Test Ride: Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled

Can’t get enough Ducati Scrambler? There are now 10 different versions of the hip bike – yes, ten! – and it seems Ducati still can’t make enough. Jeff slung his tight-denim leg over the most off-road-ready of them all to bring you the goods, and all was going great until he crashed…

The sun-scorched Southern California desert is a vast area littered with rocks, sand and gravel, and aside from some major freeways, it’s not an easy place to get around.  It’s also just the place for thrill-seeking riders to kick up dust clouds at high-speed.

In the 1980s, riders would take whatever standard-style bikes they could get their hands on, and modify them with longer-travel suspension, skid plates and knobby tires to create what were referred to as Desert Sleds to rip around the arid terrain.

The Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled gets ready to play in Jeff’s Back 40. Or some place he stumbled onto, anyway.

It’s also what Ducati has done with this Desert Sled. It’s the latest iteration of the wildly popular Scrambler line up of hipster-friendly, fashion pieces, used for zipping around urban centres, and it’s the most off-road capable. You read about the new Icon last week, which Zac rode in Tuscany; now it’s my turn to tell you about the Scrambler, but sadly, not from anywhere so exotic.

There aren’t any deserts near where I live, but there are some dusty farm-access roads that vary from decent, two-track dirt road, to “did a trail used to go through this shrub?” There are also plenty of great espresso bars for showing off.

Let’s face it, we’ve all seen a sizable number of Ducatis – not just Scramblers – used primarily for image enhancement tools, no matter how good their actual performance.  It’s for good reason, too, since those Italians do know how to make a damned fine-looking motorcycle.  This Desert Sled version of Ducati’s interpretation of a classic standard-style bike is arguably the most arresting, particularly in this Black Edition paint scheme.

It looks stripped down and ready from this angle, with the yellow monoshock poised to absorb all the extra weight from Jeff’s second helping of chips.

I’m not alone in that assertion. Few machines (including some properly exotic ones) have generated the same universally positive social media praise as when I posted a photo of this Desert Sled. People loved the retro colour scheme. Really, if you don’t find those gold, spoked wheels downright sexy, you ought to clean your glasses and look again.

In profile, the proportions are spot-on with sufficient clearance that appears as if it could actually do some reasonable work off-road (and away from the barista’s adoring gaze).  The right side has Ducati’s familiar pair of exhaust serpents winding from each of the L-oriented cylinder banks, merging into one, and back to a pair of stubby black end pipes.  The left side of the bike shows off the bright yellow Kayaba monoshock.

If it all looks a little more grown up and serious than the other Scramblers, well, it sort of is.  Both the rear suspension and the pair of inverted 46 mm front forks are fully adjustable and provide 200 mm of wheel travel.  The swing arm and frame have been beefed up to handle the stresses of repeated off-road impacts, and there is a functional skid plate too.

On paper, this all sounds like the Desert Sled is more than just a macho styling exercise, like BMW’s RnineT Urban G/S.

Still not spotted by Farmer Giles, Jeff takes a moment to admire how good the Desert Sled looks in the soft light, and appreciate the shape of its gear lever.

In riding around town and commuting on the highway, I became very aware of potholes and pavement heaves – the stiffness of the suspension belied the Desert Sled’s off-road looks.  I have to admit, the on-road riding didn’t give me much confidence that this machine would be more off-road capable than the Urban G/S, besides having greater stretch to its suspension.

The upside to the stiffness was a Scrambler that was fun and well-composed for on-road cornering.  Even more impressive, the tread pattern of the Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR tires features wide blocks instead of the more traditional square knobs, and they provide impressive pavement grip without the pucker-causing squirm of most knobbies.

In fact, buyers who pick up a Desert Sled simply for commuting and coffee bar posing should be very happy with their purchase, because it does well at both tasks.  The wide bars and upright riding position make it easy for low-speed manoeuvering around town, too.

Ducati’s familiar 803 cc L-twin, air-cooled engine generates a modest, but wholly-usable 73 hp at 8,250 rpms, and 49 lb-ft of torque at 5,750.  It’s got that distinct Ducati-twin growl to it too, which is just loud enough to be noticed, but not so much to be obnoxious.  A high-mounted Termignoni pipe is available as an accessory.  Acceleration is sufficient to keep the Scrambler ahead of the cagers when pulling away from a stop light, but at highway speeds, the engine doesn’t have much extra poke without dropping down a gear or two.

