The Italian Jobs
1978 Moto Guzzi Le Mans
Claimed power: 71hp @ 7,300rpm
Top speed: 133.5mph
Engine: 844cc, overhead-valve, air-cooled 90-degree V-twin
Weight (dry): 431lbs (196kg)
Price then: $3,679
Price now: $7,500 - $10,500
1980 Ducati 900 SS
Claimed power: 65hp @ 7,400rpm
Top speed: 143mph
Engine: 863.9cc, bevel gear-driven desmodromic overhead cam, air-cooled 90-degree V-twin
Weight: 396.5lbs (180kg)
MPG: 40mpg (est.)
Price then: $4,200
Price now: $8,000 / $18,000
Somewhere out on the technical Summit Point Motorsports Park circuit there is a blind, downhill left that drops away as you make the turn.
Exiting the previous right-hander, I run Shane Chalke’s immaculate 1980 Ducati 900 SS hard through second gear before rolling off and listening to the twin Conti mufflers work their magic on the over-run.
Lightly dabbing the brakes, I pitch the bike left to begin the descent, when in an instant I wake up in the middle of my worst nightmare. Without warning, both tires let go at exactly the same moment, and in the time it takes to say "Backus will kill me" we are heading for an extremely ugly crash. I can clearly see images of Shane beating the remains of my broken body with a bent fork leg as editor Backus cheers him on.
With the world moving little faster than one frame at a time, from somewhere outside the silent vacuum that has formed around me and the Ducati 900 SS, the sound of scraping snaps me back to reality. Another alarming jolt lifts me out of the seat, and we are immediately into another two-wheel slide. This scraping/sliding pattern occurs three times in total as I realize the center stand is hitting the track. With God rumored to have ridden a Ducati, He must have felt like extending a miracle to a wretched motorcycle scribe this day, as the third bounce puts us firmly on two wheels and rolling toward the fast left-hander. Drenched in sweat, with my heart racing, I continue around the racetrack at a much abbreviated pace, feeling like I am coming around from a mild concussion.
Ducati 900 SS on track
Visually, Shane’s Ducati 900 SS, a 1980 model he bought new in 1979, is positively magnificent, and firing the big bevel twin to life before my ride is as close to motorcycle nirvana as it gets. Waiting for the bike to circulate its fluids and come up to temperature, I stare into the bevel sight glass window at the gears spinning around. Watching the oil surging and splashing as I lightly blip the throttle, I realize a lot of good riding time could be lost over this enjoyable pursuit.
Pressing on with the job in hand and climbing onto the black Ducati, I find a tall, skinny motorcycle with a long reach to the bars. The clutch is heavy, but slipping into first gear is a breeze as the shifter snicks into first. Twisting on the heavy throttle, I make my way out of the pit area.
Settling down as I head around the track, I notice the Ducati pulls cleanly in a lazy, loping manner — don’t expect the vintage power output to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Circulating this challenging track, the 900 SS steers reasonably well and I am starting to get some lean angle in the corners. Stability is excellent, and by the third lap it is all making more sense. I also find there is no point revving the engine beyond 6,500rpm, and I start urging the bike out of the corners using its ample low-end grunt. Getting used to the brakes the laps become easier, as I get lost in the hypnotic cadence of the booming Conti pipes and the accompanying intake noise from the Dell’Ortos running free of filters.
The seating arrangement allows a good racing tuck on the straights, and spotting Shane’s buddy Aaron Dewar ahead on the Guzzi, I twist the throttle to give chase. Braking later and accelerating earlier, the big Ducati and I are finding our groove, and the fun content is rising quicker than the tach needle as I pass Aaron, which yields a front end push transitioning the bike for the upcoming corner. Not heeding the warning, I keep the throttle pinned, and a few corners later I am in the middle of the previously described debacle, which, thankfully, doesn’t end in tears.
Taking a positive away from a near disaster, I slow significantly to ride the bike at a speed more akin to a good road pace, and here the Ducati excels. The long, smooth power pulses make pulling out of corners effortless, and the taut suspension makes bend swinging stable and fun.
Back in the pits and looking for some redemption, I check the skinny touring tires’ pressure to find over 45psi front and rear. No wonder they didn’t want to grip. This helps me understand the ride experience better, and if we’d had more time I would have tried the Ducati at track pressures, as I’m sure it would have only enhanced the experience.
