Thursday, 12 March 2015

Editorial - Eulogy

Ducati 916 Tank


As my upcoming article is taking quite a bit longer than expected to finish and awaiting feedback from a few sources, I'm taking a break this week to present a personal editorial. Enjoy.

It's August, 2006 and I'm dicking around on the computer during a work break. I'm working for minimum wage as an unlicensed mechanic in Montreal at a British bike specialist while I attend McGill, completing a degree in history while getting my hands dirty during the summer months. I've been working on greasy old Brit iron for several months, fixing all manner of Triumphs, Nortons and the odd BSA or Enfield. Everything from show winners to bodged-together relics pass through the shop and while I'm semi-capable of doing the work I'm truly out of my element. I'd consider my skills somewhere around advanced-shade-tree, likely far from what you'd want to have working on your pride and joy but you really could't expect much for 55$ an hour. I muddle my way through it with the guidance of the grizzled owner without making too many egregious mistakes - though there were a few, thankfully none that manifested themselves outside the walls of the shop.

Suzuki SV650 Streetfighter

I'm idly browsing the Auto Trader wistfully looking at bikes for sale. I'm currently riding a '04 SV650 I bought new in the fall of 2004. Being a cash-strapped student I financed it for approximately a trillion years and skipped full coverage insurance because as a then 18 year old rider my insurance company seemed to view my premiums as a way of balancing their books against all those born-again middle-aged HOG riders they were undercharging. It was a fateful decision, because in 2005 I made the bonehead move of lending my SV to a coworker who claimed to be a proficient rider. After he skidded across the road in front of his house, narrowly dodged a passing car, and then flung the bike into a five-foot ditch not 100 yards from his front door I had learned, the hard way, he was completely full of shit. With no collision coverage and the bike effectively written off (severed forks, split rim, busted radiator, crushed exhaust headers, twisted bars, etc…) I made a deal with Fucknuts to fix the bike myself using GSXR takeoff parts, which is de rigueur for anyone who wishes to address the main shortcomings of the SV (i.e. garbage suspension and mediocre brakes) while still saving money compared to buying OEM replacement parts. I diligently showed up at his workplace every payday and escorted him to the nearest ATM until his debt was paid, and I ended up with a neat streetfighter once all was done.




Ducati 916 and 900 SuperSport

But it wasn't a Ducati. I had pined for a Duc since I began riding, inciting much derision from the Japanese-riding squids I tended to hang around during my early years as a rider. The SV seemed like a sensible alternative – inexpensive, fun, a smarter substitute for a Monster with next-to-no maintenance needed. But it proved to be a poor facsimile. It was fun and sensible, but overall fairly dull. Everything was “good” but nothing stood out, so memorable that you'd forget what it felt like 10 minutes after you got out of the saddle. A fairly typical-to-above-average Japanese bike, in other words. I kept idly searching for a used Duc in my budget; despite modifying the SV beyond recognition it wasn't particularly endeared to it and I increasingly felt like I should flip it and cut my losses to get something more interesting.

Ducati 916

In those good-old-bad-days you had to be slightly deranged to want a Duc. The gamechanging 1098 was still a few years off and the Monster was seen as a slow, expensive poseur mobile. Squidly types were quick to point out the marque's reputation for poor reliability, exorbitant retails, and high maintenance – all for a bike that was so much slower than just about any cheap, nasty Japanese sportbike. This was due to the fact that the only two things that matter to the average mouthbreathing Icon-clad cephalopod are A. peak dyno figures and B. the lowest possible retail price.

Ducati 916

I got my first taste of the Duc experience taking a used ST4 out for a ride, and it impressed me with its tidy handling and sweet engine, which was stout enough to hover the front wheel in first gear despite having 125,000 kms on the clock (yes, really). A quick rip on a M900Sie left me less impressed, given that the powerband felt virtually the same as my SV's despite having a lot more ccs underhood, and the overall experience wasn't as enthralling as I imagined it would be. Despite the underwhelming test ride I wasn't discouraged; given the lazy feeling of the Monster, I set my sights upon finding a carburetted 900 SS, preferably a CR half fairing model, a bike that appealed more to my sporting sensibilities.

Ducati 916

A four-valve model would have been more appealing, but seemed far beyond my budget. Canadian retails on Ducatis were always astonishingly high. The new 999s that were cluttering up showrooms at the time started at 27,000$, when a new Japanese superbike was around 15,000$. Given their scarcity, prices on used Ducs weren't much better – a typical 748, the most common 4V Duc available, was running around $12,000 in pretty much any condition.

