First, I think it’s hilarious that my long, rambling post about modding my Monster for a camping road trip is BY FAR the most read post on this blog. That post easily gets 10x the page views of any other entry. If you google “Ducati Monster touring,” my blog post is the first or second result (at this time anyway). Apparently I’ve contributed something useful to the internet. (Don’t worry, I won’t let all this internet fame go to my head:) )
People even ask questions about motorcycle touring and the monster in the comments of that post. (This is a personal blog that gets maybe 30 views a day on average, so getting any comments at all is pretty awesome). One question that I’ve yet to address is: “You said [the Monster] is not a good bike for a beginner. Can you elaborate on that? Why not?”
Yes, yes I can elaborate on that (of course, and boy did I, watch out, this thing is long). In fact, this is a good question that brings up the broad topic and a host of issues about learning to ride, and I think it needs its own post. Ask a dozen people what a good beginner bike is, and you’ll get two dozen answers.
I remember what it was like for me to first learn to ride, and since then I’ve owned or had the chance to ride quite a few different motorcycles. Plus, I’ve seen friends and acquaintances learn, and read a fair bit about others’ experiences online (the internet, naturally, is full of information for new riders). My opinions about getting into motorcycling are intended for getting the most enjoyment out of what can be a dangerous hobby. Over the years, my experience and the opinion of others agree: the better your riding skills, the more fun you have (the more you know, the better it gets; cheesy but true).
First, I should define beginner. When I say the Monster is not a good choice for a beginner, I mean someone with very little or no riding experience at all. If you’ve been riding dirtbikes as a child or teenager with any regularity, moving up to one of the smaller displacement air-cooled Monsters as a first streetbike is probably fine. Actually, knowing what I know now, starting in the dirt is probably the most ideal way to learn to ride a motorcycle. People who learn on small, lightweight dirtbikes on varied terrain and traction conditions make much better street riders. The consequences for beginner mistakes and finding the limits are much, much smaller off-road (obviously excluding racing and other more extreme styles of riding off-road, I’m referring to beginner trail riding). Small bikes are more affected by rider input, so it’s easier to feel and learn how every movement affects the bike’s behavior.
However, if learning to ride off-road isn’t really an option, here’s the advice I always give:
1.Take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) basic rider course. Go to their website, read about the basic rider course, find one near you, sign up, and take the class. You’ll learn some excellent material from certified instructors, you’ll get range time to practice riding (on their bikes), if you pass the course, you don’t have to take the DMV test to get a motorcycle endorsement on your license, and you’ll save money on your insurance.
2. DO NOT buy the bike you want right away. Buy something small and cheap and light for your very first motorcycle. Ride it for six months, do your learning, make your mistakes, make sure riding is really for you. After about six months of regular riding and putting on lots of miles, sell that cheap bike for roughly what you bought it for.
3. Then, buy whatever motorcycle it was that inspired you to get into riding. By this time, you’ve learned enough on something easy to ride that the bigger bike won’t be so much work, and you’ll actually enjoy riding. You’ll be a whole lot less likely to crash your $12-15k Monster 1100 or CBR1000RR, causing expensive damage to the bike, or more importantly, severely injuring yourself.
Sound preachy? I don’t care. There are far too many idiots out there on bikes they have no business being on. A motorcycle is not a car. It takes far more skill to operate a motorcycle with any level of proficiency. No one can just hop on a modern streetbike, and expect to ride it safely if they’ve never ridden before.
Ok, so if you are still reading, how about I answer the actual question:
Why the Monster is not a good beginner bike
Beginner bikes should be easy to ride, and somewhat forgiving of new rider error. While the Monster 696 is far from being a race bike, it does require more skill to operate than many other street bikes, often of similar displacements. The Ducati Monster is not a great choice for a very first bike.
Power, and power delivery
A beginner bike should have less horsepower. This should be obvious. More horsepower in inexperienced hands is more dangerous. The Monster 696 may be the smallest, least powerful of the Monsters, but it still makes 80hp, and weighs not much more than 400lbs ready to ride. 80hp in a 400lb bike is equivalent to having 800hp in the average 4000lb American car. Would you put a brand new driver in an 800hp car? I think not. My Kawasaki 650R made about 62 hp, and weighed closer to 450lbs. Still plenty of power, but much tamer. Even better? My CRF230L, which I think is an excellent beginner bike.