Riding the 1978 Moto Guzzi Le Mans
Keeping my adventures quiet, lest Shane should change his mind about me riding his 1978 Moto Guzzi Le Mans next, I make my way over to the bright red machine from Mandello Del Lario. Shane bought it in 2001 and has mildly upgraded it since, fitting bits like an electronic ignition and a Keihan exhaust system.
Stepping up to it, I am surprised by the vivid memories I instantly recall. From the moment I swing my leg over the skinny plank that doubles for a seat, flip up the choke lever, give the accelerator pumps a couple of shots of premium and turn the large ignition key, I am transported back to the seat of the Le Mans I piloted in the early Eighties. Thumbing the starter button, the big Guzzi immediately fires to life and begins its routine of thumping, shaking, rattling and rolling from side to side as the Dell’Ortos — sans filters as on the Ducati — start sucking and snorting. Although quieter on the exhaust than the Ducati, this time the hairs do stand up on the back of my neck.
The bars feel narrower and more slanted than I remember, as I think I had the adjustable Tommasellis on my Moto Guzzi Le Mans set differently. With a strong, progressive pull on the heavy clutch lever, the Le Mans drops magically into first gear and chuffs off toward the track like a steam train, making its way through the memories of my youth as it pulls me along.
At low rpm the engine feels flat and unresponsive, and I remember that nothing much happens below 4,000rpm. Increasing my speed out on the longest straight, the next excitement is working out how to use the brakes at the end. With the front lever operating one of the single 2-piston Brembo front calipers, the rear brake pedal works the other front caliper in combination with the rear. For maximum stopping power a heavy foot is required, something that is counter-intuitive for me on a track. Once I muster the courage to really stand on it hard though, I find the brakes are remarkably strong for being 1970s vintage.
Before riding the Ducati 900 SS or the Moto Guzzi Le Mans, my money would have been on the Ducati to come out as my favorite. But cranking on the throttle and hustling to stay ahead of Aaron, who is now riding Shane’s 1983 Magni MV Agusta we tested, the tide is beginning to turn. Spinning the big pushrod twin up past six grand invites more throttle, as the power increases without any sign of tailing off. Pulling all the way past 7,500rpm with stout authority, I find myself getting more aggressive as I work my way around the Summit Point track.
Diving into the downhill left, wincing at the scrape marks still visible from my little faux pas on the Ducati earlier, I hammer the throttle down toward the fast left-hander. Inducing some serious pitching and rolling, I indulge in some internal debate where I reason the chances of spinning the rear tire are slim, so I keep it pinned and ride out the waves. Accompanied by the sound of the big pistons sucking air through the plastic bell mouths, and the blood-curdling howl from the Magni MV that is hot on my tail, it’s the most amazing ride. With things happening a little slower on a vintage bike, the stage is set somewhat differently than a modern sportbike, but there is no less concentration needed to go fast.
A handful of laps later, I am growing relaxed enough on the Moto Guzzi Le Mans to make a committee decision to pull in before I get too far off the side of the 120-series rear tire. In reality, I am still being somewhat tentative and confirm for myself that I was indeed a raving nutter in my youth, as I remember thrashing my Moto Guzzi Le Mans on public roads. Enjoying one last lap on the throbbing beast, I savor each and every moment before rolling off for the last time. With Aaron pulling in behind me, we find Shane sitting on his Ducati, and peeling off my helmet, I am grinning from ear to ear.
Later that evening putting the bikes away in Shane’s garage, we all finally get a chance to sit down and look back at our day. With Backus holding court (well, aiming his video camera at us), the same story somehow gets told three times. Leaving the Magni out of the equation, it seems natural to pit the Ducati against the Le Mans, and on paper it would seem the Ducati would take the bragging rights. But there in Shane’s garage in the quiet of the night, Shane, Aaron and myself come to the same surprising conclusion; we would all pick the Guzzi over the Ducati.
"It surprised me by having so much power," Aaron remarks. "I don’t think it’s the bike I would pick for a track day. First time on the track, it felt like a toy. But for all around use it was great fun. It has a lot going for it." Shane concurs: "I was expecting the Guzzi to be completely outclassed. The Guzzi is my utilitarian bike and I’ve never had that much respect for it. But it has increasing power with rpm, and it has much more power than I thought. I felt like I could have been out there listening to my iPod and gone just as fast — it’s very relaxing." MC