Three naked sportsbikes at three different price levels. But which would we choose in 2018?
Triumph Speed Triple, Ducati Monster S4 and Aprilia Tuono Factory go head to head
It was a new style for a new millennium. If the 1990s was all about race replicas, the following decade dawned with the home-brewed streetfighter scene gaining momentum and generating a demand for factory-built equivalents. People wanted genuine sports performance – not just fast engines, but a fully-formed sportsbike chassis (frame, suspension, steering geometry and brakes) – combined with an upright riding position instead of a racing crouch.and with no fairing; a sort of production-built, precrashed sportsbike with flat ’bars.
Bike manufacturers had tried building factory streetfighters before, but they were mostly misinterpreted as adapted retro-style bikes or odd cafe racerscum-roadsters. But, by the early 2000s, manufacturers had started to get them right in style and substance.
And nothing epitomised the new class better than Aprilia’s 2003 Tuono Racing, built as a dramatic fanfare to coincide with the standardtuono.the Racing was a limited-edition, stripped-back 130bhp RSV Mille R, casually tossing top-specification chassis names and engine performance figures around like a boss, and with an £18,000 price tag.
Meanwhile Ducati, arguably the manufacturer with the longest pedigree of modern naked sportsbikes courtesy of 1993’s 900Ss-powered M900, kicked off the 2000s by reinventing the Monster as the Monster S4, with motive force provided by a retuned, liquid-cooled, 8v 916 motor.
And over at Hinckley the original, cafe racer-style T309 Speed Triple had been re-cast in 1997 as a streetfighter-style T509 complete with bug-eyes and single-sided swingarm; by 2003 it was running a 955i motor and had become a core part of the resurgent Triumph story.
Fifteen years on, gets the three bikes back together for a reunion – all similar in principle, but each with a different price tag, specification and origin story.
An excitable Jimmy Doherty, road tester for hire exclaims: “Bloor me down, I’d forgotten how meaty these inline triple motors are,” as we de-helmet down near a car park, sheltering and shivering in a scuddy, graffitied underpass beneath a dual carriageway.the wind whistles through rows of plastic bottles filled with kidney cider, hanging above us from the concrete ceiling, creatively wedged into the gaps between slabs in what could be a satire on urban planning but is probably just kids having a laugh with their bottled piss.
The Triumph, meanwhile, is styled to look at home in this kind of post-apocalyptic environment. Its intimidating, bug-eyed stare ought to keep drug-addled zombies lurking at a safe distance on the fringes.
“It’s big and boomy and so smooth,” continues Jimmy, keeping one eye out for overhead leakage. “It’s not overly powerful and is a bit short-revving, bumping into an instant, hard rev limiter at 9500rpm... but it’s steady and lazy, in a good way. Nice gearbox too – some older Triumphs are a bit agricultural, missing downshifts and getting a mashing. But this one’s spot on.”
We’re taking a mid-morning coffee break, with the Speed Triple parked alongside the Ducati Monster S4 and Aprilia Tuono Racing. Next to the Italians, the Brit bike is more dairy than beef – the rounded Daytona 955i-derived seat unit, swooning aluminium frame rails and curvy tank at odds with the blunt, boggling front end and naked motor. The Trip’s not as visually stimulating as the other two – and, despite a mad glare, it’s obviously more of a doughy, mild-mannered hooligan than a punchy meat-head.
But it’s bloody good to ride. Big and comfortable, it feels more mass-centralised than the others – the engine is a solid, heavy unit, but it’s wedged right between your legs and gives the Triumph a steady, rolling sensation into corners. It steers a bit like a sports tourer. “It’s the one you could do the big miles on,” says Jimmy.
