While the 2015 Ducati Scrambler reboot had a name and styling that indicated an affinity for the dirt, that promise wasn’t delivered. In actuality, the standard Scrambler Icon (and its variants) wasn’t ready for anything other than light-duty dirt roading. Fortunately, it was a hugely fun motorcycle in urban settings, as well as paved ribbons through canyons.The new Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled may wear the Scrambler name, but other than the motor, it is an all-new motorcycle—and one that is equipped and ready for scrambling.
Although inspiration for the Desert Sled came from the street-converted racebikes built for the California deserts from the 1950s to the late 1960s, it was rare to see a Ducati in the dirt. Having cut my teeth in the Mojave Desert as the original sleds were becoming extinct, I was much more likely to see a converted British street bike than something from Italy.However, a Scrambler 350 won the 1969 Baja 500, so Ducati does have a legitimate claim to the desert sled moniker, and the 2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled takes its appellation seriously.To get from the standard Scrambler to the Desert Sled, Ducati did quite a bit of work. In addition to a reinforced trellis frame, the Desert Sled gets a beefy longer aluminum swingarm, increased travel and adjustable KYB suspension, wire-spoke wheels, purpose-designed Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR knobby tires, plus dirtier ergonomics, and those are just the primary components. Without a doubt, this is a new motorcycle with a new purpose.This test was performed in the Tabernas Desert outside of Almería off the Mediterranean Coast of Spain. It gave the Desert Sled was going to get a workout in an authentic, desert environment.While some may think of the desert as endless dunes, most of it is hardscrabble sand and dirt, with unforgiving rocks and inhospitable dirt roads between the tenacious flora and infrequent fauna.On desert dirt roads, the Desert Sled produces absolute magic. There is so much traction in the Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR rubber, you get the feeling that you can do no wrong.Looking at the tires, they’re as tough as the desert itself. The Pirellis—19-inch front and 17-inch rear, in desert sled fashion—are impressively substantial, and the low-profile/fat-block tread pattern puts plenty of rubber on the ground.The tires allow you to ride the Desert Sled down road in two manners. You can steer with the fat 120mm front tires, which is fully capable of changing direction for the 456-pound machine. This is great for casual exploration, and the bike refuses to do anything unexpected at either end.The other option, for those with a more active riding style and more skills on hand, is to steer the big machine with the 170mm rear tire. With a solid mid-range and 75 horses once you spin the short-stroke 803cc up to 8250 rpm, you can break the rear end loose at will. Again, the fat front tire allows you to do this confidently, and the Desert Sled responds in a predictable manner.An inevitability of rocks means that suspension has to be ready for unexpected hits, while the tires have to resist being shredded by the sharp rocks. In both cases, the Desert Sled delivers.Rather than the non-adjustable suspension and relatively spindly forks on the standard Scramblers, the Desert Sled is ready for more aggressive riding. Most importantly, the fully adjustable 46mm inverted forks and robust triple clamps give the feel for the terrain that you want up front, as well soaking up hits with nearly eight inches of travel.There are limits, of course. The Desert Sled prefers single hits and a moment or two to compose before the next hammering. Hit one rock and it disappears—a barrage of them starts to shake the Desert Sled up. It doesn’t feel like anything untoward is going to happen, but the smooth ride vanishes as you start to attack rugged washboard surfaces. Dialing out some rear rebound damping would help that problem, but would take away some of the Sled’s smooth, settled feel.Most impressively, the Desert Sled doesn’t feel like it is going to come apart when bombing through a rough road. Nothing rattles, and the 59.3-inch wheelbase—2.5 inches longer than the standard Scrambler—has a reassuring stability.An important part of the equation is the design of the ergonomics. With taller and wider handlebars, plus a taller comfortable seat, the Desert Sled has a roomy feel and the ability to ride standing up. In that way, it has a feel more like a dirt bike than, say, most adventure bikes.For my 5’ 10” frame, I felt like the stock bar position was a bit forward. That does quicken the steering some, while it also puts more weight on the front wheel for turning. I was never fully on-board with the bar positioning—I would pivot them back as an experiment on future rides—but the initial feeling of uneasiness dissipated quickly. Certainly, large riders will like the feel of