Now that congestion charging is turning London into a north European version of Hanoi, full of nervous L-plated scooters all dutifully saving their daily five quid, something has to be done. Riding a new Ducati suggests you've taken a lifetime's congestion charges and spunked them away to an impeccably dressed bike salesman named Giovanni on the South Circular road. Technically it's still a tax-exempt two-wheeler, but with a Ducati you can ride a knuckle-dragging, knee-scraping hymn to gasoline.
According to a recent survey, Ducati is the coolest brand in Britain, the pinnacle of motor sport's ascent to high fashion, ahead of designer Alexander McQueen, hi-fi supremos Bang & Olufsen, underwear label Agent Provocateur and the Tate Modern. Ducatis appeal to the purist in a way that Hondas and Yamahas can only dream about. GQ recently voted the 999 the third most beautiful thing in existence. If your lifestyle needs a radical overhaul, they opined, here is the place to start. But all these design accolades, even the proffered handclasp of Guggenheim Museum approval, add up to little more than a sneaking feeling that they must have sold out, that it really is a café wanker's bike, more at home in Bond Street or Bar Italia than on the track - hence the idea of a road test.
It took a while to get hold of one - it had to be the triple 9 (not its little sister the 749) because it's the replacement for the 998 and it's, well, one better. More precisely, it's lighter, faster, more aerodynamic and skinnier. The 998 replaced the 996, which replaced the 916, the 888 and the 851, which was the bike that started Ducati designer Pierre Treblanche's unbroken domination of the World Superbike Championships. After weeks of waiting came dismaying news that the press bike had just been dropped by the journalist before me. 'Not a problem,' explained Luke Plumber the Ducati PR, by now immune to the rank amateur riding of journos, 'but it's a new bike so it's going to take a few days to get the bits to rebuild it.'
With time dragging on, Ducati's south London garage stepped in with its 999 demonstrator - red, of course. 'Have fun - it's a bit flippable though', cautioned the service manager, waving me off. They can be tricky to ride at first - I wobbled back to central London via Heathrow in traffic and frozen fog, gulping air, buzzing and shivering - but Ducatis make men smile. At traffic lights geezers crossed the street to check it out. Taxi drivers wound down their windows to ask if it's any good. Outside the frieze office a Fed-Ex driver stopped his van and got out to check the 999 over approvingly. A biker came over to chat about the merits of a single swing-arm versus a double. It's a permanent testosterone-fuelled Kaffeeklatsch. That's not to say that women are indifferent to the ol' red rooster. The 'Ducati Women' section of www.ducati.com isn't Readers' Wives banality; it's a selection of breathless track narratives by body-armoured petrolheads. Ducatis inspire more female weblogs than any other bike.
Now that Formula One car racing is routinely accepted by the medical profession as a cure for insomnia, TV sport fans are turning to motoGP, and the Ducati team's turbulent successes and internecine spats make them everyone's favourite soap opera family: 'Please Troy, use a softer compound tyre', sobs Ducati boss Tardozzi on his knees.
The 999 is the first Ducati drawn entirely on a CAD system, and has an incredible 30% fewer parts than its predecessor. Gone are the days of Ducati's Stalinist 'Seven-Year Projects', ropy electrics and nightmare reliability. They're not bloated Harleys or Indians, they weigh next to nothing - just 199 kg of carbon and alloy, squirting 124 horsepower to the back wheel. The 999's power comes on crisp and even. It is a monstrously powerful and addictive machine. The M25 starts to feel like a big roundabout. A quick trip to the supermarket can take all morning.
The speedo is digital - an arc of green and red and yellow lights circle the display when you start the bike up. Digital information is available on the fly for 19 consecutive lap times, fuel consumption, top speed attained, peak rpm reached. Sunday morning's ride is laid bare. Even with a new, more adjustable riding position, the 999 gives you a sore arse, sore wrists and an idiot grin. Yet it would be impossible to have a bad ride so long as you can hang on, and the visual pleasure is immense. There are exquisite details, such as the asymmetrical titanium exhausts, an optional carbon fibre manifold cover under the seat and the stack of pinhole headlamps.
The Ducati burbles and roars and scares nervous children, even if its noise reduction system and double catalytic converters have earned it some kind of European compliance. Think in terms of golf. Look at your existing clubs: adequate maybe, OK for now. A Ducati is like a full set of made-to-measure Pings. You may never be able to drive a ball like Tiger Woods, but they bring the epiphanic swing a little closer. You will never be able to pull a rolling back-wheel wheelie like Troy Bayliss, but this bike makes anything seem possible.
On the downside, the Ducati 999 is uncomfortable, impractical and expensive - the unique magnesium alloy wheels mean you can't get a new tyre from anywhere but a Ducati dealer, where they stick them on a plinth in a sterilized operating room and suture them, moist-browed, like something out of ER. But to hell with it - the 999 is a swan among lesser fowl. I doubt this is what Rumsfeld's New Europe is about, but it feels good.
First published in Issue 74