Back in 2014 everyone got very excited about Ducati bringing a Scrambler model back to their range, but although the bike has been a huge commercial success, it wasn’t what everyone was hoping for. There was nothing wrong with the new bike, but for many existing Ducatistas the new Scrambler was an entry-level Ducati for brand-newbies, rather than the retro-styled alternative to the Monster and Hypermotard they had wanted. Scroll-on to 2017 and it seems that Ducati have an answer. The new Desert Sled responds to everyone that wanted a proper scrambler with authentic inheritance from the original 70s dirt bikes we all grew up to love. In summary, the new Desert Sled is beefed-up and re-worked to have much more physical presence than the original model, and is now tough enough for real scrambling on the dirt, but, more than that, the subtle changes to the stance of the bike give it a much more ‘complete’ look. …This is the Scrambler they should have built in the first place.
This story begins with a trip to the Tabernas Desert, and a fake Western Town an hour or so from Almeria in southern Spain. The few roads that do exist snake up and down the mountains, while the lower slopes offer dusty trails that wind around dried-up rivers and spiky vegetation. This is proper dirt-bike territory.
Most of our day was going to be spent off the tarmac, and while much of the ground was well-ridden it was still loose and sandy, with big rocks and ruts to lose your front wheel into. I was a little nervous as to how a 191kg road bike was going to cope, especially as many of the journalists I was riding with seemed to be off-road legends including one Dakar finisher… Time for proper boots and body armour.
It was also very cold. I’m getting used to the idea that bike launches all take place over winter, but I had hoped the desert might provide a bit of T-shirt weather, but as luck would have it the Mediterranean seemed to be in a freak super-cold spell and the daytime temperature plunged to a few degrees above freezing. At least it was sunny and we beat the snow that dusted the mountains the following day.
As well as giving the bike some stick in the dirt we were also due to enjoy some very twisty tarmac, and the truth is, this is where most of these bikes will be used, and where they will be loved or loathed. Knowing that Ducati prides itself on building bikes with fantastic road manners we all had very high expectations. More than that, with so many of the mountain bends un-molested by any sort of crash barrier to protect us from the massive drops, this bike needed to be good!
After an entertainingly cheesy briefing – via the medium of an Italian-cowboy poker game in Fort Bravo’s saloon bar – we set off in two large posses. Apart from being instructed to turn off the ABS when we were off road, there wasn’t much instruction on the terrain or how to handle it. We simply had to trust the bike and get on with it.
So let’s talk about the bike… My initial assumption was that the Desert Sled would basically be a Ducati Scrambler with some knobblies, high mudguards and slightly taller, but on closer inspection it was clear the Sled had been back to the bench for a complete makeover. We were told that apart from the 803cc engine and tank, everything on the bike was new or modified, which not only created a much tougher bike, it also completely re-formatted the ride height and riding position. Seat height on the Sled is 860mm and wheelbase is 1505mm.
Many of the main mods are visible below, as they centre around supporting longer-travel suspension (200mm) with fatter 46mm fully-adjustable forks, new yokes with more offset, and a specially-commissioned Kayaba rear shock. The frame has extra bracing (visible across the back cylinder) to absorb the bigger bumps at the rear, and where most Ducatis usually rely solely on the engine casing to mount the rear swing-arm on to, The Sled’s frame wraps around the outside of the specially reinforced swinger, providing more strength and rigidity.
Bear-trap footrests are ideal for big chunky off-road boots, and standing-up for the bumps without fear of slipping off. (Rubbers – not shown – are easily removed). The whole package weighs a little more than the standard bike, as there’s a lot of extra metal required in all that chunky suspension and frame bracing, but it’s all carried extremely well – and it isn’t exactly lardy for a road bike. It’s certainly not heavy enough to stop a good rider getting some air.
Sadly the pic above wasn’t me, but it could have been, as this bike is properly tough – which I proved at the end of our ride by being one of many who crash-tested the Sled doing skids for the off-road photos.
Wheels have been changed to a 19″ up front and 17″ at the rear, anodised dirt-bike gold, and shod with specially-developed Pirelli Scorpion Rally STRs. I think the wheels on the Desert Sled look better than the solid eighteen/seventeen on the original Scrambler, and the raised fenders, bash-plate and wide bars also fit the bike better than the base model. The longer-travel suspensions adds around 80mm to the seat height and with a revised footrest position, and a taller, flatter, slimmer seat, the riding position is completely different to the standard Scrambler.
The whole bike not only feels bigger and more roomy, the new layout means standing-up feels completely natural on the Sled, whereas it’s a bit awkward on the original. All in all it feels like the original bike went to the gym, put on some muscle and grew a stubbly beard. The spotty teenager has grown into a brawny 20 year old, at last.
