Monday, 2 May 2016

Editorial - Resurrection

Ducati 916 Rocky Mountains

"I have one in Vancouver if you still need it."

I picked up the phone and immediately dialed the attached number. He was shocked by how quickly I responded to his message. I probably called him 10 minutes after he sent it.

Sometimes I have trouble mitigating my desperation. Playing it cool isn't my forte when I'm excited or lonely. It's not a good strategy for deal making or finding love, respectively.

Ducati 916 Rocky Mountains

I'd spent the last few months hunting down a replacement engine for my 916. As is usually the case, I had come across numerous good examples when I didn't have the funds handy to buy one. Now that I did have the means, I couldn't find a damned deal anywhere.

There was the dodgy one in Southern California that had unspecified "tuning" done to it, which the seller supposedly had trouble doing a compression test on because they claimed they couldn't find a deep thinwall 12 point socket to remove the oddball spark plugs the guy had put in the thing.

Every bike has a rich and sometimes scary history, which you'll inevitably discover when it comes time to buy it or cannibalize it for parts.

There was the one in Wisconsin, which was recommended to me by a friend of the seller. Pressing further it turned out he wanted to sell the whole bike, and wasn't willing to part it out. There is a damned big difference between those two scenarios. Particularly when you live in another country.

Meanwhile there was a mint, 700 mile engine on eBay that was being listed for about twice what I was willing to pay. So as good as that one looked, it wasn't in the cards on my meager budget.

Ducati 996 Engine

996 mills are thin on the ground. You'll find plenty out of wrecked Monster S4Rs and ST4Ss, but those have different crankcases and won't accommodate the single-sided swingarm used on Superbikes. So unless you want to go to the trouble of modifying or replacing the crankcases, you need to hold out for when someone is parting out a 996 Superbike. That might sound unlikely if you aren't in the Ducati fold, or if you still remember these machines being exorbitantly expensive pieces of exotica, but the truth is that Tamburini Superbikes are more common than you think - around 20,000 were produced in their various guises - and right now they are at the nadir of their resale value. That means a helluva lot of them are being parted out; they are worth a lot more in pieces than they are as a whole.

It's a damned good time to buy one if you have dreamed about it. Prices are low and good examples are becoming scarcer because they are either being A. chop-shopped into eBay fodder or B. purchased by mouth-breathing fuckwits who think chrome accents are a good way to improve on Massimo's masterpiece. The upside is that parts are plentiful due to the former and donor bikes are popping up daily due to the misadventures of the latter.
Ducati 996 Engine Teardown

I pressed Vancouver dude for photos. He seemed knowledgeable on Ducatis, having two 996s plus this one in parts, but he was unsure of the history on this particular engine and sounded quite guarded about making any claims about it being a good 'un. It was part of a theft recovery and had unknown mileage. I made a tentative offer provided it had a clutch and was in good shape.

A few days later the photos arrived. The clutch was missing, as was the water pump cover, the crank pickup, and one of the valve covers. The cams had been removed the stupid way, with the pulleys unbolted to slide them out; you can save yourself a lot of trouble by sliding out one of the rocker arms and removing them in one piece. Thus the possibility of a compression test was out. But otherwise it looked as new; no grime or corrosion on any of the fasteners, paint bright and unmarked. I could tell at a glance it was a low mile engine.

Ducati 996 Engine Teardown

It fit my criteria perfectly - pulled from a 2000-2001 996 Superbike, the best Desmoquattro mill that would drop right into my 916 chassis and use my existing Weber-Marelli 1.6M fuel system. More power, improved reliability, and a much better three-phase charging system as a bonus.

 Anything else would be a headache. A Testatretta will fit but needs a complete wiring harness and fuel system, as well as shower injectors and the associated airbox from a 998. Plus those engines command more money in the first place, making that swap a lot less budget friendly.

Ducati 996 Engine Teardown

I didn't want to get another 916 engine; if you are going to go to this much trouble, why settle for more of the same when the tantalizing 996 upgrade is just a few hundred dollars more? Provided you can find one, anyway.
I booked a cheap motel room and drove to Vancouver the following day. I'm nothing it not impulsive, and even if it turned out to be a bust it would be a fun adventure to drive 1000 kms into BC chasing motorcycle parts.

