2017-05-23 19:49:46+0000 - Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Don’t let the picture fool you. This isn’t an article about my awesome new Ducati Monster 797, as much as I would enjoy gushing about it. It’s an article about marketing. Since that’s a field in which I’ve made my living for some decades – and which therefore, I suppose, paid for that new Ducati – I feel a bit funny about the critical things I’m about to say here. But maybe that means I’m just the guy to say them and, in any case, it turns out that my loyalty to this sport exceeds the one I have to my profession. Let me explain.

One of the things I liked the most about @alex ’s review of the 797 was that he mostly took Ducati’s positioning of this bike as an urban ride for novices with a grain of salt. Most publications showed less restraint after Ducati’s sodden, highly supervised test ride on the Cote d’Azur. Mix a little of the horsepower-jaded machismo of a moto-journalist with Ducati’s unmistakable rhetoric that this was a city bike for newbies and lightweights, and you might walk away from reading most reviews thinking, “Hell, why bother with that dinky G310GS. I’ll just write my M1 and pick up one of these idiot-proof Monsterinos. Ducatis are date magnets for sure!”

Except it isn’t true. I mean the idiot-proof part, of course; I do not intend to test its date magnetism and have no opinion on that. Nevertheless, Ducati, in the interest of making sense of this bike in the Monster line-up, and relative to its other offerings (Scrambler aside), were understandably compelled to explain the 797 as a gateway drug – which is true enough – but then slid down this slippery rhetorical slope into making it seem just this side of a Vespa: friendly as a puppy dog and as trustworthy as a police horse for anyone new to the sport and the cut-and-thrust of city riding. It’s not. And while you’d have to pry the key from my cold dead hands to separate me from this bike, I would gladly reassign Ducati’s marketing team to United Airlines just to teach them a lesson.

Now, before I make my case, let me give you the other reason I feel qualified to have an opinion: I am that guy. I’m not a novice, exactly; I’m in my fourth year as a rider, averaging north of 10,000km a year. But I’m new enough to remember what novice means, and I still think of myself as a beginner. My first bike was actually a CBR250R, but I now ride two other middleweight bikes that offer some valid comparisons to the Monster: a Triumph Scrambler, with 60-ish ponies and deep, gooey reserves of low-end torque, and a 75hp BMW F700GS, a superbly competent all-rounder with all the personality and terrifying demeanor of an electric toothbrush. At 75 hp and 425 lbs wet, the 797 on paper would be a peer in this scuderia, and by weight and geometry, likely the easiest of the three to ride in an urban setting. Which is exactly where I ride mine, a Dark Stealth that landed at our apartment in Toronto just less than a month ago.

And had this truly been the first bike I’d ever ride in Toronto, I think I might have second guessed my decision to buy it the minute the kickstand went up.

For one thing, the 797 has shockingly little steering lock. There are streets in our neighbourhood where a u-turn would simply not be possible, or at least not without a lot of confidence about low-speed lean angles. Even parking lots demand your full attention. The comparatively lanky BMW would run circles around it, pardon the pun, when it comes to maneuverability.

For another, the shifter is balky about finding neutral, and about getting into first if the bike isn’t moving. If you haven’t trained yourself to be in first before you come to a stop, I suspect life in the city with a Monster 797 might include a lot of puckering moments when the lights turn green. They say this is a Ducati thing, but it’s certainly not a newbie thing. There are easier ways to learn this good habit.

Remarkably, the Monster 797 is Euro 4 compliant, despite being air-cooled. And being air-cooled makes it a legit heir to the original Monster’s elemental charm. But it also makes it a furnace, as @alex warned in comments following his review. He is the only reviewer I can recall pointing this out. It’s not unbearable, mind you, nor is it a deal-breaker, but it certainly doesn’t describe the sort of calm, patient aura that a newbie needs from his or her bike in steamy Toronto gridlock. That’s another box on the newbie checklist that the 797 doesn’t quite tick.

It’s got torque, and there’s no doubt that torque is a newbie’s friend when things get too busy to look for the right gear. But thanks to a steep-ish final drive, you actually have to be careful about throttle inputs in the first two gears. On my maiden voyage, a pothole jarred my throttle hand just as the fork was rebounding, briefly lofting the front wheel. That was 100% my screw-up, but it would have freaked me the hell out three years ago. I love this bike’s power, but it still deserves a little more respect than a lot of newbies are likely to give it based on Ducati’s sales pitch.

