After just making the flight to Nice by under 3 minutes thanks to London’s tubular network being as reliable as an unloved Mobylette, I arrived for the press launch of Ducati’s Monster 797 expecting an evening of convivial hospitality followed by a day’s riding in sunshine along The Corniches. Instead we dumped bags, slipped into something less comfortable and jumped straight on the fleet of white Monsters, Star White Silk as it happens, for a quick blast and all important photo shoot before the rain set in. For the planned test day the Cote d’Azur was to do its finest impression of Bognor Regis, in February, with added El Nino.
Rush out of hotel, rush back in, swap visor and back down again to swing a leg over a totally unfamiliar machine, turn key while stamping into first, thumb starter, clutch out – go! All in a days work for some, but maybe not for prospective purchasers of the new Monster. There’s a good reason Mr Hogan is testing tyres in the desert and I’m here awaiting a soaking, on paper I’d probably be considered the target market for the new 797. I can hustle when needed but I couldn’t tell you if fork oil was 5w or 15w, or whether the Pirelli Diablo Rosso II fitted were the dual or single compound.
Enjoyable and Friendly
If you’re at that level you’ll be better suited to the Testastretta powered 821 or balls-out 1200. The 797 isn’t a whiz-bang new edition but a hearty tweak on a tried and tested formula – character to the power of 10, plus style, minus expensive frills, equalling loads of smiles per mile. The 797 is aimed at the urban commuter or weekend rider whose soul will be stirred by a spirited dash down a country lane, rather than satisfying a burning desire to perfect entry into Craner’s second curve. Or perhaps new riders who’ve served their apprenticeship on a 250 and now want something grown-up. ‘Rookie’ was used a few times during the presentation – the 797 is supposed to be ‘enjoyable and friendly’ and that’s exactly what it was, right out of the gate.
The Desmodue (2 valve) L-twin lives on, unhindered by polar bear placating jackets of cool water – in this guise displacing 803cc, converting the effort into a useful 75hp and 79nm of torque, 80% of which is on tap from 3500rpm.The lineage of this motor goes back so far that with a bit of a squint it doesn’t look all that different from Taglioni’s original design. Under the extra tubes, plastic shrouds, wires and sensors is that same pair of handsome, deeply finned barrels flanked on the right side by the familiar cam belt assembly. If you’re a fan of the nineties Monster you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see most of the good looking bits are still on display. But unlike the flakey cases on those early bikes the finishes on the 797 appear top notch. I can’t see 10 years into the future but I know what shit paint looks like, the 797 hasn’t got that option fitted.
Still pure Ducati
The synonymous rattle of the dry clutch is long gone, replaced by the latest version of the wet, APTC slipper unit, which is really light and operates smoothly enough. Ideal for newbies stamping down the box in a hurry or city dwellers playing filtering Tetris. It turns over just like an old one too, the starter motor is so lazy that even on the brand spanking press bikes you’d think someone had flattened the battery. The engine note is also familiar and reassuring, reminding you that this is actually a mechanical beast and not some anodyne, overly balanced Jap’ four-banger. Everyone is different but I want to feel the engineers’ efforts beneath me, not thumb the starter for a second time because I can’t tell if the thing is running. Ducati have left the recipe alone, it’s not low G.I. or gluten free – it’s still pure Ducati.
As is the styling. For me the outgoing Monsters were a bit too funky looking. The single sided swinger was gorgeous but shouted ‘hey, check me out, I’m really fast” and the headlight resembled one of those handbag dogs that looks like it ran into a patio door. And I didn’t really like the meshed intake in the tank either. The 797 has returned to a slightly more contemporary aesthetic with a slightly bulbous headlight and a traditional twin-spar swingarm, similar in design to the one propping up the old 696. For me the whole silhouette has improved and the visual balance is superior too. Maybe I’m swayed by the pipes now being in the correct place. The 916, 999 and a few others look good with high level pipes, not the Monster though.
Instagram thigh gap
The wheelbase is a whisker shorter than the current 821 for improved agility, the pegs are slightly further forward and lower which combines with a shorter reach to the bars for relaxed ergonomics. If you share Frankie Dettori’s stumpy gene or are a lady struggling to achieve an Instagram worthy thigh gap then the Monster is for you, seat height is 805mm and there’s a low option dropping a further 20mm. If you’re selfish and have no desire to take a pillion there’s a Plus version available with a body coloured saddle cover and fly screen, yours for an extra £355.
There’s now a USB charging socket under the seat to ensure you never miss a selfie and the dash is upgradable to a Bluetooth friendly hub that’ll integrate with sat nav, helmet coms and music etc. which will keep millennials occupied but Ducati have balanced this with some heritage retrogrades. The ignition key still lives where it should on a Monster, behind the headstock in a recess in the fuel tank – just like the good old days, but the tank latch has made a return, this time an alloy ski boot style. We all had to have a flick to make sure it was as hard as the original to relocate. A slight disappointment, I’d have liked some swearing to have happened for authenticity points but one of the journos managed lock-down in a few seconds. The tank though isn’t an injection moulded thing clad in plastic panels but a proper old fashioned steel one, with welds and stuff. You’ll only notice when you hear that metallic tink when refuelling, but for that alone it’s worth it.