And someone has done a few. This Speed Trip is a 2003 model, with an honest 22,000 miles on it, for sale over at CMC Coleshill for £2999 and in good condition for its age. Editor Jim is almost tempted: “As I was riding it just then, I almost surprised myself thinking, ‘You know what, I could get on with one of these.’” He pauses, then remembers the 955i featured in a Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible film. He laughs and puts on a falsetto voice to imitate the diminutive Hollywood actor: “Please mister, can I get on me bike now?” then adds, “Right! Someone lift the wee fella onto the bike.”
Built between 1999 to 2004, with a revamp in 2002, the 955i was the least ‘special’ Speed Trip and is notable chiefly for being painted in a variety of lairy colours, such as the retina-melting Nuclear Red, Neon Blue and sea-sick Roulette Green alongside this, the relatively subdued Aluminium Silver. It’s the cheapest of these three bikes by some distance, but used 955i Speed Trips are nowhere near as collectable as an S4 or a Tuono Racing; its price tag reflects desirability more than the actual value of the machine.
This might be because, compared to the other classic Speed Triples (the 1994 T309, 1997 T509 streetfighter or cut-down 2005 1050), the 955i incarnation of Hinckley’s muscle bike was hugely popular and therefore subsequently cursed by ubiquity. At one point the things were everywhere, and a lot of them ended up chained to a garden fence, mouldering under a tarpaulin in the front garden.
But, as a riding experience, this 15 year-old Triumph has one huge asset: that galumphing engine.actually, make that two assets; it’s also got a pair of aftermarket heated grips, clumsily wiredup but a saviour on a day like today.and Jimmy’s right – it’s a flexible, midrangerich engine in a moderate, 111bhp state of detune compared to its origins in the 127bhp 955i Daytona.
The 955i also has one glaring flaw: between 3000 and 4000rpm the power delivery is bedevilled by a distracting fuelling stutter – it’s not just this particular bike; they all do it, sir.
Triumph first introduced fuel injection way back in 1997 on the T509 and T595... “...but it was crap fuel injection back then, to be fair,” laughs editor Jim. “French car-based rubbish from Sagem. It was as analogue as digital fuel injection can be.”
By 2003 Triumph had the fuelling across most of the rev range sorted out; just that tricky bit where the air speed in the throttle bodies stalls if you bang the slides wide open at low rpm. But tug the throttle open anywhere above 4000rpm and the reward is a creamy, churning acceleration made from genuine English butter. It’s not the most exciting delivery – it’s too linear for eye-popping surprises – but the Triumph will hoist its front wheel in first given half an excuse.
Over the years I’ve ridden a fair few 955i Speed Triples, including new bikes back in the day and plenty of used examples since – and nothing cocks up a 955i Speed Trip’s steering like tired suspension and rubbish tyres. “You have to remember the Triumph is on distinctly average, budget springs,” says Jim, eyeing up the Hinckley bike’s suspension next to the Aprilia’s gleaming Öhlins. But no worries: this one’s a good one.the rear shock needs setting up; it’s topped out unloaded, has two inches of undamped travel when I’m sat on it, then goes very hard in about an inch. But, importantly, it steers. “Tyres make a huge difference to bikes like these,” says Jim. “A bad pair can make it feel awful, but a good pair will help it no end.” He’s right; this Speed Trip is on modern sports touring rubber: brand new Avon Storm 3Ds. Even in cold and slippery conditions, the big Triumph is pinned to the tarmac by its sheer mass, squeezing heat into its rubber. For comparison, I check out the tyres on the Ducati Monster S4.
Ah, okay.that was a mistake. Guess I’d better ride that one next.
This particular Monster S4 is a Japanese import, brought into the UK by specialist importers Extreme Trading in Norwich. It’s well-preserved, glowing in the watery spring sunlight like
a sun-ripened kumquat surprise.the bike’s odometer reads a ridiculously virginal sub-6000 miles – so, for the £4195 asking price, you’re basically buying a freshly run-in 2003 Ducati Monster S4, that could probably use not much more than a refresh (and new clutch plates) to feel like a brand spanking machine all over again. In 2003, being pleasured by the same 90-degree V-twin would’ve cost you £7700, or £11,500 in today’s parlance.