Ditto the brakes. They are simply excellent. But, again, if you’re inclined to grab that right lever in a panic or even if you’re generally ham-fisted with controls, they will surprise you with their efficacy, and surprises aren’t a good thing on Toronto’s mean streets. To be sure, this is the least of the Monster’s misdemeanors as a novice bike and, alone, hardly worth mentioning. But combined with the willingness of that lovely engine, they make for a bike that I think demands some confidence to ride well. Much more so than my gentle-natured CBR was, and more so than either of my other current bikes (the BMW in particular is far more likely to keep you out of trouble and save you if you get into it, as long as you’re willing to endure its perpetually disapproving facial expression). Of the three, the Monster is the last one I’d put an actual novice on.

Ducati should consider this no more than gentle chiding. The 797 is ridiculously fun, and the brand’s ownership experience is the best I’ve had yet. But I can’t help but feel that some reviewers confused a beginner’s Ducati with a beginner’s motorcycle, and that the company itself, neck-deep in its own stunning and speedy creations, forgot what it’s really like to throw a leg over for the first time and dice it up with urban traffic. For my money, the Monster 797 isn’t a bike for newbies. It’s a prize for that moment when a newbie starts to get the hang of this, a bike that rewards a bit of skill rather than compensating for the lack of it.

As a marketer, I don’t think that would have been such a bad way to position the little Monster, though obviously not so bluntly. As a rider, I think it would have made for safer, happier new Ducatisti to dangle the keys in front of people with a bit of confidence and experience instead of novices. I’m thrilled with my 797, but if I’d bought one when this journey began, I think it might have left me wondering if I was cut out for motorcycling. And that, it seems to me, is the very opposite of what a beginner’s bike – or good marketing, for that matter – should do.

7 Comments
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  • Bruce
  • 2017-06-20T16:31:47-04:00

@Richomx Thanks for the kind words. That's a horrible story, of course, and I wish that fellow the best. But I just got back from a ride in Toronto pre-rush hour traffic (ie heavy, but fast), convinced all over again that this Monster is something you should reward yourself with once you've got riding more or less figured out, not something you should figure it out on.

That said, I am, as always, exhilarated. And waving back at gawking school kids just ices the cake. No buyer's remorse here :)

 
  • Richomx
  • 2017-06-20T14:19:04-04:00

@bruce I loved the article. And I also agree with everything you've said.

I've been pretty much in love with the Monsters since they first came out as part of Ducati's lineup. (Plus, the idea of chasing after Jessica Alba's tail-light in her All Black Monster within the tv series Dark Angel was more my pubescent self could handle at the time.)

So when I tell you that a brand new Ducati dealership opened in my city you can imagine my euphoria. We don't have many Ducatiae in Mexico. And to boot, they had a certain 797 waiting for the activation codes to serve out as a demo.

Forward a week and a half, mere 10 days or so. "La piccola bella" scores her first victim. A 40-something-y-o BEGINNER lost control of the demo bike on a 10 degree downhill section (which is honestly not the hardest part of that road) of a freeway that serves as a kind of ring road in my city and more often than not is full of speeding cars and bikes as it has a fair share of twisties and lacks police cars waiting for suckers. He was, of course, speeding. And luckily wearing a jacket and helmet also on loan from the dealer.

I do not personally know the rider in question, suffice it to say I do know someone who does. He's part of the biker-aid brigade I belong to, and last I heard, the rider involved in the accident lost his arm after hours of surgery trying to re-attach it. My fellow brigadier, a very good friend of the poor bugger, mentioned in passing that he was a very inexperienced rider and questioned the decision of the dealership in loaning him the bike in the first place. Which is another matter altogether.

Now, all I can say with a wee bit of authority and a tad more hard evidence is that: the 797 is DEFINITELY not a beginner's bike. The Monster BITES.

