2005 Ducati Monster S4R – Something Wicked

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Ducati Monster S4R - Something WickedAfter a short bit of town and freeway riding from John Valk BMW Ducati, it’s pulling out of US customs where Ducati’s Monster S4R shows it’s true nature.  A little too much gas may have been applied, and the exuberant monster kicked up it’s heels…  well, actually it’s front end.

It must have been the nerves; going through a border on a demo bike, on dealer plates, making the outrageous claim of being a motorcycle journalist – all that had left me twitchy and my throttle input not as smooth as it should be.  But once the front end is up, it may as well stay there for a bit – in the name of testing mind you.  Besides the look on faces of Ad-man Giovanni and John Valk was worth the feeling of sniper’s rifles taking target on my back at this hooligan action.  This then is the Monster S4R and it’s here to corrupt you.

Fifteen minutes later, that joy is gone as I’m whump-whumping across the concrete slabs of the I-5, Portland bound to attend the first Ducati North West event.  It took at most another 15 minutes before I came to the less than startling conclusion that the I-5 is not the Monster S4R’s (or any other naked bike’s) stomping ground; the windblast at freeway speeds, despite the stylish fly screen, is tremendous.

The I-5 doesn’t exactly require the utmost attention, especially on police laden days, and one’s mind can wander a bit. The name “monster” brought back a conversation I had a few years back with Clive Barker about the nature of monsters.  Over the course of our “talking shop”, it came up that corruption is part of a good monster’s job.  Higher functioning and enduring monsters are always out to convert; vampires, werewolves and their kin.  Barker made the point that monsters of mythos and popular fiction are not only icons of our society’s fears, but also of our darkest, deepest, least acceptable wishes, and even better, monsters get to have a sense of play in it all.  The Ducati Monster S4R fits this description to a tee.

Take the engine, well Ducati did – right out of it’s 996 superbike. In that move Ducati made it clear that it was not out to create a lumbering modern Frankenstein.  No, the Monster S4R is closer to the perfection good old Victor was striving for back in the day; the 996cc desmoquattro L-Twin packs a fiendish 113hp and around 68 ft-lbs of torque. In real-world terms that’s “gobs of torque”, as our USA entry wheelie suggests.  Does power corrupt?  Hell yes, but even the corrupted have to rein things in, and that calls for self-control, even Mr. Hyde had his Dr. Jekyll and your average megalomaniac is always ranting on about total control.

Wickedly slick throttle control is provided by the Monster S4R’s Marelli injection system.  The throttle itself feels a bit heavy to the turn, but you quickly adapt.  At 3,500 RPM you feel the engine pulsing forward, and that wave of thrust will carry you though to red at 10,000 with a seductive L-Twin rush.  At that point the rev limiter gives you a kick indicating, “shift time”.  Below 4,500 RPM the fly screen shakes, the mirrors blur, and the bars and pegs vibe.  The solution?  Twist the throttle of course – that vibe is the sign of a beast all pent up.

Fairhaven, home to some of the best African Peanut soup I’ve ever sampled, signals a respite from the I-5 as we head down the scenic, and more importantly, serpentine Chuckanut Drive.  Pulling into the Chevron my priorities are petrol and a quick tune of the suspension.  This gave us a look at the under-seat tool kit, which, matching the storage space, is minimal.  Maybe just toss the kit and re-place it with an emergency gold card, a solution that’s about as useful and more weight-saving.  So our first run of twisties didn’t have the suspension quite set properly, the upside is while soft, the bike still handled well and stuck to the road without question.

Flicking through the ratios requires a bit of work, the Ducati’s dry clutch being a bit on the heavy side.  The gear lever requires a firm nudge, and while the feel might not be as fluid as some offerings on the market, once you adapt it’s more that capable of quick and accurate changes.  The only things that don’t gel are the clutch’s “groaning” when hot and it being feathered at low speeds – such parking lot conditions are not the S4R’s element.  This became readily apparent during Seattle rush-hour, Monsters it seems don’t stand on delays or complacency.  The bikes impeccable balance let it slip though the crawling traffic without slipping the clutch.

