Twisting Asphalt Ducati Multistrada 620 : Commanding Confidence

10 Jun 2015 | Author: | Comments Off on Twisting Asphalt Ducati Multistrada 620 : Commanding Confidence
Ducati Multistrada 620

Ducati Multistrada 620. Commanding Confidence

Photos by Stephen Schauer

I’m squeezing the front brake as I work my way through the entrance of a deep downhill one hundred and eighty degree corner when the bike begins its ultimate fighter like challenge to push the limits of a reasonable lean angle. What once was horizontal swiftly kicks the other way and a second later I find myself sliding across the saddle and hanging out over the other side of the bike as I head through the rest of the turn with an unadulterated and almost irresistible sense of invincibility. Between the gooey gripping tires and the immense leverage of the broad handlebars, this bike is fluently speaking the language of do-no-wrong absolute certain movement and it’s making it perfectly clear that there’s only one place that it’s going to go – around this particular bend.

Inspiration it seems comes in many forms and this frantically joyous feeling is clearly asking if not begging to be bold, so coming out of the corner I whack the outside handgrip and rip the throttle back. It’s a big motion that creates an even bigger movement. As the road begins to snake left, the bike takes a moment to catch its breath and then it wildly exhales with yet another crazily vigorous motion that gives birth to the widest of grins.

In a synapse popping instant of surprising entertainment you realize that the act of being tossed back across the saddle in such a frenzied and near maniac interpretation of a sportbike transition from one corner to the next is not only something you weren’t expecting out of this ride, but also a wildly enjoyable act. As the bike makes another radical pendulum swing it dramatically sends me off of my axis one more time before succumbing to an almost instinctively deep-seated desire to chase its own perfect line.

Generally speaking in most contexts the word ‘whiplash’ would denote something less than pleasurable, but not here. By the time I get to the bottom of the hill after forcibly being flipped back and forth through a series of left-right-left chicanes it’s the only word that seems to even come remotely close to articulating the head bending physical sensation and extraordinarily challenging affront to your sense of balance that this bike creates.

Welcome to the world of the new 2006 Ducati Multistrada 620.

A bike built on contradiction and offering a surprisingly different take on what Italian Sport Motorcycling can offer. Unlike its racetrack brethren, that have both real and imagined performance pedigrees, the Multistrada makes no claims to being superior at anything. What it does however is offer a unique riding experience that takes its cues from multiple motorcycle disciplines and puts them together in one tremendously fun-filled package.

The Strada was first introduced in the fall of 2001 at the Milan Motorcycle Show, but it didn’t actually start production until 2003. When it finally shipped the bike set record sales figures for a new Ducati model yet at the same time became quite possibly the most divisive platform that the company has ever offered. The introduction of the line seemed to instantly polarize motorcyclists with some folks falling madly for what appeared to be a ergonomically easy going and enjoyable variant of an Italian motorcycle while others seemed all too eager to put it down because of its unconventional looks.

This tenuous love-hate relationship in some respects goes back to the initial genesis of the bike. While the Multistrada was first penned in the late nineties by Pierre Terblanche, the design didn’t actually see the light of day until the success of the ME900E proved to Ducati that there was a market for alternative motorcycle genres under the marquee. Today it’s hard to imagine a time when Ducati or any of the major motorcycle manufactures for that matter didn’t offer multiple styles of bikes to their consumers, yet back then Ducati only really built two types of motorcycles – derivatives of production based race bikes and Monsters.

It’s probably safe to assume that the push to create a third branch of Ducati motorcycles was based on the late nineties cruiser boom which at the time of the Strada’s introduction was just starting to morph from a purely motorcycle phenomenon into a full-blown media blitz towards the mainstream. Remarkably instead of merely copying what was hot at the time, Ducati stayed true to the brand and went the other way.

Of course bringing a bike that had no defined genre to the market was certainly less than a secure bet. Thankfully Ducati took the risk, if for no other reason then to prove that it’s acceptable to think beyond the defined confines of what’s current in the motorcycle landscape.

Rolling through ‘The Playground’ section of Mulholland, which stretches between Las Virgines and Kanan, it’s pretty obvious that times have changed. There are all types and styles of bikes on the market these days and when you’re out riding in the canyons over the weekend you tend see quite an assortment of them. But perhaps few bikes forecasted this relatively newfound explosion into different motorcycling segments like the Multistrada.

