Posted by: titaniumparts | October 21, 2008

Things you can’t tell just by looking at them

The 1978 Hailwood replica Ducati 900 - that's what I mean by heritage.

1978 Hailwood Ducati 900 - that's the kind of thing I mean by heritage.

Many years ago, among my earliest experience with motorcycles, I recall gaining an insight that made a strong impression. This insight came about because I had the opportunity to ride two ostensibly identical bikes, back-to-back, in direct comparison; the less-than-glamorous subjects of this were two Honda CD175s. The bikes each belonged to a couple of mates, one was red and the other blue, and I recall that the red one was affectionately referred to by its owner as ‘The dinosaur’ – a name which accurately and succinctly reflected both the styling and performance of the CD175. Anyway, the most striking thing was that while obviously much was similar (and, frankly, similarly rubbish) about these two identical versions of the same model, there were also some clearly perceptible differences too. But these differences all resided in intangible qualities such as feel, heft, and responsiveness; revealed in the bite-point of a brake lever or the clutch, or tiny variations in the response of the suspension in corners or when braking. I concluded that these small but still appreciable differences resulted from differential use and wear since each bike had left the factory. But, by far the most instructive part of the experience for me, was coming to appreciate so clearly that machines possess inherent qualities that reveal themselves only in the tactile experience of using them. I think I also rather liked the idea that a machine could acquire ‘personality’ throughout the course of its life – as if, like us, they too are shaped by their experiences.

It’s always instructive to experience another vehicle, as it enables us to gain a fresh perspective on those that we’ve become familiar with using. Of course most of us don’t have many opportunities to gain first-hand experience of a wide range of bikes or cars, and I suppose it’s our curiosity to know more about such things that keeps motoring journalists in work.

So when I recently had the opportunity to test ride a KTM 990SM this was clearly something to be seized upon. And what a truly extraordinary and satisfying motorcycle it was. For a while afterwards I even seriously entertained the possibility of buying one, but to do this I would have had to give up the 749, and in the end this wasn’t something I’d be prepared to do at this point in time. In fact, it was going through the process of considering this that revealed to me what a deep emotional investment I have in my yellow Ducati.

For all that the KTM was brilliant – and I must reiterate that it was a beautifully balanced and responsive motorcycle – it was, of course, quite different as a riding experience. I was particularly surprised to discover how refined the 990SM was to ride, given that it comes with a fearsome reputation for dwelling out on the extreme fringes of the motorcycling spectrum. Or rather, I should say how refined I found it to be in comparison with my 749.

It served to remind me just how unrepentantly focussed, demanding, challenging and visceral the 749 actually is. I’ve become so accustomed to it that I took these things for granted, and had begun to imagine that all bikes were like that. But stepping straight from the KTM to the Ducati really emphasised just how much DNA the 749 shares with all those raw, thoroughbred race bikes that trace their roots all the way back to the era of Paul Smart and Mike Hailwood. It’s a well-trodden line that racing has always been central to the spirit of Ducati, but the truth of this is there in the bikes. I’ve found that you can’t just ride the 749 so much as commit to riding it – anything less and you may as well not bother going out.

Beyond the enduring position at the top of the ‘cool brands’ chart, and their occasionally questionable merchandising decisions, at their core Ducati have remained resolutely committed to building superb if somewhat single-minded motorcycles, and doing so on their own unique and often quite idiosyncratic terms. 

I’m reminded that during my time with the Ducati 749 I’ve been fortunate to experience a motorcycle that feels like nothing less than a precision instrument, possessing a depth of capability developed to equal the skills of some the world’s greatest and most accomplished riders. A machine that represents a sublime evolution and refinement of the form, created by the craftsman’s hand and an alchemical translation of the accrued wisdom and expertise of generations into something really rather special. And this must be why the 749 never ceases to impress me, and continues to engage, absorb and reward me every single time I ride it. And when you’ve come to know something like that, you realise that on some level you would always miss it once it was gone.

It’s these qualities – the tactile, moving and memorable experiences of riding the bike itself – that make it so difficult to countenance the idea of moving on from it to something new. Perhaps if I’d owned the latest consumer superbike from one of the Japanese factories then now, after three years of ownership, it might have begun to seem a little jaded and out of date. Yet somehow Ducatis manage to stand aside from the ebb and flow of fashion; each model instead becoming an enduring example of a specific era of engineering excellence in its own right, a singular expression of Ducati’s ethos and vision at that particular moment in time. While this does seem to be a phenomenon common to many of the small European (and mostly Italian) factories, it’s not their exclusive preserve – a bike like the Honda RC30 could also be said to pull off the same trick. But it does seem that with the Italian marques each model becomes … I’m trying not to use the word ‘classic’ here … but certainly part of a heritage, rather than simply a product that’s passed out of date.

I’m sure that this way of thinking is why so many motorcyclists (or at least comparatively wealthy ones) end up with garages full of different bikes. It’s because the experience of riding them is so involving, so often rich and rewarding, and because (at least with the very best motorcycles) each bike has its own unique feel and character that we come to know and understand. We build a relationship founded on shared experiences with a bike, and because of this it becomes so very hard to consider letting go of them.

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