Follow-on to In Praise of Talent

Occasionally feedback on my newsletters and resulting conversations are more informative and meaningful than the original piece.  The “In Praise of Talent” newsletter seems to be one of those. Here is some of the feedback, a day or so after publication of the newsletter with its special nod to photographers. First, I got the following email from my friend, Paul R. Hagan, who spent his career as a professional writer:

Paul wrote: “Enjoyed your article. You must have a great laptop!”

I replied: “Paul, Thank you for the brilliant, succinct and hilarious feedback. You truly are a great writer. I was lucky to meet you when I was young. Learning through you some of the skills necessary for putting words together in just the right way was an inspiration. Being close enough to you to see how much work it was, the time and amount of effort required and what it took out of you to do it helped me understand what it meant to be a professional writer.”

And then I added this postscript: “As you can tell, I rarely bother with the hard work of getting 1,000 words down to 100, much less 9.”

Not all great writing is making things as short as possible, part of the art and special skill of copywriters like my friends Paul Hagen and Arthur Einstein, Arthur of “Plop Plop Fizz Fizz, Oh what a relief it is,” fame. Like me, my good friend Rich Marin puts only a minimal amount of effort into reducing his written output or length of his prose. Rich expressed his thoughts about my newsletter and added some significant perspective of his own in his blog post this morning, which you can see here.

My good friend David Barnett came over yesterday morning and we chatted in my workshop over cups of espresso. We discussed the newsletter and I found myself telling David I believed there was a certain level of achievement or mastery of something one had to attain before you truly began to appreciate the way it is practiced by those who make a profession of it. As we talked, I came up with four areas where I felt my experience and skills had been refined enough to genuinely appreciate how much better the pros are: photography, motorcycle riding, driving a car fast on a track and writing. During our discussion, a fifth came to mind.  But first, these four:

  • Photography: This will be quick as you’ve just read the newsletter before this, which outlines my observations of those who have perfected these skills. I’ve spent hours with pro photographers and talented amateurs and easily see the delta between what I do and their work. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a bad photographer, in fact, I’d rank myself as much better than most. But compared to them? Not really.
  • Motorcycle Riding: Over the years I’ve taken countless riding courses and tested my skills in amateur races on big name race tracks. My off road skills have been exercised in chasing the Dakar Rally and countless rides in and around Arizona, Utah, Mexico and Colorado. Finally, I performed and competed with a precision motorcycle riding team.  Without gloating or exaggeration, I believe my riding skills are better than 95% of the people riding motorcycles on the streets today. This is what allows me to see and appreciate the skills of those who ride for a living. I don’t care how good you think you are on a motorcycle, until you’ve ridden with those who ride many hours every single day of the year and their livelihood depends on this particular set of skills, you have no idea the width and depth of the gap between your skills and theirs.  I’ve been honored to ride with a host of professional riders over the years, including motorcycle cops, World Superbike and MotoGP competitors, flat-track racers and trials riders and many who teach motorcycle skills for a living.  And like my photography efforts, I know the difference.
  • Auto Racing: Although it’s been many years since I’ve tracked a car, I do know what is involved. I worked at it, read books, practiced and took lessons from very good instructors. However, it typically took less than half a lap for me to appreciate how much better my instructors were at driving my car than I was.  My most recent experience was riding with McLaren’s top test driver in a new McLaren 720S. Even on city streets and scratching ever so slightly the surface of the car’s full capabilities, his mastery of the vehicle was astounding.
  • Writing: Ha! Visitors to my home can’t miss stacks of magazines everywhere. I love those who practice this particular craft. For over 25 years I’ve nibbled around the edges and managed to get a fair amount of my work published. But I know that “real” writers hang out at places like the New Yorker, the WSJ, Washington Post or the Atlantic. Maggie is a skilled technical writer and I’ve learned the process required to be very good at that. Malcolm Gladwell gifted me with late night phone calls over a period of several weeks when he was working on one of his books and later he spoke at some conferences I’d organized. Again, the masters at this or any other pursuit, make it look easy. It genuinely is not.

