Cyprus to the Isle of Man on a Ducati 999. 3700 miles of the best Europe has to offer and at the end of it all, the greatest race on planet Earth...
By Frank Shields
My story begins June 2016 at my daughter’s wedding in Edinburgh, Scotland. A few days after the ceremony and we are in a bar when the TT comes on the news. I look up and mention to my wife and daughter that I would love to go. As one they say I should. It turns out both think I’ll fly into the Isle of Man from our Cyprus home, but I have other ideas...
I ride a 2006 Ducati 999S which, at the start of all of this, I agree is not a bike for long distance touring. However, my opinion has since changed, drastically. I start my adventure by buying essentials such as luggage, waterproofs and security. A Steam Packet Ferry ticket and Isle of Man Homestay accommodation come next. Then my first big problem hits: in Cyprus no one offers fully comprehensive insurance cover – third party is the only cover available. European breakdown cover is also not available – trust me I’ve tried everywhere. So, I research and research security and buy: a Pewag 14mm security chain from Austria, an Abloy 362 padlock (the chain is un-croppable and the padlock you have to see to believe) plus an Abus Granite X disc lock. As for breakdowns, hey I’m riding a Ducati. Whoever heard of such a thing?
During the months leading up to departure I load up the luggage and ride into the mountains to the amusement of the local sportsbike riders drinking coffee at bike cafes in Agros, the mountain meet up place. Enjoy your coffee boys, and read on. I do these dry-runs many times, riding five to six hours at a time to get used to long rides and also to iron out any problems securing the luggage. On the ride through Europe five to six hour days are a blessing, my longest is ten hours and many hit the seven to nine hour mark. I book Bob, that’s my 999’s name, onto a roll-on-roll- off ferry from Limassol to Lavrio, Greece on 12 May and a flight into Athens on 14 May for myself. My schedule is this: be in Liverpool on 27 May to catch the ferry to the Isle of Man. This is it – no routes, no schedules, no timings, just follow the road north. Let the journey begin. Oh, and I’m riding alone...
It’s a 4am start to catch the 90 minute flight to Athens. I eventually arrive at the Greek port and the shipping agent is nowhere to be found. Frustratingly I can see Bob on the quayside, it’s 30oc and I’m humping 40kg of luggage. After a few hours I work around the problem and get my hands on Bob, load up the luggage and set off for Alissos on the Ionian Sea for my first night’s stay. This and Homestay are the only pre-booked accommodation on the entire journey, after all I have no route planned, only to be in Liverpool on the 27th. Next morning on firing up, the volt meter on the dash reads Hi.
I carry out the correct procedure by turning off the ignition and praying to the ‘Ducati god’ for 30 seconds before turning it back on. No joy. Regulator I think. I disconnect and re-connect the battery terminals and all is well, but this situation will come back to haunt me. My Bluetooth helmet speakers, also decide to pack in while navigating through Patras, a large city on the Greek coast. This was the third set my bike shop in Larnaca had supplied, the previous two were replaced due to malfunction. This is not good – 30oC+ in full race leathers, stop-go traffic, all on the wrong side of the road riding a 999. I ride West through the Greek mountains to the port of Igoumenitsa for a 9.5 hour midnight sailing to Bari, Italy. To save pennies I haven’t booked a cabin.
Big mistake. The lounge is full of truckers drinking beer and watching TV all night. Feeling tired in the morning I’m shocked to find the clutch slave has packed in on me. I call a recovery truck to take me to Ducati Bari where a new clutch slave is fitted by Antonio the Tech. I buy a new Bluetooth headset. I decide to stay in Bari for the night in a hotel and lick my wounds. Then decide, instead of heading north in the morning, I’ll ride west and visit Monte Casino. The route from Bari to Monte Casino is covered mostly on B-class roads and it’s superb. I book into the Hotel Continental for two nights. There’s a Sherman tank at the entrance. The owner speaks English and moves his own bike out of his garage so I can park. Next morning on the ride up the mountain to the monastery the volt meter runs to Hi again. I’m half way so continue with my tourist thing for a few hours.
