"Ultra Classic - that's a Touring model right? Not a Softail or Dyna?"
The customer stares at me blankly for a moment. He came in asking for an aftermarket stator for his Harley, which I've already told him is a bad idea because the only ones I can get through my suppliers are garbage, and we've already had an incident where one caught fire the first time the bike was started after installation. But he was having none of it, because somebody, somewhere, told him that HD original stators were shit and he needed to buy the cheap Chinese ones instead, because apparently those are fantastic when they aren’t shitting the bed, self-immolating, or just not fitting the application they are listed for.
After a moment he responds. 'Um, can I talk to someone more experienced than you? No offence, but you don't even know what an Ultra Classic is.'
I did my best not to visibly cringe in response to his attitude - or make a comment about his mullet - before I directed him to one of my older colleagues, who proceeded to tell him exactly the same thing I had just explained except packaged in a wrapping of grizzled indifference that only years of putting up with this shit can bring. The irony is that I'm one of the most accomplished parts guys on this counter, no mean feat because our whole crew is composed of experienced top-rate professionals, and I likely know way more about Hogs than this customer does despite the fact that I have to deal with twelve different brands on a daily basis and none of them are Harley.
It's not that I don't know that an Ultra Classic is a fucking Touring model. I'm following my usual procedure of asking redundant questions to make sure the customer and I are on the same page to avoid confusion (and placing orders for the wrong parts). I get far too many inquiries from people who have a "350 Yamaha. No, wait, maybe it’s a 450. I don't know what year it is, maybe a 1995 or 1999. Do you need that?" If I manage to wrangle a VIN number from them to verify, I'll discover it's a 1992 Suzuki LTR250.
It's the start of a long goddamned stressful week. A holiday weekend is coming up and everyone has collectively decided they need to finish the projects they've been putting off for months at the absolute last minute. You would think that people would wise up and order the parts they need well in advance, and not get elbow deep into an engine rebuild days before they absolutely positively must go riding.
These are the type of people that are stunned that you don't stock a set of standard piston rings for a 1984 IT200. The folks who admonish you, personally, because "you" are a BMW dealer that doesn't stock the BMW recommended Bosch ignition point cam grease that no one has ever asked for prior to them arriving at your counter.
This is on top of the usual spring rush, a well-known cataclysmic event that transpires annually at any powersports dealer that operates in a region where winter occurs. As soon as the snow melts and the temperatures have crept above freezing, you will experience endless lineups of folks buying batteries they didn't charge properly over the winter. I think our record last year was 53 batteries in one day, before we stopped counting, all of which needed to be prepped and filled with acid before they went out the door.
But batteries are easy. Multiply the stress of finding and ordering parts for customers (all of them in a hurry and expecting their parts to be in stock no matter how obscure their machine) with each brand you deal with (each using a different system and categorizing their fiches in their own idiosyncratic ways) by twelvefold, not including the 15 or so aftermarket distributors I deal with regularly: that, in a nutshell, is my day job.
On some days, if you listen very carefully, you can hear the sound of my hairline receding.
All of that is to say I've been stressed out of my fucking head and I needed a small vacation to renew myself. An opportunity to get out of the city for few days and really rip around some decent twisties on my new-to-me 2007 Aprilia Tuono, something I haven't really done since I moved to Calgary. Sure, the Rockies are an hour away but most of the roads on the Alberta side of the border are pretty tame. To get to the really interesting bits you need to ride well into British Colombia, which necessitates an overnight stop - which isn't normally possible as I have to work Saturdays and never get two consecutive days off. But, as you now know, a long weekend is looming and this is just the opportunity I need to escape and ride deep into the Rockies to explore some better roads. And get the hell away from the parts counter for a brief respite.
The one that most locals rave about, and which I planned to attack, was the Creston to Nelson run along BC Highway 3A, a 100-odd kilometre stretch of road that borders Kootenay Lake. The trip would also serve as a shakedown for the new luggage and camping gear I'd accumulated in anticipation of the second OddBike USA Tour, which will be happening in August. It would be a trial run to see how the Tuono can cope with sport touring duty; it presumably has to be better suited to the task than a cantankerous old Ducati superbike with ill-fitting saddlebags and a slightly deranged rider aboard.