The fifth area that occurred to me while speaking with David Barnett was the ability to successfully work on cars.  My friends Brett Engel, Wayne Viall, Jim Unsworth and of course, David Barnett come to mind.  Outside of the immensely competent and carefully vetted professionals who contributed to the rebuild of my Lotus Elan like Brian Duffy and Brian Buckland, these four men with day jobs did the greatest amount of work and impressed me so very much.  These four have core similarities:  First, absolute confidence in their ability to figure anything out, repair it or make it better. Second, they are always calm. They never panicked, threw up their hands and wailed, “Oh man, what are we going to do now?”  Lastly, they exuded pure joy as they worked. They were in the zone, doing something they were exceptionally skilled at doing, with friends who recognized and appreciated their talent.  For those of us around the edges of this process, it was a joy to bring them tools, run to the auto parts store, watch them figure things out and scream, clap and yell with them at winning battles along the way, like when the engine first fired to life after re-assembly.

Some of the best times of my life have been in the presence of these special people, those who have mastered one small corner of the world and play in it with such effortless joy.

A response to “One Bike to Rule them All”

Kaz, on the left, on a ride in Turkey. Andy Forrester and his BMW RT on the right.

After publishing my newsletter about on “One Bike to Rule Them All,” I got emails from fellow riders on their experiences owning multiple motorcycles. Kaz Uzunoglu, a very good friend and global motorcycle tour guide extraordinaire sent me a rationale for the six bikes in his garage. It is so good, I’ve decided to share it with all of you. Readers that ride will find this fascinating, the rest of you, maybe not so much.


Hi Steve,

Thanks for the mention in your article and forwarding it to me. I surely enjoyed reading the article, just like I always enjoy reading the other pieces you write in your blog.

I am suffering from the MBD (Larsen: Multiple Bike Disorder) as well and it’s always an ongoing debate in my mind and also with my wife. Don’t get me wrong, my wife has no objections against multiple bikes, she even enjoys seeing them in the garage. But the debate is a philosophical one.

These are the motorcycles I currently own:

  • 2017 KTM 1290 Adventure R
  • 2010 KTM 690 SMC
  • 2019 Yamaha Xmax 250
  • 2014 Vespa Primavera 150
  • 1998 Ducati 916SPS
  • 1952 BMW R51/3

My friends, especially non-motorcycling friends, gulp when they see 6 bikes in the garage and ask the inevitable questions. Why? Can you ride them all? My answer is usually a silly one to the why question. Sometimes I say it is an art exhibition named “how to spend your money uselessly”, sometimes I use the typical “why not” answer. Obviously non-motorcycle people can make no sense out of this disorder but if a good biker friend is interested in finding more about the motorcycles, we engage in a delightful conversation about what each bike means and can do to increase my utility.

I do believe that each bike has a separate intangible value that increases my utility in different aspects, ways and sensations. After all, we buy goods and services to retrieve as much utility as we can from that purchase. So I will try to delve into the utility I derive from my motorcycles.

The KTM 1290 is my work horse. I lead my tours riding this bike so it always has to be in good condition, reliable and safe. As you know, I used to own a KTM 990 Adventure for about 10 years. Even though I loved riding that motorcycle as well, it actually reached the end of its useful life for me in terms of an asset that I use while leading tours. It had clocked more than 80,000 miles and it started giving me the unexplainable feeling that it could go wrong at any point in time. Last thing I would want to do on a tour is to deal with my own bike’s problems. So I sold the 990 with no feelings attached and upgraded to the 1290 which proved to be many light years ahead of the 990 in terms of technology, reliability and safety. The best words that would describe the 1290 is solid and trustworthy. The engine can crank out 160HP and it comes with all the technological gizmos that help the rider understand how to treat this power turbine. In short, it is my perfect motorcycle for long distance riding and enjoying the scenery while riding and leading a group.

