Mike Lafferty opens up about KTM, adventure bikes, and the new 1090 Adventure R

Oct 03, 2017

Mike Lafferty has been riding motorcycles as long as he can remember. Following in the footsteps of his dad and older brothers, he started competing by the time he was 13. By his 18th birthday, he was racing professionally for KTM.

After 20 years of competition, Mike had won eight National Enduro championships, raced all over the world, and was one of the few riders that KTM tapped on the shoulder to tackle a new project: campaigning adventure motorcycles. Mike, alongside folks like Quinn Cody and Chris Birch, are riding KTM's new 1090 Adventure R worldwide in events normally reserved for smaller enduro-style bikes. These riders also support events that KTM sponsors, such as the AMA adventure series and KTM's own specialized rallies, which are hosted around the world.

Steve Kamrad and Mike Lafferty
Steve leading Mike through new trails at the Touratech Rally East. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

In preparation for the upcoming KTM 1090 review, I got a chance to ride with Mike at this year’s Touratech Rally East. Steve Kamrad and I set out to show him some of the trails that we ride that weren’t exactly part of the normal route. Regardless of the fact that Steve and I knew the trails pretty well, and Mike had never even seen them before, he simply left us in the dust. However, he never failed to turn around and help anyone in our group with a little advice or a hearty push. He even let me ride his race-prepped 1090 Adventure R, a daring move considering my penchant for crashing.

Thoroughly impressed with his inhuman ability to manhandle a large adventure bike off-road, I sat down with Mike to discuss his experiences with KTM and the new 1090 Adventure R.

Spurgeon Dunbar: You're a Jersey boy, born and raised on the East Coast, right?

Mike Lafferty: Born and raised, and I still live in South Jersey, right around the Millville Motorsports Park.

SD: So, how did you get started riding?

ML: My family were all racers. My dad’s been racing since '75, my two older brothers raced. He got us all into it. He took us to the races when we were younger, and it just evolved from there. I got in my first race before I was even legal. I was 13, 14 years old, and I jumped on it from there. And to this day my dad still races. He’s still out there. He races every Enduro he can. So, that's just continued.

Mike Lafferty KTM 1090 Adventure R
Mike navigates a series of large rocks hidden by tall grass. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

SD: You have a long relationship with KTM. How did that come around?

ML: I won the local Enduro series back in '93-94, and then, right there in '94, KTM was kind of rebuilding a little bit with their off-road program. And I got a call from Rod Bush. He said, "Hey, you wanna race for us in '95, for the National Enduro series," and I was like, "Heck yeah." I was 18 and I had a summer job doing asphalt maintenance, but I just went for it and 1995 was my first year with KTM.

And 1995 wasn't the greatest. The bike was pretty bad, but it just kind of got better from there on. Bikes got better, I got hooked up with my first real mechanic, and it just seemed like it clicked from there. The bikes got good, the camaraderie on the team was good, and then we wrapped up, like, eight championships in I think 11 years.

Mike Lafferty KTM 1090 Adventure R
How many adventure riders does it take to change a tire? Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

SD: So, you’re riding Enduro bikes for 20 years and just as that was coming to an end, KTM reaches out to you about getting involved with Adventure bikes. What was their goal?

ML: Man, I was just there at the right time, again. KTM started to really focus on their Adventure bikes right when I was getting ready to retire. Well, I was thinking of retiring.

You have to remember adventure bikes weren’t cool then. The 990 had just been released, and it was fun, but it wasn’t like it is today. Now we've got a kickass bike, and we get to go around and showcase this thing and what it can do. I got to transition from almost retiring and still having some credibility from racing, into this. It just seems like it's been a huge snowball and the timing has worked out perfectly.

Mike Lafferty KTM 1090 Adventure R
Mike campaigns his 1090 Adventure R in enduro events against bikes half its size. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

SD: And in addition to attending rallies with this bike you’re actually racing your 1090 Adventure R in Enduro races against bikes half its size?  

ML: Yep. Finally, I said, "Dude, I don't wanna go fast anymore. I just wanna accomplish something." I still wanna challenge myself on a motorcycle and these bikes can get through almost anything. It’s just a matter of slowing your pace down a bit. So now, I take the speed element out of it and it's fun for me to just finish an event designed for a smaller machine on this larger adventure bike. That's an accomplishment on its own.

SD: So, you've seen this adventure segment really take off over the years. What has helped people change their mindset on what you can do with an adventure bike?

ML: I think the big thing is the bikes. The bikes have gotten better for sure. For example, with KTM the 990 was good, but it was a baseline. With our new adventure bikes stepping away from our 1190 to the 1090 and 1290, the bikes are freakin' awesome. They are more of a dirt bike. So the bikes are definitely a factor.

