MOTORING: AUTOBIOGRAPHY

It's all very well round the racetrack, but what's it like around town? James Christopher tests the Ducati against the Honda
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The Independent Culture
Even in the world of motorcycling there are myths. Ghost riders on the A24 who have looped one too many of its mysterious roundabouts and ended up in Caithness. Warring gangs of Hell's Angels who materialise out of thin air to terrorise the elderly residents of Sidcup. But there are two which have such enduring appeal that they have become the biking equivalent of fishermen's tales. They are the Ducati 916 and the Honda Fireblade, the pin-up carburettors for a generation of riders. It's the Ducati 916, of course, which makes the eyes of purists go moist. In its familiar shameless scarlet livery it is as unmistakable as a Ferrari and in most situations just as fast. It is a beautiful bike, a precision tool whose steel tube chassis looks even better stripped of its rippling aerodynamic cladding than dressed.

According to Dave Plummer, the press manager for Ducati at Moto Cinelli in Northampton, the "Duke" makes its peers look like Ford Mondeos. You'd expect Dave to say unfair things like this but when you can reach 70mph on the 916 Biposto in second gear with frightening ease, you can generally say what the hell you like to people without having to wait for them to disagree. The name Biposto is not some sort of kinky piston but the raised cushioned pillion seat which clears the back wheel by a good 12 inches. It seems like an insane piece of engineering to have your exhaust pipes strapped under your seat like two sawn-off bazookas. But, usefully, they keep your bum warm in winter.

However it's speed rather than passengers or rear heating that the Ducati is built for. Three-spoked racing wheels are often indicative of a three- spoked mind, and indeed there is something ferociously monomaniacal about the 916. There's a stark minimalism about the bike's furniture which is almost too understated for its own good. Black plasticky clocks for the 14,000 rev counter and a speedometer with over 180mph etched on the face. There's a curious red 55mph mark which looks as if it has been added to show law-abiding Americans just how ludicrous it is to own a bike like this with speed limits like theirs. With its low handlebars and aerodynamic shell, the Duke is designed so you are strapped across the fuel tank, humping the foam tank protector. This is all very well thundering down an autobahn when the wind keeps the weight off your wrists but is not ideal for gadding about town. With its clunky dry clutch, you cannot keep slipping in and out of first gear without danger of stalling.

On the other hand, you can open the throttle to whatever screaming rpm you desire without any significant stress on the magnificently throaty V-twin fuel-injected engine. On open roads it hugs the tarmac like a magnet. But there is an art to riding a Ducati. The low aggressive riding position and having to lead with your chin leaves no illusions as to what is demanded of you at speed. At 120mph and alarmingly unable to turn the bike around a slow van, I realised, belatedly, that my riding position was too wooden. I wasn't bonding with my tool. If you don't move around the bike and are fearful of using the throttle in the middle of a turn, the bike will start drifting. Cue brakes, also not a good idea when turning, but here it saved me from cleaving a Rentokil inspector in half.

The crucial point about the Ducati is learned here. It will outperform an inexperienced rider, in my case with considerable ease. To committed bikers this is the expensive but irresistible challenge that highly tuned racing bikes offer. A mint 916 Biposto will set you back pounds 11,750, pounds 2,000 cheaper than it would have cost you last year, due to increased productivity. It represents excellent value at the elite and choosy end of the market.

But for most mortals the real point of choosing a Ducati over any other bike is to show off. They are the ultimate sleek chic. Having duly impressed a class of American theatre students by roaring up to deliver my weekly sermon on criticism to them, I coolly waved them goodbye, switched on the ignition and the bike promptly fell on top of me snapping off the end of the clutch lever in the process. There are two morals here. One: never start a Ducati without sitting on it. Their flimsy spring-loaded bike stands are hopeless if the bike is in gear, which it can be even if the neutral light is on. Two: always ensure there are a couple of strapping lads around to lift the bike off you - at 198kg, they are not light.

Which brings me neatly around to the CBR900RR Honda Fireblade. If the kickstand on the Fireblade is down and the bike is in gear, the engine will promptly shut down. Ignorant of this clever feature I sat for hours in a lather of humiliation outside one of London's most exclusive clubs trying to get the bike into first gear to the enormous amusement of drunk pedestrians. The Fireblade is Honda's undisputed sports flagship and one of the all-time best sellers in its displacement class. On first inspection the reasons for this are not remotely clear. The CBR900RR, as the latest Fireblade is cumbersomely named, looks like a piece of unwieldy science fiction. The bike's twin insect headlights are embedded in a nose cone shaped like a hammerhead shark. The twin-spar frame looks like large ribbons of burnished aluminium pasta crudely welded around a petrol tank that balloons obscenely between your legs. But despite feeling as if you're clutching a metal beach ball between your knees, the Blade is a wonderfully comfortable ride.

From the rider's viewpoint the bike is designed to reassure. The cockpit looks like the dashboard of a car with unfussy classical clocks, digital mileometer and temperature guages. A single industrial exhaust pipe belies the high-whining revs of the bike which sound somewhere between a hovercraft and a Hoover. There are awkward bits. At full lock the handlebars trap your fingers against the tank. And the fairing, widened since last year to give the bike better protection against the wind, tends to dent your kneecaps when trying to manoeuvre between tight traffic with your feet.

But these are quibbles when you cut to the meat of the matter. Despite looking like a cockroach, the Blade is a supremely easy bike to ride. It may not be as explosively quick as the Ducati but the middle range gears more than hold their own. The low centre of gravity gives the Blade fantastic grip in the turn, making you confident enough to really lean the bike over. Crucially, it also feels as easy thrashing around London as it is happy on the motorway. Whatever strange alchemy Honda has devised, it has managed to make a sports bike that, in direct contrast the Ducati 916, makes the rider feel that he can outperform the bike. It's an illusion of course, but at pounds 9,265 it is an extremely attractive illusion. There are few bikes on the road that are as beautifully balanced.

Back at Moto Cinelli Dave sniffs. "If the Ducati is a scapel, the Blade is a breadknife," he muses. He has a point. The Duke is clearly the greater challenge for the experienced rider, but for those of us who aren't surgeons, sliced bread will do very nicely thank you.

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