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ADV NewsBaja Bound: First Ride On Our Rescued KTM 990 Adventure

Baja Bound: First Ride On Our Rescued KTM 990 Adventure

We head down south to give our revived 990 project bike a proper test. Will it survive?

Published on 02.09.2023

I’m supposed to be writing an adventure story and bike review, but all I can think about are tacos. Not just any tacos mind you. Those magical folded food things which are only found in one spot on the planet — Baja, Mexico. Rising to the same glorious level as these roadside refreshments are the roads themselves. Baja seems to have cornered all the markets when it comes to adventure riding. While I’d love to be absorbing some of the creations from my favorite taquerias just now, I’ll write about how the trails absorbed the rain from a record-setting winter, and led to our unique adventure south of the border.

KTM 990 Adventure In Baja
KTM 990 Adventure In Baja
Only around 125 miles as the crow flies from the second most populated city in the US, is the border of one of the most empty and pristine places to be found anywhere. Crossing this boundary and heading to the hills can land you in the middle of what seems to be a land removed from time, and you can still find tacos if you’re prepared. But, enough with the taco talk… here’s what we did.

Into The Muck 

Given the incredible rainfall this corner of the globe saw during December ’22 which continued into January ’23, we knew there would likely be sloppy portions of trail. Crossing the border at Tecate allows you to get off-road fairly quickly, so we found a spot to take some “beauty shots” of the unique bikes we were riding (more on that later) before they got covered in muck. 
KTM 990 Adventure In Baja
It was amazingly fortunate we stopped when we did, as a well-known (potential) water crossing was in full force during our trip. In less miles from our photo spot than you can count on one hand, our bikes were nearly fender-deep in Baja mud… and this was just the beginning. Our canine friend who adopted us for this entire photo session was super enthusiastic about everything we were doing, but perhaps was also simply trying to warn us of the trail dangers ahead.

Rescued 990 Adventure

Our rides for this project were interesting, in that they were both discontinued models from over 10 years ago, yet continue to be revered as legendary machines even in the present day. ADV Pulse’s 2012 KTM 990 Adventure R had been used for numerous bike tests and comparisons, but had not seen trail time in a while. Getting this bike freshened up for the trip was relatively straightforward, but this was not the case for the featured machine  — our rescued 990.
KTM 990 Adventure In Baja
The 990 found and rescued after being swept away by raging waters in Mexico several years ago. Serious problems plagued the bike and it would take several months of work to bring the machine back to life.

My personal 2008 KTM 990 was a basket case of serious problems, generated by a long history of hard riding in Baja and elsewhere. I acquired this bike from a friend with the hopes my (sometimes obstinate) passion for the platform could lead to its resurrection. I was in for a challenge. This bike had been through the wringer, including being lost underwater in a flash flood for a time on the very same trail we were starting our journey. Much of this is documented in another ADV Pulse story that touches on many of the troubleshooting steps taken in bringing this KTM 990 Adventure back to life

KTM 990 Adventure In Baja
Besides all the repairs and troubleshooting required to get the bike to run, we upgraded the stock 8.3 inches of suspension travel with revalved forks and shock of an ‘S model’ raising the suspension to 10.4 inches of travel. Full story here.

After months of work on the rescued machine, final prep just before the trip involved simply fitting luggage, adding a set of offroad-friendly Doubletake mirrors and covering up the destroyed stock paint with a customizable graphics kit from Kutvek. While the graphics panels weren’t exactly a precision fit, the kit was a major improvement and gave the bike a fresh look, especially when seen from a distance.

Into The Known

I’d ridden these routes and trails plenty of times before, but seldom did I do so as a shakedown trip on a very untested bike. Familiarity with the platform was a comfort for sure, but just a couple weeks before our Baja expedition my KTM 990 Adventure felt almost dangerous to ride until certain key fueling issues were discovered and rectified (see previous story). 


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The “known” part of this journey is the fact I have spent more miles down here on the much earlier KTM 950 Adventure S I own. After over 70k miles of trustworthy service, that bike was unfortunately broken in Los Angeles by a VW Jetta deciding to turn left when it should not have, right in front of one of my favorite restaurants in the city (subject of another “resurrection” story later perhaps… and more food talk… did I mention Baja has good tacos?).

KTM 950 Adventure In Baja
2005 KTM 950 Adventure S donor bike before it was totaled in a crash.

Even with 70k+ miles on the clock, the bike was in perfect running order when it was hit, so I purchased the salvage, and am happy for it. I had put a lot into that 950, including suspension upgrades by Precision Concepts. So, all that suspension was removed, serviced, and placed in this 2008 KTM 990 Adventure, leading to a riding experience I had almost forgotten could exist.

KTM 990 Adventure In Baja

Might As Well Jump

We started our journey on the Compadre Trail. An extremely familiar stretch of Baja for those who have ridden here. The stretch between Rancho Santa Veronica and the base of the hillclimb where the military checkpoint was long based, turned out to be a bit of a nightmare because a local race was going on and the support traffic caused a blinding dust storm, even in spite of the recent torrential rains. 

