Perhaps more than any other Ducati, the various generations of the Supersport are Borgo Panigale’s most perpetual conception of the sport motorcycle.
Don’t get me wrong, Ducati will likely always be defined by its superbikes, but the Supersport has lingered in the background—though not continuously—ever since its roadracer status diminished in the wake of more purpose-built racing motorcycles. While the superbike, by its very nature, demands constant evolution so that the current model hardly resembles its forebears, the Supersport can pursue less extreme performance goals without obviating characteristic Ducati elements (e.g., two cylinders, low-down torque, trellis frame).
The Supersport’s history has all the peaks and troughs of an EKG graph. Starting life on a high as a true race rep, the graph dips when, in Darmah guise, its luster is diminished along with Ducati’s fortunes. The graph rises slightly with the half-baked Supersport of 1990 and then skyrockets in 1991 with Miguel Galluzzi’s masterstroke, that square-headlighted beauty that looks as striking today as it did 25 years ago. Then it dips again as Terblanche’s reinterpretation takes the sporting ethos in a slightly wrong direction. In 2017, the graph goes up again with a SuperSport for today.
If you consider Paul Smart’s Imola bike as the original Super Sport, there’ve been 46 years of the SS to the Monster’s 25 years.
The Classic: Ducati 900 Super Sport
Following Ducati’s pivotal victory at the 1972 Imola 200, and the subsequent success of the Imola replica 750 Super Sport (of green frame/round case fame), Borgo Panigale introduced the 900 Super Sport. The new square-case bevel-drive engine, based around the 860 GT, displaced 864cc thanks to its larger 86mm bore, but like its forebear, the new-for-’75 900SS was an austere, ebullient racer for the roads—before that was really a thing. Ducati upped its production for the 900SS, and in no time, would-be superbikers had a new object of lust.
The 1970s were an era of rapid development, skyrocketing performance, and improved reliability. Bikes like the Kawasaki Z1 and H2 and the Honda CB750 were stealing headlines and market shares. In this context, the 900SS was exotic, quirky, expensive, unreliable, and absolutely narrow-minded. Its low clip-ons and single-mindedness set it apart. It was a superbike by today’s definitions while the other superbikes of the day were what today we’d call super nakeds, or even standards.
The 900SS defined Ducati for a new generation, and set the marque on a path of producing sporting motorcycles without compromise—a path it rarely strayed from for the next two decades or so. Massive torque (from as low as 2,000 rpm), desmo valve gear, a stable chassis, and top-spec components pretty much defined the Ducati formula for years.
Its sporting silhouette was married to Borrani rims, Marzocchi suspension, big ole Dell’Orto carbs, and a booming exhaust note emanating from shining Conti silencers.
It’s fair to say the 900SS is still a grail bke for many sportbike enthusiasts. Today, you’d be lucky to grab one for around $50K.
The Custom: Walt Siegl Motorcycles Leggero
Walt Siegl has been building Leggeros in Harrisville, New Hampshire, for around six years, and practically from the beginning, they were recognized as some of the most inspiring, done-right bikes on the custom scene. Even folks who don’t traditionally love custom bikes respond to the Leggero’s Ducati-ness and sporting focus.
“With the Leggeros,” Siegl says, “I’m using classic sport design elements that are clearly recognizable as such. That includes almost all aspects of the build, from exhaust to frame design. And with today’s brakes, modern suspension components, and fuel injection systems, I’m able to build a truly contemporary motorcycle. I’m getting the best out of the really great characteristics that Ducati has engineered into its bikes, while making everything lighter and stronger. With the two-valve engine I need less components, so the design is much cleaner.”
WSM hand-builds each Leggero to customer specifications, but each one shares the same spec frame and bodywork. The chrome-moly steel frame is built in-house and weighs just 15 pounds. The fuel tank is aluminum; the rest of the bodywork is carbon fiber. The mods bring weight down to between 295 to 325 pounds.
The engines are rebuilt and blueprinted by Bruce Meyers Performance and, depending on the model, are either fitted with Keihin FCR carbs or with performance-tuned FE systems that use stock Ducati ECUs. Output is typically boosted to between 90 and 110 hp.
Siegl, whose love for Ducatis comes from his days racing his 900SS and 916, affirms that part of the reasons his builds are so successful is because he works with already-great machines, and doesn’t try to force the machines to be vastly different than how they began life in Borgo Panigale.
“It’s that 90-degree, two-valve desmo engine that won so many hearts—including mine. There is no engine out there with the same characteristics,” he adds. “It’s a brilliant performer that can be hammered on the racetrack or ridden to the café. No, it won’t have 200 horsepower, but that was never really what owning a Ducati was all about. People bought Ducatis because they evoked a certain feeling that other manufacturers were never able to capture. They made you fall in love. No matter what engine size, be it a 650 or an 1,100, you have plenty of grunt out of corners. You dip the bike in, and as soon as you clip the apex you feed the throttle in and it makes you grin stupid. It’s how these engines make power that is so much fun. And at the end of the day, your jacket smells like spent fuel.”
That just about sums it up, if you ask me.
The Cutting-Edge: Ducati SuperSport
By the early 1980s, the writing was on the wall for the bevel-drive 900SS. With the dawn of the rubberband Pantah era and the “catalog racer” TT2, the 900 Super Sport slowly receded into the also-ran shadows with milquetoast reincarnations from the financially strapped factory.
It wasn’t until 1991 when Cagiva got its act together and Ducati released the Miguel Galluzzi-penned model, that the Supersport—now one word, you’ll notice—was reborn. While it retained the air-cooled, carbureted link to its namesake, the 1990’s SS wasn’t intended as a racer for the road; it was a sportbike for the road—a rather significant distinction. A new breed of desmoquattros filled the superbike niche so the Supersport’s Desmodue was free to simply be one hell of a roadbike.
Skip ahead a couple of decades, and the new SuperSport (with another spelling change) fits the niche of the golden Galluzzi era of SS. Not as hard-edged or as finely focused as its Panigale brethren, the new SuperSport reminds us that not every sportbike has to be a race rep. It reminds us that a sporting motorcycle can be well-mannered on the road, have a relatively comfy seat, humane ergos, an adjustable windscreen, and not be so freaking serious. The SuperSport’s performance is for pleasure’s sake.
Its 937cc, liquid-cooled, Testastretta 11° motor, derived from the 939 Hypermotard, is a tractable, friendly mill. The SuperSport S comes with Öhlins suspension front and rear and an up/down quickshifter, so you can still pretend you’re Chaz Davies as you tear through the box, throttle pinned.
There aren’t a lot of direct competitors for the SuperSport, which reveals how the motorcycling landscape has evolved since the sportbike heyday of the ’90s/early ’00s. At the time, sportbikes encompassed race reps as well as softer-edged machines like the Honda VFR750F, the Aprilia Falco, and the Suzuki TL1000S, to name just a few. While Super Nakeds and even some ADV bikes have supplanted this lot, for many riders, less narrowly focused sportbikes like the SuperSport are the perfect machine.
If there’s any bike that can bring back the trend, maybe it’s the Ducati SuperSport.