 

The 690 SMC is basically a hooligan’s bike. For a long time, it sported the most powerful mass produced single cylinder engine in a very light and nimble body. My experience is that this bike brings out the dark hooligan side that I believe exists in every motorcyclist. I know that I possess that mindset when I ride this bike. The sound of the engine and the aftermarket Wings exhaust indistinctly tell me to do wheelies and stoppies and ride down a set of public stairs or break every law there is. I will not go into details not to be embarrassed but I have to confess it makes me do things that cause me to question my identity and personality! Riding this bike feels like a constant battle between “should” and “can”. The utility I get out of this bike is that it vibrates my soul and flushes my hormones in the most immeasurable way all around my existence.

 

The Xmax is an errand runner. In my opinion, it is the perfect balance of engine, brakes, wind protection, efficiency, comfort, practicability, etc with the greatest price/performance ratio. I live in the suburbs now so every now and then I have to ride on the highway along with the fast traffic and trucks to reach the busy and narrow streets of my city Istanbul. The Xmax is extremely smooth and confidence–inspiring on the busy highways and yet when I reach downtown Istanbul, it is very agile, easy to park and ride around. I even do our supermarket shopping with this bike, thanks to its plenty of storage space under the seat. It may not be the best looking bike out there but obviously this bike is very utilitarian and the utility I get out of it relates mostly to the degree of ease and efficiency of serving my needs.

 

The Vespa is more for shorter rides within smaller radiuses in our community. Its unmistakably Italian styling makes it very desirable and the 150 cc engine is very smooth and down-to-earth. Yet its 11-inch wheels are not the best when you are riding/braking on wet streets or when you are cornering or riding over a pothole. But this small Italian bee means a lot to me because I have been able to ride it with my daughter since she was 4 years old (now 7) while she is standing in front of me, in the space between the seat and dashboard. She is growing taller now so this riding method will not be possible soon but for the time being the pleasure she and I get on the Vespa means maximum utility for me.

 

It’s hard to explain the utility of the Ducati. It is a collector’s bike, #457 of the 1,058 manufactured in 1998. The SPS stands for Sport Production Special and the primary reason behind this bike being built was to homologate the new 996cc engine for Superbike competition but fortunately, the installation of the 996 engine into the 916 setup produced a bike that was described as “legendary”, “astonishingly good” and “a true superbike”. This motorcycle is very often included in the “best motorcycle ever” lists compiled by magazines or other authorities. If I were to pick one word to describe this motorcycle, I think I would go for “sexy”. Stunning looks aside, riding this motorcycle feels like the ultimate sensation of being one – merging with the motorcycle that we always talk about when riding motorcycles. The motorcycle feels like it reads your mind before you even put it into action so leaning and going around curves give the rider a totally unprecedented feeling of oneness. Add on top the unparalleled symphonic sound of the engine, dry clutch and the Termignoni pipes as the icing on the cake and the unique utility from this motorcycle can only be explained as a delightful attack on all the senses.

 

The 68-year old BMW is another story in itself. I believe the biggest utility comes from the plain fact that the bike can still run and stop, well, with careful planning about how to stop and when to stop. It inevitably evokes a feeling of respect for the old and pure technology and its creators who were passionate about motorcycles. In addition, the classic puritan looks of the BMW give it a timeless esthetic. Sometimes I don’t even need to ride this black beauty. Looking at the motorcycle and listening to the engine and its mechanical overtures after a few kicks on the kick-start is enough to get the maximum yield from my utility curve over this one. I hope to increase my utility from this motorcycle by learning how to do basic maintenance work on its engine and hopefully carburetors in the near future.

Kaz and Burt Richmond on a tour in Turkey.

Therefore, I still cannot boil my list down to “The One Bike to Rule Them All.” It also feels as if I don’t yet have hands and eyes on such a bike and I can’t be sure if I ever will. I have ridden many different motorcycles and I have to confess I have liked them all despite their differences. So instead of one bike to rule them all, I guess I need to talk about the transcendental feelings that rule all feelings when we are riding: the sensation of freedom, feeling of satisfaction and the rational awareness of the physical parts that come together to evoke these feelings.

Best regards and wishes to you and Maggie,

Kaz

The One Bike to Rule Them All

My good friend, Rich Marin, in a situation where one bit of bad news was followed by another, flipped it around and came out smelling like a rose and the owner of a like-new BMW 1200GSA at a smokin’ deal. Rich appears as enthralled with his new GS as I am with my Tesla (Falling in Love: With a Tesla). However, my route to owning and becoming a committed fan of the BMW 1200GS was more circuitous than his.

