2021 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled review – so much more than a poser's bike
When retro meets rally
If you possess a waxed moustache, chest and jacket, you're probably looking at the picture above and thinking, "By Jove! That looks like a fantastic contraption upon which to acquire an organic soy latte". 'Cos there's no doubt the Ducati Scrambler range has always been aimed at young urbanite riders who put aesthetics above all else.
While that's fine, the Desert Sled version of the Scrambler isn't really interested in posing. For a start, only posers over 6' tall will be able to swing a leg over it comfortably, and the bike's more geared up for getting covered in mud than being subject to heavily filtered box-brownie photos from a guy called Quentin with a rollie stuffed behind his ear.
This is a retro-looking bike with a proper off-road ambition. But is it any good? Watch the video below to find out, or read on for a written review.
What is it?
The Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled came out in early 2017 as a more off-road biased version of the Scrambler. While it shares the regular Scrambler's 803cc air-cooled L-twin engine, it has fully adjustable suspension with a chunkier 46mm-diameter front fork. The suspension now has 200mm of travel, to help it cope with bumps, rocks and any other off-road obstacles. The frame is also beefed up a little around the swingarm pivot to help take more of a beating off-road.
Gold wheels are the best, aren't they? It's almost Subaru-ish
It comes as standard with spoked wheels and knobbly tyres, which – coupled with the high-level front mudguard and taller ride height – give it all the rugged trail-ready looks you could want.
What's new for the 2021 version of the Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled?
Not much to be honest – although it's now Euro 5 compliant and is available in this lovely Sparkling Blue – aka the prettiest retro bike paint scheme we've seen in years.
What's it like on road?
I tested the bike for a month over the Christmas period, and I rode it in some properly minging weather. I don't think I saw a dry road in my time with the bike, so I can't comment on the more extreme side of its handling. But what I did learn is that the bike's reasonably gentle 73hp and 67Nm of torque give you decent performance that you can use fully, even when there are ducks swimming across the road.
The modest power output means you're never bothered by the lack of traction control – the only rider aid is two-channel cornering ABS. But this is part of the Desert Sled's appeal – you can just get on it and ride without any high-tech distractions. The air-cooled exhaust note is pretty quiet thanks to Euro 5 regulations, but you do get a nice characterful thrum from the airbox and the odd burble when you back off the gas.
The dash look simple but packs the essentials, including a fuel gauge and range readout
It'll (just about) lift the front wheel (a bit) in first gear, and the soft delivery of the power means it'd made a friendly-but-fun first bike. You can still overtake anything you want, but you'll need to plan ahead and be a little aware of your gear selection.
The Desert Sled's on-road handling isn't the sharpest – the knobbly tyres rob the front end of a fair bit of feel, but it turns in quickly and the larger 19-inch front wheel doesn't make it feel ponderous. You're not going to be getting massive lean angles on with these tyres on wet roads, and you'd probably want to stick some more road-biased tyres on if you're never going to take it off-road.
The rear mudguard doesn't stop all the mud going up your back, but it saves you from the worst…
The front brake's a single-sided setup, with one 330mm disc on the left-hand side of the front wheel, grabbed by a radially mounted Brembo caliper. It works pretty well, but you have to give it a bit of a handful if you want to stop in a hurry – but it matches the overall pace and vibe of the bike really well. It's also nice to have a soft front brake so you don't accidentally use it and wipe yourself out off-road.
Speaking of which…
What's it like off-road?
Most UK buyers aren't going to take their Desert Sleds on anything more challenging than the local green lane – if you're serious about off-roading you'll be after a more dedicated bike. With that in mind, I headed to some local lanes that felt a bit more like the Somme than Surrey. It was wet with a capital W.
Available as an A1 poster from my Teespring store (maybe not)
With stock road pressures in the tyres I immediately felt at home on the Desert Sled. Standing on the pegs feels natural, with your arms reaching the bars with the lightest of pressure on your palms. It powerslides gracefully even in proper brown slop, and you don't have to switch it to off-road mode to kill any traction control – cos there isn't any. You can put it in off-road mode to disable ABS, but that's all you need to do when the Tarmac ends.
I had a proper hoot slithering around (slowly) up some slopes, through a stream and doing stuff that I'd never do on a normal road bike. I even tested how well it, erm, falls over. Parking the bike on the top of a hill for a photo, I managed to drop the bike away from me, straight into six inches of pure gloop. The bike escaped without so much as a bent front brake lever, and picking 209kg (that's the wet weight 90% fuelled up) wasn't a complete pain in the arse, back or neck.
What's not so good about it?
We've mentioned the fact it's not hugely fast and the brakes aren't especially sharp. The Desert Sled's also not especially user friendly if you're small – the seat height is a lofty 860mm, though there's a lower 840mm seat option. It's also not a bike that shields you from the elements, not that that's a huge surprise given… well, look at it.
Should I buy one?
Have we mentioned how good it looks?
At £9,995 the Desert Sled's the joint most expensive of the 803cc Scrambler range (the 1100s are a bit more). Given the quality of finish and the fact it has some proper suspension components, that seems like a reasonable price – and it'll set you back £113 per month with a £2,000 deposit on a three-year PCP finance deal.
As for the bike, it's refreshing to ride. It's easy to use around town and has no real edges or annoyances. The dash is simple and clear, albeit devoid of anything fancy.
It's not only a charming back-to-basics bike for pottering around on, it's easily well equipped enough to open up muddy lanes, swamps and, uh, deserts for your weekend rides. It's one of those bikes that could slip into your garage as a second bike, or you could happily daily it around town.