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Big V-twins

Aprilia Mille Factory, Ducati 999 and Honda SP-2 hurtle across Europe in search of sun, speed, a track day at Imola and a big day out at Italy's largest rock festival. Groovy!

Our hotel room is somewhat second-hand. Leathers and lids are strewn across the floor as if someone's played football with them, the television appears to have made a bid for freedom and is now lodged precariously between the bin and the wardrobe and as for the bathroom, well, let's just say it's not pretty. Last night under an Italian summer sky we shook Billy Idol's hand, rocked out with Velvet Revolver and joined the crowd as they turned mutinous on Oasis when Liam stormed off stage mid-set.

Last night we lived our own rock and roll fantasies (in our heads anyway) as the cold beers flowed and the shots stacked up but this morning reality is biting hard. Clutching his mouth and still in last night's clothes Daryll leaps from the prone position he's been in since I've been conscious and lurches to the bathroom. How on earth did we get here?

Fast, as it happens. Good and fast, as in head down, 80 miles to a tank fast. The kind of fast that sees continental kilometres despatched in short shrift and which links one country to another in a seamless blur. Speedos rarely below 120mph we banged out the 1100 miles from London to Imola in short order. Fuel stops were a chance for a stretch, some water and a visor de-bugging before heading back into the breach. We'd do the pretty, twisty route on the way home. This leg was all about getting there. 'There' in this case was Imola. Not only home to one of the finest circuits in World Superbikes and host to the epic Edwards/ Bayliss end of season battle in 2002, but also home to Italy's largest rock festival. Having the three best V-twins on the market at the same time as this huge gig and with a day riding on Imola's hallowed curves as soon as the concert stage was dismantled, this test came together so sweetly it almost hurt. As if we needed any more excuse for a right old road trip, two of the bikes were Italian thoroughbreds in the shape of Ducati's 999 and Aprilia's Mille Factory.

The Duke's looks have been a bone of contention for not matching those of its predecessors. But, as the 916-998s were timeless pieces of magic, it's no surprise Ducati couldn't better them when the time came for their replacement. What Ducati could do was make them better to ride and that's where the 999 scores. You'll be faster, more easily on any one of these than you will on an older model. You may not feel as special doing it, but with three years of development now coursing through the 999's veins perhaps this is the year for that to change.

As for the Mille, it's long been the thorn in Ducati's side, regularly out-performing the Bologna manufacturer's equal offerings while stiffing them on price too. Having never made anything bigger than a 650cc trailie before, Aprilia leapt into the big twin fray back in '98 with their first RSV. Bold styling (some even said 'ugly') met sweet handling and proper performance, making the Mille a winner out of the blocks. Since then it's been refined to this fifth-generation incarnation and, like a supermodel on a yacht, it wears only the finest accessories with fully-adjustable .Ôhlins suspenders, radially-mounted Brembo brakes and OZ wheels. Throw in Aprilia's trademark gutsy 60¡ V-twin and this is a serious piece of kit. But can it still ace the ever-evolving Duke?

Completing our trio is Honda's SP-2. Following in the hallowed footsteps of Honda's RC30 and RC45, built to homologate racers as much as sell motorcycles, the SP-2 is one of the most special bikes to come out of Japan. It doesn't wear its exotic colours on its sleeve as flamboyantly as the Italians here - the only discernible glam touch is the word 'magnesium' stamped onto each engine case - but it still has an air of something a cut above, and packs major firepower into a bike you know will always start every morning.

Edwards and his SP-2 may have taken Ducati and Aprilia to the cleaners at Imola on that roasting WSB afternoon back in 2002 but can the roadbike repeat the feat in this very different test? Early indications suggested it could. On the road it was the easiest to live with - the controls worked and you could see more than just elbows in the mirrors. Minor quibbles against the meat of performance, but the other two bikes can't quite cut it when it comes to deathly dull daily details.