While planning the route, it dawned on me that this trip would also serve as an excellent opportunity to put my money where my mouth is. My last editorial admonished the motorcycle press at large for publishing dull, formulaic reviews that give no real impressions of the riding experience of a given machine. So why not make the trip and the bike the subject of the first OddBike road test, and blow the bastards away? It seemed like a good idea at the time, anyway. I'll be the first to admit the Tuono is far from an Odd Bike but this is more of an exercise to prove my mettle than it is a typical OddBike profile.
As I only had two days off, this would be a whirlwind tour. While I hate rushing past the scenery to get to a destination in time, working in a motorcycle shop during the busy season doesn't leave much time to do any real riding. Or anything at all, for that matter. After months of hurried single-day trips, a two-day jaunt seemed like a genuine vacation.
|Ogio soft luggage is inexpensive and effective. It comes highly recommended if you want something light and easy to mount without skimping on quality.|
I departed early Sunday morning, into the brisk cold of a typical Calgary morning. Temperatures this time of year are double-digits during the day, dipping to near freezing in the evenings. Today was no different, with snow hitting the outskirts of the city the previous night. The sort of riding conditions that make you wonder aloud if anyone has been clever enough to develop a heated helmet. One of the main issues you encounter riding through the Rockies is rapid and sometimes ridiculous shifts in weather. In the span of several hundred kilometers you might encounter a difference of 10 or 15 degrees in temperature and ride through snow, sun, and rain. Having good touring gear with removable liners is a must. You can spot the seasoned riders by their gear - no one who dares to ride beyond the city limits uses Rocker knockoff jeans and jackets, or un-insulated race-replica leather suits. They will be bundled in bulky, ugly textile gear, with wires tethered into accessory sockets for their heated undergarments. There is no room for fashion when riding through the mountains, and the fools who dare challenge the fury of the weather will be left whimpering and shivering at the first Tim Hortons along the route. There's a reason the first thing I did to the Tuono was install heated grips and a Dorsoduro handguard kit.
|Handguard kit is from the Dorsoduro adapted to fit the Tuono handlebars. Tuono mirrors are good enough to be sought out as an upgrade on host of other machines, but could stand to be a little bit taller.|
I had never seriously considered owning a Tuono before I was presented with a (potentially risky) opportunity to buy this one cheap due to a significant fuelling issue. The fix turned out to be relatively simple and cheap (a 150$ fuel pump), so now I'm laughing. And left wondering how I had been previously unaware of how much goddamned fun these machines are. That this bike exists and offers such a brilliant blend of comfort and usability with mad, vicious character makes me feel re-invigorated as a sport rider. This is the ultimate naked sport bike, because it is simply a naked sport bike - no dumbing down, no detuning, no compromise.
|The most worrying flaw of the Tuono is the plastic fuel tank, which is prone to expanding in markets that use ethanol in their fuel. Notice how the side panel bolt no longer lines up.|
It's not that I was oblivious to the Tuono. I recalled the reviews that waxed lyrical about the sharp dynamics, grunty engine, and how it often played second fiddle to the Speed Triple in most comparison reviews due to its exorbitant price and lack of peak horsepower on a dyno drum. Beyond that I didn't know much about it. Aprilia was always a boutique brand here in Canada (and the USA, really) that has suffered from a perpetual lack of exposure and marketing despite apparently building decent bikes, achieving notable race success, and ostensibly being Piaggio's flagship marque. I think I may have seen only one or two in the metal over the years; even that was quite fortunate because there was only one small dealership on the East coast in Laval, Quebec (the same place I bought my 916 in 2006, in fact). My conception was that they were also-rans that aped Ducati's sporting V-twin formula using a Rotax engine, building a "reliable" Italian sport bike that somehow seemed more Japanese than Latin.
The irony of this is that I now work for an Aprilia dealer, and we do brisk business with the V4 models. Despite still lacking a proper sales network and marketing program Aprilia is a stronger brand than it ever was, given that today it sells a competitive, premium Eye-talian product at retails that rival the ubiquitous and dull Japanese stuff. But V-twin Prillers are rare birds. The retail price of my base-model 2007 Tuono 1000R was $16,995 here in Canada. That would have been a hard sell when the allegedly better and more publicized Speed Triple was $13,995. The $19,995 price on the Ohlin'ed Factory model available in 2009 would have also nabbed you Ducati 1098. For comparison, a 2015 Tuono V4R APRC with ABS is $14,995. It's not much of a surprise these earlier bikes are thin on the ground.