Mike Lafferty KTM 1090 Adventure R
The 1090 feels like a giant dirt bike. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The other part of it is the age. I am 41, and I don't wanna say it's me and my group of people, but it's the whole thing with the racing. Guys coming from the dirt that I'm seeing are like, "All right, you know, I've done all these races. I've done this race for 10 years. What else is there," and they see this little avenue and they get excited just like me and you. They jump on one and it’s like, "Wait a minute, I can ride this."

Mike Lafferty and KTM 1090 Adventure R
Riding adventure bikes is more about the camaraderie of getting through rough terrain with your friends. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

SD: I think it's the camaraderie that comes with it as well. You’re together with a group getting through it as a team as opposed to running against one another.

ML: It’s the camaraderie and the fun that comes with riding with good people. I still race Enduro, I'll race a hare scramble, I'll do some other fun stuff on the smaller bikes, but I have more fun on the bigger bikes. I mean, on my off time, I’ll jump on an adventure bike and call up some buddies and just have a blast all weekend. Before it was like, "Hey, you wanna go pound some motos at Millville?" Now it’s like, "Let’s just go ride and have fun."

SD: What was the biggest challenge you faced coming over to the 1090 Adventure R and making it competitive on an enduro level? 

ML: Suspension and wheels were the biggies. The 1090 works really well as an adventure bike, but when you say, "Hey, I'm gonna race a National Enduro," the suspension was on the top of my list. The forks need to be stiffer, the fork spring needs to be higher, the front wheel needs to be raised up, because the harder and higher you make that, the front end of the bike stays planted as it’s not as divey. It changes the characteristics of that bike immensely. So, suspension was number one.

Mike Lafferty KTM 1090 Adventure R
Mike's race-prepped bike is surprisingly close to a stock machine. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

I had 19 miles on this bike before I raced it. So I just took all of Quinn's (Cody) stuff. The wheels were important as well and that took a little bit of finagling to get the right tire. Quinn and I are running the stock rims off of a 690 Enduro with Dunlop AT 81s. The Dunlop worked tremendously and I could run them with a bib mousse, so that was awesome. Once suspension and wheels were taken care of I was like, “Yes, this is gonna work.”

SD: I’ve been riding the 1090 Adventure R for the past month and it’s really impressed me as a hell of a stock platform. But I was even more impressed with how little you’ve had to do in order to actually compete on this thing.

ML: I am coming from the racing world and it's funny because I’m sitting 99 percent of the time. In stock form, you will sit inside the bike. The bars are high, the seat's low, you're sitting in it. So, when I do a racing bike, I always make my seat tall and my bars low, and then that means you're sitting on top of the bike. My 1090 is set up like one of my old race bikes which means I have a taller seat from Seat Concepts and a lower handlebar.

KTM 1090 Adventure R Akrapovic exhaust
Mike opted for the aftermarket Akrapovic exhaust originally designed for the KTM 1290 Super Duke R as its lighter weight and smaller design allowed for better clearance in tight, single-track conditions. Notice the homemade mounting bracket. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

After that there wasn't much left to do. Suspension, wheels, a new handlebar and seat took care of the handling. I added handguards to protect the levers. And for performance, dude, the only reason I changed the muffler was because I didn't wanna hit it on trees. You get so tight around the inside tree when you're turning right, that I would just rip the muffler off, you know, just beat it up. So I went with the smaller Akrapovic muffler for the 1290 Super Duke. It cut a ton of weight, like 25 pounds. I also changed the gearing to where I could actually ride off-road without working the clutch so much. But man, that's all I did for performance.

SD: Ever since you showed me the muffler mod, that's on the top of my list. But really not for anything performance related but rather because I have such big feet, I keep smashing the back of my right heel into that plastic guard.

ML: Yeah. I feel that my foot's trapped when it's in there with the stock one. Like, I'm afraid I can't get it out of there. If I turn right on the inside and my foot's in there I feel like I gotta hurry up and get it out. Like you said, I feel like it’s pushed up against that guard.

Mike Lafferty KTM 1090 Adventure R
Mike enjoys changing people's thoughts on what the limits of an adventure bike really are. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

SD: All things considered it sounds like you’ve been having fun with these big bikes.

ML: You know, people tell me, "You can't go there on this bike. You can't do that on this bike," and that's where I'm bridging the gap, and that's what's gotten me more excited with this whole adventure program. And it's been hard because a lot of guys coming from small bikes and they're like, "Dude, there's no way. You can't. No," and now, you're getting guys to ride them and try them and they're like, "Holy smokes, you can do this, you can go there." I love changing people’s perceptions.