Perhaps the secret to life is to simply read the signs when they are there.
We’d had so many challenges in trying to put together the trip to the 5th annual Ridge Runner 500 dual sport. Child care for my brother Jeff’s young son, support techs for the Suzuki effort for Avery (Avery Innis of American Suzuki who functioned as the semiofficial organizer for the Suzuki support truck, product display, etc.), scheduling conflicts for Avery, scheduling challenges for me, finding hotel rooms, missing entries, last minute corporate crisis’s had all arisen. I had sent more than one e-mail message asking ‘should we do this?’, but we persevered. Like frothing bulls charging headlong into the ring, all we saw was the red cape of 500 miles of beautiful California dual sport riding luring us irresistibly toward our date with destiny.
Avery got off easy, depending on your point of view. In an eleventh hour epiphany his company realized that he was much too valuable to risk on the trail. He was relegated to ensuring the happiness of any and all wayward Suzuki riders (and assorted bikes of all other makes and vintages), in addition to providing his usual good cheer and seemingly limitless expertise.
Jeff, on the other hand, did not fare so well. In his first ever organized dual sport event he made it about 50 miles before meeting his untimely demise from the two wheeled world, at least for the next 8 to 10 weeks.
In an effort to have plenty of time during the day we pulled out about 6:15 A.M. The strategy was to avoid my usual fate of getting out late, stopping to help every motionless bike, and consequently having sweep on our tail all day. The little light that Avery had mounted to the DR was perfect to illuminate the roll chart and odometer as we rolled through the darkness on the twisting asphalt roads leading up and out of Angels Camp.
It almost made up for the feeble dimness that passed for a headlight whenever both the turn signal and brake light were utilized together. It reminded me of my Norton. I fought off the urge to pull over and look for Lucas logos on the little gel battery used on the dual sport conversion kit.
About the time the sky brightened enough to see without lights we broke off onto dirt. Jeff was soon romping off ahead in his best Jay Springsteen fashion on the winding fire road. He’s never been the same since his dirt track debut on a friend’s Ducati single.
Being a grizzled veteran of these 500 mile events, I knew three things beyond doubt:
1. It was a long way to Carson City
2. It was a long way back to Angels Camp
3. It was still very early on day one
We quickly consumed the first 50 miles or so of dirt and spit out onto an asphalt highway winding through the mountains. The usual Ridge Runner support crew was there with a couple of jeeps and trailers for breakdowns and the odd medical emergency. We’d passed a guy about 2 miles into the dirt sitting by the side waving everybody past. Turned out he’d fallen in a fairly open section and broken his collarbone. Another sign blissfully ignored.
The dust had been horrendous in the opening section. All my prior visits had been blessed with recent rains, so I was unaccustomed to this visit to the dust bowl. There were sections where it was a complete ‘dust out’. At times like that I was afraid to stop for fear of being rear ended, and afraid to charge ahead for fear of hitting a stopped or wrecked bike or other obstacle, like the side of a mountain, a tree, a boulder, or a sheer 200 foot drop, for instance.
Once out into the clear air of the asphalt, I joined Jeff who had pulled over to join the other riders emptying into an area beside the road. We all commenced to knock the dust off our bodies and attempted to wash out our throats. Those with dust masks (they had called ahead) and bandannas tried to clear off as much crust as possible to ready themselves for the next dirt section a few miles down the road. Our efforts were largely in vain. With our helmets and goggles off we looked like a pack of wayward raccoons.
After a brief respite we took off downhill on the asphalt. It was a perfect newly paved ribbon of two lane twisting through the mountainside. Jeff was charging ahead, the siren song of California twisties now filling his ears, ‘faster, faster, we’re waiting for you…’ Exactly 1.4 miles down the grade a fast sweeping right was punctuated with a sudden ninety degree left hander. Too late he was on the binders. He artfully got both ends sliding under nearly full lock, ran wide, dodged an open vertical 24″ culvert, and tried to squeeze between the rock wall and a beach ball sized boulder. Alas, a lack of narrowness allowed the left fork to catch the boulder and Jeff’s weekend disappeared into a bounding ball of DR250ES and Thor riding gear. He did a short ballistic flight that unceremoniously ended with him auguring into the yellow line.