KTM 990 Adventure Project Bike

Once we passed that key intersection of the race, and began our climb to Compadre proper, we were back to the quintessential Baja experience of open trails and pristine landscapes. This is where that upgraded suspension really became a thing. I’ve lost track of how many bikes I’ve ridden (and seen some broken) along this stretch of trail. Heavyweight adventure bikes are not usually intended to spend a lot of time high in the air because the landings are what is to be expected from slamming a 2-wheeled Winnebago into the ground. Not the case with this 990. If you can deal with not being able to get a foot down on the ground almost anywhere due to the nosebleed 36” seat height, 10.4” inches of properly-valved travel renders this machine into a dirt bike hiding in an adventure bike frame. 

KTM 990 Adventure Project Bike

We rallied these massive consumer-legal rally bikes over rough terrain for a few days, and I never felt the suspension on mine run out. Re-learning the performance level of this machine was both a joy and relaxing. There was almost a direct inverse correlation between the speeds and degree of that cringy feeling when seeing some sketchy spot of trail and thinking “this might hurt.” This bike simply eats gnarly terrain at speeds much faster than I’m qualified to be riding.

Some concern persisted over the first day or so, in that this 990 was fresh off a months-long investigative rebuild. With so many gremlins that had been found, were more going to surface? Remote Baja is not the place one wants to be troubleshooting a machine for the first time. Familiarity with the platform meant throwing this machine into such a test felt comfortable, even if there might have been a dusting of misplaced overconfidence included. 

Fast-forwarding to the end of the ride, these few days in Baja were nostalgic in a way that made me question aspects of the future of motorcycles. With no computer assistance in the form of ride modes or ABS, after every stop throwing a leg over the bike meant simply thumbing the starter and hitting the trail, with no menu surfing or mode switching. Benefits from technical advances in traction control and ABS are without debate (the subject of a previous bike comparison between the 990R and 790R), but stripping away these features resulted in a more “connected” feel to the bike, and made me wonder about how seamless computer assistance in bikes of the future will continue to enhance this more raw and connected aspect of riding these powerful machines off-road.

Southbound Again

Enough about the bike for now, back to the ride. As can happen quite often on these rides, our timing estimates were a bit optimistic. A planned lunch stop in Valle de Trinidad turned into an early dinner because of our experience along Compadre Trail. The larger delays came in the form of a healthy supply of deep mud, turning some of the fastest sections of trail into an exercise of picking your way through a patchwork of spots to find traction.

KTM 990 Adventure in Baja Mexico

Fortunately, as part of this test we had spooned on fresh sets of Dunlops for both of the 990s – opting for the Dunlop D908 Rally Raid on the rear and D606 up front. While not the most ideal setup on pavement when compared to 50/50 style adventure tires, the additional off-road performance from these hoops was likely a huge part in getting us through the mud and sand we would encounter over the next few days.

In spite of being shod with more off-road oriented tires, one surprise of this ride was how much I enjoyed the pavement sections aboard the 990. The longest single-day ride I have ever done was on my KTM 950 Adventure S (1,257 miles from Orange County to Cabo San Lucas, on and off-road). The geometry of this bike agrees with me and makes it a good road cruiser. For day two of this ride, we decided to bite off a large piece of Baja and chew all the miles from San Felipe to San Quintin using the southern route.

KTM 990 Adventure Project Bike

Before jumping into a very long day, a warm-up session was conveniently placed at the doorstep of our hotel in San Felipe. Looking to the west, framed by the dramatic backdrop of the Sierra San Felipe Mountains, is a mountain of sand. Positioned right at the edge of town, this off-road playground provided the perfect spot to try out our still-fresh Dunlops in the dunes. Having already thoroughly checked the boxes for mud and sand this trip, we headed back to the pavement to seek out new places where we could jump off the road.

KTM 990 Adventure Project Bike

There are some truly gnarly trails to connect the dots between the Cortez and Pacific sides of Baja, which would not be recommended for adventure bikes. Even before it was paved, the main route from San Felipe through Puertocitos, Gonzaga, and on to Chapala has always been fast. That entire distance is now paved, making it even faster and more seamless. This time savings allowed us to get off the road and explore some of the side trails which may or may not have names. 

KTM 990 Adventure Project Bike

Fred’s Tractor Trail

One named route we explored a bit of was “Fred’s Tractor Trail.” I had ridden this before, well over 10 years ago on a KTM 450. Back then it was a barely-ridden, downhill-only, rock dance cutting down the mountains from Highway 1 to the Sea of Cortez, and ending about 15 miles south of Gonzaga. Now that the Baja 1000 race has incorporated this section it has gotten a little wider, but remains a gnarly trail, likely another one not recommended for travel on a loaded adventure bike. This fact was borne out in a very brief conversation I had with a guest while having lunch at Alfonsina’s in Bay of Gonzaga. While gearing up to depart, this visitor in a race buggy asked where we were headed. “South” was the reply. Before having the opportunity to explain our exact route, the eyes of our now surprised and concerned fellow traveler widened as he looked at our bikes. “Up the mountain? Be careful…”

KTM 990 Adventure Project Bike

Wanting to explore some of Fred’s trail post-Baja 1000 race, we pulled off the pavement and rode through the deep sand where this trail ends, and eventually connected with a fun and flowy two-track. Riding a few miles of the trail in the “wrong” direction, we eventually got into the rocky bits as the trail started to climb. Memory served that this was not a recommended route to try on a loaded adventure bike, especially in this direction, and we still had a very long day ahead of us. Even backtracking down this trail and reconnecting with the newly-paved Highway 5, we would still not make it to San Quintin until well after nightfall.

