It’s a scene from a script. The Ducati 1098S ascends the Angeles Crest, while below a fierce wildfire consumes hectares of brush in L.A.’s Griffith Park. Cut to news footage of residents evacuating the southern boundary. A close-up of twin undertail Termignoni exhaust, the only soundtrack their bellicose bass harmonization. A series of pans as the 1098S slices smoothly though fresh paved curves, the Testeratta Evoluzione engine note rising and falling with the throttle roll.
Pulling into a viewpoint to the loping whup-whup-whup(… ass) drum of the 1099cc L-twin and discordant dry clutch clatter providing the score I wonder, “Is this how Nero felt as Rome burned?” Below, the park glows orange, a spectacle even at this distance. I kill the engine. After a few minutes, the occupants of a tuned Civic join us. The city may be burning but the 1098S steals the show.
Initially the 1098S stuns in ways the 999 never did; graceful curving lines, elegant headlights, the Desmosedici tail, LED signals housed in the lamps, gold Ohlin suspension, delicate forged alloy Marchesini wheels and subtle decaling. Later maybe you see elements of other bikes and the appeal fades a bit – a hint of R1 or Triumph in the headlights, conventional fairing rather than the 999’s winged plastics, or a side profile that seems a bit more generic sportbike. The design’s coup de grace though is the moment you see the 1098 as an integrated whole rather than the individual parts. Cue the romantic score; you’ve fallen in love again.
We resume our ascent. Without the aid of daylight, the 1098S come-hither blinkers are pretty dim even on high beam, the ride feels more acute like a series of fast cuts.
A feather push to the bars and the 1098S pauses an instant then heels over, tipping in light and quick – the steering effort of the prequel 999 decimated. The brief pause gives just a hint of the 999’s feel, but not the heavy momentum of the Ducatis of old. So set the 1098S rails elegantly through the turn, trading only a modicum of the 999’s stability for the lighter handling.
Turning back and finding a hotel would be sensible, but with roads as heroic as Highway 2 it’s near impossible to stop. The 1098S, a light, responsive and precise blade of flashing red, cuts through the tight turns claustrophobically bracketed by rock faces.
Enthusiasm and the 1098S spirit me along. Hot into a 20mph-marked corner, I administer a two-fingered pull of the brake lever. I’m unprepared for the intensity of the radial Brembo monoblock brakes. Four pistons and 2 pads clench the 330mms of disk ferociously. The sharp initial bite has the 1098S nose diving slightly on the fully adjustable 43mm inverted Ohlins forks. Cut to a close up of the visor, with eyes startled and wide open. The 1098S is easier to ride than the 999, but there’s still a relationship to be built over the next two days. We cut down Big Tujunga Canyon, and back into L.A.
Ash falls like a light first snow, and I’m devastatingly lost as the 1098S suffers the freeways. The firm suspension jars with every super-slab heave, bruising enough to disqualify you from organ donation. Then, in surface street traffic, the 1098S becomes a hell purer than Dante could imagine.
The engine temperature shoots upwards of 217F at stops, the fans kicking in forcing hot air across my legs – sweat pools in my boots. The up-pipe to the twin exhaust runs directly under the seat’s right hand side irradiating my inner thigh. What is that searing sensation? Suffering in the name of art.
But what art! At stops, drivers asking me to spin the twin up, kids slumped like gunshot victims in imports sit up and take notice, and girls in SUVs at lights ask for a ride – never mind this isn’t a Biposto.
The next morning, checking my future in the 1098S’s oil sight glass crystal ball, the outcome in amber soft-focus seems imminent – “incarceration”. Last night I’d realized the bike had no plates. Not an issue I’m told in the laid back republic of California, provided you have the bike’s papers… which, I don’t. The back roads and evasion it is then. The whiff of illegality giving this buddy movie plot edge…
The 1098S dances through the Malibu canyons. Weight the inner peg, a touch of hang off, and the 1098S doesn’t just take the tight technical turns – it eviscerates them. Heeling around its center the bike introduces you to dizzying lean-angles, leaving you wondering which will scrape first, you or the bike. Most likely you, the exceptionally narrow 1098S has the hard bits hiked up higher than a Palm Spring elder’s pants.
The 1098S relishes diving to the edges of its rear Pirelli Dragon Corsa Pro without a squirm, the trellis frame and Ohlins suspension providing excellent feedback. Any more traction would have to leave claw marks in the pavement, and it encourages you to get on the throttle earlier and harder, opening the taps out of the corners into very short straights.
Second gear warps you to 100mph (160kph), the Testastretta Evoluzione pounding franticly through the bars, pegs and seat. The digital fan of RPMs on the tach maps the engine’s surge past 7500rpm. Three warning lights flicker in sequence then burst into full illumination as you punch into the 10,750rpm rev limiter moments later. The thrust is instantaneous and just short of violence. The spin up? Oh, the 999 never shot out power this freely. Below you 160 horses stampede and a massive 90ft-lb surge of torque has the front wheel skimming the asphalt with the Ohlin’s steering damper keeping the peace. Ferocious power, reigned in by the Marelli fuel injection and engine management whose only tarnish is a slight low-rpm lurch on-and-off throttle for those who care to waft. With power like this how could you get bored?