Looking over the machine reveals where some of that money went. Component quality is excellent throughout, rivalling anything Ducati was slapping together at the time. Not quite as nice as a MV Agusta, but far better than any of its contemporary Asian (or British) rivals. You get braided lines for the brakes and clutch from the factory, handsome OZ-knockoff wheels (the legitimate forged OZ items were reserved for the Factory), top-spec Brembo bits, adjustable controls, exposed ancillaries hidden beneath aerodynamic panels, and a stout frame and swingarm that look like they came straight off a WSBK machine. Everything oozes quality in a subtle way that will only be apparent if you've spent years mucking around with cheaper bikes. The only letdown is a pedestrian 43mm Showa fork up front and a cheap semi-adjustable Sachs shock out back. Looking at newer Aprilias it's clear that quality has been allowed to slip in recent years to get the retails down to Japanese levels (the same could be said about the latest bikes from Bologna and Varese, which are similarly cheaper than their historical models). Put an RSVR or a Tuono R next to a RSV4 or Tuono V4 and you'll notice a lot more cast parts and cheap hardware on the newer bikes, where once was found CNC machined alloy and stainless bolts. That's the price of progress, apparently.
My first leg takes me through the boring but scenic Trans-Canada highway passing through Canmore and Banff before turning south into BC along Highway 93. Riding towards the mountains for the first time is an imposing experience for Easterners like myself. Those peaks that loom distant on the horizon gradually fill your vision until you are right beneath them, and their scale is impossible to convey in print or photographs. You feel insignificant, a tiny being in a world that is beyond your control. I recall the first time I drove to Banff my reaction was being awestruck, followed by a sense giddy euphoria. I could barely process what I was seeing. Even today after many rides into the mountains I still get overwhelmed by the landscape. When I stop to look over the scene and watch a long Canadian Pacific freight train chug along the valley, dwarfed by the surrounding peaks, I can't help but hear Gordon Lightfoot's Canadian Railroad Trilogy play in my mind.
Nature dominates here. Wildlife has the right of way. Mountain sheep are the most common, and are not to be toyed with. One of my colleagues recently rebuilt a wrecked RSV4 dubbed "The Goatslayer". The legend of the Goatslayer was that it struck a bighorn sheep doing some ridiculous speed along one of the backroads near Calgary, with the terminal velocity getting higher every time the story was told. The truth is (and I've seen the video to confirm it) the rider had slowed down to 11 km/h to pass a herd on the side of the road when one of the critters bolted in front of him. He didn't even have time to brake. Hitting that bighorn was like hitting a brick wall. The bike cartwheeled over it and was completely trashed.
Out here you are no longer at the top of the food chain, and you need to respect that. I've felt mighty vulnerable tiptoeing past bears that were bigger than my bike. You pray you don't have some dumbass tourist in a car stop in front of you to take pictures while you sit eye to eye with an apex predator.
I pass the familiar sights of the Rockies: impenetrable throngs of tourists stopped gawking along the lookouts off the highway. That is the reality of all these spectacular scenes of pristine nature - just out of the shot is a noisy gaggle of visitors jostling for photos. If you ever see photos of Lake Louise, a beautiful lake nestled high in the mountains, just to the right is a lookout that is perpetually crowded with around four tour buses worth of Asian tourists, which is in front of a massive Fairmont hotel, which is faced by several huge parking lots that are perpetually full. Unspoiled nature this is not. If you want to commune with nature alone, you'll have to hike off the beaten path. And risk getting eaten by a hungry cougar or ill-tempered grizzly.
With several hundred kilometers of highway droning ahead of me, it seems as good a time as any to collect my thoughts on the Tuono.
Apart from some optimistic early reviews, most journalists seemed to think that these second-generation machines were too dull to inherit the lineage started by the evil bastard 2002-2005 Tuonos. They were too polished, too refined. They somehow lost their edge, despite having better everything and a healthy increase in power (at the expense of some of the peak torque).
