A veteran racer builds the ultimate track-focused 996 café racer…
In 1994, Ducati introduced the 916, a blood-red weapon designed by none other than Massimo Tamburini, also known as “Michelangelo of motorbike design.” The 916 was a wolf in wolf’s clothing — a track-focused machine with lights and license plate, featuring a tubular steel trellis frame and 916cc liquid-cooled / fuel-injected V-twin. The bike would win multiple Motorcycle of the Year awards and continues to be cited as one of the most beautiful motorcycles ever produced.
In 1999, a truly worthy successor arrived, the Ducati 996, boasting a larger 996cc V-twin with two fuel injectors per cylinder and 112 hp on tap in the base Biposta model. The 996 also benefited from stronger brakes, lighter wheels, and a slightly modified chassis.
“There aren’t a lot of bikes out there that are as close to being a full-on Superbike right out of the crate as the 996.” —Superbike Planet
Enter our new friend Alan Boyter of Vendetta Racing UAE, a Dubai-based race team that competes both on-track and off-road, racing in competitions as far-flung and demanding as the Manx GP on the Isle of Man and the 2020 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia.
One thing we’ve learned is that some of the best custom bike-builders come from racing backgrounds, where form and function are more closely twined than anywhere else in the two-wheeled world:
“Building racebikes for 14+ years certainly hones fabrication skills, but these bikes, be it off-road or track are built with two main objectives in mind: reliability and the ability to win. VR Customs, run by Vendetta Racing’s founder, Alan Boyter, came to be a ‘creative’ outlet but with the same build mentality. Everything built has to perform as good as it looks.”
The idea for the “Project X” you see here sprang from Alan’s restoration of a ’97 916 SPS — a bike that got him thinking of a custom project based on the platform:
“It was agreed that it would be a great and very unlikely base for a track-focused café project. After a brief search online, it was found that 916/996 café projects are pretty rare.”
That sealed the deal. Soon Alan had pulled the trigger on a 2000 Ducati 996 Biposta, the “base” model that nonetheless came with fully-adjustable Showa suspension at both ends and that iconic 90° desmo V-twin. It was decided that alloy bodywork would truly set the 996 project apart:
“If it’s going to look old-school, why not go all out? A source was found in the UK that could make what was wanted (forming sheet metal is an art and not learned over a couple of weeks!).”
With the bodywork in queue, Alan and team got busy with their new TIG welder, fabricating a full custom exhaust, and they also dug into the wiring, soon realizing why there may be so few 916/996 café racers out there:
“There is so much to re-locate and with Ducati’s late ’90s wiring, which is a mix of analog and digital, it makes for a lot of wiring and very little place to put it all.”
However, you don’t compete in the Dakar or on the Isle of Man without a heavy dose of never-say-die perseverance pumping in your veins, so Alan and team worked through the project one step at a time. Racing events and parts delays would spread the project over the course of several years, but that kind of extended timeline provides a long-term perspective most projects don’t have.
“There are positives about having an evergreen timeline on a build like this. Time can be taken to add all the little details — mini builds, so to speak.”
This 996 café racer is now sporting Öhlins 1098 R forks, Brembo calipers, Braketech discs, Kineo wheels, GPS speedo, STM 5-button GP-style bar controls, modified FRAM race radiator and oil cooler, twin Spal fans, and so much more. Every last single nut and bolt has been either polished or nickel-plated, right down to the throttle body return springs.
Appropriately enough, the bike’s final shakedown was at the racetrack, where in true café fashion, the bike performs significantly better than stock:
“The familiar agile handling on a 996 but with far superior braking ability and suspension that was never this good out of the factory in the late ’90s.”
Below, we get the full story on this incredible Ducati Biposta café racer, along with more stunning shots from Mike Vosloo of Twist&Grip.
Ducati 916 Cafe Racer: In the Builder’s Words
VR customs is simply an offshoot of Vendetta Racing UAE — a race team which started in Dubai but has had various accolades both on track and off-road, from the Manx GP on the Isle of Man and more recently the Dakar in Saudi along with various national and international events in-between.
Building racebikes for 14+ years certainly hones fabrication skills, but these bikes, be it off-road or track are built with two main objectives in mind: reliability and the ability to win. VR Customs, run by Vendetta Racing’s founder, Alan Boyter, came to be a “creative”outlet but with the same build mentality. Everything built has to perform as good as it looks.
The inspiration for “Project X” came shortly after building a café Triumph Speed Triple in 2014 (affectionately known as Project Trumpet). It was one of Alan’s first proper builds away from race bikes — nothing too wild, a Norton-style single seat and an old-school ’60s fairing with an offset headlight. It was a fun build and left him wanting a bigger challenge.
Alan had just started the restoration of his 1997 Ducati 916 SPS and it was agreed that it would be a great and very unlikely base for a track-focused café project. After a brief search online, it was found that 916/996 café projects are pretty rare. In true VR fashion, not one for following trends or taking the easy route, the decision was made there and then.