Ducati 916

This long winded aside is to explain why I paused when I spotted a 1997 916 on the Quebec Auto Trader for 9,000$. If I had been wearing a monocle at that moment, it would have fallen out.

I made a trip to the dealership to see it. It was listed at a small independent shop in Laval, north of Montreal, a place that sold a lot of used Italian bikes and served as the local Aprilia dealer. It was tucked into a corner of the showroom and wasn't much to look at. It was dusty and adorned with some seriously questionable carbon-fibre bits - chief among which was a solid CF windshield, which turned out to be heavier than the original item. It was a US import that had 19,000 miles and a rebuilt title. The frame, swingarm and wheels had been powdercoated black during the rebuild, while the stock Showa fork legs had been anodized gold for a faux-Ohlins look. To any rational shopper, it was one to avoid. High miles for a Duc, dodgy mods, rebuilt… One look should have scared me away.

Ducati 916 just before I picked it up.

But there were some highlights. It had an Ohlins rear shock, which was uncommon for Biposto models and a nice bonus during the era when the factory slapped on whatever they had sitting on the shelf. It had a Corbin seat, which turned out to be a must if you plan on riding one of these further than the nearest Starbucks. There was no damage and the powdercoating was clearly done by a pro. It seemed pretty solid, and all the servicing was up to date, checked over by the shop's technician who happened to be an ex-Ducati France race mechanic (who sadly passed away in a snowmobiling accident in 2010). I offered my SV as a trade-in and did the paperwork. After much running around sorting out paperwork and getting my parent to reluctantly co-sign I was the proud owner of 916.

Ducati 916 First Ride

Before I took delivery the mechanic offered, free of charge, to swap out the ugly Biposto setup for a solo seat using a pristine tail from a 1998 model with white numberplates ala SPS. I was elated. I finally got a Ducati, and not just that, I got THE Ducati, one that I hadn't imagined I'd ever be able to own. 916s are extremely rare in Canada, given that they retailed for 24,000$ in the mid-90s. At the time there were maybe a dozen or so examples around, several of which were dedicated track machines; that might sound hard to believe, but keep in mind that this is in a country with a 6 month riding season where Harley sells 10,000 bikes on a good year. Cagiva-era flagship Ducatis are not common here. I'd be willing to be more have been imported into the country when the US and Canadian dollars equalized than were sold here in the first place.

Ducati 916 First Ride

Why am I telling this story? Because the purpose of today's editorial, and the reason I'm revealing my nostalgic side through rosy reminiscing, is this is a eulogy for my 916.

Ducati 916 McGill Campus

It's not gone. It hasn't been destroyed. I'm sitting here in my living room looking at it right now. After 40,000 miles (plus another 3000 or so that aren't documented due to riding nearly a whole season with a broken speedo cable) the engine is on its last legs, with as many false neutrals as there are gears, a toasted clutch, low compression, significant oil consumption, and the final blow: a tired bottom end that started eating itself.

I knew it was inevitable. There are very few high mileage 916s out there, and not many that have more miles on their original engines than mine. ST4 owners sometimes clock up big numbers on their Desmoquattros, like that fearless rider who had put 125k on his ST4 riding back and forth across Canada, but these were built under TPG ownership when component quality and QC was much improved. I hoped it would go further. During a head refresh last winter I noted too much play in the big end, but it was one of those “it's probably not that bad, I'll just ignore it and keep riding” moments of hopeless denial.

Ducati 916 Montreal

I could shift past the false neutrals. I could flip the clutch plates and be gentle on starts. I could keep an eye on the oil level. I could pretend those rumbling noises from the bottom end were just clutch chatter. This too, I could ignore. Nothing is wrong, everything is great, business as usual, I didn't just invest 10 hours of my time to put together an engine that is on its final season. I buttoned it back up and kept riding. The next oil change revealed a pan full of glitter, as if to unequivocally challenge my state of denial. I had a moment of sombre introspection after that, returning to my apartment to sit on the balcony and silently look over the city skyline. It was a difficult realization to come to; that my most cherished possession, the one object that I had invested an inordinate amount of emotion into, was dying.

