Chinese Camp. Moccasin. Drytown. Cool. I was constantly being bombarded by intriguing names as I rode along California state route 49, and my imagination spun stories almost as fast as the wheels of the Ducati Hyperstrada beneath me. I found myself popping open the laptop at the end of each day, searching online for the real story behind each town.For years I have seen Highway 49 on the map, winding its way along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and have wanted to ride the route from end-to-end, exploring the rich history of California’s Gold Rush of 1849. When the Ducati Hyperstrada — the newest addition to Ducati’s Hypermotard line — became available a week before Independence Day, I jumped on the opportunity to take a mini-adventure.
My last Ducati sport-touring experience was on the ST3, which Ducati discontinued in 2007. The Multistrada has been filling that sport-touring gap for many riders, but it is a big bike for someone my size —5′ 6″, 115 pounds. Ergonomically, the ST3 fit me perfectly, as did the Hypermotards, but the latter came with no touring options.Happily, Ducati seems to have noticed that something was missing, as the Hyperstrada, with its touring ensemble, is my replacement for the much-loved ST3.At 33.5 inches, the saddle is relatively tall and leaves me on my toes, but the bike is well balanced, slender, and not intimidating, even in its 450-pound (wet weight) touring trim. A shorter accessory seat is also available, but that changes the ergonomics, making the bars relatively taller and the pegs higher — I’ll stick with tippy toes.Powered by the new smaller version of the Testastretta 11-degree L-twin used in the Multistrada, Diavel and Streetfighter 848, the Hyperstrada’s 821cc liquid-cooled 4vpc engine is far more aggressive than the air-cooled two-valve 796, with an electronics package to tone down the delivery when desired.Equipped with a generous 13+ gallons of storage between the two semi-rigid bags, a modest touring screen, and wider seat, while still maintaining a great adventure/supermoto look, the Hyperstrada encourages you to pull out that short list of roads that need to be explored and plan a quick getaway.Highway 49 begins its meandering route from the city of Oakhurst (about as far north as San Jose), and runs mostly northwest for almost 300 serpentine miles. During the summer, much of the traffic leaving town heads due north up the 41 to Yosemite National Park, leaving just a smattering of cars to join me on the amalgamation of two-lane roads called the Golden Chain Highway.I set off in Touring Mode — one of the three pre-set mappings — which delivers the full 110 horsepower with a medium throttle response. Settling into a brisk pace, the well-paved road moves gently through the rural landscape, alternating between grassy meadows liberally peppered with Blue Oaks, and mountain chaparral.Soon I am passing through the first few Gold Rush towns, with their covered sidewalks and old brick buildings. Street names and businesses that reference the boom-and-bust history are as plentiful as the precious metal was 165 years ago.One historic town after another, ranging in size from several thousand to tiny double-digit populations, and even a few ghost towns, all beckon me to snap pictures for my Facebook page.Outside of Mariposa, past Drunken Gulch Road, there is a marker for Fremont’s Fort, built by Gen. John Fremont to protect his mines from claim jumpers. Having once lived on a Fremont Street, there is something satisfying about seeing the origins of the names that pop up in so many California towns and cities.There is also a great view from this marker of some upcoming hairpin turns as the road drops down into the canyon to cross the Merced River. The next few miles are a blast as I accelerate quickly along the edge of the mountain, brake hard into the tight turns and flip the bike back around.The Hyperstrada is light on its feet and easy to maneuver. After some experimentation, I find that the Urban mode works best for me on unfamiliar switchbacks — I am touring, after all. With just 75-percent power delivery and a slow throttle response, it allows me to stay aggressive, as it is more forgiving of throttle error.Riding modes can be changed on the fly. Roll off the throttle, engage the turn signal cancel switch, scroll through the three modes, and make your selection. After several false starts, I discovered that taking my hand completely off the throttle grip was the most effective way for the Ride-By- Wire Hyperstrada to acknowledge that I wasn’t giving it any fuel. I was then able to easily switch between modes as conditions dictated.Catching my eye as I slowed down for the junction at Route 132 is the historic Hotel Jeffery, set right on the corner of Highway 49 and Main Street in Coulterville. Originally built for overnight stagecoach passengers in 1851, the hotel is still in business, and its Magnolia Saloon is the self-proclaimed “oldest working saloon in California.”Locals in the towns are friendly and proud of