Words: Nick Smirniw/Rob Harris Photos: Wilfrid Gaube/Nick Smirniw
Ducati. Say it with an accent. Du-CA-ti. Listen to the way it flows out of your mouth. It sounds sophisticated. It sounds respected. It sounds fashionable. It sounds expensive.
Now start it up and listen. It sounds like… like … crap.
What the hell? For all of its history and accomplishments, not to mention the passion that Ducati’s name evokes, I was expecting a slightly more stimulating symphony to come from the pipes. Instead, at idle, I was greeted with a surprising clatter from the engine and a disappointing muted rumble (muffled fart) trickling from the exhaust.
Perhaps I was expecting too much out of this bone-stock bike. My ears have been spoiled by various Ducati Owners Club rallies and the two Duc-engined bikes in my garage.
It seems that (not unlike another certain upscale, image-conscious V-twin manufacturer) the majority of Ducati owners, myself included, recognise the unique beauty of the desmodromic engine’s sound and immediately swap the cans for free-breathing ones.
Regulatory 80 dB mufflers aside, let’s consider the rest of the bike. As previously mentioned, the Ducati 750SS has a storied history. It’s original form earned a reputation by winning the Imola 200 way back in 1972. Since then, the 750SS has made 3 brief appearances in Canada, all different decades and all in different forms. In the mid-seventies, again in the mid-eighties, and finally in the early nineties. Though it was a fine bike, it was wildly outsold by it’s more popular 900cc big brother.
|SS750 ’99 model gets new body styling and comes in full or half faired versions|
For 1999, the little brother is re-entering our domestic market with a few subtle improvements and some radical new bodywork. Shape and style have trickled down from Ducati’s more aggressive 4-valve 996/748 line to the SS models. We got to spend a cold, late winter week on the more attractive (in my opinion) red half-faired model.
Approaching the bike, you can’t help but notice the typical Ducati style. Deep blood-red paint that nobody else can match. The complex simplicity of the trellis frame. Big USD forks and massive Brembo brakes. The compactness of the fairing. The slim profile. The 4-inch gap between the front header pipe and the bottom of the engine … hmmm … good excuse to wheelie over speed bumps.
Climbing on, the bike instantly feels Italian. A firm seat on top of an even firmer suspension, perfectly placed pegs and a relatively long reach to the narrow clip-ons inform you of this machine’s intentions.
Though the riding position has become slightly more radical on this latest evolution of the SS, the rider is provided with an (as seen on TV!) “ab-master” pad on the back of the tank which helps support your upper body, while you tighten your tummy. Oh yeah, more importantly, it also protects that beautiful paint from zipper scratches.
Straightening up, you are greeted by the familiar clang that is the Italian equivalent of BMW’s frustrating turn signals – the self-retracting side stand. A spring keeps the stand raised at all times, with the exception of when the bike’s weight is resting on it. The system may be useful to the forgetful, but it left me feeling uneasy every time I parked the bike.
Both the 750 and 900cc SuperSport models are using fuel injection now and starting is a breeze. The fast idle lever is only briefly needed when the temperature is very cold and almost immediately the engine revs smoothly and quickly.
Plodding around a parking lot in first gear can be quite a challenge. Low speed manoeuvrability is limited by an enormous turning radius, and the heavy, heavy wet clutch (as opposed to the dry clutch on the bigger bikes) takes some care to modulate.
But as we all know, Ducati’s have never been made to putter around slowly. So to the open road we go.
True to it’s heritage, the open road is what the 750SS is all about. It becomes a different beast above 80mph (sorry, but the bike was delivered with US gauges). Stability is exceptional and the engine is just beginning to awaken in top gear. Ducati’s care not for speed limits.
It’s also at 80mph that enough wind finally flows over the low windscreen to support your upper body and relieve your aching wrists.
Of course, as we all know, in the Toronto area every 80mph trip just gets you to the next traffic jam faster. When this happens during your first hour on the Duke you learn just how difficult this bike is to get used to. It’s not one that most people can expect to be comfortable on right away. The idle speed on our fresh-from-the-crate test bike was somewhat erratic, running anywhere between 1500 and 2500 rpm. The steering is heavy. The clutch is heavy. At low rpms the engine vibrates relatively heavy, shaking it’s mirrors hard below 4500rpm. At least the shaking mirrors are well placed and well spaced, allowing the rider a view of what is approaching from behind. Not that it matters…
The trick to getting comfortable on a Ducati is to ride it like it’s meant to be ridden. It’s a bike that is designed to be ridden with big hairy forearms and powerful hands. If you have the type of handshake that unintentionally crushes hands, and you’re as comfortable gulping Grappa as you are Chianti this might be your ride.
