In late June this year I managed to get over 30,000 miles on the clock of the 996. Not the easiest miles by a long shot, and not the 30,000 that say a Gold Wing owner would understand. Though a prisoner on a rack might have an appreciation for the durability of my wrists.
996 ways to say Vooom! in Italian
It was the summer of 1989, there was a transport workers strike in London and I had to be at an interview in Knightsbridge. I lived in Lincolnshire, over 160 miles north, so I stayed with a friend living at that time near London the night before. I rode the GPZ500 into the city to the hotel where the interview took place. I parked up in a motorcycle parking area, next to a bike I dreamed of, a Ducati 851. It almost seemed like sacrilege to park the Kawasaki next to this work of art. It was the first of this Ducati family I had seen on the street.
Fast forward to the 1997 Bike Show in New York City. Ducati was doing well, the 916 was finally arriving in significant numbers in the USA. Ducati had a stand at the bike show and were allowing punters to sit on the show bike. It fit!
You know how these things go. You save, you scrimp, you lust, you realise that unless the priorities change the dream will stay just that. Then Lois said "Get It!" In September 1999, we went into Rizzons in Middlesex, NJ and put down a deposit on a new Y2K 996. Red, Monoposto! We waited. The first bikes started to arrive in mid-October. None were red and monoposto. We waited. In late November the call came, "Alistair your bike is here!" We rushed down to Rizzons' and with sweaty paws I signed the paperwork that bought me one of my dreams.
At the end of your arm is a joint, normally called a wrist, when you ride a Ducati 996 it is also called sore.
The 996 is a small motorcycle, my 6' 3" 260lb frame fits, but getting behind the screen when pushing it is a little tough - my ribs get in the way of the tank. The seat has never been a problem, my backside is well versed in what is required of it when sitting on a motorcycle. I am still able to pick things up with my hands, just. On the Marquis De Sade Scale of Seated Torture the 996 comes in somewhere around 11, it's a tad rough on the wrists. Did I mention that the handlebars are a little on the radical side? They are. I have read that even the factory racers (King Carl included, supposedly) like to alter the handlebar arrangement.
Update (June 2002): See Handlebars!
When I first got on my bike, the thing that most struck me was the tractor like engine sound coming from below. The clattering of valve gear was astonishing. As the miles have racked up (don't forget the handlebars ergonomic impact on the concept of 'racked') the motor became quieter, and a little less buzzy. Some of the problem is that I simply cannot find enough police free road to wring the bike out. This means that you hear the engine at its least charming for the most time. Above 6000 rpm the motor changes its tune entirely: the vibes seem to disappear - though that could just be that my brain is busy trying to make sense of the scenery suddenly blurring - the exhaust note sounds more like a Bear is sitting behind you and the motor suddenly needs another gear. I have yet to run out of gears, even at 120mph I found 6th gear to be unnecessary, by 140mph it was clear that early use of 6th was quite detrimental, in fact. Fuel consumption has been admirable for a race bike, adequate for a tourer; I am getting between 40 and 50 mpg. That is with US gallons, 20% smaller than the Imperial equivalent. I suppose that works out to be about 10 to 12 miles per liter, your mileage may vary. With a 4 gallon tank, 150 to 170 miles before reserve is pretty good going, and well into wrist annihilation territory.
The engine makes excellent power that is delivered well. It has been easy to ride on cold/freezing roads, wet roads and roads covered in sand and gravel (can't say the gravel was so good for the oil cooler, though). Not being a wheelie expert, all I can say is that the bike will loft the front with little effort in first, and only a modicum more effort in second. It seems to stay planted in 3rd and above. The engine will spin the rear, though having blistered one rear tyre, I am not too interested in doing that too much.
Sept 2003, the bike went in for a major service. Lots of service work was done and in the process the dealer found that the hard chrome on the cam follower had worn off. This is a recall item it seems in the 2001 bikes. While technically out of warranty, my dealer worked to make sure that I was covered and managed to see to me getting the parts under warranty.
