Life lessons from owning a Ducati

I knew when I bought the motorcycle that I was buying a project. I had not expected that I would be the project.

Life lessons from owning a Ducati

In August 2007 I rode away from a dealership on the only motorcycle I had ever purchased new, a Ducati identified by the model name Monster S4Rs. On top of the $25,600 on-road price, and a similar sum spent on modifications and maintenance, the bike would cost me years of confusion and wrath. And yet given a re-do I would choose it again.

I would reprise my purchase because I’ve ridden nothing so charming that approaches its style of performance. And because my travelling down the path it set me on has brought me a measure of self-assurance that has been helpful since.

Stock 2007 Ducati Monster S4Rs loaded for two-up touring, roadside at Cundinup, southwest Western Australia.

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, …” Kipling wrote about the capacities of the mature. I would learn that I could keep my head, and through times when I was suspected of feeding delusions.

If you have to ask …

The Monster has been a long-running Ducati model, often cited as the bike that saved the small company. The version I bought was the finest offered since the line was launched in 1993, and arguably none better has followed.

Explaining the appeal of a well trimmed Ducati is like explaining the appeal of a blue note in jazz: either you don’t need an explanation, or an explanation won’t help. I’ll restrict myself to saying that the Italian marque’s trademark 90-degree V-twin engine can endow a svelte chassis with a liquid-smooth and yet perceptibly pulsing gait that brings to mind the cantering of a fine horse, albeit a horse whose canter extends to speeds beyond legal limits.

2007 Ducati Monster S4Rs lines up a sweeping corner near Denmark in southwest Western Australia.

The “s” in S4Rs signified that the bike came with superior suspension from Swedish specialist Ohlins, an option I’d selected because lesser motorbike suspensions often were terrible. What was wholly unexpected by me, and drew puzzled frowns from consulted professionals, was that in this case the rear suspension supplied by Ohlins was terrible. Ordinary looking country roads could leave me feeling as though I were riding on cobblestones.

Suspension genius

Professionals tend not to trust layman descriptions of dynamic shortcomings, and especially when a famous brand, still the standard setter in world championship racing, has constructed the criticised part. I had ridden motorbikes from my early teens, and had spent some years writing about them, and so I had faith that my critique was well founded.

Author I.J. Baker comes to grips with a Ducati 900SS production race bike ridden for a magazine article at the Eastern Creek circuit in western Sydney.

Nevertheless responses ranged from you must be picky to, from the importer of Ohlins equipment, after thoughtful suggestions had not brought relief, it’s not our component – it’s how Ducati has built it into the bike.

It took me three years and about 30,000km to iron out the harshness, which turned out to be … drum roll … in the Ohlins component, technically a spring-damper unit but colloquially a shock. I paid people to remove the shock three times and dismantle it twice. And to replace it the third time with a new Ohlins unit, custom-specified, on the strength of my feedback, by a Ducati-loving suspension genius I had tracked down across the Pacific in North Carolina.

One of a kind

Every one of the 5700 S4Rs Monsters built would have been delivered with this same shortcoming, since the original shock had been manufactured correctly. As far as I could determine only I had resolved it. People put up with it, and it seems that a lot of S4Rs Monsters don’t see many miles. I wrote up my findings on an American forum and proceeded to enjoy the bike, which suddenly was a lot more attractive to take on a trip.

2007 Ducati Monster S4Rs roadside and loaded for touring in southern Western Australia.

So attractive, that I decided to do what most other Ducati buyers did in those days: replace the exhaust system with something much prettier, a change that would also extend the bike’s canter and enliven its gallop.

High maintenance

By this time the Monster and I had covered nearly 50,000km, and I had been obliged to replace the clutch, the coolant radiator, the voltage regulator (three times), and the front brake master cylinder. Ducati parts are expensive, and so I was delighted my dealer had sold me the new radiator at half price, only $1200. When that one failed, I sent the first to an expert repairer I had dug up on the other side of the continent. Other maintenance had included four costly adjustments of the unusually complex desmodromic valve timing.

2007 Ducati Monster S4Rs on the lift at The Bike Boy's workshop in Melbourne.

Nevertheless I was deriving a lot of enjoyment from riding the bike, and so I coughed up $1500 for the new exhaust system, made by Arrow in Italy, and $600 to have the engine dynamometer-tuned for it, a service promoted to me by the recommended Perth workshop that had looked after the Monster since new.

I had thought that my evenings of lying awake suffused with vexation were behind me by then, but as it turned out they had barely begun.

