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Sensible? Only if you want it to be

Published: 18 March 2001

AS I straighten out of the left-hander, a VW Golf appears a few hundred yards ahead of me, going at a rate of knots. Just before the next bend, its brake lights flash, then its bodywork squats on one side as it screeches into the turn.

Its driver probably thinks he’s coping pretty well with the tight hairpins and sheer rock faces of the Sardinian mountain road. And he is – for someone sitting in a heavy box with a wheel on each corner. But I’m on Aprilia’s new Caponord, a machine which is much better suited for this kind of terrain, and the contest is as uneven as Lennox Lewis v Gail Porter.

After barely a minute, the hunt is over. As the Golf brakes hard into a long, constant-radius right-hander, I’m around the outside, catching the briefest glimpse of the astonished driver’s open mouth as the tall V-twin sails past a couple of inches from his left-hand wing mirror.

The Golf’s grille is now filling my own mirror as my pegs grind into the Tarmac, making a cruel but satisfying sound that just adds to the thrill of a successful chase. To my left is a flimsy barrier which is all that separates me from a very painful drop of about 1000 metres. But I’m not fazed. Getting round the corner and into the next set of bends is all that concerns me.

I’m wrong to be so blasé. As I wind on the power, hoping for a message from the rear as to how things are going, the tyre lets go. It’s a smooth event, but frightening all the same. I sit up and the bike straightens itself out. Fortunately for my over-worked guardian angel, so does the road. It’s time to stop, have a smoke and calm down.

I started the day riding Aprilia’s Caponord like a normal, level-headed individual and I had no reason to suspect that would change. After all, a trailie is not the sort of bike you’d expect to arouse animal riding habits. But it does, and it’s very underhand in the way it goes about bringing out the hooligan in you.

It all began sensibly enough with me walking appreciatively around the Caponord, noting all the neat little touches I’ve come to expect from Aprilia. I felt like a bespectacled quality control manager, ticking boxes on my mental clipboard as I peered at the beautiful welding, the seamless switch from cast to extrusion and the general aura of value and quality.

The sad side of my brain also registered the 12V socket on the side fairing, just below the seat, where you can plug in the intercom or heated kit you might want to use. Cool. And I’ve never even owned a BMW…

Another useful touch is the vertical and horizontal headlight adjusters, which is handy on a bike which is likely to be weighed down with various combinations of luggage and find itself travelling through countries where they drive on the wrong side of the road.

You can’t help notice faint echoes of Honda’s Varadero in the Caponord, but close-up you know this is an Aprilia. The angular styling mirrors the Futura and shared parts like the clocks leave you in no doubt what manufacturer was responsible for this bike.

The pipes are a dead giveaway, too – the firm’s designers do like their exhausts to exit neatly and the family trait has been passed on to the Caponord, with its twin high-level silencers. You can’t argue with their looks, but I was concerned they might make the bike a bit wide in the rump once you sling on the panniers. However, I was assured by the man at Aprilia that, with the firm’s own luggage set-up, the bike is slimmer than its main rival, BMW’s R1150GS.

So after all that head-nodding, chin-stroking musing on what a handsome and practical motorcycle Aprilia has come up with, how did I end up riding it like a hormone-crazed teenager aboard one of the 250 race reps the firm was once synonymous with? Because Aprilia has lavished as much attention on making the Caponord pleasurable to ride as it has on making it easy to use.

The fact that it has the same 1000cc V-twin engine as the RSV Mille and Futura doesn’t do any harm. But Aprilia hasn’t just shoehorned the motor into a trailie chassis. It has re-invented it yet again to provide a suitable workhorse for the Caponord. That means new pistons with redesigned crowns and combustion chamber, reworked camshafts and smaller throttle bodies. The result is more torque at low revs and smoother torque delivery right through the range.

The bike also gets new Sagem injectors with individual mapping for each cylinder, plus some more changes to the exhaust and intake ports for even better torque delivery.

Aprilia has engineered out the RSV’s raucous behaviour and created an engine that is so smooth you’d be forgiven for believing you were riding a Honda. But that doesn’t mean it has made it blander. Instead, it has created an engine that is unassuming yet potent. The power may occur in an uneventful manner, but if you kid yourself into believing there’s not much bhp hitting the road, a quick glance at the speedo soon changes your mind.

The chassis doesn’t let the side down, either. At first, the skyscraper-sized Caponord gives you the impression it’s going to be a hefty mother to wrestle through the twisties. But at the first corner Aprilia’s spiel about the " double wave aluminium beam frame offering the highest torsional rigidity and concentrating the masses closer to the centre of gravity " starts to make sense. You head into the corner with caution at first, but the Aprilia drops in quickly, giving you plenty of confidence to attack the twistiest roads with gusto.

My only complaint is the front end. It’s too soft with just me on board, and its not adjustable either, so God knows how it will cope with your lady perched on the back and a full set of luggage. The rear shock is adjustable for rebound and pre-load, so why not the front?

A short spell off-road proves the Caponord can handle the odd dusty track, but if you’re after anything serious, you’re on the wrong machine.

However, deserts and swamps aside, the best thing about the bike is its ability to take you anywhere at whatever pace you choose. If you’re on a motorway, you can opt for a relaxed cruise sitting bolt upright, but hit a section of road where normally you might start wishing you were on a sports bike and you find the Capo is quite capable of eating other road users for breakfast – even Italians.

I settled into a rhythm of fast, hectic riding combined with more relaxed periods without even thinking about it. Though the fairing with its handy hand protectors makes the front end feel heavy, it is effective in keeping the wind and weather off you, and high mileages are unlikely to be too much of a problem. It also means that high speeds are a doddle. I was hitting three figures regularly with ease.

The risk of a disastrous blowout at those kinds of speeds meant Aprilia had to ditch the spoked rims and tubed tyres usually found on trailies. Instead, it went the same route as BMW, designing a new kind of spoked rim which allows a tubeless tyre to be fitted. Apparently, the way the spoke nipples are visible on the side of the aluminium rim is cool – or so I’m told.

On more than one occasion I was caught out by the freestyle driving the Italians exercise so well – people pulling out from junctions do a great job of pretending to have seen you, only to pull forward just as you approach them – so the Brembos got plenty of panic grabbing.

Thankfully, the fronts work really well, though the bike does tend to dive and the large 270mm rear disc does lock up quite easily. You get used to not hitting it as hard when you’re on your own, but with a full load on board you’ll be glad it’s there.

Aprilia is on a roll at the moment. After years concentrating on two-strokes, it successfully entered the world of diesels with the brilliant RSV, provided us with the competent Falco and has just launched the potentially VFR-beating Futura sports tourer. Oh, and maybe you noticed that Troy Corser bagged a couple of wins in the opening round of WSB on board an RSV-R the other weekend.

Now the firm has brought us a bike to run with the likes of the R1150GS. Not bad for an outfit that only three years ago was relatively unknown in the UK. I can’t wait to see what it does next

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