Ducati 996 Engine Teardown

The engine proved to be as clean as the photos suggested and I made the deal. Well, calling it a "deal" would be giving myself too much credit. He demanded the high figure I had "agreed" upon - the figure I offered provided it wasn’t  missing hundreds of dollars worth of parts - and he put me on the spot after driving 12 hours to meet him. I wasn't in a position to argue, and the price was fair even with the missing bits, so I swallowed my pride and handed over the cash.

After returning to the motel, what followed was one of those wonderful fitful nights when you are kept awake by thoughts of all the possibilities that have opened before you. I was elated. In the trunk of my car was the heart transplant that would save my most beloved possession from a life of slowly degrading in the corner of my living room. Soon she would be running again, resurrected for another decade of making me inordinately happy to be aboard her.

Ducati 996 Engine Teardown

For the record, her name is Nina. Yes, I named her. You would too, if you rode a bike that had this much personality. A machine that carried you through several important stages of your life, physically and emotionally moving you from one life event to the next. I adore this bike beyond any rational measure despite the pain and financial suffering it has inflicted upon me. Folks who fail to see the appeal of a 20 year old Italian superbike when shinier, faster, and infinitely more reliable machines are available for less money can and do think I'm completely out of my mind. They have since the day I picked her up. I care even less about their opinions now than I did then.

Ducati 996 Engine Teardown

Upon my return to Calgary I immediately dropped the engine off with my most trusted mechanic for a once over. Ken Austin displays the sort of rare mechanical aptitude that you only encounter once in a lifetime. A self-taught mechanic with a keen interest in the basic principles that determine power and torque, he is the sort of learned man who has applied his intellect in a way that makes him a wizard with internal combustion. He has spent a lifetime building fast bikes of every description, from big-twin Harleys to Japanese superbikes to air-cooled Ducatis. He has built machines for Daytona, working for teams that have fielded some of the top road racers of our generation. I can spend endless hours talking to him, discussing tuning and design, and in every one of our conversations he teaches me something new.

Ducati 996 Big End
Photo courtesy Ken Austin.

He is a true perfectionist who never settles for "good enough", and he can find the faults in anything you bring to him. He will sniff out all the half-assed measures that other "tuners" employ - not to disparage his competition, but because he strives to build the best and he has the knowledge and experience to back it up. For that reason he is one of the very short list of people I would trust with one of my bikes.

Ducati 996 Shift Forks
Photo courtesy Ken Austin.

Ken proceeds to tear down the engine and reveals the best case scenario: everything is as-new throughout. He guesses that the mileage was likely under 3000 miles. Even the piston rings still exhibit their original bevel and can be reused after deglazing the bore. The only faults are some minor scuffing on the big end shells and some rust on two of the intake valves due to water dripping into the inlet during storage. A new set of shells and a three-angle valve job later and all is well.

Ducati 996 Cylinder Head
Photo courtesy Ken Austin.

While he is in there he sets the crank preload to spec and verifies all the tolerances. I source some thinner base gaskets to set the squish to 1.0mm. He dials in the cam timing, choosing a setup close to Ducati specs but altered a few degrees to boost torque. He also manages to dig up a machined flywheel, a race spare that is 2.75 pounds lighter than the stock item. That should wake things up nicely.

Ducati 996 Flywheel Comparison
Photo courtesy Ken Austin.

Meanwhile, on my end, it is time to begin the teardown of the bike. At first I thought I'd break it down into pieces and then reassemble it in a friend's garage around the new engine. As I start the process and begin stripping away the layers, laying out the parts across my apartment, it begins to dawn on me that this is the best place to rebuild it - right here, in my living room. It's warm and comfortable, I have my stereo going, and all my tools are here. The weather outside is cold and miserable and the closest garage I can use is a 15 minute drive away. If I work on the bike here at home I can pick away at it at my own pace on these long winter evenings without having to run around.

Ducati 916 Living Room Rebuild

Plus, how often do you have the opportunity to build a bike in a fourth floor downtown apartment? If nothing else it will be a good story to tell the kids I never intend to have.

When you tear a bike down to the individual nuts and bolts, you soon discover the flaws introduced by previous owners. Such was the case here. My 916 was rebuilt prior to my purchasing it. Everything that could have been backwards was. Nothing was lubricated and bearings disintegrated as soon as I pulled everything apart. I cursed the lazy assholes who put this thing back together, and cursed myself for not taking the time to go over these potentially fatal flaws at any point over the last ten years. My list of things to do began to grow exponentially as I fell into my usual habits of obsessing over the details and daisy-chaining one problem to the next.