June 2004. I have run a carbon cover on the clutch for a long time. It keeps things cool and also has the benefit of allowing us to see working bits - no fingers in there though! What we noticed recently was that the clutch plates are wearing - but not on the working surfaces! The clutch plate tabs are getting bashed to bits due to high mileage, the clutch being original. Additionally, a slight weep has been seen coming from the back of the clutch housing. It would seem that in the near future a clutch rebuild will be in order.
June 2005. Coming out of Califon, NJ, reducing another car driver to a footnote in the annals of "cars blown away", the bike started to make a deeper thumping sound, there was no reduction in thrust, there was no real increase in vibration, just a secondary deep rumble. This was not good, I thought. I slowed up and took it easy going back home. Trailering it to the dealer was probably a very wise move (I'm not one for wise moves, they're generally way too tricky), as Bill told me that the rod end bearing had failed. The crank and the con rod were fine, just the bearing was going to be replaced. As they were doing the bearings, they also fitted the bike with a new Barrett aluminium clutch basket and plates. This is just a direct replacement for the normal unit, not a slipper clutch. It weights about 4 lb's less than the standard unit so it should increase the rate at which the engine picks up revs.
October 2005. It's been a quiet summer. The bike was off the road for quite a time and work has encroached on valuable riding resources. But, things are looking up. The guys have cleared up the last minor issues with the engine rebuild, and the bike is going great. In fact it's going better than it's ever gone. This is in part because of the less restrictive breathing, and partly because of the Power Commander I just fitted. There should be a law that says after the EPA is done with you, you have to fit one of these little boxes to fix all the Federal Wrongdoing. Also, the guys told me (repeatedly) to remove the aluminium grills in the chin intakes - they promised it would improve the power and breathing. Suddenly the bike has more urge. Even before the Power Commander was fitted, the bike suddenly developed an interest in 3rd gear wheelie's. Woow! there little red beastie! Careful throttle control is definitely needed.
October 2006.Through the summer the bike became a bit of a handful. There were ominous noises from down below, and the idle seemed worse than erratic, frequently stalling at lights. As the rear tyre needed replacing, the bike was sent back to the dealer for a look. The phone rang a bit later to tell me that some bits had worked loose and/or broken. It was again time for the check book! replacing a clutch actuation rod, snapped in two, and reseating a loose flywheel. It seems that if the rod snaps, the flywheel is the culprit. Rizzons also looked at the Power Commander (fixed some setpoints), added a new rear tyre and gave me back an amazingly sorted out ride.
October 2007.Nothing much to talk about really, 30,300 miles and counting. The bike seems like it may need an overhaul soon, but is going like a trooper. Tyres holding in, in fact the rear looks quite fresh.
Rubber wears. The Rear went early at about 3700 miles with a blister. This was replaced under warranty. Now, I have to say that when I was looking at this blistered tyre I was amazed at how little wear the thing was showing. My old GPz900 would have eaten 2 tyres in this mileage, but these big Michelin Radials are quite remarkable, and give great tread life. The rear was replaced with an OEM Michelin Pilot Sport 190/55. I noted one thing about this tyre which was not being able to get to the edge of it - no way, no how! And I tried.
Next up was the front tyre. It was shot at about 8,000 miles. It first wore all the center ribs off which gave the tyre a gentle thrum on the road. Then the shoulders wore and the tyre became "Exciting" to turn into corners. The original was replaced with... an other OEM Michelin of original size. I noted that the front tyre is as large as the rears on most of my previous bikes. The new tyre was a revelation, the bike turned again!
At 13,000 miles the rear was junk. It was worn out right around the middle, there were no wear markers left and it was beginning to cause handling problems. This time I had fitted a Michelin Pilot Sport in a 180 size. I have heard these allow the bike to handle better. So far the bike turns more easily, it seems to have reduced the effort needed to get the bike from one side to the other in little S-bends, I can reach the edge of the tread (street cred! phew!) and the whole plot seems to be less prone to stand up on the brakes going into corners - again it is easier to turn, I suppose. This is all good stuff.
