During our trip this summer, people who knew motorcycles seemed surprised and a bit curious about my choice of bike for a long road trip. “You rode that where?” was pretty much the average reaction. While I’m hardly the first person to tour on a Ducati Monster, and you only need to visit ADV Rider for endless tales of people taking far greater adventures on far less appropriate machines, I’ve still been asked what its like to tour on what’s essentially a naked sportbike. (An air-cooled, Italian naked sportbike, which really is its own special category). So here it goes.
First: Would I do it again? Absolutely, yes, I would. I probably will, maybe as soon as next year. Do I wish I had something more comfortable? Of course I do, but I’m not willing to sacrifice any of the fun to get it. Apparently there is this idea that a road trip needs to be done on the some big comfy cruiser, or at least a machine designed for mounting luggage, and putting on long miles. And while I get that, to me, most of those machines just look big, heavy, slow, and boring. I don’t fit on most of those motorcycles anyway, so I say nuts to that. For a counterpoint, just check out this guy, who is traveling across the country on a Panigale, Ducati’s brand new superbike, or this guy, who traveled around the world on a Yamaha R1. Both bikes are some of the least appropriate motorcycles for a road trip I can think of. Why would they do that? Because those are the bikes they lust after. (Lust really is the best word when discussing the Panigale). The Panigale guy covers this topic a lot better than I can, but the short of it is that you should just get the bike you want. Buy the bike that makes you excited about riding, regardless of its “practicality.” For me, right now, that’s the Monster. But I’m more fickle than Kevin, and more afflicted with MMS (multiple motorcycle syndrome), so who knows what bikes I’ll up with in the future.
Basically, I tour on the Monster because I can’t find anything better. I want something light, sporty, and fun to ride, and I want a bike that I fit on. For me, those requirements trump any other concerns, even long distance comfort.
So would I recommend anyone else tour across the country on a Monster? Well, naturally, that depends.
The Monster is a small bike – At 5’4″, I’m short, especially in the demographic of People Who Ride Motorcycles, which consists mostly of men who are on average taller than I am. However, even to me, the Monster feels like a 3/4 scale bike. Physically, its tiny. While its size is a huge plus for me, its most likely going to be a problem for anyone with an inseam longer than 30″. What feels like a natural riding position to me is going to be cramped for normal size people, especially after a few hours. Specifically, the seat to peg relationship is pretty tight. Even I found myself straightening my legs out to relieve the bend in the knee every now and then (especially later in the day) (As an aside, this relationship is no worse than any other bike in the same class, and felt pretty much the same to me as my previous Kawi 650R. I can live with it because I have short legs). On the plus side, even with the riser handle bar I installed, the cockpit is still pretty roomy. Even with the recent changes in geometry to the 696 model, there is still quite a bit of distance between the seat and the bars, so I think that part of the ergonomics would be less of an issue.
Mileage matters – There are many different styles to touring by motorcycle. If your style includes 500+ mile days and a lot of time on the interstate, the Monster really isn’t the bike for the job (duh). As I demonstrated on the last three days of my trip, it can be done, but it was not in any way comfortable, and even at my size was quite painful. Over sustained periods at interstate speeds, the lack of windscreen to reduce wind blast on the head, neck and shoulders takes its toll, and causes the predictable fatigue. The suspension is sporty, which on the interstate just feels stiff. Even the aftermarket seat is too hard for that kind of sustained cruising. The sporty steering geometry that makes the bike so fun on twisty back roads makes the bike just a little twitchy on the interstate. I wouldn’t call it unstable per se, but its not like you can just kick back, enjoy the scenery, and let the miles roll by. No matter the situation, the Monster is a bit on the high strung side, and requires the rider to actively ride the bike at all times.
However, at an average of less than 300 miles per day on mostly back roads, the monster is fantastic. The lack of fairing and windscreen on the Monster turned out to be much less of an issue than I anticipated. I was more aware of the lack of wind protection because of the bug pattern on the front of my jacket than I was due to increased fatigue. At the kind of mileage we normally do, there is only a marginal difference between having fairing and not. In short, going from something like a Kawasaki 650R to the Monster makes almost no difference comfort wise at the distances and type of riding I actually like to do, and the Monster is unquestionably more fun.
