Ducati Sport Classic – Sport1000 Speed Racer

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2006 Ducati Sport Classic - Sport1000 Speed RacerMy shoulders are molten slag, my wrists are twin torments worthy of the inquisition, the Rocky Mountain air has taken on a hypothermic edge, and rain torrents through my perforated leathers so hard it stings my forearms and my face.  I’ve abandoned my long since fogged over visor; it’s become a detriment this night.  Between the dark, the downpour, the mist, and the tire spray I can hardly make out the lines on the road or the taillights 15 metres in front of me.

I’m not sure if that’s road salt I taste or tears.  At least the Axio pack is keeping my back warm.  Suddenly I have a flash, the mental image of a 70s cafe racer, rider flat to the tank, open-faced helmet, goggles, teeth gritted against the elements, going hell-bent for leather through the tempestuous night.  I grin and give a “Speed-Racer” thumbs up to no one in particular.  At this moment I’d not trade any of this day’s 500kms on the Ducati SportClassic Sport1000 for any other bike.

It’s the romance of the Sport1000 that’s grabbed my heart and overpowered common sense from the get-go.  The Sport1000 sits at the end of the Ducati trailer, freshly unloaded in the parking lot of Calgary’s Revoluzione, orange soaking up the evening’s sepia tones, black racing stripe making a standstill look quick.  Closer inspection reveals a gem of singular cut with the fit and finish being superb, the welds are clean and the Ducati press materials reveal that the caps on the upside down forks are polished by hand.

I feel like a master thief about to make off with a rare jewel, though for some reason I have to return it to Edmonton – perhaps my VFR is being held hostage in a Calgary warehouse? Weaker plot devices have held together remakes like the Italian Job or Ocean’s Eleven, so lets not quibble.  It’s a good excuse to put the Rockies under the Sport1000’s back tire, they make a suitably scenic stand-in for the Italian Alps after all – though the roads tend not to be as convoluted.  On paper the plot looked so good, but chiropractic reality is intruding on our stylish 70’s spy flick.

The Sport1000 is inspired by the 1973 Ducati 750 Sport, a 70s cafe racer; a bike in its purest form. Low clip-on bars, tight rear set foot pegs, stripped of the soft, the nonessential and the extraneous, these cafe racers sport a Spartan design sense that makes minimalism look opulent.  It is that sense of ergonomic disregard that I’m slowly recovering from over multiple fondued meats and even more alcohol in Banff’s 70’s kitsch enclave, the Grizzly House.

This is a shrine to meat grilling on hot rocks in garlic butter excess, animal demise, and 70’s decor that has escaped update.  If you see the stuffed head hanging on the wall, amongst the oil coated memorabilia, then likely you can order the rest of the beast on the menu.  Rarer fare like rattler and alligator make an appearance on the menu, but I stick with the tamer “wild” fare of the Hunter’s fondue.  Wheel the Sport1000 in here (and we contemplated doing so) and it will look like an anachronism surrounded by remnants of a crass time featuring Sonny and Cher, platform shoes with goldfish (not on the menu), polyester leisure suits, shag carpets, bell bottoms and plaid.

Through the haze of butter, grease and the wafting odor of searing caribou (a quadruped so tender it makes you wonder why beef ever caught on) I spot it – a stylish SwissAir poster.  The Sport1000 belongs in the parallel universe the poster represents, not in the crass North American experience.   A 70’s best viewed through historical rose coloured glasses, or at least a fourth cooler, which is an epoch of Italian style where design is still adventuresome and not driven by test groups and nanny-state regulations.

It seems distant hours ago that lightning had shredded the sky, throwing the jagged violence of the Rockies’ peaks into sharp and sporadic relief.  Peaks in turn that had ripped open the heavens and transformed Canmore’s streets into rivers.  Touring on a Sport Classic suddenly seemed unreasonable, these are delicate crown jewels of the Ducati line – right?

You learn a lot about a bike on tour, often questions you’d never think to ask, like “How does the Sport1000 handle in a half-metre deep flash flood that threatens rips the boots off of your pegs?”  The answer, by the way, is quite well.

