Pikes Peak 2019: Project Thunder

Rennie Scaysbrook | May 14, 2019

Pikes Peak 2019: Project Thunder—The Ridge and Buttonwillow

It’s been full steam ahead for Project Thunder ahead of Pikes Peak 2019. In the past week, we’ve been on the bike twice, first up at incredible facility of The Ridge Motorsports Park in Washington (if you haven’t ridden this track, you really should) and this week at our old stomping ground of Buttonwillow in California.

Pikes Peak 2019 Project Thunder The Ridge
The Ridge has some incredible twists and turns and is a real gem for testing bikes. So far, the Aprilia is heading in the right direction but the tire test will be crucial.

Our time at The Ridge coincided with the first opportunity to try out the Brembo thumb brake, which is something I’ve been busting to use for years. Not being a massive rear brake user, it wouldn’t be a huge loss if I didn’t like the system, but after three laps I was absolutely thrilled with how the brake performs.

The thumb system doesn’t have the same level of feel you get with a foot brake, but being able to use the rear brake while cranked over in right-handers is a bonus. We have essentially bypassed the ABS system with this unit, running a line straight from the master-cylinder to the caliper. If we go deleting the ABS system entirely, we’ll likely throw up a huge array of fault codes in the ECU that we really don’t have the time to sort out. Plus, the ABS system on the Aprilia is extremely light, so we’ve decided just to leave it there and save the angst.

The twists and turns of The Ridge are a lot like the first three miles of the Pikes Peak mountain, and with a decent set-up there, we packed up and drove south to Buttonwillow for another day on Monday.

Pikes Peak 2019: Project Thunder—Off to Buttonwillow

Buttonwillow has some gnarly switchback slow corners like turn three, fast sweepers like the Riverside corner, and almost everything in between. However, unlike Pikes Peak it is quite flat, but if you nail down a decent set up there you’re in pretty good shape for the mountain in Colorado.

This test proved to be the most important of the three we’ve done so far, as it was the first time Jeremy Toye would get on the bike to give me his feedback of a bike he helped build.

Pikes Peak 2019 Project Thunder Toye Pit
Having Toye in our stable has been a massive help in getting the Aprilia handling correctly.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a whiz at setting up a bike—I can get it close, but someone of Jeremy’s level can get the bike that much better and within five laps, we’d started ripping into the fork setting, playing with different preloads and compression settings to try and get the bike handling better at the top of the stroke—like in quick direction changes when the fork is almost fully extended.

Stability on the side of the tire was always a strong point of the Tuono, so we went back and forth over the day to keep this benefit while allowing the chassis to pivot and fire out of slow speed corners—something that will be extremely important in the W’s section of the mountain.

Later in the day, we went up one spring rate to a 0.95 spring, which was something I initially thought would be a step too far as I was quite happy with the 0.90.

Pikes Peak 2019 Project Thunder Toye Pit leathers
Toye was impressed by the high-speed stability of the Aprilia, but we need to get the really slow speed maneuvering right before heading to Pikes Peak.

Turns out, the .95 spring was almost perfect for the Tuono. I shaved almost two seconds immediately off my time in traffic and the chassis would hold itself up better under hard acceleration while still remaining stable in the fast sweepers. We lost a touch of that important low-speed pivoting ability we were working on, but it was a minimal loss as the overall gain with the heavier spring was worth it.

I’m absolutely ecstatic to have a guy like Jeremy in my corner as his help, just on the phone and later, on track, has been invaluable.

We’ve got another few days lined up in the coming weeks and one month from today we’ll be on the mountain for the tire test for the 2019 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. It’s getting serious now!

