2012 MSR Baja Ride with Malcolm Smith
November 9, 2012 - San Diego, CA
The Trip: Every Fall the guys over at MSR put on an industry ride with the Baja Legend Malcolm Smith and invite dealerships to come out and ride Mexico. I have wanted to go on the annual trip for years but have never had a proper off-road bike. This year when I was invited, I had just purchased the perfect bike for it.
The Bike: This summer while browsing the motorcycle section of craigslist, one of my addictions, I found a super low hour 2003 Yamaha WR450f. The bike had original tires and graphics and looked to be in great shape. I made the guy a ridiculously low offer of $1700 and he accepted. With an electric start, wide ratio transmission, 2.6 gallon fuel capacity, plush suspension, and 450 torque, this bike was the perfect vehicle to conquer my off-road adventure.
Bike Prep: In order to prep my off-roader for the adventure, I went through my new ride with basic maintenance procedures including: Changing oil/oil filter, Washing and lubing the air filter, lubing and adjusting chain. As well as checking spokes and coolant level. I also went ahead and ordered some parts from my favorite online motorcycle retailer: BikeBandit.com… oh yeah, you know the one.
Here is the parts list:
Quick adjust Air/Fuel Mixture screw
New Front and Rear Tires
Backpack with hydration system
Tire irons (small)
Pre-ride: I figured it would be a good idea to pre-ride the bike before taking it on a long journey in a foreign country, especially considering it was a bike I had never ridden before. However, as I soon found out, pre-rides are only helpful if you avoid wadding up your bike and spending the rest of the evening in urgent care.
Two weeks before the ride I decided to take my Baja bound WR out to the local MX track (RPMX) with a few of my riding buddies. The start of the day went well as I was able to successfully set up all of my controls and dial in the suspension settings on all of the clickers. WR450f's are great bikes and feel very similar to a motocross bike plus or minus 50 lbs. I started feeling very comfortable on the bike, too comfortable. I was clearing every jump and passing riders while flashing my high/low beam as a joke.
Nevertheless, I found the limits of the WR. While seat bouncing a 25' double out of a tight left hand turn the rear tire lost traction and sent me flailing off of the jump at a 90 degree angle. I decided in that split second that I could not save it. I aborted the bike into what I thought was a very experienced tuck and roll. In my mind it felt similar to what Chad Reed experienced in his 2011 Millville Crash: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZC4f9TCg4zw, except I ended up on the compacted landing of the jump and split my knee wide open.
Location: Two weeks later I had my 13 stitches pulled out and we were packed up and headed for Tecate, Mexico. MSR put us up in a ranch called Rancho Veronica, which was originally built as a training grounds for bullfighters, pretty cool. The place was more than satisfactory with amazing Mexican food, Tecate beer, hot showers and clean sheets.
Day 1: The first day of riding was everything I had hoped for. It started out by going through a tiny military checkpoint where two young Mexican federales were scratching their heads as we explained to them in spanglish that there would be about 80 of us coming through his check point. In which he replied wide eyed: “Mucho”. The day's course was input into our TrailTech Voyager GPS systems and all we had to do was follow the little arrow for the next 140 miles.
Malcolm Smith and his son Alexander did a great job of laying out a course that mixed tight technical single track with high speed mountain roads. When thinking of Baja, pine trees and crossing back and forth over mountain streams are not expected, but at 5,000 ft. Baja is not the barren wasteland that I had been expecting. Halfway through the ride we stopped in a national park and had lunch in beautiful spot beside Lake Laguna Hanson.
In order to fuel up, we stopped at a little cabin in the middle of nowhere and an old man named Ramon sold us milk jugs full of gas for $7 a gallon. Considering the location that is not a bad deal, and we all made sure to give him a nice tip. Despite his insisting that the fuel quality was “premium” I still added a little octane boost before taking off again.
The ride back was 5th gear two track that winded down the mountains and across streams with amazing views. I broke away from the group to get some clean air and started chasing down riders that were ahead of me like I was finishing the baja 1000. Coming back into town required dodging the local drivers, live stock and one angry dog that had his mind set on catching every motorcycle that went through his territory. The WR450f ran perfect and, despite 140 miles of riding, I felt good and was ready for another day.
Day2: When explaining the second day's schedule of single track riding, Alexander Smith informed us that there would be two ride options: a hard course and an “easy” course. Considering the success I had the first day of riding, and despite the warnings of more experienced riders, I opted for the hard ride. How do I put this? When a professional off-road racer, whose father is a Baja legend, designs a ride to be “hard,” expect it to be extremely challenging.
Alexander was gracious enough to let me run sweep with him in the back of the pack. The trail was laid out in granite filled chaparral mountains, typical of what you would see in the local hills of Southern California. However this trail was single track, literally, there was only one track. After our first stop Alexander asked me, “Can you believe we only mapped out this course 3 days ago?” “I can tell,” was my only response. Despite the lack of a trail, plowing through bushes, navigating rocky creek beds, and dropping off of blind 4' rock cliffs, I was having fun. Fun as in, wow I can't believe I survived riding my motorcycle up that rock face, kind of fun.
We were having a good ride until we got to the part of the trail referred to as “hike a bike.” As an avid mountain biker, I am aware of this term. “Hike a bike” is what you do when a hill climb is too steep and/or too technical to pedal up. As the title suggests, you have to literally pick up your bicycle and hike with it. I have been riding motorcycles for 20 years and have never heard this term associated with motorcycles. When we pulled up to this section, there were about 10 riders stuck precariously on the side of the mountain. In order for all of us to climb the wall we had to organize helpers in 3 stages of uphill cliffs to literally pull the motorcycles while each rider pushed using the clutch and throttle to assist drive the machine up the rocky climb. Did I mention it was 101 degrees that day?
When I finally made it to the top I was so overheated and exhausted that I stopped, found some shade under a rock, and took a 20 minute siesta. Now this is an adventure, I thought to myself. We eventually all made it to lunch where, 70% of the riders opted to take the main road back to the Ranch.
Once we started back on the trail we were immediately climbing gnarled cliffs again, and I was pushing/scattering beside by bike so that I didn't lose any uphill momentum. This was not your average Sunday ride. About 10 miles into the second half of the ride, the third amigo in our group was having carburetor problems. Despite his excellent off-road abilities, riding a bike that would not idle in that terrain is nearly impossible. I trailed him back to the ranch while Alexander finished sweeping the single track.
Back at camp, I looked down and saw in an emotional mixture of fear and relief that an external oil line on my bike had been bent by a rock and it was drooling oil out all over the place. If I wouldn't have gone back when I did, my day would have ended in catastrophic engine failure on the side of cliff in the middle of no man's land. Nevertheless on this day, I had survived Baja. That second day we only covered a distance of 40 miles, but it was without a doubt the toughest terrain I have ever ridden a motorcycle on.
My first trip to Baja was everything I had hoped it would be: new friends, great stories, and amazing riding. A special thanks goes out to MSR, Tucker Rocky, Trail Tech and Malcolm and Alexander Smith for a Baja adventure I will never forget.