The problem is these reviews were based on bog-standard bikes. You need only do two things to correct the failures of the 1000R: visit your friendly neighbourhood Aprilia dealer and kindly ask them to switch the ECU into the "off-road only" Map 2, and address the ridiculously tall factory gearing by going down one tooth on the front and up two on the back. If you bought one of the early 2007 models (2006 in Europe) you actually got a 15 tooth sprocket tucked under the passenger seat to be installed at your discretion.
|Vestigial fairing does a surprisingly good job of keeping the wind blast in check. Smoked windshield was pinched off a Factory model.|
Do those simple modifications and you will end up with a pitiless, fire-breathing brute that will pitch the handlebars into your face in the first two gears and scare the everloving shit out of you everywhere else. If you think a 1000R is dull after you make these fixes then you are criminally deranged and should seek psychological help. When you uncork this son of a bitch you will end up something so absurdly fun that just looking at it will make your license shrivel up into the deepest recess of your wallet, because one twist of the wrist in first gear will convert you into an unrepentant, antisocial hooligan asshole screaming happy obscenities in your helmet. And you will love it.
This is where the Tuono is so much more than the sum of its spec sheets. Here's a 470 pound machine that puts out around 110hp and 60-odd lb/ft at the wheel that feels like it weighs 20 pounds less while putting out 20 hp more than any dyno chart would suggest. Up to 3500 rpm, not much happens. Power is almost nonexistent off idle. In your first ride you'll likely short shift a few times and wonder what all the fuss is about. You might note the abrupt throttle response at the bottom, made worse by driveline lash and surprisingly tall ratios on the first three cogs. But hold the gears a little longer and twist the throttle a little harder, and you'll quickly learn why dyno charts mean nothing. Between 3500 and 4000 rpm the airbox bellows, the torque spikes violently, and the front wheel goes airborne on anything more than 1/2 throttle. The bike lunges forward on a fat midrange surge that pulls hard through to 7000 - which is where the powerband really starts, particularly if you've liberated the engine with a de-catted exhaust. Hold it open and that 60-degree, 97x67.5mm, 998cc Rotax V990 (V60 Magnesium in Aprilia parlance) mill shunts you forward even harder until it starts to taper off around 9500. The power is immediate, sparkling, and addictive. Throttle response above 4000 is excellent and the engine reacts instantaneously to inputs - none of that rubber-band-connected-to-the-throttle delay followed by a swell of power you'll suffer with a lot of inline engines.
After a few rides on a Tuono, you'll find yourself constantly holeshotting away from lights and wheelieing anywhere out of sight of a law enforcement agent. I've ridden more powerful machines, but very few that had this sort of character and immediate, elbow-straining midrange snap. It's remarkable that this is just a "boring" Rotax engine - a modified version of the V990 is used in the Can Am Spyder, for chrissake. I would have never guessed it was this much fun to ride if I hadn't experienced it firsthand. The quality of the performance shames a lot of current machines, even if the peak power isn't nearly as absurd as some of the latest big bore sport bikes.
The downside of all this excitement is that attempting to ride a Tuono slow is an exercise in frustration. Lowering the gearing makes it more useable around town, but the hard pull at 4000 and lack of power below that means you are constantly hunting and surging, trying to dodge the torque spike and avoiding lugging the lumpy engine below its happy zone. While the linkage-free shifter feels tight and precise, the gearbox is extremely notchy, even on this example with over 20,000 kms on it - with that kind of mileage, I can't claim some bullshit about the gearbox needing to be "broken in". Finding neutral at a stop is tricky and you should never trust the light. You need to use first gear below 40 km/h, which means you will be constantly fighting the cumbersome low-speed fuelling and tendency for the engine to alternately slide the rear or hoist the front (or some maniacal combination of both). Close ratio gearboxes are brilliant on race tracks and tight roads, but in the real world they make the bottom ratios too tall around town and the top gears too low on the highway. So you might as well drop it overall and enjoy the performance at the expense of some droning on the freeway.
|Aprilia did a good job of cleaning up the ancillary bits with aerodynamic panels that supposedly improve stability. Note the placement of the rear master cylinder above the front header.|
That is the downside of a no-compromise sport machine: living with it and trying to ride in boring, daily circumstances becomes a challenge. If you want something civilized and easy to ride, buy anything other than a Tuono. If you want hot, nasty, raw performance that will put a smile on your face every time you twist your wrist, well, now you know.