Right away any fear of flaky Ducati electricals are washed away, literally and figuratively, as the Sport1000 plows onwards.  The retro inspired Pirelli Phantom Sportscomps also proved they are not just for show, the bike proves stable and tractable in the rain.  It’s the sort of competence that epitomizes what the Sport1000 is about, there’s all the style and looks, but here is also substance here to boot.

Later in the tour by Sunwapta Pass, we’re into a bit of a groove despite the misting skies.  The Sport1000 and I sweep though “Big Bend” a 180 degree turn that slingshots us towards the pass’s lookout.  We pull in and Kevin starts doing his photographic duties.

A tall blonde shy thirtysomething floats around the scene as Kevin snaps away.  He has the appearance of someone who wants to talk bike, but is unsure of his opener.  After about 10 minutes he breaks down, “It is dangerous to go so fast?”  I am unsure if this is a question, a comment or a reprimand for an earlier pass.  With retro-chic on my side, I’m tempted to use the line, “Danger is my middle name, Austin Danger Powers”.

Wrong time and wrong audience I suppose.  Despite a language barrier and a difference in bike cultures (the Dutch as I remember it take their speed laws quite seriously), we begin a halting conversation about the Sport1000.  I try to convey how planted it feels in sweepers, that the suspension is firm but compliant, that the Sport1000 is composed and virtually unflappable over rough pavement despite the fact it is hammering at you with the broad flat seat.  The speed we were going simply felt like a loping pace.  Likely I fail to relate this completely, coming off like an over excited adrenaline junky, but that’s really not the sort of ride the Sport1000 invokes.

The Sport1000 does inspire quick, hard riding, but not mercilessly thrashing.  Part of the bike’s character is the exposure; you’re close to the ground, there is nothing in front of you except the headlight and stylish white-faced speedo and tach, while the bars set you aggressively forward in the wind stream.  There is nothing between you and the speed, as the Sport1000 nips along smoothly, feeling quick and civilized.

Twist the throttle and precise Marelli fuelling feeds the ever-versatile 1000DS L-Twin engine a trickle or a torrent as you desire.  Vote for the torrent and the Sport1000 rips open its 992cc lapels and shows you its chest hair and gold medallion.  Boot up to 200 plus in a moment’s notice, reducing traffic in the blurry rear-views to mere specs, not out of spite but simply because they were spoiling the view, on a sumptuous wash of 67.3 lb-ft of claimed torque (at 6000rpm).  The plant pulls like a mountain goat from 3000rpm, revving freely through its mid-range, before reaching a peak 92 horsepower that comes in at 8000rpm – past that you’ll find the rev limiter at 9200rpm.

True, the engine isn’t a heart-palpitating, knee-trembling, tire-shredding, massive numbered, ‘roid-raging beast, but it’s near perfect for the Sport1000 – it’s charming, suave, refined and sounds the classic part with the desmodromic clatter of two mechanically actuated valves per cylinder providing a timeless soundtrack.  Well, that and it will kick any other brand’s simulated retro heinies.

The only glitch here is a lean surge in around 4000RPM if the bike is held at a constant pace, likely due to oxygen sensors added to the system to meet Euro 3 emissions standards.  That and the exhaust note could be so much more, the two black mufflers on the right-hand side don’t need to be leather-lunged shouters, but a bit more sound would be nice.  Again, “standards” crop up spoiling the fun by legislating civility, and just as a backlash I’d love to hear the head imploding pompone thunder of a proper set of pipes.

Moving up to speed you snick through a crisp 6-speed gearbox.  The dry multi-plate clutch is typical Ducati heavy, but frankly in traffic the Sport1000’s other ergonomic concerns are more pressing, mostly on your wrists. Want to feel like you’ve ridden a sport classic for a day?  Grab two bar bells, lay yourself on the floor, and now raise yourself into a half push up position and hold.  This is not ergonomics; it is a workout in disguise.