their history; in Coulterville, I was encouraged to go around the corner and see the last remaining Powder House in the county, built-in 1860 to store explosives used in the gold mines.The Hyperstrada, despite its moniker and supermoto look, is equally comfortable at a slow pace with good pull from the bottom. Poking through town is not discouraged, but stopping for every quick photo op that caught my fancy gave me pause. The clutch lever may have smooth action, but the initial sharp bite, especially first thing in the morning when the bike is cold, can be quite nasty and caused a zero mph tipover in the hotel parking lot. I compensated on more than one occasion by starting in second gear. Once the engine is warm, the engagement is manageable, but there is no reason for it to be so aggressive on a bike targeted to touring.With a 4.2-gallon capacity and no fuel gauge (seems odd on a “Strada”, Ducati’s code name for tourer), it seemed prudent to top up more often than not, even though the scrollable data screen reported that my average mpg was in the high 40s. It’s not as if I needed an excuse to stop, though, as around every bend of the 49 there is another historic town that shouldn’t be missed, and sites worth seeing.From the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown, with a still-functioning roundhouse that repairs and maintains its steam locomotive, to Angels Camp, the setting for Mark Twain’s “Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (check out the sidewalk plaques in downtown honoring the annual jumping frog winners, dating back to 1928), to Sutter Creek where the gold rush adventure began, there is something for even the most history-averse person.The 49 continues its casual rambling across the grassy foothills and woodlands, allowing the Hyperstrada to lope along for miles before being periodically broken up by sweeping stretches. No need to change riding modes or even gear down, with the wide-ranging torque of the L-twin motor, just adjust the throttle as necessary.Pulling in to Auburn after a day’s ride, I made my way to a local hotel, parked the Hyperstrada and detached the non-locking saddlebags. Three alignment pins secure each bag, and while the cases slide on relatively easily, pulling them off takes more effort than it should. The stylish clamshell bags unzip almost fully, providing complete use of the capacity; dry bag liners are included as the bags are not waterproof. For additional storage, an 8.2-gallon top case is available from Ducati Performance.The first half of my Hwy 49 ride took me northwest from Oakhurst to Auburn, skirting the western edge of the Sierra Nevadas. Today, it begins as a straight run north to Nevada City. Incredibly scenic, with its well-maintained Victorian homes tucked into the hilly downtown area, this is small-town America looking its Sunday best and is absolutely worth a quick side trip. Exit west on Broad Street and spin through town, soaking up the charm. Hwy 49 loops back around in less than a mile.There is more riding and less stopping on this leg of the trip, as towns are few and far between. Although the Hyperstrada is an immediately comfortable ride, with its upright ergonomics and 3⁄4-inch handlebar riser, the wide and comfortable foam seat is not particularly roomy. I found myself shifting my feet on the pegs from the ball to the arch to the heel, eking out whatever slight change in angle I could find, after an hour of continuous riding.Carving a westward arc across the rural landscape, the Hyperstrada glides along effortlessly. Fast straight runs transition to gently winding drops into river canyons, and then back up along the rolling hills; all the while the bike is an easy companion.Once past North San Juan, the fun factor doubles as the road dives into the Tahoe National Forest, twisting along the mountainside through oaks and pines. Perhaps a cruiser would have been a better choice as the scenery is spectacular, but the Hyperstrada’s supermoto DNA is a perfect match for a road such as this — empty of both tourists and law enforcement.For this sort of riding, the Sport mode is perfect. It’s still the 11-degree motor, so it isn’t as overwhelmingly responsive as the 848 Superbike Testastretta Evoluzione powerplant or the Streetfighter 848’s 11-degree, which has a bigger bore and shorter stroke.Throttle response is immediate, however, and Sport mode lessens the intrusion of traction control and ABS. With fully loaded bags out in the middle of nowhere, I wasn’t lighting it up coming out of turns, but the enhanced acceleration in Sport mode is as controllable as it is impressive. Within each mode present, both the ABS and traction control can be fine-tuned, though I was happy with the factory presets.The Hyperstrada’s 25.5-degree rake makes for responsive steering, and the comfortably firm (and fully adjustable) suspension encourages aggressive riding. The Pirelli Scorpion Trail rubber was consistently secure on every surface, including variously worn backroad asphalt, rain-grooved highway