The highway jaunt reveals one of the main flaws of the fueling, a barely perceptible surge right between 3500-4000 rpm, which happens to be right where you will be cruising most of the time. It's so subtle that at first you might chalk it up to undulating pavement, but after a while you'll realize the bike is to blame. The solution is, of course, to ride faster - which is inadvisable on a holiday weekend in the Rockies, when the RCMP is busy making up their quotas by nabbing travellers like myself in a hurry to get out of the city.
|The dry-sump Rotax mill requires an external oil tank, which Aprilia saw fit to place in one of the most vulnerable spots possible.|
This incivility of the Tuono is offset by one of the nicest seating positions you'll find on a sporting machine. The stock bars take a lot of weight off the front end and exacerbate the tendency to wheelie, but they offer a lovely neutral seating position that keeps your back nearly straight and your arms comfortably spread out across the motocross-style fatbar. The seat is wide, flat, and tall - if you are under 5'9" you are going to be tip-toeing on this thing. Despite the seat height the footpeg position is high, identical to the RSVR, which means that taller folks are going to feel cramped while short riders like myself will find it perfect. This is one of those bikes you feel perched upon rather than sat within, with an upright seating position and a long nose that places the front wheel far away from you. The upside is that you have fantastic visibility and mobility, and you can easily move around on the flat seat to combat cramps or tuck in behind the vestigial windscreen, which is far more effective than you might think well into triple-digit speeds. My only gripe is that the seat is thin and firm and your ass will start to get sore if you stay in one position for too long.
|Adjustable pedals can be precisely tailored to suit anal-retentive riders like myself. Direct shift linkage feels tight and free of slop, but the gearbox is notchy as hell. Rearsets are shared with the RSVR.|
Heading into the mountains reveals the bane of our existence as Alberta riders: elevation. Calgary is situated at 3500 feet, and heading into the hills will quickly take you over 5000. Carburetted machines need serious fettling to run properly. Owners of fuel injected bikes will only suffer the indignity of losing copious amounts of horsepower to the thin mountain air. A back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that in the city the Tuono is down 15 hp compared to sea level. In the mountains it is closer to a 20 hp loss. Riding down to lower altitudes will reveal newfound midrange snap and top end rushes. When you ride in these conditions you develop odd compulsions that will be foreign to anyone who lives in flatter areas. You find yourself checking the elevation of your destinations, hoping for an extra dose of power when you get there. You start thinking about mounting an altimeter to your dash to keep tabs on how high you are, and determine if that lackluster roll on performance was due to a problem with the bike or simply because you are riding through a high point in a mountain pass.
For the record, the elevation at my destination along Kootenay Lake was 1750 feet, and I was far too excited by that fact.
While the seating position is reasonably comfortable while buzzing highways, tight roads are where the Tuono truly shines. This is a true naked sportbike, one that shares an identical chassis with its fully-faired RSVR stablemate (cheap suspension aside). In fact the only difference between an RSVR and a Tuono is the intake opening is smaller and the throttle trumpets are slightly taller on the naked machine to boost torque; otherwise engine components and tuning are identical from the throttle bodies to the exhaust tips. So you get the precise response, tight feel, and delicate feedback of a full-fledged sport bike with none of that "detuning" or "retuning" bullshit, combined with an upright seating position and massive leverage through motocross bars - it is the well-recognized but seldom executed formula for street riding nirvana.
The suspension is a bit low rent (the rear shock lacks compression adjustment) and lacking in damping, but if you are under 160 lbs you should find it quite adequate for pretty much any street riding situations. Spring rates seem quite light at both ends, and are better suited to lightweight riders. When I first took delivery I preset the suspension according to Sport Rider's recommended settings, which is usually my go-to for a baseline before I fine tune the bits to my liking. The first few rides revealed what I thought was massive underdamping - the front end felt vague and skittish, and was pogoing over rough pavement with virtually no control. I played with the adjusters and realized that the SR settings were almost at the max rebound and compression settings - dialing them back several clicks and reducing the preload a bit brought things back under control in dramatic fashion. The pogoing was due to the suspension topping out, then packing and chattering over rough surfaces. Presumably the SR setup was better suited for an "average" (175 lb?) rider on a glassy smooth track surface, not a 140 lb quasi-journalist riding on rough Canadian roads.
