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Revving up a renaissance

Italian motorcycles are the latest American icon

John Gumina has a problem. He owns 13 vintage Ducatis.

The television cinematographer’s motorcycle addictions include a 1967 Ducati Mark 3 SCD Works Racer driven at the Daytona Speedway and two Super Sports: a 1978 900 Café Racer and the 1957 Ducati 175, which he rode through Italy in last year’s Super Sport MotoGiro event.

“The bikes are so small, they’re like Chihuahuas,” he says. “You can’t just have just one Chihuahua; you have to have two or three.”

Gumina pulls the throttle on the silver Super Sport and smiles. “Yeah, I guess I do have a problem.”

Aaron Chepnik, owner of Eagle Rock’s the Chalet and the Griffin in Las Vegas, abandoned his vintage Hondas for the MV Agusta 2004 F4-SPR.

“Until the MV,” he says, “I had never seen a modern motorcycle instill a lust in me that the vintage bikes do.”

Somewhere along the way, the Harley-Davidson has become a lumbering symbol of the past, as quaint as … well, Planet Hollywood. Today, the Hollywood bike is sleek, Italian, very fast and very addictive.

“A lot of our bikes are sold before they even come in the store,” says Bill Nation, owner of Glendale’s Pro Italia. “I haven’t had a new Ducati Multistrada on the floor in a while. Last year, we sold 15 999R bikes at $30,000 a piece. We sold seven Tamburini bikes (aka MV Agusta 2005 F4-1000 MT) at $43,000 a pop.”

With his calm demeanor and soft sell, Ducati of Beverly Hills owner John Sullivan is skilled in the art of making the purchase of an Italian motorcycle seem like a practical concern. Sometimes, it is: Beau Heggen, who works art department swing, saved to buy his dream bike, a Ducati Monster 620 Dark. A half hour before he walked into Ducati, a salesman sold the bike to someone who paid cash on a lunchtime visit.

On hearing the story, Sullivan chuckles. “It happens.”

So what’s the charm? Stroock & Stroock & Lavan partner Schuyler Moore has never owned a car and of his seven motorcycles, he says, “I love them all.”

However, describing the draw of his two Italian bikes — a 1997 Moto Guzzi Sport and a 1975 Ducati Imola 900SS — is simple. “They’re sexy.”

Even Ducati CEO Michael Karl Lock is prone to describing his bikes with adjectives like “quirky” and “flippant” — as if they weren’t two-wheeled transportation but tempestuous girlfriends.

“Motorcycles have to have a soul,” Lock says. “It gives people the opportunity to feel like they are doing something real. If not, then it’s just an appliance.

“The governor didn’t even have a license when he wrecked his Harley,” he says. “If you owned a Ducati, it would be a point of shame not to have your motorcycle license.”

Toward that end, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation offers two-day RiderCourses throughout Los Angeles — something all our biking enthusiasts emphatically recommend. Says Nation: “With the Italian bikes, to really enjoy them, you need to raise your skill level.”

A Harley may have all the grace of a two-wheeled Hummer, but it’s also not the kind of bike that sends a rider careening into concrete retaining barriers at 120 mph.

“I never passed out,” says director Ben Younger of his 2003 mishap while racing an Aprilia Mille at

Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway. “I broke three ribs, bruised a kidney, chipped my pelvis and tore my left knee — it was basically hanging off.”

Doctors returned Younger’s kneecap to its rightful place and a post-crash hacking cough followed the helmer through “Prime.” Despite what he calls “a life-altering wreck,” he’s still riding a 2005 MV Agusta F4-1000 and is now writing a new script — the story of an American racer who participates in the notoriously dangerous Isle of Man TT Races.

“If you fall there,” he says, “you have a good chance of dying.”

Poetry in motion: Test driving the Ducati

Feature: Seat height and rake
Technicals: 32.69 in/24º
Reality: Remarkably comfortable. Its monastic bench is hard but very supportive. The seat cradles you with its deep back like a cavalry saddle from Custer’s days and I imagine being able to ride for hours.

Feature: Dry weight
Technicals: 403 lbs.
Reality: Light, light, light — like a riding a bicycle with a rocket engine attached.

Feature: Powertrain
Technicals: Engine: L-twin cylinder, 2 valves per cylinder Displacement: 618 cc Fuel System: Marelli electronic fuel inject Exhaust: Single steel muffler and pipe system with catalytic converter Horsepower: 63 hp @ 9,500 rpm (46.4 kw)
Reality: Zipped in and out of Beverly Hills traffic, splitting lanes with alacrity.

Feature: Suspension
Technicals: Front: Marzocchi 43 mm upside-down fork; 5.71 in. (145 mm) travel Rear: Progressive linkage with preload and rebound adj. Sachs monoshock. Steel double-sided swingarm; 3.23 in. (133 mm) travel
Reality: Took the turns easily at 40 and even 50 mph.

Feature: Drivetrain
Technicals: Transmission: 6 speed Clutch: APTC wet multiplate with hydraulic control Torque: 41.2 lbs. @ 6,750 rpm
Reality: The first gear’s high-pitched Ducati scream sounded like a multiorgasm as I went from 0-60 in what seemed like less than a second. I had to remind myself to shift because the Multi, like all Ducatis, has no red line and constant power anywhere on the dial. Finally, at 9,000 rpm I thought it might be a good idea to go into second gear.

Feature: Wheelbase
Technicals: 57.4 in.
Reality: On Little Santa Monica, I squeezed between two silver Range Rovers with less than a half-inch on either side.

Feature: Wheels
Technicals: Front: 3-spoke light alloy 3.50 x 17 Rear: 3-spoke light alloy 4.50 x 17
Reality: Back at the house, I attempted, unsuccessfully, to pop a wheelie. Then I decided a 43-year-old man shouldn’t be popping wheelies, anyway. This machine was making me giddy.

* * *

Producer Matti Leshem sold his Ducati Monster 900 with great regret, but it was all for love: His girlfriend, Warner Bros. production exec Lynn Harris, refused to ride on the back.

Harris now accompanies Leshem on a BMW 1200 RT (which favors comfort over speed), but we asked him to test Ducati’s 2006 Multistrada 620 solo.

He had a lot to say about the ride, all of it ecstatic and some of it fit to print. (One PG-13 comment: “The Multistrada 620 isn’t sexy. It’s sexual.”)

As for the rest, we broke it down against a few select stats.

— Dana Harris

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