Ducati 916 Living Room Rebuild

It's called Shipwright's Disease, the process of turning every minor job into a complex, endless rebuild. It's a damnable condition that is destructive to your bank account and your sanity, but a boon to the clever assholes who will take your projects off your hands for pennies on the dollar once you've reached your limit and decided to cut your losses.

Ducati 916 Living Room Rebuild

The trick is to never reach that limit, or acknowledge that it even exists. There is an end to project hell if you simply stop tallying the costs and avoid setting any optimistic deadlines. Being single helps in this regard, as you are less likely to have a more intelligent voice of reason pointing out the unfathomable depth of your insanity, constantly pointing out that a greasy pile of motorcycle parts are not appropriate dining room decor. If you find a companion who shares your enthusiasm and overlooks your obvious psychosis, I'd advise that you hold on to them like grim death. And enlist their help in finishing the damned thing.

Ducati 916 Living Room Rebuild

So it was that I spent the course of this past winter methodically cleaning, polishing and refurbishing every part of the bike. Virtually every piece of hardware was replaced in my pursuit of perfection. I soon came to be a regular at the local industrial supply shop, when I wasn't rifling through the take-off drawers at work hunting down useful bits and pieces. I cleaned and reworked any electrical components I could get my hands on, re-soldering terminals and replacing the cheesier connectors with weatherproof items.

Ducati 916 Powdercoated Frame

With the bike stripped down to nothing, I took the opportunity to get the frame powdercoated again to freshen things up visually. A high-gloss black matched the wheels and swingarm but added some extra visual pop that the previous satin coating lacked.

Ducati 916 Living Room Rebuild

Slowly things came together in the centre of the living room, the bike growing around the engine as the weeks progressed. I spent endless hours making sure every fastener was torqued to spec, every bearing was replaced, each pivot thoroughly greased, every component cleaned and shined with a variety of sprays. Even in its half-finished state it looked spectacular; all gleaming stainless and bright paint complimented by glossy black plastic and rubber. I was beginning to get antsy.

Ducati 916 Living Room Rebuild

My modest disposable income limits progress; I could only buy a few hundred dollars worth of parts each month and I spent many hours online digging up cheaper solutions to the problems I was facing. My ignition had been reamed out during an attempted theft just before I moved the bike into my living room; I took apart the switch and cannibalized parts from spare locks to repair it and retain my original key. A quick-change carrier replaced the expensive OEM rear sprocket. Cast off heavy gauge winch wiring made dandy colour-coded upgrades to the power and ground cables. A set of spare Triumph engine mount bolts were milled down and mated to ARP 12 point nuts to fit the 12mm mounts of the 996 mill into the 10mm receptacles of the 916 frame.

Ducati 916 Living Room Rebuild

To retain my original fuel system I purchased a TunerPro license and a Moates EPROM burner, teaching myself the basics of the fuel injection programming so that I could build a custom map to suit my setup, reverse engineering a few existing EPROMs to pick the best elements of each and get a baseline map. I installed a Harley-Davidson fuel pressure regulator to bump pressure up to 4.0 BAR over the stock 3.0, to give myself more margin for error while feeding the bigger engine through a single pair of injectors. A lot of 996s are converted to run on two of their four injectors to solve a common roll-on stutter issue (which is actually due to poor ignition mapping, as it turned out) but if you look hard at the numbers you'll realize that at peak torque the single injectors are distressingly close to their duty cycle maximums. Bumping the pressure and reducing the injector duration gives more flexibility but requires a custom map to make it work.


It's now early April and the weather has been tantalizingly warm since mid-March. I've been riding the Tuono so I'm not suffering from complete moto withdrawal, but my mind is occupied with thoughts of running the 916 again. I've finally completed my parts orders and installed the last of the items on my checklist. I've gone over the bike repeatedly and detailed it to perfection. I know this machine inside and out and I'm not going to let a minor oversight or moment of carelessness sideline me.

Ducati 916 Living Room Rebuild

It's time to wheel the beauty out of hibernation and take her on her maiden voyage.

My intent is to get it out of the apartment, fire it up, and immediately take it for a long, hard break-in run in the mountains.  I have enough faith in my assembly skills and Ken's meticulousness that I plan the most minimal shakedown before I aim it for the horizon and twist the throttle.

Ducati 916 Living Room

I enlist the help of my friend Josh to move the bike out of the building, a tricky task given that my front door is perpendicular to a narrow hallway that clearly wasn't designed with motorcycle passage in mind. After some coaxing and care we manage to get it into the elevator and out onto the street without breaking anything or punching any holes in the walls. I vowed to not let this bike stagnate in project hell in my living room, so in my mind having it assembled and out of doors is the first victory.  

