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Dropping the Ducati

Dropping the DucatiIs there a statute of limitations on stupidity?

After enough time has passed, after the injuries have healed and most others have forgotten our foolishness, we can, if weíre lucky, look back and laugh instead of wincing. For me, that means I can tell you about the time I dropped the Ducati.

The day starts with promise. In the strong, angled sunlight of an August morning, we gather around Sportbike Track Time owner Monte Lutz for the riders meeting at the first-ever Ducati Revs Ohio Day at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. It's a track I had seen several times as a race spectator, but although it is the closest major track to my home at this time, I had never ridden it. I am eagerly looking forward to changing that. As I stand there anonymously among the track-day riders, listening to Monte run through the rules and procedures, I hear one guy whisper to his buddy, "Lance Oliver of Cycle World is here to do a test ride." I chuckle inside but keep quiet. Actually, Iíve never written for Cycle World.

After the riders meeting, I look over the new Ducati Team USA replica that I'll be riding. Essentially, the Team USA bike was a street-legal 999s painted to look like the AMA Superbikes ridden in the 2006 season by Neil Hodgson and Ben Bostrom. Racers get paid to put sponsorsí logos on their bikes. Slapping those stickers on your streetbike, however, usually looks pretentious and vaguely embarrassing, like one of those front-wheel-drive import cars with a big rear wing bolted on the back. The Ducati is so racy looking, however, and the paint scheme is so well done, without being overdone, that the entire effect just looks right. On this bike, you could make a case that anything other than racebike paint would look out of place.

As I examine the 999s in the Mid-Ohio garage, Ducati regional rep Jason Chinnock walks up. "This is the only one of these in the country," he says, patting the shapely tail section of the 999s Team USA replica. "Have fun."

The only one, huh? That's something to think about as I wait for my first session on the track. And hereís another thing to think about: the big sticker they gave me at registration with the letter "A" on it. "A" as in Advanced. Sportbike Track Time runs three groups: Novice, for first-timers on the track; Advanced, for those with racing experience; and Intermediate, to catch everyone in between. Iíve been to a few riding schools and have done my best to learn my way past an apex from the likes of Kevin Schwantz and Jason Pridmore, and Iíve done my share of track days. But a manís got to know his limitations, and I know mine. Iím an intermediate rider through and through.

Letís review: a borrowed and unfamiliar bike, a track I've never ridden before, and hey, I'm no racer. Excuse me, but shouldn't I be in the intermediate group?

"Intermediate is full so we put you in Advanced," explains Lutz.

So, while the Intermediate group pulls onto the track without me for the first session, I try to pass the time profitably by familiarizing myself with the Team USA replica as I wait to be tossed onto Mid-Ohio with the sharks. As I examine the Ducatiís gauges, however, I canít seem to find the odometer when I toggle through the digital display. This must be the tripmeter, Iím thinking, because it says 7.

"No, that's the odometer," says Aaron Bell, another Ducati rep also about to go on the track. Seven miles on the odometer and Iím about to rev it to redline on the track? Apparently Ducati's not worried about break-in procedures. The mileage leads me to examine the tires more closely. Street tires, not track-day tires, and scrubbed in about as much as you can in seven miles, which is to say, not much. Then, on the very first lap by the Intermediate group ahead of us, a Suzuki blows its engine and oils down the long Mid-Ohio back straight, the one part of the track where you see the highest speeds and the hardest braking. The delay for the cleanup gives me more time to think. New bike, unscrubbed tires, oil on the track, and me, about to be unleashed in the midst of the Advanced riders.

I know what you're thinking: "He's in over his head. The dang fool is going to toss the only Team USA 999s in the entire United States."

Sadly, you'd be right.

But not yet.

The first lap, I'm following Aaron, who promises to show me some lines and ride a conservative pace until we get some heat in the tires. Riding into the keyhole turn at a just-getting-warmed-up pace, the new front tire pushes badly, giving me a good scare. Now I can handle a little rear-tire slippage on the track, even enjoy it if itís progressive and controllable. But I prefer my front tire to feel like a sharp axe slicing into a tree trunk. Pure bite.

"Here it comes," you're thinking. "This is where he throws it into the gravel trap."

Not yet.

