The Maddest Compo – Ducati Multistrada 620 vs Suzuki GSX-R 1000

Take that Mr. GixxerThe engine is thrumming, the throttle is pegged, and I’m in the best areo-tuck 6’2” 200lbs of editorial content can manage.  The windscreen begins to vibe a bit. I bump the rev limiter in the neighborhood of eleven—five.  Upshift, the throttle is light and oil-smooth, I barely blip and keep it pegged.  In the distance that fading speck on the uphill horizon is snapper Kevin, on the GSX-R 1000…  and I’d be lying if I said I cared.  I’m astride the Ducati Multistrada 620 Dark, I’ve just kissed 175kph, and I’m smiling like a madman.  Why?  This feels like riding… and the corners are coming up – the tight ones… and the tables turn.

Splinter in my mind’s eye is a moment of clarity that has stuck with me over the past two days of riding.  Stealing a glance from the cockpit of the GSX-R 1000, while cornering parallel for video, it strikes me; we are moving at what one could call “an acceptable pace” through the tight and twists, and the GSX-R hasn’t even begun to wake up yet.  It’s feeling constrained, hampered and caged at this clip – air box thunderously proclaiming that second has so much more.  While our “guest bike model”, Yves Carrier from Calgary’s Revoluzione, astride the 2005 Multistrada 620 Dark, is grinning like mad – it’s obvious even through his helmet and aviator shades – harnessing the GSX-R is just feeling like serious business.

It’s not supposed to be this way, damn it! I’m on Suzuki’s 2005 GSX-R 1000, arguably the maddest, most powerful and possibly most savage bike the roads have ever seen – for this year anyway.  Everything in Suzuki’s marketing materials says this is a bike that is all about the track.  The Multistrada 620 is not. Everything about the MTS 620 is gentler, friendlier, and much less mad than any track born spawn.   Indeed, I would love to launch ballistic out of the corner, the GSX-R’s titanium internals screaming, but I have a camera bike in front of me to contend with.  In the real world it could just as easily be a minivan on any blind corner, and it’s slowed off, serving to reminding me that this may not be the GSX-R’s element.

On most bikes I’d be engine braking, instead I’m on the binders… hard.  The new GSX-R components are so light they must be filled with helium. Given this bike will bump 203kph in second that’s a bit of a problem; there is not a lot of engine braking to be had.  At this moment it feels near non-existent.  Another corner and where the MTS 620 and camera bike are using compression, I’m braking hard across the ripples.  As part of the Gixxer’s caged protests, the front BT-014 is overpowered and the front-end “pushes” – though that seems too calm a word.   The sign of a good chassis and suspension is that it lets me recover gracefully – if with only a few more gray hairs.

The Multistrada 620 bounds along on 43mm upside down Marzocchi forks and a Sachs Monoshock (both adjustable for preload and rebound damping).  By comparison, the 43mm forks on the GSX-R share the same upside-down configuration, but add compression damping to the menu, and in the rear is a similar rate-rising monoshock.

Being hounded by the frolicking Multistrada 620, while astride the near perfect sportbike, is a lugubrious state of affairs.  I’d been given fair warning though, after watching the head of Ducati Canada bring shame on a score of track riders astride the diminutive Multistrada at the recent Desmo Daze event in Calgary.  The track – tight, twisted and technical – gave the MTS 620 an advantage over more sport-oriented fare when the corners came calling.

Likewise, the routes we’ve taken today are dodgy and fiercely technical.  The pavement has seen better days;  its scarred countenance is rippled, heaved, periodically gravel sprinkled, and populated with infections of tar snakes.  Occasionally though its complexion clears with a few hundred meters of smooth, and even less frequently straight, re-pave.

It’s here that you’d need something just shy of a cruise missile to beat the GSX-R 1000 in roll-on and through the twists.  The Suzuki, for these seconds, is a phenomenon unto itself; the handling, unfettered by the heaves and ruts, is sublime. The GSX-R throttle is light and precise providing the exemplary control in reigning in the personalized fusion reactor known as its engine.  I launch past the 620 with hardly any sensation of speed at all – it’s almost disappointing.  All too soon though, the best of what BC has to offer in sportbike roads welcomes you back.  Forcing me to haul the Gixxer down from “ludicrous speed” and plant the front tire solidly where it belongs – on the blacktop.  Who knew going mad would feel so sane, and the defiling of physics this easy.  Is this how Superman feels, having to restrain himself 99% of the time to be part of the real world, and only being free the other 1%?  I’m left wondering where the fun is?

