2004 Ducati 999 – Hello God… Can I Borrow Your Bike?

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Ducati 999I’ve just been through a series of corners on the Ducati 999, and I’m searching for words to describe it; heady, exhilarating, enthusiastic, invigorating, enlivening and inspired all leap to mind. Then I hit on it – it’s rapture.  The 999 is a quasi-religious experience, which makes sense; this bike was designed by the Italians after all – who’ve also brought you the Pope, the Catholic Church, atonement, and now the greatest sin against the cannons of traffic law the world is likely to see – the Ducati 999.

There are some bikes out there where you think you’re going fast, look down at the gauges, and feel disappointment at the reading.

There are others where you work them through the corners, look at the speedo, and see exactly what you expect on the clock.  Then there is the Ducati 999, it’s in a special category where you look down and suddenly realize how much speed you’ve carried through the corner and feel awe tinged with panic.  You had no idea how fast you’re going, except your heart was racing and the world blurred.  This bike makes speed so easy.

As always a big part of the speed equation is the engine.  Ducati’s 998cc 90° L-Twin Testastretta is a miracle of torque, not of horsepower, as the stock 999 only develops 119 Hp at the rear wheel – which by superbike standards makes it a bit meager.   Pull for around town develops from 3000RPM onwards.  Below four grand and what’s that you hear?  War drums thudding a powerful big twin beat through the bars, pegs, and seat.  That’s a hint of the menace this engine embodies, because pulling past four the power lays on thick, brawny, and heavy.  It’s an exquisite revelation to reach 8000 RPM, where the Desmodromic plant exudes 98Nm/72ft-lbs (claimed) of torque.  That’s the lowest spec’d of the 999s and it just ripped your arms out of their shoulders and tossed them aside.  That kind of pull makes you feel pity for the rear Michelin Pilot Sport as it tries to hold on to the road.

Should you choose to introduce a foreign concept to the 999 and doddle, it doesn’t complain.  The plant runs fluidic and smoothly below 7000 RPM, and you’ll need the virtue of patience to hold it there though, as the 999 doesn’t inspire such good behavior.  Over seven grand the engine vibrates strongly through the bars and pegs, which along with the hammering intake warns of your impending arrival at red line.  You bang into the rev limiter at 10,500 – with a flash of the up-shift light 10,000.  You’re likely to miss that flash, as it, along with most of the warning lights, are obscured by the top edge of the windscreen.  That little red flash can be reset, which partially explains the tach’s lack of a marked redline.  All that falls into the category of “it’s a Ducati thing, trying to understand will simply slow the process”.

And why bother slowing the process, better to use the gobs of torque from five to ten grand and shower the rider behind you in bits of tire and road.  Of course you’ll never see them ducking the barrage.  The mirrors are atrocious, but fully adjustable to provide views from your armpit to your nipple.  You’ll crane, contort and just finally give up.  Which is fine because a power band this wide offers biblical performance – the 999 lays down enough acceleration that your only concern need be what’s in front of you.  It’s not a bike, it’s an arrow, red from laying waste to the rules of the road.

You will have to decelerate sometime, and even rolling off is an experience.  The sound on deceleration is a marvelous deep, bassy BWWWAAAAaaaaaa… it’s shouting at the traffic as you pass them while you’re decelerating!  This is how you convert non-believers, not by blowing by people on the throttle, but blowing by them while slowing down…  and on a bike that’s shouting “This is how slow you are!”

Is engine braking a bit to methodical? Grab the right lever and you’re rewarded with yet another experience. Up front the 999 features one-piece caliper Brembo’s biting twin 320mm rotors, which have been reduced in thickness by 0.5mm to 4.5mm to shrink unsprung weight.  And the sound coming off the binders when they’re new is fantastic!  An electric buzz saw whine as they cut great chunks of speed away. Tying the braking system together are braided stainless steel lines that lead to a radial master cylinder under the triangular reservoir – the design of which gives the extra room to allow the 999 better steering lock than the 998.

As good as the front brake is, I still can’t get over the rear brake.  It’s anemic and wimpy and features a near lack of the fully position-able lever.  The rear brake then is strictly relegated to modulating speed – and only a little at that.  If the weak shall inherit the earth, then the rear brake on the 999 is first in line.

This bike carries speed into a corner in absolutely divine ways. It’s not just planted; it’s nailed to the road.  Yet, I found in a brief ride impression that the 998 felt even more so. Up front are expensive golden idols of suspension TiN-coated 43mm Showa upside-downies.  Fully adjustable and they track the road with amazing aplomb.  Even on stock settings the front tracks so well threading needles may be an option!

But, for the vanity of label snobbery and the nicer finish alone I miss the Ohlins found upfront on the 999S.  The lack of them on this bike might make you think that the “plain Jane” 999 really is the “base” model of the line.  Ridiculous to call it such though, I’m hard-pressed to think of another base model that is so well integrated. Even the upper triple clamp is thing of beauty – is it time to sing “amazing brace?”  It’s been machined from a solid piece of aircraft grade aluminum alloy, designed so that metal (and weight) is added only where needed – but more importantly it looks fantastic.

