Tomatina: Ducati Multistrada S, KTM 950SM & BMW K1200R

Take three barking bikes to the world's biggest food fight and it's a guaranteed recipe for chaos. James Whitham is your referee

Imagine cramming 40,000 people into the centre of a Spanish village. Next, allow them to get slowly drunk, then pour 20,000 gallons of cold tomato soup over the top of them. Now you have some idea what happens at the annual Bunol 'Tomatina' festival near Valencia. I could tell you about it being part of a week-long fiesta in honour of the town's patron saint, San Luis Bertran, and includes paella cooking competitions, dancing and all the rest. But who cares? It's about tomato war!

The pelting starts at 11am so we arrived three hours early to suss the job out. We parked the bikes - BMW's K1200R, the Ducati Multistrada S and KTM's 950SM - fairly near the Plaza del Pueblo, or Ground Zero in tomato conflict terms. You're going to have to wait for the bikes, because the Tomatina was so unbelievably mental that I've got to tell you about that first.

The centre of the village was a hive of activity; residents and shopkeepers were furiously boarding or sheeting their windows and doors, makeshift street bars were selling wobbly one-litre plastic glasses of beer and people were arriving in t-shirts and shorts, mostly with a pair of swimming goggles dangling round their wrists or necks. This was gonna be fun.

Everyone was issued with an A4 sheet of Tomatina 'do's' and 'don'ts' as they enter the square - this was organised silliness. The rules of engagement are simple:

  1. Throw tomatoes, and only tomatoes. (Fair enough, I suppose) 
  2. Squeeze the tomatoes to crack them before you throw them. (Yeah, right...) 
  3. Don't take all your clothes off.

The square and surrounding streets gradually filled up until we could hardly move. Then the beer throwing started. Imagine the biggest, sweatiest mosh pit you can, and we're right in the middle.

A 20-foot greased pole had been erected with a 'prize' in a bag at the top. After the first couple of drunken, calamitous attempts to shin up it, it became obvious that a single person could never hope to get any higher than he or she could jump. Gradually, a sort of disorganised co-operation evolved between complete strangers, and a huge human pyramid grew, the people at the bottom allowing other idiots, egged on by the crowd, to clamber over them to form the next level.

Our own Shitehawk, (real name, er, Shitehawk, I think) even had a go, but his 16-stone frame wasn't exactly conducive to greased pole-climbing. His effort ended eight feet up when he stood on someone's head (they duly, and quite understandably, collapsed). The bag was retrieved by a four-stone Spanish monkey boy and found to contain a cured leg of pork, the ones that hang outside continental shops for years and smell of death. Shitehawk felt cheated!

By the time we'd stopped laughing it was 30 minutes to zero hour, and there was a real atmosphere of anticipation about the place, similar to the nerves you get as you sit on the start line before a race.

At 11am a cannon boom kicked off the mêlée, but the lorries containing the ripe tomatoes could only inch their way through the throng. The only people who had any ammo at this point were the local residents, all of whom had stocked their roof terraces with boxes of tomatoes, and who proceeded to pelt the crowd of mostly Aussies, Yanks and Brits in the street below.

The first lorry unloaded, then it was carnage, people madly hurling, throwing, smearing, rolling on the floor and tearing at each others' clothes. And the lorries kept coming, five in all, each with 25 tons of tomatoes - that's 250,000 tins' worth!

An hour later the town had become one huge Bloody Mary. At midday the cannon sounded to signal the end of hostilities, and 40,000 pulp-soaked warriors emptied their hands and just wandered off.

Four hours after the armistice a huge clean-up effort left the place with hardly a trace of what had gone on. And there was a total lack of trouble. Forty-thousand semi-naked drunk people throwing tomatoes at each other, and I never heard so much as an angry voice.

The Bunol Tomatina is the silliest, slimiest, smelliest and funniest thing I've ever been involved in. It makes even less sense than wheel-trims that keep going round when the car has stopped, but it's absolutely mint fun!

As if that wasn't good enough we then had a couple of days blasting three great bikes round some of the best, most deserted roads I've ever ridden on. Our weapons - the 950SM, Multistrada S and K1200R - are all different, all difficult to pigeonhole and, I think, would all appeal to quite different types of rider.

Continue for the 950SM, Multistrada S and K1200R Review

Ducati Multistrada S, KTM 950SM & BMW K1200R Review

Trying to compare these three bikes directly would be like a cheap TV show I once saw that tried to compare the acceleration of a powerboat and an F1 car. I felt like ringing in and, at the risk of stating the bleedin' obvious, pointing out that if you lifted the boat onto the dockside it would fall over, and if you put the car in the water it would sink. It's like trying to compare a knife with a spoon - they do different jobs. It's for this reason that what follows is more an appraisal of each bike individually instead of your standard shoot-out between like-minded tools. Right then...

The BMW K1200R is essentially the same bike as the K1200S we rode to Colditz, except without a fairing and with the engine tuned for more mid-range. And that is exactly what it feels like. You sit in this bike, leaning forward to reach the bars with your feet up and back, just the same as you would on the sports tourer it's based on. This was fine on the faster, more open sections where the wind helps support your upper body, but hard work on the tight, twisty mountain roads that made up the majority of the riding we were doing.

