Bikes we love Opinion

An Ode to the Scrambler

Triumph Scrambler owner Drew Faulkner makes the case for the longevity and utility of the scrambler genre

Over the last few years the motorcycle market has been all but flooded with a series of bikes touting wide bars, knobby tires, and retro styling – many of which carrying the name “scrambler.” With the rush of new models some have suggested that the popularity of the modern scrambler is just a phase that will taper off similar to the café racer trend of a few years ago. But what if scramblers are part of the growing adventure bike trend? If so, where do these scramblers fit into the spectrum of two-wheeled overlanders, and why would someone choose a scrambler over a more capable dual-sport?

This article was written by Drew for free because he’s an awesome guy, but good writers deserve good pay.
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Triumph, with its original Scrambler, along with Ducati, which has created an entire sub-brand with an 11-model Scrambler Ducati line-up, were among the first. But these days there are a host of models one could place under the “scrambler” category, including:

  • BMW R nineT Scrambler and Urban G/S
  • Triumph Street Scrambler
  • Moto Guzzi V7 II Stornello
  • Yamaha SCR950
  • Husqvarna Svartpilen 401
  • Benelli Leoncino
BMW R nineT Scrambler
BMW R nineT Scrambler

That’s not a complete list. Since many scrambler-like bikes are heavily street focused, the lines can blur. Additionally, some manufacturers may want to eschew the “scrambler” tag to avoid being accused of trying to cash in on a trend. For example, based on what we know of the soon-to-arrive Indian FTR 1200 couldn’t it also be called a scrambler?

Some time during the winter of 2015-16 I was cursing the snow and debating what the next bike would be. Dissatisfied with cruiser life, I was sick of grinding pegs and polishing chrome, I wanted a flexible machine I could guiltlessly neglect – a bike that would be prided for its lack of cleanliness. My mind desired one of the latest breed of adventure bikes, yet my budget suggested that might be a long shot. My heart longed for rugged simplicity and a machine that could be better molded to suit my exact needs. Enter the scrambler.

What is a Scrambler?

You’ve probably been living under a rock if you’re a seasoned rider not familiar with the word “scrambler” as it relates to motorcycles. However, if you’re new to motorcycling, or unfamiliar with the history of dirt racing, you might not know the concept of the scrambler was born in the 1950s and ’60s as more and more motorcyclists sought bikes better suited to off-road racing.

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Scrambler Ducati Desert Sled. Photo: Juan Hinestrosa

Motorcycles have been speeding around in the dirt as long as motorcycles have existed, of course, but there hadn’t been dedicated off-road motorcycles before then. The scrambler movement was borne of riders tinkering in their garage, removing excess weight, installing knobby tires, and upgrading the suspension and wheels. A small number of manufacturers – notably Ducati’s US side – caught on to this trend and created scramblers, but ultimately the trend faded as manufacturers began developing dedicated machines for off-road riding. By the late 1970s, the scrambler fad had more or less run its course.

RELATED: Why You Should Just Give In and Take an Adventure Riding Course

But nostalgia is a powerful thing; for most of us, the scrambler trend was rekindled in 2006, when Triumph decided to capitalize on its already successful Bonneville rebirth (a very literal rebirth, as the Bonneville had not been produced for almost two decades) by launching the new 865cc Bonneville with high pipes, taller suspension, and dual-sport tires.

Aren’t Scramblers Just a Styling Exercise?

While popular among the Triumph faithful, the air-cooled Triumph Scrambler was still a pretty rare bird until the launch of the Ducati Scrambler at Intermot in 2014. For the most part, Ducati followed the existing formula – neutral upright seating, wide bars, dual-sport tires, and otherwise naked styling – but made no bones about this new Scrambler being just a street bike via upswept muffler, mag wheels, and typical street suspension.

Street Scrambler 1 Chris Vatier
Triumph Street Scrambler. Photo: Chris Vatier

To that end, some people argue the modern scrambler is simply a style, as opposed to a unique “species” of bike – especially when you look at the suspension on modern scramblers against dedicated motocross bikes. Certainly the difference is staggering. But while the scrambler begot the dirt bike, you’re comparing apples and oranges if you’re expecting a scrambler to be one of those dedicated dirt bikes. I think critics who say scramblers are just a styling exercise may be underestimating these bikes’ capability, and underselling the value of the scrambler movement as a whole.

Isn’t This Like the Whole Café Racer Boom?

Again, like scramblers, café racers were stripped-drown and souped-up street bikes. In this case, the racers were (primarily British) guys in the 1950s who used to street race from coffee shop to coffee shop. Their bikes were created in part because the market at the time didn’t really offer sportbikes to the average consumer.

