Manhattan to mud: 700 miles on a Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled

Aug 29, 2017

Decades after Bud Ekins and Steve McQueen seared the form into our collective memory, the scrambler formula is seeing a resurgence. From BMW’s R nineT Scrambler to Yamaha’s SCR 950, companies are recasting street platforms as modern-classic adventure bikes.

Then there's Ducati’s 801 cc Desert Sled, the latest addition to the Italian company’s Scrambler line, which promises to provide more off-road capability. There’s a lot of buzz around these 21st century scramblers. Are they legitimate dual-sport machines or lifestyle bikes with bolt-on enduro styling for a millennial market?

I haven’t ridden all the new entries, but I did get nearly two weeks on the Desert Sled. Eager to see how well the bike performed on and off pavement, I put the Ducati through its paces over 700 miles and three states, from Manhattan to mud.

Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
The Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled promises to be the most dual-sport-like of the recent street-based scramblers. Ducati photo.

Not your grandfather’s Scrambler

In name and concept, the $11,395 Desert Sled is a merger of two retro genres, both aimed at making the road machines of yesteryear dirt-capable. By mods and design, the bike goes furthest in Ducati’s Scrambler line — and beyond other scramblers on the market — toward dual-sport use.

To start, the Sled got better suspension and clearance: a fully adjustable KYB fork and shock give it nearly eight inches of travel front and rear, compared to 5.9 inches on standard Scramblers. Additional mods include a beefed-up frame and swingarm, spoked aluminum wheels, MX-style handlebar, an off-road seat, more ground clearance, mudguard fenders, and an underframe skid plate.

Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR tires
Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR tires aim for a balance of pavement and dirt use. Ducati photo.
For skins, Ducati added Pirelli’s Scorpion Rally STR enduro tire.

With a full 3.57-gallon gas tank, the Desert Sled weighs 456 pounds, up 46 from a standard Scrambler. And keeping to Ducati form, the Sled sports a pretty sleek dual-sport profile — more contemporary cool than the Transformers look of many adventure bikes.

Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
My ride on the Desert Sled started in Manhattan. Photo by Jake Bright.

Road-biased, dirt-capable

I picked up the Desert Sled in Manhattan before taking it through upstate New York, on to Connecticut, and then off-road. On the pavement, from first wheel roll I found the new Ducati an incredibly fun bike to ride.

The Desert Sled is easy to maneuver in tight urban areas, as I noted taking it through NYC’s Soho. It was also stable and capable when I upped the acceleration and corner angles out on the open road. In terms of handling, the handlebar, seat, and overall ergonomics give it a supermoto feel.

The Desert Sled’s 75-horsepower engine is quiet and smooth at low revs, but comes alive with a growl as soon as you grab some throttle. Torque isn’t a problem on the bike and it’s easy to pop the front wheel up from first through third gear.

Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled in the city
Traffic, rain, wet manhole covers. Sometimes the city produces just as many obstacles as the country off-road riding. Photo by Jake Bright.

The 801 cc fuel-injected engine delivers solid power delivery. Out on the highway, sixth gear required no downshifting as low as 4,200 rpm at 50 mph, and the engine still had plenty of rev left at 85 mph. The Desert Sled’s Pirellis delivered great grip (even in the rain) and produced little of that enduro tire vibration or hum, even when I opened the bike up out on I-95.

So as a dual-sport, Ducati’s Desert Sled exceeded expectations on the street, but how about off-road? To test that I took the bike to Connecticut’s Thomaston Dam riding area, which offers a lot of varied terrain.

Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled chases rainbows
If you're going to go off chasing rainbows, a Desert Sled is a pretty good choice for go-anywhere ability. Photo by Jake Bright.

The Desert sled excelled on dirt roads and hard-pack trails, where it felt stable riding at a decent pace. The suspension didn't bottom out or leave me wobbling from being too soft. The bike felt solid off-road, where nothing clanked or rattled. While I did get the Ducati airborne a couple of times, it’s more of a two-wheels-on-the-ground motorcycle.

Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled in the mud
For a street-biased, 456-pound machine, the Desert Sled performed well once the going got muddy. Folding mirrors and Ducati's accessory aluminum foot pegs would make it a better performer. Photo by Jake Bright.
I was able to navigate the Desert Sled through mud patches and technical single-tracks, complete with loose rocks, inclines, and washed-out declines. For the more challenging off-road terrain, I had to slow down considerably and the Desert Sled's 456 pounds become more apparent than on the street. Still, it got me through any dirt terrain I put in front of it, even if it took some muscle and focused clutch, throttle, brake coordination.

So the Desert Sled is a legitimate dual-sport machine, though one should manage expectations of what it can do compared to lighter, dirt-specific enduro bikes.

What to change

On and off-road, I found several pet peeves with the Desert Sled — things that can be taken care of in the aftermarket or improved upon by Ducati. The stock mirrors are cumbersome on tight trails and hard to adjust without a wrench. The stock rubber-top pegs are a bit narrow and lose grip when dirty or muddy. Ducati offers an aluminum Scrambler accessory peg that can remedy this.

The one-piece stock shifter is easily tweaked in a spill and becomes cramped when moving from a street to an off-road boot. For $164.70, Duc offers a length-adjustable fold-away lever. Ducati could also improve the Sled’s off-road handling by shedding some pounds on the bike.

Ducati Desert Sled
A scrambler should be versatile, so I took it for a ride from the concrete canyons of Manhattan to the muddy trails of woodsy Connecticut. Photo by Harriette Williams.

The balance

All in all, I had a blast on Ducati’s Desert Sled. I was surprised a motorcycle could perform so well on the street and still take me just about anywhere I wanted to go off-road.

That said, and in context of the scrambler revival, I think people should be realistic about what street platforms modified for dirt can do off the pavement. There’s a reason scramblers of the past gave way to much lighter, specialized dirt machines. Riders looking to spend the majority of their time going fast off-road should probably target a true enduro bike.

But for those who want a dual-sport motorcycle that balances substance and style, Ducati’s latest Scrambler could be for you. If we could reincarnate Steve McQueen and show him today’s bike offerings, chances are he’d be cruising around on a Desert Sled.