2018 Ducati Desert Sled: A Scrambler for Us All

Showing up to an ADV-focused event on a Ducati Desert Sled is likely to turn a few heads. There’s just something about it—the gold rims, the high-mount front fender, the ease with which you can swing a leg over the seat—that speaks to ADV riders.

Maybe part of it is that many in this community started out years ago riding dirt on something that looked a lot like the Sled. The scrambler-style bike holds a nostalgic appeal, but this interest is in more than the just the looks and the ease of getting a leg over; community members (ADV and dual-sport riders alike) want to know how this bike rides and its capability when faced with a variety of trails.

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This is Not a Test

As a member of the REV’IT! Women’s Team, I had the opportunity to find out on a recent trip to California. While the other girls rode bikes that fit in with the ADV crowd, I jumped on the opportunity to take along the Desert Sled for our two-day ride. After all, who can look at this dirt-oriented scrambler without the urge to take it for a spin?

Those two days of roads and trails on the Ducati were not a formal journalistic test but rather, a more personal attempt to identify whether Ducati hit the mark with this bike. Could it handle trails as gracefully as its styling implies? Could it manage a variety of trails without worries over things like lost traction, space for braking, steering locks or ground clearance?

Coming from a predominantly trail bike background, I approached the Desert Sled with my feet firmly in the dirt. A lot of time is spent trailering to and from riding spots, so having a plated off-road capable bike means more saddle time, enjoying both types of riding challenges. With that in mind, I wanted to see how this bike measured up to my experiences on larger ADV bikes and plated dirt bikes. To be clear, this bike isn’t really either; it sits comfortably in that gap between the two and is a tempting distraction for riders of both categories.

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Ground Control

On paper the Desert Sled has an average seat height for bikes in this category, but in practice it sits easily. The flat top seat combined with the low-rise gas tank means the entrance fee to this show is low effort; getting a leg over isn’t as insurmountable as other bikes in the off-road category for riders at the 5′7″ mark. But this bike doesn’t trade its low-profile silhouette for low ground clearance. Instead, riders get 9.4 inches to play with—that’s nearly two inches more than a BMW R1200GS and just a smidge less than a KTM 1090R (at 9.8 inches).

In prepping the bike for off-road, the mirrors were jettisoned to avoid preventable damage, ABS was turned off (a must on this bike), and only minor adjustments to the controls were required to stand comfortably—although if your plans include more aggressive terrain where you’ll be standing more than sitting, bar risers might be useful (aftermarket dirt-oriented parts are readily available). In under five minutes I had the Desert Sled prepped and comfortable to ride both on and off road.

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Getting into the Dirt

Due to the styling of the Desert Sled’s heritage from the days when scramblers were the first dual-sports, you sit “on” it much like you do a dirt bike, rather than “in” it as you do on those ADV bikes mentioned earlier. This adds to your dirt experience in many ways: Standing, sitting, leaning the bike over—it all feels more accessible. Not being stuck in cockpit mode (an issue for me on ADV bikes), the transfer between standing and sitting is a fluid movement, as is moving weight laterally over the bike when necessary. And, the minor tweaks made earlier to the controls meant that both positions felt natural.

The Desert Sled feels like it weighs less than its wet weight (reportedly 456 lb.), and not just by a few pounds. Both on and off the bike, the Desert Sled feels much closer to a 250-lb. dirt bike than the rest of the 500-lb. adventure bikes out there, even when entering a tight corner of trail with reduced traction. The diet plan the Desert Sled provides means it’s less fatiguing to ride off road and that, combined with the 800cc engine, translates directly to fun factor.

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Fun Factor

Over the course of my two days with the bike, the Desert Sled earned the right to some off-road marketing claims, generating traction easily and handling uphill, loose gravel, and trails with large rocks without batting an eye. The nine-plus inches of clearance it provides meant never having to worry about bottoming out, although the stiff suspension would be the first thing I’d tweak if I owned it. Braking on this bike was never an issue thanks to the high-spec Brembo brake package.

When tackling complex terrain like ascents and descents over a large granite slab, coated in a layer of loose grit with not-insignificant ledges, the Desert Sled responds readily to direction and momentum changes, churning trail easily. It’s clear that it’s not just the styling that’s dirt oriented; this thing wants to take on the likes of the ADV giants. Riding it on this terrain should’ve been terrifying; a shiny new bike, under 500 miles, no crash bars or skid plate, no dents or scratches, and yet this Scrambler, albeit a more dirt-oriented one than most on the market today, was taking on more difficult lines than I’d choose on a heavier bike.

To be clear, this isn’t your aggressive dirt bike on steroids; it is, however, a bike that can handle the more advanced trails without handicapping the rider in the least.

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A Bike for Everyone

The Sled definitely isn’t a dirt bike. It’s not an ADV bike, either. But if I was told to buy a bike with more than one piston to tackle back-to-back 200-mile days off road on a BDR, this would be at the top of my list. Perhaps the ADV/dual-sport community can’t believe a bike that looks this good can tackle terrain. They’re wrong, in my opinion. The tweaks that Ducati made to take it from their standard Scrambler to the dirt-oriented Desert Sled definitely paid off.

Not only does the Desert Sled look fantastic, it has a bit of a “little engine that could” vibe, tackling things that the dirt community might think it incapable of and being more user friendly than any of the other ADV machines I’ve had a chance to ride. That’s not to say it’s underpowered—the 800cc engine can roar to life when you need it to.

The Desert Sled impresses in numerous categories: handling, brakes, and looks to name a few. While longer term reliability remains to be seen, the initial experience this bike gives is a positive one.

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The approachable scrambler style of the Desert Sled, combined with the V-twin engine, make this bike one of the best options for new-to-the-sport riders who want to get into dirt and cover longer miles without the vibrations of riding a single. That said, advanced riders (especially those looking for less trail fatigue) shouldn’t readily pass this bike up either; it really is that good to ride.

For the tests that the average ADV rider will put to their bike, the Ducati Desert Sled can answer them with style. While Erzberg is out of the question for the time being on the Desert Sled for mere mortals, local trails are not. Yes, you can ride to your hipster hangout on this bike and fit in quite well, but hipsters like to get the job done just as much as the next person, and when the hangout is on top of a mountain, this bike will do nicely. MSRP: $11,395 Ducati.com

MillieAmelia Kamrad rides an array of bikes, from DR200 to Tiger 800, in a variety of styles, from the NorthEast 24 Hour Enduro Challenge to Colorado's BDR and beyond. Most comfortable on her Husaberg 390, she rides alongside her husband, Steve, at upwards of 20 events up and down the East Coast each year, but calls New Jersey home. As a member of the REV'IT! Women's ADV Team, she helps to represent women riders tackling off-road challenges, from an afternoon on the trails to a week-long BDR trip and beyond. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @millieonthemove.

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