A major part of someone buying-in to the Ducati brand is to feel like they’re riding a premium product, thankfully this isn’t let down by cheap external components. Forks are USD Kayabas borrowed from its rabid step brother the 821, but with less aggressive internals. Springs are progressive for plushness at low speed and capability thereafter, but not adjustable. The shock is by Sachs and has spring preload and rebound damping to fiddle with. Brakes are of course by Brembo, M4.32 4-piston monoblocs, radially mounted.
The trellis frame is unmistakably Ducati but nowadays all derivations appear better than the old ones, the robot in Bologna must have been replaced and the welded joints look like a neat squeeze of toothpaste rather than spattery worms from a MiG. Even the stock zorst is pretty nice, swaged joints with racy retaining springs. And now the rear cylinder header runs out, forward, down and round – much prettier. The silencer is for show though as the guts of it are housed within an oblong stainless box, hidden by a cylindrical aluminium sleeve.
Compact, sporty and enjoyable are the bars Ducati have set for the new 797, so what does it ride like?
Well, as mentioned there was zero time to become acquainted thanks to the disappearing light and need for dry weather photos. Which for this bike was actually a bonus. I’m Joe Average on the proportions front and the bars felt well spaced, upright enough to be in command and forward enough for sportiness. Pegs are positioned ideally for town riding or for newbies and despite wearing particularly clumpy boots I didn’t miss a shift or struggle to find neutral.
I own two Ducati 900 powered bikes and spent 16,000 miles riding one around Europe a few years ago so the Monster’s power plant felt like an old pair of slippers, albeit with fresh soles and a new lining. Fuelling is vastly improved but there was still the odd cough when picking up the throttle after letting revs dip below 2000rpm. Covering the clutch is second nature to 2v Desmo owners which came in handy when trundling through slow moving town sections, 10MPH or less and the Monster becomes ever so slightly recalcitrant, but it’s by no means off-putting, especially with the new featherlight lever action. The stock silencer let out just enough soul to keep me entertained but I’d plump for the Termignoni option straight away for a proper soundtrack, especially as it comes with a specific ‘race’ map.
No traction or ride-by-wire
The test route on day two was beyond moist. Inch deep rivers of water ran perpendicular across the road, white bikes followed by a wake caused more than one jetski joke. But riding someone else’s bike, for someone else’s magazine is no laughing matter in such atrocious conditions, thankfully the 797 again proved confidence inspiring. A few attempts to mimic an over enthusiastic newbie with a heavy right wrist were greeted by a deep induction roar but no dramas – provided the Desmodue wasn’t spooled-up past about 4000. It wasn’t the day for heroics, confirmed by a few squirms but certainly nothing alarming. The 797 doesn’t come with traction control or ride-by-wire throttle, a good thing. It’s supposed to be pure and visceral with a whiff of danger. If you want to be cosseted, buy a boring bike, and if you need scaring a bit save your pocket money and go for the 821.
Much of the Tarmac was criss-crossed with black snakes of bitumen repairs which glistened perilously under the surface water. That burly Brembo setup commanded respect despite Bosch ABS waiting in the wings to sweep up misdemeanours. Middle finger caressing the lever as delicately as you would the best bits of a new girlfriend I proceeded with upmost caution. During the brief dry session the night before along coast roads, two fingers were more than adequate to get the job done. The rear was perfectly good enough for town work and not snatchy.
Steering is light and below about 20mph slightly floaty, which I’d say is ideal for the city but a few more degrees of lock would be ideal in London. Feedback in the wet was more than adequate for me and in the dry the 797 changed direction easily, whether by tugging the bars or shifting the hips. There wasn’t really an opportunity to throw weight around on faster sections but the package seems more than capable of being a hooligan in the right hands.
Being a Ducati the Monster 797 was never going to be a bargain. If you buy a bar of Dairy Milk coz it’s cheap it’ll come in a purple plastic wrapper. If you want a fancy cardboard sleeve with gold foil and fairtrade, child labour free goodness inside, go for the Lindt. Yes an XSR700 or SV650 is a chunk cheaper but they feel it too and therefore I don’t think it’s a totally fair comparison, especially when sturdy Ducati residuals are factored in. Chop in an old 620ie and sign up for £89 a month on a Ducati PCP and you could ride away on classy piece of kit, then just swap for the latest model in three years. Or maybe you’ve earned your stripes banging around on a KTM Duke 125 for a couple of years and saved some coin, the 797 wouldn’t be a crazy next rung.
Not a bike for pussies
The matt white paint on the press fleet was sharp and there are traditionalists who’ll of course stick to red but for me the Dark Stealth with black frame and wheels looks the business. It’s a proper grown-up motorcycle and a far cry from the entry-level offerings from Bologna 20 years ago.
Ducati’s plan with the 797 was in part to welcome new customers to the brand, and by fine tuning one of the most charismatic mid-sized nakeds ever made they’ll undoubtedly succeed. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bike for pussies either. I’d gladly hack to work on one during the week and get lairy on a Sunday, and if Brands was a bit closer I’d do away with the hero blobs in an afternoon.
Words: Ross Sharp Images: Milagro