When the bike was first introduced the only motorcycle that resembled it was the BMW GS, which is much heavier and bulkier, or the various KTM motard based models, which not only have far less US distribution but also are considerably less touring-travel conscious. The brilliance of Terblanche was that he saw a hole in the multipurpose market and took the best thoughts behind the sport, sport-touring, and GS categories and merged them together in a new genre.

To call the Strada anything less than its own category would dismiss how multifaceted it is in the face of its competition. Today even Ducati seems to recognize this lack of classification. On the company’s website the other bikes they offer are all listed by category – the lone exception is the Multistrada, which is simply listed by its name.

Of course just using conventional motorcycle genres to define a bike has always struck me as a bit of a slippery slope because the ultimate test of a particular motorcycle isn’t in its description, but in how it actually functions.

Halfway up Mulholland, the 2-valved air-cooled engine is howling with a ridiculously sinful sound for an engine this size as the revs hover right at the top of the tach when I start whipping through the gears and ripping open the throttle. While there is no rapid rocketship like 999 forward thrust, the manic sound effects and the nimble nature of bike offer an almost video game like fantasy land rush.

With each successive gear change the 620 is making such a ludicrously wonderful racket that its hard not to feel like you’re living in a tourist trophy video game race only without the controllers. Some bikes tell the world they’re fast, this one lets you feel like you’re fast. As the bike takes me further and further beyond the realm of what I thought it could do, the ride stops being about just comfortable sport touring and starts becoming all about feeling the sport.

Of course at their core sports are all about competition, so when I clip the next corner tightly and come out on to a short straight directly behind several literbike riders it seems like fate has delivered an opportunity to see where the 620 truly stands. As I sit back and watch the group ahead of me, it’s obvious that they’re moving well above and beyond ‘the pace’.

Watching the riders work their bikes in and out of the turns, and I do mean work, it’s astounding how easy it is to keep up them with far less effort. While the literbikes clearly have a power advantage on the 620 when they’re coming out onto the straights, in each and every corner the Strada keeps coming back from the dead. Charging into the fold with an amazingly strong presence for a motorcycle that’s running with a rather unassuming 63 horsepower engine.

In today’s motorcycle world that kind of power output would seem like a relative pittance in comparison with the top roadracing machines, but the 620 hangs in surprisingly well and all the while offering the chance to feel something that any literbike rider on the street would be insane to try replicate, the sensation of what it’s like to ride near the edge – because on this bike that feeling is actually attainable.

When I finally pull up at The Rockstore, it doesn’t take a marketing analyst to see that the Strada continues to be misunderstood in many corners of the motorcycle world. Some folks glance at it while others sort of snicker. Most don’t pay it much attention, which is a shame.

It’s certainly not the kind of the bike that draws a crowd so if you’re into that sort of thing you probably want to move on, but as I get off and unstrap my helmet, the guilty looking inner-child inside is having a hell of a day.

Originally the Multistrada was internally dubbed ‘Project 85’ because the basic conceit behind the bike was to outperform 85 percent of the competition in any kind of motorcycle class while offering a way into the Ducati brand for new customers who were not sportbike riders. Conceptually this sounds like great PR spin, but realistically you find yourself asking how can something be 85% of tourer, 85% of a GS and at the same time 85% of sportbike? It’s an almost insane proposition and one might argue impossible, but the Strada gets pretty damn close.

The bike’s stance gives it a definite sense of GS or Enduro styled riding. You’re sitting up high, you’ve got great visibility and the ultrawide handlebars force your arms to be pushed way out towards the edges of civilization where there’s an awesome amount of potential force readily available to manipulate the bike.

Unlike a true sportbike or even a more dedicated sport-tourer, the ergos on the Multistrada truly give you the sense that you’re in command of the road and they’re far more relaxed then other bikes that Ducati offers. In automotive terms if you think of a 999 as an unbridled supercar and the ST series as a sporty sedan, the Multistrada is the Porsche Cayenne of the product line.

Yet while the bike feels physically relaxing, the sensation it offers when it roars falls much more coherently into the sportbike realm. In the corners the Strada feels tremendously secure and that translates into a remarkable amount of lean angle-inspiring confidence. Outside of kneedragging a 999 around a corner on a racetrack, this might be the most secure feeling Ducati currently being produced.

When you’re tossing about in-between curves it’s easy to feel the basic tenants of the bike’s Ducati racing character. Part of that roadracing heritage comes through in the trannys rather low gearing, which makes the bike seem particularly quick, and the relatively flat torque curve, which gives a rider a sense that the power is actually getting to the ground throughout most of the rpm range.

