Three naked sportsbikes at three dif­fer­ent price lev­els. But which would we choose in 2018?

Practical Sportsbikes (UK) - - Contents - Words: Si­mon Har­g­reaves | Pic­tures: Chippy Wood

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 en­­tu­ally, 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 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,


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

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