At legal speeds the Sport1000’s aggressive seating position places a tremendous weight on my wrists, but past 130kph the windblast against my chest is gently supportive – that puts it into the realm of a manageable highway tool ergonomically.  A slighter 5″10’ photographer Kevin needs to bump that speed up – considerably.  That reveals a problem with our stand-in Alps; the towns are spaced well apart – hundreds of kilometers really and most of it sweepers at best.

It’s north of Jasper that we find mountain road nirvana.  Turning at Pocahontas we take the road towards Miette Hot Springs.  After a brief set of uphill twisties the road descends into a ravine tracing the cataclysmic upheaval of the Rockies with a series of 50, 30 and 20 kph marked turns – really the signs should just say “not for the thrill adverse”.  Through this all the Sport1000 is solid, planted, and requires a firm hand despite its relatively light 179 kg/394 lbs  – classic Ducati handling accomplished through thoroughly modern design.  Push hard on the low clip-ons, lean hard and hang off and the Sport1000’s stylish disposition falls by the wayside giving way to its hidden talents; this bike likes to be worked and chucked around.

Suspension is firm and pounds at you relentlessly on rough roads, but never loses its grip despite my best efforts – the Sport1000 simply engages the tarmac in battle and bolts along with its mission.  The 43 mm upside-down fork features no adjustment, but that doesn’t seem an issue.  Out back the single Sachs monoshock, adjustable for pre-load, compression and rebound damping, is mounted on the left side of the asymmetrical swingarm.  It handles its burden well as form meets functionality once more, the design harkens back to the original 750 Sport’s dual rear shocks without being slavishly retro.

Unlike Ducati’s superbikes, the braking is soft, progressive, and completely lacking in drama – I like it.  I’ve no fear of grabbing the lever and putting a two-pistoned bite on the 320 mm semi-floating discs and ending up in a heart stopping front end push.  On the road, soft is just fine.  You can overpower the Pirelli Phantom’s traction but it takes a concerted effort.  Like everything else about the Sport1000’s mechanicals, there is a feeling of civilized refinement.

On the 10th or 11th run through the corners (one has to do such things to get the shots) it strikes me that I’d love to take the Sport1000 to the track.  The bike’s refined manners would be excellent for the occasional track day and I’m suspecting you could surprise more than a few rocket owners with its competence.  Even if you don’t, the look of the thing it will make you a track star, while everyone else simply looks the same on their sport-clone-bikes.

Back on the reality of Albertan roads, I want to get out the string and simply tie the bars into position; a few niggles have cropped up in my love affair with this bike.  The mirrors for one, with detentes holding them in two preset positions that give a view set for someone or something very differently shaped from myself.  Even when I do get them set just so, they slowly migrate back to their detentes and the battle begins again.  If I put the ball of my right foot on the peg, then my heel periodically contacts with the pipe – something by the look of the residue on the black cans other reviewers have noticed.  Oh, and cleaning it?  Black pipes and spoke-wheels ensure that while you have modern reliability you can still spend hours in the garage cleaning for a quality collector’s experience.

Of course there is the obvious whine, and the Sport1000 cannot be faulted for this because no one ever looked at the bike’s single seat and rounded tail section and said, “saddle bags”.  Nor should they, this is not a thing of practicality.  Shame facedly I must say in order to “tour” on this bike I resorted to a backpack for my kit, and then as it weighed down on my shoulders I even switched that off to our other review bike, the S4Rs, for comfort’s sake.  If you are going to spend time on the road with the Sport1000, I’d recommend traveling with understanding friends.

There is a temptation upon seeing a retro-inspired bike like the Ducati SportClassic Sport1000 to put it on a pedestal and hide it away from the real world, maybe only taking it out for the occasional weekend spin.  That is a pity, because as much as any other bike the Ducati Sport1000’s place is planted firmly on the roads, nipping out on the evening coffee run, taking day trips and shooting around the occasional track.  Think of it as a perfect companion for the gentleman master thief, one that can affect a quick get away without putting a hair out of place, fundamentally pure to its purpose and whose beauty is not skin deep.  That, and at the price, you just can’t beat the poser points.

MSRP: $13,995 CDN
Web:  Ducati North America

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