Tested: Ducati DesertX Rally – all Adventure bikes should be like this
Get things right, and Ducati’s recipe is a good one, and even 200+kg bikes can be good fun to ride off-road as the new DesertX Rally proves – Enduro21 jumps on the pegs for a test in Morocco.
To our minds the best adventure bikes should be something like the bikes we used to call a big trailie. Those bikes which genuinely could and did compete in the Dakar, but could also commute across a city to work or take you out on a ride with your mates at the weekend.
It is kinda what all good, modern adventure bikes aim to be but the reality is some are more capable than others when it comes to hitting a trail, let alone a jump or pile of rocks.
On the whole, the standard ADV bikes have limitations due to weight, suspension, often tyre size and choices. To be frank, some of them are crap off-road too and way too big physically to be much fun off-road...slowing them for a gravel corner can be like operating a ship.
And don’t talk to us about their suspension which is often set for cruising along coast roads and can’t cope with jumping anything larger than a carrot – they are pale imitations of what an off-road bike is and a long way removed from the “rally” bike they pretend to be.
Ducati just made an adventure bike the way an adventure bike should be
Our test ride of the 2024 Ducati DesertX Rally trundled out of Marrakech in the direction of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. After 20 minutes or so we were clear of the traffic, road-side stalls and already into farm country. The roads had turned to dirt, kids and animals walked freely in the small villages built from the red mud and lime stones we were riding on.
Not far outside the fifth village (I think, I lost count), our trail was suddenly peppered with jumps. Drainage ditches had been worked on recently to add pipes under the dry ground and for us that meant a series of sweet little take-off ramps.
The first one was taken steady, the next a bit braver to get some air, the third was directly out a turn so was all the excuse needed for a wheelie and the fourth was ridden basically the same as I would have done on my enduro bike – I hardly backed off and clutch jumped it with a little turn of the bars for good measure. I had to remind myself this was an adventure bike.
This enormous switch in adventure bike attitude is a seismic shift in what you expect from a bike of this size and weight. It’s a middleweight adventure bike to be clear, not a behemoth with a daft amount of power and electronic suspension to cope with your caravan-sized amount of luggage.
Ducati wanted the DesertX to sit in that place occupied by the 790/890 KTMs and the Yamaha Tenere 700 – well-priced bikes but also much easier to live with in terms of weight and character.
The difference and the upgrade with the Rally edition is the above and then some. It costs more but for the money you get an adventure bike that can actually cope with a fourth gear jump to flat ground without collapsing under its own weight.
Trying to be Antoine or just having a good time?
Capable, easy to ride through busy streets of Marrakech or rabbit-warren tiny villages at walking pace: tick. Blast along twisting mountain roads: tick. Rip-up rocky riverbeds, open trails and rolling hills in a desert: tick. The DesertX Rally is quite a lot more than a bike which can handle a jump by the way.
By the afternoon of this test, when we had been up in the Atlas Mountains and rocketed off to what looked like Mars through my goggles in the afternoon heat, this test report was already written in my head.
Alright, we don’t all need to go to motocross tracks on the DesertX Rally and pretend to be Antoine Meo winning the Erzberg prologue but it was clear by then Ducati have built the very bike I want an adventure bike to be.
Rivals in class
The DesertX Rally has a rival in the 790/890 Adventure Rally, KTM’s similarly upgraded version of their popular standard bike. They are in the same ballpark and will attract the same customers willing to pay the extra money for the better performing and handling bike in the dirt.
NB: Enduro21 hasn’t tested the Yamaha Tenere 700 Extreme Edition which has similar specification KYB suspension.
Why the recipe works
The beauty of these higher-spec bikes is a balanced chassis, the 21-inch front wheel size, a manageable and versatile engine and most importantly the really good suspension.
Add in there things like wider footpegs for longer periods standing riding, a neutral riding position in general, nice feel from the controls and a twin cylinder engine which is gentle down the bottom but capable enough to stretch long and strong through the gears and revs. Like we said enough already, it’s a recipe which Ducati have put together nicely.
