A Taste of Dakar
It was a dark and stormy night…. And I was up worried about the weather. Would we be able to ride at all? If so, would we be wet and miserable in our tents? How bad is it going to suck loading the truck in the rain?
In January, when we signed up for ALT Rider’s Taste of Dakar, I don’t think anyone thought that it might fall on the same weekend as the largest storm to hit Southern California and Nevada in years.
Like a lot of things I do on a bike, the planning for this one started with an email from Demien. He sent a link to ALT Rider’s site saying he was driving out to Nevada to do it.
Grant and I had been talking about doing something that required sleeping in tents next to our 650s for a while so this seemed perfect. Jay agreed to join us on his 800GS.
As the trip got closer, I think it hit home that Grant and I were pretty unprepared. This was the first time Grant or I had done a ride like this. The trip would require us to camp and ride in some varying weather and navigate over 140 miles of Nevada desert using digital GPS routes given to us by the organizers.
After some research and hand wringing, we decided we’d borrow camping gear, wear motocross gear, bring ski gear in case it got cold and just tag along with someone who knew how to use a GPS.
It seemed like a plan at the time.
But then there was the weather. Friday promised downpours all day with thunderstorms over the camping area continuing late into the night.
Saturday looked a little better with 50% chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon – when we would be on our bikes and furthest from home.
At Dark O’Clock on Friday morning, I loaded the DR in a torrential downpour. Wet and miserable, I hooked up our trailer and set out to pick up Jay and Grant. I wondered aloud if we shouldn’t just forget the whole thing.
Grant reassured me that if it looks terrible, we can just keep driving to Vegas and spend the weekend at a poker table. Fair enough.
As we got to Pahrump and the campsite, we found most guys were in RVs. The ones in tents looked silly trying to set them up in between rain showers.
While we all gathered in Demian’s RV to shield ourselves from one particularly nasty wall of rain, I made the call to wuss-out and get a room at the Holiday Inn down the road. I believe I looked at Grant and Jay and asked if we were being pussies in a way that bothered us.
After a good night’s sleep, we geared up and attended a riders meeting where Jimmy Lewis said that he frankly didn’t know what the conditions would be like out on the course. It was the desert and the desert does strange things when you dump that much water on it. Some of it might be unridable and some of it might be way more difficult than planned.
We opted not to ride with Demian and Ilya since they were on smaller, lighter dirt bikes, were tuned up from a week of riding in Arizona and we frankly didn’t know what kind of “hard” the Hard Route would be.
Instead, we had found ourselves some guys on Triumph Tiger 800s who were planning on doing the Intermediate Course and who agreed to be our GPS guides.
They looked a little serious but they assured us several times that they were just going to have fun and they wouldn’t leave anyone behind.
At about 9am, the nine of us set off into the dirt.
The first hour was slow going.
We stopped every 10 minutes or so. It was either the Triumph guys making small adjustments to their bikes or gear or someone from another riding group having fallen or broken down.
At one of these stops, Grant and I realized we had lost Jay and a guy named Ian who was tagging along with us on his 1200GS.
The Triumph guys took off without making sure everyone was there and - concerned we’d lose our guides - Grant and I took off with them.
We figured they’d stop soon enough, realize we were light two riders and wait to regroup.
After another 15 minutes, Grant and I had a decision to make: Stop and look for our friends and lose our GPS 30 miles from nowhere or continue on hoping Jay and Ian could find their own way.
It wasn’t a decision really.
We stopped and watched the Triumph guys – the guys who assured us they’d ride with us – ride away without looking back.
While Grant and I sat waiting for Jay and Ian to catch up, another group rode up to us.
We flagged them down to ask about Jay and Ian. They hadn’t seen them but after hearing of our situation, one of them handed me a GPS unit before taking off. Without a way to mount it to my bars, I put it in my bag knowing we could use it if things got shitty.
When Ian and Jay didn’t show for about 20 minutes, we started to worry. We doubled back and found a guy on a KTM sitting quietly.
On a proper dirt weapon wearing a, “District 37” sticker, this guy told us he had sent a rider back to find the rest of his group - including one guy who has having a hard day already.
When the rest of that group finally appeared, they said the thought there were two more behind them.
Five minutes later, Jay and Ian finally join us.
Jay later told us that Ian had his gear off during one of those early stops and in the time it took them to get going, we took off. It took them 45 minutes or so to feel their way up to us.
We realize we’re the last group on this ride and we all agree to stay together until lunch. Speaking of lunch, we’re also running out of time to get there. It’s 11. We’ve done 35 miles and have more than 125 left to go before the sun sets.
One of the guys riding with us explained confidently that we could ride about 5 miles to Highway 160, hop on it for 15 minutes and we’d be right at the lunch spot. Excellent. Let’s do that.
Three miles of dirt later, we were at the road – and my throttle gets stuck wide open. I shut the bike off and watch our new group ride away from us.
