Updated: Aug 10, 2020
Words - Raven Kalb / Images - Toni Scott
First, I think the word “Ducatis” looks awkward, so the plural spelling for Ducati will be using an apostrophe herein.
Let’s start with what occurred to make my poor tormented soul desire such a collection of hateful machines. No, it wasn’t Trinity on a 998 racing between a highway mysteriously occupied by exclusively GM vehicles. I was fortunate enough to be in Paris at the naïve age of 16, experiencing the most pleasant taxi ride of the trip. A motorcycle split lanes and stopped at the traffic light one spot ahead of us. It gave me a clear view of the tail end of what I later came to realize was a first-generation Ducati Multistrada. I was enamored. I could not see the Ducati logo on the side, only the high mounted mufflers and scant red bodywork.
It was like nothing I had ever seen before on a motorcycle, andhe sound was like nothing I had ever heard on any vehicle. I wasn’t an ignorant pre-enthusiast at that age either; after all, we were visiting Europe to check out the Ferrari and Pagani factories (polar opposite facilities in the mid 00s) and I was having the time of my life on a heavenly vacation stuffed to the brim with Italian supercars. We traversed hundreds of miles in an Alfa Romero econobox through the Italian and French countryside. We enjoyed the world’s best pizza. Yet somehow, the moment that sticks out the most was a glimpse of what is widely considered to be the most hideous Ducati ever produced.
Photo by StealthFX - The bike that started it all.
Fast forward 10 years. I got my first bike- a Suzuki GS500. I love it, but get fed up with how ratty it is. Then, I get my second bike, a Suzuki GSXR600, love it, ride the piss out of it. After a while I realized that the GSXR is an excellent bike, but not for me. At this point in my life I had owned a 2007 Honda Civic Si for seven or eight years, got bored of it in stock form, and decided to supercharge it. It was exciting in a “this car was definitely not designed to handle this amount of power, but is not poorly assembled or underbuilt” way.
The Civic Si and the GSXR together.
The GSXR, conversely, was exciting in a very generic “you can accelerate and turn very fast, and it was designed for this” way. The GSXR started up every time. It had dual port fuel injection (that is, two fuel injectors per cylinder, one for low fueling and one for high fueling) that lent itself to a perfectly smooth idle even right off a dead cold crank. It had an easily managed and predictable power curve with the notorious turbo-esque 4 cylinder supersport surge above 10k rpms. It didn’t have any rider assists other than a mechanical slipper clutch, which was fine because the bike was very well composed unless you didn’t respect it. It was, by all accounts, a fantastic machine. Yet I still spent hours digging through Craigslist looking for an entry-level Ducati. At this point, my logic was that I wanted something more unique than the relatively common late-model Suzuki.
I would get another one of these in a heartbeat.
I ended up finding a 2007 Ducati Monster S2R 800cc in San Antonio. I rented a car, drove from Houston on a Friday afternoon, and bought the bike with cash for half the cost of the Suzuki (which I still owned at that point), and rode it home. I started it up and noticed it had a “choke” lever even though it was a fuel injected engine. I noticed that it would stall if you poked the throttle from idle while it was cold. These were all things I had learned from prior reading and watching; I was okay with this. But my first true “Ducati Experience” moment came a few miles after I had begun my trek home: I hit a false neutral during an upshift. The lever throw was longer and stiffer than I was accustomed to. I laughed with joy. Is this the forbidden c-word all the journos talk about (character)? Or is it just poor engineering?
On my ride home I discovered that the bike had a lower top speed than the GSXR. This was neither a surprise nor a disappointment. It is, after all, an entry level Ducati which featured the smallest engine size in the Monster S lineup at 800 ccs, along with less exciting non-adjustable front suspension and smaller Brembo brakes. It was by no means an anemic motorcycle, but it was definitely not a superbike. I also discovered that under full throttle load, the dashboard needles would shake to nearly unreadable magnitudes, and all that vibrational force was also translated into the handlebars. I also discovered that I had underdressed for that cold, early spring evening. And I got a few compliments during fuel stops.
My first Ducati on the night I purchased it.
As I began riding the bike more, I learned about how it worked and how to use it. The cold start idle improved after a few weeks, and the stalling on throttle blip issue disappeared. I suspected it was due to aged fuel and buildup on the fuel injectors, which happens when a motorcycle isn’t ridden often enough. I thought to myself, why wouldn’t you ride this bike more? It’s too cool and too much fun to ride to leave on the kickstand all year. The wide handlebars and aggressive fork rake made the bike very responsive to steering inputs. The throttle response was immediate and the torque was punchy, but not so much to be wheelie happy. It sounded like the coolest, most badass giant lawnmower. The exposed engine looks like it’s hanging on for dear life with only two mounting points, dwarfing the size of the frame. All the visible cables and hoses gave it the aura of a professional science experiment. It looked like a serious bike without the overt macho symbolism of that other V twin motorcycle company we all know about, and it definitely looks like it wasn’t made with the rider in mind.
I mentioned the possibility of the Monster being poorly engineered a few paragraphs ago. The more I rode the bike, the more I realized that it was definitely more than a possibility. For example, at higher speeds and lean angles, the steering tends to wobble a bit. This isn’t a positive feedback death wobble and does decay, but any steering inputs puts the bike on the cusp of losing stability. Some people will say that the front suspension needs to be adjusted to remedy this, but the front suspension isn’t adjustable without changing the internals. Some people say the bike needs a steering damper, but the fork and handlebar design makes that difficult to accommodate without using a comically long damper stroke and mounting superficial to the bike’s normal frontal cross-section.
