First Ride Review
As it has been for nearly a century, Ducati’s factory is located in Borgo Panigale, an industrial area on the outskirts of Bologna, Italy. Through the front gate, past the Ducati-only motorcycle parking area and up a flight of stairs is Museo Ducati, the company’s official museum. With white walls and artful lighting, the modest space preserves and tells the story of Ducati’s history, from its origins in the 1920s as a family business making radio components to building the 48cc, single-cylinder Cucciolo (“Puppy” in Italian) motorized bicycle after World War II to its modern-day, state-of-the-art MotoGP racebikes.
Ducati has built its reputation by designing elegant, sophisticated motorcycles that win races and steal hearts. One of its most endearing and enduring models is the Monster, first shown at the Cologne show in 1992 and produced continuously since 1993. Embracing simplicity, designer Miguel Galluzzi said, “All you need is: a saddle, tank, engine, two wheels and handlebars.” Officially called the M900, the nickname “Monster” stuck, perhaps because it was a bit like Frankenstein, stitching together the steel trellis frame from the 851 Superbike, the air-cooled, 904cc L-twin from the Supersport Desmodue, a “bison-back” gas tank, a low handlebar and a round headlight.
The Monster came to define what a naked bike should look like: mechanical, muscular and sexy. An original 1993 M900 is on display at Museo Ducati, with its tank, fender and tail cowl painted glossy red, its frame and wheels painted gold, its air-cooled L-twin front and center, and its odometer showing just 12 miles. The connection between that bike and the one that celebrates its 25th anniversary—the Ducati Monster 821—is obvious. From 100 feet away, regardless of model year, color or variation, a Monster always looks like a Monster. With its essentials laid bare, there’s nowhere to hide, few places where adornment can find a perch.
With a minor refresh for 2018, the Monster 821 adheres to the original “less is more” philosophy. Its tank and tail section have been reshaped to look like those on the Monster 1200, and it’s available in three classic colors: Ducati Red, Black and—returning after a long hiatus—Ducati Yellow. Hanging from its trellis frame is the same liquid-cooled, 821cc, 90-degree L-twin found in the previous model. Now Euro4 compliant with a new muffler, claimed output is down a few points at 109 horsepower at 9,250 rpm and 63 lb-ft at 7,750 rpm since the 821 was introduced for 2015, but the Testastretta 11-degree engine still has a wide, tractable powerband that hurls the 454-pound bike (claimed wet) out of corners with gusto. This is a Ducati that lives up to its name, so there’s no shortage of bark to the exhaust, rowdy feel to the engine and crispness to the throttle. Twenty-five years on, the Monster still has teeth.
What our 100-mile test ride—from the resort town of Rimini on Italy’s Adriatic coast to the Apennine Range that forms Italy’s mountainous spine and back again—lacked in length, it more than made up for with apexes and asphalt undulations. It was the sort of route that taxes tire grip, suspension compliance and braking performance. I found no fault with the Pirelli Diablo Rosso III rubber, but the non-adjustable fork and preload- and rebound-adjustable shock felt undersprung for my 200-pound weight, which made the ride jarring at times. (Also, with so much extra ballast compared to the pint-sized “average” European test rider, I wished for a bit more shove from the engine.) The Brembo M4.32 radial monoblock front calipers are strong and didn’t fade, but they could use more initial bite.
Even though I’m 6 feet tall with a 34-inch inseam, the Monster 821’s compact ergonomics were not a sore spot. With the adjustable seat was in the taller position (30.9/31.9 inches), I didn’t feel cramped but the high pegs did put a lot of bend in my knees. I don’t expect to find touring-level comfort from a naked sportbike, and the partial crouch is perfect for attacking canyon roads and city streets. What I struggled with, however, were some fitment issues during aggressive riding—the trellis frame’s sharp end caps just below the tank dug into my knees, my right shin banged into the bulky, hot exhaust heat shield and the upward-sloping seat caused me to slide forward against the tank, putting pressure where I’d rather not feel pressure. And the passenger peg hangers, which are now separate from the rider footpegs and bolt directly to the subframe and provide more space for the rider’s feet, occasionally got in the way of the heels of my size-11 boots when the balls of my feet were on the pegs. During casual riding, none of these ergonomic issues bothered me, and smaller or average-sized riders may never notice.
Whereas the original Monster was raw, with an air-cooled engine, a rattling dry clutch and few concessions to comfort or convenience, over the years Il Mostro has become more refined. The Monster 821 has throttle-by-wire with multiple riding modes (Sport, Touring and Urban) that automatically adjust engine output, throttle response, ABS and traction control, and each of these parameters can be customized. The wet assist-and-slipper clutch is quiet and ease to operate, and the 6-speed transmission shifts smoothly. There’s a new full-color TFT instrument panel, a “horseshoe” accent in the headlight and a taillight that are both LED, and optional extras include an up/down quickshifter and a multimedia Bluetooth system. Purists may scoff at such modernization, but based on my experience these features enhance the riding experience and increase safety without being intrusive. And if you think they’re too expensive or add unnecessary weight, consider that the first-gen M900 we tested in our January 1994 issue cost $8,950 ($15,110 in 2017 dollars), made 73 horsepower and weighed 435 pounds wet. The 2018 Monster 821 costs $11,995, makes 109 horsepower and weighs 454 pounds wet.
As Ducati’s longest-running model, the Monster has been the company’s financial lifeline through ups and downs, with more than 320,000 built since 1993. Like all modern-day Monsters, the new 821 upholds Ducati’s values of style, sophistication and performance, and it carries on the Monster pedigree honorably.