Lane splitting hooliganism underway, I find myself craning to see the other bikes from our group and the encroaching traffic in the mirrors.  They are small, stylish, sleek and, while looking good, aren’t all that effective to look through.  Eventually I just give them a miss and concentrate on the task at hand.  Torque-ing off the Seattle drivers as the S4R and I romp by though the four-wheeled masses; monsters are, after all, about the more socially unacceptable actions.  Some fruitier cans would add to that effect making the Monster S4R truly growl at those who get to close – this engine begs for a Termignoni implant.

The next days see us doing press duties for Ducati North West 2004 at Portland International Raceway.  It also gave us the opportunity to get the suspension truly sorted courtesy of GP Suspension. Fully adjustable, the Showa forks were dialed-in for preload, compression, and rebound; out back the ride height and preload were set.  That brought about a major change in the monster’s personality.  On the ride down to Portland the S4R was just moderately evil – now it was villainously good.

Then we did something we don’t normally get to do with a tester – we put it on a track.

The green flag waves and to the Monster S4R that must be like red to a bull – the monster is unleashed.  In tighter corners the forward leaning ergos of the S4R give you great leverage against the Magura bars, and the monster flows like quicksilver through the bend.  Soon, after our warm-up laps, the Monster and I latch onto an Aprilia Mille R. On the straights the S4R kisses 240kph with me hugging the tank, and the Aprilia is pulling away.  If I had any sense I wouldn’t be trying this, but I don’t – the raw intoxication of the S4R has just torn my common sense to pieces.

While the Aprilia has our advantage in the straights, come the corners the Monster’s planted suspension and effortless handling left me in a world of insane grins, gales of mad laughter, washes of adrenaline, and hanging off the Aprilia’s rear tire.  We brake hard into PIR’s corners, a tactic easily mastered by twin 320 mm disks mated to four-pot Brembo calipers, it’s a fiercely powerful combination.  The only let down is a slightly vague initial feedback.  Out back, the twin-piston caliper clamping a 245mm disc does its duties without fuss.

With the rubber pilling on the tires and the throttle opened beyond any sense of reason, the corruption is complete; the Monster S4R is in its own here.  Later I put the Ducati 999 to the same task around the ring.  To my surprise, while the 999 is only truly alive on the track, the Monster S4R is the bike that I’m more drawn to for the sheer indecent fun of it all.  It’s rawer, less laser focused, and overall just easier to cane till it roars.

Later that weekend, over lunch at the “Pig and Pancake” in the Oregon coastal town of Astoria, Kevin Davis of Ducati North America sets me right on a few things regarding the S4R’s exceptional performance on the track.  “We didn’t change the chassis dynamic for the S4R [over the S4].  We just pulled everything that would scrape up and out of the way.”  That means two stylized high-mount pipes on the right-hand side, set firmly out of asphalt’s reach, except at a tragic lean angle.  The pegs also have been moved up and back over the S4.  The Monster S4R, like any good monster, has adapted to the changing times.  It’s a bit smarter now, a bit better at outwitting its opponents, and has a better sense of humour – it’s no longer Count Dracula, it’s Buffy’s “Spike”, complete with peroxide looks and attitude to match.

Those high-set pipes visually balance the sculptural elegance of the swing-arm, formed from aluminum tubing.  This brings us, sadly, to a couple niggles with the S4R.  First, you’d better keep that chain tight, lest mar the industrial beauty of the swingarm or worse, rub into the bulbous catalytic converter.  Second, those of us with larger feet riding in proper balls-of-feet-on-pegs riding position may find our right heel contacting the up-tube to the exhaust.  Seems that size 11’s weren’t taken into account during the design process.  Last gripe is the plumbing.

The thing I don’t like about monster movies is spotting the zipper in the costume, it destroys the suspension of disbelief. The plumbing is the Monster S4R’s zipper; the tubes, wires and pipes all end up feeling a little “junk yard wars” (the good Brit version, not the American rip-off).  But if you’re willing to do a little soft focus, this monster looks just fine.

Is the Monster S4R a practical bike?  No, not at all. Ducati has stuffed the corrupting “superbike” power of the 996cc L-Twin desmoquattro into a naked bike package and created something truly devious.  While there are a few minor aesthetic glitches, one simply can’t hold those against this bike. Capable of terrorizing both road and track, the Ducati Monster S4R lives up to what a monster should be; playful, seductive, corruptive, surprising and socially unacceptable – all in a slick and stylish way.

Test bike provided by John Valk BMW Ducati.

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