Catching the Nine-Sixteen

They say it's not so much what you know as who you know. For a while I felt a miserable failure at both, knowing neither who nor what could alleviate the personal torment of having my motorcycle laid up in the shop during the prime riding season's peak. As each mechanical setback proved worse than the last, the skies over my home of New Jersey were setting records for being incessantly pleasant. In fact, it was about the best summer anyone could remember in years, one that gradually ripened into a dazzling autumn of golden sun and vivid foliage.

Of course, I was forced to watch as every rider in the area with a bike was out on the road where they damn well belonged, tails wagging furiously like puppies in a petting zoo as my own mood darkened. I prayed for rain. Nuclear war became thinkable. Marilyn Manson started to sound like the best band of the 20th century.

When all hope seemed lost along came the right friend in the right place at, thank God, the right time.

When I first met Bill C. a few years ago through a local motorcycle club, he was riding a black Kawasaki ZX-6. A nice enough guy on a nice enough bike, I figured, he fit right in with the rest of the crew. Much later, on a chilly November evening, our intrepid group of bike nuts met as usual in a restaurant parking lot. Suddenly and without warning, all preconceptions of the former Ninja Bill were ripped from our craniums, as he rumbled in that night riding one brand new -- and extremely red -- Ducati 916. You'd think Clark Kent had just popped out of a smoking phone booth the way stunned onlookers pointed in amazement, witnesses to the stupendous debut of SuperBikeman!

Ducati's 916 has that effect on people, wielding a power to bestow instant celebrity status upon its rider. Not unlike how any Ferrari makes its driver look like sex in a can. When first introduced, the 916 immediately set a standard by which all production sportbikes are measured. At around fifteen thousand U.S. dollars, this masterpiece remains solidly extravagant, exotic, and drop-dead gorgeous. Until recently, I never rode one.  

I haven't taken a scientific survey, but my informal observation reveals that Ducati's nameplate tends to evoke a fierce brand loyalty among its owners, sometimes even to the point of a snobbish isolationism. Suddenly all the world's a stage, and all those other motorcycles merely poseurs. Yet surprisingly enough, our celebrated SuperBikeman still hangs out on occasion with the old gang, which includes drooling paparazzi such your humble narrator. He even suggested to me once or twice, in that casual 'let's do lunch' manner, "you'll have to ride the Duc one of these days." That's when I would struggle to feign a blasé response, suppressing a strong urge to grab, like a possessed lunatic, the key out of his hand. "Sure, Bill, we'll have to do that," I'd reply in deceptively level tones, hoping my sensible nonchalance would encourage him to fork it over that much sooner. Ducati's 916 has that effect on people, wielding a power to bestow instant celebrity status upon its rider.

So maybe my recent opportunity came about thanks to my impressive calm on the subject, or maybe it was because Bill took pity on me and my pathetic lack of even a plain old, non-Ducati motorcycle. Or maybe he thought it a good way to stretch the legs of his still faithful ZX-6 without having to leave the spicy redhead at home. Regardless, Bill's proposal that we do a little scenic, Sunday tour using his two bikes could not have come at a more welcome time. I would have gone with him to Newark in a Nor'easter if that was his plan, just let me ride something. 

We arranged to meet at 7 am. I pulled up at a fashionable 7:10 only to find that Bill already had both bikes out in the driveway, primed and ready to go. The morning sun was bright and low on the horizon, illuminating two machines polished cleaner than most people's kitchen utensils. Their long shadows reached out to the pavement. Bill appeared anxious to go as well, already suited up and making some last minute adjustments to tire pressures. I ducked quickly into the dark garage to zip into a cool set of new AGV leathers that I knew would match perfectly with the Ducati. Apparently unimpressed with the striking confluence of colors, Bill steered me toward the ZX-6 and we hit the road.

