One can't quite see the ends of the earth from up here, but they can't be too far away.
I'm standing atop Shuteye Peak, 8,351 feet above sea level in California's Sierra Nevada mountain range. It's ironic that the place gets its name from a half-blind Indian who once roamed the area because the views both from and of the peak are spectacular.
More to the point, climbing up here was worth six points in the inaugural Cycle World/Dirt Rider/Motorcyclist Adventure Rally Sierra Edition. Hard-earned points, I hasten to add, as the route book describes: "Difficult and challenging road, as challenging as Blacks get." Like ski slopes, the routes are rated Black for Hard, Blue for Medium, and Green for Easy, and the more difficult it is to get there—due to distance and/or terrain—the greater the points haul.
Since the 1970s, Cycle World has hosted an annual industry get-together called the Trek. A long-running joke goes, "I used to ride all the time before I got a job in the motorcycle industry." The point of the Trek is to get some of these motorcycle industry executives out of their offices to actually ride.
Originally the Trek was held in Baja until, for safety's sake, it was moved north of the border, eventually setting up camp in the High Sierras. I worked at Cycle World before jumping ship to Motorcyclist, and the Trek was an annual highlight. Now that both bike books (and others) are owned by the same publishing company, it's one big, happy family! [Proclaims the man who doesn't have to come into the office.] —Ed.
That said, I mention the Trek only for context because this ride wasn't that. Instead, it was the Trek opened up to the public—even if this inaugural event was attended mostly by media types in the interest of spreading the word.
The other way in which the Adventure Rally was different—unique, even—was in not having a defined route. Traditionally on group off-road rides such as the Trek, everyone follows the same basic path. The advantage there is it's simpler to "sweep" the trail, assisting fallen/injured riders and picking up broken bikes. The disadvantages are everyone but the leader has to ride in blinding dust (creating a de facto race at the front), plus the trail gets progressively more beat up, so that, paradoxically, the less experienced riders at the back have to deal with the biggest whoops and the deepest ruts.
In contrast, a navigation-based rally like this lets us pick and choose our destinations and which roads or trails we took to get there. This meant we were on our own (albeit in two-rider teams) and would have to call for help if we had a problem. But it also meant the only dust was from our teammate and if we dropped back to let it settle, we would be in no danger of being passed and having to ride in that rider's dust. Personally, I despise "riding by Braille." It's much more enjoyable—and safer—to be able to see where you're going.
As for documenting where we'd been, we took camera-phone photos and uploaded them to Instagram. So there was a social-media element to the scoring that also helped get the word out.
The idea for this format came from one of the partners in this venture, rally racer Ned Suesse, though he wouldn't take credit for it. "I was on a ride in the Pyrenees where they used this system, and I realized it was the best way of doing things," he explained.
Fittingly, Ned's teammate at that event was my teammate at this one. Corey Eastman, the Bonnier Motorcycle Group's national marketing manager, introduced me to him, saying, "This is your teammate, Tony. He's from Texas." Really? Then why does he have a British accent? Turns out Anthony Ware is a transplanted Englishman who now lives near Dallas. At an ADV Rider rally in Colorado in 2004, Tony met Ned and invited him to take his then-new KTM 950 Adventure for a test ride. "He dropped it in the car park, and we've been best of mates ever since," he said with a laugh.
For this ride, Tony borrowed a KTM 990 Adventure owned by another of the partners in this venture, Justin Bradshaw of Butler Maps. I was aboard Motorcyclist's brand-spanking new BMW F800GS Adventure, which I rode the 300 miles from Los Angeles to Fresno and beyond on Thursday morning.
Things got going in the early afternoon, when, after a brief orientation meeting, we were ushered to the back corner of the expansive China Peak Ski Resort (formerly Sierra Summit) parking lot. There the final partner in this venture, MotoVentures owner (and author of How To Ride Off-Road Motorcycles) Gary LaPlante, had laid out four "skills tests." Three of these were short-but-technical trails with hard/easy splits, while the fourth consisted of a log we had to wheelie over and then two wooden planks we had to ride along. The courses looked deceptively simple, but factor in fatigue (as the tests were held at the end of each day), logs, rocks, sand, mud, and even snow, and they were a real challenge—especially on a tall, heavy adventure bike.
It snowed the day prior to our arrival, so we were relieved when Friday morning dawned cold but dry, with just a light dusting of frost on our bikes' seats. Gotta love BMW's heated grips! At the morning riders' meeting, local resident (and long-time Trek helper) Ed Mann suggested crossing over to the west side of the San Joaquin River to stay away from the higher elevations and let the snow melt this first day. Those who didn't heed his words returned with tales of making motorcycle-shaped snow angels.