If I could find the perfect motorcycle that was fun to ride, lightweight, has a good power to weight ratio, with high spec suspension and brakes, more suspension travel but still allowed me to touch the ground, and had enough fairing to offer comfort over longer distances, and was designed to hold luggage, I would buy it. It doesn’t exist. People who don’t mind throwing around 500+ lb bikes with 34″ seat heights have seemingly limitless choices in today’s motorcycles market. I do not. I usually have to put up with underpowered “entry level” machines so that I can touch the ground.
The Monster 696, while the smallest displacement of the model, is not entry level. Its not entry level in price, and I wouldn’t recommend it as anyone’s first bike *. After nearly 11,000 miles, I’m still really happy with my choice. Its just plain fun. That 80hp, 2-valve air-cooled motor might be my favorite motor ever made. I love the higher spec suspension (on nice, smoothly paved roads). The brakes are fantastic. The handling is confidence inspiring. It imparts all the feelings that make taking the risk of riding a motorcycle worth it, and looks good while doing it.
So there it is. That’s enough defense of the Monster for now. The established point is that I’d rather deal with the challenge of riding a fun but “inappropriate” bike around the country, than be bored by something more suitable. Traveling by motorcycle is a ridiculously inconvenient way to travel, especially when camping, so there is absolutely no reason to do it unless you are having fun.
That said, there are still practical problems to overcome due to the fact that my chosen bike was in no way designed for long distance touring. The ergonomics, suspension, and gearing are all decidedly designed with sporting fun in mind, rather than comfort. There are no provisions from the factory for mounting luggage, or even a tank bag. The bike doesn’t come with a place to mount a GPS, or heated grips, throttle lock, or any of the other touring features people like to have. I was undaunted, however, by any of this, as most of what I wanted could be achieved with fairly light and inexpensive modification. So, internet, if you found this page because you are curious about taking a road trip on a Ducati Monster, here’s what I did to my bike:
How I Modded my 2012 Ducati Monster for Touring: This is the part where I get extra dorky and provide a graphic showing what we did to my bike to more easily accommodate a 10,000 mile camping road trip, and then go into detail (with more pictures), explaining every modification. Behold:
My bike is definitely no longer stock, and I’m not even done. I’m even tempted with the possibility of some performance modifications, but those will cost real money, while most of what I’ve done so far is relatively inexpensive.
Riser Handle Bar – The stock bar position required too much forward lean for me to be comfortable all day. I rode with the stock bar for about 900 miles before the kit came in, and while it wasn’t as bad as I thought, the bike works much better for me with the hand grips located higher and closer to the rider. I personally think it should just come this way, and the racers can put just put clip-ons on like they are going to do anyway.
The new handle bar is the riser bar kit made by Ducati for the 696, and its purchase and installation were part of the deal I made with the dealer when I bought the bike in May of this year. I researched third party bar risers, but the Ducati kit provided largest change in geometry, and came with the required extended cables. That and the fact that I could have the dealer install the kit as part of the initial bike purchase made buying the Ducati kit the easy choice.
The problem was that while the accessory catalog listed the riser bar kit as a part for the 696, it was not very clear that the kit was not design for the Monster 696 with ABS. This matters because the longer brake line included with the kit doesn’t actually fit on the ABS version. Here’s a quick lesson: On the non-ABS version of almost any motorcycle, the front brake line runs from the master cylinder, located on the right front handlebar, to the calipers on the front wheel. On a motorcycle equipped with ABS, the brake line makes a detour to the ABS control unit before being routed to the calipers. On the Monster, it looks like this:
(Notice the stock handle bar).
The ABS control unit on the Monster is located on the right side of the bike under the gas tank. (See the black and silver box with brake lines running to it in the above pic). In order for the riser bars to work, I needed a brake that would reach from the handlebar to the ABS box. The kit from Ducati doesn’t come with one.
Fortunately, custom brake lines are pretty easy to order, and Ducati uses standard fittings. $100 and only about a week later, and a brand new stainless steel braided line made by Galfer was delivered to my house. It was actually half an inch shorter than I specified, but I’d also added a little bit to the length we measured to make sure it fit. The mechanic at the dealer was not too excited about replacing the hard brake line with a braided line routed a different way than stock, but after some reassurance from us that it would be fine, he shrugged and installed it for me anyway. Good enough, and the brakes, including ABS, work great, even 10,000 miles later.