My entire period of ownership has been tempered by a constant sense of impending mechanical doom. It began on the first day. Riding away from the dealer (I stupidly hadn't test ridden it beforehand) I immediately noted that the thing felt like a clunky tractor compared to my nimble, modified SV. Within a few blocks the fuel light came on – the dealer hadn't even put gas in the damned thing. After filling up and continuing on my way home, I got stuck in Montreal's infamous downtown traffic. While idling at a stop with the temperature gauge pegged, the oil pressure light started flickering. I cursed myself for buying something that appeared to be a lemon. But I persevered, desperately hoping that my dream machine wasn't going to turn out to be a nightmare. After some research, I changed the oil for 15W50, which cured the oil light issue – it turned out to be a common problem due to an overly sensitive pressure switch combined with the use of 10W40 according to the (wrong) specs in the owner's manual.

The heavy, uncomfortable feel around town didn't inspire much confidence, but I recalled that was a common complaint among reviewers. I rode it to work the next day and my boss wasn't much impressed. Despite spending a lifetime working on leaky, cantankerous old British bikes (with a brief stint as a Ducati dealer in the early 80s) he simply couldn't fathom the appeal of an Italian superbike. I think he suspected I was a dolt for buying the thing rather than spending the same money on one of the perfectly good Hinckley Triumphs we had in the showroom.

Jason Cormier Ducati 916

The truth was I had no love for those Triumphs and found them underwhelming to ride. The Bonneville was a colossal disappointment, wobbling its way around corners and lacking anything resembling a powerband, suspension, or stopping ability. The Speed Triple also failed to impress, with a flat midrange and heavy feel that didn't seem to jive at all with the glowing reviews I had read in the press, my first indication that something was amiss with those “opinions” in print. The Daytona 675 was the best machine in the lineup and quite nice to ride, but I was never a fan of peaky engines.

That weekend I went for a ride with my father in the mountains north of Montreal, to spectate at a Canadian Superbike event at Circuit Mont Tremblant. That’s when the 916 started to grow on me. Out on the twisty backroads it felt sharp, and I noted the most remarkable feedback through the suspension and chassis. It felt unlike anything I'd ridden before – I could feel exactly what the tires and suspension were doing. It was an eerie feeling, like suddenly gaining a sixth sense that you had never experienced before. It added a new layer of nuance to riding I had been unfamiliar with.

While the engine and chassis felt agricultural and balky around town, it felt alive and vibrant on fast sweeping roads. The engine sparkled at higher revs, far peakier in its delivery than you'd think a 900cc V-Twin would be. It required finesse to ride properly and didn't tolerate mistakes, but remained composed and dead-nuts stable through even the roughest corners that Quebec could offer. That ride was the beginning of my love affair with this bike, and I recall it vividly more than 9 years later.

Ducati 916 Cabot Trail

Not long after I noted a rushing noise in the fuel tank when the level was below the halfway mark. Cycling the pump with the gas cap open sent a 6 foot stream of fuel shooting inches away from my face. I removed the tank to replace the internal lines and filter, and broke one of the fuel line connectors and pinched the pump flange o-ring while trying to put it back together. Thus began the darker side of my relationship with this machine, an endless series of weekends spent fixing, tinkering and maintaining the damnable thing just to get those small hits of greatness on the right road, on the right day, in the conditions, in the right moment. High maintenance is an understatement. I've never sugar coated it like some Ducati apologists do – I have had everything that can possibly go wrong on a 916 go wrong on mine, and my nadir was riding precisely 1000 miles over an entire season because I was constantly chasing electrical gremlins and waiting for parts to arrive, and couldn't ride more than 50 miles without it buggering up and forcing me to limp home.

Jason Cormier Ducati 916

But not once did it leave me stranded on the side of the road. Not once did I have to call someone to pick me up. To paraphrase the old adage about Chevy trucks, nothing runs as badly as long as a Ducati. It only endeared me to the experience more in some perverse way. It was a challenge, and nursing it home in barely running condition was an exercise in the sort of intense focus that was as exhilarating as it was frustrating. That spectre of mechanical doom added a level of uncertainty and excitement to even the most mundane rides. I began referring to myself as a “masochistic Italophile”.

Back to the present – part of the reason I'm so despondent at the prospect of a rebuild is that I'm unable to afford it at this time; the price of the parts alone would run several thousand dollars, not including my labour. Fixing one of these is not cheap - cylinder honing and Nikasil replating runs 400 plus bucks per cylinder if you are friendly with the shop that does it, and Ducati charges 500$ USD for a set of rings alone. Bearings are another grand, plus about 500$ for a complete gasket and seal kit… The list goes on. Another option, and the one I'm considering seriously, is finding a used low-mileage 996 engine and slotting that in, but even that will run at least 1500-2000$ once shipping is factored in, still beyond my means as I eke out a meagre existence in city that is appallingly expensive to live in.