However the greatest thrill that the Strada platform offers is the abundant and successive back and forth battle it allows you to wage with the road. It’s a vastly different sensation then riding a sportbike. Once you get used to the feeling it becomes obvious that this bike was derived with the purpose and dare I say passion for shaking and rattling your cage with an abounding sense of remarkably nimble side-to-side movement.

Shucking and jiving with this bike is not only about using leverage to your advantage, but it’s also about aggressively moving beyond merely sitting on top of the saddle and instead allowing yourself to experience a whole different style of lean angle when you get your body over the bike’s centerline. The Strada offers an opportunity to become an active participant in the feeling of conquering corners.

The following day, I’m not waging war with the roads but rather cars during rush hour. Snaking through Downtown LA on the 620 is surprisingly easy. While I usually log significantly more miles in the canyons then on city streets, all the attributes that make the Strada a great bike in the canyons seem even better when you’re stuck in the urban jungle.

The 620 is just zippy enough to charge to the front when a streetlight turns green and so remarkably tall that you can actually see over most sedans with little to no effort. The field of vision that this bike creates in a metropolitan setting is also enormously helpful when you’re battling full size buses, gridlock, and the stupidly bizarre driving behaviors that one finds on display during rush hour.

Perhaps the bike’s most impressive city street attribute is its slim nature. This is a quality that I normally don’t pay much attention to out in the canyons, but when you’re weaving your way through stop and go traffic it sure comes in handy. By nature I’m not a big lane-splitter, but between the greater height, wider field of vision and the slim packaging, the Strada is the easiest bike I’ve ever ridden in a true urban area.

If I were a fulltime motorcycle commuter this would be a hard package to ignore.

Of course commuters need places to put things and that’s one of the real shortcomings of the Strada. Given the nature of the platform you’d think there’d be at least a smidgen of storage, but in typical Ducati fashion you better wear jeans or leathers with pockets because there isn’t any storage on this bike. Apparently it seems that Italian commuters don’t ride with garage door clickers.

Another minor quibble I’ve got with the bike is the plastic gas tank. It makes using a standard magnetic tankbag impossible. Obviously this can be remedied by purchasing a tankbag with a hard mount but for someone like me who floats between bikes it’s more then a tad annoying.

One area that the factory did get right however is the seat. It’s definitely the most comfortable Ducati saddle I’ve ridden. Compared to the ST3S, whose seat I thought was pretty good, the Strada’s is far more spongy and plush.

At around $8,495 the Multistrada 620 is clearly targeted as an entry-level model in the Ducati line. Yet out on the curviest sections of canyon roads the bike doesn’t feel entry-level at all. The base Marzocchi suspension is extremely forgiving even on the bumpiest parts of the asphalt.

Divots that usually rock a 999 around feel seamless on this bike.

The brakes offer another surprise given the nature of where the 620 sits in the product line. Even though they are only 2-piston calipers they are remarkably strong and modulate very smoothly. For an entry-level bike they are far better than I would have imagined.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the actual brake and clutch levers. Not only are they’re not adjustable but they’re also a heck of a reach. If I was going to purchase the 620 the very first thing I would do is replace the stock levers with adjustable versions, if for no other reason than it’s a obvious safety issue in my mind.

If you can’t easily reach the brake lever it doesn’t really matter how powerful the brakes are, now does it?

After riding the hell out of the 620 I’ve come to the conclusion that while I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, it’s the wrong variant of the Multistrada line for me. If the vast majority of my riding took place in the city or if I was just learning how to ride the 620 would be an ideal motorcycle, but I kept wishing for just a bit more umph from the engine. So if I were going to purchase a Strada for myself I’d cough up the extra coin for the 1000 or the 1000S no questions asked.

However regardless of my personal preference towards engine size, the actual Multistrada platform is a very welcome twist on what a sportbike can be and the Strada presents its case with a tremendously easygoing but dead serious demeanor that allows you to ‘feel’ the ride. That’s no small feat. It’s a property that no manufacture’s brochure or statistical performance index can list and it’s a quality that in some ways is far too uncommon in the vast majority of motorcycles.

Ironically during the two weeks that I spent with the 620 I ended up putting the most miles on the smallest and least powerful ride I’ve ever tested. I kept finding myself creating any justification necessary to get out and ride it, because the bike’s ability to let the rider ‘feel’ the ride is far too much fun to pass up even one opportunity to experience.

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