Time for a new toy. My old faithful STealth — my ST4s — has served me well for four years and it’s a keeper, as a supremely capable all-round machine, so I’m looking for something more specific and more focussed for play on the local roads. Which is where the first of many dilemmas kicks in — which toy for which roads? Around here there are ballistically-fast, sweeping A-roads with sudden sections of tight twisties: that’ll be a Ducati 1098S then. Then there are the smaller glen roads – rising and falling, twisting and turning back on themselves as they follow the edges of the lochs: much more Monster or KTM SuperDuke territory. Finally, there are bikes that seek the best compromise for all of these, plus my kilometre of potholed Belgium-on-a-bad-day drive: possibly a Multistrada 1100S – in fact if the Multistrada had the Testastretta engine, it would have been a shoo-in – I’ve ridden the earlier incarnation enough to know just how good a chassis they’ve got. But hang on, we’re not talking about looking for an all-rounder here: we’re looking for the maximum of engagement, hoot-inducing fun and the ability to get from A to B, usually via C to Z, with as much flair as possible and a decent tank range, given the distance between filling stations hereabouts. So I’m off to Ducati Glasgow to sample a selection of their range.
First up is the Monster S4R. This is the penultimate Monster: with the 130bhp Testastretta engine, but without the Ohlins suspension of the range-topping S4RS. It’s as nicely finished as any current Ducati (which is to say, pretty good), is a neat, compact-looking bike with a decent riding position and a rather token fly-screen. And that’s exactly how it rides: light, nimble, quick, comfortable (below 90mph), easy and enjoyable.
But perhaps just a tad boring — if I’m riding unfamiliar roads on a new bike and I find that my mind is alternating between how to set up the suspension properly and what I need to pick up from Tesco on the way home, then it’s trying to tell me something. it’s also far too bloody quiet, even compared to my ST4s on stock pipes. In fact, with the exception of a rather jerky throttle/fuel injection combo, it would be an ideal first big bike for a proto-ducatista. I however found it neither one thing nor the other – lacking a certain something in attitude, without either the aggressive intent of a sports bike’s riding position or the get-up-and-go uprightness of the Multistrada. I’m neither sorry nor relieved to park up the Monster and turn my attentions to its rude neighbour: the muscle-of-the-moment of the 1098S.
Now this is a seriously good-looking bike — all nose-down, tail-high attitude, with twin projector headlights that look like they’re perpetually focussed on the vanishing point, with the intent of taking you there just as rapidly as you can pilot it.
I do have a nagging feeling that the look of the 1098 won’t age gracefully — it has just a little too much of the “me-too” Japanese sports bike look to it. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing — I happen to believe that one of the finest sports bike designs of all time was the 2005 Yamaha R1 — it’s just that Ducati have placed themselves more into the mainstream of aesthetics and will therefore need to go with that mainstream flow of annual tweaks and updates. I’m starting to feel nostalgic for the 999 already…
The view from the cockpit is best described as functional rather than inspirational, in contrast to the 749/999 range, which managed both: ahead of you is the top of a low screen, from below which peers a monolithic LCD display panel, which can be persuaded to cycle through pretty much any combination of information and diagnostics you may care to seek, although I’d trade information for ergonomics any day: it’s a little too small, has a slightly convex and very reflective cover and the contrast in daylight is just too low to take stuff in at a single glance. The worst offender is the bar-graph tachometer: it isn’t just that it can be hard to read, it’s that its display runs to over 13000rpm, when maximum power is in fact delivered at 9750rpm and the rev-limiter (I am informed) calls a halt at 10700. That’s an appalling piece of user interface design, where all the information is compressed into the left half of the display and the irrelevantly high scale feeds plain false information to the rider. The bike will also flash up a four letter problem code if something goes pear-shaped: while T.OIL might seem vaguely relevant for high oil temperature, calling the rider a T.WAT when the coolant overheats seems unnecessarily harsh. The other obvious part of your field of view is the top yoke, itself a plain alloy object similar to that of the 916 and definitely lacking the sculptural joy of the 999.
And of course it’s red. Very red, apart from the trademark gold of the Ohlins suspension. And loud: Ducati Glasgow’s demonstrator is fitted with the optional Termignoni end cans and, on this one, the removable baffles seem strangely to have gone AWOL. Even then, it’s not offensively loud, even in town traffic, with the new Testastretta Evoluzione engine giving off a much more strident and staccato bark, even at low revs, than the old 996’s melodious bass burble — the new sound is very much a call to arms for the open road. Which is where we end up, after severalsome miles of working through Glasgow’s pre-Easter exodus. The surprising thing here is just how good the 1098 is in town traffic – half-decent steering lock, which however you can’t use all of, as your hands get trapped twixt bars and fairing, a not at all extreme riding position and supremely smooth fuel injection mean that it’s easy to just trickle along the outside of the traffic, with just the tiniest twitch of the wrist sufficient to transport you instantaneously and controllably into the next gap in the traffic. Much to my surprise I’m actually enjoying this part of the ride — I start with a gentle snigger as I pull into the urban mêlée and am laughing in my lid by the time I reach the outskirts of the city.