Finding a Ducati dealer in Italy is easy, two minutes from the hotel is Ducati Casino. They fit a new regulator and all is well. Bob is 2006 and I consider the clutch slave and regulator consumables not reliability issues. During this down- time I relax in town drinking coffee and watching the world go by. Tomorrow Bologna...
'Today I see a beautiful Italian lady wearing heels, riding an 848'
The route I choose avoids motorways and gives me the real Italy. Temperatures are in the high 20s, there is still a lot of traffic and many of the towns and villages are having their market days. This is turning into a bad idea. The fans are running constantly and I’m way too hot. I’ve been on the road almost eight hours when I call it a day in Perugia. Bologna will have to wait another day. Today I see a beautiful Italian lady wearing a short skirt and heels riding an 848. I book into a four-star hotel in Borgo-Panigali. Tomorrow it’s Bologna and the Ducati museum.
My day starts at 08:30. I spend ten minutes telling the lady in the ticket office my story. She is amazed by what I’m trying to do. So amazed, in fact, that I get free entry into the museum. It’s not often Ducati come up with something for nothing. It’s Sunday morning and I have the place all to myself. After many hours enjoying what Ducati have given us over the years I head back to the hotel and get the bike ready for Switzerland and the Stelvio. I leave just before midday, the sun is shining and I’m looking forward to a great ride. Shortly after I have my off. I’m exiting a dual carriageway onto a slip road which turns back on itself, a car is in front and I’m at lean at 45mph- ish. I’m focussed on the car which is maybe 30 metres in front and hit gravel.
I immediately go down and slide a short distance. I’m able to hit the kill switch within a second or two. Thanks to that wonderful stuff adrenalin I’m able to lift up the bike and assess the damage: the right-hand side footpeg is sheared, the RHS fairing stay is snapped and the paintwork is rough. It’s Sunday and everyone is closed so I decide to move north. I quickly discover my right leg is burning, in fact it’s cooking on the exhaust. I travel a considerable distance before the pain becomes too much. I stop at the entrance to the mountain passes and find accommodation. Just down the road is a biker bar and the staff couldn’t be more helpful. I make an 08:00hrs appointment with a mechanic to fix the footpeg which is the main thing stopping me riding any distance. Personally, I am without injury due to wearing proper gear, apart from two large blisters on my right calf .
Today it’s Switzerland. Ten hours on the bike taking in Napoleons Pass, Mendola Pass, Stelvio Pass and the Umbrail Pass. I find a bed and breakfast halfway down the Umbrail from Stelvio. I discover Swiss men are athletic, the women pretty, the children pretty and even their cows and goats are pretty. They cycle and run and are very healthy because they eat lots and lots of muesli and yoghurt, everything is perfect if you are Swiss. They have nice houses, nice gardens and nice cars, there is no litter and the trains and buses run on time. If the speed limit is 60kph they drive at 60kph, they are considerate to pedestrians and motorcyclists. Their are no poor people in Switzerland. I pay seven euro for one litre of water and six euro for a coffee.
Around Davos and Klosters there are many tunnels cutting through the mountains some of which are 5km long. To relieve the boredom I drop a few gears and bring the revs up to 7500rpm. The sound of Termignoni ‘Race Use Only’ is awesome. After Switzerland the remainder of Europe flashes by in a blur: France seems only to be fields full of cows; I drink coffee in Luxembourg and Bruges is nice. Finally I reach the Calais ferry. The roads are so bad coming out of Dover it feels like I’m in a third world country. Maybe I am. It gets no better heading north for a stop over at my daughter’s in Leeds: traffic; potholes; speed traps and roadworks. What’s happened in the last 11 years? I get my laundry done, drink beer and the next day head over the M62 to Liverpool docks and the Isle of Man Steam Packet Ferry.
