Dual-Sport Adventure: A Taste of Dakar

Apr. 01, 2014 By Scott Rosseau, Photos by Alfonse Palaima and Scott Rousseau

A Taste of Dakar

And speaking of lightning, heavy rain had fallen in the desert all-day and well into the night on the Friday before the ride, placing the whole weekend in jeopardy and prompting Jimmy Lewis and crew to make a few midnight inspection runs on parts of the course to make sure they would still be passable. At the Saturday morning rider’s meeting, Lewis preached caution, especially on the portion that included the dry lake bed, which had turned into a quagmire.

Hanging out on the dry lake bed late in the day. The section caused a lot of crashes when those with the low-fendered Adventure bikes found that the mud would pack between their front fender and tire, causing the front wheel to stop rolling. Oops!

Either way, with the sun shining and temperatures in the mid-60s, our crew headed out onto the trail, albeit an hour late thanks to the camera guys, and enjoyed some of the most stellar desert conditions I’ve ever experienced. The traction was perfect, the dust was almost nonexistent, and the desert vegetation was brilliant.

Unfortunately, our camera crew guys were apparently much better at shooting video than they were at riding motorcycles. LeBreton, Palaima and I were forced to constantly stop and wait for them to catch up, seriously hampering our flow. By the time the first riders were expected at the lunch stop in the old mining town of Goodsprings, we were nearly three hours behind schedule.

Located about 33 miles southwest of Las Vegas, Goodsprings is a small mining town that is worth visiting. The Pioneer Saloon is a great lunch stop.

Finally, LeBreton told the group that we would have to get on the gas if we had any hope of catching up, and he took off with me in tow as we headed into a snow-dusted mountain range. LeBreton must have already calculated the difference in pace between our fractured group as he pulled over to wait for them. The drill had pretty much gone like this: Ride, wait for 5 minutes, ride more, wait for 5 minutes, and so on. Only, when we stopped this time, more than 10 minutes would pass before the next guy rounded the bend in the road, and it wasn’t the guy we had expected.

The rider went on to explain that Palaima had gone down, and while he was not injured, his bike was totaled and would need to be trucked away. The downtime cost us another 30 minutes and forced us to a monotonous bail out route on the highway to get to Goodsprings. At least being with the boss has its privileges: LeBreton phoned ahead and told his crew to keep the grill burning so that we would still be able to eat.

Despite choosing a great motorcycle in the Beta 520 RS, the author suffered through the bad trail luck of his riding partners for the second time in three years and was unable to finish the entire route. Darn!

But I was still in panic mode, as the added mileage had quickly sapped my fuel tank and my auxiliary fuel jug, and we still had about 25 miles to go, through the Spring Mountains, when I turned the carbureted Beta’s fuel petcock on reserve for the last time. Thankfully, the highway featured plenty of long downhill runs that allowed me to coast with the engine off. I limped into Goodsprings on fumes.

If you’ve never been to Goodsprings, I highly recommend stopping in for a visit. Located 33 miles southwest of Las Vegas and about seven miles from Jean, it’s a quaint little town of approximately 250 residents, and its Pioneer Saloon and Good Springs General Store are a great place to grab bite or pick up a souvenir. If you ever find yourself bombing down the highway into Vegas, it’s well worth your while to make a side trip.

But the highlight of this year’s Taste of Dakar, for me, was the dune section that we hit right after lunch. All of the previous day’s rain had compacted the sand to the point that it resembled European-style motocross conditions. LeBreton and I had a blast ripping around in the dunes, and his mastery of his bulky BMW R1200GS was all the more impressive. Unfortunately, our remaining riding partners struggled mightily in the sand, and LeBreton had to ride their bikes out of some of the tougher sections, only driving the point home further that the satisfaction on this ride absolutely depends upon finding riding partners of similar skills.

The sun was already beginning to set when we hit the dry lake bed with more than 50 miles to go, and it was here that the film crew had hoped to capture some more footage of LeBreton. The filming was going smoothly until LeBreton got a little too far off the beaten path on the dry lake bed and mud packed into his BMW’s fender and front tire to the point that it simply stopped turning. The result was a nice high-speed low-side wipeout that looked impressive but fortunately did no real damage to LeBreton or his pretty blue BMW.

With that, we decided to blaze a trail back to Pahrump, but we weren’t very far away from the dry lake bed when we came across another crash scene. This one was more serious, as the rider needed to be transported to the hospital. He was conscious and alert, but his group didn’t want to take any chances—a smart move. In either case, we were delayed again, and we were forced to bail out once more and take a shortcut back to Pahrump, which we made under nightfall. It was nice to learn that a vast majority of the riders had made I back without issues, and most of them were sharing war stories in the meeting room for dinner that evening. I’m sure that pleased route organizer Jimmy Lewis.

“We were blessed by Mother Nature,” Lewis said. “It looked kind of ugly at the beginning, and I was stressed because you never what the weather conditions will be provide, but in the end it turned out to be perfect. “I feel like I am getting better at designing the routes based on the skill levels, but still I don’t know how people determine their own skill levels, so that is still difficult.”

Mr. and Mrs. Chris Blaise. Chris is a former Dakar competitor who finished third in the motorcycle class in 2006. He was the featured speaker during Saturday evening’s dinner, and he had a great story to tell.