Tony and I mostly heeded Ed's advice, remaining on the east side of the river but sticking to the lower elevations. After racking up a few easy points around Huntington Lake, we headed south and east, toward the bottom right-hand corner of the map. There, the points added up quickly at quaint-sounding places like Dinkey Creek, McKinley Grove, and Wishon Overlook. We took a break at the latter, enjoying our provided sack lunches as we took in the picturesque view of the reservoir's cobalt-blue water and gray granite cliffs.
From there we headed south down a double-rut road (with a hard-to-find trailhead), past a scenic lily pond and a dizzying overlook to the Black Rock Dam. Leaving the water's edge, we were thrilled to discover a twisty paved road that clung to a sheer, 1,000-foot cliff with no guardrails. Go off here and you'd be treated to a Wile E. Coyote view of your own shadow growing larger before expiring in a poof of dust!
Unfortunately, we'd turned the wrong way and were now off the bottom edge of the map. It was also getting late, and we needed to be back to the lodge by 4:30 p.m. We may or may not have exceeded posted speed limits but were rewarded by "zeroing the check," arriving exactly on time! All of the other teams arrived late, one couple running out of gas on the wrong side of a locked gate and returning hours after dark. By rights they should all have been docked penalty points, but the powers that be took pity and decided to waive that rule this first evening. So we ended the day ranked third.
Over breakfast Saturday morning, Tony and I pored over our maps and devised a plan that promptly backfired. We may or may not have ignored a "Motorcycles Prohibited" sign as we took what we thought was a shortcut. Instead, we spent hours lost in the woods on fun trails that criss-crossed, looped back around on themselves, and generally went nowhere. The good part? We spent hours lost in the woods on fun trails!
Back on pavement on the serpentine Italian Bar Road (venue for many an impromptu supermoto race on the Trek), Tony surprised me by skidding to a stop and pointing to a wildcat hightailing it into the roadside brush.
"I don't think she's that kind of cougar," I joked.
"No, it was a bobcat," Tony replied.
Some people have no sense of humor.
It was noon before we scored our first points that day, crossing a rickety-looking bridge over the San Joaquin River. Then came the geographic center of California (who knew?), and the Sierra Mono Museum in the town of Bass Lake. By now it was getting late, and realizing we needed to score maximum points in minimum time, we plotted a course for Shuteye Peak.
We hit a few other waypoints along the, um, way: the hard-to-find Manahoo Cabin; the scenic Whisky Falls (where we paused briefly for lunch); and the hard-to-get-to 7S02 View. All of these were in the vicinity of the Whiskey Ridge Motorcycle Trails (spelled differently than the Falls, though only an editor would notice), which was some of the most enjoyable riding of the weekend.
In the route book, waypoint #54 was titled "Got Rocks," but that should have been reserved for Shuteye Peak. Because the 4WD Jeep trail became rockier and rockier to the point where, nearing the top, it turned into a veritable avalanche of slate. My F800GS, to this point a real workhorse, began bucking and protesting, bottoming its suspension, slamming its undercarriage against the rocks, and jackhammering my wrists. Upon later examination, both rims had pronounced dents, and the skid plate was not only dented but also cracked at a weld. Take that to mean it was tough going. Rewarding, though!
Tony and I ultimately returned to the lodge 90 minutes late then both flubbed the skills test, dropping us to fifth in the final standings. But we did way better than the Cycle World team of Barry Hathaway and Robert Pandya, who by opting to focus on photos (sorry) finished dead last. The Dirt Rider team of staffer Adam Booth and rally racer Quinn Cody (can you say "ringer"?) was also humbled, finishing second. And the winners? Justin's 70ish-year-old father Michael and uncle Steve, competing as "Team Riding Forever" on matching KTM 690s. That navigation gene must run in the family!
Back up here on Shuteye Peak, I'm feeling pretty good about the weekend. The Adventure Rally organizers have hit on a winning formula and plan to hold a few such events each year. That's good news for working-class stiffs who will never have the time off—never mind the resources—to take the long way round, or even down. But for a modest fee ($600 all-inclusive, or $150 for one night), they can feel like Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman must have as they circumnavigated the globe.
There's just one thing that's bothering me, and I'm a little reluctant to disclose it: I walked the last 100 yards to the summit. Hey, the rules stated that we could photograph both bikes or both riders; they didn't specify how we got there!
Adventure Rallies in 2014 will be held in the Rockies on July 24–27 and in the Sierras on September 25–28. For more information, log on to cycleworld.com/adventure-rally-sierra-edition.
Photography by: Brian Catterson, Corey Eastman, Joe McKimmy, Adam Booth & Anthony Ware