Motorcycle touring North Carolina backroads
Motorcycle touring North Carolina on Craig Hunley's 1978 Ducati Darmah.
Years produced: 1977-1982
Total production: 5,598
Claimed power: 57hp @ 7,700rpm
Top speed: 110 (approx.)
Engine type: 863.9cc overhead-cam, air-cooled V-twin
Weight (dry): 216kg (476lb)
Price then: $3,500 (approx.)
Price now: $4,000-$6,000
MPG: 42 (approx.)
"When God invented roads He painted an invisible line of perfection. Then He invented Ducati motorcycles to follow it."
The year was 1982; I had just stepped off my friend’s 1978 Ducati 860 GTS after an idyllic thrash along one of my favorite English country roads when those words rolled from my mouth. It is a statement we still talk about when I am home in England reminiscing about the good old days with the boys.
Twenty-five years later, motorcycle touring North Carolina Route 181 on Craig Hunley’s 1978 Ducati Darmah, chasing a bright red Cagiva Gran Canyon, I have once more found this perfect line. It has taken me two days and nearly 500 miles in the saddle to adjust my mental database of riding techniques for the aged Italian machine beneath me. The bike has a long wheelbase, skinny touring tires and stiffly sprung shocks, which appear to be working against the softly sprung front fork. The rake and trail feel more like a chopper than a sport bike, and the front brake lever requires the hand strength of a gorilla. It also rewards the user with very little braking power.
But listening to the Conti pipes booming on full noise on the Ducati Darmah, accompanied by the sound of the barely-filtered Delorttos inhaling gobs of mountain air on an open throttle, none of this matters. Sending shivers down my spine as it snorts and spits when I let the heavy throttle springs drop the slides, the sound of the unburned fuel backfiring in the pipes is sending me into a euphoric state of bliss. A bevel Ducati running open Delorttos and Conti pipes is heaven on earth.
Yet as perfectly as the Ducati Darmah runs, I wasn’t convinced about Craig’s decision to use Koni shocks at the rear. Slightly longer than stock and with too much spring rate, they don’t — in my humble opinion — help the front end one bit, making the front tire push. The trick, I’ve discovered, is to leave the front brake alone to eliminate any fork dive. Just roll off the gas, pull in the clutch and give the throttle a quick blip before dropping a gear and getting hard on the rear brake.
This is enough for most corners, and it is best to stay on the rear brakes to keep things settled before using the bars to lever the lazy front end in the direction “we” are headed. It takes a healthy amount of body English to get us turned, but as soon as the job is done, I recite my mantra (“throttle, throttle, throttle!”) to remind myself to get back on the gas quickly. Any delay here sees the bright red Cagiva pulling a larger gap, and running up to my self-imposed 6,000rpm redline, it’s time to snatch a clutchless up-shift before tucking in behind the clocks as we head for the next bend.
Out on this nearly-deserted mountain road, it’s magical to have found the way to communicate with Craig’s immaculate 1978 Ducati Darmah and extremely gratifying to see how much he appreciates me riding his bike so hard.
Craig and his Ducati Darmah
As an ex-racer, fast road burner and all around motorcycle addict, Craig wanted me to experience the Ducati Darmah in all its glory. Choosing two demanding days of riding in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, often way off the beaten track, speaks volumes about his faith in the Darmah’s reliability.
Craig is an Italian bike fanatic. Purchased back in 1995, the Ducati Darmah was quickly responsible for inflicting Craig with MLI (Moto Lust Italia). A particularly infectious disease, it has caused a healthy number of Italian bikes to pass through the Hunley garage since the arrival of the Darmah, with a handful of them still there.
A late bloomer when it came to motorcycles, Craig’s first two-wheeled purchase was a 1976 Yamaha RD400 soon after leaving college. He had seen many café racer Triumphs and Nortons by this time and, in his own words, was a “wannabe.”
Years later, he decided he would like a small Ducati, but quite by chance the Darmah entered his life, putting an end to his vision of a 450 Ducati single for putting around on. A 2,800-mile trip to Florida proved the mettle of the Darmah and welded it into Craig’s subconscious forever, with 15,000 more miles finding their way onto the clock since.
Yet as reliable as the Ducati Darmah proved to be, Craig felt he needed a more modern bike, something more turn-key, so he picked up a 1996 Ducati 900SS CR and started doing track days and rallies. That bike now has over 60,000 miles on the clock and still gets ridden regularly. Moto Morinis have come and gone, along with a Moto Guzzi LeMans and an MZ Scorpion that he raced for a few years. But the Darmah remains. And even with a track-prepped 916, the Cagiva Gran Canyon, the CR and a BMW F650 in the stable, it solidly remains his personal favorite. And after this tour, I can understand why.
Day one: Hitting the road
Heading west from Charlotte on a hot, humid day, our first stop is in the small town of Cherryville about an hour up the road. We poke our noses through the windows of a small transport museum, and Craig fields a few questions I have about the Ducati Darmah. Feeling at first very alien on the Ducati after my usual diet of UJM (Universal Japanese Motorcycle) test bikes, it becomes more comfortable as we make our way up US 19E to Little Switzerland for lunch after putting on some 130 miles without incident.