I dump a jerrycan of premium into the tank and flick the ignition. Josh remarks that he wasn't expecting me to fire it up right away and left his phone upstairs, lamenting that he can't film the first startup for posterity.

The fuel pump primes and there is an audible spurting noise as a stream of fuel pisses out the bottom of the fairing.

Ducati 916 Diagnostic Scan

Unless he wanted a record of what sort of bilingual obscenities I'm capable of producing, I'm glad Josh forgot his phone in the apartment.

A beer, a few cigarettes, and a sandwich later I'm of clearer mind and ready to tackle the fuel leak. I had put new fuel lines from the tank to the throttle bodies and secured them with Oetiker clamps in my attempt to make everything look as professional as possible. As it turned out, they didn't hold tight enough on the nipples going into the throttle bodies. So I spent the next hour removing the throttles and replacing all the fancy Oetikers with the ugly but effective fuel injection clamps I've used without failure for 10 years.

The sun is setting when I flick the ignition again and hear merciful silence after the pump primes. A punch of the starter button and the bike thunders to life without hesitation.

I don my gear and take a burn around town. The bike is running far too rich but otherwise well, spooling up remarkably quickly with the lighter flywheel mass. I'm happy to note that the essential character of the 916 isn't diminished by the newer, bigger engine. It still revs freely and produces smooth, linear power with a solid hit above 6000 when it comes on cam. There is more torque but the powerband is more or less the same.

Ducati 916 Kenny's Tuning

And it still makes all the right noises. Beautiful, raw, mechanical noises. I forgot how damned good these things sound on the throttle. It sounds like the end of the world, the rush of air bellowing through the intake matched perfectly to the booming exhaust note. I can't stand the shrill harmonics of most inline multi-cylinder machines or the coarse blatting of a single. The most perfect noise in my mind is the deep, staccato thunder of a high-performance twin.

20 miles later I roll back into the garage. The only things I need to adjust are the steering head and the position of the shifter. Otherwise everything works as hoped and I'm ready to take it on a proper ride.

Ducati 916 Rocky Mountains

The next day I head for the Rockies along my usual route, taking the backroads out of Calgary through to Canmore then bypassing the dull Trans Canada by sticking to the secondary parkways. We've been blessed with an early spring, with good weather from March onward. We had a similar situation last year, one that I never had the pleasure of experiencing out East. There it was more typical for there to be five feet of snow on the ground until May. I don't think many Albertans have seen five feet of snow on the ground in their lifetime.

Ducati 916 Rocky Mountains

Despite benefiting from a longer riding season out here, I miss the proper Canadian winters I used to experience. There is a soothing, enveloping silence that is only brought by a blanket of soft, white powder across the landscape. I find great calm in the fury of an intense blizzard, the world around me obscured by swirling flakes. I suspect part of my love of snow was due to my being born during one of the worst storms of the 1980s, with patients being shuttled to and from the hospital aboard snowmobiles. I grew up on a riverfront farm that would be buried by drifts during the winter, the dunes of snow becoming my playground when the winds had settled.

Meanwhile Calgarians collectively lose their shit and forget how to drive when a foot of white stuff falls.

There is always snow in the mountains, though the blizzards you'll experience driving through the high passes are a lot more sinister than the ones of my childhood. Being nestled next to a wood stove while the winds howl and the flakes hiss against the windows is quite different from trying to navigate a vehicle through zero visibility on a slick road that is 100 miles from any form of civilization.

Ducati 916 Rocky Mountains

Anyway, I digress. Today the roads are clear and the snow is limited to the surrounding peaks. The sky is clear and crystalline blue, the temperature mild. The bike is running perfectly, though still on the rich side. It's the sort of day where you don't want to stop riding, just continuing onto the next fuel stop to see where you will end up.      

Ducati 916 Rocky Mountains

I'd forgotten how sweetly these Desmoquattro machines run. Power is smooth and linear, with a surprising willingness to rev for a big twin - particularly on this machine now that the flywheel is so much lighter. Above 6000 rpm the power builds hard and fast as the engine races to the 10,000 rpm redline in a flash. Below that there is a useful slug of torque but it is far tamer; the significant driveline lash and tall gearing prevents you from lugging it much.  You want to keep it above 4000 for things to stay happy.