As it happens, your four grand will also buy you a pair of vintage Pirelli Diablo Rosso tyres attached to the Ducati’s wheels – with a 2008 date stamp, they’re so far past their Best Before date they’re almost mouldy. “Reading a tyre’s date code is like checking to see if you’ve got a nail in the rear,” says Jimmy. “You’re better off not knowing.” Thanks for pointing it out, mate.
Anyway, it didn’t seem to be bothering Jimmy much on the way here, as he slung the lightweight Monster around like a schoolboy motocross bike. “It’s so small after the Speed Triple, which is a giant in comparison,” he says. “When the two are parked together, the Monster looks tiny. It’s not a Monster, more of a Nonster.”
The Ducati feels – and is – diminutive against the sizeable Triumph, sitting lower and with a narrower, slim-line profile.your knees are almost touching after being splayed to get around the Triumph’s tank which noticeably spreads them apart.
But the Ducati is neither insubstantial nor uncomfortable; it’s not a toy. In fact this particular Monster has the most roadster-ish and least sporty riding position of the three bikes, with uncramped legs and a compact, upright stance. It hasn’t even got the forwardcanted lean of the 1993 M900, thanks to the aftermarket Japanese de Light ’bars and Aella risers lifting the grips inches above the normal S4 position, which is almost flat to the top of the tank. Nope, I’d never heard of these ’bars or risers either.
In fact Jim reckons there’s too little of the original Il Mostro left in the S4: “For me, the Monster works best in its first form, with the two-valve air-cooled 900SS motor, as pure and simple as possible,” he says during a lull in the streetfighting. “I reckon the S4 is where Ducati started to get into a problem because the 916 engine is a bit too good – and when they went ever further with the S4R and the 996 motor, single-sided swingarm and stacked exhaust cans, to me that wasn’t even a Monster any more.”
Yes, but hang on; I love the basic old air-cooled M900 too, but it made less than 80bhp and I remember it barely pulling the dingle off a gnat in 1994, let alone the early 2000s when it was up against... well, the 955i Triumph Speed Triple for a start. Ducati had to do something to make the Monster faster, if only to live up to its name, and de-frocking a sports touring, 916-powered ST4 made sense.
The S4 wasn’t even greatly detuned; the faired ST4 made just over 100bhp and the naked S4 just under, with a hint more torque from milder camshaft timing and less valve overlap.
The S4’s chassis was almost identical, with the same frame, steering geometry (a slightly longer wheelbase from a new swingarm), fully-adjustable Showa forks, Sachs shock and Brembo calipers; the biggest differences were a smaller tank (down from 21 litres to 16), shorter gearing, different wheels, a lower seat height and less weight.
I take the yellow peril for another blast, to make sure I’ve got this right – and yes, it’s excellent fun. Even the ropey Pirellis, punched into the tarmac a few times, start to trickle confidence upwards into the rider.the only concern comes from the forks – hit the stonking Brembos and the super-soft, twitchy Showas try to tuck the wheel under the engine. “Yeah, it dives dramatically,” says Jimmy. “The front dips, as if it’s unchallenged by damping oil for a few inches of travel before slowing. It’s unsettling and makes the bike feel remote just at the moment you’re loading the front tyre up before you turn.”
The Ducati works best with a point-andsquirt style, getting it stopped, turned and fired out in a blattering salvo of combustion blows.an S4 on full clattering chat sounds like the two pistons are taking it in turns to smash through the heads.
Jim’s opinion is softening, won over by the S4’s ragged abandon: “Get it on the power, sit it on the back wheel and it’s lovely,” he admits. “It drives cleanly, with great fuelling. I do like it – with better tyres on a warm day, it’d be the tits. I like its lightweight, thrashable nature; you can boss the Ducati around, and bully it into action,” he concludes.
