There’s an undeniable allure to the southern California desert. Lined in Joshua tree, desert sage, and wind-drawn sand, it’s a desperate place that’s as beautiful as it is lonely. Through the 1960s and '70s, men manlier than I turned this unforgiving area into one big racetrack, and then set about conquering it on fortified street bikes stripped of their gratuitous bits. Those bikes, which came to be known as desert sleds—likely because of the scraping sensation felt as the skidplate struck terra firma—would go down in history.

Historical reenactments can be a bit of a distorted, watered-down thing, and while it’s been great to see stylish scramblers reappear within the motorcycle realm this past decade, few of today's offerings are legitimate tributes to the original sleds or the men who braved the California desert on them. The 2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled attempts to change that.

Dubbed "the second new Scambler," the Desert Sled is a bike Ducati's Scrambler team had hoped to build since launching the brand in 2014. That, at least, is what the team told me during a quick, pre-launch test last August, during which I got to spend time on a pre-production Desert Sled and form some sort of early expectations for the final product. In that test, the bike felt immediately more capable than any other scrambler on the market, but having been confined to a smooth, flat lakebed, I knew I'd have to wait for the official launch to see if the bike was as capable as I hoped it'd be on more technical trails. Now having attended that launch and put real miles on the bike, I can say that, without a doubt, the Desert Sled exceeds expectations.

2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
The 2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled. Look closely at the frame and you will see the new, horizontally mounted piece of tubing that Ducati has added in order to increase chassis stiffness.Courtesy of Ducati

The Updates

Looking at the bike from afar, it’s difficult to spot the differences between Desert Sled and its more street-oriented predecessors. There's a taller bar and new mudguard, sure, but more important changes almost go unnoticed. Like, for example, the extra piece of tubing on the lateral edges of the frame that help with chassis stiffness, and new side plates at the frame/swingarm/engine junction, which are meant to take some of the engine’s load off the frame. Big changes.

Look closer and you’ll start to realize even more differences. The swingarm is reinforced and longer than the unit on base-model Scramblers, while up front, Ducati has updated the triple clamps and widened inter-fork clearance. Most of these updates are in an effort to increase overall stiffness, though not for the reasons you’d make a streetbike stiffer (mid-corner stability, etc.). This is for the simple fact that Ducati wants you to be able to push the Desert Sled and even jump it. Stress-free. Repeatedly.

2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
Developed for the street, the 803cc twin-cylinder engine feels slightly out of place in really technical dirt riding. It's still a very user-friendly powerplant though and good enough for steer-with-the-rear action on hard-packed dirt.Courtesy of Ducati

Suspension is up to the challenge, Ducati having equipped the Desert Sled with a fully adjustable 46mm Kayaba fork and rebound/preload-adjustable Kayaba shock. Both with 7.9 inches of travel. The spoked wheels (19-inch front/17-inch rear) are wrapped in specially designed Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR tires, too.

If you’re wondering what’s left of the standard Scrambler, the answer is not a lot. In fact, the list basically starts and stops at Ducati’s 803cc L-twin engine, which was only updated to meet Euro 4 emissions standards. Those involved with the project are quick to mention, of course, that the engine hasn’t lost any power in that update. Thus, the Desert Sled makes a claimed 75 hp and 50 pound-feet of torque.

The hardware mandated by new emissions standards and (much) beefier componentry has brought overall weight up. And while the Scrambler team says it fought hard to keep the pounds off, the Desert Sled weighs a claimed 456 lbs. That’s roughly 46 lbs. more than the less-equipped Scrambler Icon. With brawn comes new burdens…

2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
The Desert Sled isn't afraid to kick some dust up.Courtesy of Ducati

Hitting the open trail

If Ducati couldn’t hold the Desert Sled’s launch in the southern California desert, then the next best place would be the Tabernas Desert of southern Spain. And, more specifically, at Texas Hollywood/Fort Bravo, a western-styled theme park that was originally used as a set for films like “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” A town built to depict historic scenes of yesteryear, on a bike meant to mimic iconic machines of yesteryear? Yeah, that’ll do.

The trails outside of Fort Bravo do a great job of emulating southern California terrain. Sand washes, hard-packed dirt, shale, and tire-hungry ruts all culminate in what are a true test of man and machine. And somehow, the Desert Sled emerged on the other end. Relatively unscathed.

2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
A taller handlebar makes it easy to stand up on the Desert Sled while tearing up your favorite section of trail.Courtesy of Ducati

I should back up and say that, never in a million years would I have expected Ducati to lead us down trails this technical. And I’m not entirely sure they did either. Rain had rolled through the area in the days preceding the launch and complicated sections of the loop that we were supposed to use. The resulting ride was about as challenging as anything I’ve done in my (yes, relatively limited) time on a dirt bike. The washes were deep, rocks plentiful, and that dust came up in storms.