I knew he wasn’t dead because he started screaming about 2 milliseconds after impact. Any thoughts of his further riding quickly deteriorated as he found the hole where his clavicle used to be and simultaneously discovered the wonders of trying to breathe with broken ribs.
After getting him situated and the bike off the road I returned to the sweep Jeeps and brought back the incomparable Ridge Runner rescue team. While I was gone another 3 or 4 riders bit it in the same corner. Fortunately for them, they weren’t as good on the brakes and simply ran off into the rock bank on the outside of the curve, picked themselves up, and continued on their way. It took about an hour to get things picked up, organized, and Jeff set with the sweep crew to await the ambulance. I headed off to finish my weekend.
While waiting in the longest gas line this side of Minsk, I hooked up with a couple of guys from the bay area, Chris and Tracy. It seems that a car had taken out one of the two pumps at this first gas stop, and the other one was intermittent. When we pulled up there were about 75 riders waiting in line. By the time we got 40 minutes into the wait and 30 or so riders from the go juice, the pump finally quit. Of course, the attending riders quickly pitched in to diagnose the problem: an overheated motor. The rest of us got our gas from the only water cooled gas pump in the county. At the time nobody seemed to worry about running a trickle of water from a garden hose over an electric motor in a gasoline pump.
The rest of the day was filled with the usual Ridge Runner dosage of killer fire roads, beautiful asphalt two lanes, awesome scenery, and friendly people.
At lunch we were treated to displays of the new Hondas, KTM’s, and Suzuki DR’s. The new DR650ES was a real hit. It’s about the same size as my DR350, with the exception of the seat height, which is about 1″ shorter. There’s even a kit available from the dealers to make it another 1 or 2 inches shorter. The new Honda XR400 also drew a lot of attention. There was one on the ride, and the new owner seemed very pleased.
The DR250ES arrived with the sweep Jeep during lunch, and it proved to be completely unfazed by Jeff (the Flying J) and his bout with the boulder. I had thought the forks would be tweaked for sure. Cole Gress, one of the support staff from Suzuki, volunteered to ride it the rest of the event. I guess he enjoyed it. At the end we had to pry it from his grasp.
The end of the day brought the welcome sight of Carson City twinkling in the distance. This being the 5th anniversary of the ride, we all gathered at the Ormsby House Hotel and Casino for a reception. In a master stroke of organization the Ridge Runners had booked the entire parking lot across from the hotel for bike parking, complete with an all night guard. They also had arranged for use of the grand ballroom where the trail weary riders could wash down the dust and recharge with a 30 foot spread of food and drink.
The manufacturer’s reps were there along with their new products. It was a perfect format, with riders able to come and go as they pleased, bench race, swap lies, and go one on one with the factory guys. The evening was topped off by one of the KTM crew riding their bike (in neutral, motor off) out the ballroom, down the grand staircase, through the casino, and out the doors.
I had managed to drag Jeff down to the reception, where I introduced him to everyone I knew. For me, the highlight of hooking up with new and old friends was running across Charlie Halcolm at the gas stop and again at the reception. It was really great to see Charlie alive, much less back on two wheels after his near fatal crash in last year’s baja. Exactly one year before at the ’94 Ridge Runner 500 we had spent a lot of time with him the day before the ride. A couple of weeks later he was in a coma and near death after hitting a trench dug by some locals at about 130 mph. Although still working up to full strength, he’s back among the living, and the riding.
Jeff proceeded to try to teach me the in and outs of craps. After a few minutes of dazed observation the realities of having ridden 250 miles there, and the prospect of riding 250 miles back, sank in. I cashed in to prepare for Sunday.