pavement, bridges with metal grates, and even a dirt-road curiosity spin between fields in farm country. The wheels are standard 17-inch hoops, so you can put on tires that fit your particular riding style.The radial-mounted Brembo front calipers are powerful and appropriate for the Hyperstrada’s acceleration and weight; with no initial sharp bite on the twin 320mm discs, they get progressively stronger the harder you squeeze. Downshifting can be done with abandon, as the slipper-style APTC clutch does its job seamlessly.Well into my spirited ride, the 49 drops down to the bottom of the canyon, and at Indian Valley Road it starts following the North Yuba River. There is something special about riding along a river’s path, and as I follow the Yuba upstream to Downieville, my lunch destination, it alternately meanders lazily over the river rocks, or rushes along them in mini-rapids.With less than 300 inhabitants today, Downieville is incredibly charming and quiet. I poke along the few small streets, riding several times over the three single-lane bridges because they’re just so cool, and scout out a place to eat. In its 1851 heyday, Downieville had a population of 5000 and was vying to become the state capitol. The gold may be long gone, but each August mountain bikers race along old prospectors’ trails, competing in the world-class Downieville Classic, which ends on Main Street.Fortified with street tacos and beans from La Cocina de Oro, I have 35 more miles of unimpeded winding through the forest before I drop into the Sierra Valley at Loyalton. Here, the tall Sugar Pines give way to the largest alpine valley in the United States. It is a complete change of scenery; I click into Touring mode and cruise across the wide-open stretches of hay fields and ranch land, feeling like I’m crossing the Ponderosa.After an amazing two-day ride, Highway 49 ends rather anti-climactically when it dead-ends at State Highway 70 about 15 miles east of Portola. After documenting the end of the road with a selfie, I head west to complete my adventure in style at the Chalet View Lodge.Rustic in appearance, but not in appointment, the Lodge sits outside of Portola on the edge of the forest, an air of tranquility blanketing the grounds. Whether you choose a guest room, two-level suite, private cabin, or the villa, there are various activities available on the grounds to amuse yourself (primitive golf course, basketball, fishing pond, and more), or just enjoy the peaceful view from the back patio.Once showered and in a clean set of clothes, I headed over to The Grille on the Chalet View Lodge’s terrace patio where they bake eclectic thin-crust artisan pizzas in an outdoor wood-fired oven.Surely the grilled salmon and sautéed vegetables would have been a sensible selection, but adventure rides are excuses to indulge so I ordered The Portola pizza. Despite the salami, pepperoni, and sausage toppings, The Portola was a surprisingly light pizza with only a dusting of cheese across the lightly crunchy crust, and did not leave me feeling weighed down. Yum.As dusk settled over the lodge, the stone fireplace on the patio was lit and I enjoyed the hum of happy conversation coming from a group of seniors at the next table, a friendly bunch on a three-day vintage car rally. The waitress’ suggestion to try the homemade banana chocolate chip gelato was the perfect way to end the day.Heading back down to Southern California at full tilt on the freeway confirms that while the Hyperstrada is completely solid at this pace, this is not how the bike is best enjoyed. The non-adjustable touring screen takes the edge off the windblast for shorter freeway stints, but is not enough protection for the prolonged high-speeds of Interstate touring.As I get closer to home, I feel the need to take a long-cut over a favored mountain pass so I can feel the exhilaration of the Hyperstrada one last time. Swapping into Sport mode, I twist the throttle and let the bike rocket up the side of the mountain—bliss.Being able to throw a few days worth of necessities onto the bike, and then essentially forget they are there while blasting along mountain roads, is a winning idea for performance- touring.The Ducati Hyperstrada is seriously fun, with the acceleration, agility, and premium brakes to deliver a pulse-pounding rush when winding roads appear, yet also has the casual, comfortable ergonomics for upright touring for those times when it’s all about the scenery. Add in the sex appeal of a red Italian motorcycle, and the Hyperstrada is an irresistible weekend companion.Riding Style:
Helmet: Arai Vector-2 Loop
Communications: Sena SMH10R
Jacket: Ducati Women’s Meccanica 11
Gloves: Cortech DX 2
Pants: Dainese P. Alien Pelle Lady
Boots: Dainese Svelta Lady Gore-TexDucati Hyperstrada Photo Gallery
This week we ride two genre-departing motorcycles from the established American manufacturers. Jess McKinley gives us his thoughts on the all new Harley-Davidson Pan America Special, and Ron Lieback gives his on Indian’s latest version of the FTR 1200 S.