With that issue corrected handling is beautiful and the el cheapo suspension bits perform remarkably well, at least for someone my weight - most owners seem to complain about light spring rates and a lack of damping, particularly at the rear. The razor sharp turn-in you get from wide bars on a sport bike takes getting used to, not aided by the 55.5 inch wheelbase and 25 degree rake angle, but doesn't compromise the stability once heeled over in a turn. In fact the stability is commendable, quite surprising given that you can slam this thing from side to side with just a firm push on the bars. In a straight line the bike tends to wander and respond to even the slightest inputs. But once you heel it over you can dial in lean and hold a line with ease, and the stability over rough pavement is nearly as good as a Ducati but without suffering any of that arm-pumping heavy steering. It's a nice balance that quickly wins you over; you get predictable handling in the twisties, but low-speed manoeuvring and slicing through traffic is so intuitive and effortless that you quickly forget you are riding a 450-plus-pound superbike.
Or at least you do until you strap 25 pounds of camping gear to the ass end of the bike. Leaving town I immediately regretted not jacking up the preload on the rear to suit. Is this what it feels like to be an "average" rider? I tend to forget that I have a built-in performance advantage over most folks, and I don't need to skip breakfast to win traffic light drag races.
Stopping power from the four-pad radial Brembos up front is excellent - a set of Ferodo pads would likely add some more initial bite, but out of the box they are more than adequate for street riding and will never leave you wanting , as I've discovered a few time when wildlife has made incursions into my lane. The rear, on the other hand, is worse than useless - it's nonexistent. Not in the sense of it not working well enough, like most sport bikes: I mean there is no rear brake at all. The master cylinder is mounted below the engine next to the front exhaust header and gets cooked in short order. I've tried bleeding it repeatedly and using high temperature racing brake fluid, but getting stuck in traffic once is enough to fade it beyond redemption. At least one road tester learned this the hard way; when he went to bring the Factory on review down from a vertical wheelie he discovered the rear brake no longer existed and flipped a very expensive test bike.
Riding along Highway 93 into British Columbia reveals iconic scenes of log-strewn gravel riverbeds, moments after you pass the humble welcome sign that declares BC "The Best Place on Earth". It's the type of spot you'd expect to see grizzlies snatching salmon out of the perfectly clear water, and in some places you might. Continue along past Radium Hot Springs and into the Kootenays and the landscape quickly changes. The temperature rises noticeably and you descend into a large valley dotted with rivers, lakes, and rolling farmland. This is a region where winter doesn't really occur, at least not in any typical Canadian way. When Albertans get sick of the bitter cold, they need only drive a few hours into BC to escape. Some days it will be 20 or 30 degrees warmer on the other side of the mountains.
This is the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. The dark pines and stony features of the Alberta side of the mountains give way to flat plains boxed in by the peaks of the Kootenays, the entire scene covered in lush coniferous forest and thick underbrush. To an Easterner the trees seem impossibly tall and slender, flanking the roads in walls of greenery that filters sparkling sunlight down to the well-groomed pavement. Even the highways out here are beautiful, with "rest stops" that would be a damned Provincial Park in themselves in any other part of Canada. BC's reputation for natural beauty is well known and well earned. It's a lovely place to ride.
At least it is if you mind the rules. This is a province with zero tolerance for speeders, a place where it is illegal to stand up on your pegs. Why are the beautiful ones always crazy?
I pass through small towns and scenic secondary highways, winding through Kimberly and Cranbrook on my way to Creston, where the road supposedly gets interesting. With only the 3A and a set of tantalizing twisties separating me from the campsite I've booked in Crawford Bay, I stop for fuel on last time. A group of young punks on dingy looking choppers are filling up and chatting at the pumps, deliberately ignoring me as I slip into the store to grab a few singles of beer to toss into my luggage. It's been a long day and I intend to sit down in front a fire and drink away the aches of a full day's ride. I hurriedly grab a few Coors and pay so I can get back on the bike before I get stuck behind a rolling roadblock of hipsters on hacked-up XSs and Ironheads.