It is now August 2002, with 17800 miles on the tach the front tyre has been sent to that
happy place in the sky that takes lost vulcanized rubber rings. I replaced the old tyre with
one of the same, but a strange thought has crept its way through my head... If I could get a tyre
that does not wear the pointed bits of the tread down, and instead wore the tyre evenly,
would I get more miles or just vaguer feel? Further, the standard tyre on the 996 is a
120/70V17, the standard tyre on the 748 is a 120/60V17. What gives? Is the 748's lower profile
used to allow the bike to turn in more swiftly? It seems YES! The lower profile effectively
changes the steering head angle, steepening the steering (reducing trail, etc).
June 2004: Well into my second Pilot Sport (180 size). These are great tyres. I have found they will wear right to the edge - even to the point of wearing off the Michelin logo and tyre fitment direction markers along the edge. This sort of lean angle, while not recommended for road use, is easy to achieve and sustain. The tyre rubber feathers a little if pressed, which you have to be aware off when you go for your next ride - the feathered rubber doesn't have the grip of the smooth stuff. Even well over, the bike feels composed and predictable. I have also had a few opportunities to try the tyres in the wet, where they do very well, offering excellent grip without the light headed feel some tyres give (especially from the front.) The 180's like the 190's are slow to warm up on really cold days (freezing days) and are apt to slide a little, but once warm seem to keep heat well - so you don't loose all the heat and grip while the traffic light is red!
September 2005, 26,000 miles. While in for it's engine rebuild I took the opportunity to have them spoon on a new front tyre. The old one had taken all the high points off the center line of the tyre and it was begriming to weave in straight lines. Coming off the center, when turning into a corner the tyre would often slide till it got to good rubber. Ermmm, time for a new front tyre.
October 2006, 28,000 miles. Due to the flat worn bit down the middle of the tyre, and the lack of tread, the rear was replaced by a Michelin Pilot Sport 190/60V17 (back upto the wider size as this was lying around).
Other bits and Handling
The brakes are amazing. The front brakes are simply too much. Stoppies, Easy! If there is a problem with the front, it's that the brakes have a tendancy to cause the front forks to bind making for awkward turn in with the brakes on. It seems that even these Upside-Down forks have limits. The front brake pads have lasted well, though the front tyre was replaced at 6000 miles with complete worn shoulders... did I mention the stoppies? The rear brake is off another bike. Actually I think its still on the other bike. While the front brake has power and feel, and could almost do with an anti-lock system to save you from yourself, the rear has no need of anti-lock and no inclination to causing lock up. I suppose banging down the gear box is considered enough to stop the rear wheel :(
I have tinkered with the suspension. This is not quite a case of "one good setting and an infinite number of wrong ones" but its not far off. Being a bit heavy, I need lots of spring to keep the motor off the ground, this in turn requires a little bit more damping. But with the bike setup from the factory I could have weighed a ton and not been comfortable.
This is my suspension philosophy a modification of that given to me by Jack Machin, of Machin's Motorcycles in Lincoln.
The primary objective is to keep the bike off the tyres. Do this by winding in spring preload. Put enough spring preload in to stop the bike bottoming it's shocks. Adjust rebound damping to the minimum settings. Adjust compression damping to remove the spring bounce. Then add rebound damping to stiffen the motion, only a little though.
Ride height is used to move the center of mass forward or back. Raise or lower the front forks in the yokes, or as on the 996, adjust the ride height adjuster on the rear shock linkage.
I adjust the ride height to put more weight on the front and steepen the front steering, hence making the turn-in more abrupt.
As time has progressed I have noticed that the suspension has eased up, it seems the dampening is loosening up (I may also just be getting used to a stiffer suspension?). This has resulted in me stiffening up the spring preloads, and adjusting the damping settings. I can see this becoming an on-going game.