More than a few people have commented that this bike reminds them of a Yamaha XT500, and a quick image search on Google makes it clear why. Apart from the big red X on the metallic tank panel and the white plastic fenders, the whole bike seems to channel the vibe and silhouette of ’70s scramblers, which is just what everyone had hoped for first time around. The Ducati team didn’t seem offended by the comparison, and I think it’s a great thing.
Let’s talk about the ride…
Setting off from Fort Bravo the bike seemed nimble and immediately familiar. Most of us take it for granted that new bikes should work without glitches, so with a smooth power delivery, a light clutch and quality 4-pot Brembo monobloc brakes, everything performed as expected. The slightly-retuned engine revs easily and seemed plucky enough for the job with a little more midrange than the standard Scrambler. We left the road after a few hundred meters straight onto the desert’s hard-packed earth, which had been helpfully topped with a layer of light-weight sand. Riding on a sandy surface isn’t easy on any bike and the only way to not bury the front is to keep a steady ‘pushing’ throttle with the weight on the back wheel. I’ve only done this on proper off-road bikes and had no idea if I had the skills (or if the bike had the class) to let me do it here – but it worked. Between the dried-out bushes the trails wound around gullies and trenches worn and rutted by the rain, with fist-sized rocks that I didn’t particularly want to run over, as they tend to push the wheel off to one side, but despite being fairly ham-fisted and nervous there was very little drama, and after a while I started to feel quite confident. Once I relaxed enough to pay attention to the bike I was extremely impressed by the suspension, which ate up all the bumps without upsetting the bars or the rear end, and made the bike feel much lighter than it is.
Next came the road section of the ride, so we peeled off the dirt and started to head up into the mountains on some very smooth black tarmac. I struggled to work out how to put the ABS back on, so I rode without. None of my bikes have ABS anyway, so it didn’t concern me greatly. Luckily the pace wasn’t too challenging and at no point did I feel out of my depth with the rest of the pack. In fact I felt extremely confident, because despite the Desert Sled moniker and Ducati’s genuine efforts to build a rugged bike that could handle the mud, this bike really excels on tightly-curved, elevating roads. It felt more like a big wheeled SuperMoto than a road-going trailie. The chassis and suspension provided completely neutral and predictable handling that allowed easy adjustment mid-corner and made tightening corners easy to cope with. The brakes were powerful with plenty of feel, and just enough dive at the front to improve the turn-in under braking. Thrashing it made sense, so I did. My only criticism would be that the engine could do with a bit more soul, and on one long open straight I did go hunting for an extra gear. Perhaps aftermarket pipes would make all the difference? Ducati have certainly put a big effort into a ton of posh catalogue parts, which we saw in the flesh at the Saloon Bar.
The second round of dirt riding was a little more challenging than the first, but by this time I was feeling great on the bike and this allowed us all to pick up the pace. Steep decents onto sandy turns stopped looking like an accident waiting to happen and the bike continued to deliver off-road usability. Don’t get me wrong, the Desert Sled is not a bike I’d recommend to someone looking for a single-minded trail-bike or green-laner, but it can fulfil that function if you fancy a go at it, and if you drop the bike, or have a hard landing from a small jump, she’ll probably be just fine.
If I was limited to write this review on Twitter and only had 140 characters to play with, the headline would be simply, “FUN” and I’d probably go on to say that “the Desert Sled channels the soul of the dirt bikes we all wanted to own as kids”. … You can almost understand where all that happy ‘Land of Joy’ stuff came from. …The Ducati Desert Sled may not be quite as cool & classy as a Sport Classic 1000 or a 748, but the focus on generating huge grins is clear to see, and I enjoyed riding this bike as much as I’ve enjoyed anything on two wheels in recent years. It was also very easy bike to get on with, right from the off and made me feel relaxed in talented riding company.
When Ducati first brought out the Scrambler, I was one of many who criticised them for looking forward without also looking back to their heritage, but the new Desert Sled Scrambler does now carry the spirit of the original 70s dirt-bikes that many of us wanted. It is still a modern machine, packed with CAD design and the complicated tech required to meet Euro 4 regs, but the primary function of the bike is to give the rider a really good time on two wheels, while carrying enough off-road credentials to justify the Scrambler and Desert Sled names. …In my view Ducati have finally built a version of their new scrambler that existing Ducatistas will like just as much as owners who are new to the brand, but best of all, …it scrambles. …I think we’ll see a lot of these pulling up at the Bike Shed this coming spring.