Myself, I first learned to ride in the UK where motoring laws are quite strict to say the least. It took me two failed attempts and north of 40+hrs riding and taking riding lessons to pass my practical riding test and obtain my unrestricted license in my mid-20's. I learned on a Kawa 500, but my first bike was a second hand japanese-import naked Bandit 400 which had been tweaked by the previous owner, was too small on my 181cm-80kg frame and left me hung out to dry sometimes in the middle of a ride due to electrical issues, sometimes just outside my house (score!). After that first bike was scrapped and I went back home to Mexico I regressed to a FZ-16 which was great in the city traffic and great fun to ride (90kmph) fast, and I concede a point to @alex since it was with this little bike that I trully honed my riding skills for the city and a few (fun) fire roads. Now I'm a proud Tiger 800XC owner, ride everyday no matter the weather with a few more km under my belt. And I still have yet to try a Monster. Maybe one day I'll even own one.

 
  • Bruce
  • 2017-05-24T11:01:07-04:00

 @frencholive To be fair, by the strictest standard of proof, Ducati has generally stuck to the 'gateway to Ducati' rhetoric. But there is a lot of dog whistle language in its promotion of this bike that suggests anyone can ride one, and the number of reviewers who positioned it as a beginner's bike left me wondering what Ducati told them.

Having said that, if your benchmark is a fond memory of staying alive on the 1200, you will lose your mind with joy on the 797. And it really is sexy. I prescribe a test ride.

 

 
  • Bruce
  • 2017-05-24T10:47:18-04:00

 @alex I thought your review was well balanced and reasonable. I appreciated it, and maybe I should have been clearer about that. But consider this quote from Cycle World's review: "You really do appreciate how sensible the 797 is the more you ride it, and that will be especially true for the beginner or less-experienced riders amongst us." Or this from Motorcyclist: "It fits the mold of a friendly, approachable, suitable bike for the beginner rider". Or this from VisorDown: "As you’d expect from a bike aimed at newer or younger riders, there’s nothing intimidating or complex about [the 797]". You described the 797 essentially as an approachable performance bike, but a lot of reviewers left the impression this would be a great motorcycle to start out on, particularly for urban riding... and I just don't think that's true, especially with so many brilliant small displacement bikes to choose from these days.

Your point about "the kind of person who wants to learn on a bigger bike" would make for a great article hint hint. Nowhere is there more variety, more sheer range of experiences or degrees of difficulty, than in the 600-800cc range. I sold my CBR a year sooner than I should have because I felt like a circus bear on it. The Scrambler was not a brilliant choice at that moment. I wonder what the perfect middleweight for novices would be?

 
  • alex
  • 2017-05-24T09:48:03-04:00

@Bruce - re the steering lock: This is pretty normal for a "sportier" bike, and I didn't really notice it. The trick is to drag the rear brake and lean the bike more. Weighting the outside peg will also help. 

However, while, your GS will definitely out manoeuvre "la belissima" at slow speed, it more than makes up for it in the twisties.

Finding first: My guess is you are still on break-in oil, right? I didn't notice the problem, but then (as you allude to) you are supposed to be in first at you come to a stop, just in case. 

Lastly, assigning Ducati's marketing team to United is a bit harsh, even if it did make me laugh out loud.

 
  • alex
  • 2017-05-24T09:40:26-04:00

@Bruce, I think your comment that this is a "Beginner's Ducati and not a beginner's motorcycle" is 100% on the money, and I wish I'd thought of it. 

If I gave that impression, I meant it to be a beginners motorcycle in North America only, where we have an unswerving devotion to power, and that "bigger is most certainly better". In other regions, legislation limits riders to smaller bikes, such as your CBR250 for a period of time. I applaud this. 

In my long experience of riding, people who start on smaller bikes tend to be much better riders than those who started on a larger bike (full disclosure - I spent 6 months on a CB125T before moving to an XJ900F - I consider myself to have learned on a large bike).

I view better rides that as a positive thing for the sport, and I doubt limiting people impacts sales. If anything, it leads to a healthy second hand market, which makes riding even more accessible. 

But, if you are the kind of person that wants to learn on a "bigger" bike, this is an excellent candidate. 

 

 

 

@Bruce Fascinating review.

I also read Alex's review and have remained quietly riveted on the idea of owning one for myself having managed to stay alive astride a 1200.  But many of the comments you're making sound familiar.  

Though it seems pretty obvious that a 1200 isn't a beginner bike, thanks to our unintelligible motorcycle licensing regulations, a 797 might seem to a newbie like a wise idea. (You can't know what you don't yet know.) I didn't realize they were presenting it as a beginner bike instead of a gateway Ducati.  Yikes.