This morning, it seems, someone swapped my regular of dose of Raisin Bran with a big bowl of stupid. The scrape of the knee-puck is official notice; I’m being an idiot and my actions are heroic only in the bench-racing retellings. This is November, above the fog layer it is clear and cold, and the only thing keeping me from my doom is the loads of grip provided by the vaguely warm Michelin Pilot Power tires and the superb handling characteristics of the Ducati 999 Monoposto… commuting has never been so good.
Only moments ago I was moving though a mystery world cocooned in cloud, rendering the immediate vicinity a purer white than any iPod designer dare dream. Moving through this colorless reality, condensation develops along the Ducati 999’s leading surfaces, forming windblown rivulets propelled backwards by an onslaught of November chill. The 999 scimitars through the bewildered traffic with lyrical and fluid ease, planted, stable and unflustered. A shock of red against the white, this bike has proven a consummate companion; more than a friend, more than a servant, the 999 has demanded a relationship and understanding. This is more than some superbike fling. It is a full-on affair, that modern day escape from the ordinary that has lead to a minor industry of self help books, therapists and lawyers.
Our double life, sneaking away in secret, begins in October and runs through most of November. It’s well past the height of fall on the west coast; peculiar months to test exotica here, but when the opportunity presents itself how could one say “No.”? The 999, Ducati’s race lineage superbike, thus became a daily commuter, a weekend escape, and I even contemplated it becoming a long-term travel companion in search of warmer canyons to the south. Briefly dubbed the 999 Sport Touring Edition, that task was cut short when a full to the gunnels Joe Rocket tank bag proved difficult to arch around, impeding steering with the 999’s long stretch of the arms to the bars. A little over one and a half months, 2500 kilometers, torrential downpours, near impenetrable fog, and too crisp afternoons stolen from work, every time the Ducati 999 Monoposto cantered out of the livery, it never failed to deliver some thrill, be it some joy secret and illicit, or more public and steadfastly legal. In taking this one last ride I can’t help but feel life will be just a little more ordinary once it’s returned to its rightful spouse.
Living with the 999, the first thing you need to get used to is not the ergonomics, power, or handling, it is the attention. Park it in front of a coffee shop and you can watch the finest examples of mid-life crisis manifest over the course of a Mocha or Latte. Baby strollers come to a slewing halt, wives look puzzled as men point to the swingarm, the stacked headlamps, or fairing wings. Out on the streets it doesn’t end. The uber-riche pause a moment at stop lights, their gaze flowing over you from their Gallardos and DB9s. They know that while they are in fine machines there is no requirement of balance, cornering finesse, or the edge of the elements by comparison to the 999. It drives them to action, often proving that driving sense and skill is not proportional to the size of one’s wallet, lease payment, or beauty of mistress.
Is the 999 that special? Oh, yes. Every ride brings home a story. There’s the con-artist in the bank parking lot who tries to convince me that he was part of the bike’s design team. The elderly mother, undoubtedly doing duty as a great-grandmother to some child, who steals out of her middle aged son’s car at a gas station to comment, “Oh, my that looks very fast.” At the ferry terminal, the former Ducatista regales with past glories and marvels at how far the breed has come. At the observatory, the astronomer who sneaks away from work and to snap a few pictures and pine for a sportbike, asking all the evocative questions – ‘What’s it like to ride? How did it handle the convoluted drive to an outpost which once broadened mankind’s view of the universe? How much power? How much is it worth?” The flight of tittering Japanese exchange students, reverently and haltingly uttering “Ducati” that swarm it at a coffee shop. The 999 may no longer be as rare as hen’s teeth in metropolitan centers, but the exotic draw manages to remain.
If the 999 grew up a supermodel it is now a ravishing adult of near pornographic looks. It has grown out of an awkward adolescence in the shadow of its movie star mother, the 998, and the gently risque curves of its progenitor, the 916. By comparison the 999 is raunchy, stark and brash, a pop cultural construction of stacked headlights and chrome-molly scaffold. Terblanche’s design may not have aged and mellowed, but the times have caught up with the 999’s looks and the slight styling updates it received for 2005 have created a more unified architecture. If the 999 weren’t a coherent whole you could satisfy yourself with the minimalist aesthetic. Except it does work… brilliantly.
Given the 999’s purest superbike underpinnings you could expect the mighty Duc to be difficult, recalcitrant and twitchy. It isn’t. Through the corners the 999 is graceful, moving with strong dynamic and predatory movements. That poise lets the bike cut though the reality of traffic with an otherworldly disregard, a shark slicing through shoals of fish. This is a good thing, as despite an update, the mirrors are still more suited to elbow gazing than traffic. The rearward visibility will have you questioning the stickers on the mirrors, “Objects in mirrors may be closer than they appear.” “More visible than they appear”, seems more fitting.
There is serenity here even on the most manic run through the twists. The suspension is a firm and uncompromising masterpiece when properly set, Dante’s Inferno unadulterated by modern translation, while the chassis is a textbook of engineering portraying delicate schematics of trellis frame wrapping the engine. A cool October day ride sees 40kph marked corners tripled in a series of tight turns, the result is exhilarating and what started as “just a toddle”, from Vancouver to Pemberton and back, is twisted into an adrenaline soaked scandal, and passionate post-ride bench racing.
