Built to commemorate Ducati's dominance at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, Simon Hargreaves takes the Ducati Multistrada 1200 Pikes Peak on the longest hill climb of them all...
Part three: Oulton Park
Hill climb: Holme Fen to Cairnwell Pass
The Pikes Peak race in Colorado, USA, is 12.4 miles long. Which, let’s face it, is rubbish. Here in Great Britain we’ve a man-sized, 390 mile-long hill climb, rising from the lowest road in the UK at Holme Fen in Cambridgeshire, to its highest, the Cairnwell Pass on the A93 in the Cairngorms, Scotland. So that’s 30 times harder. And, at 8.5 hours, it’s 51 times longer than the Pikes Peak race record time. So, metaphorically at least, up yours, America.
On the other hand, the real Pikes Peak rises from 9000ft to over 14,000ft, while Holme Fen is 10ft below sea level and the Cairnwell Pass is just 2200ft above it. So nosebleeds and oxygen starvation won’t be a problem. But bum-ache might be, considering this is going to be the best part of an 18-hour riding day there and back.
The Pikes Peak is the lean, stripped-back Multistrada family member. Sporty Öhlins forks and shock replace creamy semi-active suspension and suggest a firmer long-distance ride quality. And the Peak has no heated grips, and only a tiny screen. Wedged into place between a tailpack (panniers an optional extra) and 20-litre fuel tank, the low, wide seat feels thin, hard and unyielding – even though it’s the same seat, same upright riding position, same 160bhp, 1198cc 8v V-twin engine, same gearing and same IMU-backed engine management as the stock Multistrada 1200S.
Yet, as we surge away from Holme Fen’s peaty-black, sub-sea level fields of morning mist and link up with the Great North Road for the next 160 miles, the Peak’s long legs settle into an easy stride, like a marathon runner just warming up. The motor is about right at 90mph on the clocks (84mph in real money), revs hovering at 5000rpm in top.
With VVT and ultra-refined fuelling civilising the Multistrada’s power delivery, it’s the smoothest, least Ducati-esque Ducati ever. There’s no transmission lash, no clattering when you open the taps at the wrong revs. But jeepers, it still lunges past artics and panel vans like a punting-great torque monster, front end waggling, acceleration pinning my coccyx against the tailpack. It’s like taking a boisterous Great Dane for a walk.
Somewhere around Doncaster I decide the Ducati’s riding position is unexpectedly and outstandingly comfortable; better than many so-called grand tourers. I haven’t experienced any discomfort at all, anywhere. Arms are wide, body braced against the wind, adjustable stubby screen keeping wind noise and buffeting acceptably low, wide seat spreading my weight evenly and low pegs folding hips and knees at precisely the right angles. I’m so comfortable it’s a genuine surprise.
Our first fuel stop is at Wetherby services after 126.6 miles. The Ducati is doing 49.4mpg. I drink a small can of Red Bull, so I’m doing 2536mpg. The weather deteriorates as we spear off the A1 a junction north of Scotch Corner and on to the B6275, picking up the A68’s panoramic rollercoaster across Northumberland, tumbling over the England/Scotland border (posing for obligatory selfie), then head down and boogie away towards Edinburgh.
The Multistrada is blissfully competent in these tough-arsed riding conditions. Doesn’t matter if the front is compressing and pushing cornering ABS into action mid-hairpin, or driving hard out of long curves and teasing the traction control; the Pikes Peak feels designed for such corners, skating across the soggy, leaf-litter slime of mid-October and holding a confident, rapid pace.
Its Pirelli Scorpion Trails are misnamed; on tarmac, road noise is translated intuitively as grip. And I notice I haven’t adjusted my riding position from the comfort of cruising up the A1 – the Ducati goes down through gears, from relax to attack, without any extra forethought. It’s even still in Touring mode; the softened throttle response makes sense in the wet.
The Peak’s orange traction control lights wink in the gloom – even at just gone midday, the light is fading enough to invert the Multistrada’s photo-sensitive dash to its night display. I press on. A quick refuel for us both at Jedburgh, then away again, over the Lammermuir Hills and on to the Edinburgh ring road. Traffic builds, choking and clotting the arterial road on to the Forth bridge before dispersing on to the M90 towards Perth.
The A93 collects us for the final sprint through Blairgowrie and up into the Cairngorms. The Multistrada is in the flow, stringing bends together in a fluid harmony with such practised ease it feels instinctive, like breathing.
Suddenly, the dark shape of a deer appears between the line of massive birch trees and trots on to the road in front of a quarter of a ton of Ducati and rider. Before I can reach the brake lever, a faster part of my grey matter computes we’re not on collision course as long as the deer keeps moving. Matters, however, are complicated by the appearance of a second deer behind it. This one escapes a future as venison only by the component chemistry of Bosch, Brembo, Öhlins and Pirelli.
The landscape suddenly changes character, trees disappearing and farmland giving way to mountain moorland. From nowhere, huge shapes loom into the cloud base on either side as the road finally rises, twisting and looping like a skewered eel, to climb above 1000ft, 1500ft, 2000ft. The watery mist becomes heavy rain, lashing down and bouncing off the tarmac like chippings. At the 2209ft summit, on the road-roof of Britain, there is no celebratory marker. Just a lonely radio tower and a windswept, rain-lashed sign marking the border between Perth and Kinross, and Aberdeenshire.
We’ve officially completed Britain’s biggest, longest hill climb. It’s taken almost 400 miles, three fuel stops with over 36 litres of petrol, and eight and half hours (with fuel, food and photo stops) of every kind of road riding to get here. The Multistrada Pikes Peak has been simply astounding; much more competent at crushing the miles than I expected, but equally skilful at dealing with treacherous conditions on A-roads and back lanes. It’s time to start the long ride home.
I look at the Ducati, the Ducati looks at me, and we’re both happy with the arrangement. And as the Cairngorms ring to the heavy-duty thud of the Ducati’s Termignoni end can, its brilliant LED main beam illuminating the winding mountain road, heated kit and music wound up to max, I can’t think of a bike I’d rather be on for the trip. Let’s do this again, backwards.