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A Dirt Bike Baptism by Fire

by Guy Pickrell

For my first crack at Enduro, I sign up for a 630-mile dirt-bike tour across the Mojave

It was late October, but the rising desert sun was already hot. As the bikes were being wheeled out of the trailer, we changed into our gear and gathered around the tour leader, Steve Walker, who went through the plan for the day. Hydration, safe following distances, what to do if we get separated. Important stuff. I tried to focus, but the nagging doubt I’d been suppressing since signing up for this trip was now at the very forefront of my mind: What was I thinking? I’m totally out of my depth! The last (and only other) time I rode a dirt-bike was a three-day intensive course with Off-Road skills, in Wales, but that was three years ago, and I only remember falling off a lot. “So, any questions?”, the talk was over. I had a ton of questions, like, how do you ride in the sand again? I glanced across at my new companions, but they had confidently headed for their respective machines, and soon the air was filled with the exhilarating braap of six four-strokes. We fell in behind Steve as he headed out into the desert scrub. I made sure I was last of the four, while John Sides, the ‘sweeper’, brought up the rear. S**t just got real. Our tour had begun. We would spend the next five days riding over 630 miles of the stunning Mojave Desert, in southern California, virtually all of it off-road.

Coyote Trail Adventures

Two of my mates, Mike and Sergio, had recently completed a dirt-bike tour in the desert with an outfit based just outside of Los Angeles. After talking with Mike about their trip, I found myself texting Steve, the owner of Coyote Trail Adventures, to casually mention that, if he should have space in another group going out soon, I might be interested in joining it. The response was immediate. Yes. This Friday. An advanced level, five-day tour, and my choice of KTM, 350 or 500. Yes, 'advanced'. I might have exaggerated my skill level a tad. That had been Monday and Friday had come around fast. After just an hour in, my forearms were pumped. This wasn’t riding, it was hanging on, and I realized I wouldn’t make one day, let alone five, if I didn’t relax my grip. At the first break, while the rest of the guys walked around Bickel Camp, one of the many historic mines in this area, I took the opportunity to get some tips from John. He’d been watching my hesitant progress and advised me to straighten my legs, bend from the waist, get my elbows out and counterbalance my weight through the turns on the outside peg. Exactly how I maneuver an R1200 GS at crawling speeds, except here we were zipping along single tracks. Looking back, I realize we were still plodding at that stage. Four days later, I would be flying down the famous Mojave Trail at 45 mph, dodging cacti and Joshua Trees, confident, well-balanced, completely at ease on my 350, and with a whopping great grin on my face.

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Brian tackling the desert scrub

A Steep Learning Curve

Both John and Steve have been riding and racing in the Mojave since they were kids. They are supremely confident riders and navigators of this challenging, but beautiful landscape. A great source of learning for a novice on dirt bikes, which also included my fellow adventurers. Our tour had been orchestrated by two Israeli brothers. Amit, from Tel Aviv, had some serious experience riding in the deserts of Israel. Alon, his elder brother, and LA resident completed the annual LA-Barstow to Vegas race (a grueling 400-mile rally), on his KTM 990. No small feat, I would learn, when we rode Red Rock Canyon, an infamous section of the LABV course. The last of our group, Brian, is a British Ex-Pat living in Florida. At 62 he was the oldest but had spent half his life in professional motocross, as a rider and mechanic.

We had covered nearly 100 miles when we arrived at the first night’s accommodation, exhilarated and exhausted. The chase truck had arrived ahead of us and the beer coolers pulled out in preparation. In addition to beer, the Coyote Trails chase truck carried two spare motorcycles, a full set of tools, endless supplies of drinks and energy bars, and our lunch each day. Home for the night was a group of cabins sitting in the cool shade of Homeward Canyon. After a huge steak and a few beers around the fire, we were already starting to feel like a group rather than a collection of strangers. Brian had worked for the Honda Factory Team and told some great stories of the days he spent hanging out with the likes of Barry Sheen and David Bailey, as the crackling fire and a generous Bourbon warmed the cool, starry night.

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The View Across Striped Butte Valley from the Geologist's Cabin

Whereby I gain a new appreciation for the physical demands of endurance riding.

The new day brought fresh trepidation, compounded by the news that it would be big (150 miles) with some challenging technical sections. We set off for the rugged Panamint Mountains and, following John’s advice, I was starting to get a better balance and feel for the bike. Which was imperative because my forearms were still pumped from the previous day. I had my first 'off' on a steep climb. With no harm done, I fought the bike up and took the next climb at a higher speed and with greater commitment. During those first two days, it was tough to take in the surroundings. My focus was necessarily dedicated to staying on the bike but during the breaks, as I massaged some life back into my forearms, I took in the scene around me and began to appreciate the incredible diversity of the desert landscape. The strange Trona Pinnacles, rising like stone geysers from the desert floor, and the view across Striped Butte Valley from the Geologist’s Cabin, as the sun lit up the butte in all its various colors. The terrain got tough climbing up the Goler wash, but I was getting to grips with the awesome capabilities of a 350 dirt bike. As I bounced from rock to rock there were some technical (truly arse clenching) sections, but I kept my feet firmly on the pegs and picked a line as far ahead as I could. I was still hanging on and beginning to understand why Enduro is regarded as one of the most physically demanding sports. Our persistence paid off at the top with an awesome view over Badwater Basin, the lowest point on the American Continent.