Above you can see the new, re-routed stainless steel brake line, and the riser handlebar (which is really goofy looking, and I hate the chrome finish, but it feels so much nicer that it doesn’t much matter what it looks like).
Edit June 2016: I continue to receive questions about ordering a custom front brake line for a 2012 Ducati Monster 696 with ABS with the Ducati factory riser bar. Here is a pic of the order form I sent to Galfer – it has the length, banjo type, and thread pitch I specified. (I would probably add another 1/2″ to 1″ to the length if I were to order again). My brakes continue to work well, I have had no problems. As of 2016, my Monster still only has a bit over 20,000 miles on it.
Heated Gear Controller and Heated Grips: Heated gear is something I’ve decided I never want to be without on my motorcycle. I love it. I’m just not happy when I’m cold. The Monster has both heated hand grips, and a plug-in for my heated jacket liner.
First, if you don’t know about heated gear, its pretty much fantastic. The jacket liner I have is more or less like an electric blanket that you can wear under the regular riding jacket. It has heating elements wired throughout the jacket that get warm when the jacket is plugged into the bike (the controller switches the heat on and controls the temperature). The heated jacket greatly extends riding comfort, and I can’t imagine going on a road trip without it, even in the summer.
The heated hand grips are the same idea. Some bikes even come with heated grips from the factory, but they are a cheap and easy enough upgrade that its not a requirement for me. I’ve bought this kit twice now, and my hand grips always get toasty warm when I want them too.
I like this particular set-up, and this is the second bike I’ve had wired this way.The heated jacket came with a nice 2-channel PWM (pulse-width modulation) controller, intended so that you could independently control the jacket temperature, and the gloves that plug in. PWM is nice, since a lot of systems use a rheostat, which tends to wear out and break. 2-channel also helps make for a clean install. Rather than use the (very cheap looking) on/off switch that comes with the heated grips, Kevin wired the grips into one of the channels on the controller that came with the jacket. This way, I have variable control of the grip temperature, and one less switch mounted in the cockpit. Its a cleaner install, and gives me better control. The one controller, with two switches lets me control the heat to both the grips and the jacket. Often, just turning on the heat to the grips is enough to take the chill off and let me focus on riding.
On a long trip, the heated jacket is essential for me. There’s no way I could carry enough bulky layers to stay warm while moving. I just wish I could use the heated jacket off the bike:)
Magnets for a tank-bag: Here’s the thing. I like riding with a tank bag. Its really convenient. I also really like my particular tank bag. Its not too big or small, has the right compartments, and functions just how I want it to. I keep my valuables in it, (keys, wallet, phone, passport, cameras, etc,), plus a liter of water, snacks, my hat, sunscreen, bug spray, first aid kit…You get the idea. When we arrive somewhere on the bikes, and need to leave the bikes and go somewhere else, I just grab the tank bag and off I go. No rummaging through gear, or transferring things to a backpack, or worrying about things getting stolen. All of the really important stuff is always with me. My tank bag even has a strap that allows me to convert it to an over-the-shoulder bag or one-strap backpack. I’ve hiked miles and miles this way. The point is that its pretty close to an optimal piece of gear for me.
The problem was that the Monster has a plastic tank. My tank bag is magnetic, made for use with metal tanks. So, after buying the bike, I shopped around for another solution. There are tank bags that strap on (all a big pain to use, and look ridiculous), and some that attach with suction cups (yeah right, like that will always work in the real world). I never found something better than what I already have. Everything I found would cost at least several hundred dollars, and not be nearly as good. So, instead of finding a bag that worked with my bike, I decided to make the bike work with my bag.
The gas tank on my bike is actually covered by two body panels. Its clever, really, as it allows the actual plastic tank to warp and flex a little bit due to heat, and ethanol in the gas, without it showing. The tank can be manufactured in the appropriate material and in the incredibly complex shape required to maximize volume and fit around everything, without worrying too much about aesthetic concerns. Only the outside profile has to conform to style considerations. Then, the outside panels can be made purely to make the bike look finished. The panels also allow Ducati to sell body panel kits that let you to totally change the appearance of your bike. The point is that there is a small amount of space between the visible body panels and the actual gas tank.
