Photo: Angelica Rubalcaba

MV Agusta Brutale 800 Bringing Sexy Back

By Surj Gish, with Max Klein & Fish
Photography: Angelica Rubalcaba & Surj Gish
Rider: Fish

The Brutale 800 is a visually impressive machine. Calling it beautiful, or sexy, or any of the other anthro-descriptors hetero dudes (or closeted bears still clinging to the notion of “fitting in”) use to describe a motorcycle, as if it can be distilled down to a mechanical lady in red, sells the bike’s visual impact short. Unlike many other modern motorcycles, which seem to have abandoned cohesive styling and have instead surrendered to competing lines and confusingly non-functional  chunks of plastic masquerading as… chunks of plastic, I guess, the Brutale makes the complexity work—or works it, baby, if you prefer—resulting in a unified motorcycle form so well engineered—mechanically and visually—that it inspires both contemplation and lascivious fantasy.

I’m pretty sure Max is still daydreaming about running away with the Brutale, making a new life in a small town with one gas station and undulating paths of asphalt snaking away in every direction. After he reluctantly relinquished the Brutale, I walked out to the garage, ‘Stiched-up and ready to head into SF for the day’s “real work,” having forgotten there was an MV curled up amongst the more pedestrian machines we’ve grown accustomed to, opened the garage, and gasped: “Oh, fuck yeah… I’m riding this thing.

If you dream of motorcycles, the Brutale will shake you from your fitful sleep, twisted in the sheets, sweaty and desperate.

And this is the “base model” we’re talking about.

If you’re groaning, “that’s hot,” but the $13,498 basic Brutale’s 109-horse payload leaves you wanting more, the RR may be just the satisfaction you need. For $18,198—nearly five grand more—you get a lot more bike. But the CityBike Road Scholars are here to tell you: if you’re frugal—or even if you’re not—you can have a damn good time on the base model.

A really goddamn good time.

It strains my brain to call the Brutale a “base model,” in a quintessentially Bay Area, socio-political-pseudo-philosophical signaling, “look at me, I’m doing deep thinking” kind of way. We’re talking about a motorcycle, a machine widely dismissed as a toy by the amoral majority, that out the door will run just a bit less than 25% of the 2016 median household income in the United States.

It’s not peanuts, and it’s more than a little surreal that I am going to say this: it’s a bargain for such a bitchin’ bike, armchair economic theory aside.

“But grandpa,” you say, “for that much money, I can buy an FZ-10. It’s got more horsepower, more acronyms, and better parts availability.”

That’s a solid argument, Junior. And Fish would agree—the Ten is a damn fine motorcycle and a very good value for the money.

But it ain’t special. The MV, even the—groan—basic Brutale is unique and extraordinary in a way the FZ-10 will never be. And isn’t trying to be, of course.

You may have had the misfortune to stumble into a “bike night” when stopping off for a cup of coffee, and suffered through enough presumptuous, pseudo-Italian Ducatisti jibber jabber to know that crowd thinks their motorcycles are special. The sheer volume of nonsensical proclamations about Italian design, Ls instead of Vs, and fucking soul are enough to turn a diehard sport rider to playing Harleys and Indians, just to escape the my-chosen-brand-is-my-identity blowharding.

Ducatis, like the FZ-10, are fine motorcycles—but there’s more special in the Brutale’s svelte subframe than there is in an entire showroom full of Monsters.

MV Agustas are the bikes that Ducati fans want to believe their Bologna-bikes are, but desire and belief doesn’t make it so.

But back to the FZ-10, or whatever “but this is similar and cheaper” comparison you want to make—for example, you might feel that if we’re talking Yamahas, the FZ-09 is a better comparison, and it’s only $8,999. All true, but the Nine doesn’t even approach the flavor of the Brutale. This is the conversation we had over and over here at World Headquarters, in the context of what might be the best goddamn motorcycle we’ve had our Helimots on in some time. We can quibble about what “best” means, or should mean, based on various criteria like, “Well, it’ll make a shitty sport-tourer,” and of course it will, smart guy, but nothing has made us all breathlessly moan, “Fuck yeah… more please,” over and over the way the—again, groan—base Brutale did.

It ain’t just pretty in person—the Brutale looks good on paper, too, although I’ll admit that a lot of the good stuff is starting to be standard stuff, at least on higher-spec bikes. The twistgrip sends its single to the brain by wire, not cable. There are three riding modes: Rain, Normal, and Sport. Traction control offers eight levels of intervention, and the Bosch ABS includes rear wheel lift mitigation. There’s also a quick-shifter, but I’ll let Max get himself all worked up telling you about that in just a moment.