Time now to roll it on, scything past a few dawdling cars and pitching it into the first of the 3D curves of the A81 towards Aberfoyle: it feels short, compact and light and it turns telepathically and progressively — the first Ducati I’ve ridden that doesn’t feel it needs more ride height and lower gearing from the outset. This bike is just so planted, so plugged in and responsive that it does just feel like an extension of your senses. This actually makes it incredibly easy to ride; yes, it’ll lift the front wheel on the throttle, from any revs, it’ll make the back step out on command and it’ll reel in the world as though it’s harpooned the horizon. But you feel it all coming — the smoothness of the power delivery and the sensory feedback are such that you’d have to be really, really ham-fisted to dump a 1098 in the dry. A little more care may be needed in the wet (a little classic British understatement there…). The suspension works the usual Ohlins magic, removing all the little vibrations and knocks while still feeding you full information about the road — possibly the best performance upgrade it’s possible to buy. And the brakes: oh, the brakes — Brembo’s finest monobloc radial callipers. These stop the bike however you like: they’re progressive, light and massively, massively powerful. Coupled with that wonderful front-end feedback, you can feel exactly what the front contact patch is doing at any point in the proceedings, right up to gently lifting the back end off the ground. Even the back brake does something useful — another first for a sports Ducati. I like the brakes.
By now I’m past the Glengoyne distillery and I’m focussed, very focussed. In fact I’m slightly on the ballistic side of sensible when I look down and see that the digital tachometer sweep is showing 8500rpm. It also seems to be telling me that there’s another 5000rpm to go. This is startling, and I start to seriously think about handing in my license and giving up: there is no way that I am EVER going to take a machine with this performance that far. It’s a huge bloody relief when I discover that maximum power is actually delivered at 9750rpm: much more Ducati-like, but it really does illustrate how poor the instrument ergonomics are. They are not however as poor as those of the mirrors: had I previously been asked, I would have claimed that it was impossible to create worse mirrors than those of the 749/999. I would also have been wrong: whilst slipping through the Glasgow rush hour I demonstrated, quite definitively, that it was possible to completely hide a following vehicle in the 1098’s blind spot. The fact that the hidden vehicle was a damn great double-decker bus was slightly disconcerting. One other minor, “uh-oh”, experience was that of the machine cutting out on me three times — once while stationary and in neutral at lights and twice whilst filtering through traffic at walking pace. All of those distractions pale into insignificance however: this is one of those rare machines that demonstrate that direct connection between thought and action that marks a superb combination of frame, suspension and fuel injection. I’ve not ridden many of those.
In toto then, this bike is a blend of great design with aspects in its development that seem distinctly patchy. It combines supremely capable function with inexplicable ergonomic lapses and wonderful finishes with a few lousy details. The best way to sum all this up is with a single phrase: It’s a Ducati. Simple really — whatever they say about making their machines accessible and cheaper to service, Ducati just get bored when it comes to all the little finishing details that we take for granted in the Japanese equivalents (when was the last time a Fireblade trapped your hands against the fairing before reaching full lock?).
They just might have a problem here — in pitching their running costs and performance squarely against the Big Four, they’re increasingly going to be judged by their standards and, in some areas, they still fall short. Faint damnation aside, this is a truly outstanding motorcycle: I’d been expecting to enjoy the ride, but dismiss it as largely irrelevant to my wants. Instead, I found myself repeatedly trying out the phrase, “Darling, I spent the Aga fund…”. I think I need to work on the delivery there.
Then I jumped back on the ST to head home. Now hang on a minute: discounting its current pogo-stick behaviour from the service-overdue rear shock, this was the revelation of the day — I’ve spent four years and 40,000 miles setting this machine up to suit exactly how I ride and in understanding its preferences and propensities — the end result is a machine that fits me like a favourite running shoe and which always works with me, whatever I do and wherever I go. So here’s a first step: I’m taking the ST in next week for a suspension rebuild and upgrade: a full service for the rear Ohlins plus a slightly stiffer spring and K-Tech internals for the forks to bring them up from merely good to something approaching the quality of the rear Ohlins. Then I’ll decide where to go with the toy fund. Now there the 1098S is currently on a shortlist of two, the other being that Aga.