I arrive in Douglas at 22:30hrs. It’s dark and raining, two things which I have absolutely no experience of riding in. This may seem strange to many but I have no reason to ride in the dark at home, my bike is for Sunday rides and track days only. As for rain, I live in Cyprus where you can go to the beach on Christmas Day and top up your tan. As for my Homestay, it’s in Andreas which is 45 minutes away. I refuse to say how long it takes me but the house owners think I’ve missed the boat. The weather isn’t great so I fill my time getting out there and seeing the island. It’s quite beautiful along the coastal roads and there’s not much traffic. I watch the practice and races from various locations. My favourites are The Grandstand for practice and Hillberry for the Senior TT. On Sulby Straight you don’t so much see the bikes as feel them in your lungs as they pass pinned to the stop. The Norton wins hands down for sound and looks.
I complete nine laps of the TT course in various weather conditions – it can be sunshine in Ramsey but hill fog on the Mountain course. I have a few spirited rides. On one of them another rider almost has me off. I decide enough is enough. TT racers are truly gods. Ambulances with lights and sirens blaring are a regular sight on the Mountain. I for one don’t want a ride in one – I’ve told my wife I’ll be coming home. I go to the Italian motorcycle event at Port Erin. As it’s raining I decide to get there early – 05.30. Turns out to be good and I spend a lot of time with the organisers drinking free coffee.
All too soon it’s almost over and I find myself sitting on a kerb early in the morning at Douglas Port. A Dutchman sits down next to me. 20m either side is free. We start talking and he tells me his friend has died racing in the Superstock race. The IOM police don’t speak Dutch so they ask him to make the call to his friend’s parents. I can see the pain in his eyes and I really feel for him. It reminds me of the morning I hear a racer has passed away after an accident a few days previously. That same afternoon two more racers died, they maybe would have passed me on the road. I don’t feel good in myself. I’ve been part of this monster that is the TT and people come here and risk their lives for glory. I know it’s their choice to do this. But...
The next day I try in vain to leave the island and ride to Scotland, I have had enough but the ferry is fully booked. The TT is the most spectacular and dangerous sporting event in the world for a reason. I am happy that I have attended my first and last TT. Back on the mainland and I ride from Heysham to Bristol. There is rain, sunshine, high winds and lots of traffic. I find accommodation in Bristol in a nice area but there’s no off street parking. So be it, out with the security and Bob is chained to a lamppost for two nights. I drink lots of beer during this time off the bike. I had pre-booked a flight back to Cyprus for the 14 June along with shipping Bob from Bristol in a wooden crate on the same day. All goes to plan.
'No routes, just three weeks getting lost with a MotoGP thrown in...'
So what have I learned from my adventure from Cyprus to the Isle of Man? Well, the Ducati 999 is a superbike which is certainly not known for its touring capabilities. I’ve ridden 3700 miles since landing in Greece carrying 40kg of luggage in comfort on motorways, A-roads, B-roads and over the Alps. It has superbike power by the bucket load when required but is just as happy to cruise along at moderate speeds. I find the 999 very comfortable riding long distances. In fact, I only suffer from a stiff neck, but I get that on short rides anyway. I put it down to my Arai helmet.
I do have Woodcraft rearsets if that makes any difference, but I don’t have OEM to compare. Best mods for touring have to be the heat-shield under the seat I made several months ago supplemented by a good set of leathers and absolutely no heat gets to your ass or legs. A double bubble screen is also a good idea. During my journey I forget how many riders of many, many different nationalities tell me the 999 is the best superbike Ducati have ever made. They, of course, were preaching to the converted. However, I’m not qualified to confirm their opinion one way or the other. But, the 999 is one superb motorcycle, I won’t be changing for a very long time. If ever.
Who, honestly, needs an adventure bike to do long distance touring? Get out there you superbike riders and do it. I live on a Mediterranean diet mainly of salad, fresh fruit and wine. My travels through Europe offer similar fare: fresh bread, ham, cheese, fresh fruit and coffee for breakfast and a light evening meal. In the UK this shifted to a full English breakfast, pie for lunch and fish & chips with mushy peas for dinner, pretty much every day. I am so happy to be home, as is my waistline. Would I do it all again? For sure. Italy is the most enjoyable country for roads, mountains, food, hospitality and value for money. It’s where I’ll go for next year’s big ride. No routes, just three weeks getting lost, with maybe a MotoGP thrown in. And that’s just the way I like it.