There's a scene in The Who's Quadrophenia that I almost reenacted on my way to work this morning. No, not the climactic finale where our hero, Jimmy Cooper, launches his Lambretta off the Brighton cliffs-though that did cross my mind afterward. The other incident, where he lays down his motorscooter and watches it get mowed by a mail truck. Gone postal?
True, I shouldn't have been speeding toward a stale-yellow light, but the Ducati Sport 1000's front end shouldn't have started flapping like a fish when I grabbed the front brake lever, either. Excuse me for whinging like a Mod coming down off of leapers, but I've never ridden a motorcycle with such diabolical suspension-at least not a modern one. And the Triumph Thruxton's isn't much better.
It's easy to be seduced by the romance of the Cafe-racer era: the whole Ace Cafe, Mods vs. Rockers, Ton-Up Boys, pudding basin and goggles, black leather and blue jeans, rockabilly scenario. And we do owe a debt to the creators of these '50s and '60s Brit-bikes, whose clip-on handlebars and rearset footrests paved the way for today's street-going sportbikes. But the truth is the Good Old Days really weren't that good. And it might not be in our best interest to revisit them.
When Ducati announced it was going to build production versions of the three Pierre Terblanche-designed SportClassic prototypes unveiled at the 2003 Tokyo Motor Show, Ducatisti the world over rejoiced. The then-current Supersports were nice enough motorcycles, made better with the addition of fuel-injection and Dual Spark ignition, but they were fugly. The SportClassics would return Borgo Panigale to the days of achingly beautiful naked sports bikes.
There is a lot to like about the Sport 1000, beginning with its looks. Its minimalist bodywork, yellow-peril paint, Veglia-style, white-faced instruments and spoked wheels evoke the 1970s 750 Sport, the valve-spring version of the legendary 750 Super Sport Desmo. You've gotta love its engine, too: The DS 1000 is one of the great air-cooled, two-valve V-twins, with well-calibrated injection, gobs of torque from idle to redline and not a lot of vibration. The exhaust note emanating from the dual right-side mufflers is too subdued to be menacing, and little of the dry clutch's ca-chinga, ca-chinga rattle makes its way through the solid cover. But bolt on an open megaphone and a ventilated clutch cover, and you've got a rockin' drumbeat with cymbal accompaniment. Loud clutches save lives, right? If nothing else, the dual horns will get motorists' attention.
The Sport's seating position is period authentic, with a longer reach to the bars than on most modern sportbikes. Leaning far forward like that places a lot of weight on your wrists and shoulders, so your neck soon gets a crick in it, and when you turn your head to look behind you, you find yourself looking up at the sky. The solo seat is tipped up in back, which means you tend to slide forward, "the boys" becoming intimate with the squared-off back of the plastic fuel tank. Unusual for today, the Sport comes with bar-end mirrors, which provide a decent rearward view but make the bike a foot wider than it would be otherwise; we tipped them up vertically while lane-splitting and still had a tough time squeezing between cars.
Like all Ducatis, the Sport is geared tall to pass the DOT's drive-by noise test, and that, combined with the dry clutch, makes easing away from a standstill anything but easy. Heat is to a clutch plate what a Mod is to a Rocker, thus it's better to give the bike a little throttle and let the clutch out quickly rather than wind it up and slip it-our testbike's clutch action deteriorated noticeably following drag-strip testing. Speaking of heat, the rear exhaust header radiates an excessive amount, roasting your inner things. You won't notice it as much at speed, but in town, it's a PITA.
One other thing that bugged us at slow speeds was the Sport's handling. Maybe it's the position of the handlebars ahead of the forks, maybe it's the seating position, maybe it's the rake and trail figures ... whatever it is, the bike steers heavy at parking-lot speeds and doesn't feel normal until you're rolling along at 15-20 mph.
One last gripe before we quit griping, and that's the tires: Made specifically for Ducati's SportClassics, the Pirelli SportsComp radials use a similar tread pattern to the '70s Phantom bias-plies, which look great but cause the tires to walk in freeway rain grooves or on grated bridges. It's been years since we'd experienced that sensation, so we found it unnerving the first time it happened. But they work pretty well otherwise, and in fact the Sport is a decent-handling motorcycle. It's only when you really push it that the undersprung, underdamped fork starts to pogo.
It's hard to fathom how Ducati-which just won its umpteenth World Superbike Championship-could sell a production motorcycle with such a poorly calibrated fork. It settles halfway into its stroke under the weight of the bike alone, and packs down even further with a rider on board. As a result it's always in the harsh part of its stroke, so it's a hop, skid and a bump under braking as the front tire skims across the waves of asphalt. Did we mention there aren't any adjustments? We might expect that from a conventional telescopic fork, but the Marzocchi 43mm inverted cartridge unit is seemingly state of the art. The single Sachs shock works better than the fork, but would work better yet if it had a rising-rate linkage. The shock is fully adjustable, but even with minimum rebound damping can't match the fork, so the bike always feels unbalanced.
The Triumph Thruxton is named after a limited-production racing model that was itself named after a track that hosted a classic endurance race. It's a classy-looking motorcycle, especially in our testbike's Tornado Red with white stripes. The paint is set off by acres of "brightwork" (Brit-speak for shiny metal bits), such as the cast Triumph badges on the gas tank, the chrome pipes and "winkers," and the polished-aluminum dash with white-faced instruments.
Insert the key into the left side of the Thruxton's headlight nacelle, push the starter button and the result is hardly a ruckus. The engine sounds like a tea kettle whistling, and looking at the dime-sized muffler outlets in the megaphone exhausts, it's no wonder why. Considering it's a Cafe racer, the seating position isn't so bad; you sit flatter than on the Ducati with more weight on your bum and less on your wrists. It's still a long reach to the bars, however, so you find yourself scootching forward to the tip of the seat, whose pillion cover is removable to accommodate a passenger. The narrow-spaced fork legs let the clip-ons tuck in tight, and the mirrors give a decent view over your shoulders while not being too wide for city work. They do get a little fuzzy at speed, though, thanks to engine vibration that makes itself apparent above 4500 rpm. And long-legged folks will hit their knees on the cam covers.