As with scramblers and the genre they spawned, modern road sportbikes are light years beyond both the original cafe racers and modern drag queens playing dress up (eg, Triumph Thruxton). In this sense, modern cafe racers (although more comfortable) have a limited appeal as bikes that look fast but don’t go fast. Arguably, the genre didn’t have anywhere “new” to go.

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The popularity of modern cafe racers like the Triumph Thruxton R is definitely on the wane, but the genre is far from dead.

Riders are still buying modern cafe racers (Triumph, BMW, and Royal Enfield have versions that continue to sell reasonably well – CC), but we can safely say that the peak of the cafe racer revival has already occurred and the market has moved on to other things. Like the scrambler.

READ MORE: 2018 Triumph Street Scrambler – Ride Review

If you believe the scrambler movement is just a styling exercise, you may feel it’s a nicer way of saying “standard.” And based on the fact that everyone seems to be selling one of these bikes (Honda just released a Grom Scrambler concept, and it’s sometimes the case that when Honda finally catches on to something the trend is set to die out shortly) it certainly does feel like a fad. I would believe that, except for the fact Ducati has started an entire new line of business around its Scrambler moniker. The Scrambler Ducati family is Ducati’s biggest seller right now. Perhaps the Italians are on to something…

Yeah, But You’re Not Actually Going to Take That Bike Off Road Are You?

Why not? Sure they’re pretty and they’re just as much fun on the road without the pretense of burning down dirt trails, but perhaps there’s more than meets the eye here.

Triumph Scrambler 1 Moto Adventurer
Triumph Scrambler (with previous-generation Bonneville engine). Photo: Moto Adventurer

Many have likened the adventure bike to a two-wheeled sport-utility vehicle; like the American SUV, the bikes have the pretense of overlanding ability, despite the fact the owner hasn’t any interest. I think it’s fair to say the average adventure bike owner has little to no intent of riding off road. Thus, motorcycle journalists assume that scramblers are even less likely to be found on the trail.

But I ask again, why not? If the native environment of the R 1200 GS is the Starbucks parking lot, it seems reasonable for me to assume a scrambler can just as easily take on any given forest service road – provided the rider practices judicious use of the throttle and rear brakes.

I’ve been “adventuring” a Triumph Scrambler for almost two years now; I’m here to tell you these bikes are more adept than most people give them credit. While your grandpa’s scrambler wasn’t held down by the crushing weight of emissions compliance, modern suspensions are probably at least as capable as the dual shocks on ’60s-era motocross (off-road) bikes.

Desert Sled 2 Juan Hinestrosa
Scrambler Ducati Desert Sled. Photo: Juan Hinestrosa

Meanwhile, modern scramblers are tractors, with a torque band coming out of the basement and a seat height that offers riders the ability to safely put a foot down when called for. I also think it’s fair to point out that – even for those that actually do adventure off the pavement – most riders only have ambitions to wander down the gravel trails, stop to appreciate the scenery, and just enjoy solitude of roaming through nature. There’s no question scramblers can do that and ultimately they’re a suitable alternative to dual-sports and adventure bikes.

Wait. What Do You Mean by Dual-Sport and Adventure Bike?

It would be wise to define those terms. In a broad sense, the term “dual-sport” simply means an off-road-focused motorcycle with road-legal additions like a headlight, indicators, license plate, and a few other government-mandated items. But I think there’s lots of room for interpretation there. By that definition, modern dual-sports range from bikes like the Yamaha WR250 – essentially a plated motocross bike – to the world-crossing Kawasaki KLR650 and, ultimately BMW’s flagship, the R 1200 GS.

RELATED: Riding Ducatis in the Dirt is Stupidly Fun

I personally think it’s wise to further differentiate between the dual-sport and adventure categories. To put a finer point on it, I feel safe suggesting that bikes below the 800cc range intended for 60 percent or more time off road fall under the dual-sport label. Whereas I consider larger-displacement bikes, intended for 60 percent or more time on the pavement, as adventure bikes. Certainly there are exceptions to that definition, but I think that’s a pretty fair assessment of the market as it stands today.

Street Scrambler 2 Chris Vatier
Triumph Street Scrambler. Photo: Chris Vatier

Why Are Scramblers Such a Big Deal?

Let’s say I’m wrong, and this all really is just a passing fad. Even if that is true, scramblers are driving motorcycle sales. As I said, they’re Ducati’s biggest seller. I feel safe suggesting that BMW has chosen to mimic Ducati’s new business model with significant expansion in its line of R nineTs. And it appears Triumph is on the verge of wedging another, more off-road-oriented scrambler into its lineup.

