Does modern existence feel like a relentless, indigestible deluge of information, bombarding your senses and overwhelming the pitiable brain tasked with comprehending it all? Oh good, it’s not just me. If you need a respite, here’s a tip. Ride a motorcycle. Not only does a helmet block twitter notifications but the right motorcycle can occupy your mind so deeply that only the world immediately in front of you exists.  

With that heady preamble, let’s discuss the 2018 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled. From the foundation of Ducati’s charming Scrambler lineup the Desert Sled adds a reinforced frame, a fully-adjustable suspension, a reinforced and lengthened aluminum swingarm, engine protection, protection for the chain and rear sprocket, and Pirelli Scrorpion Rally STR enduro tires. So, while the standard Scrambler lineup might struggle to fulfil the promise of its mischievous aesthetic the Desert Sled is properly prepared for down-and-dirty shenanigans.

Along with its reinforced frame, the Scrambler Desert Sled sports an extra 2 inches of wheel travel (totaling 7.9-inches front and rear), which I’m told is good for jumping. As a true renegade, I boldly defied Ducati’s rugged overhaul and spent my entire Desert Sled loan riding on safe, predictable pavement. In my defense, enduro-prepped motorcycles rarely leave the streets. With that in mind, what did all my grounded, urban Scramblin’ reveal?

Old school style

To start, the Desert Sled looks cool…at least according to the countless strangers who conveyed their verbal and gesture-based approval. Truthfully, I was a touch disappointed my test bike arrived in a comparatively sedate white and gold motif. You see, Ducati also sells a Desert Sled Black Edition, adorned in black (obviously) and retro-fabulous 1980’s red, orange, yellow stripes. It’s superficial but I actually considered purchasing one just for the paint. Hey, it’s cheaper than acquiring TC’s chopper from Magnum P.I.  

Minus Ducati’s old-school treatment, the Desert Sled still looks fab with a lovely stitched seat, gold spoked aluminum wheels (19-inch front, 17-inch rear), and a handle bar cushion, just like my old BMX bike. If I had my druthers, the headlight would be an LED unit, both for style points and superior lighting at night. Even so, the grille-clad halogen headlight did a reasonable job illuminating the night and comes circled by an LED ring that looks pretty nifty.

Aesthetics are prime among the Desert Sled’s appeal but from the rider’s perch its strongest emotional charm is audible. The 2-valve, air-cooled L-Twin generates a meaty, low-mid range thrum that you both hear and feel, like the primal purr of a satisfied jungle cat. When exploring the urban jungle (primo segue, huh?) the 803cc L-twin delights. Its smooth, predictable power delivery and ample torque conspire with moderate clutch efforts to make departing from a stop a seamless affair.

Good power, but no reserves

One more note on power. The Scrambler’s 75 horsepower and 50 lb-ft output absolutely gets the job done but, unlike many mid-displacement motorcycles, there’s not much power in reserve. Put another way, though I never lacked for power, aboard the Desert Sled I spent plenty of time with the throttle pinned. For example, when a Ford Transit Express veered into my lane I summoned just enough juice to blast out of the danger zone. Thankfully the Duc’s mirrors were large and clear enough to return a disapproving glance to the eager but inattentive delivery driver.

When not dodging homicidal Fords I took time to savor the Desert Sled’s neutral riding position, which placed my arms at a comfortable height and width. The bars bend in slightly creating modest pressure on the heel of my palms but that’s nitpicking. More critical ergonomic issues come from the aforementioned frame reinforcements. Had I taken the Desert Sled on airborne adventures through the wilds of California I might’ve appreciated the supplemental side plates that support the revised swingarm. But in city poseur mode all I noticed were hunks of metal where my heels ought to sit, necessitating a slight pigeon-toed foot position. Not a game killer but for my body type the foot intrusion was noticeable.

Regarding the seat, it dips near where it meets the 3.5 gallon tank, helpfully guiding your butt to the preferred seating position. With my utterly-average frame, the seat subjected my inner thighs to slight but forgivable pressure. More concerning was the heat radiating from the air-cooled engine. Come to a stop and hot air inundates your legs. Meanwhile the options for positioning your legs are limited by the Desert Sled’s tall, tippy-toe ride height. Unless you spring for Ducati’s low-seat accessory your only option is to man-up and take the pain. Sit long enough and light scalding is a real possibility. Silver lining: if you live somewhere with legitimate winter all that heat transfer might qualify as a feature.

Frisky handling

When motionless I also enjoyed the 6-speed gearbox’s easily-accessed neutral position. Not all motorcycles can say the same. At speeds faster than zero MPH the Scramble Desert Sled shifted uneventfully and its frisky handling helped me pick my way through congested city traffic. The wide bars offer good leverage for quick steering while being narrow enough to squeeze past stopped motorists. Quick reminder, lane splitting is both cool-looking and totally legal in California...and most other countries. I’ll add that the lane-splitting gods are far kinder to motorcycles that include standard anti-lock brakes, like the Ducati Scrambler lineup. 

In all regards, the Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled delivers joyfully elemental motorcyling; the sound, the handling, the vibrations, the simple round gauge cluster displaying a tachometer, speedometer, clock, and little else. Actually, having just sold a 17-year-old motorcycle without one I’d love it if the Scrambler included a fuel gauge. Nevertheless, the Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled’s unvarnished minimalism should be admired.

How do you want to spend your money? Features? Dazzling power? Technology? Then maybe the Scrambler Desert Sled isn’t right for you. But man, it’s got the emotional boxes checked. The Sled sounds great and it gets the kind of positive reactions that flashy car owners crave but rarely receive. Most importantly, the Desert Sled is elemental and engaging. It’s a motorcycle whose soul is unsullied by technology or, heaven help me, connectivity. For those who feel burned by the burden of modern living the 2018 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled is a salve on two wheels.  


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