From That Time In The Snow. Expletive Deleted: The Beater 916

Frankly, owning 20 bikes when you’re my age just seems, well, normal.


A beater 916. In snow. 1997 Ducati 916
A beater 916. In snow.

At any given time I own something between fifteen and twenty-five bikes. I have bikes in my garage, in nearly all of my relatives garages, in my office (second story, too), in my house and in almost all of my close friends’ garages, from here to California and back. For a long time I had the parts that made up one motorcycle in three or four different states.

People from the outside world, if they ask how many bikes I own, and if I answer honestly (I have learned not to),  usually respond with some kind of an ‘are you crazy?!’ dance where their head almost spins off their neck. TWENTY-THREE MOTORCYCLES!? YOU CAN ONLY RIDE ONE AT A TIME YA KNOW?!?

Frankly, owning 20 bikes when you’re my age just seems, well, normal. I’ve clicked well past four decades on two wheels and maybe every two or three years in that decades-long period, I’ve bought a bike that has spoken to me, one that has called forth the past in ways too powerful to ignore. None of them are super-valuable: everybody needs a Honda Hawk GT or an SV650. And somehow I managed to keep an RZ350, two SRX-6s including the one I “raced”, the 1981 GPz550 I bought new when I was 19. A couple of CBXs have slipped through my garage and I was grateful when they left. I’ve owned a 1983 KZ750L3 (which is a 1982 GPz750) for a few decades and if I ever have to sell my 2011 CB1000R–the best streetbike Honda has made in a while, I guess I can find something to replace it as my daily rider.

On that subject–of a bike with the power to conjure the past–I found myself standing in a cold St. Paul alley last month looking at a beat-up, yet still massively majestic-looking Ducati 916. The alley was icy and the wind howled–26 degrees.

I’d seen the 916 on Craigslist for $2000. I called the fellow and he told me what he knew about the bike. Quickly, my eldest son, John, and I loaded up and went for a look.

As the kid drove, my mind spun back to all the 916 files in my brain. Ferracci … WSBK … Carl Fogarty … Mladin …. Frankie Chili at Monza. Plus, the big one: I was able to spend time with the man who designed the 916: the late Massimo Tamburini.

Yes, “Tambo”. I looked him in the eyes, drank coffee with him, and ate dinner across from him. I gratefully breathed in the smoke from his constant chain of  cigarettes and when his water glass was empty, I signaled the waiter. When Massimo spoke, I stopped all activity and held my breath while listening intently. Did I understand much of what he said? No. His English was not great and the only Italian words I know are really tasteless insults.

You will bow down before me, Jor-El.

My introduction to Massimo’s masterpiece could not have been more dramatic and weighty. Rumors of the 916 were everywhere in the early 1990s and for once, when the real thing hit, it was tantamount to an earthquake in the motorcycle industry.  Even now,  almost two decades later, will serious enthusiasts even debate that the Ducati 916 remains a historically significant motorcycle?

The very first time I saw a 916 with my own eyes was at the Spanish GP in Jerez. Someone from a British magazine had ridden a 916 to the race and parked it in the gravel VIP/Media parking lot. In those days,  if you wanted to get into Jerez on race day you got up very early, slipped in before 6:00 and then napped in the car. I did and was fast asleep until I heard the 916 go past my rental car, then stop. Whoever rode it to Jerez got off and walked into the paddock.

I grabbed my stuff and got out of the car.

In the brief time that it took me to gather all my tools of the trade, the entire Marlboro Roberts armada had arrived from their hotel and parked nearby. They were now standing around the 916. There were so many of them I could no longer see the bike.

I locked the car, and started walking to the 916. In 20 paces it occurred to me that perhaps this scene was–ya think?–a photo op:  the whole guts of Team Roberts gawking at the 916, King Kenny in the middle. I dropped my bag to dig out my Nikon. But by the time I stood back up, Team Roberts were all turned and walking to the paddock.

That, too, never left me. The 916 was a bike that, to a man, stopped Kenny Roberts and his GP crew in their tracks.

Back to St. Paul 2017: we stop the truck.  I find a safe place to stand with ice under only one of my boots. The 916’s owner, maybe 21 years old, rolled it out of his garage and onto the ice. My son John helped him get it up on the stand. We step back.

It really was a 916; there were the unmistakable lines that Tambo’ had sketched at the Cagiva Research Center, the “Made in Italy” sticker, red paint and gray trellis frame, the Showa forks and Ohlins shock. This one had a ton of miles on it, and had also been tastefully low-sided on each side then bandaged back together.

One of the neighbors needed to get out of their driveway and our truck was blocking them in, so John moved the truck, leaving me alone with the owner kid.

Silence, a musty silence, a generation old or more surrounded us as we stood there together. He had his high performance Subaru idling nearby with his girlfriend in the passenger seat. She never looked up from her phone. My–pick one–winter jacket or my boots were maybe as old as the current owner of the 916.

I tried to tamp down the silence by saying what was immediately in my mind.

Me: I knew the guy who designed this bike. He’s considered one of the most legendary and important designers in the history of motorcycles. He’s revered as the Leonardo da Vinci of motorcycles.

Owner: Oh really? This was my uncle’s bike, then my dad’s. He left it here.

Me: Yeah, his name was Massimo Tamburini. This bike was kind of his early masterpiece.

Owner: It won’t start. I tried to start it last Summer and it just wouldn’t. I don’t know why.

Me: Yeah, he made some bikes later that look sort of like this–a line of MV Agustas. On the whole I think that this is a design that will seem as fresh and modern in 100 years, just like it did in 1995.

Owner: Did you want to make an offer?

John slipped his truck into a slot, parked it, and returned The disjointed conversation ended. As he walked up, I gave him my very best HOLY CRAP IT’S A REAL 916, A MONOPOSTO WITH NO LEAKS poker face.

‘Whadda’ we doin’?’,  John asked. ‘You buyin’ another bike or is this my deal?’  ‘How many bike you own now, anyway?’ he chided, knowing that question bugs me to no end.

I gave the 916 one more glance. What to do?

So many memories of this bike and that era circled my head. Do I tell these two young men that I saw Frankie Chili ride one of these at Monza? Or that I watched how precise Massimo was when he cut his food and how elegantly he held his cigarettes? That I saw Mat Mladin win at Elkhart on one of these 916s? Or that I rode in a car once with Carl Fogarty and Davide Tardozzi as they argued about what was wrong with the 916, both of them summing up their points by saying “You don’t understand” to one another?

My brain was choked on old memories, too many.

Your bike, your deal, I said to John. He passed some cash to the owner and we loaded it up. I will probably own a 916 or an MV one day, but not this one.

Let’s get some lunch, I suggested, once we were on the road and confident that the 916 was not going to drop out of the box. We went to a pizza place that prides itself on making pizza like they do in Italy: wood fired, lots of oil and basil. I ate pizza like this with Tambo’ once at Claudio Castiglioni’s house.

Afterward, we walked back to the truck. As we closed on the truck with the 916 in the back I saw two heads on the other side of the truck.

I’m used to this by now. A white-haired couple had been walking to their car in the parking lot, but on the way saw the bike and they were now looking at it. It was 26 degrees out and at that temp few things will slow the process of going from a warm building to warm-ish car. They stood, admiring the 916.

I slipped between them and the truck, smiling as I squeezed past.

As I got in I heard it: “That’s quite a motorcycle,” the man said to his wife. “It must be brand new.”

 


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