Starting with the Duke you'll find your hands going numb after any time cruising between 60 and 90 mph, it'll cook your spuds in town as the underseat pipes torch the seat towards the heat of molten tungsten and the back brake is little more than a dinky accessory for all the good it does.As for the Aprilia, well, it was somewhat all over the shop and, although we've ridden some excellent latest-generation Milles, this one failed to meet the bar they'd set. "It's like riding in boxing gloves and wellies," reckoned Daryll after a couple of hundred miles on it. "You feel slightly removed from everything." See, none of the controls quite worked as they should. The throttle had too much free play, as did the front brake, the gearbox was so stiff as to be almost solid and neutral had apparently taken a holiday. The back brake did nothing and air in the clutch meant it was biting somewhere a few millimetres from the bar. None of this was terminal but it meant riding the Mille was harder than it should have been, and made judging it fairly a tough job. But get the old girl rolling and she could still show some pretty signs of life, and nowhere more obviously than in the motor. Aprilia's 60¡ V-twins have always felt chunky and strong in a rough-edged way Ducati's never have. What you also get now, allied to the instant strong punch anywhere you care to look for it, is a top end that takes off from 6000rpm as the Mille turns it up a gear and buggers off for the horizon with a delicious thudding crescendo belting out beneath you. "Definitely feels the strongest here," said Daryll after another 70-mile stretch of motorway madness which had regularly seen 160mph on all three clocks. "Maybe, but this Duke motor's pure magic," said Colin smugly. Sensing he was onto something I commandeered the 999.

And he was right. Riding the Honda and the Aprilia I'd been concocting a theory that Ducati's modern day reputation was built on the bedrock of the 916 and Monster 900. Both bikes spawned illustrious dynasties although while the 916 lineage was terminated with dignity the Monster lives on past its sell-by date. Beyond these two, Ducati's range was a bit flimsy, I theorised as the miles rolled by. As for the 999? Pah, just a watered-down imitation of the 916. Then I rode the Duke and it took me three minutes to realise my theory was cobblers. It is a genuine modern classic. It may have taken a few years but, ladies and gentlemen, the 999 has come of age and she is a beauty.

The aesthetics hint at what's to come, because where the bike always looked alright it's now blossomed as a real looker. From the black wheels, swingarm and subframe, through the red trellis frame to the sheer narrowness of the whole bike, everything comes together. Climb aboard and the riding position does the same. There's more legroom than on the other two despite the vast ground clearance - touch something down on one of these and you're either on your way to a factory super-bike contract or you've crashed - and there's less weight on your wrists. Continuing the theme of immaculate balance is the minimal but surprisingly comfortable seat.

But the real jewel in the 999's crown is the motor, which brings new meaning to the words 'effortlessly powerful'. Never once does it feel strained, never once does it feel that quick, but tune in, keep an eye on the speedo and you will realise that this is a very bloody fast motorcycle. With beautifully sensitive yet smooth fuel injection the lightest hiccup from your throttle hand will launch you forward at almost any speed, in almost any gear. Rolling into Imola as night fell the mileage was beginning to take its toll, so the hotel bar followed by a splendid pizzeria in the town's central piazza were the order of the day, obviously all sluiced down with a beer or six before getting up the next day to rock out with Billy Idol and co. This, as you may have gathered, was a night that turned very messy, so it was a good job we weren't due to ride on the circuit until the following day.

But what an incredible track. True, the surface isn't the greatest and is downright lumpy in places, but the setting is incredible with avenues of trees lining the circuit, a vast public park in its centre and far more rising, falling and positive camber than you'd ever imagine to look at the place on TV. To top it all, you can feel the racing history reeking out of the place at every turn. Very special indeed, and all ours for the afternoon.

Out first on the SP-2 the memories came flooding back. The riding position that gives you so much space to move about on the road now slots you right over the front ready for track attack and lets you clamber easily all over the bike to get the most out of it.To start with this is brilliant as you feel your way around and let the strong linear drive pull you out of unfamiliar corners. The slick gearbox and sharp anchors all join the party to make learning the track an easy business on the Honda. Sadly though, as you settle in and begin to turn the heat up, the Honda begins to change. And not entirely for the better.