I was bummed about how my day on the trail had gone, but my disappointment was more than overcome by that evening’s guest speaker, Chris Blaise, an amazingly talented off-road racer who secured his place among America’s off-road racing elite with a third-place overall finish in the motorcycle class at the 2006 Dakar Rally. He might have won a future edition of the event if his career had not been cut short by a permanent injury.

Blaise would probably be the first to tell you that he is not a great public speaker, but he’s also proof that you don’t have to be slick to be charismatic. He captivated the audience with details and anecdotes of his career, which blossomed from that of an unknown kid working in the back of Team Honda’s race shop. Despite injuries that have left him in a wheelchair, he still walks the walk like few others when it comes to dedication to the sport.

Chris Blaise’ third-place Trophy from the 2006 Dakar Rally.

Rather than being bitter, he continues to stay close to racing through his own shop, which fields a troop of up-and-coming off-road racers. Listen to Blaise and you’ll realize that his message fits right in with LeBreton’s philosophy of just getting out to ride.

“I just wanted to race,” Blaise said. “A lot of riders, all they want to do is go to races where they’d get paid. I’d go out to local races. I’d get beat by guys, but it didn’t really matter to me. A bunch of guys would get kicks out of beating the factory rider, but I didn’t really care. I just wanted to race my dirtbike. Personally, I have no regrets. Even if I knew that I was going to end up like this, I would have done the same thing. Especially with my three Dakars, the life experiences, you never forget. I got to visit a lot of crazy countries and meet a lot of strange people [laughs].”

What was especially touching to me was that Blaise also took the time to pay tribute to one our recently fallen heroes, the man that many Dakar Rally fans had hoped would bring home an overall motorcycle victory to America in 2014, the late Kurt Caselli.

“Kurt was going to win the Dakar Rally for the Americans,” Blaise said emphatically. “He had so much talent and the ability to control himself and the bike. Everything he did, that dude was the man. He was into his body and his mind, and he could literally win a Hare & Hound without even having to try. He looked invincible. He almost never made a mistake. But things happen that are out of our control. It doesn’t matter how good you are. Kurt was going to be the next guy, but his time was cut short by something that happens all the time. As a racer, you make the choice of how fast you are going to go and how much it is worth to you to win. It is part of the game that we play as racers. That’s what breeds excellence, and that’s the way he was.”

Few, if any, Taste of Dakar entrants probably rode further than Ohio’s Michael Gorman, who made a 4000-mile roundtrip. Gorman’s rear tire was so worn out when he arrived in Pahrump that he had to buy another one and replace on Saturday morning before the ride. He had a blast at the event.

Blaise was just the icing on the cake, though. The Taste of Dakar ride was already a hit for most of the attendees. Most of them, like first time attendeee Casey Hilliard, who trucked his 2006 BMW HP2 to ToD from Altrider.com’s Seattle hometown, were just looking for something different than their usual riding experiences.

“I haven’t done any other Altrider rides,” the 31-year-old Hilliard said. “This one was just an excuse for me to take the Jimmy Lewis class and to ride with Jimmy. It was also to get away from the wet Pacific Northwest, which didn’t quite work out so well.”

“But it was phenomenal,” Hilliard continued. “I took the advanced loop, and I was with a really good group. We started out with five riders, but we ended up losing one of the bikes to mechanical failure just before lunch. At that point, two more guys decided to bail off on a slightly easier route, so it just ended up being me and one other guy, which ended up being perfect because we could go faster and cover so much more ground. We were really able to let loose and have a lot of fun in the afternoon.”

Michael Gorman, a 50-year-old retired cartographer rode his KTM 950 Adventure to Taste of Dakar all the way from Massillon, Ohio. His rear tire was worn out by the time he arrived, so Jimmy Lewis sold him a tire to ride the event and get home.

“I had already planned to ride out here, and then I found out about the event, so I changed my plans a little bit so that I could attend” Gorman said. “I had a blast. I did the advanced loop, and it was worth the trip. The snow and the mud reminded me of home [laughs]. We had one guy get a flat, but we got him patched up and made it to the lunch stop with plenty of time. We got out on the second half of the ride, and it was really nice. I’ve never ridden in the desert before, and I’ve never gotten to ride in the sand dunes. I had a really good time. I would definitely come back if I could fit into my schedule.”

And then there were people like Phil Challinor, 46, a fire captain from Folsom, California, who has made every Taste of Dakar weekend thus far. Challinor rode a Yamaha Super Tenere this year.

“I’ve done all three Taste of Dakar events, and I’d say that this one was the most fun for me,” Challinor said. “The terrain had the most challenge, but it was also the most fun because we were a like-minded crew. We had a blast together. We laughed at each other. We helped each other out or helped out other groups when they needed it. So it just became a community on the road. It was the best, bar none. Plus we had the rains, which made the conditions absolutely perfect. My bike got narcolepsy a couple times [laughs], but it happens. That’s why we protect them the way we do. But we had no major incidents. We were all safe, and we just took care of each other. I will absolutely be back next year. I do not miss this event.”

Unfortunately, although there were more activities planned for Sunday, I had to bail out and head back to Los Angeles. As I trucked the Beta back across Highway 127 through Death Valley to Baker, the stars were out like fireflies in the sky. It was a beautiful scene that gave me time to reflect on the Taste of Dakar experience. I was torn between the disappointment of once again failing to complete the designated route once again and the realization that even as frustrating at that was, Taste of Dakar is still one of my favorite events in my 22 years as a motojournalist, and I plan to come back and tackle it again.

I don’t want to miss another one.  

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