Ducati 916

I'm not averse to fixing it. I truly wish I could afford it. I love this bike - and I don't use that term lightly. I have a relationship with this machine that most people are unable to understand or sympathize with. It's an emotional bond that defies rationality, where this particular motorcycle has come to define a part of my personality. It compliments me and it brings out a side of me that didn't exist before. I am at my best aboard this machine; calm, focussed and skilful, with a confidence that I lack in my daily life.

Motorcycling is the only thing that truly makes me happy; it gives me purpose and direction, and the 916 was the bike that really awoke me to the positive affect that riding had on my psyche. It's seen me through some of the best periods of my life and sustained me through the difficult ones.

I started one of my best relationships at the end of a long ride across Quebec and Ontario; she is gone, but the bike remains, and I still have pictures of it sitting in her driveway.

Ducati 916 Driveway

I've ridden across most of Eastern Canada, tracing all the routes I used to haunt when I lived there. I've done the Cabot Trail aboard it, after riding 1000 miles from Montreal. I've done 600 mile days resulting in me barely being able to stand, with my vision blurred by exhaustion. Many of these rides proved to be exercises in pure masochistic exhilaration, forcing my abilities to the limit in the pursuit of that delectable form of intense pain. Some people fast or sit in sweat lodges to achieve enlightenment. I ride my 916 for as far and as long as I can stand to the same end.

Ducati 916

The bikes I had before I bought the 916 were mere machines, and I flipped them annually without much regret. I enjoyed riding them and appreciated their qualities but never formed a bond with any of them. The 916 was very different. It was clear from the first ride that it was going to be interesting, albeit imperfect. And that's what endeared me to it. You've heard all that bullshit about bikes having “soul” and “character” and other such anthropomorphic traits that a mobile collection of metal and plastic cannot possibly exhibit. I hesitate to use such clichés when talking about this bike because they are so hackneyed that they cannot possibly convey how connected I feel to this bike, or how utterly, maddeningly endearing it has been to me… Despite countless breakdowns, endless maintenance, and a laundry list of parts and repairs that could be tallied to a multiple of the purchase price - not including the thousands of hours of labour I've invested over a decade of ownership.

Most people would be content to toss it away, get something better, and move on with their lives. I refuse to give up and I have vowed I will resurrect it as soon as my finances allow. That's why I tidied it up, drained the fuel, and snuck it into my fourth floor apartment on a weekend when the building staff was absent. It will sit in the comfort of my home where I can admire it daily and reminisce endlessly about the good experiences I've had aboard it, until I can return it to its rightful life of screaming down fast secondary roads and occasionally being pressed into the role of improbable sport tourer.

Ducati 916 McGill

I dread it becoming a permanent fixture. I loathe people who roll perfectly functional machines into their homes where they will never turn a wheel again, forever relegated to the position of art installation rather than fulfilling the designer's intent. I don't dare allow myself to fall into that trap, nor do I wish for it to become one of those “barn find” machines that some youngster will discover under a tarp in my shed and steal away from my next of kin for a fraction of its value because several decades earlier I had shoved it in there and declared I would get around to fixing it “some day” that never arrived.

Jason Cormier Ducati 916

I still needed something to ride, and with the OddBike USA Tour Part II on the horizon (more on that in the coming months) I started shopping for a new ride. Given that I work at a motorcycle dealer, I started there.

Because getting financing for a vehicle is easier than securing a more modest line of credit  to fix your existing machine - this is why our economy is fucked, and will continue to be fucked, and I'm going right along for the ride – I asked for pricing on two machine we had in stock: a 2007 Aprilia Tuono 1000R and a 2009 Buell 1125CR. There had been a beautiful 2004 Moto Guzzi LeMans on the lot several months prior that I seriously lusted after, but it was long gone by the time I was ready to buy. At the same time I tried to secure a small loan to pay for a 1998 Honda Blackbird owned by a coworker, with enough cash leftover to buy a replacement engine for the Duc.

