A learner bike that eats red meat

DUCATI MONSTER 659 LAMS ABS: We're not kidding, this is a learner bike.
DUCATI MONSTER 659 LAMS ABS: We're not kidding, this is a learner bike.
DUCATI LEARNER: It's slim and light for manoeuvrability and handling and has a low seat for those short in the inside leg.
DUCATI LEARNER: It's slim and light for manoeuvrability and handling and has a low seat for those short in the inside leg.
DETAILS: Just like a full-power Monster.
DETAILS: Just like a full-power Monster.

It might be a motorcycle targeted at learner riders, but the new Ducati Monster 659 LAMS is the bike that I feared most to ride this year.

Engine: 659cc air-cooled sohc 4v fuel-injected 90-degree L-twin; 38kW (51bhp) at 8000rpm and 47Nm of torque at 6400rpm.
Frame: Steel-tube trellis frame with alloy swingarm, 43mm unadjustable inverted front forks with 120mm of travel, preload/rebound-adjustable Sachs rear monoshock with 148mm of travel.
Price: $17,490.
Transmission: six-speed sequential gearbox, chain final drive.
Hot: At last, a premium learner-approved motorcycle that new riders will feel a sense of ownership pride in as well as enjoyment while riding.
Not: Soft front brake set-up mocks the addition of ABS; hard-to-read speedo, single indicator warning light, restricted sidestand access when parking.
Knowing that the Bologna bike maker had taken the excellent Monster 696 and tweaked it to comply with the outer limits of the new Learner Approved Motorcycle Scheme, I was concerned that it might have become so neutered that it wouldn't qualify as a "real Ducati" any more. Well, it appears that such fears were groundless.

The 659 might have an abbreviation that provokes images of cuddly little herbivores included in its model nomenclature, but it hardly resembles a sandal-wearing, green tea-sipping vegetarian in dynamic profile. This is a bike as red-blooded as any that emerge from the Borgo Panigale factory and its appearance on our market will be a boon to those who aspire to the joys of biking, but found the previous selection of officially sanctioned learner rides too offputting in terms of their lack of desirability, quality and performance.

For the 189kg, fully fuelled Monster 659 LAMS is so good that I suspect many owners will think twice about trading it in once they've graduated to a full motorcycle licence. At $17,490, it is the most expensive LAMS-compliant new bike presently on the market, but its increased appeal is likely to result in a longer term of ownership than cheaper LAMS bikes.

And woe betide anyone who chooses the learner-model Ducati as a stepping stone to an aspirational heavyweight American cruiser, because they didn't want to be seen riding something with an Asian brand during their restricted licence period. For they'll quickly find that trading up to the eventual object of their desires will result in a big step backwards in riding dynamics, as the big Yank behemoth won't be nearly as nimble and corner-savvy.

It's the basis of the new Monster model that makes the bike such a success. The Monster 696 is a booming little air-cooled L-twin, pumping out just over 80bhp, and equipped with a nimble-handling trellis-framed chassis, complete with a gorgeously engineered, gravity-cast, double-sided rear alloy swingarm. New-for-2011 Monster 696 upgrades like increased steering lock, standard-fit ABS brakes, and a more compliant suspension setup carry over to the detuned learner model, adding a dose of extra rider-friendliness to both identically priced Monsters.

The 696 is a great platform for a LAMS model as it is both Ducati's cheapest and lowest-powered bike, and a total doddle to ride straight out of the box. The biggest challenge was how to prune 29bhp from the 696's power delivery to comply with the LAMS power-to-weight requirement of no more than 150kW-per-tonne, and meet the 660cc maximum on engine capacity. That the Bologna engineers managed a 30 per cent cut in power while retaining the essential Ducati elements of the engine in terms of character, torque delivery, sound effects and throttle response is worthy of loud applause.

In came a lower compression ratio (10.2:1 instead of 10.7), 3-millimetre shorter piston strokes, a new engine management control unit, and revised cam timing. But even these measures weren't enough to lower the peak power of the Monster 696 to achieve LAMS compliance.

The final change was a new throttle control housing that prevents the 45mm diameter butterfly feeding both cylinders from fully opening. If I was a Monster 659 LAMS owner I'd celebrate my graduation to a full bike licence by immediately heading to the nearest Ducati dealer and ordering the few inexpensive parts required to allow the engine to dine on a wide- open throttle. There's quite possibly another 15bhp immediately available with this easily achieved modification.

This is a fine-handling bike for a learner, with its light, easy steering, large reserves of cornering clearance and absorbent suspension. With ABS already on board it would be nice if Ducati gave the brakes a bit more bite.

However, the APTC slipper-clutch, which both prevents rear wheel lockups if an inexperienced rider downshifts too many gears and results in a lighter lever action, is just what a learner bike needs, and the Ducati is actually the only LAMS model so far to provide one.

This isn't the perfect learner bike - the digital speedo is out of the rider's line of sight and is hard to read at a glance, and the single indicator warning light on the instrument panel fails to inform which side is blinking.

However it is the closest that any bike maker has come to building one so far.