The nature of things meant that when Ducati introduced the DesertX, owners were quickly upgrading their bikes, wanting more from them and being egged on by Mr Meo and his antics.
If legend has it correct, the KTM development team basically asked themselves, “what would it be like if we put off-road suspension in a 790 Adventure?”
Responding to customer trends, Ducati’s story is equally evocative. They approached Kayaba wanting to try off-road forks and a shock in their DesertX. KYB said no, closed cartridge forks are for off-road, not street bikes. Ducati tried again: “yeah, we know, but we really want to, it will work.” Eventually, Kayaba were persuaded and these saucy springers are now standard on the DesertX Rally.
The KYB specs are saucy with 48mm, closed cartridge forks featuring diamond like carbon (DLC) coated stanchions and Kashima coated outers, this is the kind of stuff you see on factory race bikes normally. Their held in place with new billet aluminium triple clamps too.
The 46mm KYB rear shock is also fully adjustable like the forks and runs a pressurised bladder with a quickly accessed preload adjuster underneath that steel trellis subframe in classic Ducati red.
The DesertX Rally sit 20mm taller than the stock model which is also a crucial difference in helping the bike cope with rough ground and jumps. It feels pretty precise on the trail too with nice steering accuracy from the forks, triple clamps plus a riding position which helps you feel for tyre grip when standing, despite the weight.
21-inch front and 18-inch rear
Ducati say this is the first ever model they have produced with this tyre combination. The 90/90-21 front, and 150/70-18 rear, gives you plenty of options for fitment depending on the type of riding you’re doing.
We think the bike will come with Pirelli Scorpion Rally STRs as standard but we tested here on the slightly chunkier Scorpion Rally. They had a tough time with the baked hard and stony tracks we spent a couple of days riding but were a good combination for the Moroccan desert one minute, unpaved roads and the unpredictable tarmac the next.
Strong off-road rims and hubs
Helping the handling as well as the confidence to hit jumps, are the upgraded wheels. The Takasago EXCEL rims, billet aluminium hubs and carbon steel spokes are specifically designed for this bike and don’t just look peachy but are part of the genuine off-road identity of the bike.
Stronger by design, they’re also lighter and according to the test rider with us on our day in Morocco, make a difference in the way the Rally model handles compared to the standard bike.
The OE rims and hubs might help with street manners and stability, plus are less expensive, but the Rally edition hoops help with those direction changes off-road, when you’re braking into a sketchy gravel turn or indeed doing jumps, skids and wheelies.
Protecting the 20K bike underneath
There’s no doubt the looks of this bike are distinctive, and it will stand out from the crowd. But there are some details which are maybe more meaningful to adventure riders who might be scared to tackle genuine dirt sessions because they are worried about their 20K bike getting damaged.
A list of external parts designed to protect and be cheaper to replace (than actual body panels or prevent written-off frames) includes a decent carbon fibre sump guard protecting the underside of the engine and cases well. The graphics and side panels are actually detachable covers (more or less) and are easily replaced if you scuff them. The wrap-around handguards are practical and inexpensive too but note our test bikes also featured the crash bars which are an optional extra, not standard.
Billet aluminium foot pedals are lighter and stronger than the stock plus the rear brake pedal has a reversible toe nugget (for want of a better word) so you can adjust for standing riding or larger off-road boots.
As mentioned already, the rear suspension has a remote preload adjustor if you want to wind it up or down for different types of riding, carrying pillions or heavier luggage. There’s also an Ohlins steering damper to keep the front end on the straight and narrow, which can be especially useful if you start loading up with pillions and luggage.
The digital instrument panel and cockpit features an aluminium frame on the Rally model which is stronger but also accepts mounting of navigation equipment of phone mounts etc. more robustly.