Rich and I are long-term riders, starting as kids, and after only a few pauses, have kept it as lifelong pursuits. My love and involvement with motorcycle’s evolved into an avocation. Rich wrote a book about his riding life, The Ride is All. While it is true we’re discriminating to the point of opinionated about various brands and models, in the end, our focus is mostly about how these machines enhance our journey and where they take us.

I’ve extolled the advantages of the BMW 1200GS and recommended it to others for years. My friend, Roger Hansen, was urged by me to buy a GS, which he did, and then proceeded to ride it all over the world. My first long ride on one was in the fall of 2005, when I picked up a brand new GS in Istanbul, Turkey before a 12-day circumnavigation of the country, led by the famous Turkey tour guide, Kazim Uzunoglu. BMW had just replaced their venerable R1150GS with a new model weighing 66 lbs. less and increasing its horsepower to 100 bhp. The BMW faithful were livid. “It has too much plastic and feels like a Japanese bike,” they said, the ultimate put down from this circle of enthusiasts. I agree the R1100 and R1150GS had stability and tractability like no other mounts. But after spending two weeks riding it, my reaction was quite the opposite: I thought to myself, “they need to get over themselves, this is a fantastic motorcycle.” A moto-journalist colleague of mine, Fred Rau, also liked the new GS. He began his print review by saying “While vastly improved, the big GS remains so ugly bugs won’t hit it.” I recall Fred and MCN getting a good bit of complaints about Fred’s motorcycle aesthetics. Fred, however, made a great point: The GS is all about performance and the purity of riding, more than appearance.

After returning from the Dakar Rally in South America (also aboard a 1200GS) in 2011 and its painful pre-trip dismount on my Crown King tune-up ride, I grudgingly knew it was time to get rid of a bunch of motorcycles. The dirt bikes had to go and soon they were. My garage was suddenly down to only 2 motorcycles: the Honda Goldwing and Suzuki V-Strom. A Honda Grom was on its way, but I did not know that yet. At first loath to give up any of my motorcycles, my rationale for losing the off-road bikes was sound. The Dakar trip brought center stage a point about off-road riding I had forgotten. It is imperative to keep one’s speed up. In the dirt, speed, and staying pointed in the general direction you wish to go, often saves your butt. You don’t need to go 100 mph, but staying above 40 mph (45-50 mph is better) when travel surfaces loosen is critical. And here is the deal, in the dirt, you are going to occasionally go down. Assuming you wear all the appropriate riding gear, you are unlikely to get seriously hurt. However, after 60 years old, as I learned, you don’t heal as fast as 20-year-olds, who still seem to be made partly of rubber.

Loving my new extra garage space I decided it was time to go all the way and merge the Goldwing and V-Strom into one machine. You now have the background for my multi-year, epic quest, to do just that, to find “The One Bike to Rule them all.” (My apologies to J. R. R. Tolkien’s “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”)

You cannot imagine how difficult this change in attitude was for me. For my entire motorcycling career I had strenuously argued that MBD (Multiple Bike Disorder) was not a disease, but in fact, the only proper way to approach motorcycle ownership. The correct answer to the question “How many motorcycles should one rider have?” is always, “One more than you have now.” Motorcycling only made sense in this context. Stick with me for a moment and allow me to explain: First of all, everyone knows you need a different motorcycle to ride off-road than riding on pavement. Right? No arguments here. But for pavement, there are many variations of riding. I found it took 3 machines to cover my street riding. These were: First, a Honda Goldwing for long-distance cruising, second, the Suzuki V-Strom for shorter sportier rides but still capable of carrying luggage, and lastly, a Ducati 750 Monster for carving the canyons around my place in the bay area. Understand, this still leaves out several important categories, such as a pure weekend cruising, represented by Harley and Indian models, (although other manufacturers have models in this category, too). In my list, you may notice there is no pure sport bike on the list, a motorcycle you could respectably take to a track day. You get the idea: to adequately cover the needs of an all-around street-only rider, you’ll need at least 5 motorcycles. And this is before getting to off-road bikes, where the choices are even more plentiful.

