Italy: the land of pasta, piazzas and ... motorcycles?

The little Vespa scooter, one of Italy's most notable exports, gets all kinds of attention, starring in films like Roman Holiday and Quadrophenia.

However, if you're seriously interested in two-wheeled travel, you should have a look at what comes out of the Italian city of Bologna every day -- Ducati motorcycles.

Whether you're a seasoned rider with miles of road experience or just a hobbyist who enjoys nice bikes, there's a good chance you've eyed a Ducati before.

But you may not know the remarkable history and impressive racing pedigree that lies behind this small company.

Ducati Be Kidding Me

Since the 1950s,

Ducati Motor Holding

(DMH)

has been turning out gorgeous, high-performance motorcycles while simultaneously achieving international racing fame and cultivating a fanatically loyal customer base.

Ducati began in the late 1920s, however, as a successful manufacturer of radio parts, cameras, guns and shavers.

After World War II, with public transportation in shambles, getting around Italy was a challenge for the average citizen. Ducati saw an opportunity, and in 1946, introduced the Cucciolo or "little puppy," a motorized bicycle that had wide public appeal. Ducati as motorcycle manufacturer was born.

Revered engineer Fabio Taglioni was recruited in 1954 and arrived with a comprehensive racing background. This saw the advent of Ducati as a manufacturer of high-performance motorcycles; the racetrack became its proving ground, and the company's strong showing there cemented its name in racing history.

On the international racing circuit, Ducati is still a nearly unstoppable force.

Since 1990, Ducati riders have won 11 of the 16 World Superbike Championship titles, and the company has more individual victories than the competition put together.

This is a remarkable achievement considering the competition: Ducati is a $300 million company prevailing over billion-dollar behemoths like

Honda

(HMC) - Get Report

,

Yamaha

( NQB)and

Kawasaki

-- a genuine David and Goliath story.

Further, Ducati has skillfully managed to parlay that remarkable success on the racetrack into powerful but accessible machines, equally ready for winding back roads or a daily city commute.

Art Meets Engineering

Ducatis are geared not only for the experienced rider, but for the novice as well.

Any visitor to a Ducati dealership -- motorcycle aficionado or not -- cannot help but be impressed by the craftsmanship and unique appearance of these machines.

These are not flashy comic-book-inspired Japanese motorcycles churned out for mass consumption. A Ducati is a work of art, a true fusion of engineering and design.

Just sit on one for a minute; you will not only see, but feel the attention to detail, the remarkable balance and thought for the rider. Start one up and the engine sounds like a deep whisper promising adventure.

But why pick such a high-end motorcycle when you can buy a new bike for a fraction of the cost? Well, when's the last time someone pulled up next to you on a highway to roll down the window and shout, "Nice bike"?

A Ducati imparts exclusivity and uniqueness. Motorcycle riders are known for their friendliness to fellow riders, but Ducati owners feel they are part of a small, close-knit family.

As Manhattan resident Uta Knablein, 32, a married mother of two and proud owner of a Ducati Monster explains, you "just feel good about riding and owning it."

Desmodromic Detail

Besides design, Ducatis are set apart from the rest of the motorcycle world by the advanced engineering that goes into making each bike a winner. One of the key features that adds to this reputation is the use of

desmodromic valves, spearheaded by long-time Ducati engineer Fabio Taglioni.

The concept of desmodromics has been present since the earliest days of internal combustion engines -- even Mercedes-Benz has put them to use. But Taglioni was the first engineer to successfully implement this design in motorcycles.

For the mechanically inclined, desmodromic valves do not suffer from valve float at high engine speeds, thus producing an engine capable of far higher RPM than one with traditional spring-valve heads.

What that translates to for the rider is smoothness -- decreased power loss at low RPM and reliability at high RPM. While initially available only on Ducati's racing and high-end bikes, these valves are now an integral part of every Ducati engine and are even featured on its logo.

Choosing Your Beast

So you've taken your

rider safety course, got your motorcycle license and are ready to buy. Now comes the hard part: which Ducati to pick?

It all depends on what you're willing to spend, and how you'll use your new machine.

Ducati produces motorcycles in six basic lines which are then customizable in color, styling and engine size (and a wide range of prices). A quick rundown of the models will give you a head start before you walk into a dealer.

Monster

: Unveiled in 1992 at the Cologne Motor Show, the Ducati Monster began its reign as the best selling motorcycle in Ducati's lineup with a bang. Discarding the plastic fairings of its cousins and competitors and exposing its signature trellis frame and engine, the Monster stood alone as a "naked" bike and attracted a tremendous amount of attention.

Overall, the Monster is the bike for which Ducati is probably best known. It appeals to a broad range of riders, and this line has the lowest entry prices, from $7,000 up to $13,500 for the high-end S4Rs Testastretta model. Delivering sleek, minimalist design and high performance, the monster has transformed tens of thousands of motorcycle buyers into

monsteristi

.

Multistrada

: The word means "many roads," and that's what this bike is meant for. A winner in 2005

Cycle World

magazine's "Ten Best Bikes" feature, its versatility surely played a key role. As Ducati notes, this sport-touring bike was designed for both the winding mountain roads, as well as the city streets of Italy. It features a relaxed, upright seating position -- great for the long haul -- and protective fairings, but it doesn't compromise on power or maneuverability. Engine sizes range from the low-end 620 cc up to the powerful 1000 cc L-twin cylinder, and prices from $8,000 to $14,000.

SportClassic

: The three bikes in this line are unique beauties, modern interpretations of landmark designs from Fabio Taglioni and the halcyon days of the 1970s. Celebrating that decade's sense of style and landmark events, the GT1000, PaulSmart1000LE and the Sport1000 appeal to nostalgic riders and those who appreciate classic design.

SportTouring

: This is Ducati's touring bike, including many features found on competitors' touring bikes, such as ABS brakes, height-adjustable handlebars and adjustable clutch and brake levers. However, these are not touring bikes in the style of the venerable Honda Gold Wing -- Ducatis are born on the race track and are high-performance machines, not mobile couches. (If it's high-end comfort in a well-built bike you seek, you'll want to make a trip to a

Harley Davidson

(HOG) - Get Report

dealer.)

Supersport

: Ducati's timeless sport bike design with modern fairing, an air-cooled 1000 cc L-twin cylinder engine and a reasonable entry price makes this an ideal choice for those who want the performance thrills of a sport bike without completely emptying their bank accounts.

Superbike

: The Ducati 749 and 999 Suberbikes are the top of the range for the company, symbols of Ducati's remarkable domination of the World Superbike Championship. These are the most powerful, advanced models in Ducati's lineup and the heirs to the company's experience on the racetrack. If high performance in a racetrack-proven motorcycle is what you're looking for, you've found it in these bikes. Just make sure to come prepared -- the top of the line 999R model will set you back about $33,000.

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