Pikes Peak 2019: Project Thunder COTA Test

The last couple of weeks have been an enormous blur, a mix of airplanes, test bikes, more planes, MotoGP and, you guessed it, more planes. But that hasn’t stopped Project Thunder for Pikes Peak 2019, and thanks to the help of Mark Cocoran and Brad Friedman from Piaggio Group Americas, we managed to get the Aprilia Tuono into a ride-able state and spin some laps at Circuit of The Americas a day after the MotoGP round for the Aprilia Racers Days track day.

pikes peak 2019 project thunder test
It’s starting to look more like a racebike, but there’s still much to do with the Aprilia.

Jeremy Toye and I ripped into the Aprilia Tuono racer a few weeks back, but by the time it left to go to Texas, there was still a lot (a lot) of work to be done. We got the shock and exhaust fitted and removed all the road-going bodywork, but Mark and Brad still had to put a solid day into it to have it ready for CoTA.

The most obvious change was the looks. We managed to fashion up some RSV4 bodywork, with Mark and Brad doing an excellent job in mounting the dash and tidying up all the wiring that was left over after the lights came off. At first, I had to do a double take as the Tuono looks like a full-on RSV4, but once you see the straight bar you know it’s a nakedbike in drag.

Another new part of was the RSV4 Factory 1100 forks. These are stiffer and 5mm longer than the ones that come stock on the RSV4, which, when combined with the shock that’s 9mm longer, will give us a nice boost in ground clearance for the mountain.

pikes peak 2019 project thunder biaggi
We had a very famous guy sitting next to us in the pits… Aprilia ambassador (and six-time World Champion) Max Biaggi!

The test at CoTA went great—we managed to get a solid 40 laps on the Tuesday, playing around with different suspension settings to see what works. We need to get a heavier shock spring as the .85Nm unit is too soft for my massive ass, although I’m not sure how much heavier we’ll need to go as setting the bike up for Pikes and CoTA are two very different things.

The bike is now back with Jeremy, who is creating a map for it in with the Power Commander, and getting the new brake master-cylinders and rearsets fitted. Our next test will be at The Ridge on May 6 at The Ridge in Washington.

Pikes Peak 2019: Project Thunder Gets Underway

After three seasons of racing the KTM 1290 Super Duke, for 2019, Team Cycle News and I will be riding with Aprilia and the stupendous Tuono 1100 Factory. This Italian V4 missile doesn’t have much history at America’s Mountain in Colorado Springs, having only competed there for a couple of years with some privateers without a reasonable shot at winning the race.

Pikes is one of those races that gets under your skin. It’s an iconic world motorsport event, one that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves and is something I really want to tick off the list for Cycle News and my country.

The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb has become somewhat of a staple in the Cycle News office for the past four years. It’s been a race I’ve come so close to winning, finishing fourth in 2016 and then second in 2017 and 2018, that race being the closest ever finish in the history of the race with 0.67-second separating me and winner Carlin Dunne.

Pikes Peak 2019 Building Project Thunder Fontana test
In standard form, the Tuono is a weapon of a bike, but it isn’t a real racer.

This is something we hope to change. We’ve teamed up with Piaggio Americas, we’ve got a great base in the Tuono, and we have former race winner Jeremy Toye doing the majority of the wrenching for the race with some build help from AF1 Aprilia in Austin, Texas. Tuono translates to Thunder in Italian, so hopefully that’s a good omen for us as we blast up the mountain!

Building Project Thunder

Starting off with the base package Tuono 1100, we already have a claimed 175 hp from the 65° V4 motor. It’s a stunningly fast machine as standard and comes with some of the best suspension, brakes, and electronics on the market today.

Pikes Peak 2019 Building Project Thunder Toye Workshop
Jeremy Toye has won the race in 2015, so he knows what it takes to build a good racebike for the mountain.

The idea for our racebike build is not to go too nuts on the build, but just to enhance what’s already there. I feel like in the past with my racebikes for the Mountain I’ve gone too stiff on the set up, which has hampered me a bit in the mid-section of the track. Don’t get me wrong, the KTM is as dear to my heart as any motorcycle I’ve ever ridden and holds the lap record with Chris Fillmore, however, for the Aprilia, we’re going to try something new.