A beginner bike should deliver its horsepower in a gradual, linear, and predictable manner (a sudden power band is more difficult to control). (I’m going to go ahead and combine several aspects of power delivery into one section for my own convenience.) Part of what we experience as fun while riding a motorcycle is not just how much power the engine makes, but how it delivers that power (and torque, which is what we actually feel, but I’m combining horsepower and torque here because separating them doesn’t make any difference to my point). It’s not just how much power the engine makes, but how fast it delivers that power, and how suddenly you hit the powerband. The Monster is fairly torque-ey at low RPM, which could get new riders in trouble. Twist that throttle a bit too fast, and even the baby Monster could get away from you, or upset the bike enough so that a new rider has trouble recovering from the mistake.
The Monster also has comparatively light flywheel. This means the engine is “quick revving”, which makes it more fun for more experienced riders. (I put quick revving in quotes because the Monster is clearly not quick revving like a race bike, it’s just much more so than many more beginner friendly street bikes). Light flywheels make the bike harder to launch and ride slowly, and make it easier to apply power very suddenly. It takes more precision with the throttle to deliver power consistently and smoothly to the rear wheel. The monster motor is fun in part because it revs up and delivers the power pretty quickly, and it should be obvious how this is less ideal for a beginner.
The Monster also doesn’t run very well down low (low RPM, small throttle openings), which is where a lot of new riders need to spend time while riding around in parking lots learning how to ride. Probably due to emissions reasons, the fueling is not very good. The combination of poor fueling and light flywheel make it difficult to apply power smoothly at low speeds. Ease of launch and riding at low speed is very important for new riders, who are still learning to coordinate throttle and clutch, and will spend a lot of time stopping and starting.
A beginner bike should have easy to use controls. The clutch pull should be fairly light, and offer good feel of the friction point. On this point, the Monster is ok, but not great. The clutches on both my former Kawasaki 650R and my current CRF are very easy and forgiving.
The throttle on the Monster is also not especially beginner friendly either. The stock cam on the throttle (located on the handlebar, the cam controls the relationship between how much you twist the throttle, and how far the cable (or computer control) actually opens), on the Monster is somewhat aggressive. Meaning, small changes to the throttle on the handlebar result in large changes in power delivery. Aggressive throttle cams are more fun for people who like to ride fast, and have precise throttle control, but also require a bit more skill to use. (Again, the throttle on the Monster is not difficult in any way if you’ve ridden before, but is more difficult for a beginner than other bikes). The combination of fast throttle cam, poor fueling, and light flywheel makes the throttle feel “snatchy”, and more difficult to control.
The Monster also has a relatively tall first gear, which means that in stock form, it’s more difficult to launch, and more difficult to ride slowly. Combine that with poor fueling down low, light flywheel, and “touchy” throttle that make it more difficult to apply power smoothly, and you have a combination that is not beginner friendly. (Again, the Monster 696 is probably one of the easiest bikes to ride in Ducati’s entire line up, but that still doesn’t make it a good beginner bike).
Beginner bikes should have less powerful brakes. Hear me out on this one: Modern sportbikes often have brakes powerful enough to flip a person over the front wheel, if there is enough grip. If there isn’t (which is the most likely), a person who accidentally grabs too much front brake will lock up the front, which will likely cause a crash (this is why ABS is good for panic stops, even among experienced riders. Finding the limits of traction in panic situations with one chance to get it right is not a skill most of us actually have). The brakes on my CRF and on my previous Kawasaki 650R are perfectly adequate, but much harder to lock up than on my Monster. You can be much less precise with the brakes without upsetting the bike or breaking traction. I love the feel and power of the brakes on the Monster, and I can stop in an amazingly short distance (well, especially with ABS, but I mean in regular riding conditions). However, powerful brakes require more skill and finesse with the brake levers. The Brembos on the Monster are much less forgiving if you screw it up.
The monster’s ergonomics and steering geometry aren’t very beginner friendly either. The stock riding position is fairly racy and leaned forward over the front wheel, which is great for that purpose, but not the easiest for learning to maneuver a bike. The steering lock is on the small side, and the turning radius rather large, which add the the difficulty of u-turns and other low speed, parking lot maneuvers. (Hitting full lock happens very easily on the Monster).
Look, here’s another way of thinking about it: I bet if you took a stock Monster back in time 40 years, it would dominate the race circuit and win the GP (with modern tires too, of course). Motorcycles and technology have improved by leaps and bounds, but human skill has not. A beginner is the same now as they’ve always been.
