Derbi Mulhacen First Ride Report

Its beauty is undeniable; I got admiring stares everywhere

It was exactly twenty years ago that I decided to do a big trip across the USA as a present to myself after a few years in the army. By the end of my cross-country trip I settled for a while in New York City to do all the wild things that twenty-somethings do in the big city.

During the day I'd make my living by working as a mover while at night I stormed town aboard the $650 KZ650 that brought me all the way up from Waco, Texas. The problem was that to my dismay, I discovered that even if my clubbing life was fine, the motorcycling scene in NYC was nothing to write home about. In my sorrow, I bought myself a copy of the magazine Classic Bike to remind me of my old Matchless and Ariel that were waiting for me back home.

The perfect vehicle?
No, it's not an XR50. Yossef is just tall...

So, while sitting in my preferred East Village café and leafing through the pages I came across an interesting feature about "Team Obsolete", the classic outfit that ruled AHRMA road racing for years. To my surprise I discovered they were based in New York and without losing much time I headed to the nearest public phone. No cells or internet yet, remember the days? On the other side of the line a friendly secretary passed me directly to Rob Ianucci, the team's boss and after a few cautious prods Rob asked me directly:

"So why don't you come over to visit?"

Gee, what an honor! Especially when you're just a young lad whose two-wheeled "collection" is a WWII 350 Ariel, a ?4 G80S Matchless and a lowly CB500 Four.

'It's still strange that a factory that never produced anything larger than 250cc comes out with such a masterpiece...'  

Back at that time I was totally into classic bikes and when I entered Rob's secret Ali Baba cave, I thought I was in heaven. It'd be futile to try and recall all what I saw -- too much exotica -- but one scoot did get stuck on my mind. Half-hidden under a tarpaulin peeked a skinny and essential bike. May I see it? Yes, it's a BSA Gold Star-powered dirt tracker in a hand-made Dick Mann frame, with a hand-beaten alloy gas tank. Can anything look more refined and distilled? The perfect vehicle. One day, I heard myself saying, I'll build myself something like that.

Seemingly I forgot all about it until a year ago, as I was walking the aisles of the Milan show. I came upon a scoot that was giving me those very goose bumps once again. No, not a Dick Mann dirt tracker but a modern creation directly inspired by those low, lean and essential oval-circuit racers. Methinks that even those who haven't been reared on a diet of classic singles will find it hard to deny the outright charm of such a creature. It's low, lean and sharp, with zero unnecessary parts (at least for a road-legal bike); just a motor, frame, gas tank and wheels. Does anybody need anything else to roll down a narrow B-road at a mad pace?

Little jewels crowned the gorgeous Derbi Mulhacen; a massive, wild-looking front disc, an amazing suspension system and a booming silencer. I don't really know how that kind of inspiration fell on these Barcelona dudes but to be honest, with these results you don't even care.

It's still strange that a factory that never produced anything larger than 250cc comes out with such a masterpiece but it can happen even in the worst families. Klaus Nennewitz -- a product manager who came to Derbi after being involved in Aprilia and creating the Tuono and Falco -- seemingly got the swell idea while watching the Pike's Peak hill climb being won by a Wood-Rotax ?racker a few years back.

Gabe is sad his lunch wasn't this tasty-looking...

For the design duties he brought in a young Spanish designer, Jose Gonzales, and together with Piaggio Group's engineers they settled on using the Yamaha-Minarelli XT 660 single as a power unit, leveraging Aprilia's experience with this engine, as it is also installed in the new Pegaso. From the cycle side of the equation, the desire to create a narrow bike dictated the use of a classic frame with a single downtube splitting into two bottom cradles, but the real touch of class comes from the unique side-mounted rear suspension that positions the shock in an almost upright position, with the linkage in plain view.

No other solution could allow for such a narrow and low midsection while still housing a proper-sized air box. At the front end, there's an inverted Paioli fork with a tasty braking system hanging at the bottom. The radial-mounted four-piston caliper bites a large disc and is powered by a radial master cylinder.

It's hard not to get involved with the Mulhacen's design. When it was first shown as a prototype at the Munich show, it had to compete for attention with other luminaries such as Benelli's TNT, KTM's RC8 and Yamaha's MT-01, and yet it managed to tie for third place in the Motorcycle Designers Association voting for "Best of Show." Keep in mind that it's much harder to leave an impression when your bike is just a 660; the liter-plus tools have a lot more volume and size to play with. If anything, it brings to light this young designer's achievement. Regardless of the designer's vote, it's hard not to appreciate the result.

The Mulahcen bodywork's beautiful sculpting and proportions and the abounding elegant solutions made me think that this one is right there with the Brutale as far as design goes; it's hard not be won over by the maniacal detailing.

Zoom in on the Mulhacen and you'll find plenty of little sweet spots to rejoice over, like the diagonal slash of the lower fork legs, the Ninja-style front disc or the little opening in the rear side panel that's covered with a delicate metal mesh. Or the captivating way in which four of the frame tubes meet at the shock's upper mount point or the routing of the exhaust pipe through one of the frame tubes in order to keep the bike even narrower. May I recycle something I said about an MV creation? It's art for art's sake. This one deserves -- as we say at MO -- maximum respect.  

'Soon enough I am putting a foot down, flat-track style. With the rider sitting close to the front end and ridden in this aggressive way, the Mulhacen delivers a fun experience.'

My respect is mixed with some concern though. Even if I do have a very warm spot for classic singles, in the last few years, modern road-going thumpers always let me down a bit. For dirt riding I am more than fine with one jug. In that context, and with an open pipe, singles rule. But for proper road work -- after being strangled by all the emission and noise controls -- this thumper is lacking. Even if the inspiration for this Derbi comes from dirt trackers, with the low ground clearance and shiny bodywork that screams "don't scratch me!" the Mulhacen scores a self-inflicted goal right from the start. As if that wasn't enough to deter me, Derbi's press officer kindly asks me not to take the Derbi off-road. OK, on-road only, it is.

