Ducati DesertX: Kicking Up Dust

Sardinia is a great place to chill with a glass of myrtle liqueur in your hand while gazing out at the Costa Smeralda. Or you could just race a Ducati DesertX across the sand.
Text Jochen Vorfelder
Photo Peter Schreiber

Along the coast near the port city of Olbia in the island’s northeast, Sardinia is unbearably sophisticated and intolerably bland, and the nearby seaside resorts are dominated by the jet set class. Good thing that Sardinia is fantastic for motorcycling. Winding side roads meander along breathtaking bays, and the route that stretches from Porto Cervo down to Cagliari is legendary.

Far from the beaches, the sparsely populated plateaus of the Gallura region are more down-to-earth. The villages are populated with old men sitting in front of the cafés holding their self-carved walking sticks. Just as gnarled and stalwart are the cork oaks that line the potholed asphalt, dirt roads and dusty trails, providing only slender shade. Apart from a few farmers and shepherds, no one is out and about in the sugherete, the cork oak forests. Except, of course, the Ducati DesertX and its rider.

Riding the DesertX in Sardinia is more than fitting, because both sides of the island, the sophisticated and the down-to-earth, perfectly suit the nature of the off-road bike: With the DesertX, Ducati has created a classy tool for tough terrain. The specifications for project manager Filippo Marri were extremely high: Ducati performance and brilliant handling characteristics on the road, as well as outstanding performance in difficult terrain. Marri, who was just twenty-eight years old at the time, was only in his second year at Ducati and, in the midst of the pandemic, was tasked with laying the foundations for a completely new segment in the Ducati portfolio using Zoom, CAD design and only limited testing possibilities. And he was supposed to do it pronto.

Marri delivered. The look alone is right. The DesertX is only available in Star White Silk, which was a wise decision. The white color accentuates the two central design elements, the 21-liter tank pulled low and the dual LED headlight. Both take visual cues from the Dakar enduros of the 1990s, the iconic Cagiva Elephants with their Ducati engine. The balance is a success, with the right dash of retro flavor and modern looks all at once.

The DesertX rolls along on spokes with a 21-inch tire at the front and 18 in the rear. Which means we’re riding Ducati’s venture into the 21-inch enduro segment – and it cuts a very good figure: The DesertX whips its way into the fast Sardinian coastal curves as if pulled along by a string. And when things get tight at the braking point, the Brembo stoppers do the trick.

A wide array of electronic systems supports the DesertX’s innate capabilities, with traction control that can be set to eight levels, wheelie control to four, and EBC engine brake to three. The cornering ABS also has three levels. The bike offers six riding modes (Sport, Touring, Urban, Wet, Enduro, Rally), which can be freely combined with the four power mappings Full, High, Medium and Low. Also good to know is that the DesertX will ride just fine if you simply get on and start going.

The roads around the small hamlet of Loelle, which regularly hosts a special stage of the World Rally Championship, are extremely hard, hot and, above all, dusty. This is exactly the right terrain to explore the off-road capabilities of the DesertX and the two modes.

The options Enduro and Rally differ mainly in terms of engine power. Enduro mode only delivers 75 hp to the rear wheel, responds more gently, and is the choice for difficult passages. Rally mode delivers the full 110 hp: One blast of the throttle and the 223-kilogram bike goes on the attack. And the DesertX does this with ease, too: The traction control allows the rear wheel to wander, but prevents a full breakaway.

After a few fast laps in the dust of Loelle, I’m standing there exhausted, but also convinced. Ducati has put an exclamation mark on the DesertX.

After a few fast laps in the dust of Loelle, I’m standing there exhausted, but also convinced. Ducati has put an exclamation mark on the DesertX. The Testastretta engine and the outstanding chassis are ideally suited for road use as well; you could ride this bike around the world if you wanted to. But the DesertX also makes a strong impression when the going gets rough and tumble. Conclusion: The first real enduro from out of Bologna masters any terrain.

The only real shortcoming are the brakes. On asphalt, they are sharp and sensitive. Just the way they should be for the track. The price is paid off-road, however: When driving slowly and in narrow stretches, the brake pads are difficult to control, especially at the rear. And then there’s the high sticker price. But that’s how it is with good things: they are expensive – but because they make you happy, they’re worth it.

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