The Ducati Monster M900
Words and Photos by Quentin Wilson
Before elaborating on the virtues and weaknesses of the Ducati Monster, let me explain what qualifies me to do so. I have been riding motorcycles for seven years with over 70,000 miles under my belt. I am a graduate of the Motorcycle Mechanics institute, and with two years in the industry I am now working at Pro Italia motors, a Ducati, Moto-Guzzi, Triumph, Aprilia shop in Glendale, CA. I am primarily a sport-bike rider, but have interests in touring, dirt, and flat tracking. I road-race the diminutive but venerable YSR50, and I am leading my class's points as of this writing.
The Monster, which Ducati has marketed well as a "standard" style motorcycle, is really a sport-bike. It has all the componentry of a modern day sport-bike, such as upside-down forks, wide17-inch wheels, large brake rotors, a steep steering angle, and a bitchin' motor. A sport-bike usually has large expanses of plastic or fiberglass fairings protecting the rider from the wind and allowing the bike to be aerodynamic. The Monster completely lacks any type of fairing, allowing a dynamic glimpse at its innards and giving it a style all to it's own.
The main piece of bodywork on the Monster is the gas tank itself. It could be put on display at any modern art museum. This bulbous piece of alloy is a complex mixture of curves and angles that fits perfectly between a rider's legs. The tank tapers at its rear, melts into the seat, and the seat ends abruptly behind the rider's bum giving the bike a wasp-like waist and a small rear end. When riding along at or near sunset, seeing the shadow of the Monster on concrete freeway separators is almost startling. There is almost nothing to this bike. The minimalistic aspects of the design are its biggest attribute.
The next most noticeable style oriented item on the bike is its trellis style frame. It is made of welded chrome-moly tubes, and it wraps around the perimeter of the engine. It is basically a series of tubular triangles that uses the twin cylinder engine as a stressed member.
That stressed member is the beautiful air-cooled ninety-degree v-twin. It is the most virile styling element of the bike, giving everyone whose eye is caught by the dramatic look of the tank something to ponder for a while. It is not quite a V, more like an L, with the front cylinder head pointing at the front wheel, and the rear pointing at the rider's crotch. Since the engine is air-cooled, it is finned along the heads and cylinders, adding to the mechanical aspect of the lower part of the bike. The flowing bodywork looks like it was melted on top of the harsh shapes and mechanical bits, creating a stunning contrast.
Along the right side of the engine, there are rubber belts connecting the lower end of the engine to the top end. These belts are turning what could be one of the most sophisticated valve actuation systems. Desmodronic valve movement does not employ the classic valve spring that is on 99% of the vehicles on the road. A camshaft normally opens the valve, while a spring closes it. With the desmodronic system, the same camshaft that opens the valve, begins to close it via rocker arms. This eliminates valve float, which occurs when the spring fatigues at high RPM. It also allows an engineer to control not only the opening degree of the valve, but the closing.
This engine is time tested and proven, having been around in various forms since the seventies. It is very torquey, giving the sensation of quick acceleration, but it runs out of power quickly and does not provide much in the way of top-speed. That is what the bike is all about, squirting out of corners with the front wheel barely skimming the tarmac, accelerating from 0-60 in less than four seconds, and generally making yourself feel like a hero when quite frankly you are not. It is not about racing or top speed per say. It has a much tighter, tuned sound than any Harley V-twin, and more of a mechanical clatter than any of the new generation Japanese V-twins. This clatter is caused by the cool dry clutch, which unlike most Japanese sport-bikes, does not run in the engine oil (This reduces drag). The bottom end, i.e. the crank and transmission are known to be supremely robust. The top ends, specifically the valve guides are known to be less strong. Lack maintenance is also a contributing factor to the top end's poor notoriety.
The gorgeous sample that I happened to throw a leg over and ride in anger had a set of Arrow pipes barking quite a hefty tune out the rear, while a Pro Italia open airbox provided equally pleasing intake honk. The airbox is located directly under the tank, and when those huge carburetors are allowed to breathe correctly, they reward the rider with a wonderful blast of sound upon whacking them open. It was not uncommon for me to just turn the throttle all the way to its stop just to hear the sound. Downshifting was just as noisy, as the incredible bass notes made their way up from the wonderful acoustics of the gas tank.
What it all boils down to is the ride itself. I happen to live five minutes from the Angeles Crest highway, so giving the Ducati a workout over the thirty miles to Newcombs Ranch was the obvious decision for me. The handlebars are dirt-bike style, rubber mounted on top of the triple-clamp. This can be good or bad depending on the shape of the rider. I liked the leverage it gave me, but the grips did not fall into my hands at quite the right angle for me to be truly comfortable. Once down the road a few miles, all of that is way in the back of my head, along with everything else inside my noggin due to the fierce acceleration. The g-force punch and acoustical blast make for an interesting look on the neighbors' faces as I make my way to the freeway. Everyone looks when you are on this bike. It first captures the ears, and then the eyes of observers. But that is not of my concern after a few miles, the hellacious brakes are my concern. That, and the speedometer needle, which does not like to stay anywhere near the bottom of its travel. The brakes are fantastic. There is a mushy feel to the lever, and that is attributed to the small bore of the master cylinder. I get used to it after a few stops and enjoy the excellent feedback that the pie-plate Brembo discs provide.
There is no tachometer, which can be annoying to the uninitiated, but once you realize that the meat of the power-band ends well before the rev-limiter cuts the party short, it is a breeze to row through the gearbox. Shifting is smooth and precise, and frankly gives you one less thing to think about. What you are thinking about is the first few corners of the ride, warming up the tires and being smooth. The suspension is tight, and the bike is inherently unstable. The steering geometry is radically steep, allowing the bike to be thrown from side to side with aplomb, but that hinders top speed stability. A couple of times I got the bike into a violent head-shake, leaving me at the edge of control of not only the bike, but my bodily functions. Head-shake, or a "Tank-slapper" is a common occurrence on sport-bikes. It happens when accelerating out of a corner, getting the front-end light, and hitting some bumps. The wheel skips off of the ground from side to side, practically making the bars hit the gas tank, hence the name. In some cases the shake can be so bad that it pushes the brake pads back into the calipers, leaving the rider without brakes for the next turn. I never experienced this, but I learned to be smooth and steady with the throttle inputs, and avoid big bumps. That is one main drawback. Tankslappers are most often caused by the rear suspension being out of adjustment believe it or not, but I left well enough alone and just worked with the problems instead of against them. The dry clutch is very grabby. It is hard to smoothly progress from a complete stop at first, but like all of the other Monsteresque quirks, I got used to it.
This bike was very fun to ride. Whether it was setting car alarms off in Pasadena, lane splitting on the Hollywood freeway, or peg scraping in the mountains, this bike was at home. I would not take this bike across the nation. I would not choose it as my primary mode of transportation. I would not give up my Honda CBR600 for a Monster. I would buy one as a second bike, and I would screw with the suspension, or at least try some different tires. I can work on these vehicles, but most people can't, and that profoundly affects my opinion. Labor rates at Ducati shops are high, and tune-ups take a while due to the complexity of the valvetrain. Aftermarket pieces such as the exhaust are expensive as well, and I consider that a crucial aspect of the bike, being able to hear it and unleash its power. My opinion is, if cost is not an object, get one.