Ducati 916 Rocky Mountains

The clutch and gearbox are, in my mind, close to perfect. After a year of suffering the rock-crusher transmission and vague clutch of the Aprilia, getting aboard the Duc and experiencing light and precise shifting is a revelation. Not only that but the lightened internals and resulting snappy response mean that rev matching is so easy that I'd almost swear I had installed a slipper clutch.

Ducati 916 Rocky Mountains

The roads are still strewn with gravel and remain treacherous in the twistier sections. I'm not able to push the handling much on this ride but the precision and stability I've learned to love is still there, allowing me to set and forget my line through a corner in spite of rough, cracked pavement. This is one of those machines that feels totally unflappable at virtually any speed. It encourages you to go faster and faster still, searching for a limit that doesn't seem to exist. It just gets better and better as you push it harder, the plentiful feedback through the chassis always keeping you well informed of what is going on beneath your tires.

Then you pull over and see that you still have mile-wide chicken strips. This bike laughs at your feeble attempts to ride fast.

Ducati 916 Rocky Mountains

I arrive in Lake Louise and stop for a sandwich and some time to review. The bike is performing beautifully but will need additional fuel tuning to get it dialed in; I suspect there is another 5-10 HP waiting to be unlocked with some additional fiddling and a leaner mixture.

That is the beauty of this generation of fuel injection. With some inexpensive hardware and software I can edit and tune the fueling myself, learning a new skill and taking great pride in my accomplishments when I make progress.

Of course the possibility of really buggering things up is there, which is why I'm limiting myself to adjusting the fuel map alone and not altering the trim values or spark advance tables.

Ducati 916 Rocky Mountains

I decide to keep riding along the Icefields Parkway towards Jasper before looping back through the Saskatchewan River Crossing to Rocky Mountain House. That will put my mileage for the day around 500 miles, enough to claim a solid break-in.

The road winds higher into the mountains, passing glacial plains flanked by daunting peaks. This road is deserted and free of civilization, just a long ribbon of asphalt winding through the mountains. I'm alone with my thoughts enjoying the thrum of the bike beneath me, my speed creeping higher and higher along the lonely highway.

My heated grips are cranked and my heated jacket is keeping me comfortable as the ambient temperature drops. Though I may be a bit of a masochist for riding a 916 great distances, I'm not above fitting some creature comforts and the improved charging system of the 996 engine means I can run these accessories without concern. The day I bought my heated jacket I wondered aloud how I had ridden for so long without one. It extends my riding season at least a month on either side of the spring and fall and allows me to run through these icy passes in perfect comfort, only noticing the dropping temperature when I open my visor for a blast of cool air to keep me focused.      

Ducati 916 Rocky Mountains

Shortly after turning East towards Rocky Mountain House the road straightens into a long, tantalizing straight.

If I were to, hypothetically, wind the throttle to the stop on a stretch like this one, I'd imagine I might see over 150 MPH on the speedo before I ran out of road, perhaps with lots of revs remaining, even at this altitude. If such a scenario were to occur, I think I'd be pretty happy with the top end performance of this engine given that clearing 135 was difficult with my tired old 916 mill.

The ride continues in undramatic fashion, aside from coming within half a litre of running out of fuel trying to stretch the fuel range all the way to Rocky Mountain House. Otherwise, there are no hiccups, no failures, no misbehaviour - no problems whatsoever. I think I did pretty good screwing this thing together, and Ken did a wonderful job assembling this engine. The performance is smooth and fluid, the idle and low-rpm manners excellent despite the far lighter flywheel mass. With a little more tuning this thing will rip and will fulfill my desire for having just about the most perfectly setup street-going 916 out there.

I don't desire expensive suspension, braking and gaudy cosmetic mods, nor do I truly have any need for more power - though a set of SPS cams wouldn't go amiss, if I ever find a set for something resembling a reasonable price. I don't subscribe to the practice of bolting race-track bling and performing bleeding edge tuning on Ducatis; inevitably they end up being expensive poseur toys/rolling grenades that see more time outside Starbucks than they do slicing up a mountain road. I prefer having a well-sorted, low-key daily rider that will never make me feel guilty about putting miles on. I've tailored this bike to my particular tastes over the course of the past decade, and now it's running and riding sweeter than ever.

I missed this bike so much. Riding out here through the snow-capped peaks, the intake channeling the air pulses through my chest, the chassis feeding me delicate sensations while I arc through the sweepers, it feels like I've come home.

It's good to be back.