First ride of the 2022 Ducati DesertX

An Italian manufacturer of exotic sports bikes is rubbing its feet in the dirt. The Ducati DesertX asserts itself as a capable off-roader.

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Many adventure bikes are big, heavy, and not exceptionally adept at off-roading. This is why most of them spend much more time on the pavement than on the ground. Sure, some riders can ride on gravel roads, but the truth is, even Gold Wings can handle a country road.

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There are some bikes though, like the Honda Africa Twin, Husqvarna Norden 901 and KTM 890 Adventure R, that are designed to handle more serious off-road riding. The makers of these bikes have a history steeped in off-road competition, so it’s no surprise that their adventure bikes are very capable off-roaders.

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What is surprising, however, is when an Italian company that has won 14 Superbike World Championships and two MotoGP Championships produces a motorcycle with a strong penchant for dirt. That company is Ducati and the bike in question is the new DesertX.

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The DesertX looks truly Dakar Rally-ready, with a rally-inspired fairing, long-travel suspension and off-road-ready 21- and 18-inch wheel sizes. It might sound unusual for a company that was the first to put winglets on MotoGP bikes, but Ducati actually has an off-road lineage, albeit a while back. In 1990, Italian driver Edi Orioli won the grueling Paris-Dakar rally aboard a Cagiva Elefant, a feat he repeated in 1994. Ducati was part of the Cagiva group from 1985 to 1996, so the Elefant was powered by a 900cc Ducati V. -double.

Ducati first unveiled a Scrambler 1100-based DesertX concept at EICMA in 2019, though the production bike is an all-new machine. Its engine is based on the liquid-cooled 937cc V-twin that also powers the Monster, Hypermotard, Multistrada V2 and Supersport. Ducati has reworked it for the DesertX, however, and the changes include dedicated riding modes and shorter transmission ratios from the first through fifth of its six gears. It claims 110 horsepower and 68 lb-ft of torque.

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The DesertX uses a stiff steel trellis main frame and fully adjustable Kayaba suspension that provides 230mm of suspension travel in the front and 220mm in the rear. The high suspension provides 250mm of ground clearance, but it also makes the bike tall, with a seat height of 875mm. An optional low seat brings it down to 865mm, and if you need even easier reach to the ground, you can combine the low seat with an optional lowering kit that brings the seat height down to 845mm.

A vertically mounted five-inch TFT display is easier to read when standing while riding on dirt, and also offers better reading when using the optional Bluetooth-enabled navigation. The screen is large and easy to read, and the layout changes depending on the drive mode selected, highlighting relevant information for each mode.

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Tilt-sensing ABS and traction control, wheel control, adjustable engine braking, cruise control and a quick shifter are all standard. There are four road modes (Sport, Touring, Urban, Wet) and two off-road modes (Enduro and Rally), as well as four power levels.

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The tank holds 21 liters of fuel, but if you are traveling to more remote locations Ducati offers an eight liter auxiliary tank which fits in the rear of the bike and is manually switched to pump fuel into the main tank by if needed.

Our 140-kilometer test loop snaked around the mountains surrounding Aspen, and about 85% of it was unpaved; a good part of it was rough and rocky and at one point went up to the top of a ski hill. Claimed wet weight is 223kg, and although the bike is big, it feels light when lifted off the side stand. The seat is narrow in the front to make it easier to reach the ground and widens considerably in the back to provide plenty of support. Unfortunately, I can’t comment on the long term comfort of the seat since most of the day was spent standing on the off-road foot pegs!

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It didn’t take long after turning to the dirt for the DesertX to assert itself more as a dual-sport machine than a heavy adventure bike. With Aggressive Rally Mode selected, the rear slides easily through corners and the front wheel effortlessly lifts over obstacles. With elbows up and in attack mode, the DesertX swallows rocks, bumps, and ruts without flinching, and maintains a strong, unwavering line, while navigating around obstacles with ease. It feels like a much lighter bike at speed than its weight suggests. The front end is solid, and the bike never shook its head, even after the front wheel was hammered by successive high-speed bumps. The suspension soaks up big dips and bumps without bottoming out with dirt-bike-like smoothness.

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2022 Ducati Desert X
2022 Ducati Desert X Photo by Gregor Halenda and Scott Rounds

The DesertX impressed the most, however, on a steep climb to nearly 3,500 meters, along a rocky, switchback trail that brought us to the top of the ski hill. This is where the shorter gearing became an asset. Admittedly, the gap between first and second is a bit wide, resulting in frequent shifting when slowing down for tighter turns, but the bike’s quick shifter made this effortless.

On the pavement, the DesertX revealed its Ducati-esque road roots. At a brisk pace, it swept through fast corners with inspiring stability, although its high suspension made cornering transition cumbersome as it climbed and then descended into a lean. Due to its 21-inch front wheel and long suspension travel, it prefers a deliberate, calculated approach to corners, rather than a point-and-pull sport bike style – nail the brakes hard on corner entry and this long race is soaked quickly. Overall, though, it will easily keep up with sports bikes, especially if the pavement gets rough.

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The Ducati DesertX is a serious new entry into the adventure bike category, which is an unusual place for the Italian sport bike maker. But after beating it off-road in harsh conditions, it proved to be a worthy contender that feels more like a dual-sport machine than a proper adventure bike. It is pricey, however, starting at $19,695. The Honda Africa Twin sells for $16,999, the Husky Norden 901 for $15,199 and the KTM 890 Adventure R for $15,899. It might make the choice difficult, but one thing is certain: although Ducati is new to this off-road activity, the DesertX will not disappoint, especially if you use it as it was designed to be used – except off the sidewalk and on the gas.


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