If you wish to ride off-road and go any significant distance, you need an adventure-oriented machine to handle luggage, spare parts, maybe even camping gear. If you want to go over jumps and whoops, you need a motocross bike and tons of suspension travel. If you want to go desert riding, you need a lighter, single-thumper model. A Trials Bike is dissimilar to all other off-road motorcycles – its first 3 gears are designed for less than 10 mph. I defy you to ride a typical Trial’s route on anything other than a Trials bike. You get the idea. A well-rounded off-road rider needs at least 5 different motorcycles, and before adding in any extras if you want to bring friends.

Do you see how this adds up, boys and girls? This is the vehement stance I defended each and every time someone asked to explain why I had 9 (yes, NINE) motorcycles. Over the years I watched countless riding friends search unsuccessfully for the one magic motorcycle that would do it all. And now here I was, attempting to try it myself. God help me!

After very little work, I found 9 initial candidates to be my one and only, including:

  • KTM 1190 (now the 1290)
  • BMW 1200GS (now 1250)
  • Triumph Tiger
  • Ducati 1200 Multistrada (now 1260)
  • Honda Africa Twin
  • Suzuki V-Strom 1000
  • Honda ST1200
  • Yamaha FJR1300
  • Kawasaki Concours

Although wonderful machines that I loved to ride, the Yamaha FJR, Honda ST1200, and Kawasaki Concours (“Connie”) were quickly eliminated as too road-oriented and why the BMW RT never made the list. The ultimate bike for me had to be up for some off-road duties. Now the list was six and after participating in a press shoot-out between the 650 cc and 1000 cc V-Strom and owning the 650 “Wee-Strom” for several years, I knew all-to-well its suspension limitations. The V-Strom’s elimination cut the list to now only five.

One great benefit of writing for motorcycle magazines is being able to try out any particular motorcycles for a week or two. The PR departments for most top brands are happy to find something for you to test. So, for the next few years, I “tested” these top 5 motorcycles. I read reviews, shoot-outs and comparisons of these specific models. Of the five, I had vestigial prejudices towards two of them which needed addressing. On the plus side, the Triumph Tiger: I’d ridden it in New Zealand for two weeks and was blown away by its handling on the tarmac and it prowess off-road when venturing into spots like Skipper’s Canyon. It was always well-planted, predictable and did everything right. On the other hand, the BMW 1200GS had negative issues: I’d ridden them a good deal and was greatly put off by its ubiquity. “You can’t swing a dead cat and not hit a 1200GS,” I’d often said. It is BMW’s biggest seller and outsells all other brands and models. I credit much of its popularity to Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman riding and filming of their trips documented in TV specials, Long Way Round and Long Way Down, which I hated. So, I began by not giving the BMW much of a chance. Honda’s Africa Twin was also difficult, although not because I was predisposed for or against it. The problem was the Africa Twin was hard to get in the US. I’d seen it several times on foreign trips, and it looked positively brilliant, but I was right to suspect difficulty in getting one to test.

Ducati has always been very good to me. I’ve become friends with several people in their PR department. They graciously provided me a 1200 Multistrada Touring model for use on a two week trip over the top of Italy and down the Dalmatian coast in the fall of 2013. This exquisite trip was in the company of a bevy of BMW riders and a KTM 990 EFI (precursor to the 1190), ridden down from Turkey by my friend, Kaz Uzunoglu. Not only did I get long days on the Ducati, I was able to swap with Kaz to test the KTM and some of the BMW riders to verify my riding impressions. The Ducati went from a starting point in the middle of the pack to now being my first choice after this trip, especially given its performance in the wet – which was simply amazing. The computerized “sky hook” automated, on-the-fly adjustments to suspension and ABS are nothing short of incredible. At the beginning of 2015, my list in order looked like this, the top 3 in a near dead heat: 1) Ducati 1200 Multistrada, 2) KTM 1190 (now the 1290), 3) BMW 1200GS, 4) Triumph Tiger and 5) Honda Africa Twin.