Meanwhile, some moto-media outlets (But not TMO –CC) are suggesting we’re approaching a dark time for motorcycling. If what they’re saying is true, we should embrace this scrambler movement. It’s obvious this retro nostalgia is resonating with both young and old riders around the world. If it’s pulling riders out of retirement while putting new butts in seats, we all win.

I’m going to say it’s more than that. While I was not riding back in the ’90s, it sure seemed like you had only two options in America back in those days: clip-ons or chrome. Today there’s a bike for every taste – except 600cc adventure bikes – scramblers chiefly among them.

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Drew likes to push his scrambler beyond expectations.

Beyond throwback trim, what makes these bikes so desirable? Standard upright seating position, naked aesthetics, reliable engine construction, ease of maintenance, and bare-bones simplicity. If the ’80s were the heyday of the Universal Japanese Motorcycle, today’s scrambler is the modern interpretation of the idea, except it’s more like UEM: Universal European Motorcycle.

In an era of tightening emissions control, many of these new scramblers are – shockingly – still air-cooled. For those that aren’t, they’re running single-overhead-cam or even pushrod construction. The engine is exposed in front of God and everyone, making it easy for the layman to learn how to wrench on the side. That puts more money in these new riders’ pocket, keeping them on the road and helping them save for an upgrade.

RELATED: Brit Seeks to Break Round-the-World Record on Scrambler Ducati Desert Sled

That’s actually a big piece of the scrambler movement that I think critics are missing. I didn’t say it first (I believe it was Tom Byrne), but I agree with the idea that the scrambler movement is potentially the gateway to the adventure lifestyle. Sure, lots of riders will never take their scrambler beyond the gravel driveway, but for those that do,
lessons learned and money saved on these naked/standards spark the flame for deeper interest.

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The outgoing Triumph Scrambler has earned a place in many riders’ hearts. Photo: Moto Adventurer

Motorcycle camping with buddies on the weekends begets week-long motorcycle vacations, then more and more adventures down the dusty trails, all ultimately leading to a middle-weight adventure bike.

Why Would You Choose a Scrambler?

You live in the city. You like riding your motorcycle to work every day. You don’t own a truck, trailer, or have a garage. The closest, legal, off road trails are several hours from your home. You also like taking long trips on a motorcycle, and, at present, can’t afford a second bike nor a place to store it. Does that sound like you? This is absolutely the predicament I live with, and why I chose a scrambler when I bought my most recent bike.

Many have suggested that a middle-weight to heavy dual-sport would be a much better alternative to a scrambler – something akin to the Suzuki DR650 or perhaps a KTM 690 Enduro. Sure, those are great bikes, and they would perform marvelously on the trail, and I would love to have either, but would you really enjoy a 12-hour ride to the next motorcycle rally on those seats?

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Chris Cope on 2018 Triumph Street Scrambler

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve also been told I should hunt down a good deal on a used Triumph Tiger 800. You’d better believe I would gladly take one given the opportunity. However, beyond cost, the maintenance labor required on the bike’s more advanced three-cylinder engine is considerably more, not to mention all the body work that has to be removed before you can even get started. Whereas you can perform the most intensive scheduled maintenance on a Triumph twin (valve adjustment) and ride the very same day. If you want to spend less time wrenching and more time adventuring, the modern scrambler meets that criteria.

Jack of All Trades, Master of None

Ducati’s scramblers sure have beans, but in comparison to the rest of the street bikes on the market, they’re far from the fastest. Neither they, nor the rest of the bikes under the scrambler moniker, are likely to outrun a WR250 on the trail. Performance is most certainly not a scrambler’s strong suit.

NO GOOD OFF ROAD: 2018 Triumph Tiger 1200 – Ride Review

Simplicity is the scrambler’s hallmark. These bikes may be plain on the stat sheet in every category, except perhaps “fit and finish” (some even need help in that
area), but when it comes to affordability, reliability, and smiles per mile, these bikes bring home the bacon – in spades.

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Not a fad. Photo: Moto Adventurer

Speaking specifically of my air-cooled Trumpet, it’s accomplished things I never imagined, shocking on-lookers when it’s found crawling over rocks and climbing through muddy ruts in the wild, and even more so when they hear it’s been on the road every single day all winter. It’s a stone ax, an unremarkable weapon for every job. And I revel in each moment in the saddle (even if I am bringing up the rear).

In a world of street, dirt, dual-sport, and adventure motorcycles, scramblers carve
a wedge out of the off-road adventure pie offering riders a simpler alternative to explore the unknown. Maybe I’m just rooting for the underdog, but I’m simply not convinced it’s a fad. I’m telling you, there’s something deeper going on with this scrambler movement.