The Blackbird idea was nixed when the bank said no, and no one will finance a vehicle older than 2007. I was disappointed, as I felt that was the most sensible option – buy a cheap, reliable machine and use the extra funds to fix my baby. That left the 1125 and the Tuono as my principal options. I left for a week to attend the 2014 Barber Vintage festival in Birmingham, Alabama, hopeful that I’d be able to finalize a deal when I got back. In my mind the Buell was the front runner. I'd ridden the 1125R before and it's a fun machine with a stonking great midrange punch that defies belief, marred only by some of the most atrocious fuel injection mapping ever crafted by man - a flaw that could be easily addressed with a remap. Sure it’s spectacularly ugly, but I run OddBike, and I like weird motorcycles. Plus I've long been an admirer of Erik Buell's determination to buck the status quo in chassis design, though I’m not a huge fan of his Sportster-based engines which tend to feel like a really quick diesel – riding through the gears you surf a big slug of torque before constantly bumping into the revlimiter, searching for revs that simply don’t exist. The Rotax engine in the 1125 fixed that problem in spectacular fashion.

Aprilia Tuono 1000R

The Tuono was more of a second choice, one that carried some serious baggage. The bike had been sold, then immediately returned for a refund with the customer complaining about serious running issues. The sales department treated it like a basket case, a “typical” Eye-Talian machine that was on the fritz and would never get fixed, and one salesman explicitly advised me against buying it. The service guys didn't think anything was wrong, and that the return was simply due to buyer’s remorse – the fuel filter and spark plugs were changed, road tests hadn't revealed anything amiss, and nothing was apparently wrong.

It was a perfect machine in need of rescuing, a maligned beauty that desperately needed a sympathetic owner. The derision of my coworkers towards it only endeared me to it more, much like how the vicious contempt of those squidly Japcrap riders had pushed me towards buying a Ducati just to spite them.

Aprilia Tuono 1000R

But I was hesitant, worried about how serious the issue might be. An ECU or immobilizer unit would cost a small fortune. The lead technician believed the symptoms were of a failing fuel pump, but lacked the correct adapter to test the pressure and confirm his suspicion. The bike had a cloud over it, and I was unsure if I wanted to take the risk.

I got home from Alabama to discover someone had tried to steal the Duc from my parking garage and drilled the ignition out. Having zero desire to spend several hundred bucks on a new lock set for a bike that was on the verge of self destructing, it seemed like as good a time as any to officially retire it for the season and figure out what I wanted to do about my new ride. When I returned to work two quotes awaited me. One glance at the numbers was enough for me to make my decision. In their exasperation with the Tuono the company was offering it to me at a significant discount, less than I expected and far below market value.  The Buell, meanwhile, had a premium tacked to it that was only slightly less than the retail price. I immediately bought the Tuono and set about figuring out what the issue was.

Aprilia Tuono 1000R

A quick road test instantly revealed the extent of the problem – this was no buyer's remorse, this thing was completely unrideable. It ran, but the throttle appeared to have no connection to what the motor was doing. It was dangerous - in less experienced hands it would have likely spit the rider off at the first corner. I had a pang of intense regret, but with the ink already drying on the paperwork it was now my problem. I recalled that first ride on the 916 through the streets of Montreal, feeling that same sense of exasperation and foreboding.

I set about figuring out what the issue was. I consulted with the lead technician and got his help running diagnostic scans. With nothing noted by the ECU and no obvious faults in the wiring or electrical system, his hunch about the fuel pump being the culprit seemed more and more likely.

Aprilia Tuono 1000R First Ride

But a fuel pump assembly ran over 600$, the main reason they chose to dump the bike onto me at a loss rather than funnel more money into fixing it and eliminating their already slim profit margin. Some quick research revealed I could purchase the pump alone, without the flange and ancillary bits, from Piaggio for a whopping 150$, something that wasn't noted on the parts fiche. One of the perks of working as a parts guy at a major dealer is you learn many tricks that you can use to your advantage when fixing your own machines. In fact all the parts were relatively inexpensive, considerably cheaper than anything from the Japanese manufacturers – suddenly my decision to buy a broken Aprilia didn't seem quite so insane.

I installed the new pump and discovered a blocked fuel vent line that resulted from water filling up the charcoal canister system. I buttoned it back up and it seemed better, immediately starting and idling easier. A quick test ride around the block revealed no issues, and newfound power from the engine. But with snow on the ground and winter in full swing, it would be quite a while before I would really know if I had fixed the issue, let alone formulate any meaningful riding impressions on a machine I'd never experienced before.

