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, this one started with Demien. He emailed me 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. The trip would require us to camp and ride in some varying weather and navigate over 140 miles of Nevada desert using gpx files given to us by the organizers. After lots of research and some 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 in Southern California 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.
When we woke up on Friday morning, we found this storm was for real.
I loaded the DR in a torrential downpour that soaked me through in 10 minutes. Wet and miserable, I hooked up our borrowed 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. There was a pause just long enough that I just booked the room.
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.
Over dinner the previous night, we wondered aloud if we should ride with Demien and Ilya.
We opted not to since they were on smaller, lighter dirt bikes, were tuned up from a week of riding in Arizona and we didn’t know what kind of “hard” the Hard Route would be.
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 they were just going to have fun and they wouldn’t leave anyone behind.
When we all were ready, we headed out on what promised to be an adventure.
The first hour was slow going. And I was glad. The truth is: I’ve never actually been in 4th gear on a fire road before.
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 and realize we were light two riders.
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.
Quickly, 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 his GPS saying they had more than they needed. They then took off. Not having a mount for the unit, I put it in my bag knowing we could use it if things got shitty.
Grant and I hung out on the trail for about 20 minutes waiting for Jay and Ian to catch up. When they didn’t, we started to worry. We doubled back and found a guy on a KTM who was also waiting for someone.
On a proper dirt weapon wearing a, “District 37” sticker, this guy told us he had sent a rider back to find a guy on a Triumph who was way back there.
We asked if he might be with other guys and Mr. KTM told us he didn’t know. After a while, three more guys joined us. The Triumph rider Mr. KTM was looking for was with them. He was having a rough morning. A older, new-ish rider on a Tiger 1200, he had tipped it over several times in the first 20 miles of the ride and we all (him included) were realizing he had no business out here. The guys told us that they 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 all agree to stay together until lunch and - seeing as we’re probably now the last group out on the ride and we’re more than hour behind the first group - we just need to get to the lunch spot quickly.
One of the guys who was shepherding the Tiger guy along said that the ride took us along a powerline trail but we could bail out onto Highway 160 and that would take us right to the lunch spot. Excellent. Let’s do that.
Three miles of dirt later, we were at the road – and my throttle is 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 what was promised to be the short 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 weird. I pull us all over and assuming we have cell service, I pull out my phone and 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. I’m kind of miserable and 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 we confront 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. Seriously.
We eat 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 set about properly fixing my throttle cable.
If I’m honest, I’m ready to go back to the campground and have a beer at this point. I’m tired, cranky and if the afternoon was going to be as difficult as the morning without a GPS, I’d rather head back by road, drink beer and shop for a GPS on my iPhone.
Grant and Jay persist and Grant finds a group willing to lead us home on 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. There is a guy riding sweep and a guy leading. We count heads every few minutes. The pace is reasonable. 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. We head out and down the route away from the rain.
When we get to a dry lake bed, our group’s leader looks it over surveying how slick 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.
Then next two minutes may have been my favorite two minutes on a motorcycle ever. We’re crossing this lake bed at 45mph running from a storm and the bike is moving around a lot while it surfs on top of slippery and soft sediment. I suppose if I were a skier, I would describe it like skiing powder but I’m not so I wont. I will say that it was this moment where this felt like a good adventure and that just all felt awesome.
For the next three plus hours, we ride with this group. Speeds are high but comfy. Terrain is difficult without being hard. We take attendance every 10 miles or so. The storm never catches us.
As the sun gets lower and lower, we wonder if we’ll make it home before dark. When we realize we probably wont, we skip the second to last bail out point and decide to finish the track as best we can.
Finally when faced with a lake bed that was full of standing water and a sun that has just disappeared behind a mountain, we realize we’ve done what we can and we hop on a road for the 15 miles back to camp.
We arrive back in darkness. Grant, Jay and I have covered 193 miles with our morning detour to Vegas. Beer hasn’t tasted that good in a long time.
As we all regroup, we find out that one of Demien’s group, Malcom, had a nasty off that sent him to the hospital - not an easy thing to get to from where we are.
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.
We did 190 miles navigating intermediate terrain in groups and I’m uncomfortable and sleepy sitting in my pickup truck the next day. 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 too 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. You’re the kind of guy I want to be.