Our plan was simple: From our starting point in Monmouth County, we would jet directly into the rural northwest portion of New Jersey via superslabs, then explore excellent secondary roads in the vicinity of Somerset, Hunterdon, Morris, and Warren counties. This meant heading up the meticulously maintained Garden State Parkway, then exiting west onto the horrendous, ever-under-construction I-287. Both were nearly empty this early on a Sunday, and our speed was limited only out of fear of the ubiquitous State Police. Bill's proposal that we do a little scenic, Sunday tour using his two bikes could not have come at a more welcome time.

Once off the major roads, I lead the way along Route 525, one of the few roads I would have any familiarity with the rest of the trip. This route begins nicely with several tight, mostly uphill turns, but the sight distance is usually poor and it runs past a gravel quarry so you have to watch carefully for road debris. This day the corners were clean and traffic was light, so by 8 am we were well into the woods and headed for parts unknown.

This marked the fuzzy beginning of our exploration, where we occasionally got lost but couldn't care less. I'm usually bored stiff by trip reports consisting of long lists of road numbers, so I'll spare you. What I will say is that county roads along here are generally outstanding -- just pick any one and you really can't go wrong. Rolling farmland, long sweepers, tight twisties, elevation changes, tree canopies of dappled sunlight, charming old towns, you'll find them all along the way. Half the fun is in the discovery, where it's easy to imagine you're the first rider ever to uncover a particularly satisfying road. 

By nine o'clock, when we found ourselves in the tiny center of Tewksbury, an obscure, upscale town, our bodies were running on empty. A parking lot full of old roadsters caught our attention, so we went over to investigate, figuring we could also ask about local eateries. Bill, covered mostly in blue leather and riding the snorting red devil, rolled right over to an older gentleman who looked like the event's organizer. Even though I couldn't hear the whole exchange, it was amusing to watch as I could see this guy practically run away, as in "screw off you motorcycle freak!" Maybe not quite that extreme, but there was a definite suggestion of unfriendliness.

Bill asked without fanfare, "So, are you ready to ride the Ducati?" Well jeez, it's not like I'm dressed for it or anything, but if you insist.

We never figured out what those unbadged cars were, British Morgans or Triumphs perhaps. One of the other drivers was kind enough to point out that we could find good food right behind us, and as we looked for parking they all headed off toward Pennsylvania. This place we had just stumbled upon turned out to be the Tewksbury General Store, the spot in the area to go for breakfast. 

By ten o'clock, after scooping down a solid meal, we headed back to the parking lot. Approaching the waiting bikes, Bill asked without fanfare, "So, are you ready to ride the Ducati?" Well jeez, it's not like I'm dressed for it or anything, but if you insist. Actually, I don't think he'd finished uttering the 'ee' in Ducati before I was sizing up my approach to the saddle.

Now, the problem with going from a moderate sportbike like the ZX-6 to a virtual race bike like a 916 is that it's a complete shock to the system.

Just throwing a leg over cleanly is more difficult than usual because the tail section rises so sharply. I don't think I scratched the plastic, but I might have pulled a muscle. Once clear of that hurdle, you land on a seat that pretty well depends on your rear end having all the cushion it needs without further assistance, reminiscent of the genuine race-bike style of a measly sheet of neoprene. The solo seat arrangement allows maybe an inch of fore and aft travel between unyielding bodywork. Cozy. 

Meanwhile, the whole of my upper body was at yellow alert, forced into a crouch that meant all its weight was supported through wrists and arms. My waist, bulging with country eggs, bacon and pancakes, gave little choice but to be propped on the tank just to reach the bars. I was relieved to see that Bill had a tank protector already in place. I felt like I was hugging the back of a midget horse, grabbing for handlebars attached to its nose. Thankfully it was a very thin midget horse, with a midsection so narrow that it seemed I could practically touch my knees together.

I pressed the starter button and this near liter-sized V-twin monster snapped to life, speaking in the deep, resonant voice of its aftermarket Termignoni carbon fiber canisters. Bill swears this is the exact same sound made by a Mercury Marine outboard or possibly a large tractor, but as we got on the road I was completely delighted with the anti-social racket it makes, especially when engine  braking in second gear.

I kept speeding up and slowing down just to revel in it. Throaty, precise, authoritative -- sexy!

