We Twins - Ducati Monster 796 v/s Harley Davidson XR1200X


Twins are supposed to be alike. They also create confusion wherever they go. And boy, were we confused. Take a long, hard look at these motorcycles - The Ducati Monster 796 and the Harley-Davidson XR1200X. These motorcycles embody the elemental characteristics of each manufacturer and are shining examples of what a V-twin means to people on either side of the Puddle. Both are American and Italian icons, as different as the Hoover Dam and Roman aqueducts, with equally illustrious histories. And both have hung on to the quirks that made them famous; quirks that are worlds apart and yet, equally brilliant. How is one to decide which one betters the other?

Just like the motorcycles, Joshua Crasto and I share some similarities - lives that revolve around motorcycles and consequently, a good number of broken bones. I suspect we’re V-twins at heart, too. And just like the motorcycles, we couldn’t be more different...er, let’s just leave it at that. But I needed to continue the tradition of Josh appearing in BSM at least once a year (God knows what possessed him to go fly planes), hence the the guest appearance.

Yes, a Monster 1100 would’ve been a better displacement-match for the XR. But the middleweight Monster is a more even match for the heavyweight XR in the power stakes. But this is about more than just power. It’s about the way these two motorcycles feel. It’s desmodromic versus pushrod, simple frame versus exotic trelllis. And as with such cases, it’s never simple.  

The motorcycles proudly display classic proportions that are as different as the cultures and continents they come from. Your eyes switch to larger-than-life slow-motion mode when you look at these two. The Monster is a study in blood-red Italian streetbike perfection, while the XR is designed to evoke memories of the legendary XR750. If only the XR came to us in the iconic orange and black XR colours...

What we got instead was an all-black motorcycle that doesn’t do any justice to those flat-tracker lines. Sigh. Still, it is the best-looking Harley on sale in India, in my opinion. The sporty cycle parts add a touch of sophistication, but don’t take anything away from the timeless charm of that V-twin architecture. The twin stacked pipes add to the sporty image, though the outlets are a bit tacky in finish. Put the XR next to heavy industrial machinery and it looks right at home, exuding an air of invincibility. Just like Joshua, then. He’s turned grease marks into a fashion statement and wrenches/spanners into accessories.

The Monster, by contrast, shocks with its...er, contrast against a mechanical backdrop. It looks like a fashion model that’s catwalked into a workshop by accident (Just like you then? Heh, heh - Ruman). Amazing how a machine can look so alive. It even seems startled to be among giant cranes and generators. Anyway, since it was launched in 1993, the Monster has almost dictated the proportions of modern naked streetbikes. And thank God for that.

Actually, thank Miguel Galluzi for inventing that highlighted trellis chassis, substantial tank, stubby tail section and ready-to-go stance. Even after a re-deign a few years ago, the Monster formula remains the same. I love those twin under-seat exhausts and that single-sided swingarm. They keep me from ruing the fact that the L-twin is barely visible under the chassis.     

Both motorcycles feature a host of delightful details, the Ducati more so. I don’t know what it is, but the little Italian flag on the rear seat cover looks more at home than on a Ferrari. Then there’s that little flyscreen that flings the wind over your head at speed. That MotoGP-inspired digital dash is practically useless for reading revs, but it did show me a beautiful ‘163’ on the speedo. And that front mudguard is so... okay fine, I’ll stop now. But you get the picture. Better still, take one look at the Monster in the flesh and you’ll know why I can’t stop rambling. But that might just be me again. I think Josh might have rambled about the XR, but I was too busy drooling over the Ducati.  

To repeat myself, the Monster and the XR are classic designs. But refinements have crept in after years of production and development. And these developments have been used to highlight their unique appeal rather than bland them down. The whine of Italian desmo gears is as exceptional as the chugging of American pushrods and this is all the more apparent when you ride either one.

The XR, for example, is very much a delightful Harley to ride; that it is different than its siblings is very evident the moment you sit on it - this is a supersport riding position by Harley standards! The handlebar reaches out to grab your palms, and despite knowing fully well that the XR comes with rearset pegs, the first time I got on it, my feet were treading air somewhere up front! It’s a small thing, but it makes for an entirely different experience.