The MTS 620 “Tiggers” past me in the corner, riding right through the gravel like it didn’t exist – “fun, fun, fun, fun, fun” as the Disney song goes.  Later, at a rest break, Yves is all, “Gravel, what gravel?” at my discomfort.

In yesterday’s 400km run, unconstrained by the boundaries of poser-dom, the GSX-R was astoundingly fast through the arterial roads of B.C.  Blasting past traffic, with a 165hp (at the rear) and 80 ft-lbs of torque – the GSX-R feels like the force of a Saturn 9 crushed into the handling of a wasp.  Spinning to peak power at a manic 11,400RPM, traffic was passed with extreme prejudice.  The concept of speed loses meaning as the bike compresses time and bends the world around it.  The feeling is brief, elating and worrisome all at once – how has the world become so slow around me?  There are so few places to unleash this biblical might; it could lead one to despondency.

“What’s the matter with you?” say the therapist.
“I’ve no place to use my superbike.”
“Ah, GSX-R depression…  take three laps of the Nürburgring and call me in the morning.”

The Multistrada 620?  No such therapy needed, it’s all vastly amusing.  The chassis is lifted from its bigger sibling, the Multistrada 1000DS, and handles everything the road can offer with aplomb.  The engine itself is sweet and free-revving, with power hitting its true stride from 4750 to around 9500, with pull all the way through; the 63hp (claimed) twin thrums along with enough grunt and power to be entertaining.  Indeed, the misleadingly small 618cc twin pulls from the start, letting you amble around out in third if need be.  The joy is all accessible, clean power through to the rev limiter in the area of 10,500RPM, and you don’t need to be a track superstar to use the bike… indeed you don’t need a track.

I ease off the Gixxer’s throttle and ginger the brakes into the corner trying to relax.  It’s almost relieving as Yves and the MTS 620 flit by, dipping, bobbing and flicking through the ruts, gravel and blind twists as if to some internal happy-bumble-bee soundtrack.  Those wide bars give better leverage than the Gixxer’s clip-ons and give the ‘Strada a maneuverability advantage in the tight stuff.  The aggressive chassis dynamic works against the GSX-R here, there’s no leverage against the bars, no upright visibility of what’s coming (cows); it’s about the most opposite experience in the world to the Multi.

Easing off gives me a chance to contemplate the looks of these two very different species.  Strangely, they almost seem to share some design roots.  On the surface there’s the stacked headlights, mirror-integrated signals, angular styling cues, and a wasp-waisted middle. After that, though, the similarity ends.

The GSX-R is pure generic sportbike, beautiful because of its purpose; everything about it says “light” and “fast” in a chorus of angles and points. “Soft” is not in its lexicon.  The seating is a wafer of padding; the position lower and meaner than ever.  It suffers cruel intentions on taller pilots, neck extended and craning, and the mirrors give you a great view of how far behind the leading edge of the warp bubble your shoulders and elbows are — that roar may not be the intake but the world’s chiropractors clapping in fiscal glee.  If you’re over 6’, getting behind the windscreen involves a tank hug with your ass to the back of the seat, an image illegal in some conservative US States.  Styling-wise it’s not a good time to be a GSX-R, you look like all the other sportbikes out there – or they look like you.

By contrast, the 620 Dark, in its flat back tuxedo, wouldn’t draw any attention at all if it weren’t such an outright exercise in design.  Parked side-by-side with the GSX-R, the lanky exotic was the bike that drew the notice.  Still, the Multistrada’s looks draw conflict.  One of our more style-conscious associates pointed out, “It could be the best bike in the world, it could be THE for me, but I’d give it a miss.  Nothing draws me to it aesthetically.”  That may be his loss.  In a world of wrinkle dogs and hairless cats, the Multistrada 620’s looks have a growing place.  Classic beauty?  No, but the tall slim figure grows on you and once seated completely fails to matter.

