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2004 V-Twin Shootout

Sunday, August 29, 2004
2004 V-Twin Shootout
2004 V-Twin Shootout

It seems like it was just a few years ago that V-Twins were the proverbial toast of the town in the world of Superbike racing. Inline-Fours were being clobbered on the roadracing tarmac, thanks in large part to rules which allowed Twins a displacement advantage.

However, the Twin's rapid rise to stardom and subsequent dominance is also likely the same reason the racing industry is turning their backs on the torquey engine configuration. Both the AMA Superbike and World Superbike series recognized the need to level the playing field by allowing 1000cc inline-Fours to enter the fray.

The bad news for Twin fans is that the thou-ies are too good; even with slightly more restricted rules they are ridiculously quick. Take the Kawasaki ZX-10R, which pumps out 155 horsepower according to the dyno results from our Superbike Smackdown! Not even the mightiest production Twin can compete with that.

Moreover, the Twin travesty was magnified when Honda pulled the RC51 from the World Superbike Series after winning two titles in three years. It would have been fun to see how it stacked up against Ducati and Aprilia's latest technological marvels. So, here at MCUSA we decided to do exactly that. The RC51 is still in Honda's lineup, the Ducati has the marvelous 999S, and a Twin shootout isn't complete without the impressive and venerable Aprilia Mille, especially the race-replica Factory version.

As we've gotten in the habit of doing, we'll break our test into two portions, street and track. Even though these are all racing replicas, the majority of buyers will never sniff the open tarmac of a track and, even if they do, riding on winding scenic country public roads is the best part of owing a bike like this. Real-world riding will be judged accordingly in our first installment, Part 1: Street Testing.

Our trio is in varying states of model life with the Honda RC51 likely making its final appearance on the showroom floor in 2004. The Aprilia Mille that arrived in the Superbike world in 1999 has been thoroughly reworked for 2004, and our final participant, the 999, is in its second year of production and is poised to carve out a niche in the heart of Ducatisti.

Sorry  no inline fours allowed.
The latest crop of liter bikes have overshadowed the real-world capabilities of the V-Twin superbikes.

We knew the 999 was going to be a difficult machine to not love, especially when Road Test Editor, Kevin Duke, returned from the 999 press intro last year gushing over the triple-nine like a schoolgirl clinging to a picture of Brad Pitt. The Duc appears to be the Twin du jour, chalking up rave reviews like Barry Bonds does intentional walks. But the Duc's road-going ability goes far beyond the Testastretta heads and Desmo valves. It is a bike for the ages that has been designed to conquer the world of the V-Twin, or so goes the buzz.

The standard 999 retails for a lofty $17,695, just below the $17,899 Aprilia Factory. But why settle for ordinary when you're not paying the bill. With that in mind, we upgraded to the 999S, which upgrades the suspension from Showa components to the super-trick Öhlins, upping the price tag to a catch-your-breath $22,995. Hey, at least we didn't go for the nearly unobtainable high-zoot 999R, recently revised for the 2005 model year.

Blast Off

Technical jargon aside, these bikes are a blast to ride on the street. Whereas the literbikes we tested a few months ago seem to be a little too outrageous to ride on the street, our trio of Twins is well suited for real world riding, exhibiting civility despite possessing the ability to get inexperienced riders into scary situations. They may be Twins and they may be no match for the new crop of thou-ies, but they are fast, torquey and fun as hell to ride.

The Aprilia feels the most like a hooligan bike on the street. A punchy V-Twin engine produced smiles as frequently as we clicked off the miles. However, the racing replica felt like a racer on the street. A fat tank felt a little obtrusive when hunched down in an aggressive position and the low bars put pressure on the wrists.

Rider's feet rest comfortably in a race position that is neither insanely high nor annoyingly low. The saddle height on the Mille Factory measures in at 31.8 inches, which is considerably higher than that of the Ducati, which stands at a diminutive 30.8 inches. The RC51, standing 32.3 inches, is even worse than the Mille, making stop lights a balancing act for riders with a short inseam.

"The seat height wasn't a major issue on the Factory or the RC51," the 5'8" Hutchison shrugs. "But for riders who are shorter than me, I don't know how they'd be able to keep them upright at a stop light without sitting side saddle."

Photographer Tom Lavine catches Don leaving a blackie on the road.
Photographer Tom Lavine catches Donny B laying down a blackie moments after telling us to ride safely.

The Mille saddle proves to be not much better than a chunk of foam on hard plastic, and the threat of saddle sores seems imminent at the end of a long ride. The 999S fell in line with the Mille, but Ducati's wide, flat and firm philosophy is more conducive to extended rides. In contrast, the RC51 feels like a couch in comparison to the Italian competitors, offering enough cushion to go the distance. But let's not kid ourselves; these are superbikes, and touring was not on the minds of any design team when they created these bikes.

The Mille requires a decent reach around the tank, the ultra-slim 999S allows the arms to reach the bars unimpeded. The Duc is so slim it's difficult to remember there is anything between the knees.

The 51 gives the rider the most realistic and forgiving riding position with the arms stretching low to reach the bars, but not absurdly so. The pegs are a bit lower than the rest and an upright position is far more plausible, which makes the RC51 the bike of choice over long stretches of freeway.

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