Jay, Ian and Grant wait the two minutes it takes me to quickly rig the loose bolt that caused the problem and with that done, we set off on the pavement for the promised short highway sprint to the lunch spot.
After 20 minutes, we find ourselves at the edge of suburbia and within sight of the Vegas Strip. It feels wrong. I pull us all over and - assuming we have phone service - Google the, “Pioneer Saloon”.
My phone cheerfully reports that all we need to do is continue on this road for 5 miles and then head South on I-15 for 20 miles. Estimated time to destination? 40 minutes. It’s 12:30 and lunch ends at 1.
You have got to be kidding me.
When we get on 15, we all get a sense of just how far off course we are. We’re at the very South end of the Strip. It’s gotten colder and at 80mph, the wind is tearing through my motocross gear. The DR is buzzing away and I’m kind of miserable. I spend the next 20 minutes wounding why I drove 5 hours to ride my DR on the highway as fast as it will go.
When we finally arrive at the lunch spot, we see our guides on their Triumphs. Jay and I approach them. For a minute, I genuinely think Jay is going to hit one of them.
When he confronts them about their total disregard for the promises they made earlier, they stare blankly at us. We realize there is no point in talking to them and walk away. Fuck those guys.
Grant, Jay and I shovel food in our mouths and talk about a plan. It’s 1:15 and the route plan says we have 90 miles left. With our freeway detour, we have already covered 90. The one benefit to suburbia was that we were all full on gas. I had also had time to properly fix my throttle cable.
If I’m honest, I’m ready to go back to the campground and have a beer. I’m tired, cold, cranky and if the afternoon was going to be as difficult as the morning without a GPS, I’d rather head back by road, open a PBR and shop for a GPS on my iPhone.
Grant and Jay persist and Grant finds a group willing to shepherd us the rest of the intermediate trail.
I’m so glad he did.
We join three guys on KTM twins, one other DR and two 1200GSs and head out joined by Jimmy Lewis himself. About 100 yards into the afternoon’s first dirt section - perhaps the most difficult section of the day - Ian calls it quits and heads home on the highway.
This group is different. The mood is lighter. There is a guy riding sweep and a guy leading. The pace is reasonable. We count heads every few minutes. I’m glad we’re here.
While staring at a terribly ominous wall of rain just next to us, we find a sand section that was promised earlier and head out to play.
When we all start getting wet, we realize it might be time to make a run for it. I put on my 15 year old North Face shell and we head out away from the rain.
When we get to a dry lake bed, our group’s leader looks it over surveying how ridable it might be after the storm. He looks for a minute, looks back at the wall of water and darkness bearing down on us, then shrugs his shoulders and takes off.
We all dutifully follow.
In fourth gear, the DR is moving around a lot on top of the slippery soft top layer of sediment. It’s 50% Bonneville and 50% skiing powder.
I’m enjoying the shit out of myself.
For the next three plus hours, we ride with this group. Speeds are high but comfy. Terrain is difficult without ever being hard. We regroup every 10 miles or so. The storm never catches us.
We ride the full route save for one flooded lake bed that forces us to hop on the highway for 15 miles.
We arrive back to camp and it’s dark enough that our headlights are making a difference to the world in front of us. Grant, Jay and I have covered 193 miles with our morning detour to Vegas and I’ve never stood on a motorcycle for so long - ever.
Beer hasn’t tasted that good in a long time.
After a big dinner and a few more beers, we all retire to our tents and try to sleep.
The next morning, I’m pretty spent. I’m not sure I want to ride again even though Demien and I had chatted about going out again.
When I find him, I see something from Demien I had never seen before - He was done too. I guess yesterday was hard on everyone.
Driving back to LA, I realize that I finally understood this event’s name. Until then, it seemed silly to me.
One of the things I love best about riding and racing a motorcycle is that mere mortals can get to feel what the legends feel.
While a football fan will never be able to feel what it’s like to stand in the pocket against a pass rush, anyone who has done a track day at Laguna Seca can talk to Nicky Hayden about the deceptive entrance to Turn 9.
It gives a connection to the sport that I think is only shared by cycling and maybe golf.
On Sunday morning, I’m tired enough to not want to do anything other than sit quietly in my truck for the drive home. We did 190 miles navigating intermediate terrain in groups and never further than 30 miles from civilization.
Last year’s Dakar had a 540 mile stage in it. And that was one day out of 14.
I knew the event was hard but I don’t think I had any idea how insane it was until I got this very small taste.
It’s worth noting as an epilogue that I had to hunt down the owner of the GPS loaned to me out there.
When I finally found him, he was unconcerned about the $500 Garmin he had handed to a helmeted stranger in the desert someplace. It’s fun meeting people who casually make you aware of how good a person you probably aren’t. Thanks again Kevin. .