Another example is the throttle. A motorcycle with a big V twin provides the rider with power delivery akin to that of an impact wrench and requires precise and smooth application as to not break the rear tire loose during low speed maneuvers. I could never get the throttle to operate smoothly. I took the throttle tube (the twist grip thing) apart, cleaned it, re-greased it, cleaned and lubricated the throttle cable, visibly inspected the throttle body’s butterfly valve returns spring and checked for binding, and even replaced the throttle tube with a new part. The throttle still felt a little sticky. The design just kind of sucks, and you must learn to deal with it. If you don’t, you’ll probably fall.
Another example is the kickstand. It is awkward to reach, especially compared to the GSXR, causes the bike to lean at an uncomfortable angle, has a small footprint and thus does not like soft asphalt or dirt, utilizes aluminum-on-steel construction leading to gradual wear, and bolts directly into the engine case which might cause major headaches if something goes awry.
But enough about the rider. What about the mechanic? Musings of Ducati’s (possessive proper noun) legendary high maintenance costs are grounded in reality, and the reasoning becomes evident upon trying to access some of the nuts and bolts using basic hand tools. No, basic hand tools won’t work here.
You need Ducati Special Tools. You need every combination of every size ratchet, socket, extension, wrench, flex head ratchet, flex head ratcheting wrench, Allen key, Allen T-handle, and Allen insert bit with ratchet adaptors to remove all the fasteners you need to access, and four different types of thread locker, four different types of grease, a guitar tuner, a torque wrench accurate at 8 NM, and a torque wrench accurate at 200 NM to service the bike by the book. And you need a special Ducati-specific rear service stand to change the rear wheel (which, by the way, is not the same for each Ducati, even from the same year), and a Ducati-specific alignment tool to properly tighten down the front axle without having it deform (which, by the way, is not the same for each Ducati, even on different trim levels of the same bike from the same year).
And of course there is the Desmodromic valve system, which requires two adjustments and two different shims per single valve, and the accepted way to measure the closing shim is to preload the rocker arm with about 20 lbs of force using a flathead screwdriver, leaving the mechanic fearful of what may become of the valve stem or rocker arms if friction decides to become the enemy.
Learning all of this through experience left a taste in my mouth. It was neither bitter nor sour. It was Thirst. The difficulty, the impracticality, the total disregard for rider and mechanic all spoke to me at a visceral level. This bike wasn’t all there. It was kind of shitty. It was dangerous, thrilling, and a chore to keep running in top shape. Despite being slower than the GSXR, it was far scarier to ride, and I loved it. I wanted more. Over the course of several years I proceeded to purchase a 2003 Ducati 999 superbike, then was gifted a 1999 Ducati ST4 sport tourer, then traded the Monster for a 1994 Ducati SS CR. All are bikes that serve different purposes, have substantially different designs, but were all unmistakably Ducati’s. They were also all bright red.
Why would one desire such an inferior product? At first, I simply thought I was seeking thrills that speed alone couldn’t satisfy, or was attracted to motorcycles so undeniably foreign and exotic to me. Upon further inspection, however, these are things that truly drew me in. To understand my own desires, I had to write this article and consider my own inner workings.
I am an engineer by profession and have always loved machines, electronics, and anything that needed to be designed and put together by a human or by another machine. I always loved trying to figure out the way things worked, and why they worked in such ways, and I loved taking things apart and putting them back together, and in the process of learning how the physical world works I learned that nothing practically achievable can be perfect. Every material has its limitations, every measurement is slightly incorrect, and every copper wire has resistance. All these flaws accumulate when a machine is manufactured and assembled, resulting in imperfection. And that is exactly what Ducati symbolizes in my mind: imperfection.
Ducati’s are bad bikes. They shake and rattle, they need frequent service, and they are difficult to operate. Some have epoxy in the gas tank that swell and dissolve after 10 years. Some have engines that explode because the oil pressure sensors are known to be intermittent. Some have battery terminals that are only accessible after removing both side view mirrors, the windscreen, the nose fairing, and a side fairing for a total of 18 screws to keep track of. I am totally okay with this. It reminds me of how USB connectors get loose after a while and how metal expands while it heats up as you cut it. It reminds me that physical objects are real and imperfect.
You don’t get that feeling with the GSXR. Riding the GSXR feels like a video game. It is smooth and predictable and repeatable. It feels disconnected from the world around it, which is truly a feat of its own. But do you ever feel like you are truly immersed in a video game, to the point where you are experiencing everything your avatar is? You never feel the impact of your crashes and you never feel the satisfying shockwave of the GEP gun. You press buttons and things happen. Your driver’s foot never slips off the pedals and you never fumble with trying to shove bullets into a magazine. Sometimes those little annoyances are what you want to escape from, but sometimes they are what make an experience memorable.
Ducati’s remind me that they are real machines. They remind me that they were put together by humans who may have been sleep deprived one day. They remind me that one of the bolts holding them together may have contamination in the metallic crystalline structure. They remind me that you can’t make something perfect, and for being able to convey that feeling of reality is what makes them truly special to me.