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2009 Ducati Multistrada 1100 S and 2009 Kawasaki Versys 650 Review

As an off-road rider of over 40 years, I’m used to favorite routes getting closed down. I don’t like it, but it happens. As a street rider with 35 years of experience, a closed paved road really aggravates me. I still haven’t gotten over the closure of San Gabriel Canyon Road (aka California State Route 39) south of Angeles Crest Highway (aka California State Route 2).

I had ridden from Azusa to SR 2 on SR 39 in 1976, shortly before a nasty storm took out a large chunk of the road. It was deemed too expensive to repair, so steel gates went up between Angeles Crest Highway and Crystal Lake. Later, more washouts caused Caltrans to lower the closure to the canyon floor. Abandoned, SR39 continued to deteriorate and remains closed over 30 years later (see photo).

Angeles Crest Highway had a bad winter in 2004, which caused the 73-mile route from La Canada Flintridge to Wrightwood to be interrupted with a closure. More storms in 2006 worsened the road’s conditions. As ACH is much more popular than SR39 was 30+ years ago, something had to be done. That something was a great thing for motorcycling!

Caltrans put $7 million into a new bridge a few miles west of Big Pine, and put in track-quality pavement from Wrightwood west, well past the bridge. The rest of ACH is in pretty decent shape, so the 73-mile ride is now extraordinarily enjoyable.

On a nice August morning, we took a Ducati Multistrada 1100S and a Kawasaki Versys 650 up to see Caltrans’ handiwork first hand. Adventure bikes seemed to be a perfect choice, as we intended to enjoy the extraordinarily scenic route rather than see how quickly we could burn through the miles.

Of course, the Multistrada and Versys are certainly capable of exhilarating performance when called upon, but they don’t make you pay for it with unforgiving ergonomics, suspension and power delivery.

The Multistrada was certainly tested on Alpine roads, and ACH is a very reasonable American facsimile. The Crest has every sort of turn imaginable-tight, sweepers, double apex, decreasing radius, increasing radius, uphill, downhill. You name it, and SR2 delivers it. Riding in this environment the Multistrada is flawless, and made even more desirable thanks to its high end “S” suspension. What irregularities the road has are gobbled up without the slightest consultation with the rider. Rocks show up in corners from time-to-time, and the Multistrada allowed the rider to avoid them with intuitive mid-corner corrections.

Angeles Crest Highway hits over 7000-feet, but the EFI never lets you know that. There is plenty of power on tap, and its smooth and controllable delivery enhances the Multistrada 1000S’s handling. There are no flat-spots, hitches or spikes in the powerband. It’s smooth from idle until you feel like shifting. I strongly dislike Ducati’s kill-switch-style rev limiter, so I rarely ventured near it. The big air-cooled, two-valve, L-twin doesn’t mind short shifting, and rewards the rider with sumptuous power. If there’s a better bike for this sort of ride, I’m not sure where it’s hiding.

Not everyone needs 1100cc of Italian torque and horsepower, of course. Kawasaki’s Versys is an adventurized version of the highly successful Ninja 650. The primary changes are the longer suspension, taller seat height, and the abbreviated fairing. While no match for the Multistrada 1100S in the handling, suspension or power departments (or price, for that matter), the Versys has its own appeal, and it was the primary mount of choice for Ultimate MotorCycling Copy Editor Kelly Callan.

The revvy little liquid-cooled, DOHC parallel twin is extraordinarily flexible in its power delivery. The agreeable powerband stretches from idle to a five-digit redline, making shifting optional. Certainly, rowing the gearbox and keeping the motor buzzing will increase your velocity; being an adventure bike, this will likely only be implemented infrequently as it’s not a principal design function. The upright seating position gives a great view of the road and induces virtually no fatigue. Sure, leg stretching is occasionally necessary, but the rider’s back, arms, wrists, and neck will love the Versys.

The suspension and handling are a perfect match for the motor. Not quite as compliant as the Multistrada, the Versys is confidence-inspiring in corners and touching down any hardware will be a rare experience, even on the fantastic tarmac on the west end of Angeles Crest Highway.

Once in Wrightwood, the Versys is a delight around town. The motor is as sweet at slow speeds as it is on the open road, and its wheelbase is two inches shorter than the Multistrada’s, so the Versys is quite nimble on city streets even though it has an extra degree of rake.

We took a tour through downtown Wrightwood, which had been hurting during the closure of Angeles Crest Highway. Business looked good (as it did at Newcomb’s Ranch Restaurant and Bar, near the mid-point of the trip), and every restaurant had motorcycles parked out front-cruisers in most instances. In fact, the ratio of cruisers-to-sportbikes was quite high, though we did spy a Desmosedici headed westbound about halfway to Wrightwood.

Around the corner from the downtown’s Park Drive, on SR2, was our destination-Grizzly Cafe. Open seven days a week for all three meals, it’s a motorcyclist-friendly destination. A Harley-Davidson Road King greeted us in the parking lot, with three more Harleys arriving while we dined on a delicious pairing of grilled cheddar cheese on sourdough (Kelly) and patty melt on rye (me). Only the fries were disappointing, as they could have been a bit crisper. Making up for that is very friendly and prompt service, and appropriately rustic mountain décor (stay away if you don’t like mounted animal heads).

A quick glance at the Multistrada and Versys spec sheets shows some similarities that these adventure bikes share-they have very similar seat heights (around 33 inches), weights (about 450 pounds wet), suspension travel (in the vicinity of six inches at all ends), and fuel tank capacity (five gallons, give or take). The Multistrada’s torque peak is about 60% higher than the Versys, and comes 2000 rpm sooner, which is what you’d expect for a motor that’s about 75% larger in displacement.

On the return ride, we upped the pace a bit, and both bikes responded willingly. As the leader most of the ride, I rode at a rapid-but-comfortable pace on the Multistrada, yet Kelly had no problem keeping up on the Versys. The Multistrada has larger discs, befitting its higher performance, but both bikes delivered flawless deceleration.

Friendly motorcyclists kept us apprised of the antics of the California Highway Patrol, so everyone went home with a smile (except, perhaps, the revenue collectors).

We communicated between bikes using the Cardo Scala Rider Q2 system. It was my first test of the Extra Long Audio and Microphone Kit for the Scala Rider. I liked the way the earpieces easily installed in the Vemar VSREV helmet with Velcro, and Kelly reports that the accessory microphone provided her with better voice sound on her end. This add-on takes a great product and makes it even better.

Ultimately, what these two adventure motorcycles share is the ability to exploit the opportunities provided by a perfect day, perfect road, and perfect company.

Helmet: Vemar VSREV
Communications: Cardo Scala Rider Q2
Jacket and pants: Rev’It Cayenne Pro
Gloves: Rev’It R59
Boots: Tour Master Solution WP

Helmet: Suomy Extreme Flowers
Communications: Cardo Scala Rider Q2
Jacket: Firstgear TPG Monarch
Gloves: Firstgear Fargo
Pants: Firstgear TPG Escape
Boots: Sidi B2 for Ladies

Photography by Don Williams and Kelly Callan