Hustling it through curvy roads requires some force and determination. The excellent high speed stability removes the word “flickable” from any description of it’s handling. You must tell the Duke where to go, and you must do it confidently because the bike isn’t thrilled about making changes once turning.
|“Look into my …. eye”|
It’s a slightly less modern type of sport handling. One that favours stability over agility. It’s only been the past couple of years that sportbike design and technology has progressed to a level that accommodates both.
None of this is to suggest that the handling of the Ducati is less than exceptional. Just different than what we’re being spoiled with nowadays. There’s something novel about approaching a turn at 100mph, giving the bar a hefty shove to enter the turn and once leaned over, feeling stable enough to let go of the bars and beat your increasingly hairy chest.
At high speed, whether travelling on a straight or leaned over in a turn, this bike doesn’t want to budge. At one point I even had the confidence to, as an experiment, let go of the bars while cruising at over 100mph on a section of deeply grooved pavement. Fortunately, my hypothesis was correct and the bike was like a veritable freight train, tracking straight as an arrow, without so much as a wiggle.
However, stability is only part of what makes a Ducati what it is. The rest is something that no Japanese manufacturer has been able to package yet – soul.
Soul is what sells Ducatis. It’s the reason that someone would spend almost 12 grand on this bike. It’s what induces such passion in the hearts of Ducati owners and what inspires the dreamers. If Ducati could bottle it (don’t be surprised if, in true upscale-marque fashion, the new American owners of Ducati try to bottle it and sell it in one of their boutiques as after shave) there would be addicts worldwide.
|Tucking in behind the screen – yeah right!
Yes, that’s still snow in the background!
Since Ducati don’t have a Canadian based office, we got our model courtesy of Brampton Cycle. With only a six day test window, I only managed to get a days riding in on the Duke, so the following is a quick comparo with the SV.
My immediate impressions were not great. The SS feels somewhat difficult in a direct comparison to the SV. For starters it’s not as nimble or immediately agreeable as the SV. Requiring more thought when taken through the twisties and greater reluctance to change a line once committed. Having said that, the SS is monstrously stable, unnerved by road irregularities, with a certain grace. It demands a more intimate relationship with the rider, requiring time to get familiar with it’s nuances and unique character.
Ergonomics are more favourable to the taller rider. A greater seat height (an additional 10 mm over the SV) allowed me to fit ‘in’ the bike, although a rather bulbous tank pad prevents the rider from tucking in behind the minimalistic half fairing. Talking of which when it comes to wind protection, much like the SV, it’s about as useless as a useless thing having a useless day.
Dry weight is up 14 Kg over the SV.
The v-twin motor seems a tad more reluctant to spin up than the Suzuki and complains if the rider tries to pull from low revs. However, once it’s spinning the Duke lays down a most pleasing dose of v-twin torque.
|I’m not normally one to get hot and sticky when it comes to attention to detail. However, the Dukes rear brake encompasses quality and really neat design.|
Unfortunately, I wasn’t enamoured with the Dukes comfort level. Low bars left my wrists in quite severe pain after a one and a half hour run down the QEW, and the heavy clutch requires extra left arm muscles that the average rider would be unlikely to posses.
Odd quirks such as an immediately retractable spring loaded side stand make it somewhat unnerving to park, and lack of the customary kill switches enable the rider to start the bike in gear with the ignition kill switch on. A recipe for an uncool dumping in the parking lot if you ask me.
Where the Ducati makes up is in attention to detail. Upside down forks, quality Brembo brakes and an immaculately finished trellis frame add to the high class factor. Even the rear brake master cylinder is a work of art, the complete minimalistic unit with lever, bolted directly to the side of the motor.
It’s obvious by now that I personally preferred the SV. However, the Ducati has that extra touch of class and character that only Ducati can offer. Maybe with a bit more time I would have gotten on a little better with my Italian acquaintance, but at an asking price of $11,895, I’m simply not in the right class category to warrant such a purchase.
90 degree v-twin, air/oil-cooled four stroke
Five-speed, chain drive
Dual 320 mm floating discs with four piston calipers
Single 245 mm discs with opposed piston caliper