Compare the Monster to my Honda CRF230L. That little thumper just might be the perfect beginner street bike. It doesn’t develop a lot of horsepower , but is fairly lightweight, so it’s still fun as a little playbike. The power is very linear and controllable. Even if you mess up with the throttle, it’s not likely to surprise you. First gear is nice and low, and the fueling is excellent all the way down to nothing, which means you can practice low speed maneuvering more easily. The clutch is easy to use, and the throttle cam is pretty tame. Plus, the engine has a comparatively larger flywheel. This makes the engine slower revving, but makes it easier to launch and ride slowly. The CRF will just tractor right down to a stop in first gear, and is very hard to stall. Perfect for a beginning rider (or like me, a beginning off-road rider, who is still pretty timid over most obstacles). Plus, it’s very lightweight (for a streetbike). It’s easy to just put a foot down if the bike starts to tip, and lightweight bikes are easier to maneuver.
Please don’t get me wrong: Despite my reservations about the Monster as a beginner bike, the Monster is still a fantastic motorcycle. I love my Monster. If you have a few miles under your belt, do not let this article deter you, the Monster is a complete joy, and brings a smile to my face every ride. My criticisms of the bike above are purely because I think these aspects of the Monster make it more difficult to learn how to ride. However, once you’ve been riding awhile, most of these aspects make the bike more fun, they just require a bit more skill (and look, I’m no racer, I’m just talking about that first step from no riding experience, to having a couple of thousand miles under your belt).
Yet another perspective: A friend of mine rides dirtbikes, and commented to me about the different riding experiences between his 4-stroke and his 2-stroke bikes. After riding 2-strokes, he appreciated how easy to ride the 4-stroke seemed. Power delivery was much more even, and he spends much less time shifting, as the torque available with the 4-stroke makes gear selection less important. But then he noted how much more fun the 2-stroke feels after not riding it for awhile, because it requires so much more skill and he actually has to ride the damn thing. This is a great analogy for the Monster. While I’m sure the Monster is a lot easier to ride than a modern 2-stroke dirtbike, the concept is the same: on the Monster, you actually have to ride the damn thing more than many other bikes. While its a matter of degree, to some extent you can be much less precise, or even lazier, with something like my Kawasaki 650, or a BMWG650, or KLR, etc. It matters a lot less whether you have really good and precise steering inputs, or inputs to the controls, or whether you are in exactly the right gear for the situation, or whether you time your gear changes exactly right. On the Monster, there are more consequences for lack of skill, or simply messing up. Until things like gear changes and steering inputs and brake control become more natural, choose a bike that won’t fight so hard when you get it wrong.
Can you learn to ride a motorcycle on a Ducati Monster? Of course. People successfully learn on bikes more difficult than that. But why? The bigger, heavier, and more powerful the bike, the more severe the consequences for hitting the steep side of the learning curve. Why would you do that to yourself or someone you care about? Why would you make it harder on yourself, and so greatly increase your risk of injury and damage to a bigger, more expensive bike? So many new riders start off on the bike of their dreams, only to scare themselves so badly they don’t want to ride anymore (this applies to all the motorcycling genres: sportbike riders, cruiser/Harley riders, dualsport, whatever). Maybe this is a good thing, as I don’t want those riders out there with me.
So what do I recommend as a first street bike? You can’t go wrong with a small dualsport like the Honda CRF250L. There’s also the ever popular Kawasaki Ninja 250, or the Honda CBR250 (I kinda want one of these anyway, because small bikes are really fun, and that Honda thumper looks awesome). If you insist on going larger, something like the Kawasaki Ninja 650 is a lot more beginner friendly than even the Monster 696 (Not the repli racer Ninja 600 or 636, those are much racier, and not as street oriented as the 650, which has a fun but more mildly tuned parallel twin.) (Also, there are a lot of standard and cruiser style bikes that would be fine as first streetbikes, but if the goal is a Monster, they likely won’t appeal as much).
Maybe you don’t think my opinion has merit, and I’m overly cautious. What do I know? I’m just an average person that learned to ride a motorcycle, and has been riding happily for many years. However, if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably read other articles by actual authorities on this subject, and realize that my advice is not unique, and represents the opinion of many experienced riders. If you want to ride, do it right. Do yourself a favor. Be patient. Learn on something small for at least six months, and consciously develop your riding skills. You stand a much greater chance of living to be able to buy and actually enjoy that Ducati Monster.