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Feature: Rock 'n' Roll
When a full-blown off-roader isn’t on your wishlist, and a street bike won’t cut it, what you need is the ideal balance. They’re called scramblers and we help you pick the best one
Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll pretty much defined the decade of 1960 in the West. And between all of that, a glorious decade of the rise of scrambler motorcycles was somewhat lost. For a select group of enthusiasts though, those heavily chopped motorcycles were their choice of weaponry when it came to racing from point A to B, charting out a route “as the crow flies”. Yes, it meant they rode through mud, ruts, slush, water and everything else that helped them cut time, which is why they stripped-down their street motorcycles to its skin, added long-travel suspension and fitted them with knobby tyres, giving them the ultimate go-anywhere attitude.
That’s where they also got the name from – since they scrambled across the trails, the term ‘scrambler’ was coined. Looking at its popularity, mainstream bikemakers couldn’t stay away from it, thus giving birth to factory-built scramblers in the ’60s. However, more purpose-built dual sport and motocross motorcycles developed in the ’70s forced the scramblers to then die a slow, natural death.Thankfully, the segment is now slowly but steadily being resurrected and more than half a century later, a barrage of scramblers have been born, two of whom have already found their way onto our shores, which is what you see here.
This is a super niche segment, not fitting into any boxes, so does it make sense for a country like ours to have them? Well, with our nation’s “top-grade” infrastructure owing to appalling corruption levels, we should be declared a natural habitat for scramblers. Also, with time, the definition of a scrambler has changed as the majority of the folks who look at it today, seek form over function. What they want is a neo-retro motorcycle with a touch of brazenness, reassuring them that should they accidentally venture out into the wild, they would have a triumphant story to share with their grandkids.
Talking of triumphant stories, we at TG have one to share too. For a few years now, Ducati and Triumph have been selling their Scrambler and Bonneville line of motorcycles in India, but it’s only recently that they introduced us to their wilder iterations. Yes, we’re talking about the Scrambler Desert Sled and the Street Scrambler, and to test their dual-purpose worthiness, we headed to the parched Rann of Kutch. These harsh yet breathtakingly surreal salt flats make for a perfect and somewhat safe setting for us lesser mortals to push our luck on motorcycles whose descendants once helped mankind conquer the wild on two wheels.
A thousand-kilometer ride from New Delhi to Kutch, Gujarat, set the ball rolling in the Triumph’s favour as the Street Scrambler (SS) with its ever-so-refined 900cc motor, excellent torque spread, spot-on ergonomics and comfortable saddle made for a great long-ride companion. Okay, the high-mounted exhaust pipes do roast your right leg in traffic, but on the highway, it doesn’t really pose a threat. Compared to that, the Ducati is a different animal altogether. Shod with rally tyres to surmount the rough stuff, the Desert Sled (DS) with its buzzy 800cc L-twin, taller seat height, long-travel suspension and a ride that could easily break your spine in less than a couple of hours, does tire you out a bit more. However, with the DS, standing up on its footpegs and tearing down the highway is a lot easier and more enjoyable exercise.
And once you decide to leave civilisation behind, the Desert Sled just ups the game, leaving the SS eating its dust. Don’t get me wrong, for the kind of motorcycle that the Triumph is, it does a decent job as the surface underneath changes from hard to soft -– the dual-purpose Metzeler Tourance rubber trying its absolute best to get max traction out in the desert.
However, you can’t ignore the fact that at 206 kilos dry, agility was never going to be its forte, and out in the Rann, the Street felt like a sumo wrestler trying to pull off a ballet routine, ultimately running out of ways to mask its overall heft. Sure, you can hold on to the fuel tank with your knees as firmly as possible to stabilise your ride, and the wider MX-style handlebar does help you take better control of the situation, but for someone who isn’t a seasoned off-roader, the Scrambler isn’t going to do any favours to boost confidence.The only good thing is that with switchable traction control and ABS, you can eventually start enjoying your time with the Triumph, pulling off power slides, sometimes intentionally too. However, I would find myself eagerly waiting to hop on to the Ducati.
With all the thought gone into its transition from an Icon to a Desert Sled, the Duc feels a lot more purposeful. At 191 kilos, even this Italian suffers from obesity, but once you hit the Rann, it feels lighter on its feet, more at home off the road than on it. It doesn’t get traction control, which means there’s minimal interference from the electronics (read fun times) and the stiff ride that once threatened to get me bedridden, felt much more reassuring in the land of the Indian Wild Ass. I’m sure the rally tyres offer a lot of grip, but the seating position and the overall stance matter too. Again, the wide handlebars, the added ground clearance and those extra inches of suspension travel make a world of a difference when you’re fooling around in the desert.Plus, standing up feels so much more natural when you’re on the Duc compared to the Street. It’s also the easier one to flick around and change directions standing up on, making life a lot easier in the Rann.
So then, it’s a point each for both the scramblers. The Triumph looks great, marrying the classic design with rugged bits, giving you all the feels you need to warm up to a motorcycle of this kind. It’s no doubt a fantastic motorcycle to ride on the street, but it’s just not convincing enough when you take it out into the wild, at least in this company.
Plus, in terms of functionality, there’s isn’t much of a difference compared to the standard Bonnie – even the bash plate is made of plastic. Okay, you can still have a lot of fun if you’re a pro, but for the rest of us, you would want to keep things low-key off the beaten path. And that’s where the Desert Sled leaps ahead.
The difference between the two in terms of on-road performance isn’t huge – you won’t be complaining riding the Duc on a 400km ride on well-paved motorways. However, the difference in off-road performance is greater, with the pendulum swinging in the Desert Sled’s favour. Yes, the SS has more features, but that’s the DS’ beauty – it stays true to the scrambler ideology of minimum bodywork, maximum fun. And if we were to race them at the Rann of Kutch with a couple of obstacle courses thrown in, I’m sure the Ducati would’ve won that scramble with poise.
Before the Ducati runs away with top honours, there’s one final detail that need some pondering – the sticker price. Although significant changes have been made to the Desert Sled to make it scrambler-worthy, a difference of `1.5 lakh between the two is a big one, thereby making the Street Scrambler seem great value on paper. But if you’re considering either of these niche motorcycles, value-for-money shouldn’t be your buying measure.
In the real world, these motorcycles are expected to serve the dual purpose of being good both on and off the road, finding a middle ground between street and off-road performances. And to that effect, the Scrambler Desert Sled does a far better job of bringing in a fine balance, and if I were to put my money on one, it would be the Ducati.