A History In Rust

There are few places you can ride from in front of your hotel door and straight on to a beach. San Quintin is one of these places. Hotel Mision Santa Maria is positioned directly on the beach, and it is a regular sight having multiple vehicles on the sand either for fishing or just playing around. Fortunately, this beach offers ample space to rip around, and for our part get some more testing in on the project 990 and see how the Dunlop D606/D908RR tires hook up in the sand. If there’s any doubt about how important it is to rinse the bikes off after a beach run like this (luckily the hotel had a hose), a stark reminder of the ocean’s power to claim machinery sits eroding in rapid fashion a short distance to the north.

In 1981, five miles north of Camalú, someone made a mistake and parked a freighter on the beach. I first saw the Isla del Carmen in the mid 2000’s, and at that time this huge ship was broken in two pieces, parked right in the middle of the lineup appropriately named “Shipwrecks”. Over the past 20 years, this massive metal machine has been reduced to almost nothing by the harsh environment of the ocean.

A big broken ship is not the only thing unique about this corner of Baja. If the surf conditions of the right point break which has been disassembling the Isla del Carmen freighter over the years are not ideal, you can ride seven miles north to another right point break and opt to dive into “The Showbowl” — a pro-level skate pool designed by Tony Alva at the Cuatro Casas Hostel. It’s easy to find this place — just ride along the cliff to the gigantic whale skeleton parked in front.

Clawing Our Way North

As harsh as the ocean can be, the land in Baja does its best to be harsh as well. The ride along the coast headed north from Camalú, is mostly a big-bike-friendly route. “Mostly” because sprinkled in among the many miles of easy dirt roads can be deep sand, mud pits, and extremely rocky sections — and we hit all of them.

Miles of high speed harsh terrain eventually caused a failure in the newest bike among our group, an 1190R, which suffered a broken front fairing support. Fortunately, this was towards the end of our journey, and we would soon be back on pavement, eventually clawing our way through the insane traffic of Ensenada.

With boots still completely soaked from traipsing through mud pits earlier in the day, we stopped for a late dinner in Tecate before heading back across the border. Prepping for the final trek back home, as the temperature plummeted I plugged my Mosko Ectotherm jacket into the power port that I installed on the 990 just before the trip, and settled in for the cold ride through the mountain passes.

Ask What Can Go Right

Taking a fresh rebuild of a motorcycle with a sketchy past for its first major ride into the wilds of Baja is not recommended. Any journalist, or decent human in general, would be remiss in encouraging something like this. So much can go wrong, but several factors led to knowing with very little doubt this forlorn motorcycle was ready for the big time again. 

Years of riding these machines had bred a familiarity both with when they’re working well, and when they start complaining. Being fortunate enough to discover those key elements, which brought this amazing machine back to its former glory was massively encouraging. Incorporating bits from one of my earliest motorcycles, which made this already good machine even better is like alchemy realized. 

By no means was this an exercise of turning lead into gold. We did, however, turn an extremely heavy thing, into a trail weapon, worth its weight in whatever precious metal you choose for illustration purposes. For me, I choose tacos. Alchemy should turn lead into tacos. I’ve got a killer KTM 990 for Baja now. I think I’ll head south for lunch.

Photos by Ely Woody, Rob Dabney and Jon Beck

Author: Jon Beck

Jon Beck is fulfilling a dream of never figuring out what to be when he grows up. Racing mountain bikes, competitive surfing, and touring as a musician are somehow part of what led Jon to travel through over 40 countries so far as an adventure motorcycle photographer, journalist, and guide. From precision riding for cameras in Hollywood, to refilling a fountain pen for travel stories, Jon brings a rare blend of experience to the table. While he seems happiest when lost in a desert someplace, deadlines are met most of the time.

Author: Jon Beck
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oscar calderon
oscar calderon
February 10, 2023 9:38 pm

The article is a piece of art. From the story of the 990 resurrection to lucios places visited in this trusty steed. If I could only find a machine similar I’d make the journey happen. Great work

Mark
Mark
February 15, 2023 5:29 am

Gret report. Those 990’s are legendary and deserve to be out on the trail being ridden hard, it’s what they love! No electronics to spoil the experience, forcing the rider to “ride” the bike and not just be a passenger! Good one, proper adventure riding!!

Dr Jane
Dr Jane
March 31, 2023 12:57 am

one of nice article about rider.

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