Thursday 22 November 2012

Riding the Legend – The Ducati 916

Author's Note: In 2007 I wrote an article detailing my impressions of the Ducati 916 called "Riding the Legend". I've edited and updated my original piece for the benefit of readers. Enjoy.
There aren’t many machines that inspire awe and envy quite as effectively as a Ducati 916 “Campione del mondo Superbike”. In fact there aren’t many machines that become legends before they even got out of the box - such was the case when the 916 was unveiled to the public in late 1993. With development beginning in the late 80s, when the 851 was still the king of the V-twin superbike class, the 916 was destined for greatness in many aspects – design, style, performance, and racing pedigree. Designed from the ground up as a race winner, the 916 was blessed with prodigious performance for the day, and stunning styling penned by Massimo Tamburini and the Cagiva Research Centre. The 916 was achingly beautiful and well ahead of the curve when compared to the portly and conservative styling of contemporary mid-90s sportbikes. Here was a purposeful, clean and perfectly executed machine without compromise introduced into a sea of overweight and ponderous competitors.

Period road tests proved the 916 had more performance than its modest specifications would suggest – able to cover a standing quarter mile in 10.8 seconds, and zipping from nought to sixty miles an hour in the 2.9 second range, the 916 was quicker than you’d have expected and had impeccable handling manners when compared to the Japanese 1000cc fours. This was despite a significant power deficit; Ducati claimed between 105-114 hp for the 916 Strada from the desmoquattro mill (wheel and crank numbers, respectively) which was a stroked and massaged version of the outgoing 888 Strada L-twin. Lap times held no doubts when the dyno disappointed – the 916 was always fastest around a track, and its domination of World Superbike attested to the incredible stability and composure of the design through the bends.

This was all well and good at the track and against the clock, but how did the racing pedigree translate to a street riding experience? What is it like to own and ride the legend, to live with a 916 on a daily basis and on real roads? This is where I hope to provide some insight – I’ve logged thousands of miles on my personal 1997 model through all types of weather and roads.

The Machine

The 916’s greatest asset is its focus and lack of compromise, which can also be its greatest weakness in daily use. This machine was designed to win races and dominate the competition, it was not built for puttering through city traffic or suffering ham fisted riders. Where Japanese superbikes are generally easy to ride and more or less forgiving of minor errors, and are even docile when treated with respect, the 916 is a snarling, raucous, unforgiving purebred that will not suffer fools gladly.

We’ll begin with the motor; here is one of the finest designs to emerge from Borgo Panigale in the 20th century, providing a scintillating powerband that the modest dyno charts can never convey. One thing that strikes you is the rev-happy nature of the 916cc mill, despite the fact this is a big twin. The motor spins up freely and effortlessly, and produces most of its power in the upper rev range. Such is the benefit of desmodromic valve actuation that is lost on most motorcyclists – here is a motor that should feel lazy and punchy, but instead screams to redline with fervour usually reserved for multi-cylinder machines. 

Low end torque is not particularly noteworthy, and is overshadowed by the stupendous driveline lash inherent in a big twin – anything less than 3500 rpm and the bike will shudder and protest your inputs. Midrange is adequate, but a flat spot at 4500-5000 rpm mars stock machines, something easily remedied by a slip on exhaust kit with an “off-road” EPROM. It is above this where the motor truly shines – from 6000 rpm onward the bike emits a hard-edged roar from the huge ram-air intakes and lunges with ferocity to the 10000 rpm redline. Spinning the motor above 7000 rpm is a revelation, and produces a spine tingling intake howl accompanied by a significant spike in power. The undeadened intake roar of a 916 is one of the most incredible noises one will ever experience, and was lost when the 996 and later bikes got rubber venturi blocks in the intake runners. Redline seems to come on fast and without warning – in typical Ducati fashion, the 13 000 rpm tachometer has no marked redline, and the locomotive surge of power in the upper rev band seems to stop abruptly at the cutout rather than tapering off before redline. Despite this, the motor is happy to be short shifted around 7000-8000rpm, and makes plenty of useable grunt from 4000 rpm onward. Vibration is minimal, with only a slight buzziness creeping through the fuel tank in the midrange; nothing comes through the bars or the pegs.

Throttle response from the Weber-Marelli fuel injection is superb, and a model for fuel injection systems – and this on a design that is now approaching 20 years old. On/off transitions are relatively smooth and easy to modulate, and the throttle feels directly connected to the motor – no hesitation, lag or overboosted feel here. Unlike many Japanese designs, which use overly sensitive throttles to make the bike feel more responsive, the Ducati has a linear feel. Half throttle is half throttle, full throttle is full throttle - whereas other designs are overly sensitive below half throttle and numb above that. This means that at first a rider coming off a Japanese four may find the Ducati a bit flat and underpowered – but twist the grip a bit more and suddenly the bike comes alive.