The Sport map is kickass, but also very aggressive. Both Max and I found the Normal map a bit more rideable—not that we wouldn’t use Sport, we just wouldn’t use it until the going truly got sporty.

Similarly, on the street, we mostly stayed in the middle of the TC range. I think we’d all loosen it up a bit on the track, and a good rider will definitely be able to differentiate between the levels—but for general use we seemed to happily end up at 4 or 5.

I don’t remember Fish having an opinion on either of these topics aside from a grin and his usual hyena-on-a-minibike cackle.

The Brembo brakes are very good, but the rear brake’s feel is very different than what we’re used to from other bikes. Radial four-piston calipers grab hold of 320 mm floating rotors with a powerful but manageable tenacity up front, but the two-piston caliper really just influences the 220 mm rear rotor. I was only able to get the ABS to trigger on polished concrete, and Max characterized the rear brake as “almost non-existent.”

We called a meeting of the Road Scholars to discuss, and I reached out to MV about the gentle feel of the rear brake. Bruce Meyers, longtime tech advisor at MV USA, gave this explanation:

“All MVs have a very sport orientated brake bias. 10% rear 90% front. This improves handling in aggressive riding. Even our cruisers! In talking with our DOT test facility, our rear brake alone more than passes the DOT requirement and is better balanced and better performing in the full brake panic stop. The down side is that it will only really just hold the bike when you stop on a hill.”

This actually makes sense. Even with the rear wheel lift mitigation, the 55” wheelbase of the bike means that the rear will be very light under braking. We’re just accustomed to rear brakes that are unnecessarily strong—one of my first tests on new-to-us bikes is figuring out how easy it is to lock the rear. Why not employ a rear brake with a more realistic range, thus making it more usable, more easily modulated? The Brutale’s rear brake is such a setup, and once we got used to it, it felt normal.

All this awesome tips the scales at a claimed 385.8 pounds, meaning with essentials like a full 4.36 gallons of fuel, oil and coolant, you’re gonna be well into the low 400s when ready to roll. You’d be accurate in saying “similar to an FZ-09,” but the Brutale feels lighter, and exceptionally nimble. The riding position helps, as it puts the rider in a relaxed but effective attack stance, with surprisingly spacious leg room. The bike is comfortable! The 43 mm Marzocchi fork and Sachs shock, both fully adjustable as God intended, certainly contribute to the bike’s overall always-composed feel as well, and 4.9” of travel, while not enough for the Backcountry Discovery Routes that pass for Bay Area roads these days—is anything short of an MX bike really enough?!—is plenty for normal riding short of child-swallowing potholes and mysteriously huge ruts.

The whole package just works so well, and I can’t remember the last bike we had here at World Headquarters that was such a perfect representation of the proverbial complete package: beautiful, smart, athletic.

Max: It’s Getting Hot In Here

The Brutale is arguably the sexiest thing to come out of Italy since Monica Bellucci or, if you prefer wang, Claudio Marchisio. It’s beautiful almost to the point of cliché: from headlight to foot controls, this thing was engineered to turn heads even before you turn the key.

Hell, even the key is worthy of its own parking spot in the garage, or a special pocket in your ‘Stich.

Single-sided swingarm? Triple outlet exhaust? Trellis frame? All present and rather sexily accounted for. The mirrors are as fashionable as they are functional, not an afterthought like some other bikes in this category. And don’t get me started on the subframe and seat.

OK, I’m going to need a minute…

The bike looks so good that I almost was afraid to ride it. What if it was beautiful but couldn’t perform, you know, once things got a little revved up. Or even worse, what if it looked like Claudio Marchisio but sounded like Danny DeVito?

Once I finally got up the nerve to ask the MV for a quickie, I found out that most of my fears were unwarranted. The ergos are very good, even for my slightly above average size, I mean height, and the power came on effortlessly.

The quick-shifter got me the closest I think I’ve been to addiction in my entire life. I’d launch onto the freeway, bang my way up to speed, downshift three gears, wind the motor to redline, and bang my way upward again, just so I could hear the climax of unburned fuel exploding. It was eargasmic: just me, the machine, and if I was not careful, a bouncing baby speeding ticket.

Off the freeway and into the twisties, the Brutale is almost perfect. Why almost? The seat, while reasonably comfortable for long distances, is not as pleasurable as I’d hope for when adjusting my body position from side to side. The front of the pillion seat wedges directly into my buttcheek, and made hanging off even a little rather uncomfortable. Maybe it’s just me—after all, I’m big, I mean tall.

