Tour of Tater: Dirt bike ballet

By IceT - Posted on 29 August 2010

Day 7: Challis, ID to Elk City, ID (318 miles)
I woke up early with Greg and headed out to my DR650 that had caused so much trouble the night before. The combination of the self-threading oil plug and the blue RTV silocone seemed to be holding. The motor still leaked oil, but the level seemed to be holding. I went over the bike with my ratchet, tightening every bolt I could reach. I especially tried tightening the banjo bolt on an oil return line in the hopes of stemming the ecological disaster that emmanated from the motor, but that did not work. Oil still seeped out of the motor, attracting dust until the result looked like mud.

Mark, Stan, Scott and I had agreed to ride together the night before. Mark showed concern about the mileage, and he wanted to leave at 8 or even 7 AM. I liked the concept of 8, but Stan wanted to leave at 9. We compromised on 8:30, and Mark shook each of our hands, looked in our eyes and said, "I'll see you tomorrow, ready to roll at 8:30."

We left at 9:45. I filled up my gas tank. Stan prepped his bike. Scott changed his oil in the parking lot. He was quick because he's a mechanic by trade, but all of our indiscretions added up to a late departure. Everyone contributed some reason to the delay--everyone except for Mark. Mark is always ready.

We had some fun riding in the morning and arrived at a gas stop and lunch in Shoup, ID. We stopped at an old time country store that served delicious burgers and milk shakes. The gas pumps out front required using a hand pump to filk a glass cylinder that sat above the metal body and rubber hose. The fellow pumped our gas and called out the amount based on metal markings in the glass cylinder. "That looks like (squinting) a gallon and a half." We paid for the gas with our food bill.

Lunch was delicious, but we were only 1/3 of the way into a 240 mile off-road trip. We had to put the hammer down. We had a great afternoon ride, but I honestly can't remember much of the scenery. Ryan had said that I should write about the trip, and I said I could not remember any en route details. If I only wrote about what I remembered of the riding, my dispatches would sound like this: "I watched Mark C.'s tail light, and it went right, so I followed. Then it went left, so I went that way. And repeat."

That's something worth noting. I am riding dirt bikes for a week-plus, and my goal for the week is to keep up with the tail light of a 78-year-old man. That might sound like a modest goal, but you don't know Mark. He rides dirt bikes three days a week and has more energy than anyone else I know. Everyone else in our group was 50+, and I was the youngster at 36. You get to your mid-30s, and you start to feel like you know a little something about the world. Then you try to keep up with old men on dirt bikes, and their skill and physical endurance shatters every sense of pride in your body, and you have to start all over again.

After lunch, our group got passed on the trail by Brent, Dan, Jason and Joe. Some of them had video cameras attached to their helmets, and we caught up to them at the next trail intersection, where they appeared to be fiddling with equipment. They passed us twice more on the trail, which was annoying because it was dusty, and it seemed like Brent preferred our group's pace and fell in with us. At one point, the other group notified our leader, Stan, that Brent would be joining us.

Due to the mixing of the two groups, nobody waited behind at the trail intersections. Also, Mark was feeling his oats and took off with the fast guys. I ended up heading down a fun track for five minutes before I realized I was alone and turned back. Scott and I met up and attempted to locate the group. We rode to the top of a mountain on a beautiful sandy track with sweeping corners. I followed Scott's lines, leaning the bike into the corners and letting the rear wheel pivot around the steering head in a smooth arc that led to the next corner. This was dirt bike ballet.

My inside arm staightened out, and I sat on the top outside corner of the seat cushion, rather than the inside. This riding style is completely opposite that of road motorcycling, but elements of it translate to better road riding. I felt like the off-road riding experience finally started to gel for me. Then Scott and I reached a dead end at the top of the mountain. Our group was nowhere to be found.

We started back down the track and eventually reunited with our group. We continued to have a good ride throughout the day, but soon the sun started to drop. The low sun wreaked havoc when it filtered through the trees, creating a strobe effect and lighting up the dust as we motored down the dirt track. I felt a little worried about the cold because it was supposed to drop to 30 that night, but we all had good coats and riding gear. I was looking forward to the moment when the sun would drop because it would give us an hour of well-lit, reasonably warm riding before the cold set in.

At dusk, we paused next to regroup. Now we were five. Scott set off down the trail, and the rest of us realized Brent was having trouble starting his bike. This was unfortunate because Scott was the only genuine mechanic of the group. Brent kept wailing on the kickstarter to no avail. He had built his KTM from the ground up, and he was clearly frustrated. I have dealt with countless bikes that would run, and in my experience, bump starting often works. I walked up and in my most diplomatic voice, I asked, "Could you do me a favor and just try bump starting the bike?"