Ducati gearing is always a source of curiosity to people new to the brand. The 916 is no exception; with 55 miles per hour available in first gear, and the motor turning a leisurely 3500 rpm in sixth at 60 mph, the gearing is tall to a fault. The 916 is geared for over 170 miles per hour, with a genuine 150-odd mph available on the straights – impressive stuff for a 100-ish horsepower twin, and a testament to the superb aerodynamics of the design. Sixth is really an overdrive at anything less than triple digit speeds. Shifting is quite adequate, if a bit notchy; as with most things on the bike, one must use firm inputs when shifting, and careful adjustment of the pedal height is critical. Better yet, get a CNC milled reverse shifter to eliminate the typical slop.

Pulling away from a stop in first requires practice, especially with the finicky dry clutch conspiring to self-destruct its friction plates if you don’t carefully feather the throttle and clutch. Any newbie to the 916, and dry clutch Ducatis in general, is going to be surprised when they feel a harsh vibration channelled up the seat when the clutch slips – this is the bike’s none-too-subtle way of telling you “you need to practice your technique a bit more, squid”. This isn’t mentioning the stupendous racket the dry clutch makes, especially after a few thousand miles of bedding in. You will hear it constantly – knocking on part throttle, punctuating shifts, clinking on overrun, chattering at low revs, and generally giving the bike an air of perpetually imminent mechanical destruction. Having a stock, closed clutch cover helps mask the noise, but most owners opt to open up the clutch, making the noise even more pervasive. It’s a strange quirk of the brand - learn to love it or buy something else.

The brakes on a 916 are a bit behind modern standards, and were known for being a bit disappointing even when they were current. The stock discs were a weak spot and were prone to warping, and most 916s came with rubber brake lines that gave a mushy feel and fade when hot. When properly set up there is very little lever travel and a slightly wooden feel, but the front brakes will haul the bike down very easily with a firm hand on the lever. The rear brake is for appearance only – the only reason to use it is to settle the suspension or hold the bike on a hill. Using it while downshifting will lock the rear wheel, and any other time it doesn’t seem to do anything at all. Mike Hailwood knew this 35 years ago, and was known to never use the rear brake on the bevel head racers because combining it with the prodigious compression braking of a Ducati twin was a quick way to lock the rear wheel. Learn to ignore the rear pedal and be firm with the front, and the system won’t disappoint, but don’t expect stellar performance.

The real revelation of riding a 916 is the superb handling. When setup properly, the bike is a paragon of stability combined with fluid response. A 916 will almost never shake its head, and is the antithesis of a typical twitchy, flighty Japanese sportbike. What you lack in quick turn-in is made up for in an absolutely amazing ability for the bike to hold a line, even over road imperfections. One has to learn to give steady, smooth and authoritative inputs – once you get used to the slightly heavy steering, the magical ability of the bike to effortlessly lean and carve through apexes will make you never want to get on a twitchy-bastard of a Japanese sportbike again. The amazing part of the 916s handling is its ability to flatter the rider and inspire confidence – nothing surprises or upsets the balance, and even sliding the rear wheel feels completely controlled and without drama. The 916 is one of those rare machines that seems to say “Really? You could have gone much faster through that turn. Try harder next time”.

Suspension fine-tuning is very effective, and with adjustable rake and trail - and rear ride height - the bike can be tailored to suit anyone. The incredible ability for the bike to lean (there is no limit to ground clearance – if you are dragging parts, you are crashing) means that even spirited riding feels effortless. The bike simply shrugs it off and encourages you to go faster and lean farther. Beyond this, the 916 chassis has an amazing ability to transmit “feel” unlike any other machine. You get gentle feedback through the controls and seat, so you feel even the smallest imperfections gently channelled through the suspension and frame in such a way that you are always aware of what is occurring and what the chassis is doing, without it ever being harsh. It’s difficult to imagine the feeling until you’ve ridden one, and then gone back to another machine. Everything else feels numb in comparison.