Jimmy agrees: “The Monster would be a proper laugh – you could have tons of fun on it because you can find the limits really quickly, and all those little wiggles and chassis ticks will just become character traits. It certainly hasn’t got enough performance to get out of hand or unstable; it’d just be really entertaining.”
Speaking of entertaining, all day I’ve been watching the other two enjoying themselves hogging the Aprilia Tuono Racing. It’s about time they let me have a go; while they’re off watering nettles at the roadside, I jump on board.
It’s a long way up to the Tuono’s seat after the Ducati; it feels like an adventure bike in comparison. At 820mm, the Aprilia’s perch is only supposed to be 17mm higher than the Monster’s, but is it heck 1.7cm. I can get both feet on the floor at the same time on the S4, but I’m on tip-toes on the Aprilia. I reach forward to the Tuono’s riding position; grappling the ’bars is like being caught mid-press-up. It’s already an intense workout and I haven’t even fired up the 998cc 60-degree V-twin motor yet.
But before I can press the starter, a hand grabs my arm.the limb is attached to Griff Woolley, ex-aprilia technical manager and now proprietor of Aprilia Performance, a tuning and service shop in Tamworth. He’s with us because this very machine is his personal baby, recently restored.
The Tuono Racing was built alongside the first stock Tuonos in 2003, Griff explains. “There were 300 made, ostensibly to compete in a naked European race series, but also exported worldwide.” The Racing’s engine was the same spec as a stock Tuono – which is to say a real-world 113bhp, same as the Mille – but the chassis came with Öhlins forks and shock instead of Showa and Sachs on the stock Tuono, radial Brembo calipers, forged OZ wheels instead of cast Brembos, and an Öhlins steering damper. Plus there were carbon fibre panels and covers, instead of plastic.
The race kit that came with the bike consisted of a long carbon bellypan acting as a catch pan, a fairing without the light aperture, a race EPROM to match a race exhaust system, a bolt kit predrilled for lock-wiring, a race pattern gear lever adapter, a single-seat cowl and an automatic entry to the race series. “So it’s not a race kit in the conventional sense,” says Griff. “There were no engine internals and the state of tune was the same as the conventional Tuono. Basically, the Racing is a very pretty version of the stock bike.”
One more thing, before I ride your bike, Griff: what’s it worth? “The value now is something just under £9000 for a bike with the complete race kit,” he replies. I go a bit pale; and then he says, “Without a race kit, you’re looking at around £6000.” That’s a bit better. A standard early Tuono is around £3000 to £3500 at the moment.
By now Jimmy’s sauntered back from his nature sprinkle: “As soon as you get on the Tuono you can tell it’s a weapon,” he says. “You feel like you can unleash it. You know, it’s like a trained Rottweiler – you could tell it to bite someone’s bum off and it would. It’s precise and accurate and everything works so well. It’s like it’s meant to be, not a sportsbike that someone’s looked at and said, ‘Just pull the fairing off; it’ll be alright.’ The Tuono feels so right it could’ve been designed alongside the Mille rather than adapted from it almost as an afterthought.”
Which is interesting; the Speed Triple was designed alongside the T595 as a standalone model and the Monster S4 was intended to be derived from the ST4, but the Tuono wasn’t considered – or at least incorporated – into the design of the RSV Mille; there is a story, almost certainly apocryphal, that once the nod was given to strip the fairing off a Mille, add flat ’bars,
“IT COULD’VE BEEN DESIGNED ALONGSIDE THE MILLE RATHER THAN ADAPTED FROM IT”
add a nose cone and make up some plastic engine panels, it took a mere six months for the Tuono to go into production. But then, peering down at the bonkers clocks on Griff’s Mille-esque bike, it doesn’t seem so inconceivable after all.