the Desert Sled while smaller riders might feel overwhelmed by the reach to the bars and weight of the new Scrambler.At just less than 34 inches, the seat height is much lower than many adventure and dual sport bikes; the Desert Sled’s seat sits a half-inch lower than the novice-friendly Honda CRF250L, for instance. This will be good news for shorter riders and off-road novices who want to feel a needed dab doesn’t require a long reach.Okay, the Desert Sled is obviously desert-ready and can take on dirt roads—though stay away from inhospitable 4×4 jeep trails. It is capable of handling nasty rocky and rutted roads, but there are limits. This is not a bike that you want to be pushing up hills or manhandling over huge rocks, and ground clearance is limited, as is undercarriage protection.You will likely also want to steer clear of deep sand washes, unless you’re a truly aggressive rider who doesn’t mind the risk involved in spinning up the throttle on a 456-pound dirt bike.If you ride slow in the bottomless sand, the Desert Sled with fight your efforts to go in a straight line tooth-and-nail. However, if you are ready to get the motor spun up and steer with the rear while the front hunts, go for it—just don’t forget how much weight you are carrying when making that choice.I tried both methods and decided I’d just avoid deep sand if possible. One get-off at speed helped me reach that conclusion—to the credit of the Desert Sled, it is durable and sustained no damage in the mishap, and the oil cooler (mounted where you’d typically see a radiator) stayed intact.The good news for street riders is that you can have the Desert Sled’s rugged appearance, and still have a fantastic street bike. Riding paved roads of various conditions through the Spanish Sierra Nevada mountain range was pure joy—they range from extremely tight to wide-open spaces.As with the dirt road experience, the Pirelli tires are there to please. Due to the Desert Sled’s longer wheelbase, additional weight (about 45 pounds), and fatter front tire, you might expect that the steering is slower than on the Scrambler Icon—and you would be right.Instead of the lithe pavement performance of the Icon, the Desert Sled gives a solid feel that will appeal to those who like a predictable ride. Now, that’s not to say the Desert Sled won’t turn—it surely will. However, you have to approach things differently.To change direction on the Desert Sled, you will be taking advantage of the wide, forward bars. The leverage they provide means the Sled will go where you want with just a bit of insistence. The front Pirellis footprint is impressive in the traction it provides, as long as you don’t think you’re riding a Monster and can stuff it into turns with abandon—remember, this is still a taller bike with knobby-like tires.Not having to worry about pushing or washing out means you can ride quickly and smoothly with full confidence. I was able to touch down the toes of my Alpinestars Supervictory boots without any discomfort telegraphed to me by the chassis or the tires. Given the height of the slightly too-small pegs, that’s an impressive lean angle capability.Braking on the Desert Sled is just adequate. There’s a 330mm disc up front. To its credit, it does have a radially mounted four-piston caliper, but I was always aware of there being just one disc. To compensate for that on the street, I was making use of the 245mm rear disc on occasion, and it works well in concert with the 170mm rear tire—don’t forget it’s there.It is worth remembering that this is a bike for dirt riding, and you do not want the front end to have too much initial grab or you will be eating dirt on a regular occasion. ABS is standard on the Desert Sled, so you can be more aggressive if you like on the street. The ABS is also defeatable, and you definitely don’t want it in the dirt.One nature of the desert is that there will be roads that are long, uninterrupted straight line—paved or not. Despite the fully upright ergonomics, the Desert Sled does well at highway speeds. You won’t want to ride Barstow-to-Vegas on I-15, of course, but there’s enough comfort at high speeds that you won’t mind longer blasts between the twisties. Highway speeds on good-quality dirt or hard-gravel roads are not a problem.All of the things you expect Ducati to get right are as they should be on the Desert Sled. The hand controls are smooth and comfortable, while the brake pedal is easy to operate and shifting the six-speed transmission is flawless. The sound from the twin mufflers is a good one.Tapping into a concept from 50 years ago to create the most off-road capable Ducati in decades was a bit of a gamble. The idea that a street bike can become a credible dirt bike seems quaint, but Ducati didn’t hold back when it came to reinventing the Scrambler, and the 2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled delivers far more than promised.Photography by MilagroRiding Style
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