I am aware of the ultimate futility in detailed comparisons like the one here. I’ve participated in evaluating and writing motorcycle shootouts. Most readers of motorcycle magazine have no idea how difficult it is finding and highlighting differences between models in a single category. It is almost impossible. Motorcycles today have all gotten so damn good and so very similar. Here is how these reviews trips generally go: The first day of the trip/review, rides are frequently swapped so all writers in the group get at least one ride on each bike. At dinner the first night, we’d desperately try to find any real differences. The general feeling, from every tester/writer was “For this purpose, all of these are the same. It won’t matter which one a reader picks to buy, they’re going to be perfectly happy on any of them. They’re all priced within $500 of each other, weigh within a few lbs., have the same warranty, seating position, handling, acceleration, braking, etc.” Of course the lead writer for the piece is panicking. Somehow, publishing an article about five disparate 650 cc: sport bikes and saying “They’re all pretty much the same, any one of them will do,” isn’t going to make readers or advertisers happy. So, the task over the next two days is to tease out each tiny, superficial, insignificant difference and exaggerate them enough to make a story. Trust me, auto journalists have the same problem.

Given my experience above, I worked hard to focus attention only on things that would really matter. In reviewing my notes as I worked to a decision, two things stuck out: The first was that the Ducati did not have cruise control. For long rides where cranking out miles is paramount, cruise control was something I’d begun to rely upon. The second was the fact the KTM was chain-driven (as was the Ducati). While aware of the superiority of chains for performance reasons, having adjusted and cared for motorcycle chains my entire motorcycle life, I was done with them. Now the BMW 1200GS moved into first place, eliminating the rest. While it made total sense analytically, I struggled with the idea of owning the same bike as every other Tom, Dick, and Harry owned – or in this case, add in every Bob, Jim, Jane, Kevin (he has 3), and Roger (has two), etc. “Steve Larsen is highly discriminating and does not ride what everyone else rides. Period.”

Two years went by. A friend finally took my V-Strom and I added a Honda Grom to the garage, so I was down to two — or, 1½ if you don’t consider the Grom a full-size motorcycle, which it is not.

Late in 2016, I wandered through GoAZ in Scottsdale, my favorite dealer. They are always well-stocked and represent all major brands including Aprilla, BMW, Ducati, Husqvarna, Honda, Indian, Kawasaki and Royal Enfield. Don Reiff is the sales manager and a friend of mine from his days at North Valley Honda. I mentioned the possibility of trading in my Goldwing and Grom if I could find the right deal on a BMW 1200GS. The 2017 models had begun to arrive and Don had two brand new 2017 1200GS’s. He quickly went through the various features on both of them. One had everything I wanted and as it turns out, Don really wanted to get his hands on my super low mileage Grom. Before I knew it, the deal was done and a few days later I delivered my Goldwing and Grom to GoAZ and they sent me home on a new BMW, festooned with about $4K in accessories – which any GS owner can tell you, is only a drop in the bucket.

During the first couple of years, there were no performance or handling surprises. It was sublime. I gave it good workouts on the pavement and love how it dances around curves like something half its weight. Shod with off-road only knobby tires and other accessories for tackling dirt, I took it to Moab, UT for a couple of off-road adventures and once down to the Copper Canyon in Mexico. Before spending much time on a big bike like the GS in rough terrain, be sure to acquire the specific skills for this. RawHyde Adventures or Bill Dragoo’s DART classes are two of the best.

It still bothers me it is so incredibly popular and there are so many of them. My remedy was to configure my GS differently than others. I’ve made it unique to me, a bit on appearance but more significantly, on how it rides. The handlebars and foot pegs are customized for me and make a huge difference. Lighting is very unlike the stock version and my tires and wheels are interchangeable for the sorts of riding I do. So, after a few years of getting used to the commonness of the 1200GS, it’s grown on me and has become “The One Bike to Rule Them All.”

Me on my GS, outfitted for the dirt, near Moab, UT

Dakar Tune-up Ride and Lessons Learned

Desert sections of my Dakar trip were a playground. No need for a center stand, just hold the front brake and spin the rear tire until the bike would stay upright.