The main thing is to strip off as much weight as we can. Just the stock bodywork, associated plastics, battery, exhaust, shock and bits and bobs will save us a ton of weight. To that end, the build will feature an Ohlins TTX36 shock, full titanium Akrapovic exhaust, Attack Racing rearsets, 520 D.I.D chain and AFAM sprocket kit, and a lightweight lithium ion battery.

Being a nakedbike, we’re not going to fully cloak the bike in bodywork, but we’ll be using an RSV4 upper cowling and side panels, and an RSV4 race seat unit. Most of this stuff bolts on without too much modification, anyway, although we’ll have to get some mounting brackets made up for the bodywork.

Setting Up For Pikes Peak

One of the big things with Pikes is ensuring the bike doesn’t ground out when going over the bumps and G-outs. This was something the KTM never had an issue with as it’s taller than the Aprilia straight out of the box, but it’s something we need to check on the Aprilia.

Pikes Peak 2019 Building Project Thunder Toye Workshop bodywork
For a naked bike, there’s a surprising amount of bodywork we need to get rid of.

Because of this, we’ll be running Aprilia RSV4 1100 Factory forks. The forks are 5mm longer than what’s found on the Tuono 1100 Factory, and the TTX36 shock is also 8mm longer than standard. That will give us a healthy gain of ground clearance, so hopefully that’s all we’ll need because the base bike steers so well I don’t want to mess with the geometry too much.

Another thing I can’t wait to try is the Brembo thumb brake. We’ve yet to get all the components sorted, but the plan is to run and thumb and foot rear brake in the race. I’ve never run one before, but I’m not a massive user of the rear brake and those riders I’ve spoken to with a similar style to mine all swear by the thumb brake so, what the heck, it’s as good a time to try one as any! I probably won’t have this sorted until May but will report back with how it performs.

Pikes Peak 2019 Building Project Thunder Toye Workshop bodywork shock
The Ohlins TTX shock is used universally on race and track bikes, and after a few years on WP, it’ll be nice to see the differences at the mountain.

On the rubber side, we’ll be of course using Pirelli. The Italian rubber brand has been on my wheels since my race debut in 2016, and have been an integral partner in each one of my race attempts.

Hanging With Jeremy Toye

We spent a day two weeks ago with Jeremy in his shop, getting the titanium Akrapovic exhaust and the Ohlins TTX36 shock fitted. This is a seriously tightly packaged motorcycle, so getting especially the exhaust mounted correctly was a bit of a challenge.

From there, we packed the very unfinished bike and headed for Austin, where we’ll do a two-day test following the MotoGP race. The bike is currently on its way to AF1 to have the rearsets and bodywork fitted, and we’ll fit the forks at the track and play around with various settings until we find one that works. We might have to go up in spring rates for the fork, but I’ll wait to see how it performs in Tuono form first (I rode the fork on the new RSV4 1100 at Mugello and it’s an absolute gem).

Pikes Peak 2019 Building Project Thunder Toye Workshop bodywork shock exhaust
This Akrapovic exhaust is so light it’s hard to believe it actually works. And it’s absolutely beautiful, too.

It’s going to be a busy couple of months, but we’re super excited to team up with Aprilia for a crack at the Heavyweight title. There’s a lot of work to do, but the project will be a fun one to document and eventually turn into a proper racer.

This project would not be possible without a long list of sponsors who have generously help us out. We’d like acknowledge Aprilia USA, Akrapovic, Brembo USA and Race Technologies, Ohlins USA, Pirelli Moto USA, Dainese, AF1 Aprilia in Austin, TX, and Imad and the crew at Fastrack Riders for the Fontana track time.

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Rennie Scaysbrook | Road Test Editor Rennie Scaysbrook is our Road Test Editor. A lifetime rider, the Aussie made the trek across the Pacific to live the dream in the U.S. of A. Likes puppies and wheelies.