The transmission is a 6-speed with straight-cut gears.  Shifts are met with a serious Ka-THUNK, though my test bike had a definite aversion to neutral.

A bit of “dramatic effect” here. Note how very clean and unscratched the Desert Sled looks to be.

Braking is handled by a 330 mm single front disc with a 4-piston Brembo caliper.  The rear has a 245 mm disc with a single-piston floating caliper.  ABS is standard (and defeatable for off-road fun), but the overall brake feel is average.  On-road, I’d prefer greater bite and immediacy than the Desert Sled’s brakes provided.

When I finally found time to leave the pavement and hit a two-lane track that degraded to a wildly pock-marked and undulating trail, the Desert Sled proved to be easier to manage and more capable than I had expected.  With more time, I’d have dialed back the suspension stiffness, but even in a stock set-up that clearly favours road handling, it wasn’t too bad for my 160 lbs.

After grabbing a few photos, I pushed the Scrambler a bit harder and then a bit harder still. I grew more confident, until the 19” front wheel slid into a particularly gnarly rut and upset the bike, punting me off.  The Desert Sled came away unscathed except for a now-pretzel-shaped shifter.  Unsurprisingly, this did no favours for the bike’s struggles to find neutral.

Picking it back up and out of the rut, I wished all the extra rigidity built into the Desert Sled didn’t have to bring along the extra 21 kg or so of mass over a regular Ducati Scrambler, boosting the curb weight to a hefty 207 kg (456 lbs).  It definitely has more mass than its dirt-bike appearance lets on.

The seat height is 860 mm (33.9 in), though there is a low-seat option at 840 mm, and the taller, wider bars and skinny seat-and-tank width do make for a more traditional off-road geometry than the Urban G/S.

Ergonomically, the rider has a single, off-set round LCD gauge providing speedo information, a nearly-useless tachometer display circling around the bottom, clockwise, plus a clock and an odometer.  Fuel and gear selection read-outs are available on the new Scrambler Icon, but not on this model yet.

Cycling through the different odometer settings, or switching off ABS, is done through a few left-thumb buttons and the turn signal button.  It’s cumbersome and will take some practice to be able to operate it smoothly at speed.

It’s cool that Ducati makes a Scrambler that can legitimately go off the beaten path better than its competitors, but I couldn’t help think how much I would prefer to have one of the cheaper, lighter Scramblers for street duty, and an old Kawasaki KLX to beat the hell out of on the trails.  Thumbs up to Ducati for making a really stylish bike that’s almost equal-parts fun whether on the road, or off it.

Oooh – is that a mud puddle off to the right? Better stay well clear – Jeff wouldn’t want to get his biker vans dirty…

2018 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled key specs:

Price: $13,195
Engine: 803-cc, air-cooled L-Twin
Curb (wet) weight: 207 kg
Power: 73 hp @ 8,250 rpm
Torque: 49 lbs.-ft. @ 5,750 rpm
Wheelbase: 1,505 mm
Length: 2,200 mm
Seat height: 860 mm
Brakes: Single disc, 330 mm, radial-mount 4-piston caliper front; single-disc, 245 mm single-piston caliper rear, standard ABS
Front suspension:  46 mm usd telescopic fork, preload and rebound adjustable
Rear suspension: Kayaba rear shock, preload and rebound adjustable. Aluminum swing-arm
Tires: 120/70 R17 front, 170/60 ZR17 rear


  1. When are the manufacturers going to lobby to ease up on the rules requiring those awful license plate holders? Jeesh. A least it keeps the “tail tidy” industry going as people immediately remove them.

  2. “and all was going great until he crashed…”

    The correct turn of phrase would be “and all was going great until it all went CMG…”

    There are some things that cannot and must not be lost.

    • A little tumble in a rut isn’t going all CMG. The correct term, as defined (soon) by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “an almighty cockup, usually caused by a lack of planning, preparation and luck, often enhanced by wilful ignorance and foolish bravado.”

  3. In the 1980’s desert riders would have bought a BMW GS 800, Yamaha XT600, Suzuki DR400, Honda XR500 or a 400 cc two stroke enduro from one of the Japanese bike companies or Can Am. IMO the Ducati is chanelling the first GS BMW or maybe the DR400.

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