The MTS 620’s splendor lies in its sense of practicality, comfort and total usability – a Ducati for every day…  track day Sundays to boot.  The seating position is kind and welcoming; with a soft wide saddle and wide wrist-pressure-free bars, you sit upright with a commanding view of the sightlines and gauges – even the mirrors work!  On a Ducati, mirrors, working – imagine!

Flash forward and the Multistrada and I have the GSX-R in our sights with a 20kph hairpin upcoming.  A push on the bars, some weight on the pegs and the MTS620 heals around; the narrow 160/60 Pirelli Diablo out back giving astronomically fast turn-in, sticking like glue, the slim 120/60 front doing likewise.  I give the small twin all the fuel it can consume and thrum-thrummm-thrummm upwards through the gears; all that keeps us from passing the Gixxer on the inside is thin thread of civility.   Then it’s back to a mad downhill chase, with the Gixxer pulling away fast on the sweepers.  My face hurts… if I smile any harder I fear I’ll waste six years of orthodontics and teen angst.

The Multistrada completely dissolves any semblance of sense and judgment. The Gixxer may just consume the passes in one gulp, but the nimble Multistrada turns them into a frolicking romping game.  Blocked by a truck?  Take the inside line, er… yes, shoulder.  It’s a little hellion built out of the joy of riding, a Ducati without pretense or reservation and with aspirations sportbike-dom – without all the discomfort. It may be this year’s best road party, if only because what it pulls off is so incongruous to its roots. Beginner’s bike?  Minimal horsepower?  Phah!

Both bikes share superb feeling, light and responsive gearboxes, though the Gixxer edges out the Multistrada 620 in this area.  They also share “slipper-clutches”, but with different implementations and underlying reasoning.  The GSX-R’s is to allow quick downshifting into the corners without causing back tire chatter due to engine braking; it works, shifts between third and first are without hiccup allowing the use of the Gixxer’s minimal engine braking.  The Multistrada’s slipper is there simply to make riding easier.  New riders, the logic goes, could use a hand with down shifting, to keep things smooth, and a slipper clutch is the solution.  Logic aside, the effect is the same and the Multistrada’s system just as useful in spirited riding.

Looking for the red-line ? On the Ducati, you find there’s none; “It’s all about the feel of the engine”, says Yves with a preposterously bad fake Italian accent.  The long downhill straight sees the GSX-R become but a dot, but the MTS 620 is up for the game.  I pre-load the shifter and let the rev-limiter do the work; beautiful clutch-less up-shifts in succession see us grin and giggle our way up to 200kph, a mark that all at once feels like an accomplishment and a celebration.

Does the GSX-R’s huge horsepower destroy the challenge and joy of riding?  Perhaps… You may find yourself looking through the nigh unusable mirrors and thinking things like, “I was ONLY doing 200kph… where did they go?!”  How could speed become so… dull?

There is a duality to the Gixxer; like a dinner invite from Hannibal Lecter, you know your host is civilized, courteous, calm and mannered, but you’re never quite sure if you’ll be served or served.  There is always an edge to the power, one that sets a little voice in the back of your mind singing in a cultured tone, “I’m going to get you.  One day… You’d best be paying attention…  Always.”  There is no relaxing here, 999cc of atomic power requires 100% of your focus and a lot of reserve as you move though the compressed version of time it creates.

Meanwhile, the MTS 620 is giving you all it’s got before the GSX-R even hits pace, the airflow over the top fairing is howling, the engine is vibrant, alive, and immensely entertaining.  You can squeeze every drop from this bike and take it to its limit…  while the GSX-R? – never… not this street pilot anyway.

The GSX-R is superhuman potential made manifest, and I’m sure that as a mere mortal I can’t possibly use it all.  With all its poise, all its confidence, all its control, it’s just not exciting – until it is.  Driving out of a tight corner, the rear BT-014 begins to side step under the thrust.  It’s the third time today, and wearing on the nerves.  Whoever matched the BT-014s to this bike made a serious miscalculation; the GSX-R needs something far more tenacious and gripping, the Diablos would do…  which, strangely, shod the Multistrada.

