Words: Quentin Wilson
first Ducati experience, while short, was one of the most crucial
moments in my life as a motorcycle enthusiast. A fellow student
at the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute and I were nearing the end
of a tour through Mid Arizona. We had stopped by the side of the
road, not too far from Mingus Mountain. I had been admiring this
gentleman's machine all day. It was a Ducati 900SS CR, with many
custom cosmetic and mechanical parts that made it a very pure form.
To this day I still find that model to be one of Ducati's most attractive.
He offered up the keys, and after a moment's hesitation, I threw
my gear on and tossed my leg over tailsection. It bellowed and shook,
which was something I was not accustomed to. It was skinny, and
had a wild riding position. When I pulled the clutch in, it went
from one strange rattling noise to another, making me hesitate to
put it in gear. I looked over at my partner, and was surprised to
find him looking the other way, taking a drag on his
cigarette. So I blasted off with a bit of wheelspin from the roadside dust and headed down the road. Those next few moments are ingrained in my very being, and will be for the rest of my life. That was about three years before this writing.
Recently I had the opportunity to ride a 2000 model 996. I strapped my 90lb girlfriend to the useless passenger seat, and aimed my bike towards the ocean. After taking the bumpy yet twisty 110 Freeway from Pasadena to Hollywood, it becomes quite evident that the bike is not at home on the streets of LA in its current form. It rattled both of us to death, and caused my girl's bum to get numb after fifteen minutes. Navigating from my friend's house in Hollywood to the 101 exposed another problem with this bike in the city. It gets hot way too quick. The heat toasts anything near the tailsection, and the temp gauge spikes rather quickly. After getting back on the highway, a cool trait of the bike floats to the surface; people in cars see you. Everyone is looking at this bright red mechanical firecracker lanesplitting down the 101 Freeway. We eventually get to the Rock Store, a relatively well known biker-hangout in the hills north of Malibu. I had never been to said hangout, and was not surprised at the sheer amount of squids and skippies that were posing in front. Squids and skippies are a curious phenomena associated with poor riding abilities, a lack of protective gear, and severe testosterone levels. They are usually found in groups aboard the latest most powerful motorcycles, talking instead of riding.
My girlfriend was in pain by this time, and my wrists were killing me. I have a bony ass, yet the seat did a surprisingly good job of keeping it comfortable. My legs felt just right, the crouch is perfect, it is just hard to keep ones weight off of ones wrists. Taking the corners on this bike was easy with a (light) passenger, and I was instantly familiar with its ways. That day ended up being terrific, but my girlfriend will never get talked into getting on that butt-number ever again.
That night I took it down to Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena to do some serious posing with my woman. The headlight on this bike was great, I had read that it bit the big one, but through my eyes the high beam lit up the upcoming road like a set of rally lights. I was also surprised at how well the clocks stood out in the dark. Overall, the bike was at home cruising the spots, and did a great job of attracting
attention to my curvaceous ass, or at least my girlfriends. This bike gets the Full Squid Award for attention getting.
A few days later I decide to slip on the one-piece leathers and head up the Angeles Crest Highway solo, as it should be. This is where the complaints stop and the fun begins. I head up the Crest with the intent to stay cool calm and collected, making sure that the bodywork never hits the road under my control, or lack thereof. I succeeded in this task, taking my usual loop north via the Angeles Forest to Upper Big Tujunga. I reckon planted is the best way to describe the handling. There is nothing twitchy or nervous about this bike. If you let your hands off of the bars in a 60-mph corner it will keep tracking right where you had it before. The damping is right on at a sedate pace whether on smooth sweepers or bumpy switchbacks. The steering damper does not present any problem with slow speed handling, and it looks trick right atop the triple clamp. At first the bike feels like it turns like a Harley Road King, but once a riding style is adapted, using ones legs and bodyweight in addition to countersteer, the steering lightens up and down go the lean angles.
I try not to brake too hard on these nasty mountain roads, so engine braking has to suffice. The sound is fantastic, even with the stock exhausts. All of the mechanical clatter is intensified due to the separate cylinder heads full of eight rocker arms, four valves, and two cams each. The belts driving the cams, and the straight cut gears in the tranny add their whine to the dance of sound. This is all much thicker and more intense when the bike has open pipes and the intake restrictors are removed.
Those modifications and a good EPROM (Erasable Programmable Read Only Memory) chip really wake 996's right up. The stupidity and insolence of the EPA and CARB force manufacturers to lean out the mixtures of vehicles at idle or low rpms. Due to its sophisticated fuel injection, the 996 is pretty good at making power and does not require as much modification as some in order to get it to run right. It is a deceiving power that can get a rider into trouble. You always have to be aware of the speed you are traveling, because the triple digits come up quickly, and without a lot of drama.
Just because I choose not to use the brakes very much on the mountain roads does not mean that I did not test their friction coefficient numerous times during my escape with the 996. They are just fine and need no comment other than that. Brakes are the last things I would modify on the 996.