Amazingly, the next morning I felt great. In ’94 I had been pretty sore, but this year I felt ready to rock. Amazing what a little change in diet and exercise will do for you. We swapped air filters again, checked the oil, lubed the chain, and I was ready to go. The DR350 was proving to be the absolute best play bike known to man.
The 400 kit gives it the ability to power through anything, the cartridge emulator kit transforms the front forks, the carb re-venting eliminates the hot start problems, the auto-decomp head makes kicking it a pleasure, the short seat was comfortable (no sore butt!) while allowing me to get both feet on the ground, and the Pirellis were proving to be perfect DOT knobbies. The only failing had been the bicycle speedometer. Probably for the best anyway as I’m sure I would’ve gone down while playing with the computer instead of watching the trail.
As always, the climb up out of Carson City, with the rising sun peeking over the mountains in the background, was stupendous. After a short stop for a Kodak moment, Chris, Tracy and I stormed West. We were debating whether to stop for breakfast, and fortunately Tracy prevailed. We had a great meal at Heidi’s in Lake Tahoe. It was worth the time, as we all felt fully recharged and ready for the day’s trails.
Lunch was at a very picturesque lakeside setting, with the outstanding RR menu. About the only time I eat beef all year is at RR events. The TriTip is not to be missed. After lunch, I got to take the new DR650ES for a short jaunt. What a great bike! It feels like a 350, but with that fantastic 650 grunt. It only weighs about 48 lb. more than my stripped 350, and it has the magic button!
After our breakfast stop, and the long, leisurely lunch, we were running a bit behind in our efforts to get to the last dirt section before they closed it. We probably would’ve made it, but Chris got a flat on the rear to match the flat on the front he’d had at the end of the day before. I was out in front, so I spent the hour waiting for them at a beautiful spot down at the river. It was a wonderful opportunity to kick back and listen to the water passing through the rapids, watch the fisherman’s line dance across the water, and contemplate the reflection of the mountains in the crystal clear waters.
The passing stream of bikes gave me a running commentary on how the tire change was progressing. Just as I had gotten suited back up, got the bike fired up, and was wandering back up to see if they needed anything, they came flying down the road. Guess my ability to read the signs was coming back.
We charged on until we ran across a couple of masochists on BMW GS’s on the last dirt section of the day. One was a very petite woman, who was typically determined to ride her 650 lb. monster up the steep slope surfaced with 8″ silt and peppered with 2-4″ rocks. This area had been the nicest trails of the ride a few years back, but it was currently being logged. The bulldozers had ground the trail into an incredibly fine powder so soft that your boots went in about halfway to your knees.
The route was unclear, so Chris and I explored down to the end of one dead end, then came back to try the other route. He stayed with the Beemerphiles while I went on up the other trail to see if it was the correct way to freedom. I found Tracy at the top, along with some other riders waiting for their companions to emerge out onto the paved road.
In an effort to expedite the effort, I went back down the trail, followed the guy on his GS out, and brought him back down to ride her bike up to the pavement. On the way down we met her coming up, yelling ‘Get out of my way!’ Good for her, as I’m sure not riding it out on her own would’ve haunted her all year. Final sweep had shown up by this time, so we swept the rest of the B route, while they covered the final A leg.
A lovely ride down the twisty two lanes led us back to Mike’s Pizza in Angel’s Camp for local brew, excellent pizza, bench racing and tall tales. Jeff was feeling pretty good, as he had taken about $500 off the craps table before leaving Carson City.
Another Ridge Runner 500 in the books. Another experience of traversing the mountains between Angels Camp, CA and Carson City, NV that words could never describe. One is hard pressed to determine which is the most memorable: the Ridge Runner team, old and new friends, the trails, the scenery, the food, or the bikes. One thing is certain, you’ll never forget the experience. I highly recommend that you put it on your list of things to do before you die.
This video from the 1995 Ridge Runner 500 provides an overview of the route, riding conditions, etc.
I did not create this video and I do not know the person who did.