On most any other scrambler, we would’ve turned around, but the Desert Sled didn’t seem to mind. Suspension is a nice balance between plush and supportive, with more than enough travel for you to hit jumps or roll through piles of rocks. The bike only rarely made noises of mercy, and so long as I kept my momentum up, was more than happy to push through the sand. Stand up, shift your weight back, and it’ll gladly roll through the deepest of stuff.

2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
You can put any modern-day scrambler in the air. It's the bringing it down smoothly that's the tough. With the Desert Sled, that's no longer an issue.Courtesy of Ducati

The problem with a lot of 50/50 based on-/off-road bikes is that there’s a compromise when you jump back on pavement, but fortunately the Desert Sled gives up very little on the road. It’s taller than the Scrambler Icon (seat height is up 2.8 inches), but the newly shaped seat is comfy, and since the footpeg-to-seat gap has been lengthened, the bike feels more comfortable to riders with a longer inseam. That longer-travel suspension doesn’t lead to any wallowing on a canyon road, and brakes are still plenty strong. Put simply, it's still a really, really fun bike on the street, and plenty capable of daily commuting, canyon carving, or longer jaunts out to the dirt.

Personally, I like to think of it as a dual-purpose bike with style and a little extra comfort. It's about as much fun as a Kawasaki KLR650 in the dirt, but way easier on the eyes. It's also a more comfortable and versatile option than something like a Suzuki DR650 or Honda XR650L, though not nearly as off-road capable as a KTM 500 EXC or even a WR250R. I wouldn't do my daily commute on those bikes, but I would this...

2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
Despite its longer-travel suspension and dual-purpose tires, the Desert Sled gives up very little on the pavement in terms of comfort and performance.Courtesy of Ducati

I did, for you, the reader, take the Sled off some jumps, and will say that the chassis/suspension felt more than willing to keep going back for more. There was a little clatter at the rear, but because of the well-thought-out routing of the shock reservoir, there’s plenty of travel and I never actually bottomed out on my return to earth.

Back on the trail, you don’t really notice the Sled’s additional weight, and standing up feels natural thanks to the reworked ergonomics. I will say, however, that a few guys dropped their bikes in the sand, and said that it started to feel heavier with each additional time they tried to pick it up.

I’d argue that the Scrambler’s power delivery is actually smoother with the Euro 4 engine update, and still equally as user friendly. Dipping deeper into the dirt, I often found myself wanting more low-end, single-cylinder-like torque. Regardless, this is still a very flexible engine, with enough power to keep you entertained on the road, but not enough to bite you in the dirt. You just need to keep the revs up above 4,000 rpm to keep the fun going.

Tires are another good balance, that Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR rubber offering up surprisingly good grip in the dirt but very little squirming sensation on the road. Having adjustable ABS that doesn’t reset when you turn the key is nice, too. Because rear tire slides.

2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
We think it looks at home in the dirt, too.Courtesy of Ducati

Everything else is typical Ducati Scrambler, meaning fit and finish is 100-percent solid. The bike simply sounds, looks, and feels great. That’s not me trying to be nice, either; I really do think the Scrambler boys knocked this one out of the park. Sure, it’s no dirt bike, and the really, really technical stuff is going to be tougher than it would on a true dual sport. Weight and a wide front tire will do that. But. BUT, base your expectations around the concept of scrambling, and I promise that you will be blown away. We’ve, up until now, accepted that a scrambler can be just a style or look. But the Desert Sled changes that. It’s a legitimate bike for on- or off-road riding, and it still looks the part, too.

The argument, of course, is that the bike is a bit too expensive. At $11,395 ($11,595 for White Mirage), it’s $2,500 more expensive than the base-model Scrambler Icon. And while $2,500 doesn’t seem like a lot for the parts that you are getting, $11,395 for a standard bike with some off-road chops does.

That said, I’m wholeheartedly thinking about buying one. There’s just something about being able to ride out to the desert and explore the unknown that makes me feel so happy inside. That sense of adventure is what made scrambling so great in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and it’s what the Desert Sled brings back to a category that has relegated us to pavement for far too long now. Kudos, Ducati, for building a proper solution.

SPECIFICATIONS
ENGINE TYPE Air-cooled V-twin
DISPLACEMENT 803cc
BORE & STROKE 88.0 x 66.0mm
SEAT HEIGHT 33.9 in.
RAKE 24°
TRAIL 4.4 in.
WHEELBASE 59.3 in.
FUEL CAPACITY 3.57 gal.
CLAIMED WET WEIGHT 456 lbs.
PRICE $11,395 (Red Dusk); $11,595 (White Mirage)
2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert SledCourtesy of Ducati
2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert SledCourtesy of Ducati
2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert SledCourtesy of Ducati
2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert SledCourtesy of Ducati
2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert SledCourtesy of Ducati
2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert SledCourtesy of Ducati
2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert SledCourtesy of Ducati
2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert SledCourtesy of Ducati
2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert SledCourtesy of Ducati

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