A Ducati Desert X is an Unexpetectly Brilliant Bike For an Off-Road Rookie

We tried the new Sweet Lamb DRE Adventure Academy, finding that a big Ducati ADV is a more approachable first off-road bike than you might think

Riding a Ducati Desert X through water

Trying my hardest to keep my gaze further up the trail and not at the loose, rocky surface ahead, I feel the 200 and a bit kilo Ducati Desert X sliding around beneath me. Expletives rattle around my helmet. A crash, it feels, is imminent, but in reality, it’s not. I relax my deathgrip on the bars, and let the bike move around. All is well, and the crash bars on this Desert X, plus my pride, emerge at the bottom of this downhill section intact. 

It’s a moment of clarity that demonstrates the way you need to rewire your brain when trying off-road motorcycling for the first time. That ‘oh shit’ feeling you get when grip or traction is briefly lost on the road is part and parcel of riding on trails, and I’m surprised how quickly I’ve embraced it, especially given the kind of machinery we’re using for the job. 

I say quickly, but we’ve done a lot of riding over the last couple of days as part of the new Ducati Riding Experience (DRE) at Sweet Lamb Adventure Rally School, and it hasn’t been plain sailing for me all the way through. We’ll get to that shortly.

The Sweet Lamb Adventure Rally Bike Academy has been going for more than 10 years on a sprawling private estate near Aberystwyth in the jaw-droppingly beautiful Plynlimon mountains. What’s new here, though, is the DRE, which the highly experienced instructor team has been tasked with running. Hence the Desert X, which I’ve been riding alongside the new Desert X Rally, with the option to also have a shred on a Multistrada V2 and V4.

There are four courses on offer - a one-day taster session, and the two-day Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3 courses. The media launch day was broadly equivalent to Level 1, but with a few changes to accommodate all the content creation shenanigans necessary for illustrating the story through words and videos. 

Level 1 is intended to be suitable for complete off-road novices, which means people will be getting their first experiences of the muckier side of motorcycling on a heavy, powerful adventure bike with a sticker price of £15,000 in the case of the Desert X, or nearly £20,000 for the Desert X Rally. 

Having always thought my first go at something like this would involve a tatty CRF that’s so light it might blow away in the wind, I’ve mixed feelings when throwing a leg over a Desert X Rally. But I needn’t have worried. As instructor Tom Molineux explains to me, there are pros and cons to either going for a bougie adventure bike or a low-weight, low-power trail bike, a definite con of the former being picking the thing back up if you drop it, which thankfully we won’t end up experiencing. On the other hand, they can be more forgiving. 

Sure enough, the first few miles of trail riding pass uneventfully. We first ride to an activity area, completing a few laps before we get perhaps the most important lesson of all - stance. You’d think standing up on a bike is fairly straightforward, but the posture needs to be just right, with straight legs, back slightly leaned forward and a bit of a bend in the elbows. If it’s wrong, everything will be much more difficult, and parts of your body are going to ache. A lot. 

After some more laps of the skills area, we head back out onto the wider trail network, repeating sections while under the watchful eyes of the instructor team. It’s more tiring than you might think, especially as a novice, so we break first for coffee (provided by Lavazza and a custom-painted machine in Ducati colours - natch) and then lunch. 

Things step up notch after we’ve eaten, with each of us riding along a series of rollers while once again watched closely, this time not just by the instructors, but by fellow ‘pupils’ too. Who all get a great view of me completely mucking up both my body positioning and timing throughout the entire section. A second attempt doesn’t go much better, but the beauty of having a large instructor team means I’m able to get some one-on-one tuition with Tom to get to the route of the problem.

In the end, it all comes down to body positioning. Having gotten off to a good start with my posture, I’d slipped into a weird, slightly squatting stance more akin to what you’d do on a mountain bike. It takes time to break me out of this and sort the shift in position needed for going uphill (left forward slightly) and downhill (pushing the bike ‘away’ from you with your bum poking out). 

I get there, eventually, giving a good foundation for day two, which is where the fun really starts. We begin with a short ride back over to the skills area for more drills, this time riding up and down steep hills. 

Along with correct posture, throttle control uphill is key - you need to give enough gas to get up the thing, but not too much, and also, you’ll want to be shutting it off long before the crest, unless you want things to get dicey. On the way back down, it’s all about putting lots of body weight towards the rear of the bike and controlling the speed with well-measured applications of brake. 

Our final lesson in the skills area involves recovering the bike after a failed hill climb attempt. Setting off from the point you get stuck is going to be nigh-on impossible and potentially dangerous, so we’re taught to leave the bike off and in first gear, gently modulating the clutch to roll the bike backwards. It’s nerve-wracking at first in a tall, heavy bike like this, but surprisingly easy once you get the hang of it. 

We depart into the farther reaches of Sweet Lamb, trying out water crossings. As with the uphill stuff, it’s all about being measured. What lies under the water is a bit of an unknown, so you don’t want to go in too quick, something which will also leave you completely soaked. Too slow and you might not get all the way through, and potentially drop the bike in the water. Also not ideal. 

The group tries a series of ever-larger water crossings, and I’m pleased to get the balance about right in terms of entry speed. Until the last one. I realise I’ve screwed up when the view out of my helmet visor becomes a wall of water. Oops. 

Our final jaunt is the biggest single ride thus far, showcasing the sheer scale of the 6,600-acre estate. Confidence at an all-time high, I’m happy to lean more on the Desert X’s 113bhp V-twin, leaving it growling away while nudging past 50mph on some loose sections and leaving a dusty cloud in my wake. I can’t quite believe I’m doing it, given my complete absence of prior off-road experience and my wobbles on day one. Credit has to go to the instructors, and these incredible, surprisingly approachable bikes. 

Great experience though this is, as we get off the bikes for the last time, I’m happy to be finishing. My puny body is shot. But I’m already wondering how and when I can be back on a motorbike, shredding along a trail with a big, silly grin slapped across my face. 

Should you go on the Sweet Lamb Ducati Riding Experience?

Whether you’re a complete novice looking for an unintimidating way into trail riding or a seasoned pro wanting to brush up on skills, emphatically yes. The bikes are amazing, the instructors are fantastic at getting the best from you, and the location is spectacular.

Maybe you’re not a Ducati owner, or perhaps you own something like a Panigale and wonder what its trail-ready cousins are like. Or maybe you already own a Desert X and would rather have a go on someone else's before tackling a green lane on something you dropped £15k on. It’s worth noting, actually, that Desert X Rally buyers currently get a DRE Sweet Lamb taster session thrown in with the deal. 

Otherwise, you’re looking at £299, or £599 for one of the two-day courses. For a packed programme that includes the use of the bikes, that seems like excellent value, and it has the premium Ducati sheen owners will expect. A whole new hospitality suite has been built just for DRE, suitably branded up and - yes - with great coffee available. 

You might just want to get a move on - at the time of writing, the majority of available dates for 2024 had already been snapped up.