Late in 2010, my plans to travel to South America for the 2011 Dakar Rally across Argentina and Chile had been finalized.  While I felt mostly ready, I decided one more challenging tune-up test ride was in order to ensure my riding skills were suitably sharp. This is the story of my Dakar preparatory ride  — and crash — along with some important riding lessons learned.

Crown King, Arizona is situated about 50 miles north of Phoenix and 30 miles west of Highway 17.  High in the Bradshaw Mountains (elevation 5,571 feet), it is quite a climb from the valley floor.  Cars and road-oriented vehicles typically exit Hwy 17 at Bumble Bee and then take Hwy 59 through Cleator and on up to Crown King, a one hour drive on wide, well-maintained gravel roads.  However, there is a popular “back way” alternative favored by well-equipped, rock-crawling jeeps, Polaris RZRs, and other off-road vehicles.

A rarely maintained mining road constitutes major sections of “the back way to Crown King,” a favorite play ground for all sorts of off-road vehicles.

This “back way to Crown King,” although only about 35 miles, takes a good 2-3 hours, as you cross creeks, crawl up rock walls and clamber through some nasty and difficult old mining roads rarely in good repair.  It is not recommended for passenger cars, ever. Jeeps and pure off-road vehicles with skilled drivers love it.  For experienced off-road motorcycle riders it’s possible, but you must be prepared. It is best done on lighter dirt bikes with high clearance and never done alone.

Having recently returned from several days at Jim Hyde’s Rawhyde Adventure training camp in northern California, I was full of confidence. I’d spent 4 days riding one of Hyde’s BMW 1200GS bikes nearly exclusively off-road and often through some unique and diabolical challenges created by Hyde’s training staff. I had performed well, finding myself in the top group of riders in each event. I decided to take my Suzuki 650 V-Strom the backway to Crown King as a final tune-up for the Dakar trip.  While the “Wee-Strom” is not in the same class as the 1200GS, I’d done a good bit of work improving its suspension with the full “After Shocks” suspension upgrade, done for me when the bike was with me in northern California.  I’d also upgraded the brakes and installed steel-braided brake lines.  I felt it could handle it.

For my planned ascent, I’d imposed on two skilled riders from the Arizona Trail Riders Association.  We’d met at one of the ATR meetings and done a few easy rides together.  The ATR focuses on the sport of riding motorcycles in the dirt and is open to riders of all ages and skill levels.  In addition to riding off-road, they get involved in trail maintenance and other efforts supporting the environment.  On the day of my ride, I followed my two buddies on my V-Strom as they trailered their dedicated off-road motorcycles to the staging area north of Lake Pleasant. Soon we were off and headed to Crown King.  Everything went pretty well on the way up. The biggest difficulties were several sections filled with river rocks that significantly slowed us down.

Rather than stopping in Crown King for a burger, they led me out of town to the top of nearby Towers Mountain, a tall peak with an enclave of huge radio transmission towers.  Near one of the larger tower installations we came across 20 or more off-road motorcycles parked here and there – mostly set in place so they couldn’t roll down the mountain on their own. We dismounted, parked, and walked behind a building to find a large grill filled with burgers and brats. Riders were standing around who’d made the trip to the top and were now enjoying lunch. These were friends of my two guides and we were greeted like long-lost brothers. We had a delightful lunch with them, told motorcycle lies while some of the group napped in the shade before the long ride home. As we walked back around the building to where the bikes were parked I found several riders gathered around my V-Strom, scratching their heads.  “Who’s bike is this?” they wanted to know. And the more important question to them, “How the hell did it get up here?” I was pleased these riders recognized the skill set required for getting a bike with substantially more weight and fewer suspension chops than theirs up to this particular landmark.  Basking in the glances from my fellow riders, I momentarily forgot how much more difficult it was going to be getting this heavy bike down from something like this place. As any off-road rider will tell you, in a descent, the bike’s weight is always trying to pull you in a direction in which you typically really do not want to go.

