Nothing for Years…

Now things have changed. A lot. Motorcycles are very different from what they were in the early Noughties, as is my life. They’re faster, more sophisticated and more expensive. My life is has probably managed two of those three, but with a complete transplant from the depths of the overcrowded Home Counties to the wilds of a Highland Glen. New life, new places, but still with love and mammals. What hasn’t changed is that I still live on some of the finest biking roads on the planet, so the basic need hasn’t changed:

I still want a SPORTS tourer. More than ever I need the virtues of comfort, adaptability and a decent tank range — the last of these being utterly essential, given the distances between filling stations hereabouts — Highland Scotland is several times the size of Wales, but with the population of Cardiff. That makes for a lot of empty roads, motorcyclists for the entertainment of…

And heated grips have gone from being a luxury to a necessity.

So let’s look at what’s out there. And it’s been a rather lean period for that ecumenical category of bikes lumped together as “Sports tourers”: Ducati dropped the ST range in 2006, to much wailing and rattling of clutch plates by the cognoscenti, and their brilliant air-cooled Multistrada 1100 just doesn’t have the power to cut it two-up and loaded. BMW dropped their long-standing R1100S and replaced it with the pointless R1200S, which then vibrated itself off the market. So they’re out, along with their siblinga, the R1200RT and the machine of choice of the Ewan’n’Charlie-wanabees, the R1200GS — if I want an engine like that, I’ll buy a vintage Massey Ferguson. There is however their rocketship stablemate, the K1300S. Same problem though — it shares its predecessor’s vibe — literally — with an engine that, on constant or trailing throttle, feels like it’s been preloaded with shrapnel and cat litter (used). Not a nice feeling. A pity, as they’re otherwise superb bikes, with that fabulous front suspension, courtesy of Norman Hossack. KTM are promising too, with the 990 Adventure — which I’d have considered if it had real road wheels — and their supermotard-with-a-fairing, the SM-T. That, unfortunately, is the closest that KTM make to a truly fugly motorcycle, and is beyond countenance. The Triumph Sprint ST is still around — another excellent bike, but rather longer in the tooth than I’d like, as is the Honda VFR800, which Honda effectively destroyed with the 2002 V-TEC iteration, for which we do not forgive them. We’re then diving further into inline four territory with the Yamaha Fazer and then the Great Ballistic Missiles of the bike world — the Hayabusa and ZZR-1400 (Honda having killed off the Blackbird in the meantime). Thereafter we’re into the realm of the lardarse, and wallowing out of the world of true Sports Tourers. So nothing really new for years, which is part of the reason for keeping the ST for so long. I even wrote to Claudio Domenicali, the CEO of Ducati, whimpering and cajoling and promising that, if they took the superbike engine and put it in the chassis of the Multistrada, he could have my money, sight unseen. Pathetic, really.

So, nothing new for years, and I’ve even been mutterlng darkly about sourcing a newer second-hand ST4s, which of course proves impossible as every other bugger is also hanging on to theirs.

But lo, what’s this looming over the horizon? After a year of spy shots of a disguised Something that looks, ah, remarkably like a bike of Multistrada configuration but with a superbike engine, Ducati have now revealed the new Multistrada 1200.

They’ve played this one canny, saying nothing about the bike in advance of its launch (although whether all the ‘spy’ shots were all genuine opportunism or viral leaks is a matter for debate), with the result that the bike’s actual specification is way beyond even the most fevered speculation: where we’d expected the usual Showa or Ohlins suspension options, we got fully electronically-adjusted Ohlins (not, please note Martin, Active Suspension, which is a different beast altogether). Where we thought we might get traction control, we got full ride-by-wire, with integrated engine maps, traction control and ABS. And where we thought we might get a road-going adventure tourer with a detuned 1098 engine, we got a transformer that claims to go from tourer to sports bike to urban runabout to trail-blaster at the push of a button. And with the full-fat 1198 engine, retuned to a ‘lowly’ 150bhp — a figure that that would have mocked the top sports bikes of a handful of years ago — no hand-me-down power plant here. It’s even got a 20 litre tank — not huge, and what I’d regard as being at the lower end of touring acceptability, but if it delivers the 45+mpg that most Dukes give on the road, that’ll be good for the best part of 200 miles — say 150 between safe fill-ups. Finally, where we thought we’d be paying about £12k for the base bike and £14 for the “S” version, it’s come in in the UK at £11k base and just over £14k for the Sport or Touring versions with the fancy electrobouncy bits. Which is a couple of thousand sterling below mainland European prices and pretty close to the US street price, which has to be a first for us currency-abused Brits.