At this point I've ridden 550 kms to get to the start of what is supposedly one of the best motorcycle roads in the region. To say I've come a long way for this is an obvious understatement. As I pack the drinks into my tailbag and check that my luggage is secure, psyching myself up and clearing the cobwebs from my mind, I think for a moment about whether it was worth riding this far to sample 100 kms of twisties.
Then I remember Mr. Ultra Classic and his magnificent mullet, and my decision to ride as far away from Calgary as would be possible in two days seems entirely justified.
The road begins innocently, with long sweepers passing through small communities and scenic vistas overlooking Kootenay Lake. Soon the turns begin to tighten up, the camber increasing while visibility decreases. At this moment the route is mercifully devoid of traffic. I begin twisting the throttle harder and diving deeper into the apexes, rolling off on the straights to keep my pace civil should I pass any locals. I settle on third gear and surf the fat midrange, which is pulling obscenely hard at this altitude - my hope for an extra dose of performance at a lower elevation is granted in spades.
The weight of the luggage disappears and the suspension stays composed despite the lack of rear preload. I've deliberately set the adjusters on the softer side to maintain some composure over rough surfaces but it doesn't impede fast riding. Feedback is maintained, and there is no hint of wallow even with this soft springing.
Throw it onto its ear in a tight turn and fire it out of the apex with the throttle pinned and you'll feel the tire scramble for grip, hook up, and punt you forward in a way that will make you feel a riding God. A bike with "only" 110hp has no right to feel this good and provide these kinds thrills, but it does. Where a lot of superbikes punishes you and constantly reminds you of your inadequacies as a rider, the Tuono flatters the rider and encourages silly antics. The package is a perfect complement to the mad engine; where a Ducati is a sweet motor in an unforgiving chassis, an Aprilia has a merciless engine in a composed chassis. Aprilia used to tout themselves as makers of the "everyday" Italian superbike, the machine that you could actually live with on a daily basis. While I wouldn't say the Tuono is "easy" to live with, it is easy to ride fast and inspires massive amounts of confidence without making you feel like you can never live up to the capabilities of the machine.
The thrust is relentless out of tight turns. Cracking the throttle hard above 5000 rpm yanks the bars away from you. The power is immediate and the throttle response sharp. A quick glance at the tach reveals I haven't even cleared 7000 rpm. My immediate thought is "there is no fucking way this thing only has 60-odd pound feet of torque". I twist the grip to the stop and run out of road before I even come close to tripping the shift light I've set at 9500. Gear changes are superfluous here. The engine begins to run out of steam above 160 km/h, and a lot of modern sport bikes would walk away from it above that speed, but below that slingshotting from corner to corner it is virtually untouchable.
Vibration from the narrow-angle twin is perceptible throughout the range, with the frequency changing perceptibly above 5000, but it is no worse than the secondary buzzing of any 90-degree Vee. Credit is due to the dual counterbalancers, one driven by the crankshaft and a second geared off the rear exhaust camshaft sprocket - they work quite well and a blindfolded rider probably wouldn't realize this was anything other than a traditional L-twin unless they noticed the altered cadence of a narrow-angle firing interval.
This machine is an example from the final years of the analog riding experience - this is a motorcycle free of ride by wire, driver aids, and ABS. With the current proliferation of electronic doohickery keeping our asses out of the ditch we've lost that base, visceral experience of piloting a far-too-fast machine and probing the limits of adhesion (and good sense) without a safety net. That's probably a very good thing, particularly considering a lot of current open class machines have 30-40 more horsepower pushing even fewer pounds around - but I know I feel a lot more accomplished when I cleanly slither the rear out of a tight turn using only my right wrist and a dash of good luck. I worry that the newest generation of riders weaned on the current crop of high-tech bikes will put too much faith into the false sense of security offered by nanny controls. Electronic aids are not a substitute for proper education, practice, and technique; my fear is they will become just that.