It took a while, but I managed to get back to Crown King.  From there I elected to take the front way home, which meant wide gravel roads on which normal automobiles have no issues. With my two riding buddies having no objections (they were tired, too) they pulled in behind me and we headed off down the nicely groomed gravely route 59. Now the V-Strom felt great, its extra weight no longer an issue.  As I began to relax from the tense trip down Towers Mountain, I began to let my speed creep up.  Approaching the switchbacks, I pushed the rear wheel out a bit, giving it a bit of throttle and letting the rear end gracefully slide through the turn. Looking in my mirrors, I no longer saw my companions, so I pushed it a little bit harder.  It was a great feeling, moving through each turn – until suddenly, it wasn’t.  Coming in perhaps a bit too fast, I spotted a large rock right in the path I’d assumed I would travel.  Going to the inside (where there was a cliff wall) was not an option and drifting around the outside of the rock would put me not only in the opposite lane of traffic, but have me pointing directly off the road and over a cliff. Before I could make a decision on which of the two very lousy and bad options to take, the bike made the decision for me.  The gravel in the corner had gotten increasingly deeper in the months since the road had last been graded, and my front wheel dug into some very deep and loose gravel, and, with the bike as it was angled, immediately went down, slamming me to the road with it.  I hit on my left side first, with my leg and knee taking the brunt of it, but was then quickly pitched forward onto my head.  Finally, something unlikely to break! I laid there for what seemed like several minutes but was probably less than one when the two riders following me came upon the scene and rushed over to help.  By that time I was beginning to get up but was glad to have help.  My leg, knee, head, and wrist/hand hurt.  I’d been wearing all the proper gear – helmet, gloves, chest and arm protectors. However, I’d cheated on gear to protect my legs and it turns out I was going to pay for that shortcut.

A couple of cars pulled over to offer help and after several minutes of weighing the options, I got back on the bike – which was mostly undamaged – and road it down the mountain and home.  When we got to Highway 74 where my buddies needed to turn off to head back to the launching pad where they’d left their truck and trailer, I was feeling better and promised them I’d have no trouble making it the rest of the way home.  Maggie had been alerted by phone of my crash and immediately upon arriving home she took me to the ER for X-rays and to be checked out.

There were several lessons learned from this crash. The first was how much longer it took for me to heal than it had taken in my youth.  After crashes in my younger days, (yes, I did crash), I was sore for a few days and back in the saddle as if nothing had happened in less than a week. But not this time.  Two weeks after the crash I boarded the plane to Buenos Aires, Argentina with a large bursitis bulge still on my knee, roughly the size of an orange.

The next lesson was a growing appreciation of how riding when fatigued negatively impacts judgment and reaction time.  I’ve ridden long distances on tarmac, the longest in memory was a single day ride from Napa Valley to Sun Valley, Idaho.  On that 972 mile route, I left Napa at 4:30 a.m. and arrived in Sun Valley 16 hours later, after dark.  I was so tired I can’t remember arriving at the small motel, checking in and collapsing on the bed.  That same sort of fatigue arrives much faster when you throw in off-road sections.  Riding over 300 miles of pure off-road terrain has always been my limit, even when younger, and a 150-200 mile off-road day is a better planning range number.  It is not lost on me that the natural relaxation and letting down of my guard after reaching a significant goal (getting to Crown King on a V-Strom) had left a depleted energy tank when it came to getting back home safely.

After crossing the amazing Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest place on the planet, the South Pacific Ocean appears to go on forever.

The third lesson was the importance of having a safety net.  In this case, it was a couple of guys riding behind me, and they were there when I needed them. They got my bike back upright, helped assess the situation, evaluated my fitness for continuing and then followed me for a few miles, watching to make sure I stayed upright and in my lane.

On the two-week South America Dakar ride, which you can read about here, these lessons were never far from my mind, thus serving the desired purpose of a tune-up ride – being physically and mentally prepared.  Of the 14 riders that began the Dakar trip, only half returned on the same bike as we left, and I was one of those. Some abandoned the trip early on, finding it too grueling; others crashed and ended up riding in the truck or finding other ways back to our starting point. I didn’t crash, didn’t wreck my bike and was never hurt. Being prepared had a good deal to do with that outcome.