The BMW's engine is very strong with loads of grunt, but that's not really surprising considering it's chucking out 140bhp. But it also has an annoying drivetrain backlash. I don't know if was the gearbox or the shaft drive that was to blame, but when the throttle was closed then opened again - which you do a lot on these roads - there was a half-second delay and a 'clunk' as it took up the slack.

The chassis feels the same as the S's and sports the same Duolever forks that will be familiar to most existing BMW riders and initially disconcerting to newcomers. The bike tends to drop into turns and makes you feel like it's going to wash out - but it doesn't. Once you're in the turn it feels safe and neutral. Anyone who's ridden a bike with a 16- or 16.5-inch front end (an early 'Blade, for example) will know the feeling. Once we got used to this and built up some trust both Jon and myself really liked it.

I also liked the Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA) which, at the push of a button, enables you to alter both damping and pre-load settings. Adjusting the spring can only be done when stationary, but any of the three damping settings (Comfort, Normal, and Sport) can be selected on the move, and it was handy to be able to soften the bike off if you hit a particularly bumpy stretch of road. Surprisingly the bike steered almost the same regardless of where the damping was set, despite feeling very different over the bumps.

But I expected more from the front brake. A servo-assisted system should have more power, if not feel - but at least the funny front end gave a pleasantly small amount of dive. The rear brake was just plain old crap. We suffered for it the most when braking for the many first and second gear hairpins on our route; it would've been easier to settle the bike and set up for the turn with a more effective rear brake.

Overall I like the BMW but I think it should be made to feel more like a naked bike, not a K1200S with the fairing off.

Now the Multistrada S. This bike looks the part, the traditional Ducati red contrasting with the gold of the Öhlins units at either end. Jon has a real soft spot for the Multistrada and got on with this example from the off. I took a bit more convincing, but as soon as I jumped on I thought it had the most comfortable riding position of the three, with motocross-style bars swept high and back, pegs lower and further forward than the Beemer's. Mmm, comfy!

The big trailie riding position was perfect for the roads we were on - up to a point. Once we started to push on and make the Ducati work for a living one or two cracks started to appear. First, the suspension felt too soft for anything other than steady cornering. Try to make it do something it wasn't happy with and the wheel movement felt uncontrolled. Not dangerously so, just vague. A lot of this could be dialled out by tweaking the Öhlins units, but we were running all the bikes with stock settings.

The engine felt smooth and gutsy, if a little less powerful than the KTM. The gearbox was the clunkiest - is that a proper word? - of the three, but still perfectly adequate. The brakes, though, were a disappointment. Discs this size with Brembo four pots should have more power. Sometimes with test bikes the brake pads aren't bedded in correctly, and I reckon this could've been a factor here.

It sounds like I'm giving the Multistrada a bit of a slating, but that isn't the case. There is plenty to like about it. You feel cool on it, it has a dead comfy riding position for both rider and pillion, it has a fairing which you appreciate on the faster sections and the quality of finish is superb. Just be sure you don't get a speed cringe on it. [Note for southerners: a 'speed cringe' is a Whiticism meaning 'to get carried away and end up going too fast for the conditions or machine you are riding'. We think.]

'950 Supermoto' is the wrong name for KTM's new machine. Take it out on any supermoto track I've seen, with gravel and jumps and stuff, and you'd need an ambulance standing by. No, this bike should be called the 'KTM 950 Small Twisty Roads With a Grin On Ya Face'.

We like most things about the KTM. The riding position is a little more aggressive than the Ducati's, and wide bars make you feel in control. WP suspension is firm but compliant and the frame geometry perfect for turn-and-squirt riding.The brakes were the best of the bunch too. In fact the rear was a little too keen and you had to be careful in the slower turns not to lock it up.

Having said that, the best feature is the engine. The carburetted unit is so torquey and responsive you feel like you can steer the bike with the throttle. The modern term for this is 'connection', meaning the connection between twist-grip and the wheel. Half throttle means half power. Simple, even I can understand that.

The 950 SM is like a big trail bike with all the problems sorted: it's got the right sized wheels, proper suspension, good brakes and is just at home in town or on the open road - and, as a bonus, you get a lovely spanner-shaped KTM bottle opener in the tool bag. Mmm, shiny things!

The only niggles we could find were few and far between. The minimalist dash with no rev counter seems cheap, and there are possible question marks over after-sales back-up with a dealer network more used to pure off-road customers. That and our inability to stop the mirrors from spinning round. I know this sounds petty, but it's annoying when you take a look to see who's behind and all you get is a reflection of your own crotch.

Overall the KTM was the most fun for the type of twisty roads we were on. The BMW would have come into its own through faster, more open terrain and the Ducati was a reasonable all-rounder but didn't excel in any area except visually.

In summary then, the K1200R is a big naked brute with long range capability and real-world practicality but more at home on faster roads than we took it down. The Multistrada S is a good looking, relaxing, king of cool that will have you squinting at yourself in shop windows. But, like my missus, don't try to make her do anything she doesn't want to do!

And the 950 SM is a compact, hairpin-eating wheelie monkey with masses of giggle factor, but it's still usable day-to-day.

Different strokes, different folks!