A Taste of Dakar | Cat Tales

“We have three routes laid out for you: Advanced, Intermediate and Scenic,” explains Jimmy Lewis. “The difference between Intermediate and Advanced is how deep the sand is. Intermediate sand has a base; you can stop and get going again. Advanced sand is bottomless; if you stop, you’ll sink.”

Welcome to the First Annual Taste of Dakar Rally.

I had pretty much decided to follow the Intermediate route even before Lewis’ description had me conjuring up images of quicksand. The fact that I was piloting a 500-lb. KTM 990 Adventure had me invoking the tired discretion/valor excuse—even if I had installed the latest Dunlop D908s with their Chevy-logo rear knobs, just in case.

Then, as I was scarfing a plate of runny eggs, organizer Jeremy LeBreton asked if I would ride along with him and his crew so they could shoot video. On the Advanced route, naturally.

Jeremy runs AltRider (www.altrider.com), specializing in accessories for adventure riders. Not quite 2 years old, the Seattle-based company has already promoted a number of rallies, of which this was the most ambitious to date. The Dakar Rally is the Holy Grail of adventure rides, and while the USA might not have sand dunes to rival those of Africa—or, nowadays, South America—the ones at Dumont Dunes are as close as you'll find. That's a big part of the reason Lewis set up camp for his Off-Road Riding School (see Track Time, page 110) just over the hill in Pahrump, Nevada.

After camping out in remote Shoshone, California (population 31) at the northeast corner of Death Valley, we 60 attendees had breakfast at The Famous Crowbar Café & Saloon, then hit the trails. Our group encompassed nine riders, three of whom begged out after the first stretch of deep sand. After losing an hour digging out an elderly Canadian couple who had sunk their 4x4, we rode endless miles of desert piste before heading into the “bottomless” sand of the dunes. We spent another hour shooting photos and video there—and holding our collective breaths as Jeremy jumped ever-higher on his BMW R1200GS—then made a beeline for lunch at the Lewis residence.

The afternoon’s return ride was, for me, the best part. Following Jeremy down a double-rut road, I stayed just far enough behind to keep out of his dust. The low desert scrub brush cast long shadows, making it difficult to read the terrain at 70-80 mph. Were those rocks as big as they looked? Was that sand as deep? All the while standing on the pegs, upper body bent forward, elbows up, steering with my lower legs. When we stopped to regroup at a graded dirt road I was tempted to complain, but then had an epiphany: If this really was the Dakar Rally, I’d be doing this for 17 straight days. So I buttoned my lip.

With most everyone having survived the ride unscathed—the one casualty actually rode to the hospital—we re-convened at the Crowbar for dinner and a presentation by Lewis and young Italian rally competitor Manuel Lucchese. The contrast between the two was comical, as Lewis rode for the well-funded BMW factory team to become one of two Americans ever to finish on the podium. Lucchese, on the other hand, simply woke up one morning and declared, “This is the year I do the Dakar!” And then did, on a shoestring budget, enduring endless hardships. His entertaining narrative—painfully delivered in almost real time—had us all laughing out loud as he told of arriving at the bivouac a day late, riding in the headlights of the medics’ car following behind! He ultimately dropped out, but hearing the enthusiasm in his voice, you know he’ll be back.

We’ll be back, too. Because while we’ll never get to compete in the Dakar Rally, this Taste of Dakar is as close as we’ll get. MC

(Above, L to R) Rally racers Manual Lucchese and Jimmy Lewis teamed up with AltRider’s Jeremy LeBreton to give riders a Taste of Dakar.