Half a lap later, the front pushes again, and in the interests of not crashing the innocent bike before it reaches double-digit mileage, I devote the rest of the first session to scrubbing in the tires at a moderate pace. The session is abbreviated due to the time lost to the oil spill cleanup, and for the first time in my life Iím actually glad to have fewer minutes on the track. It means none of the other riders in the Advanced group lap me.

The Ducati reps use their influence (after all, theyíre paying for the track) and score an "I" sticker for me so I can join the Intermediate group and go out again. The Intermediate pace is more my speed, and I separate myself from the heavier traffic of this group and start to get a feel for the bike. The Ducati's broad V-twin powerband makes life easy. If I'm off by one gear, coming out of a corner in third when I should be in second, the bike hardly cares. It just shrugs off my mistake and pulls me down the straight. After just two sessions, itís already time for the lunch break, thanks to the disruption of the schedule due to the long oil cleanup, but Iím happy to sample the pasta and salad having made it through the morning unscathed, reassuring myself that the afternoon will be more fun as I come to terms with the bike.

After lunch, rested but sweating in my leathers in the 90-degree heat, I head out for my third session. Finally, Iím starting to experience something closer to fun than terror. Iím riding, instead of surviving. The tires are scrubbed in and are working well in the heat of early afternoon. I'm finally getting comfortable with the bike and I'm beginning to have the day I'd long anticipated, riding a fun sportbike on a track I've been meaning to sample for years.

"So that's it," you say. "Overconfidence. Probably overcooked a corner and rode it straight into the Mid-Ohio woods, right?"

No, not yet.

By the end of the third session, I'm elated. Not because anyone's going to mistake me for Hodgson or Bostrom, even if my bike does look like theirs. But just because it's finally coming together. I've hit sixth on the back straight and not blown the corner at the end of it. I haven't run off the track by miscalculating the blind turn just past the esses, and I've gotten a knee down in the fast, partially blind and intimidating turn one. The checkered flag is out for the session and I raise my left hand to signal that I'm coming into the pits. The pit entrance at Mid-Ohio is curved and slightly downhill. Iím leaning gently through that curve, left hand still off the grip, already in first gear and already thinking ahead to the next session, when I squeeze some front brake to slow down even more and ... Wham! I'm on the ground!

Worse yet, Iím lying in the grass with my feet higher than my head and the rear wheel of the Ducati pinning my right leg. I'm splayed out on the ground with all the dignity of a deboned chicken, flopped helplessly in the grass for everyone to see as they ride into the pits, having just locked the front wheel and crashed. In first gear. At maybe 30 mph. On the pit lane entrance.

In the history of motorcycle crashes, many have been worse, but few have been more embarrassing.

A corner worker comes to my rescue and after a minute, I'm able to ride the bike to the garage. The good news is that the damage is limited to brake levers and bodywork. The bad news is that the bodywork is the one thing that makes this bike special. Jason is already on his cell phone ordering replacement parts. Naturally, Ducati wants to display this bike in a few days' time at the AMA Superbike race here at Mid-Ohio. While Jasonís on the phone, Iím rehearsing apologies, watching my knee swell, and hoping that other rider still thinks I work for Cycle World. Iím hoping he gets my name wrong, too.

It's all history now. I made my apologies, many times over, to the Ducati guys, who were great about the whole thing. I went on to re-injure my knee twice in the following week and eventually endured surgery and physical therapy, just to pay more penance for my stupidity. And I came to terms with the tag I now must forever wear.

Hear about the guy who dropped the only 999s Team USA replica in the country? Crashed it on pit lane! No, really.

I'm that guy.

Having dealt with the stages of anger, denial, grief and whatever else it is they say you go through after an embarrassing crash, there's only one thing left to do. Learn something from it. I relearned two lessons, actually, that apparently werenít ingrained deeply enough.

First, high-performance bikes demand high-performance riding. The powerful brakes that were such a great thing on the Mid-Ohio back straight were still just as powerful when I clumsily squeezed them on pit lane when my mind was somewhere else. Second, there's never an OK time to drop your concentration. Rolling into pit lane, I was already thinking about the next session on the track when I reached for the brake on an unfamiliar bike while in a turn. From there, the inevitability of gravity took over. Shut off your brain, even for a few seconds and you could end up doing something stupid, like dropping the only Team USA 999s in the country. Although at least you don't have to worry about being "that guy."

I'm already him.