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Ducati 900SS - A Buyers Experience

March 2001

Last month after spending three pages describing a grey world where purple was the only hint of a tint, it all ended with a glorious burst of Technicolor. You’d be forgiven for questioning how credible it was that a motorcycle, even a classically beautiful example like the Ducati 900SS, could have such a profound effect on someone’s mental state. Well of course it can’t; certainly not if you’re clinically depressed. Consequently I admit that I deserve a few points on my poetic licence for last month’s effort (and if I knew where to send the dosh I’d pay the fines).

I don’t claim any expertise when it comes to depression; but if I understand anything I’m clear that the most debilitating thing is the total inability to see any escape from your predicament. As my problems at the time centred largely on despatching, which had ground away my love of biking, the issues were nothing that a change of job wouldn't have sorted. But I did feel stuck, because I'd got used to earnings I couldn’t hope to match elsewhere. Once my love affair with bikes had soured (as any relationship will when too much shit happens over too long a period and there seems little danger of anything fresh or new happening) I did feel well and truly trapped.

Dillon’s Duke literally blew away my blues. The realisation that here was a friend who worked at the same company as me, who earned no more than I did, but who was able to ride such a rare and wonderful thing, was like a light bulb in a cartoon’s head. I’d known instantly that it was exactly what I needed. Simply sitting on it had reignited my spark and the voice shouting, “Do it! Do it! Do it!” in my head, was joined by all the supposedly sensible parts agreeing that if Ray could afford the finance on a brand new one, surely I could borrow enough wonga for a second hand one in black and gold.

So it was that less than a week later, I found myself boarding a train in Kings X with my lid in my hand and two grand in my pocket. I was heading so far north of Watford that I knew from the problems I’d had with the guy on the phone, that I was likely to struggle to communicate with the locals, so I stepped off the train in Bradford and got straight into a cab handing the driver the address on a slip of paper. He delivered me to a development of prim semi’s with attached garages. After paying him, I turned to find a Kevin and Sharon sort of couple standing in the doorway.

They told me how they only used it on sunny Sundays and how they’d toured to the South of France on it. They were still rabbiting in their curious dialect with its soft U’s and hard A’s, when the garage door swished up and turned them into background noise – like the hiss on a cheap tape. There in the spacious interior stood the object of my dreams and in the flesh (or aluminium, fibreglass and steel to be more precise) it was so much better than I had ever imagined.

I walked around the Duke in a semi trance. It was all there: the black & gold paintwork; the big in line 90º cylinders (with the Desmo’s bevel drives running up the offside); the 40mm Dellortos complete with caged bellmouths; and the straight through Contis. The Avon Roadrunners and luggage rack were a bit of a jar and they brought Tracy and Darren’s voices back into focus in time for me to figure that he was asking if I wanted to wheel it oot and start it oop. I was about to say does the Pope shit in the woods, but thought it would only cause confusion, so I settled for, “Yeah great”.

Once it was running and I was sitting on it gently tweaking the quick action throttle and listening to the symphony rise and fall, I was sold, and so was the Duke. £1,950, thank you very much and goodbye.
Winding my way from Stacy and Warren’s place in the ‘burbs it all felt a bit strange. The powertrain seemed to snatch, the lack of steering lock was terrifying, and the suspension (which I’d been warned had inspired Stiff Records motto: “If it ain’t Stiff it ain’t worth a fuck”) felt like Viagra-plus – and all my weight was sitting on my wrists. However as I left the residential streets behind and rolled it open on a short stretch of dual carriageway it all began to make sense; and by the time I’d rounded and exited my first roundabout I was feeling a tingling in my loins.

I quickly found my way through Bradford and Leeds and onto the M1. Back then there was no way I’d risk trying to find some interesting A & B roads home – not that far into the great unknown – there’d be plenty of time for that once I was back on familiar ground in the South East. Which is where I wanted to be, because London was where my friends were, and they were waiting to see it. So I checked my watch, pointed it down the big One, gave it a squirt and felt the surge of power. One-ten was totally effortless and the weight evaporated from my wrists, leaving me free to revel in the moment as I wafted South.

After about half an hour of roaring past all and sundry, I hit a clearish stretch and tucked in behind the fairing to see what it had. The 130mph it was geared for wasn’t spectacular even by 1981’s standards, there were a number of Jap bikes with claimed higher top speeds, but they all needed a long straight bit of road to reach it. Snapping the throttle open on the Dellortos activated Super-Squirter sized accelerator pumps that caused it to lunge forward like it was doing eighty. It hit one-thirty in a rush and was urging me to explore the red, but the realisation that I’d just paid more for my wonderful Italian stallion than I’d ever paid for anything in my life, persuaded me to fight the temptation and keep it shy of the danger line. I noticed a ‘services 1 mile’ sign and less than half a minute later I was admiring the feel of the Brembos as I pulled off the motorway. It was all getting a bit too much and I was afraid I was going to explode at the gutbusting excitement of it all. I knew I needed to sit down, calm down, and stop getting so carried away. There was no point in buying a Ducati, then mortally wounding my licence before I’d even taken it near the sort of roads it was designed for.