As for the bike itself, Ducati seem to have pushed the right buttons: it’s light (192kg dry for the bells-n-whistles version), so that’ll be 215-220kg at the kerb and it seems to have been developed with a very clear focus — Ducati claim that they told their sports bike designers to design, “the bike they’d like to ride on the road”, and that attitude shows — there’s a coherence and self-reinforcing virtue to the concept, design and execution that is the complete opposite of a committee-produced camel. It looks great, especially in Black; the Touring version comes with panniers, heated grips and centre stand, although the right-hand pannier has been scalloped to clear the gases from the under-engine stub exhaust, with the result that it won’t take a full-face helmet.

A retrograde step there — the topbox however will take two, but who the hell puts a top box on a Ducati — Mr Bean? The neat exhaust itself seems to be an object lesson in packaging when compared to the dustbins that are being bolted onto many current Japanese machines. And of course there are the Termignoni options: a carbon end-can/ECU that looks great but probably doesn’t do much for power or a full titanium system, which claims to add 6% power, at the cost of destroying the bike’s lines and excising about £1900 from the owner’s wallet. And that’s the Ducati.

But it doesn’t end there — like the proverbial bus, after nothing new for years, two new sports tourers have come along at once, the other of course being the much-hyped Honda VFR1200. Apart from sharing capacity and technology overload with the Duke, the Honda couldn’t be much different whilst still claiming Sports Tourer credentials and possessing two wheels. Whatever you think of the looks (I rather like them and will accede that both bikes induce a touch of the Marmite syndrome), a closer examination of the Honda suggests that Honda have missed the ballpark altogether with this one: They call it a Sports Tourer, yet it weighs a claimed 267kg wet, well into that lardarse class; They emphasise the touring credentials, yet give it a ludicrous 18 litre tank which, given the traditional dipsomania of Honda Vs, probably means no more than 140 miles full-to-fumes, which means looking for a gas station from about 100 miles onwards. What sort of self-deceiving idiocy prompted them to do that? And, if any further proof were needed that bad marketeers and accountants and not engineers and riders are now in charge at Honda, just look at the clumsy teaser marketing campaign for the bike, that started a year ago and built such huge expectations that reality, whatever its nature, was going to disappoint, even if it hadn’t been so comprehensively out-teched by the Ducati. And if you need any reminder of the seismic shift in the bike market that now has the European makers as the clear all-round technology leaders, this is it.

And whatever possessed Honda to fit bog-standard ABS to this machine — their technology flagship — and ignore one of their real technological masterpieces — the sublime system from the current Fireblade? Honda do at least plan to release a DSG auto-box version sometime next year, which will of course add weight and potentially remove another element of rider satisfaction and skill from the riding equation. Now that might sound odd from someone who’s just been enthusing about traction control and ABS, and I do feel somewhat uneasy about their impact on rider sensibility, but at least they only come in at the extremes, whereas a missing clutch is missing all the time.

Time now for a little disclosure: This may so far have sounded like a vague attempt at a balanced thought piece on the merits of these very different motorcycles. I hope so — despite my long Ducati allegiance, I’ve always loved Honda V4s (current VFR800 excepted) and it wouldn’t have taken much to have me looking that way. The VFR1200 though is a huge disappointment and, with that pathetic tank range, actually unusable for its intended role: I suspect that the loud whirring you’ll hear as a VFR1200 goes past won’t be the exhaust, but the sound of old Soichiro — Honda-san — spinning in his grave.

But, truth be told my Honda consideration was probably more academic than passionate: when those very first spy shots of the new Multistrada appeared just over a year ago, I lasted all of five minutes before phoning Tom at Snell’s of Alton and placing my order, sight and price unseen, for one of the beasties. Apparently mine was the second customer order in the UK and should be turning up in March. This being Ducati however, let’s call that April.

So, M Domenicali, I’ve kept my promise — I’m now looking forward to you keeping yours: delivery of a black Multistrada 1200S, with all the trimmings, as soon as you like…

Now it’s a question of when: the plan (for want of a better word) is to pick the bike up from Snell’s then ride it home to the Highlands via some of the favourite motorcycling roads and places in the UK — Helmsley, Buxton, Hawes, up through the borders thence onwards to Loch Lomond, the A82/84, then home, taking pics and blogging along the way (I helped invent the technology so may as well use it!). If timings work out, I may even be able to cross paths with John Montgomery, he of the first UK customer order and the source of the Milan show photos in this article.

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