The Brembo land anchors’ strong initial bite still the scares the pee out of me, but I’ve adapted. Then on one tight hairpin, I squeeze the lever lightly with one-finger, building the pressure and moderating the front suspension dive. Then subtly add another finger finessing the stopping power, the outstanding feel allowing this diplomacy. Hard into a corner then delicately trail-braking the binders suddenly make sense.
Weight the peg, push the bars, tip light and precise over and in… now repeat about 200 times with the occasional puck scrape for flavour.
Our convoluted itinerary brings the 1098S back to a closed Rock Store on Mulholland Highway to shoot a few photos. Shaking, I sit waiting for sport-biking’s perfect trifecta of speed, adrenaline and dream roads to wear off, and my thoughts turn to power. I need a long straight, found via interesting roads. The 1098S and I set sights on Ojai and the serpentine hwy 33, which ends in long straights under a desert sun. That’s a distance away, so there are a couple flaws in the plan.
As a sport-sport-touring tool the 1098S is better than expected, you’ll want a couple options missing from the Ducati Performance catalog though. First, a support vehicle – preferably a fuel tanker. Making an old joke true the 1098 will pass everything except a gas station. At its most consumerist, a 78-mile pre-dinner thrash up and down the 33 lit the fuel light. I suspect even now 1098S owners are compiling a list of California’s most scenic gas stations.
Second, you’ll want a replacement seat – something pillowy. Ducati, having heard us ridicule the 999’s seat, has taken revenge with a slip of foam comfortable only when hung off of.
Beyond that the ergonomics are remarkably relaxed for a superbike – I had a worse time touring on BMW’s F800S. The bars are functionally lower than the 999’s, thanks to the high tail end that gives the 1098 some handling edge, putting more weight on your wrists. The cant means hitting a wallow “could” slide you forwards into the tank… I wasn’t really considering having children anyways.
The 33 has offered stunning and blurred scenery… several times. Now though I’ve just topped up in Ventacopa, and with gas less than 100 miles away I give the engine a huge lug of fuel.
We launch, a red and black L-twin projectile across the desert floor. There’s a slight stumble as I clutchless upshift out of second. In an instant we’re through third, I clutch into fourth. The dry clutch is light, is this a Ducati? “Snick”, or at least that’s how I think the gearbox would sound under the Termignoni sonic-boom. The gearbox is so positive and so slick, but is the bike…
The 1098S’s sleek lines are as much aerodynamics as style, tucked in there’s only the whistle of clean air and marvelous engine note.
A fuel truck is a silver reflection on the horizon. An instant later we’re past it. The digital dash’s weedy digits are obscured by glaring plastic, but by 160mph I realize Death Valley would have been a better choice – if only for a longer runway.
Could the Testastretta Evoluzione engine run out of breath? That is not a question it’s a plea.
Faced with a bike that leaves “fast” clichés fluttering to the ground like leaves, a distant blur in unusable mirrors, I’m out of courage and adrenaline. The rest of the day we idle up to Taft, then weary of straight lines in the sand hop Cerro Noroeste’s rollercoaster, before meeting up with some fine Beemer folks in Frazier Park and over-nighting in Palmdale.
Ah, the Angeles Crest Highway before breakfast, if only more days started this way. I seldom ride well pre-coffee but we’ve been on a good tear, which leads me to conclude the 1098S is better a road bike than I expected.
Lighter, tighter, more powerful may work at the track, but it isn’t always a recipe for road bliss. The 1098S strikes a beautiful balance though. More flickable than the 999 means the 1098S is more responsive in uncertain conditions and less tiring to ride over longer periods. The suspension, while taut to the point of concussion on super-slab, flatters cracked and rough roads at lean with a “more speed the better” attitude. Despite the megatons of energy being pumped though the massive rear 190/55 gumball, the power remains tractable and usable. The only hole in the sporting plot is the acclimatization required to the front binders’ overwhelming strength.
Grinding our way back on the interminable 210 to return the 1098S, I stop to top up. I pull out the map… We’re on Azusa, which turns into the San Gabriel Canyon Road… The Ducati 1098 is a special relationship at its best. Like a buddy film partner the 1098S knows how to get you into trouble, has enough irritating ticks to keep things interesting, but in the end you know the 1098S has your back. Right now the 1098 is stirring it up, begging me to leave no twisty road unravaged regardless of my literary target of 1098kms. Pulling my arm out of the way the mirror reveals two local 600 riders…
I’ll be the good cop. 1098S, you can be the bad… What’s a few extra kilometers between buddies?