This called for Kevin’s favorite solution to any problem: magnets. Specifically, some dangerously strong 1.5″ diameter 1/8″ neodymium disk magnets I found on Amazon. Four of these magnets placed carefully under the tank panels would provide enough grip to hold my overstuffed tank bag in place, well over the legal speed limit (you know, in theory).
The process went something like this: I sat on the bike and placed by tank bag where I wanted it. Then, we used masking tape to mark the outside of the panels with where we wanted to place the magnets. Then, we removed the panels. We placed magnets over the tape on the outside of the panels, and used them to located the magnets on the inside. Once the inside was marked, we cleaned and prepped the surface, and then adhered and taped the magnets in place on the inside of the panels.
It would have been just that simple, if there wasn’t one more problem. The magnets in my tank bag weren’t just one large magnet in each location. That would be pretty expensive, judging by what I paid for 10 magnets. Instead, the bag had a puck with a ring of magnets in each location, like so:
I applaud the tank bag manufacturer. This is very clever. Its cheap to buy and to make, and its very, very strong. I loved how well this bag gripped to the metal tank on my Kawasaki.
Again, the problem is that this would not work with the magnets I had just bought. In the ring of magnets shown above, the polarity of every other magnet is switched. This makes the entire ring grip more strongly to the metal tank, but prevents the ring from being attracted to a large single magnet. Thus, when I placed my order with Amazon for the magnets, I bought enough to both install some in the bike, and modify the actual tank bag. I used a seam ripper to open up the base of the bag, and remove the ring of magnets shown above, and replaced the four rings with the large single magnets. The key was paying attention to polarity, so that the magnets I installed on the bike would match up with the bag, causing the magnets to attract rather than repel one another. Fortunately, my sewing project was a success, and the result is easily worth the effort. I get to use the bag I like, and have the convenience of a magnetic tank bag on a bike with a plastic tank.
Aftermarket Seat: Not too much to say about this upgrade. The stock seats on motorcycles tend to be pretty terrible. At first I thought the seat on the Monster would be fine, but its major flaw soon revealed itself as a tendency to push you into the tank. No matter how you try to position yourself on the bike, the seat will force you sit in one rather uncomfortable position. If I were a guy, I imagine it would be very uncomfortable. Given that I did not want to ride around on this bike with my crotch shoved into the tank, I sprung for the Sargent seat.
Its not cheap, but its well made, comes with a much needed storage spot built into the underside of the sea pan, and still accepts the stock rear plastic cowl, should I decide to put that back on the bike. After 10,000 miles, I’ve decided it was worth it. Its not as comfortable as the seat on my Kawasaki I had re-done by Spencer. (That was 100% worth the expense). The Sargent seat does allow me more choice in body positioning, and mostly solves the problem of getting shoved into the tank. However, its a little hard, and I doubt its going to break in any more. Its better, but could be more comfortable, and I’m considering making further modifications to the seat.
Mounting Luggage on a Monster 696: (Or, one more reason I don’t like undertail exhausts). Mounting luggage on a bike that wasn’t designed to hold luggage can be tricky. Its extra tricky on the Monster, because the exhausts are in the way. My opinion is that motorcycle exhausts should be located low, or under the bike, not beneath the rear seat. However, that’s where they are on the Monster, so we had to figure out how to mount saddle bags without burning them on the exhausts.
After much online research (naturally), there was basically only one system that would bolt up to the Monster to prevent the bags from touching the exhausts, and give the bags something to mount to. It was expensive and we didn’t really like it. Plus, I wasn’t sure it would work the bags I already had. I’m not opposed to getting new bags, but we only had a few weeks at this point to get ready to leave, and as much as I’d like to find top-loading, lockable hard cases for the Monster, I’m not sure its possible, and I wasn’t going to make it happen before we left. Plus, I’ve toured with the bags I already had, and knew they worked.
So what to do? Materials science to the rescue.
