The 2018 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled, aesthetically, feels like the ultimate motorcycle for right now. It bullseyes a Venn diagram space between “retro,” “modern,” “performance” and “adventure.” Aimed at established enthusiasts and new riders seeking a kind of hipster aesthetic, it’s torquey and sounds great. But it’s also heavy, a little awkwardly proportioned and expensive.
After a few hundred miles, I think I like it. But I never really fell in love with it.
(Full disclosure: Ducati’s PR company arranged for me to borrow the Scrambler in Los Angeles for one week with no mileage restrictions. I returned it in the same shape I got it in. I think it’s also important to note that while I consider myself an experienced rider, I’m not a very aggressive rider. That might give you some context to my perspective.)
That look I just described has been known as the “scrambler” style for decades. The idea, basically, is that you take a regular motorcycle and make it a little off-roady with knobby tires and a headlight cage. Or, take a dirt bike and make it slightly better set up for city cruising while adding a healthy dose of hipster accessories.
For those of you who are only casually into motorcycles, scramblers are not to be confused with supermotos which are straight dirt bikes on street tires. For the haters: scramblers are supposed to be ridden by tight-jeans’d Steve McQueen wannabes in Venice Beach and supermotos are for SUPREME sticker’d hooligans raising hell downtown.
Anyway, as a big fan of both beach cruising life and riding off sidewalk curbs myself, this thing seemed particularly relevant to my interests. It’s a classically designed, easily rideable medium-range medium-sized motorcycle made for spirited riding on paved and dirt roads.
The Desert Sled is supposed to take the machine’s off-road preteneses just a little further with a modified frame, spoked wheels, armoring and a little extra suspension travel.
The Desert Sled uses a steel trellis frame built around an 803cc 90-degree twin making a claimed 75 horsepower and 50 lb-ft of torque. The bike apparently weighs a hefty weighs a hefty 456 pounds ready to ride, and all that mass is held up by adjustable Kayaba shocks with about 7.9 inches of travel. To give you some context there, my Yamaha dirt bike has over 10 inches of travel and something like a high-performance Ducati sport bike would have less than five.
Ducati publishes the Desert Sled’s seat height at 33.9 inches off the ground, a little more than the standard Scrambler, and wheelbase at just over 59 inches, making the motorcycle very easy to get on and relatively manageable in general.
The Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR tires are considered “dual purpose” on-road/off-road rubber and seem appropriately classified. They felt fine if noisy on asphalt but have big chunks of meat for looser stuff. I’d stay out of deep sand on them, but they handled dirt roads just fine. Brembo brakes with ABS stop the Desert Sled, the front wheel has a single (for retro style) 13-inch disc with a four-piston caliper and there’s a 9.6-inch disc in the back.
Their responsiveness seemed mediocre, and even after I fiddled with the adjustment the brake lever had about a mile to travel before really getting the calipers to clamp. I quickly realized that the fluid in the sightglass looked well used though, so in case you were wondering, while Ducati claims a 7,500 mile service interval you’re going to want to change fluids a lot more often if you plan to beat on your bike as hard as most journalists probably do–I returned this one with a hair over 4,000 on the odometer.
It’s possible to fall in love with the look and sound of this motorcycle so hard that you could buy it and be pretty happy with yourself, despite its shortcomings we’ll get to soon. The idle sounds calm, but strong. The arpeggio from the stubby little pipes when you pull off is similarly active and distinctive without being rude and obnoxious. I love it.
The riding position, from the waist up, is wonderful too. High, wide handlebars encourage a confident and broad-chested posture that’s comfortable and gives you great visibility.
The low seat is easy to hop over and makes the machine feel welcoming. And the engine is nicely tuned to give you plenty of power to squirt in and out of trouble without being intimidating at all.
That low seat I mentioned is nice when you’re mounting this bike, but a few miles down the road I realized that a low seat and high ground clearance make for some awkward geometry south of your waist.
The weighty foot pegs fall right in the middle of a six-foot rider’s shins when you’re flat-footing at a stop, and that forces a little bit of a scrunch when you’re underway. It also means your shins are liable to get munched maneuvering into a parking space, as I painfully learned.