We worked our way down the other side and into Death Valley National Park, making our rendezvous with the chase truck. Relieved for the break, we collapsed into the camp chairs bantering about the morning’s challenges. Lunch over, we were back on the bikes, but not before following the example of the desert veterans and spraying our goggles with furniture polish to prevent the relentless dust from clouding them. The afternoon started with a tricky section. A seemingly endless narrow trail called the Goat Track. Clambering over steep, rocky outcrops and dropping into deep sandy gulches littered with barbed cacti. Tough, highly focused riding, where the rear wheel often had a mind of its own. I learned to relax and ignore its random trajectory, soaking up the wild motion with my legs. Finally, just a dry lakebed remained between us and our motel in Tecopa Hot Springs. Our first deep sand. I cautiously followed Brian in the tracks left by a heavy 4x4. Amit, however, was in his element. He sailed past us, throttle wide open, throwing up a huge rooster tail as he went. Tecopa Hot Springs is a quirky little town of pure Western Americana. As the name suggests, visitors can bathe in the hot springs, the perfect remedy for aching muscles. That night, after a few beers, Steve posed the group a question: Did we want to ride the infamous Red Rock Canyon? There were two excellent reasons why we shouldn’t. Firstly, it is a difficult, technical (mental), rock crawl, and secondly, it was situated over 60 miles to our North East, making day three another big one, but three beers in you’ll say yes to anything.

Beware the Noseeums

Feeling a lot less brave, we set off as dawn broke. Day three was a turning point. I was developing a feel for throttle input, balance, and weight transfer, and combining them to rotate the bike. It’s a great feeling to master the sliding turns with both feet on the pegs. As our pace picked up, Steve had warned us to keep an eye out for 'noseeums', buried boulders that look like harmless stones at a distance but will violently fling your front wheel off track. It’s an alarming experience. A noseeum caused my only big off, knocking me right off the trail and over the handlebars. Luckily no real damage was done to me or the bike, and thanks to the Nitro Mouse, no concerns over the tire.

As we rode into the western entrance to Red Rock Canyon after lunch, I became acutely aware of our proximity to Las Vegas. We had covered over 250 miles and had barely met a soul, until now. We picked our way around the boulders and the tourists intent on testing the limits of their hire cars. As we crested the last technical climb, we dropped into a stunning canyon of dark red rock, contrasting with the bright green shrubs that filled the dry riverbed below. We stopped, buzzing with adrenalin, all had made it up with no drama. We had another 50 miles to cover before reaching our hotel in Primm, making it just as the sun was starting to set.

Full Throttle Down the Mojave Trail

Day four, by design, was the least demanding (although still over 100 miles). I wasn’t the only one struggling with muscle fatigue, and so the fast gravel and hard-packed tracks were a blessing to all, and an opportunity to take in the desolate beauty of the desert. We still squeezed in some technical riding, as we climbed a pass in the shadow of Spirit Mountain, ending up on the edge of a mighty rift, which afforded a panoramic view of Lake Mojave, and Arizona beyond. We got into the hotel early that evening and took full advantage of the

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Me and Alon
Our group takes a welcome break

bar and pool area. Our final day would be a wild ride, right across the Mojave Preserve on The Mojave Trail. Eighty miles of varied terrain and the highlight of a fantastic adventure. Well rested, and with confidence abound, I tore across the quicker parts of the Mojave with my fellow riders, allowing my rear wheel to slide out around the corners, the Joshua trees a blur, and the dipping sun turning the distant mountains the color of blood orange. It was the kind of riding that leaves you buzzing for hours afterward. Growing up in rainy Warwickshire, England, I dreamed of deserts. The Mojave is everything and more. Vast, strange, hot, and amazingly varied, and there is no better way to explore its most remote corners than on the back of a dirt-bike.

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Lunch in the shade of the Coyote Trails chase truck

Dirt-Bike Touring – Costs and Requirements

Numerous companies offer dirt-bike tours and rentals across the United States. If Southern California is your destination, you will be hard-pressed to find a better outfit than Coyote Tail Adventures. Steve runs a beginner/intermediate course with plenty to challenge most riders. It is worth noting, a motorcycle license is not always required, since you may not be riding on any public roads. They can also rent you gear. CTA’s most popular tour starts at about $1,900 and runs for three days, but, as in the case with Amit and Alon, if you can get a group together, they’ll be happy to tailor a tour to match your thirst for adventure. The price generally includes everything: bike, insurance, meals, accommodation but, perhaps most importantly, it includes Steve and John, and their intimate knowledge of this immense landscape.

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Guy Pickrell

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