We decided to try the cheap and easy route first. We bought some high temperature silicone rubber extrusions from McMaster Carr and some heavy duty zip-ties and just wrapped a couple of pieces around the exhaust. (Part Number 1129A9). Unfortunately, the material with the high enough temperature rating only came in orange. Oh well.
Its not exactly the most elegant solution, but it worked really well for the entire 10,000 mile trip. The silicone pieces withstood the surface temps on the exhaust without transferring too much heat to the bags, and kept the Ortlieb dry saddlbags from touching the exhaust. Two locations on each exhaust pipe was not enough. After final packing, when the saddlebags were overfull, we had to add another bumper in the middle to keep the bag from touching in between the rubber at each end. Also, the rubber bumpers closest to the front of the bike had to be mounted and trimmed carefully such that they didn’t catch the rear tire hugger (fender) when the suspension was compressed.
We strapped the bags at the front to the passenger foot brackets, and looped the strap at the back around the plastic fender to keep the bags from sliding forward. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. After about a day, the bags settled in, and then didn’t move, even after bouncing down some fairly rough roads.
I’d still like to improve on the set up. I’d really like some top-loading, lockable, hard bags. I’d also like a mounting system that’s not quite so rigged. Its cheap, and it worked, but only just barely. It will take some work and a bit of money to figure this out, however, so we’ll see if I can find a better solution.
Aftermarket tail lights:
As you can see above, the stock tail light stuck out from the bike a considerable distance. When I tried to mount the saddlebags the first time, the tail lights were in the way. It was pretty simple to order some smaller lights from monsterparts.com, and swap them out.
In both the top pic in this post and below, you can see how the stock tail lights would have been in the way:
The smaller ones are nice because the stalks are rubber, vs. the hard plastic mount on the stock tail lights. Based on what I’ve read, everyone eventually bumps into the stock tail light and breaks the mount. So even though I would have preferred to just leave the lights alone, at least the aftermarket ones are an improvement. You can bend these lights back and forth on their mounts without breaking anything. Plus, they are easily as bright as the originals, despite their smaller size.
Stuff I did not do: Many Monster owners change gearing by switching to a 14 tooth front sprocket. First gear on this bike is really tall, and 6th gear really is only used at higher interstate speeds. It took a little while to get used to it, but but after 11,000 miles, I’ve learned to appreciate the stock gearing. It works well at normal road speeds, and helps with getting better mileage. At first I thought I would want to change it in the interest of having a lower first gear. I may eventually do it for other reasons, but for a long road trip, I’m convinced the stock gearing is better. If I can off-road the Monster with a first gear that causes the bike to stall below about 12 mph, anyone can.
So that’s it. We were on the road for 6 weeks, 9961 miles, and camped 28 nights with this set up, and it worked pretty well for me. While it would be nice to have better luggage and a more comfortable seat, I would go again just like this if I don’t find better solutions by the time we’re looking to leave on our next trip.
Update July 2013: Since this is by far the most-read post on this blog, its time for a little update. First, after re-reading the post, I still support everything I wrote, with the exception of the part about the windscreen. It would be really, really nice to have a bit of wind protection. I still love my Monster (it still makes me grin every time, and I always look forward to riding), but the truth is that I will eventually buy something more comfortable for long distance. Right now, the fun of the Monster still outweighs its discomfort and impracticality. However, eventually, I still believe I will be able to find a bike that is every bit as fun, but more comfortable. We shall see. Also, I did switch out the front sprocket for a 14 tooth late last year. I am on the fence about whether to keep it, or go back to stock gearing. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and I truthfully can’t decide, or make a recommendation on this particular mod. Next time I need to change the sprockets and chain, I will go back to the stock gearing, and maybe that will yield a more clear preference.
In the mean time, I did go on another multi-day, multi-state trip this spring with the set-up described in the original post (plus the 14 tooth front sprocket).
Below are links to the larger trips I’ve done on the Monster with this set-up. I’ve decided I am unlikely to change much for future trips, and I no longer care about finding hard luggage. I really like my Ortlieb dry saddlebags, and I am happy with the rest of the set up as is:
Update February 2014: Uh oh, I finally did it. I’ll have to hand in my cool card, I finally gave up on touring on the Monster. Check out what the new plan is for 2014 here.