Aprilia Tuono 1000R

I'd never ridden an Aprilia, let alone considered buying one. I always perceived them as an also-ran, a Ducati imitator that exhibited more Japanese design and engineering style than what typically comes out of Italy. I had recalled the breathless reviews back in the day that had sung praise for the uncompromising nature of the Tuono – it was, at the time, the only pure naked sportbike, a superbike with fairings removed and high bars fitted with nothing done to neuter, detune or dilute the experience. It was virtually identical to the RSV it was based on – same frame, same swingarm, same wheels, same brakes, same engine. The only concessions to cost cutting were some cheaper suspension components, but this didn't mitigate the considerable premium they commanded over their Eastern competition. A premium that was justified by the mad, vicious hooligan character the thing exuded, just the sort of uncompromised insanity that reviewers and experienced riders love but average buyers tend to shy away from. Until the advent of the less expensive and far quicker V4 models, Aprilias were always a miniscule player in the Canadian market - they were virtually unknown, painfully overpriced, exceptionally rare, and tragically under promoted by their Piaggio overlords. The last point still stands, but at least now they have some more street cred.

So I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but I knew I'd probably have fun. The Tuono's brutal reputation was intriguing and a lack of compromise is one of the most appealing selling points to someone as deranged as I am. Over the long winter months I poured over road tests and was disappointed to note that most reviewers noted this second generation machine was more polished at the expense of some of the madness, and not quite as crazy as the first generation machines. I worried that it might not be as exciting as I hoped.

Aprilia Tuono 1000R Blackfoot Motosports

This past week we here in Calgary were blessed with one of our glorious Chinooks. For brief periods in the dead of an otherwise bitterly cold winter, we get a set of conditions that bring warm air from over the Rockies that skyrockets the temperature for a few days. The snow melts, the roads clear, and the riders briefly come out of hibernation for some tentative mid-winter excursions along gravel-strewn roads. I figured it was as good a time as any to get the Tuono out and see what it was all about.

So last Saturday I pulled it out of storage and took it home for the first time since I'd changed the fuel pump. On Sunday I took it for my first proper ride, about 100 miles around the roads south of Calgary.

Aprilia Tuono 1000R Turner Valley

The first thing to note is that if this is considered the polished, refined successor to the original Tuono, then I cannot fathom how batshit insane that first generation machine must have been. This bike is ridiculous, and no review can do justice to how utterly fucking bonkers it is, and anyone who dares call one of these “boring” has to be completely unhinged. The narrow vee angle gives it a peculiar sound and feel, somewhat like a 90 degree twin played in fast forward. “Rorty” is probably the best descriptor I've come across. The bottom end feels flat, inspiring a sense of disappointment as you pull away from a stop… Then the tach hits 4000 rpm and all hell breaks loose. The torque spikes violently, the front goes light, and the thing tosses you down the road with the sort of ferocity that only a highly-tuned V-twin can offer. The power isn't as overwhelming as a modern superbike, but the violent way the midrange kicks in makes it feel like it has about 20 hp more than the dyno sheets would suggest. I have ridden faster machines, but few that felt as quick as this motherfucker does when you goose it around 5000 rpm. Roll on power is addictive, giving instant snap that wiggles the rear wheel and punts you forward without hesitation. Giving a handful of throttle in first will send the handlebars straight into your face – all of this at 3500 feet altitude. I'd bet it will do the same in second at sea level.

Aprilia Tuono 1000R Turner Valley

I recalled Hunter S. Thompson’s hyperbolic review of the Ducati 900 SS/SP:

“We all love Torque, and some of us have taken it straight over the high side from time to time - and there is always Pain in that... But there is also Fun, the deadly element, and Fun is what you get when you screw this monster on. BOOM! Instant take-off, no screeching or squawking around like a fool with your teeth clamping down on our tongue and your mind completely empty of everything but fear.

No. This bugger digs right in and shoots you straight down the pipe, for good or ill.”

I long thought that the Ducati was one of the hardest things in the world to ride slow. The Tuono has proven me wrong. This thing is impossible to keep restrained around town, and the close ratio transmission is geared far too tall in the first three gears for abiding by the speed limit. And that's after I installed a smaller front sprocket.

The engine dominates, but it isn't the only highlight. The seating position is damn near perfect for someone my height. The quad-pad radial Brembos are excellent and have great feel and power. The chassis feels tight and responsive. The handling is sharp but still stable, requiring a period of readjustment – you've got a sportbike chassis combined with the leverage of wide motocross bars, so steering is mighty quick. The seat is relatively comfy, albeit a little thin. Wind blast is not nearly as bad as you'd imagine, even well into (theoretical) “very much illegal” speeds.