First that rear end sits slightly too low, which means plenty of comfort on the road, but translates into a front that runs wide in tighter turns. Secondly the forks are easily overwhelmed by the brakes, bucking, bouncing and generally failing to enjoy themselves, and also pack too much compression damping, meaning that as the low back end forces the front wide you also start to get less confidence from it. All in all, not so much fun if you're after going utterly banzai. That said, a dose of preload at the back and less compression up front goes a long way towards helping out. Up to a fairly fast pace it all works wonderfully, but if you're looking for that little bit extra on your trackdays you'd be better looking at either of the other two.

Which brings us to the Mille. "This thing's been set up by a monkey after a night on the sauce," said Daryll after a track session. Normally on track these things are a model of stability and agility, but not this one. The back skipped on the brakes, the front bounced back as you let them off and it bounced through chicanes like a small child on a big trampoline. Fortunately the .Ôhlins forks and shock are fully-adjustable and, unlike some units, every click will make a difference. Salvation is only a couple of judicious clicks away. And it was. Finally the Mille's true colours shone as it flipped into corners faster and sharper than a bike that feels so ungainly at a standstill has a right to. Once there it bombarded you with feedback before letting you fire it out onto the straight with all the shazam your right hand could fancy.

But where the Aprilia and Honda needed tweaking before coming good, the Duke was as happy as a pig in shit from the word go. "I want one," said Daryll. In fact, we both wanted one because for me too the love affair was well and truly underway. It's not often I get utterly seduced by a bike thanks to years in the job making me, on the whole, inexcusably cynical, but the Duke got me.

Not only had it walked the walk on the thrash here, but now on the track it was lifting its game again. The 999 peeled into the apex of your choice with unerring accuracy and almost telepathic ease; mid-corner it was perhaps fractionally less astonishing than its predecessors but even so it was still darned good and if this is the one trade-off for all the other plus points, then I couldn't care less. The motor added to the 999 party too, not only by eating any straight you pointed the bike at, but also by combining with the chassis to let you drive the bike through and out of turns harder than you'd dare on a GSX-R1000 for fear of hitting the eject button. All in all, this was a peachy package. Sadly though, before we knew it our track time was up. But we'd gorged ourselves in the few hours we had and so dived back to the hotel tired, happy and ready for a couple of swift ones before an early night. The following morning would be an early one as we hit the backroads across the Alps and onwards into France via Switzerland.

Colin, as a man who carries a GPS map of most of continental Europe in his head, was in charge of the route and promised us some treats. He didn't fail to deliver either The ridiculous Alpine swervery through the Grand St Bernard pass by Mont Blanc was incredible in its nadgery testiness and left me laughing my socks off at the end because I'd been on the 999, which had despatched the road with moderate ease, while Colin moaned about the Aprilia, which made rather a meal of it all. Swapping bikes made me realise just how much harder the Mille was to hustle through the tight stuff and I set to the suspension once more in the nearest layby, fortunately finding improvement, which meant that when we hit God's Own Road on the way into Pontarliers - one of those madly fast sweeping runs that begs you to cane whatever you're riding to within an inch of its life - the Mille acquitted itself admirably.

As we slid onto our homeward-bound P&O ferry at Calais a few hundred miles later it was time for reflection. For starters it was a welcome surprise to be bringing three bikes back. Not because we were expecting to lunch any of them but because we all expected one of the Italian bikes to lunch itself. But no, none missed a beat and, although none are exactly tourers, they all coped admirably with one hell of a trip. Nice one. And the final standings? Well, in time-honoured reverse order, they look like this: Third place goes to the Mille simply because it became the bike we all wanted to ride least. This is slightly unfair as the bike wasn't as good as it should have been, but even so it would still appear time is catching the Aprilia up, although it's still very high spec for the money and once set-up right can be a total dream on road or track. Second place is for the Honda. Although the least accomplished on track it's still far from bad and makes a lot more sense on the road or in day-to-day use. Where the other two need tuning into to get the most out of them, you can hop on the Honda and be on the pace immediately.

All of which means the 999 is the winner. Best looks, best motor and best handling from the word go all mean that, despite a few glitches (boiling hot seat in summer, rubbish pillion seat, duff mirrors) it's still holding all the cards. A very worthy winner.