When reviewers are earnestly pleading that you never turn off the aids lest you incur disaster, you know we've pushed performance so far beyond our capabilities that we are now building the two-wheeled equivalents of inherently unstable aircraft that can only be piloted using computer aid. That's not to say these machines aren't FUN and that we shouldn't have aids in place for unforeseen circumstances… But I start worrying about the overconfidence these aids breed when I'm reading multiple reviews that mention instances when system XYZ saved John/Jane Doe from punting their test bikes into the weeds. I don't recall reading that many stories of near-misses before these aids came into vogue - is the new-age safety net inspiring more lurid, stupid antics (or dangerous lapses in concentration) and saving these riders from themselves when they should have been more cautious in the first place?
I've scarcely finished that thought when I crest a rise and face a young whitetail buck standing in the middle of the road. I stop (without drama) and scramble to find my camera as he deftly climbs a nearby embankment, cursing myself for burying it deep within my jacket. He eludes me before I can dig it out, and I continue on my way.
The corners keep coming, and I settle into a rapid pace. You need to apply a fair bit of leverage to make quick transitions from fully leaned over, in spite of the flighty feel in a straight line. Everything feels poised and unstressed, allowing you to focus on your line and enjoy the silly grunt. The chassis is so composed and the grip so predictable that you can keep it pinned without upsetting the suspension or overwhelming the tires, which in my case are a set of bargain ContiMotion sport touring radials that were installed on the bike when I bought it. This machine just digs in and slings you out of the corner without drama. This is the beauty of a twin-cylinder superbike that is often lost on the squidly types who favour peak horsepower figures over usable power. You can ride one of these hard and not get in over your head as quickly as you would with a screaming inline engine, with more than enough shove to keep a grin pasted on your face the whole time.
The scenery goes by in a blur, but what little I take in is stunning. Marinas and waterfront cottages flank the pristine beaches of Kootenay Lake. As I ride along and revel in the performance of the Tuono, occasionally glancing to the side and catching a glimpse of a scene of astonishing beauty, I come to a sudden realization: if I ever make enough money to buy a property and retire, this is where I will move. I want to spend my days terrorizing locals on this amazing road, my evenings burning driftwood on these beaches. Right here, right now, this is my dream.
I arrive in Crawford Bay and pull into the Kokanee Chalets parking lot with mere minutes to spare before the office closes. I select a campsite at the back of the lot and settle in for a meal and a beer while the adrenaline subsides.
My mind at ease and my body relaxed for the first time in weeks, I wander into a meadow behind my campsite. Ducks paddle silently across wetland ponds. Whitetail does leap across the fields and pause to glance back at me. A short walk along a sympathetically groomed path ends on Kootenay Lake, revealing a wide beach bordering the glassy water. Boats burble in and out of the nearby marina, and the stillness of the scene is only interrupted by the occasional roar of a motorcycle engine as a happy rider thunders along the 3A.
Anyone who fears that Man may overwhelm Nature needs to be placed here, in this moment, looking out over the still waters flanked by tree-choked hills as a flock of Canada geese fly overhead. Nature here is the dominant force. You would have to try damned hard to disturb it. An occasional forest fire is all it takes to cleanse the land of our impact, a fact not lost on a lot of rural residents this time of year.
I snap photos and I'm once again disappointed by how little they reveal. The scope and the beauty of the setting puts me at ease, making my stresses and my anxieties seem inconsequential. I am struck by how insignificant I am in this landscape. In the city you can become overwhelmed by how alone you are within the organized chaos of the urban environment, by how meaningless your existence is compared to the millions of lives that surround you. Here you are alone in the most perfect way possible, a figure in a sprawling landscape that you have no impact upon. It inspires a sense of calm reflection, rather than helplessness.
I grew up in the countryside, playing on shorelines, in forests, in orchard rows. While I enjoy living in the city, I occasionally need to return to an unspoiled natural landscape to renew myself and reset my perspective.
I face a long, pensive ride back to reality tomorrow. The Tuono has proved a willing accomplice, one that has saved me from a minor crisis by delivering me into this stunning landscape with a dramatic flourish. I foresee a lot more trips like these aboard that gibbering brute. All flaws aside it is a charismatic machine that wears its heart on its sleeve, and its dynamic qualities compliments my point-and-shoot riding style. Best of all, it's wonderfully free of compromise.
But all of that is of no consequence at this moment as I sit and look over Kootenay Lake, the sunlight dimming over the mountains as a flock of swallows darts overhead.