I poke the starter button and sit back to listen for a few moments to the 60° V thunder emanating from the “Race use only” system. It’s apt; ‘Tuono’ is Italian for thunder, apparently. It’s a more off-beat heartbeat than a regular 90-degree V, with what feel like staggered power pulses. “It’s certainly got some presence to it,” says Jim.well, if you miss those bright number boards, you’ll certainly hear it coming.
Feed the clutch out and the other Jim is right; the Tuono is instantly more modern than the others, tipped on its nose, with a contemporary poise and dynamic. It feels like it’s from another planet compared to thetriumph and Monster.within 20 feet the front wheel has left the ground by virtue of opening the throttle; the Aprilia pounds away, leaving leaf litter and nosey old ladies spinning in its wake. It hoovers up the cold, gripless corners the Triumph and Ducati were tentatively spooning round a few minutes ago, and shovels them to one side with contempt. Steering, leveraged through wide ’bars (if you have enough room for limited steering lock), is precise and effortless; the Tuono pivots from side to side with a thoroughly modern ease. How much of this is down to Griff’s preparation – he says the Aprilia is standard – and how much to the old tyres and tired suspension of the other bikes isn’t clear; I suspect it’s quite a lot to do with the Tuono’s superiority. But then again, as Jimmy points out, for the money and big-name spec, the Aprilia ought to be significantly better than the others.
But why does it feel so lively on what’s probably the same peak power as the Triumph Speed Triple 955i? Milles, for all their loveliness, were never the most potent motors. Griff has the answer – the only modification he’s made to the Tuono is to gear down by a couple of teeth; and that’s where the liveliness comes from.
But suddenly the air temp drops a couple of degrees, and the spring gloom starts to close in.we decide to retire to a local chippie to deliberate, ruminate and cogitate on the day’s naked experience.
And the Speed Triple is easily the best value; unfashionable and out-of-favour, your money goes further. But for me, the Ducati and Aprilia offer more in the way of fun – and good times are what you’d be looking for with a naked machine.
The Ducati Monster S4 is something of a forgotten classic occupying a sweet spot between the aesthetically correct original Monster and overpowered, over-specified S4R. The S4’s 916-derived motor might be detuned, but it howls and moans like a desmo V-twin should when it’s pinned, with more than a familiar aural nod to mid-1990s World Superbike races. Good wheelies too. The chassis, with un-serviced suspension, is more crude and less forgiving than the Speed Triple’s bolted-down security – and 10 year-old Pirelli Diablo Rossos can’t hold a candle to spanking new Avon Storm 3Ds. But the potential for the Monster to be rollicking good fun still manages to shine through: with a refresh, the S4 would be catastrophically entertaining. And it looks great, with just the right level of ‘check-me-out’.
But top spot has to go to the Tuono Racing. Yes, it’s expensive; getting on for twice as much as the Triumph. But it combines the most amount of cool with maximum aggression. Perfectly endowed with ideal engine performance, and with significant suspension and braking capability, the Tuono Racing is, if not a racebike (in stock trim), at least a potent sportsbike. Stood on its nose, it’s ready to rock straight away; it’s not hard to understand why Aprilia took one look and decided to go into production with the stock Tuono.
Jimmy and Jim agree, just: “The Aprilia is a Stanley knife,” he says. “The Speed Triple is your Gran’s butter knife, and the Ducati is like a table knife someone’s tried to sharpen into a cutting knife and not quite got the job right.”
Either way, that makes the Aprilia Tuono Racing the winner. All we have to do now is persuade Griff Woolley to sell it...
If it makes Si look small, what did Tom Cruise look like?
TRIUMPH Speed Triple 955i
While it retains the lines, the S4 is a way away from the original Monster
DUCATI Monster S4
Italians fight for national honour on England’s greasy and unpleasant wintery B-roads
Three’s a crowd in a rural filling station
One of only 300 built and special for more than mere rarity
APRILIA Tuono Racing
The Tuono Racing is possibly the Mille we wanted all along