Climbing away from lunch into cooler air, we make for the Blue Ridge Parkway. A racer at heart, Craig is running the ridge just to indulge me, as the heavily enforced 45mph speed limit drives him crazy. He also knows better roads where you can run a good pace without inviting trouble. For me this is one of the best places for the Darmah, though. The slower pace and more deliberate nature of the open
corners highlight the bike’s strengths, and it feels natural swinging through the beautifully smooth turns.
Dropping off the Parkway we find the heat again, and pulling over for some shade in the forgotten town of Plum Tree along the Toe River, we learn U.S. 19E was the main Florida-to-Ohio road in years gone by. Apparently, Henry Ford and Harry Firestone met here for tea many moons ago. Sitting on a porch swing watching the Kudzu taking over, we learn the old mine building is still in business assembling Mica board. Feeling the desire for an afternoon nap coming on, we jump up and get back in the saddle.
With a couple hundred more miles on the odometer, we pull over at a shady spot in Tennessee to duck out of the oppressive heat and visit a war memorial almost grown over and hidden on a tight stretch of road. We spend some time discussing the incredible feats of these mountain men as they marched to Kings Mountain south of Charlotte, N.C., in 1780. They had slept in a cave here to keep their powder dry, and putting their trust in God, they marched on to the battle where they took a decisive victory over the British army.
Still in Tennessee, we climb northeast toward Roan Mountain. The Ducati Darmah loves the cooler air, and we positively fly up the deserted road, carving perfect arc after perfect arc through the challenging corners. Stopping at Carver Gap to savor the almost alpine feel in the air, we sit a while watching hikers making their way along the Appalachian Trail before we jump back on the bikes and blast down Route 143 back to North Carolina.
Every time we stop and remount, the Darmah experience becomes more natural for me. Following Craig certainly demands a lot of concentration. He most certainly doesn’t know the word slow, so the ride is never anything less than exciting. He knows each road and roadside stop intimately, though, and he has a real treat planned for us during the last stop of the day.
Back down at a lower elevation, we pick up the heat again as we purr northwest into Jonesborough, Tenn. Home of the International Storytelling Center, it also boasts a fantastic Bistro restaurant where you can look out at the neatly tended historic buildings on Main Street over dinner. Sucking down ice water and air conditioning in equally large gulps, we have much to talk about over our excellent meal, from Revolutionary War tactics to Ducati pistons. If only every day could be so rich.
Day two: Becoming one
Having found a decent rate on a modern hotel on the outskirts of Jonesborough, we take a leisurely start to our second day, and I learn that a good night’s sleep has worked wonders for my ride. Instead of feeling like I’m riding a weird sort of plank that makes strange noises and steers in an alien way, I now feel like I’m a part of the Darmah.
Cutting and diving through traffic, we make our way east to Elizabethton, Tenn., where a cool shady park, a covered bridge, and historic courthouse are too much for a pair of nosey travelers. Snapping pictures furiously while Craig recites the history of the bridge that has taken travelers across the Doe River since 1882, I learn it was originally built for the princely sum of $3,000 — and $300 more for the approaches. I always wondered why they covered bridges like this, and Craig informs me it was to protect the structure.
While we are walking around, he points out a plaque next to part of a tree where the first English court west of the mountains was held in 1772. Sitting a spell by the quiet river discussing our findings, we couldn’t be in a more peaceful setting, and it takes a while to tear ourselves away.
Once back in the saddle, we quickly gas up and make our way for Beech Mountain to the east, one of the first skiing towns in these mountains. Here, we elect to grab some lunch after a mildly stressfully few miles on a bumpy gravel road. Back on the tarmac after a good feed, the Ducati Darmah and I are fast becoming one. Enjoying perfect gear changes, swooping corners and the soul-stirring sound of the big V-twin booming through the Conti pipes, the Ducati’s seamless power reels in one scenic horizon after the other, its hypnotic cadence becoming extremely addictive. The Darmah just oozes character from every pore.
Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, we stop to check the map and enjoy the mellow countryside. Actually, we have just crossed back into North Carolina from Tennessee and Craig thinks he knows a small back road. As we scout for signs, I pull the Darmah onto a flat piece of road as there’s no traffic in sight for miles. As luck would have it, within a minute a minor traffic jam builds while Craig and I engage in a fascinating conversation with a certain Michael Haney, who informs us the historic house we are looking at was built by his grandfather and was known as the A.V. McGuire home place. With the line of traffic starting to build, we cut our conversation short, hop back on the bikes and follow Michael’s directions as we speed off out of the valley.
Pulling over a while later for the worst cup of coffee either of us have ever had the pleasure of choking down, nothing can knock the grin off our faces. We have a mountain view, two Italian motorcycles waiting outside and the sinuous roller coaster that is Route 181 waiting for us before we head south and home.
It is one of those motorcycle moments I will always remember. Transported back in time to my formative motorcycling years and an era when big V-twins ruled the roads, this life-enhancing experience wouldn’t have been possible without the warmth of Craig’s friendship and the quality of his company on the ride. If only every day could be so rich! MC