Pikes Peak is the most famous street race in America. With 156 death-defying corners twisting some 19.99 kilometres up a grade that averages 7.2 per cent — steep enough that Lieutenant Zebulon Pike, for whom the mountain is obviously named, swore it would never be scaled by man — it’s also the most dangerous. Dangerous enough that motorcycles race there only sporadically, until too many people get injured flying off its steep cliffs with minimal run-offs.
It has always been thus. The inaugural Pike’s Peak race in 1916 featured a motorcycle event — won by Floyd Clymer of Clymer repair manuals fame — only for bikes to be withdrawn the next year for no explicable reason. Or at least no explicable reason Peak historians can agree on.
More recently, motorcycles made a comeback, running from 1991 to 2019 until a young racer — Carlin Dunne — was tragically killed and once again the hue and cry saw the organizers deem motorcycle racing too fraught with peril for their liking. All of which is to say that motorcycles do not have a consistent heritage with The Race to the Clouds. Unless you’re really in the know, you might not even know bikes were raced there at all.
And yet, one of Ducati’s most important models is named for the place, the Multistrada Pikes Peak. The reason, as you might expect, is that Ducati raced here, quite successfully, in that latest, abbreviated stint of two-wheeling, the aforementioned Dunne winning three times aboard a Multistrada.
What I didn’t know is how important the Pikes Peak — this time the motorcycle, not the race — is to Ducati. According to Jason Chinnock, CEO of the company’s North American operations, fully one-sixth of all the Multistradas sold worldwide since 2011 have the been the sporty Pikes Peak version, a seeming anomaly since it is essentially a road-race version of a touring bike that is based on dirt-bike technology. For those unfamiliar with the nuance of motorcycle market segmentation, think of its as AMG’s G55 or an SVR’ed Range Rover, acutely niched products both.
Unlike past Pikes Peaks, there’s more to the 2022 version than just the substitution of a racy 17-inch front wheel for the standard model’s dirt oriented 19-incher. For one thing, the 1,158-cc V4, though internally similar, has been enhanced electronically. Besides more modes — there’s a “Race” mode unavailable on lesser versions of the Multistrada — a more liberal rev limiter allows more over-rev so you don’t get as much wheel hop when downshifting at high revs. A High Power mode offers even more direct throttle response than available in the standard V4S, and the quick-shifter — standard on the Pikes Peak — is tuned for even faster shifting.
Oh, and Ducati throws in an Akropovic pipe which, although not contributing any extra urge in the engine department — peak power is still 170 hp — does help in reducing the Pikes Peak’s curb weight some 4.4 kilograms compared with the V4S.
Nonetheless, the most obvious indicator of the seriousness of the Ducati’s sporting intentions for the Pikes Peak is that it is the first V4 Multistrada to be made available with the same trademark dry clutch as the sportiest of road-racing Ducatis. Again for those not steeped in motorcycling lore, a dry clutch is actually housed outside the engine proper — unlike most which run inside the engine — and while that helps reliability by keeping clutch plate debris out of the lubricating oil, its most noticeable effect is the cacophony of clutch plates vibrating when the big V4 is idling. If you ever hear an otherwise pristine motorcycle sounding like a bucket of marbles rattling around in a clothes dryer on its fastest spin cycle, it’s probably a Ducati with a dry clutch.
The engine alterations, loud though they might be, are but minor compared to what Bologna Panigale’s engineers have wrought to the chassis. Unlike previous Pikes Peaks, which just slapped 17-inch rims on an otherwise unsuspecting soft-roader, the 2022 gets its wheelbase stretched (by 28 millimetres), its swing arm lengthened (10 mils) and its rake kicked out (from 24.5 degrees to 25.75 degrees).
Even though none of that might one noticeable to the naked eye, this is: Said longer swingarm marks a return to Ducati’s once-ubiquitous single-sided rear suspension; and that 17-inch front wheel, like the similarly-sized rear, is a full-on Marchesini forged rim. Of the 4.0 kilograms the Pikes Peak sheds compared with the standard V4S, some 2.7 kilos are from the wheels alone. And as any performance enthusiast knows, when it comes to motorcycle wheels, lightness is right next to Godliness.
It all translates into steering and handling far more precise than its more dirt-oriented sibling. Indeed, tossing the new Pikes Peak at an apex is not noticeably more difficult than on a Streetfighter V4S, ostensibly a more sporting model. We played on the twisty roads circling California’s famous Mountain View resort, and the first thing that became obvious is that the Pikes Peak felt a lot more like a 201-kilogram super-naked than the 239-kilogram adventure tourer it really is. Or, at least, that it started out as.
Banging on the huge 330-mm front discs compresses the still long-travel 170-mm front forks, and the reduced gyroscopic precession of the lighter, smaller-diameter front wheel heightens the reaction to inputs to the wide, dirt-bike handlebar. Plus there’s enough rubber — 120/70 up front and a superbike-sized 190/55-17 in the rear — to ensure grip at the most extreme of lean angles. The upgraded — now predictive — Öhlins Smart EC 2.0 electronic suspension, meanwhile, not only adjusts damping according to speed and lean angle but also anticipates brake dive — from the actuation of the brake levers — to firm up the compression damping even before the fork starts diving. This is the very latest in high-tech suspension — previously only available on the upper echelons of Ducati’s ultra-sporty Panigale superbike — brought to the adventure touring world. Nothing else in the segment can touch it.
Accompanying all this sporting hardware is a revised seating position that Ducati says is in keeping with its sportier intent. Oh, it’s still pseduo-dirt-bike-ish upright, but the handlebar is lower, narrower, and with a lot less rearward sweep. The screen has also been cut down and the footpegs moved up and rearward some 10 mm. For the young and limber, the sportier riding position will no doubt aid in their quest for grounded knee puck. But for we old guys, even if the end result is not a full-on superbike-like crouch, it’s not quite as comfortable as the original.
But fear not, ye of wonky lumbar, the good news is that the Pikes Peak will take both the standard windshield and handlebar without modification, which means you can have all of the Pikes Peak’s high-tech handling with the standard Multi’s adventure touring comfort. Factor in 60,000-kilometre valve service intervals, a cushy seat, and Ducati’s spacious saddlebags for the sportiest touring bike — or the most comfortable sport bike — a lot of money ($32,695 in Canadian loonies) can buy.