, this is sometimes how your day ends. Followed by a lengthy sit down with your boss to explain the demise of their priceless pre-production performance motorcycle.
The bikes go through a severe shakedown. KTM know how stiff a chassis needs to be, and they know how stiff every other chassis on the market is, but this doesn’t mean if you make one with same lateral and torsional stiffness it will react identically to a competitor’s. We start with something the team know will be in the ballpark then change it according to test feedback and data. Street bikes probably have as much data acquisition hanging off them as a MotoGP bike. It takes the engineers days to get through all the data from a test.
When we started with the 1290 Super Duke we had about four WP technicians over the test cycle. We’d have forks and shocks in different lengths, damping and spring rates, and we’d ride up to the top of the roughest roads and mountains in Spain. I’d be hammering the bikes over those roads, then back to normal road riding, motorways, city centres then back to the proving ground with dry, wet, rough and dynamic handling tracks in one facility. Then do all the tests again until we had covered every angle. Every time you ride a bike in a new environment something else shows up. We’d ride two-up with concrete in the tank bags then go to the track and deck the footpegs out to find the best suspension settings. The toughest test isn’t opening the throttle to maximum while dragging your toes on a soaking wet track to test traction control – it’s testing lean angle ABS. Squeezing the front brake to maximum pressure at maximum lean angle on a wet track takes a bit of getting used to.
We worked with Bosch at their facilities in Germany and Japan to perfect the TC and ABS. KTM were the first company to come up with the idea for lean angle-sensitive ABS, and I had the pleasure of testing the early systems. When they first asked me to be the guinea pig it was a relief to find it worked first time and just needed minor adjustments. The test is to see if the bike can hold a line without crashing with full brake pressure – you need to squeeze the brake to about 50 bar pressure. We use no more than 15 bar for an emergency stop...Chassis stiffness is complicated, but the boffins in the design department know where it needs to be.