Still, between the awe-inspiring brakes and remarkable suspension there is a glitch.  Grabbing a bit of brake heading into the corners brings the 999 upright shockingly fast.  A habit we didn’t notice in its precursor.  The cure?  Don’t do it!  Why bother?  This bike revels in the speed, it carries it through the corners with an amazing enthusiasm… so why slow off.  You don’t need to!  You find yourself looking down (or up, depending on how much hang off) at the speedo, nervously giggling to yourself, and chickening out way before the 999 has hit its cornering limits.

The actual manner of steering is a full body event.  The 999 responds very well to weight shift so riding becomes a matter of down force on the pegs, pushing of the knee against the inner tank, hang off a bit or shoulder shift and then a bit of counter steer.  Of course the joy of all this activity is it takes some pressure off your wrists.  Still, the 999 feels slow to turn in, perhaps this is the price to pay for the amazingly planted feel of the thing in corners.  One other consideration is that Ducati pinches a 190mm wide tire onto the rear rim, which, while looking fantastic, slows the steering. There is a chance of spooning on a 180, as many 999 and 998 fans are wont to do, to quicken the handling.  At that point priests are likely to look at the 999 and cross themselves as you will be riding the devil of speed incarnate.

That or it’s the cacophony from the clutch that has put them on-guard; going around sounding like a chronic masturbator with a pocket full of wrenches will do that to priests.  Despite the clatter, the only heavy workout for your left hand is the dry clutch.  The gearbox itself has a light, smooth action and clutch-less up shifting is perfectly acceptable.  The throw from first gear to second is a bit long, and sees you occasionally finding neutral along the way ‘till you adapt.  The gearing itself is tall, and realistically anything approximating the national speed limit will only take you to third; we’ve heard the 999 has a sixth gear, but have no evidence of its existence in real world usage.

In traffic, forced outside the heaven of god-like speed, the Ducati 999 makes you atone for your transgressions.  For starters, the 999 pumps out a crippling amount of heat.  The catalytic converter, partially responsible for the 999’s questionable Battlestar Galactica rear-end, sits under-seat… slowly converting your rump into a well-done roast at any speed less than 70kph.  Of course being a narrow twin also means the head of the rear cylinder sits closely adjacent to one’s crotch.  Italian wives, sick of large families, have been known to encourage their husbands to have mid-life crises and buy 999s, believing that the heat pouring off the thing is bound to lower sperm counts.  Also, once the clutch gets hot the grabbing begins…  I swear you could hear the metal on metal scrape at times while slipping it, a disturbing sound from any bike at best.  Then there is the entire issue of comfort.

The 999 features five-way adjustable foot pegs to account for height and reach, both hand levers are widely adjustable for reach, foot-brake and gear lever are tunable for foot size and, on the monoposto models, the seat and tank can be adjusted fore and aft over a range of 20mm.  Yet, despite all this, the 999 is not a bike for the arthritic. It’s like a sadomasochistic relationship.  This bike hurts you.  Your wrists hurt, your ass hurts, the heat broils and sterilizes you, the clutch tires your hand, and you find yourself holding back the tears.  Then you look down at the speedo in a corner and…  all you can say is “Please, Sir, can I have some more?!?”  Then the 999 responds, contemptuously, with a “More than you can possibly handle.”

Which, coincidentally, is the amount of information the digital display shows.  Speed, time, distance, battery voltage, coolant temperature, ambient air temperature, fuel economy, distance to the next service and the status of the anti-theft system – it’s all there.  It would be complete overload except you have a choice of the settings, controlling the informational barrage.  Luckily, it doesn’t show the cost of the next service or likely you’d never pull out of the garage.  The lap timer, however, sums this bike up perfectly; deeply impractical for the road and race inspired.

If you crave other types of attention then the 999 is for you; it draws a crowd.  People will come up to you, ask to sit on it, ask about it’s lineage, even non-motorcyclists know this bike is something special; it carries with it an aura that demands attention.  The look grows on you.  Put the 999 next to the iconic 998 and suddenly the classic lines of the 998 start to look a bit dated.  We’re still not fans of the stacked front pots.  It’s a complicated design and it doesn’t gel to the eye immediately.  There are a lot of different elements at work, perhaps too many; there’s no sense of wholeness to it like was found in its precursor.

So in traffic the 999 is pure hell. It makes no sense, and it also make no apologies… why?  Because on the open road, or god-forbid on a track, this bike is pure heaven.  The fact that there are two “better” models of this bike put out by Ducati is just flabbergasting – is it even possible to put out a bike that is better than God’s own ride?  Well, yes, we know all the really fun people don’t end up upstairs…  I can hear the deep, seductive baritone now, almost like a L-twin burble at idle, “Step into the garage my boy, it will only cost you your immortal soul.”  That or sign up for the 999 at a considerably cheaper MSRP of $26,995 CDN.

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