I’d brought no locks, so I sat where I could keep a close eye on my new toy while I ate. Besides I wanted to be able to admire it. Who wouldn’t? But as I watched I was genuinely amazed to see just how many people of all ages stopped to look it over as they walked in or out; and it was clear that many of those arriving were partially interested to see what it was that had blurred past them back up the road some. I’d bought the 900ss because of all the reports I’d read describing its prodigious handling and stomping power delivery. Obviously the fact that I’d always considered it to be the most beautiful machine ever built played its part, but until that moment I honestly hadn’t given any serious thought to pose value. That said I’d be a liar to claim that I didn’t get a massive bang out of it once it became apparent.

Walking back to the Duke with food, drink, nicotine, urine, and adrenalin all back at ambient levels, I was ready to rock & roll. However as I prepared to kick it over, it occurred to me that although I’d paid close attention when I was shown, I’d never actually attempted to start it myself. At the same moment I became aware that I had quite an audience watching from behind the glass of the eatery. I set it up, squirted the pumps, kicked sharply and was rewarded with a roar that left my cool bike God act intact; so I burbled over to the filling station to fuel up.

Four early shifts saw me back on the main carriageway. The rumble grew steadily as I crossed the first two lanes, before settling at a bassy growl by the time I hit the third doing a ton-ten. I’d love to enthral you with every minute detail of that ride, but the truth is I can’t remember a single thing about it. However this has absolutely nothing to do with the twenty years that have raced past on nitro since that day. When I pulled up in SE14 (barely two and a half hour’s riding time after joining the M1 in Leeds) and attempted to respond to a barrage of questions, my mind was blank. My mates, who’d heard me coming down the Old Kent Road and rushed out of the Crown & Anchor to meet me, had crowded round demanding to hear every detail. Which was when I realised I had absolutely no recollection of anything — just an overwhelming feeling of awe and exhilaration.

It’s was like being woken from a dream and being asked to describe it. You know that moment when you wake and the fantastic REM world you’ve been embroiled in, is still there in every part of your body and mind; but when you attempt to interpret it, it pops like a bubble leaving you with nothing but the residue of feelings – fear, ecstasy, lust, whatever – associated with the almost memory. I think the same must apply to riding bikes.

When you’re practicing RMM (Rapid Motorcycle Movement) on busy thoroughfares, whether it’s the M1 or Knightsbridge, you have to be entirely focussed. To travel seriously faster than the surrounding traffic, the whole of your brainpower needs to be allocated to processing the mass of information that your senses require to avoid disaster. 130mph on an M road is (pedestrians aside) the equivalent of racing through Asda’s car park at sixty. You have to be absolutely tuned in to everything: your immediate surroundings (including the periphery and your mirrors); the middle distance; and a horizon that constantly rushes to meet you. I believe that your inboard computer shuts down all hard disc functions and forgets all about keeping a record, because it knows it needs to convert everything available to RAM, so it can deal with all the random shit coming your way. Which would also account for why when I arrived in New Cross, aside from my lack of memories, I was also aware that since leaving the services I hadn’t had a single thought that wasn’t directly associated with riding. Not about my dinner, my waiting friends, what I was doing that evening, not even what the red-head receptionist in Neal Street would look like naked – nothing but the task in hand.

And how was that task? As far as chores go, it was a bit like being Julianne Moore’s love slave! Beyond that, given my meagre abilities with the written word, I’d struggle to begin to do justice to the joy that my new found love provided me with. Suffice to say that while last months tale of depression may have been something of an exaggeration, I was definitely down, but the moment I got rolling on the Duke it dragged me out of it at two miles a minute. There was none of the slow process of therapy, or of waiting for tri-cyclic drugs to kick in; it was an instant spike in the vein.

I went back to work and although I was on the GS425 everything was different. It was like I’d been rinsed through and all the negative shit that had been silting up for months had been flushed out, leaving me appreciating once again what an amazing job I had. I couldn’t imagine what the problem had been. Looking through fresh eyes I’d reacquainted myself with just how effective the GS was around town. I was determined not to use the Duke for despatching. Not because of any practical considerations, I simply wasn’t about to risk ruining my budding beautiful relationship by exposing it to the sort of over familiarity and abuse it would inevitably suffer on the road. Besides it would have felt like taking a lover who’d introduced me to previously unimagined heights of passion and pleasure and putting her on the game. I used the 900SS occasionally, but always as a treat. If a decent job came up, it was only a short bop to Peckham, which made it just like dashing home to get your best gal when you’ve picked up a good run to the seaside or out to the country.

What about the downside? I guess there are always people out there who want to know about faults; but for me anyone looking for negatives in the face of something so close to personal perfection, simply doesn’t understand the nature of true love. It’s a bit like saying that Ms Moore’s gorgeous, intelligent, and incredibly passionate and everything… but she sometimes has dodgy bed breath in the morning! I say negatives smegatives. The engine, suspension and brakes always delivered superbly, so any time I felt a need for speed, or in the teeniest bit down or at a loss, all I had to do was wrap myself around my soul mate and head for open roads – and it always took me to a better place.

If the 900 Desmo was only God’s own motorcycle, it would surely have been as much as any man could hope for. But when a couple of weeks after I bought it, I pulled up in Neal Street to pick up her company’s 9am booking to Hereford, my favourite fantasy red-head came outside and after asking if I minded, hitched up her short tight skirt and wriggled onto the pillion, before leaning against me and asking if I’d like to give her a ride sometime?!

"First published in issues 43 & 44 of The Rider's Digest (March & April 2001); and now featured in Dave Gurman's new book The Carin' Sharin' Chronicles"