Twisting the throttle is like dropping a Damoclean hammer, not a sword. Open up the 999 and the new engine obliterates. In a sporting ride with a GSX-R 750, the triple-niner exhibited just what a sporting twin can do. Spinning sinuously and quick up to an 11,000 “red line”, the power comes on flowing, fast and strong. The 999cc 90-degree L-twin engine lays out power pulses smoothly and tractably, shorn of rough edges and inconsistencies, and leaves you wondering how 140hp (claimed at the crank) can feel as comfortable as a favorite novel re-read, the plot being exhilarating despite its known outcome. The Testastretta plant is diluted by the 999’s slightly heavier mass (primarily the result of plastic rather than carbon fibre fairing) in comparison to the 999R, in the same way a splash of orange juice dilutes a litre of vodka, it’s hard to imagine needing more kick on the road.
Coming out of the corner you find yourself twisting the throttle sooner and harder, 80 ft-lbs of torque (claimed) delivered in a torrential wash slingshots you out of the corners with organ-displacing force. That lump in the pit of your stomach is likely your heart and it is beating a pompone tempo. Inevitably you’ll find the front wheel transcribing an upward arc, the most worrisome part of this is that it feels strangely natural. Easing it down you’re soon barreling horizon-ward and entering a realm strictly delineated by multiples of the posted limit. Passing with extreme prejudice evokes the same results. It’s like a childhood dream of piloting the stars bolstered by science fiction and rocket fuel, unencumbered by the need for years of military training. Sadly though, European noise regulations have stolen some of this titan’s thunder.
Corked by the stock exhaust, the symphonic imperial interlude of the twin is stifled. Think of it as the grandeur of the 1812 overture as heard through earmuffs. This engine begs for Termignoni, in the way a conductor surrounded by triangle players pines for a full orchestra. Still, as you spin up the Testastretta plant, magic happens; the at-idle cacophony is left behind as a snarling muffled symphony issues in an instant. The sound still manages to ambush, beguile, and charm and it hits all the right notes in a romping, aggressive tune but you know it could be so much more. It could make the neighbors shake their fists, dogs howl and small children cry. Perhaps then in the name of civility the stock exhaust is a small price to pay.
That bit of courtesy aside everything the 999 does evidences a preference for the extreme. It takes the winter’s bite to cut through the 999’s engine and exhaust heat, pairing it back to moderation. In the “off season” this proves to be a bonus, after the nearly sacrilegious act of installing a heated vest plug on the 999 there is little need for it around town. Instead of freezing your bollocks off, you’re cocooned in the radiated heat, with the 999 creating your own personal microclimate, a warm Italian fall day perhaps. In summer however, this feature likely constitutes a fresh, new, and very sweaty hell in traffic. That fails to matter however, because on the road the 999 raises your emotional temperature as well.
On one morning’s commute I pull on the Brembo binders, twin 320mm discs clenched by four pistoned, four pad constructions. This abrupt drop out of warp to the road’s shoulder is a one fingered affair. Calling into the office, I tell them I’m running early, but not to expect me till noon. Surrounded by the cloying convenience of 7-11’s, Gaps, Starbucks and business parks the 999 is a horror. The clutch, though seemingly quieted over the 2004 model previously tested, moans with anguish and outrage, straining your left hand and having you believe slipping it is a tremendous transgression, while the weight on your wrists below 130kkph encourages you to find a better massage therapist. Simply, this bike is caged like a big cat in this environment. The solution is to balance the experience out. No matter the cold, it’s worth extending your commute an extra 100kms or so, just to get out of the city and stretch this bike’s near-litre legs. Consider it part of your morning routine, the motorcyclist’s equivalent of jogging or the gym. In actuality you might not be that late to the office after all, just don’t expect to save on gas over driving. Such throttle logic can be demanding at the pump.
The day this bike fails to invigorate or intoxicate, it is simply over for you. There is no more reason to ride, so go home, put on the R.E.M. and pull out the razorblades… and bequeath the 999 to someone less jaded. The 999 is entertaining if only for the contradictions it imbues, how can something so extreme behave so affably. How can you not be entertained as you go for a regular ride, and find yourself playing with the lap timer in attempts to set a “personal best” on the way back from the lake? Inevitably, on such rides you find yourself conducting arcane calculations, juggling variables such as the percentage error engendered by the speedometer and the multiple of the speed limit at which your license simply evaporates. In a previous review of the 999 we touched on the theme of corruption, this version is no less a temptation.
I expected a month with this bike in winter to be unrequited love, but no… the Ducati 999 lived up to expectations. It didn’t falter in the cold, never hesitated to start, and despite its heritage performed with the unglamorous reliability of a wood-burning stove. In the end it’s not the power, not the torque, not the handling, nor the S&M ergonomics, or any of that other superbike stuff that makes the 999 special. It’s that every time you ride the 999, be it misguidedly using it as a commuter, sampling various tracks on it, through to a cold farewell, this bike leaves you smiling and wanting more. A twist of the throttle leaves the ordinary behind, and launching out of the corners and driving you into a consensual relationship, thrusting you into the extraordinary. This is an archetypal superbike experience borne purely of passion over practicality, any purer and this bike would be powered by the tears of 1000 virgins.