Riding the Legend

So what’s it like to actually ride a 916? The first thing that strikes a rider is the size of the bike – it’s tiny and narrow, like an 8/10ths scale replica of what you expected. The midsection is surprisingly slender, and once you are seated the bike seems to disappear beneath you. The tailsection is high and wide, forcing you to perform a small acrobatic manoeuvre every time you get on or off the machine. The seating position is compact and forces you into a crouch, while the seat height is a reasonable height for shorter riders. In fact the whole machine is better suited to someone with a small frame – it fits my 5’7” 140lb body perfectly, but taller and larger riders will likely feel cramped by the restrictive seating position and small size of the bike. The seat is broad and flat, but the stock padding (or lack thereof) is completely inadequate for spending any time in the saddle, and if you slide backwards against the bum-stop you are raked out into an uncomfortable stretch. The trick is to sit close to the tank and relax your upper body, being careful not to get frozen into the infamous torture-rack seating position. The clip-ons are low and well placed for the seating position, but inevitably you get pitched forward by the ass-high seating position and lose circulation through your wrists. In my case, my hands tend to fall asleep every 30-40 miles. Surprisingly while the 916 was always known for being a horrifically uncomfortable bike, most current sportbikes are even more uncomfortable. Progress has led to squeezing the rider into an awkward riding position with a narrow seat jammed into their ass - what passes for “comfortable” on a superbike today makes a 916 look downright cushy.

Once you hop on, you are greeted with a clean dash that is dominated by the huge green Ducati Racing tachometer. Next to this you have your standard Ducati speedometer, which only starts at 20 miles an hour, and has 55 miles per hour conveniently marked in red – just to remind you that once the needle swings past that mark your license may be at risk. Flick on the ignition switch buried in the tank behind the top yoke and wait for the fuel pump to prime. Now reach down under the throttle twist grip to find the fast idle button – a spring loaded toggle that holds the twist open slightly to increase the idle. Thumb the starter and listen to the lazy starter struggle against the high compression pistons, building momentum until the bike suddenly thunders into life with a bark, the clutch chatter offsetting the boom of the exhausts. Wait for the engine to warm up before blipping the throttle, because the slow oil circulation means that the valve train gets a beating when the motor is cold.

Riding the 916 takes getting used to. There are small quirks that every 916 owner has learned to deal with. The sidestand is invisible when you are seated on the bike, and flips up behind the footpeg, so getting it down requires a bit of fancy legwork. Stock, the bikes came with a spring-loaded “suicidestand” that would snap up when the weight was removed – this should have been bypassed by now, but if it hasn’t take extreme care. As previously mentioned, the dry clutch and tall gearing conspire to make launches difficult until you get the technique down, and if you are ham-fisted with your shifts you will grind the clutch and shoot a nice harsh vibration up your backside. Riding requires firm and steady inputs with everything; any hesitation is punished. Riding and shifting smoothly requires careful throttle control and gentle blipping between gears, and a slightly abusive attitude. Rev the motor, work the throttle, be firm with the shifter and brakes – with an authoritative hand the bike responds beautifully and cleanly. Once on the go and with some practice, all these quirks seem to melt away.

That is, until you get stuck in traffic. Here the true horror of riding a 916 sinks in. At anything less than 40 miles an hour, the bike feels like a caged beast, rattling the bars and growling in its confinement. The clutch chatters and clacks, the driveline lash makes the bike stutter and jump, the clutch pull is impossibly heavy, the steering is ponderous, the turning circle is much too wide, the heat coming off the underseat exhausts roasts your legs, and the brakes feel wooden and difficult to modulate. You curse the seating position and the tall gearing, and have to explain to people at stops that yes, that noise is normal, no there is nothing wrong with the motor, that’s just the clutch… When you come to a stop you realize finding neutral is nearly impossible, and the neutral light is about as trustworthy as a used car saleman, and then the bike stalls without warning. Everything conspires against you at low speed, and after a while you begin to wonder if something is wrong with the bike – what’s that noise, is that the clutch or is the motor knocking? Did I get a bad batch of gas, what’s with all the sputtering? My hand is cramping, I can’t work the clutch anymore. Shit, I think the plugs are fouling again…

Then you hit the open road and wind out the throttle, and suddenly all the problems you encountered in the city melt away. The motor comes on the cam and sings clearly and crisply, the clutch racket disappearing and the power coming on smooth and strong. The gearbox suddenly makes sense as you carve through the backroads, never needing more than one or two gears with enough in reserve to accelerate into the triple digits on the straights. The natural cruising speed seems to be right around 80 miles an hour, with an effortless 100-110 available to pass vehicles. The slow steering gives way to smooth and progressive turn in, the bike completely unflappable on even rough roads. The fairing punches through the air effortlessly and you tuck into the slipstream and hammer through the gears, listening the magnificent noise and riding with grace and ease.

This is where the 916 makes sense, flaws be damned. You forget the finicky running at low speed and the discomfort you are feeling from the cramped position; out here, on the open road, the 916 is a revelation and an incredible experience that borders on religious. You are a part of the bike, every component seems to be connected to the tips of your fingers and the palms of your hands. You feel everything and you are in complete control of every function. You are dancing across the asphalt in perfect harmony with the machine.