The transmission is conspicuous by its infallibility. I never even thought about it while I was riding the bike. It always worked like butter and never gave me a false neutral. It was neither notchy nor numb to shift and the shifts were very positive. The clutch requires some kid gloves during the break in period, but it will always be grabby due to the fact that it does not run in engine oil. Dry clutches have a tendency to be hard to modulate from a dead stop, and the 996 is no exemption.
The final drive, i.e. the sprockets and chain that transmit engine power from the engine to the rear wheel, has a very tall ratio that effects every ratio in the transmission. So first gear goes to some astronomical speed, and sixth gear is nearly useless. Gearing is the first thing I would change on a 996.
All of the instruments are easy to read, and all of the idiot lights were easy to see. For 2000, the kickstand does not automatically retract. The bike does not run with the kickstand down, so you can not warm up the engine. The levers are easy to adjust, and their range was well within the limits of my long fingers.
The oil is easy to check via a site window, and more so because the sidestand does not automatically flip up while you are on the other side of the bike keeping it level. The angled valve stem on the front wheel allows easy access to tire pressures even with discuss sized brake rotors interfering with the clearance. The rear wheel pressure is easy to check due to the single sided swingarm, and chain adjustment is minutes away due to it's eccentric design. The wheel never gets cocked to one side, the rear wheel is easy to take off, and it looks bitchin'. I am a firm believer that this is the best formula for a streetbike rear swingarm.
The ride height is adjustable via a rod near the shock, and the rake/trail (steering head angle) is adjustable by an eccentric in the steering head. Neither of these mods is reccommended because it makes the handling quite twitchy. That, and adjusting the steering head negates the possibility of using the steering lock. Doh! These settings do not need to be played with unless the rider is overweight or spends over 90% of their time at the track.
After you purchase your 996, you would have to bring it in for its 600 mile service, and this will cost quite a bit. It takes 2.5 hours to do, mainly because the timing belts must be adjusted, and that involves taking off the tank and airbox. If they are as loose as they come from the factory after the bike has been broken in, the first time you take the revs up past 9,000rpm there is a good possibility that one of the belts could skip teeth, causing disastrous engine damage. If adjusted too tight, then as soon as the engine warms up and the metal expands, the belts could tighten up to the point of snapping, causing disastrous engine damage.
After this service, every 6000 miles the bike must come in to have its valves checked and belts adjusted (or replaced). This is a time consuming (read: Expensive) process, but it is so crucial to the well being of the bike. The bottom ends of these engines are bulletproof. Not too often does a crankcase need to be split, and when it is done, it is most likely for a performance modification.
There are a few things that I see go wrong with these bikes consistently. Be warned that this section is filled with technical info that might not be proper for virgin eyes.
I have seen the sprocket "cush drives" come loose and shear off the chain adjuster, this seems to happen only to bikes that are ridden in wet conditions constantly. An eye should be kept on this if you are an all weather rider. The "cush drive" cushions the rear wheel from the pulling action of the chain.
I have seen many a regulator/rectifier go south on many a Ducati. This component changes the AC into DC voltage, then regulates how much of this voltage gets to the battery to keep it charged. They will either cease working all together and leave you with a dead battery, or fry in a fantastic fashion. This is not a problem any more now that all the new bikes come with sturdy units. Otherwise, the electrical systems are top notch, and Ducati uses wonderful waterproof Japanese connectors. Never disconnect the battery while the engine is running on any Ducati. Never stick anything metal into the ECU either.
The clutch slave cylinder has been a bane of Ducatis for years now. It seems they choose a crappy casting technique or shitty aluminium to produce these, for the metal pits on the inside of the cylinder and they leak. I personally think it is because the piston is made of a different metal than the cylinder, and over time they eat away at each other. Gratuitous Plug Pro Italia makes a billet aluminum slave cylinder that eliminates this problem completely. And, it is a bigger piston so the clutch effort is minimized. The clutch fluid tends to get dark quickly on all Ducati's. Presumably this is due to heat, not contamination, and it just happens.
The crankcase breather is the final common failure item. They seep all over the back of the engine. They blow (literally and figuratively) and that is all there is to it. Even the updated versions blow. A billet breather is the only way to go, and it must be sealed correctly to work.
Ducatis are high maintenance vehicles. The detracting factors such as high price, and maintenance are quickly overshadowed by sheer performance and extreme beauty. Honda is finally making a concentrated effort at beating Ducati with a v-twin, and this will most likely find Ducati on its back crying like a little bitch by the end of 2000. Suzuki tried, but blew its load too quickly, and did not even try and go back for seconds. Perhaps they will have learned and the future could be interesting. Aprilia will also take a slice of the market cake with its RSV Mille. This is a bike I have ridden and I must say it could easily kick the 996 right in the crotch, on the racetrack, on the street, on the highway, on the sales floor, or all of the above.
Nothing will look better than the 996, it is the most timeless vehicle design this planet has ever seen, and its curves are backed up by some serious engineering that has proven itself on the track in the form of #1 plates for most of the nineties. There will be bikes that lap racetracks faster, or go farther on a tank of gas, or are more comfortable, but nothing will perform as the 996 does. The aural and visual sensations that are beset upon the owner of one of these are unique. I can not wait to see what Ducati has to replace it.