It's mid-week, and my photographer won't be free to shoot for a few more days, so it's daily commuting time. The first shock? How did we ever forget about how fun small -- really small -- bikes can be? This thing is tiny not only in its width but also in height and overall bulk and boy, how I miss that nowadays. If there's one bike that this Derbi reminds of, then it's the Beta Alp road-going trials machine that I road-tested quite a few years ago. I am tempted to define this single as 250-sized rather than 660 and this is a good reason for a road party. Throw it left, kick it back right, this Derbi's got nil roll inertia compared to a tall dual-purpose single and zigzagging through the traffic is a doddle.

Splitting lanes in the morning traffic hour is fun on the Mulhacen until you realize that...oops! The low bars are exactly at the car's rearview mirror height and the problem is compounded by the rather wide bars. There isn't much chance to stretch the motor's legs in these conditions, but even in slow going I discover that those wide bars aren't the Derbi's sole problem. I know this power unit already from the XT660R I tested for MO about two years ago, but there's something not quite convincing in the response from down low. That XT660R wasn't a low-to-midrange animal either, but the Mulhacen feels even weaker and there's none of the ooomph I expected from a 660cc jug.

As if that wasn't enough, the fork seems way too soft and underdamped. It does cope well with potholes and such, but use the big front brake as you should and it dives way too deep, while upon releasing the brake it rises back way too fast. The front brake itself -- even if it does supply some serious anchoring force -- is lacking in feel and in the few last yards before standstill emits a strange howl. Yep, not the very best of starts and a bit of a shame really as the Mulhacen is otherwise a perfect ride-to-work, do-errands-on tool.

Show up for work with steel shoes...

It's only after a few days that I have the chance to head out of town and into the twisties and the smile is back on my face. Keep the 660cc single above 5,000rpm and all of a sudden there's very nice pull and eventually (albeit slowly) the Mulhacen will do 110mph while it has no problem keeping up a good 85 mph cruising speed. In the twisties the engine is far more satisfying; you just have to remember to keep those revs above 5,000, pretty high on the rev-counter considering the fact that by 7,000 rpm power starts to taper off.

Just out of curiosity I call an Italian colleague whose magazine did dyno the Derbi and he confirms my seat-of-the-pants impression. They found out that the power unit, although basically the same as that of the XT660R, does deliver less torque in the midrange even if higher up it matches it for outright power. The restriction of just one silencer (compared to the two of the XT) and the limits imposed on airbox size by way of the small overall dimensions, really took a toll on the power output.

Nevertheless, the riding style that the Mulhacen requires got me into the right mood. Soon enough I am putting a foot down, flat-track style. With the rider sitting close to the front end and ridden in this aggressive way, the Mulhacen delivers a fun experience. The slower it gets and the tighter the turns, the more fun I have kicking the Derbi down with aplomb, downshifting two gears and then gassing it to the stop after the apex. No need to worry about unexpected wheelies; there just isn't enough power here to threaten the rider. At one point I start getting silly enough to drag the footpegs and have sparks accompanying my mountain ride fest. At this point the light rebound damping of the fork is surely felt but this tiny thing is so manageable that it never really gets ugly.

...a replacement of my dream street-going flat tracker the Mulhacen isn't.

On the day after, while doing the photo shoots, I do allow myself to venture off-road and even if the Mulhacen isn't a real dirt bike, it can still deal with a smooth fire road if it's taken at a sedate pace. In off-road-riding-restricted Europe, no one can really do much more than that anyway, and as noted, the low ground clearance and beautiful bodywork naturally slow you down. The same goes for some light trials riding. The Derbi has the potential to be an all-around toy but the amazing design almost seems to whisper: wouldn't it be a shame to trash such a fine-looking bike?

Come Monday, I find myself applying my weekend riding style to the daily commute and the results are quite amusing. Onlookers' reactions to a way-too-tall guy on a tiny bike attacking city roundabouts with one foot down in Supermoto style are interesting, to say the least. At one stoplight a serious-looking guy on a KTM640SM stops to have a peek and I can tell that he is highly interested. "Figa!" he tells me, which is Italian slang for "hot chick"; as you can imagine, bikes here are female.

Yossef will report the Mulhacen's stair-climbing ability as soon as he gets his deposit money back from Derbi.Anyway, the guy offers a piece of important info. "A friend's got an Aprilia Pegaso with the same engine and with a pipe, cam, filter and different EFI chip it puts down 60hp". Good to know: 12 extra horsies compared to what this Derbi put out in dyno testing sure wouldn't hurt.

So this Derbi serves a strange mix. On one hand its beauty is undeniable; I got admiring stares everywhere. On the other hand, you can indeed tell that this is the first big toy from a factory accustomed to building smaller stuff. The slightly-strangled motor and too-soft fork are problems that I believe could be rectified in next year's model.

A more serious problem to rectify would be the price issue. At 7,700 Euros (that's the out-the-door price, which is the equivalent of $10,200 as of January 3rd -Ed.), the Mulhacen is almost as pricey as a KTM 640 SM and that's one mean ready-to-race animal loaded with pro parts and a beast of an engine, while most dual-purpose road-going singles here sell at about a thousand Euros less. A nice first step for Derbi, but beyond the few things that need taking care off, these guys need to learn a thing or two regarding value for money. I am indeed curious to see where they head to from here; these Spanish guys have the potential to make some nice scoots but a replacement of my dream street-going flat tracker the Mulhacen isn't.

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