Living with the Legend

All of this is well and good if all you ever do is take the 916 out for a nice ride on a clear twisty backroad. But what is it like to live with the legend on a daily basis?

I’ve logged many thousands of miles on my own 916, and have made a point to use it as frequently as possible. All too often I see cases of neglected “garage queens” – bikes bought for the pedigree and bragging rights, languishing and slowly deteriorating at the back of a garage. These garage queens are often the worst examples to buy, as years of neglect will take its toll on these sensitive machines. So despite the irritating flaws and uncompromising nature of the machine I use my 916 whenever I can. These are the types of machines that respond well to frequent use and babying, even if their very nature precludes them from being useable as daily drivers.

One conclusion I’ve drawn is that there really is no excuse for not using them daily, as long as you have a good stock of painkillers and can avoid slow traffic. Riding a 916 over long distances (I rode my own 2500 miles from Montréal to Cape Breton and back) is an exercise in stamina and tests your threshold for pain; without copious amounts of ASA and ibuprofen it is nearly impossible for all but the most masochistic of us. You lose circulation through your wrists, your hands cramp, your legs freeze in the crouched position, your upper and lower back aches. It’s not an exercise for the faint of heart. But I still prefer long distance touring to trundling through traffic; at least on the open road the bike has a chance to stretch its legs and run free, even if you aren’t nearly as composed as the bike is.

With tall gearing, an unstressed motor and great fuel economy (55 miles per gallon is possible at a steady 100 miles per hour) the 916 has a long-legged, intercontinental ballistic tourer feel to it. If it wasn’t so damned uncomfortable it would be brilliant, and Ducati themselves realized this and created the ST4 to put the 916 motor into a proper sports touring package. Generally most of the riding one will end up doing will be finding the fastest routes between sets of twisting switchbacks, or the nearest racetrack. Anything in between is an exercise in tedium and pain control.

The main issue with 916s is that they are finicky beasts at the best of times. They require regular tinkering to keep in top spec, and are plagued with all manner of irritating issues ranging from small glitches to catastrophic failures. Most of the “quirks” can be ironed out with careful and thorough preventative maintenance, and a healthy scepticism for the integrity of Italian engineering always helps make things more bearable. In all honesty it isn’t as bad as some people would lead you to believe, but a 916 is still far behind the Japanese competition in terms of reliability and dependability.

It is absolutely critical that the maintenance schedule is followed to the letter, no ifs ands or buts. Valve adjustments and belt changes are the minimum operations to prevent mechanical catastrophes, but many other small tasks must be carried out on a regular basis to ensure nothing goes wrong. This is the main difference between an old Ducati and a Japanese machine – where a Japanese machine can run forever with minimal attention, a Ducati superbike demands constant care and servicing. But when the servicing is performed according to schedule, you will be rewarded with a brilliant machine that will perform well and last many years.

In the End…

So all of this is to say that the 916 is a stunning motorcycle that is, at times, very difficult to live with. But don’t despair, because we fortunate few who have bought these machines know that despite the headaches, the backaches, the problems and the flaws, we will always love our finicky Italian beauties and will keep putting up with the punishment for those brief moments of glory on the twisty backroads. If you have the opportunity to ride a 916, take it; if you have to opportunity to own one, buy it. It was a marvel in its own time, and even today, some 18 years after it was introduced, the 916 remains the pinnacle of focussed sports riding and is a benchmark for anyone who wants to own the most uncompromising, pur-laine superbike of the 1990s. On the right road, in the right gear, at the right speed, with the asphalt whistling by, the 916 is a religious experience to the sportbike faithful. The legend of the 916 lives on, and is well deserved indeed.


  1. Danny V (New Bedford, MA)01/09/2014, 11:39

    This was a great piece you wrote on the Ducati 916 !! Something I enjoyed reading very much and with useful advice and information ! I own a 1998 Ducati 916 and am absolutely in love with my "Italian Beauty" as you so put it in your writings. It's nice to see there are people out there who appreciate a well built and stunningly beautiful bike such as the 916 !

  2. Stated perfectly. I have a 1996 916 I adore, and it has more feel and personality than my ZX10R even though the Duc has more quirks. I also loathe garage queens, and was happy to take this out of a guy's living room and back to the twisty stuff. Great piece. I loved it. It's so true that these beasts want to be flogged and you have to be open to wringing their necks every now and then to get its respect. However, if loved and respected, she'll treat you right! I don't think there has been a finer motorcycle before or since.

  3. I feel exactly the same towards my 2000 996..finicky and bad tempered around town or when riding with cruisers...I let her have her head on the twistys and am never dissappointed!