Aprilia Tuono 1000R Canmore

The only flaws I have noted are a useless rear brake (which is typical Italian fare), so-so suspension bits that would benefit from a rebuild, and a tight shift action that makes it nearly impossible find neutral with the engine running (though this is apparently fixed by fitting a different oil jet for the clutch, accessible externally through a port in the side of the crankcase). It's also running rich and surges on steady throttle around town, a problem with the full-fat “Map 2” setting in the ECU that is tuned for slip-ons.

All minor niggles, none of which detract from how goddamned fun this thing is to ride. I ended up doing several hundred miles over two days, in spite of the cold temperatures and dirty roads, and reveling in how alive this machine feels. I haven't ridden something that stirred up my maniacal speed lust like this in years. There is good reason people say riding a Tuono will threaten your license – this machine make you abandon any lingering fragments of good sense you may have.

It's magnificent. It's addictive. It's just brutal enough to be entertaining, but still composed enough to be poised and controllable. It's a perfect bike for me.

My 916 may be retired for the moment, but I think I've found a worthy, younger mistress to keep me entertained in the meantime.

Aprilia Tuono 1000R Rocky Mountains

17 comments:

  1. Great article, congrats on the new bike. Makes me glad my friends and I got into air cooled 90's dual sports. Every so often I see a exotic that sparks my imagination sitting at the Rock Store or Newcombs and my mind starts putting financial figures together in my head. It always passes and I go back to riding my long-suffering Honda XR. Glad there are bonkers people like you that keep these beauties on the road though.

    Love your blog and read every update!

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  2. I hear ya! I nursed back into life a 900 SS from 1989, the all-Italian one (Weber carbs, Marzocchi suspension, Magnet Marelli ignition, wiring loom like a bowl of Spaghetti). It still hates temperatures under 15° C, cities and anything but really flat roads. It's painful and demanding, but when it comes to life, there's no other thing in the world.
    Luckily, I'm living in a cheap city (Berlin) and able to afford a 2nd bike, so I won't let go of the Diva, even with its 60k km and a first engine rebuilt. Some love never turns old.

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  3. nice bike, that. Love the torque of my 2010 1098 SF. Have fun and plan on budgeting extra for tickets and insurance increases! Have fun and stay safe. Cheers, Martyn

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  4. Awesome article, this is fast becoming my favourite motorcycle blog.
    I cannot afford anything nearly as exotic, but I love the odd-balls an awful lot.

    I hope the Duc breathes again when you can afford the work required!

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  5. The T may have an Austrian engine but it is Italian to the core...as attested to by its shitty electronics. You may want to fix that stator over heating problem before it fries and leaves you stranded.

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    1. It's something I hope I don't have to deal with. I've fixed the "brown connector" problem on the rectifier, but the stator is always a potential problem (not that it isn't an issue on Japanese bikes too, I've dealt with plenty of them frying stator/regs but nobody seems to deem that a "common" problem for some reason).

      The good news is that I work for an Aprilia dealer. The bad news is the replacement stator retails for 1500$. Sooo... if that happens I'm going aftermarket.

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  6. Well what can I say, your pieces always makes me smile because of how similar our approaches are to biking. Really sorry to hear about the 916 although I belive you have the determination to make her run again. In Sweden we have also had a warm period and I managed a quick run on my 916. Flicking that throttle properly for the first time of the season is alway a magical moment, ahhhhhh, the intake noice is to die for... Now its only a matter of sorting out whatever electrical gremlins it will challange me with this year;-) As always, thanks very much for your time and work.
    All the best/ Niklas K

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  7. And to think it was one your articles I read a while back that warned me away from buying a used 916 a couple months back. Mention of the 'galley plug' specifically. And now it looks like your bike is dying from that issue? That totally sucks man, sorry to hear it.

    I actually owned a 998 a couple years ago and then traded that in toward a Monster 1100. (Funny story, that 998 turned out to be on the verge of dying the mechanics later told me, big end bearing failure). The Monster is great and reliable, but like you said, it doesn't have that x-factor as much as the 998/916 had.

    I do own two Buells now though (M2 and X1), love those even more than I do any of the Ducati's I've owned. Missed opportunity for you in my opinion :D. You really don't like the old tube framed versions?

    Anyway, great article! Hope you get the means to fix the 916 one day. Respect you holding onto it.