The seat, while comfortable initially, is not forgiving on long rides. I did about 200 miles of riding on Wednesday, and had a sore heinie until Sunday. Granted, my butt’s pretty boney. I still wouldn’t suggest doing serious touring riding on this bike though.
But the biggest burden you’ll feel riding the Desert Sled is the bike’s substantial weight. While the vehicle looks and, physically is, relatively lithe it’s also very dense. Pushing it around a parking lot is a lot of work and handling it through traffic takes commitment. As for off-road riding... we’ll get to that.
The Ducati Scrambler could not be happier burbling down Venice Boulevard. There’s torque in every gear, thumbs-ups from people in traffic (seriously) and that upright riding position I mentioned makes you feel like king of the road.
When it comes to looking cool with the huge bonus of being comfortable while cruising around town, this is basically the perfect motorcycle. The only concession I’d have to make there is acknowledging that the knobby Pirelli tires, which are essential to the bike’s off-road look, are remarkably noisy. So you’ll have to be OK with a constant audible reminder that you’re wasting big chunks of all-terrain rubber on asphalt for style points while you buzz to the beach and back.
Hard acceleration is satisfying, but it’s not scary. And if you read in my disclosure that I’m not an aggressive rider, you might take away that this might not be the bike for speed freaks.
The Desert Sled feels very stable at high highway speeds, despite completely foregoing any attempt to be aerodynamic. In the long, sweeping turns of Angeles Crest Highway the weight seems manageable but those chunky tires didn’t make me want to lean too deeply.
The main reason I wanted to head into the mountains was to go dirt road hunting anyway, which was a lot of fun. The recon, at least. The riding was OK.
On Mount Mooney Truck Trail–just a few miles of rocky, twisty dirt high in Angeles National Forest–I found a track that looked straight off the Desert Sled brochure book. At first, I couldn’t find the bike’s happy pace. It bucked and brutalized me over the bumps as I was puttering. With a little more speed, the Ducati became a lot more settled but it seemed that as soon as I got into a good groove a surprise drop or rain rut would quickly consume the suspension’s travel and make the bike mad again.
The Desert Sled does one thing off-road really well: pull off a kickass power-over tail slide when you give it too much gas. Crack the throttle wide open from a canter and the back will step out just enough to make you look like a hero. Going from that to a gallop over a slightly sandy road is riotously fun as the bike stays balanced through bad traction. But man, as soon as you hit serious stuff you’ve really got to be ready.
As for the press photos of the thing flying through the air, I sure wouldn’t try it without budgeting for new suspension and possible spine surgery.
It’s $11,000 for a beautiful, brand-new Italian vehicle that can go 0 to 60 in a few seconds and do better than 40 mpg will sound like the steal of the century to people used to looking at car prices. And while any four-figure price tag actually pretty high in the motorcycle world, this Ducati is generally on par with its chief rivals the Triumph Street Scrambler (also about $11,000) and BMW R nine T Scrambler ($13,000).
As to whether it’s worth it will depend on what kind of experience you’re looking for. If you want something to thrash on that happens to be street legal, you can pick up a small-displacement fuel-injected plated dirt bike for a fraction of this money. If you’re more in the market for a long-range cruiser that can handle a little diversity of terrain, a Scrambler would be on the cheaper side but won’t be close to as comfortable as a true GS-type bike.
The Desert Sled gives you exceptional sound and style for the money. It just doesn’t give you much else.
I really enjoyed riding the Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled for its robust tone and torque, upright riding position and the general air of awesomeness I felt perched on its long saddle. I hadn’t ridden my own motorcycle in a long time when I took delivery of this, and riding from sea to summit and back made me realize what I’d been missing about bikes.
But then I gave the Desert Sled back. And recharged the battery on my 300-pound Yamaha WR250R. And as soon as I blasted out of my garage and back into the wild, I almost tipped over with the feeling of youthful mischief I was expecting from but didn’t get from the Ducati. That made me realize that the Desert Sled actually a mature, artful take on a rebellious look and that made me like it a little less.
This bike is too good to be written off as “style over substance, but after a week of riding it all over the place, my takeaway is that design is its primary value proposition. The look is great and I’m glad all-terrain is en vogue, just make sure you ride a bunch of bikes before you decide one of these pretty modern European scramblers is really what you want.