Getting that loving feeling back
Having lost that loving feeling, that sure footed sense that the front is exactly where I intended it, I decided I needed to fix the problem. The symptoms were...
I have been battling with trying to adjust the rear ride height adjuster, for there lies part of the solution to my problems. It is an aluminium tube between the swingarm and the lever arm (see ducati diagram at left - red is adjuster, green bits are the lock nuts) that the top of the shock mounts to. It has right and left threaded adjusters at top and bottom and stylish locknuts. The lock nuts have to be freed and then the central tube can be turned to increase or decrease the ride height. My problem was that I could not free the lock nuts. I was burring the nuts and they were not moving. Bill (from Rizzons) suggested I use heat, heat from one of those modellers acetylene torches, and just make sure that I didn't melt any of the plastic or metal bits there about!
The torch worked and with the help of some vice grips I was able to move the bottom lock nut. The upper lock nut came free immediately and could be turned by hand easily (though it was hot to the touch). The bottom nut though was clearly corroded to the steel rod that the adjuster works on, this seems to happen because of all the mess that gets thrown from the back wheel - another good reason to get a hugger for the rear swingarm.
With the ride height adjuster adjustable, I adjusted. 1 turn gives about 3mm of right height, I put in 2 turns.
I also took some of the sag out of the front (it has been increasing as the front fork springs have aged. I found that 2 complete turns of the adjuster move the preload adjuster between the engraved lines at the top of the front fork. I put an additional 1.5 turns on to reduce the sag by about 15 mm. (It had got a bit saggy up front).
I also put two more turns on the rear spring, and took out one click of rebound on that shock.
With this all done, the bike is once again much more planted. It wheelie's a bit more (stiffer rear) but it also turns dramatically better.
These are a long way from those prescribed in the owners manual, however, this bike has done a few miles, so don't take these as gospel!
Sept 2002. Wound the clicks up on the rear shock rebound. I was getting good feel from the rear but it was soft enough that the bike wallowed in mid-speed corners (50-60mph), especially the bumpier ones. Putting the rebound up to 8 clicks stiffened the rear up, seems to have had the effect of raising the rear ride height (illusional, I think) and curing the wallow at the moment. It's not as comfy as it was but does scythe through corners nicely!
April 2003. Someday's I just get this feeling that I need to endanger my life. The latest form of this feeling involved the steering damper. The steering at low speeds is not great. The bike has a tendancy to fall into corners, making it a little unpredictable. But genius here thought that it might be possible to remove the steering damper and ride with it. Well, you can in fact remove the steering damper, fairly easily, and the bike rides quite nicely without it at low speeds. If you are just moping along at say 50 or 60 it's not toooo bad, but you begin to feel that the bike is getting a bit frisky; nervous even. Gas it, and you get a big head shake. Skim the wheel over the road as you leave some traffic lights and the steering gets quite lively. So. The answer to the question "Can the bike be ridden without the steering damper?" is Yes! The answer to the question "Am I stupid enough to want to do it?" should be No! There speaketh the voice of experience!
June 2004. It is worth pointing out, I think, that at this stage in the bikes life the shock and the front suspension have not been taken apart or replaced. I think the rear shock may be a bit light on damping oil (not a bad thing) but the set up still responds to clicks in a predictable manner.
Reliability and Changes
When I was in my beginning days of riding, to ride an Italian bike meant only one thing: dedication. Italian bikes had 'character'. This generally meant that the engine needed frequent rebuilds, the wiring was insulator pretending to be conductor, the handling was great - for the Queen Mary. These days things are quite different. Ducati has made enormous strides in reliability, quality, fit and finish. You pay for what you get, and at 16 Grand (US dollars) it had better be good.
That said, there have been some problems. Some mechanical, some induced on Ducati by the far sighted-ness of the great EPA.
I have been using some little things to make life easier for myself, here are some reviews and opinions on these items...
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