Brent said, "No, it's electrical. Maybe I'll give that a try later." He proceeded to jump off the bike, pull of the side covers and remove the gas tank. He jumped around the bike like a grasshopper, touching a bolt here, wiggling a hose there. Mark and I looked at each other, a little concerned about the amount of dismantling that took place. Brent muttered to himself, "It's gotta be the magneto ... a bad ground ... the space modulator. Damn, I should not have installed that flux capacitor."

(Some quotes in this section might be approximate. They might even resemble the jokes the author wanted to make at the time but could not due to the seriousness of the circumtances.)

Brent said that we should find some level ground where he could *really* work on the bike, and then the group should head out. Mark said, "Well, we would never leave anybody behind, but at the worst case, you could ride two-up down the mountain."

Brent bristled and said, "I will not ride 'bitch' down this mountain. I will not place my family jewels behind another man's buttocks--not tonight!"

Sometimes with young men, you just want to cut through all the bravado and tell them what to do. I felt some frustration that this was not possible. Mark, my favorite 78-year-old, must walk around feeling this way every day.

Scott made it back to the group, and eventually we got the bike started. Before we set off, Mark warned us with some sage advice. "This is the time of the ride when it's most dangerous," he said. "The most important thing is that we stay *together* and ride carefully. I'd rather ride slow and get there at 1 AM than have someone get hurt."

At dark, we adjusted the riding order using a curious combination of riding ability, experience and headlight strength. Stan rode in front with the GPS and a decent headlight. Mark rode next with a weak headlight, and I sat behind him after switching on the high beams on my DR650. Brent rode behind me with an incredibly weak headlight on his KTM, which was made even weaker by his electrical problems. He relied mainly on my headlight and that of Scott's Yamaha WR250R, which brought up the rear.

That was quite a ride. We had 60 or 80 miles to travel after the sun set on dirt and gravel roads, and half the group had poor night vision and/or a bad headlight. I found this simplified my riding because it narrowed down my options and distractions. My goal became to follow Mark's tail light in front of me, left, right, left, right. As long as it did not drop off a mountain, I would stick with it. Rather than investigating the minute details of the road surface visually, I found myself riding by feel. I was flying a fighter plane in a race against the Death Star, the words of my mentors ringing in my ears--"Use the Force, Luke!" If the bike slipped, I would ease up a bit. If it held firm, and Mark's tail light was pulling away, I would feed in a little throttle. We held a pace of 30-40 MPH on light gravel, which was pretty good, considering the circumstances. Scott later commented that I was faster riding on gravel in the dark and that he was working hard to keep up with me.

Brent had the roughest time in the dark. As long as we were on a straightaway, he had my light in front and Scott's in the rear. When we dipped into a series of corners, my light would disappear to navigate the next turn, while Scott's was still working on the previous one. He was literally flying blind, but he did a good job just following the tail lights, and thankfully, mine did not drop off the mountain.

The road started to widen, and the gravel started to improve, so I figured we were close to our destination. We passed one sign that said, "Elk City - 22 miles" and then another sign that said, "Elk City -->" with an arrow. Riding up front, Stan continued to ride in the direction opposite the arrow. Stan said the GPS said the other direction was shorter. At the first sign, Mark had expressed an interest in following the sign. At the second sign, Mark pulled up to Stan and reiterated this point.

Stan can be a man of few words, but you canoften  divine the feelings of a man by the way he rides his motorcycle. Stan spoke to Mark and then lurched off in a slew of dirt and dust, only to stop and look in his mirror with the motor running. His demeanor evoked that of a stallion kicking against the stall door, raring to let his legs run.

At this point, Mark rode back to me and said, "I think he's mad at me. You had better go talk to him." The idea of someone being mad at Mark seems impossible to me. Mark is the group's Yoda. He's a little shorter than most of us, he dispenses wisdom, and after a long day of riding his gray hair stands out from his head in wisps. You can't get mad at Yoda. Yet here he was, tasking me with an assignment.

I walked up the hill to meet my destiny, a bucking, snorting stallion of a man. I approached timidly and said, "Mark made me do this ... umm ... maybe we should go that way ... I'll buy you a beer if I'm wrong." The argument that convinced Stan was the fact that we had two signs on the ground that pointed in the other direction, and we had experienced GPS hiccups earlier in the day. Or maybe he was tired of arguing about it. Regardless, we made it to the motel. In retrospect, I think Stan was correct that the GPS route would have been shorter, but it felt good to follow a sure thing with road signs pointing the way.