Even if you don’t like Ducati, you have to respect the massive amount of pedigree and racing history encapsulated in their 87 years of operation. They moved from humble beginnings (they started as, and still are, an electronics manufacturer, although the businesses now have different owners) to utterly dominate the World Championships in the 70s, then weather the wave of Japanese pretenders in the 80s until the advent of the World Superbike Championship, where they took off mid-step, winning everything in sight.

To see a Ducati on the top of the podium is not an uncommon occurrence, but their bias is much in favour of tar under wheel, not dirt. So when they released their range of Hypermotard bikes, I drooled muchly, but I was also a little sceptical; just how much do Ducati know about Motards?

Motards (and Supermotards, and now, apparently, Hypermotards) find their origin in off-road motorcross bikes, the main differences being traffic-friendly lights and tarmac-friendly tyres. Otherwise, they are designed to be as agile as possible, and have a feel totally unlike any other road bike; they are the Jack Russels and Border Collies of the bike world, constantly on their hind legs and chasing their tails. In competent hands, there is no quicker way across urban terrain besides a helicopter. Nothing. Out of town they usually run out of speed, but this is where Friend Ducati steps in, bumping up the displacement to 803cc and instilling it with a strong dose of their road DNA, while standing the whole steering geometry of the bike up, and mounting conventional handlebars to give the natural feel of a slim motocross chassis.

And what a motor to add. The Testastretta Evoluzione motor is an absolute gem; the classic two-valves-per-cylinder Desmodromic (valves controlled by cams, instead of springs) L-twin layout is steeped in lore. Dutifully updated to comply with new regulations, it now sports fuel injection as well as a catalytic converter and full engine management.

Response was both instant and muscular, with the front wheel often finding a comfortable space about an inch and a half from the tarmac due to the abundant urge in the lower gears. It’s an utter hooligan, having no right to behave like this considering its lineage, but dropping pants and doing so anyway… The twin serves up big, juicy, steak-like chunks of torque which hurl you down the road in a flurry of wind noise and exhaust burble. It sounds evil.

The hydraulic clutch is light, take-up is smooth and the power helps you out with linear and progressive response at all throttle points, and it’s beautifully weighted for all speeds, town or highway. Around 120 km/h the wind starts pulling at you a bit, but if you push on, it’ll run out of steam at about 190, at which point you probably won’t still be on it from wind pull.

It goads you like that drunk at the end of a quiet bar who doesn’t know how to shut up; gets under your skin and makes you want to interact with it, involving you in every process through the supple Marzocchi forks and Sachs rear shock, and the excellent grip from the Pirelli Diablo Rosso tyres. These inputs conspire to make a very, very flick-able 800 indeed, and a slipper clutch is handy for more aggressive down-changes, allowing the wheel to roll instead of locking and sliding. It loves being leaned, and the predictable power delivery means you can get on the loud handle much earlier, slinging you down the road giggling to yourself. It brings out every naughty fibre in your being and says, “Hey buddy, it’s all right, there is a space for you in this world. Go forth, and cause some shit.”

Then there’s the styling package they came up with. Our test unit, fitted in a matte black finish, looked like the spawn of some evil malevolent arachnid, all spindly steel trellis frame and thin, spoke-y wheels. It carries its mirrors quite wide on the outside of the handlebars, which makes it tricky to filter between traffic, but just click them into their cavities at the end of the hand guards and you’re good, the bike being no wider than competitors. The 825mm seat height is quite high, forcing me to resort to tip-toes either side or a flat foot on one, but under way it is totally comfortable and confidence-inspiring.

This bike is the Subaru rally car of the bike world, in tarmac spec naturally. It just monsters everything in its path, it’s got massive street cred, and you cannot have more fun in town on a motorcycle. I handed it back with an aching hole in my spirit where an Italian Hypermotard-shaped leech had been levered from its hold on my heart. I want one, badly.

By Tim Houghton

Published by Playboy South Africa July 2012