Or maybe that last impression has something to do with the fact that a good deal of its vibration is transmitted directly to the body via one's naughty bits, which are practically wedged into that little corner formed by its flat, compact seat meeting the tank. So you've got that going for you under normal conditions, but any substantial bump is transmitted directly there as well, like wham, "take that you silly American!" Ow. Furthermore, after the engine warms up you notice a fair amount of heat from the pipes, neatly routed up and under the tail so it can radiate directly to the inner thighs, groin, and buttocks.

"Hmm, this is a little torturous," I thought for the first couple of miles, as the rattle of its dry clutch set a distant cadence. But after a few more miles and a few more twists of the throttle on better roads, I could see there's a convincing case to be made for sadomasochism. Hurt me more, because I was having such a great time! With all eight desmodromic valves on the boil this engine is absolutely ferocious, and power comes on strong and linear with the snarl of a big cat -- no resemblance at all to the whir of an inline four. In fact the feeling of this Ducati being like a living creature is palpable, a synergy of metal, rubber, plastic, and some mystical voodoo that is startling. Damn, those Italians! 

One of the reasons the 916 puts you quickly into a racing frame of mind is that, with your helmet practically poking out in front of the windscreen and your ass perched so far up in the air, you feel about 30 percent of the way into a highside just riding along in a straight line. Might as well finish the job, you figure, so let's nail the twisties. Following Bill I consistently rode about two or three bike lengths closer than I normally would -- basically next to his back tire. Not because I wanted him to speed up, necessarily, but because I was a weak soul under the strong influence of a race-bred motorcycle.

True to legend, the 916's handling was truly impressive. I expected it to be tossable, but the mature feeling of its dynamics was completely unexpected. This is not some knife-edged boy racer strung out on overly aggressive steering geometry. I don't go much for sportbikes that drop you instantly into a lean with the slightest touch on the bar, only to be followed by a lack of poise tracking the arc of a turn. Even Bill's ZX-6 has a faster turn-in, but then its weight, coupled with a slight lack of precision make themselves apparent when trying to settle into the line. In contrast, the 916 requires a noticeable effort to push over, but its genuinely low mass and neatly dialed-in suspension makes it feel honest and planted at all times. Okay Bill, speed up now!

True to legend, the 916's handling was truly impressive.

A few dozen miles and fourteen particularly sharp bumps later, we stopped to get our bearings and switch mounts. Bill climbed back onto the seat of his pet slow cooker, which I have no doubt he missed terribly. I was feeling rather exhilarated myself, if also pleasantly whipped into submission, and the chance to relax on the ZX-6 was not unwelcome. Shit, this thing, which I normally take to be pretty sporty, was like a Gold Wing in the Ducati's aftermath. I was so comfy that I could barely suppress a dozy yawn in my helmet. Luckily for me, we continued to switch back and forth during the day, alternately enjoying the contrast between the adrenaline pumping, pavement shredding 916 and the smooth and accommodating Ninja.

Near day's end we stopped for a fabulous dinner at the Long Valley Pub and Brewery. Once there I realized my months of mounting tension and rising blood pressure were effectively drained away through this big relief valve of a great ride in gorgeous weather, on two very different motorcycles. The 916 deserves its accolades, I was convinced, as no other bike I've ridden packs so much passion for sport in such an intense, sensational package. began simply with one man who could desperately use a ride, and another who came to the rescue with exceptional generosity.

On the other side of the coin, it would be really unfair to draw direct comparison to the Kawasaki. The ZX-6 has long since been usurped in big K's lineup by their more sharply focused ZX-6R, made even stronger and lighter for 1998. A ZX-6R squared off against a 916 would be far more of an apples-to-apples contest, but in reality this wasn't about comparison or competition. Rather it began simply with one man who could desperately use a ride, and another who came to the rescue with exceptional generosity. In the end it was about fun, friendship, food, fast times, and the finer things in life. I would even get up before 6 am again to do it next Sunday.

Hello . . . Bill?

Special thanks to AGV for outfitting me head to toe with Duc-worthy gear.

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