Ducati 900 SuperSport
Most roundabouts are not round, but either a haphazard oval, or a squared-off circle, and worse still full of ruts and pot-holes, and covered in diesel spills. But I know a very particular roundabout, somewhere in the depths of a deserted industrial estate, that is a perfect circle, with clean tarmac, and where after five pm. there is not a soul for miles. On this roundabout, one summer evening, I realised exactly why Ducati deserves it's cult status. But let's start at the beginning.
I collected the Ducati from Alvins Motorcycles in Edinburgh on a very unpromising day, the Forth Bridge had a howling gale that threatened to have me and the bike airborne at any moment. Tip-toeing home through the puddles on a powerful, unfamiliar bike, is just no fun, and I was worried that I was not going to come to terms with Italy's finest. But come the evening, the weather cleared and I kitted up and set off for that roundabout. A perfect circle, connected by a short length of dual-carriageway to another larger roundabout, and all to myself. If I was ever going to get to grips with this bike, now was my opportunity. I started slowly, getting used to the feel as I leaned the bike in progressively steeper for each 360 degree turn. This is where a true circle is so important, no need to adjust your line, just concentrate on the vehicle. Maybe a half a dozen runs later I had gained the confidence I was looking for. With the bike over to the edge of it's tyres, it felt utterly composed and sure-footed like nothing I have ridden before. I knew now that I was comfortable with it, and the run home was serene, the bike almost alive in my hands. If this sounds like hooligan behaviour, it's not. I simply wanted to get the feel of the machine away from the traffic, safely, and without endangering anyone. Frankly the roads would be a safer place if others took the trouble to learn about their vehicles the same way.
I parked the Ducati, changed out of my leathers and dragged a comfy chair out to the garage. With Neil Young on my CD walkman, a tin of beer and a cigar, I just sat there and admired. It is no accident that this bike is painted red, Rosso Corsa, Italian Racing Red no less, and it is apt. If this thing had four wheels it would be a Ferrari. The delicate trellis frame is painted a wonderful pewter colour, which melds with the gold hardware, polished alloy and deep red paint to concoct a palette of Mediterranean hues. The shape is taut, muscular and minimal, there is not an ounce of fat, just muscle and bone. It is drop dead gorgeous.
It is even better to ride than it is to look at. Surprisingly roomy and comfortable for such thoroughbred sporting bike, you can spend all weekend on it, as I did, without needing a chiropractor afterwards. The first thing that gets to you is the staccato beat of that 900 cc air cooled V-twin. Relatively old-tech. it may be, but it is highly effective at spearing the bike towards the horizon in wholly addictive fashion. Indeed it seems so unstressed in it's action that it flatters to deceive, as you will often find yourself travelling faster than you expected. It pays to keep a close eye on the speedo. This bike's reason for living though is it's handling. It is simply superb. It's no surprise that Ducati have been cleaning up in the World Superbike Championship in recent years, as this thing goes, stops and corners like a real racer. The real beauty of this is not so that you can emulate the racers, but that at more moderate speeds in real life conditions, the bike allows you such a wide margin of abilities, that it affords you a lot of primary safety. The snag is that this red devil of a machine is a constant source of temptation to push it further. Do you remember those "Oor Wullie" cartoons where Wullie had a Devil on one shoulder and an Angel on the other, each offering him contrary advice in the face of temptation? Ride a 900 SS on a sunny afternoon through the glories of Perthshire and you will know how he felt. It would be nice to imagine that Dudley D. Watkins might have owned a Ducati too.
Nothing this good could be perfect, and the Ducati has it's inevitable downsides. Some of the finish is poor, the electrical switch gear doesn't look too robust, and the sidestand is as effective as a stiletto heel. I found 30 mph a near impossibility, the engine would tug and pull at it's chain like an irritable Pit Bull, and neither changing up nor down the gearbox seemed to help matters, it just didn't like going slowly. The biggest shock in store for the new owner comes when he or she attempts a U-turn, and wonders why they end up on the deck with the bike on top of them. The reason is the atrocious steering lock, this bike has a turning circle which would shame a Thames barge. This may not seem a big deal, but it makes low speed manoeuvres an unnecessarily fraught experience. Be warned!
The Ducati is a genuine superbike, capable of quite phenomenal performance. It is also a very Italian product, sculpted and artistic yet almost amateurish in some respects. All told it is a refreshing contrast from the more anodyne, if technically more accomplished offerings of the Japanese. It is also considerably cheaper at £8,700 on the road, which undercuts the competition from Honda, Suzuki et al. Ducati can also offer you the breathtaking 916 SP at a mere £17,000, but you might be encouraged to note that this Supersport range is available with 600cc and 750cc engines as well, which start at a more reasonable £6,050. These are not bikes for the inexperienced, and it will take you a while to plumb the depths of what they have to offer, for which you would be well advised to find a quiet roundabout to get to know them. And my perfect circle of tarmac? I'm sorry, but that will remain my little secret for now!