Perhaps the secret to life is to simply read the signs when they
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
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,
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
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
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.
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