You tend to sit in a natural and aggressive position on the XR. And that seals the deal. There is no way you can be calm with this motorcycle - I never thought I’d say that about a Hog. The 1202cc engine is relaxed but powerful and houses around 90 wild mustangs in its twin-cylinder stable. And they’re all too happy to be let loose. If you keep it pinned, you will cross 100 kph in four seconds and steamroll your way to 195 kph. However, when dragged together, the Ducati stallions will outrun the American horses. Though the Monster makes 87 bhp, it is a massive 93 kg lighter than the Harley. They say there’s no substitute for displacement. The Monster disagrees with them, I think.

The feeling you get while riding the XR is one of sheer momentum, like a V-twin-powered wrecking ball that makes a beeline for the horizon. Every throttle-plugging session fills your helmet with an almighty roar, sends vibes up and down your spine and injects your brain with a generous dose of all-American adrenaline. When we stop for pictures, Josh says that he’d rather ride the XR in a straight, straight line. But isn’t the XR supposed to be a sporty motorcycle? Later, Joshua contradicts himself by pulling giant slides on the XR. And then I realise it - the XR is a sporty Harley-Davidson and that’s it. It’s handles...well, differently. It’s no scalpel, but is most definitely fun. The Monster, however, is even more so.

The Monster is the most well-rounded streetbike I’ve ridden so far. Everything - the power, the size, the weight - is almost perfect. If the XR is a bike you cannot be calm on, then the Monster is the bike that turns you into a raging lunatic. It’s an excellent hooligan bike for our roads; where the Streetfighter is too much, the Monster 796 is just right. The riding position is comfortable yet racy. The clutch is superbly light and the gearing is spot-on, making for monster wheelies (heh heh) and effortless riding in traffic. If you find a straight stretch, the Ducati will reward you with a 3.7-second run to 100 kph and will blat its way to 200 kph. It sounds fantastic at full throttle and never feels as threatening as a litre-bike does. Nailing every shift is followed by a satisfying increase in speed, not a scary one.   

And on a twisty road, it might just show its rear tyre to much more powerful bikes. Flickable and light, the Monster sends all the right signals to your brain in corners, allowing to to attack sweepers and hairpins with confidence. No need to point and shoot like the XR - just go with the flow at whatever speed you can muster. And knowing that the Monster’s slipper clutch has got your back gives you added impetus to go nuts. In comparison, getting the XR to corner at similar speeds is like trying to play Beethoven’s 7th Symphony on a comb. However, an endearing or disconcerting trait (depends on which way you look at it) of the Monster is that if you get too enthusiastic with the throttle, the rear wheel will want to overtake the front. Each of us who rode the Monster felt this, so it’s not just me this time! And this is no bad thing either, since it adds to the involvement factor. Besides, if they call it ‘Monster,’ it has got to be a little unruly, no? 

All said and done, distances between the two V-twin cultures are not enough to keep away similarities. The vibes, the inimitable feel of pistons alternately tugging at each other and, dare I say it, the almost agricultural, raw feel that these two motorcycles exhibit are reason enough for them to stand out from the usual big bikes that we get these days.

The best thing I can say about the XR is that there just might be some Italians working in the HD factory building the XR. The Monster,well,the way it moves and sounds makes musical instruments sound out of tune. Evel Knievel versus Valentino Rossi might be a tough choice for some, no? In any case, numbers really don’t matter here, so I’m not even going to mention prices and suchlike. Both have enough charm and character to go beyond mundane things like reason and practicality. The Harley is the mate who’s got your back in a barroom brawl, the Ducati is like dancing the salsa with the perfect woman. I know I need both.

But Italian machines have a way of turning me into an automotive racist. Hence, the Ducati is what I’d sell myself for. Both of these machines deserve to be ridden like it’s the last day of your life. But if I had only one day to live, I’d take the Ducati. What can I say, they’re as different as twins can be.