The looks of the DesertX are certainly unique with changes all across the bike for colour, shapes and angles. The high front mudguard looks a bit odd in the flesh – a little like it was bolted on after the original one with graphics on it got damaged we thought? But the rear mudguard and tail light clearly hark back a couple of decades in design and we love that touch.
Modern day big trailie?
Is it all good? Well, it’s not a light, competition bike like we’re used to at Enduro21 but it’s as close as you’ll get with a 200+kg adventure bike and that is saying something.
The twin brake discs up front are a bit overkill off-road and especially on the gravel trails we spent a lot of time riding in Morocco. Withouth doubt the ABS system is fantastic at helping here and lets you switch your brain off to a degree. But we’d rather turn the system off and have more feel (which is what Mr Meo did with his bike at Erzberg along with removing one of the discs).
But apart from that, and this what it boils down to, in making a very competent middleweight adventure bike, Ducati have designed a bike which straddles the divide and stands as a modern day big trailie – very much a long way more developed from those big XR/XT/DR KLX trailies by the way.
Some adventure bikes are miles away from what we want. They’re ok for travelling a 1000 kilometres in one hit but what they’re actually capable of on the dirt is limited by weight, tyre and wheel sizes, suspension and basically little or no genuine design considerations to the reality of off-road riding.
The DesertX Rally shrugs off that heavy cloak and in doing so helps redefine what ADV bikes can be. The DLC and Kashima coated suspension and a versatile 100-plus HP twin cylinder engine define it but having the right parts fitted make it.
We like the retro-look of the X Rally’s rear end and tail light, we got fascinated playing with the seemingly endless options for traction control and power settings, and enjoyed being able to sit down comfortably after several hours on the pegs in the Moroccan desert to cruise back for a beer.
Not enough play time
The nature of a press test like this is to ride in convoy to one photo location, then another and another with a food a water stop on the way. It can be a procession peppered with stop-start riding, taking turns around a stretch of track, trail or road to bag the images you see here.
Though we had loads of riding time to test the DesertX Rally, the problem was there wasn’t enough playing time. And that is our best takeaway from this first test: this bike wants to do the boring stuff if you want to but it would rather go for a play and has the skills to match. To our minds this is exactly what adventure bikes should be like.
DesertX Rally specifications:
Testastretta 11°, 937cc engine with claimed 110hp at 9,250 rpm and 92Nm at 6,500 rpm
Tubular steel trellis frame with cast aluminium double-sided swingarm
Tank capacity 21litres
High front mudguard with split brake line *
Spoked rims with billet hubs 21” x 2.15” and 18” x 4”, carbon steel spokes and high-strength Takasago Excel rims with inner tube *
Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR tyres in sizes 90/90-21 at the front and 150/70 R18 at the rear (alternatively: Pirelli Scorpion Rally, Pirelli Scorpion Trail II)
KYB Ø 48mm closed cartridge fork, 250mm travel, adjustable compression and rebound, Kashima Coating treatments on the fork tubes and DLC on the sliders *
Fork clamps machined from solid *
KYB shock absorber with 46mm piston, 240mm travel, adjustable in compression at high and low speeds, in rebound and preload *
Ground clearance of 280mm *
Adjustable Öhlins steering damper fixed to the handlebar *
6 customizable Riding Modes (Sport, Touring, Urban, Wet, Enduro, Rally)
4 Power Modes on 3 power levels
ABS Cornering Bosch adjustable on 3 levels
Ducati Traction Control adjustable on 8 levels
Ducati Wheelie Control
Engine Brake Control
Ducati Cruise Control
5" colour TFT instrumentation with Ducati Link App support and turn-by-turn navigation
Utility Bar (stronger, aluminium frame)
Ducati Brake Light
Ducati Quick Shift Up & Down (DQS)
Full LED lighting system
Adjustable brake and gear pedals machined from solid *
*Equipment and features exclusive to DesertX Rally
We wrote a separate story on what DesertX Rally, and the new Desmo450 motocross bike, might mean for Ducati in enduro and rally: Ducati saying no to enduro and rally?
Photo Credit: Ducati