It was pondered what else would set the project apart other than the unlikely base bike. Alloy bodywork? If it’s going to look old-school, why not go all out? A source was found in the UK that could make what was wanted (forming sheet metal is an art and not learned over a couple of weeks!). They had stock design fairings and seat units that could be altered to suit but a tank would have to be a one-off.
With the 916 SPS in bits, an old tank was modified with expanding foam and body filler to form a mold for a newly designed tank to be made from alloy. Once that was shipped off to the UK, it was time to source everything else…including a bike!
A clean looking 996 was purchased online in the UK along with 1198S Öhlins forks and Brembo calipers, 998R lower triple, (56mm) Braketech full floating discs, Brembo brake and clutch master, and the sexiest wheels on the market by Kineo. All thrown in a container (along with several other bikes and bits for others) and shipped to Dubai.
The bike arrived early 2015 and was stripped of all the un-needed parts, which included the front end and tank, both of which found their way onto other project bikes. The exhaust was started first as there was inspiration from South Garage in Italy and we had a new TIG welding unit that was begging to be played with. Along with the wiring, which was looked at in detail. Prior to this project, a lot of research was done on café conversions using a 996/916 base and it’s surprising how few are out there. Once we got into the wiring, we soon figured out why! There is so much to re-locate and with Ducati’s late ’90s wiring, which is a mix of analog and digital, it makes for a lot of wiring and very little place to put it all.
Bodywork delays out of the UK meant the project got delayed and was soon pushed to the side as other projects were built (Project Bob, Project Husky, World’s fastest Indian to name a few), and the race team taking priority in terms of time (www.vendettaracinguae.com). There have been various growth spurts here and there since 2015, but the bulk of the work really took place in the second half of 2019 and again in the last four months.
There are positives about having an evergreen timeline on a build like this. Time can be taken to add all the little details — mini builds, so to speak. Such as re-wiring an STM 5-button GP-style bar control to manage all the requirements of a road bike, or fabricating a clock surround that nods to the original but with made-to-order clocks, complete with LEDs, logos and a GPS Speedo.
It also allows time to live with a fabrication decision. Both the exhaust and seat subframe were heavily re-worked before they were called finished. Simply looking at things for two years changes your view, either by design or simply that it can be done better.
There were obviously parts that were a must for a build like this, one of which being a FRAM race radiator, modified to sit further back and to accept twin Spal fans along with the matching oil cooler. More alloy to polish, but more importantly to keep the looks balanced, as the original radiator is puny in comparison. Like most modifications on this bike, it’s aesthetic but also serves a performance purpose.
Another visual change was the choice of not using belt covers. Backing covers were removed along with machining the cam mounts prior to powder-coat so the cam pulleys “float” round the heads. Pulleys were chromed to ensure they catch the eye.
Details have been a large part of this build, every single nut and bolt has been either polished or nickel-plated. This includes the return springs on the throttle bodies, the coil outer housings, and right down to M5 screws that hold the butterflies in the throttle bodies.
Paint choice was relatively simple. The alloy bodywork was simply clear-coated for protection, and engine parts were either kept natural alloy, powder-coated in textured black (including the Öhlins fork lowers) or anodised red…to match the candy-apple red frame. The mix of finishes being a nod to the late ’50s Ducati Elite.
Needless to say, anything that was not modified was refurbished or renewed: swing arm bearings, piston rings, chain sliders, etc., etc.
The final shakedown was performed where the bike was always destined to be — at the race track. Looking over the wide tinted screen and classic style tank, the bike has a visual sense of being heavy, but this is forgotten as soon as you lean into the first corner. The familiar agile handling on a 996 but with far superior braking ability and suspension that was never this good out of the factory in the late ’90s.
Thanks to Mike Vosloo of Twist&Grip (@twistngrip) for the amazing pics and shoot location.
- Öhlins 1198R forks
- Re-valves Showa shock, polished
- 998R Lower triple
- Scotts upper triple with Scotts damper
- Kineo spoked wheels
- Braketech full floating discs front and rear
- Brembo calipers
- Brembo 19/16RCS master cylinders
- Custom front headlight subframe
- Over and under twin projection lights
- Custom speedhut clock set
- Motogadget keyless ignition
- Customised STM 5 button switchgear
- Renthal clip-ons with endurance grips
- Alloy adjustable rear sets with GP shift
- Fram full race radiator and oil cooler (modified)
- Twin 4.5” Spal fans
- Custom alloy bodywork
- Custom SS exhaust system
- Cut down motoguzzi alloy front mudguard with hand built mount
- All electrics re-located, re-wired to suit
- Custom alloy header tank
- Custom alloy overflow tank
- Custom coolant hardline pipes (adding fan switch and removing thermostat)
- Machined belt cover mounts (inner and outer belt covers removed)
- Chrome plated belt pulleys
- Larger bore clutch slave cylinder
- Modified side stand perch (non spring return)
- Custom seat subframe with single bolt seat unit mount
- Quick change renthal sprocket carrier with 520 chain
- K&N crankcase breather fliter with one way valve
- Silicone coolant hoses throughout
- Custom made Goodrich braded brake and oil lines
- LED dual tail lights
- LED rizoma indicators
- Nickel plated bolts throughout
- All parts either replaced or re-conditioned