The bike came back with the pretty pipe and the tune and a nasty backfire, and – horrors – deprived of its signature Ducati canter. A diagnostic process ensued that would occupy another three years.

Active imagination

Why was that process so testing of temperament? Because no one but I thought the post-dyno gait was ungainly. The shop that had done the work thought it was fine, and then after much persuasion put the bike back on the dyno, agreed it was not quite fine, substituted a bunch of parts at its expense, and said it had done all it could. It blamed the exhaust and offered to refit the original.

Ducati reliability meme: Making mechanics out of riders since 1946.

The shop I had bought the bike from also thought it felt fine, suggesting that any problem may have lain in worn handlebar grips – and fitting, gratis, a new set. An independent mechanic thought it ran better than a similar bike he had owned. No one was unkind enough to say so directly, but it was easy to infer from successive trade engagements that I had an active imagination or unusually high expectations, and perhaps preferred the quieter standard exhaust.

A move across the continent to Melbourne allowed me to book in the bike with Brad “The Bike Boy” Black, renowned for his ways with pre-2010 Ducatis. Brad credited my perceptions but could not feel himself what I complained of. It was only after he agreed to replace a major part of the fuel-injection system with a fresher component I had sourced second-hand that my modified Monster began to run beautifully, and my prior discomfort could be traced to a faulty throttle-position sensor – a tiny part whose slow degradation had been masked by the less precise standard tune, and was invisible to Ducati test instruments.

Crazy perfectionist

If there is one thing more exasperating than a brand new motorcycle that absorbs large sums frequently for failed parts, it is a bike that you believe is faulty but that every authority says is in excellent shape. You cannot help but question yourself. Are you crazy? A crazy perfectionist? Not a reasonable person? Someone caught up in his own little world, where things that happen happen only for him? An obsessive mutterer who can’t see plain facts?

All of these self-perceptions I experienced and lived with for short and long periods, along with self-questioning over my judgment in buying the bike, and self-criticism over my accepting incomplete diagnoses. If all about me were losing their heads then they didn’t think so, and it was easy for me to think that I must have lost mine.

2007 Ducati Monster S4Rs with Arrow full exhaust on the Reefton Spur road, Victoria.

And yet my emerging from that period, understanding that my honouring of my intuition had rendered the suspension superb, and that my declining to settle had restored the Monster’s lost step, has left me with a subtly altered sense of self-efficacy. An enhanced ability to back my own judgment, while retaining the capacity to accept alternative counsel. It turned out I was not crazy, nor a perfectionist.

Should I fall into self-doubt over other choices I make, there has been for some time an antidote within easy reach: a unique modern classic that lifts my spirits every time I step onto her. She may be 16 years and 112,000km old, and therefore of little value to others, but she uses no oil and leaves me envying no one their motorcycle.

Am I rationalising when I say that the journey has been worth what I’ve paid? Does your view change if I reveal that my antidote needs a third front-brake master? Respectful responses are welcome as comment.

Comments

  1. Brilliant write-up, mate. I just let an independent mechanic do a valve adjustment on my 2010 Streetfighter 1098 and fear I may again be on the tuning journey. It feels buttery at speed, but has new problems (wonky idle, stalling off-throttle, backfire). Like you, hopefully it’s just the TPS — a source of frustration I’m well aware of. For now, I shrug. Once a Ducati owner, always a Ducati owner.

    1. Thanks for the compliment, Chris. I’ve edited your comment gently, just so that we don’t hand out blame where it may not turn out to be justified. It’s hard to imagine how a mere valve adjustment would introduce the new issues you speak of, unless it was done incorrectly (for example, one or more clearances tight). Sounds like the sort of thing you’d do well to take up right away. The Streetfighter came out soon after my S4Rs, and I’ve always thought they must be brilliant to ride. Harder edge than the Monster, I imagine. Best of luck getting it sorted. A Ducati isn’t really so complicated, once you get to know it – as it sounds like you know well.

  2. For those that understand, no explanation is necessary.
    For those who don’t understand, no explanation is possible.
    I totally get you Ducati man!

  3. A Great read from a great scribe I’ve had the Sport s 1ooo for 17 yrs aswell 77000 going strong have not spent any where near the money you have. Great to hear from you Ian . We’re can I get a copy of your book

    1. Hi Tony and thank you – glad you enjoyed the piece, and that your Ducati Sport 1000 is still serving you well. As for the book, there should be buy buttons all over this site but at this point it’s ebook only, at the bargain price of US$5.00 (about A$8). You’d need a Kindle or would have to read it on a computer of some kind. You’ll love it, and I’m working on a print version for early next year.

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