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    1. Two corrections: first, it's not the galley plug in my case. That's held up fine (I've inspected twice since I bought the bike). My big end conrod bearings have just worn out. Judging by the amount of metal in the oil, I don't think they have spun yet but they are eating themselves quite quickly. Fine bronze glitter in the oil pan. I had the top end apart last winter and I did note that there was more freeplay than would be acceptable, but I ignored it. This is the result.

      Second, I love Buells. I love the design and engineering, and the weird factor, and the scrappy American underdog character to Erik's work. I just find those highly-tuned Sportster mills very strange to ride, especially when you have been raised on sportbikes. A big slug of torque, then you hit the rev limiter. To their credit they don't seem to run out of breath, the power just runs right into the absurdly low 6000 ish rpm redline. If you weren't looking at the tach you'd think you had another 2000 rpm to spare, then it hits the wall.

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  8. Ah, thanks for the clarification. You must have scared me so much with that little tidbit of information that I naturally assumed that had to be it, haha.

    As for your description of the old-school Buell's way of delivering power, yeah I find that intoxicating. I also don't notice the 6000 limit as much, because indeed, while it does appear there's way more to be head after passing that number, I never even try because I often stay a little lower in the range. Two reasons: first, the noise down low is incredibly addictive and second, I figure I will keep those bikes in one piece a bit longer if I don't push them too hard.

    Maybe this is a stupid idea and I don't know how many readers you get (and whether it would be viable), but I would - love - to read the multi-part article you write about the inevitable rebuild of that beautiful 916 of yours. Perhaps you could set up some sort of donation mechanism where we could chip in to help out with the cost of parts and such. I'd certainly be willing to help!

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    1. For the moment the priority is the second OddBike USA Tour, which is going to happen this August. A campaign will be going live in June for that. After that I intend to put money aside to fix it up, though I wouldn't ask for donations to fund that particular project. The trip is more site-related and will generate more content than the bike rebuild.

      Rest assured I will cover the resurrection, whenever it does happen!

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  9. Small note to the curious, installing a set of slip ons has improved the fueling considerably. Running Map 2 with stock pipes really messes things up noticeably. With proper pipes throttle response isn't as abrupt and there is way less surging. Also it sounds like the end of the world, like any twin should.

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  10. I'm glad I read this through to the end. Always nice to see a story with a happy ending.

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  11. Wow! I first discovered your site shortly after you started it, while I was searching for articles and reviews on the 916. I read this article hoping to find word of the OddBike USA Tour #2 since you mentioned a second tour way back when you wrote about moving to Calgaray. I've been so busy though I haven't cought up to your site in some time. I almost cried reading about the demise of your beloved 916 though. Literally, I lifted my hand to my mouth as I realized what was happening. I'm so thrilled you kept it though and that you will resurrect it. You really can't ask for better eye candy in your apartment in my opinion, at least for now. You are right though, it can't stay as static art forever, it needs to be ridden again.

    If your second USA tour does indeed bring you through Utah on the way home, look me up, I'd love accompany you on a ride some time. We have some great roads here in Utah. Check out Mt. Nebo scenic loop in Payson, Utah. Also, if you happen to be heading back in the first week of September, the 5th and 6th will be the Bonneville Vintage Grand Prix at Miller Motorsports Park here. It is a lot of fun and there are almost always unique bikes there. The week after that is World of Speed at the Salt Flats (which you already know about). Anyway, all the best and if I can be of any assistance when you come through Utah, please let me know! Even if its just for a ride on my old 94' 900ss ;)

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    1. Thanks! I might need a spot to stay on my way through if you have a couch available! Unfortunately I will need to be back home by the 6th at the latest so I won't make it to Miller, but I will be at Speed Week (that is the intended climax for the trip). Send me an email and we will connect between now and then. jasonevariste (at) gmail

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  12. Mosied over here from the comment section on Wes Siler's article after vaguely remembering seeing this blog a while back... keep up the good work!

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  13. I thoroughly enjoyed this (long) read, and applaud you for sticking with your blog, which I only learned about through your comment on Mark Gardiner's Bikewriter site. I write too, and I know how difficult it is to produce good, clean copy - and yours is very, very good. My only gripe is a very picky one: it really grates that you have seemingly decided to throw away a couple of centuries of tradition by putting the $ sign at the end of the numbers. Yes, I know, I'm a pedantic old sod. Keep up the good work.

    Ron McMillan

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