“There are some things nobody needs in this world, and a bright-red, hunch-back, warp-speed 900cc cafe racer is one of them - but I want one anyway, and on some days I actually believe I need one. That is why they are dangerous.”
- Hunter S. Thompson, Song of the Sausage Creature
Somebody recently asked me if I wanted an iPad. I had to think – ‘Why not?’ The answer I said, was that having bought the largest phone I could and the smallest laptop I could, I didn’t have an iPad-shaped hole in my life.
But the deeper question I have been grappling with – especially since buying the Ducati Multistrada 1200 last year – was: Is there a sportsbike-shaped hole in my life?
Conventional wisdom says ‘No.’ Sportsbike sales are falling, The Multistrada with its versatility, performance, handling and nod to Adventurism perfectly reflects the motorcycling zeitgeist – all the bikes you need ever own. In fact, if you also consider the price of petrol, electric bikes on the way, emission and noise controls, you could see the Panigale as fossil fuel’s last hurrah, already obsolete (– Concorde anyone?) These of course are reasons to buy one, not reasons not to.
So with a Panigale on order (well, half a Panigale – it’s going to be a share with the son-in-law, gulp) I was pretty chuffed when my local dealer WM Snell of Alton in Hants. (UK) called and said they had a demo bike – would I like a ride? Nice. I mean – well they had our money - or at least some of it.
So here I was one cool and showery April day in England, in my commuting kit (having just stepped off the Mutley) about to cock a leg (and ride this time) over possibly the most talked-about bike ever to have been built.
And since so much has been written (as well no doubt spoken) I’ll stick to the bits that stuck to me – as it were. The things that impressed me on my first ride on the Panigale, and one of the first few rides out on real roads anywhere.
David fires it up and immediately I look for the Termignonis. But it has just the stock exhaust. It’s loud. Actually unbelievably loud. I can’t understand how on earth it got through Euro type approval. Maybe it had a pardon from the Pope.
The next thing that strikes me is that the position on the bike seems odd. Sitting on it at the NEC I was simply impressed with how much more roomy it felt than I expected. On the move what strikes me is how low and far forward the footpegs are. Fortunately I forget about this quite quickly.
Next up as I thread my way out of the small Hampshire market town to the open country is how easy it is to ride – even in town traffic. David at Snell’s has presumably followed Ducati’s SOP to the letter and put the bike in wet mode. Fortunately he also showed me how to put it into ‘Race’, and also added: “Enjoy wet mode – it’s probably the last time you will ever use it”. Changing modes on the fly is even easier than I thought and we are out of town now.
Overall, the thing that impresses about the Panigale once we get going is the fluid ease with which it can be ridden. Fast is taken for granted – even at running-in engine speeds of 6k you could enjoy the pace, but what have they done to that evil fire-breathing, lumpy, bit-of-a-bastard waiting to bite you feel of an-out-and out sportsbike? Even the 1198 felt like Jaws gliding beneath the surface of your ride. At running-in speeds the Panigale feels quite reminiscent of the Multistrada – usable, responsive, almost mellow.
The quick-shifter adds to this ease of use. No doubt an excellent aid to rapid launching at the track, it is a joy to use on the road, making up-changes lazy affairs which leave the left hand to get on with the mundane job of switching and cancelling indicators.
Back to the riding position, and for the first time on any bike I shift my feet back on the pegs – not to weight them - but to find a more natural position. This makes me wonder if rear-sets would give a more ‘normal’ riding position, something that stays with me for the rest of the ride. Either way, it is great to be able to lift the bum and float it across the seat – something that is completely impossible on the sit up and beg Multi with its slightly bossy ‘Sit there!’ seat.
Reaching the first piece of sinewy road on the weekday-lunchtime empty A272 and I exercise my new found on-bike mobility, switching my weight from side to side as the bends switch – only to find that – it isn't necessary. I’ve no doubt that a chicane on a race-track would require some serious effort and change of weight distribution even on the Panigale, but quite exuberant road riding requires next to no body language to change direction. Wow, is it really that easy?
And this then is the abiding impression of riding the bike on the road. If God designed motorcycles to keep people safe this would be what he would do – honestly. The bike is the most neutral, easy steering bike I’ve ever ridden. While manifestly light and agile, there is no diving for the apex that you get from sharp steerers like the Triumph Daytona 675 or Buells. Changing direction on the road only requires thought. And the Öhlins prove to me once again that half of what makes the best bikes in the world are not even so much the motor as the suspension, and only Öhlins give you speed, ride and composure.
It takes getting back on the Mutley to make me fully realise that – yes, there is a sportsbike-shaped hole in my life that the Multi can’t fill. It’s not that it isn’t powerful enough, or even that it doesn’t handle. It is just constrained by what it has to be. What makes it such a joy on a long trip or a commute is partly down to the riding position. But that’s what stops it from being an ACTUAL sportsbike.
High bars that give you command of the road you get in a Range Rover detach you from the front wheel. Front end feel? Forget it. A seat that stops you and the pillion from getting unreasonably intimate holds you in one place and forces you to adopt one riding style only – like a policeman. Fine for touring and commuting (and presumably policing).
This is why you need a Panigale. Because nothing – no Porsche, no Ferrari, no Nissan GTR – no sports-touring bike can replicate the feeling. The feeling that you’re floating in a special sensory zone beyond mere motive power, grip and retardation. Where speed is slow and fast is the calm beyond effort. Where only the best sportsbikes in the world can take you.