Sure, there are other quirks too. Thanks to the Brutale’s lack of fuel gauge, I never knew exactly when I’d be chastised for letting her, I mean it go hungry. Once the fuel light came on, instead of being helpful and telling me how much farther I could go, the bike counted the miles traveled since I’d failed to take it out to dinner. Nag, nag, nag.

Even if it was sometimes hard to read, and frequently a pain in my butt, the more time I spent with the MV the more I fell in love.

But, much like many steamy romances before it, this one ended. I knew it was only a matter of time before one or both of us got hurt, so I had to call it off.

“It’s me, not you, baby.”

While I wanted to keep making the MV scream, I just couldn’t keep it up. I wonder who’s tapping that quick-shifter now. Is he a better rider than me? Maybe I should have sold out and taken that job at that mainstream moto mag. Maybe we could still be together…

Someday, Brutale, someday.

Until then, if anyone needs me, I’ll be in the garage polishing my torque wrench, reminiscing.

Fish: Quickie

I’ve been having a lot of abbreviated encounters with Italian motorcycles lately. I assume it’s more to do with their busy schedules than with how they feel about me, but sometimes their leaving so quickly hurts more than others. The Brutale has to be one of the most severe cases of love me and leave me in recent memory.

When Editor Surj started talking MV to me, I had visions of sadistic ergonomics set to a soundtrack of undertail exhaust pipes. He has a way of leaving out specifics. The bike that greeted me at CityBike World Headquarters was something straight out of my grownup Christmas list.

Handlebars? Check! Comfortable seat? Oh yeah! Pegs in a humane position? Why, yes indeed…

How could all this utilitarianism come in such a pretty package?

Surj and Max have beaten the “it’s sexy” and “comfortable too!” horses into so much dogfood at this point, now what? In typically Italian fashion, when I first attempted to ride it, the Brutale’s battery was dead. But—plot twist!—I can’t blame the bike as much as I’m given to jokes about Italians’ quality control—Surj left the key on.

I can blame the Italians for the fact that battery replacement involves removing the fuel tank and maybe the subframe—beauty can be painful, after all. Luckily, the factory recognized the day-ruining potential of such tight packaging and installed a charging port for the supplied charger. Our date would have to be postponed, but not for long.

Attempt number two was met with some oddly-timed, overcast and wet Oakland weather, so I had to get to know the Brutale on wet, slick roads. I did try the Rain mode, which successfully prevented any drama in the newly-sloppy buildup of gunk on the long-dry roads. It also prevented any real excitement.

My experiments with traction control and ABS are usually done in fairly controlled environments, but real-world testing was the order of the day. The things I do for journalism.

We found some drier roads a bit further inland, and the freeway there gave me a chance to really lean into the 800 triple. I’m a triple skeptic: the supposedly ideal compromise often results in a fairly middlin’ engine.

But MV appears to have no interest in making boring motorcycles, and the Brutale’s 798 ccs defied all my preconceptions about its displacement and architecture. With Rain mode off and confidence in the improved traction on, opening the throttle was nothing short of magical.

Sure, there’s a meaty midrange punch that seems to be all the rage with modern triples, but the top end of the tach holds the kind of power and noise usually reserved for some sort of mechanical pornography. The noise primarily comes from the intake, situated right in front of you, and it’s an all-encompassing resonance with no unpleasant aspects, but the sound can easily take center stage and is so glorious it can almost steal your focus from the task of guiding the rocketship you’re perched upon.

The MV delivers a riding experience that lives up to the nameplate’s mystique, but in a surprising, almost practical fashion. The riding position is just slightly sporty, and puts you far enough forward that everything but the mirrors are gone from your field of view. The bars are wide and confidence-inspiring. The whole package borders on some sort of mountain bike / supermoto hybrid, but it has a way of reminding you that your real task is to dispatch corners with extreme prejudice.

I’m a mechanically-minded person and usually pick bikes apart as I ride them. I look for weak points, components that don’t add to the overall package. My time with the Brutale was too short, but long enough to recognize the harmony that exists in the machine. I’ll echo Max’s sentiments about the quick-shifter being an utterly intoxicating experience, but it’s so good because the gear ratios are so perfect, the engine is one of the best I’ve ever ridden, the chassis is so competent, the suspension works so well… Yeah, I’m swooning here.

That’s truly the beauty of this bike. It’s a passionately created piece of engineering, with all the details worked out so thoroughly that you can’t really do anything but revel in the experience.

This story originally appeared in our November 2017 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.