Hipsters. You know the type. Skinny-jean-wearing, craft-beer-sipping, beard-growing millennials. For many, they are the bane of the motorcycling scene, more likely to be found drinking a flat white at The Bike Shed than actually out on the open road. And yet it's these 21st century yuppies that are responsible for the resurgence of one of the greatest sub-genres in biking - the scrambler.
The sector has gone from strength to strength ever since the clever PR boffins at Triumph revived the scrambler name back in 2006 with an off-road orientated version of the Bonneville. Almost every mainstream manufacturer now has a bike that can fulfil your wildest Steve McQueen fantasies: BMW with its R nineT Scrambler, Triumph with the Street Scrambler, and Yamaha with its rather odd looking SCR950.
However, all of these machines share the same problem: they are, first and foremost, styling exercises - not off-road machines.
Even the world's most popular modern day Scrambler - Ducati's Scrambler Icon - would fall to pieces on a rough green lane, the worst us Brits realistically have to contend with. Now, you might argue that most owners wouldn't even risk taking their bikes down a garden path, so who cares if the bikes lack proper off-roading hardware. But like owning a pen that can write in space, or wearing a watch that can function at 4,000m under the sea, it's nice to know that, in theory, your bike has the capability to live up to its go-anywhere image.
Thankfully, Ducati is a company that understands that function should match form, and has decided to add some much needed credibility to the Scrambler range. Forget the Italian company's wholesome 'land of joy' concept - the new Desert Sled is a bike not to be messed with.
A Scrambler, but not as you know it
So, what exactly is a Desert Sled? Well, the most commonly accepted definition describes a heavyweight road going motorcycle of 500cc and up, modified for desert racing - a rather apt description of how Ducati created its new off-roader.
Starting with a standard Scrambler, the Bologna based engineering team set about creating a bike that could comfortably take on the worst the desert could throw at it. Higher and wider motocross style handlebars help to give the rider more leverage, a fully adjustable 46mm Kayaba fork and rebound/preload-adjustable Kayaba damper provide 200mm of suspension travel (instead of 150mm) and stunning gold spoked wheels (19-inch front/17-inch rear) are wrapped in specially designed Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR tyres.
In the metal the changes are even more obvious. The swing-arm is longer and beefier than the unit on base-model Scramblers, there's a new bash plate to protect the engine, while up top, heavy-duty triple clamps reaffirm Ducati's claim that the Desert Sled can really take a pounding. The frame has also been reinforced around the engine/swing-arm mounts to take some of the engine's load off the frame. These are not small changes.
The downside to all these modifications is, unsurprisingly, more weight - an extra 20kg to be precise, bringing the total up to 191kg dry. And rather disappointingly, Ducati has failed to tease any more power from the 75hp 803cc L-twin engine, although it is now Euro-4 compliant.
Polish an Icon
For those who are a bit vertically challenged, the Ducati's 860mm seat can look rather daunting. However, once you've thrown your leg over the surprisingly narrow seat, the bike hunkers down on its rear spring, allowing you to get both feet flat on the floor; only those seriously lacking in the leg department would require the lower 840mm seat.
Turn the key and 803cc L-twin engine lopes into life in a rather subdued manner (an aftermarket Termignoni would be a must-have option). It's a rather disappointing start for the 'hardcore' desert racer, but that's where the let downs begin and end. Once out on the open road it becomes immediately apparent that this is best sorted Scrambler yet.
With a newly shaped cam, the throttle is far less snatchy than the standard bike, with roll on performance vastly improved. On corner exit, the motor pulls strongly from 2,000rpm, comes alive around 6,000rpm and gently dies off beyond 8,000rpm. It never quite has the grunt to lift the front wheel under power, but it feels plenty quick enough, especially when you're sat in a motocross style sit-up-and-beg riding position.
Keep the throttle pinned and the bike sits happily at 80mph, with the motor feeling distinctly under stressed. Granted, it's perhaps not as stable as the standard Icon thanks to longer travel suspension, off-road orientated tyres and wide bars, but you never feel uncomfortable. In fact, with some throw over panniers and a tank bag, the Desert Sled would make a pretty convincing touring bike - as long as you don't mind the windblast, that is.
In the corners, the Desert Sled continues to impress. With those wide bars comes improved leverage. So despite the Pirelli Scorpion tyres taking some sharpness away from the handling, the Ducati falls into corners with a supermoto-like tenacity. The long-travel suspension does indeed result in more pitch and squat than the standard bike into and out of corners, but a surprising amount of feedback through the bars allows you to push much harder than you'd first expect. It's a perfect mix of comfort and grin-inducing performance.
Perhaps Ducati's greatest achievement is hiding the Desert Sled's extra mass. When stood up, the wide bars are exactly where you want them, giving you impressive manoeuvrability at low speeds. This helps you to manage the Ducati's weight, and despite getting myself into some trouble on some particularly challenging trails - I repeatedly found myself heading for worrying large ruts - the bike just shrugged off everything thrown at it.
The upgraded KYB damper also has a huge impact on the Scrambler's ability to travel at speed across rough terrain. Where the standard bike would be constantly bottoming out, the Desert Sled simply soaks up ditches and potholes with the plush indifference usually reserved for the best ADVs. In fact, on one of our off-road routes (a secret green lane used by Mercedes to demonstrate the G-Class's off-roading prowess) I was convinced that the sump guard would be getting friendly with the ground after a small jump turned into quite a large one. To my surprise, there wasn't so much as a clatter, with the suspension having plenty of travel in reserve. Impressive.
Those specially designed Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR tyres are worthy of mention, too. They manage to generate an impressive amount of traction both on and off road. Granted, the soft compound looked like it would wear quickly, but it's worth the sacrifice for improved grip. Adjustable ABS also allows for some fun low speed slides.
After a long day of riding I peeled into my local Motorrad dealer for a break and a brew. Walking around the showroom my eye was drawn to the BMW R NineT Scrambler and the new Urban GS - two bikes I have the utmost respect for. They're brilliant street bikes, look drop-dead gorgeous and are worryingly close in price to the Desert Sled.
And yet, despite hankering after an R NineT for years, both BMWs left me feeling cold. Why? Well, like finding out Bear Grylls actually stays in hotels while shooting 'Born Survivor', there's something disappointing about BMW's lack of substance.
On the other hand, the Desert Sled offers an intoxicating mix of on and off road capability. Yes, it's not a true dirt bike - hardcore off-roading would be more challenging than on, say, a Honda 450R - but it has enough ability for most of us. And let's face it, knowing that you can dive off down unexplored green lanes whenever you feel in the mood is just wonderfully cool. Ultimately, the Desert Sled is an off-road bike first, and a fashion statement second, and for that, Ducati should be congratulated.
2017 DUCATI SCRAMBLER DESERT SLED
Engine: 803cc air-cooled L-Twin, Desmodromic distribution, two valves per cylinder
Power (hp): 75@8,250rpm
Torque (lb ft): 50@5,750rpm
Top speed: 130mph
Weight: 207kg (wet)
MPG: 52 (claimed)
Price: £9,395 (in red), £9,495 (in white)