Another corner, and I’m on the GSX-R’s brakes; the feedback and effect is phenomenal. The radial-mount master feeds four pistons clamping down on 310mm rotors out front, all tied together by Kevlar weaved lines.  If it weren’t for the BT-014s, and the caution they inspire, I’d swear we could stop the Earth’s rotation.  Wait though, here’s the shock…

Dusk approaches, and there’s Bambi ready to make a leap. I squeeze the binders and four-piston calipers bear down on a single 320mm disk our front under the directive of steel braided lines – and just about put the 183kg (dry) Multistrada 620 Dark on its nose!  The feel is near as grabby as the GSX-R, but more conventional.  The single disked MTS is 17kg heavier than the 166kg GSX-R and should be at a braking disadvantage in real world conditions.  That would be wrong.

Insane?  Yes, probably, but the MTS 620, with one disk out front, has to deal with a shade over half the rotating mass and considerably less rotational energy to dissipate under braking.  Plus while the GSX-R hits speeds that bring relatively into play (I swear riding the GSX-R my aging actually slowed), the MTS 620 will hammer its way up to the GSX-R’s top second gear pace and call it good.  Decelerating the ‘Strada copes with speeds that will set your license on fire, rather than reduce it to it’s constituent sub-atomic particles, and its brakes nicely match it’s potential.  The single disk stopper does “just fine thanks very much.”

A navigational error sees us U-turning on gravel pack and the Multistrada proves that it’s trail-ly looks aren’t just façade, despite it’s street tires.  It takes to the ditch and runs rings around the litre bike – literally.  The GSX-R instantly becomes cumbersome, requiring a four-point turn to negotiate a tight U. Versatility scores one, race-honed track edge…  not so much.

Low-speed parking lot maneuvers can be an issue on the GSX-R.  At right bar lock your grip is forced backward on the throttle due to interference from the tank – killing forward motion – suddenly – a recipe for parking lot embarrassment.  Low speed living on the Multistrada is easy.  The Marelli fuel injection is exceptional, linear and predictable, in keeping with the rest of the Ducati line.  There are no shocks, no surprises and a feel that surprisingly outclasses even the Suzuki’s exceptional control – though not near as light.  If this is a beginner’s bike, then you fail to feel where any scrimping and saving may have occurred on the fuel injection.  Or you can sod all that; put a foot down and super-motard out of the parking stall.

By the end of the ride, I’m outpacing the GSX-R in 40kph marked corners, and having a blast doing it.  The Multistrada 620 Dark’s suspension embraces the frost heaves and gives the tar strips a wet kiss, while the 620 engine does things with a revvy fanaticism that completely belies the horsepower.   The funvelope (fun·ve·lope: n, envelope or range of speed where a bike is truly fun to ride) begins before you’re out of the parking lot, with an immediate call to action, “Thrash me!  Take me all the way!  Use me all up.”  Whatever you huck at it, the ‘Strada eats it and asks for another round, all the way up to top speed.

The GSX-R’s funvelope?  This is a bike that forces you to recalibrate.  Want to feel alive and enjoy your riding?  Triple or quadruple every sign, then throttle some more, and don’t forget to cushion your bank account for the inevitable onslaught of performance awards.  On it you rule the Parthenon of 2005’s sportbikes, transformed into something mighty and mythological, you are suited for Mt. Olympus but the everyday world blocks and stymies you, save for periodic outbursts of preternatural speed.

It’s our last day in the sunny Okanagan, and I’ve just pulled rank.  It’s time to return the MTS and I’ve wrested the keys away from our photographer who, given the choice of the two bikes, wanted the Multi for the final ride back to Oliver.  Against the backdrop of Oliver’s vineyards things are feeling most distinctly Italian and I can’t help but express my exuberance.  Hop-scotching through traffic I realize that this is the first time we’ve fought for the keys to a smaller displacement bike.

I know that somewhere behind me the GSX-R is coiling itself for a launch past traffic that would make lightning jealous, but on the Multistrada 620 Dark I’m a Mercurial trickster to the GSX-R’s stern Jupiter… Oh, look, a twisted wave of asphalt… leading to a gravel road…

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One Comment Add yours

  1. jprimeca says:

    Fantastic writing. Really enjoyed it, thanks.


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