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One thing about motorcycling, if you go in search of adventure, you are bound to find it. The nature of it may just be a bit hard to predict. It seems that just last week or so I was writing about the life lessons of motorcycle racing. If I am going to write about it, I have to live it a little too, that is the way the universe works. How does that line go? “You gotta pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues”. We will get to the “it don’t come easy” part soon enough.

Sonora Rally Tech Inspection

So here it is, Monday morning and I feel like I am hung over. But it wasn’t from any libation. It is the hung down feeling that comes from stepping off the motorcycle while it is still going a little too fast. And it isn’t from a yesterday, but from last Wednesday. I am still feeling it pretty good.

Plans for the Sonora Rally started well. The bike prep was good. I spent five days in Baja riding it while on tour. The KTM 525 was strong and fun to ride. I did nearly everything I could think of to prepare the bike for the demands of the rally. Suspension and rally navigation gear were the main focus.

All the navigation gear I have used before, so I have the set up pretty well sorted out. For this event I upgraded to the Rallye Max-G, which provides GPS based odometer and cap heading. I used one of these last year and it works really well.

I tested a couple of different suspension set ups I have here. I went with a soft overall setting because it is so easy to ride. It requires very little attention from the rider and bike is super stable. I am a big believer in running the suspension just as soft as I can get away with. This was one of Scott Summers theories. I have always preferred plush and stable feeling, even if it means having to slow some for the bigger hits.

Staging for Rally Start

The only issue I had during my testing was a slight resistance from the battery. It didn’t have quite enough power to start the bike regularly. It wasn’t a real issue because just a light assistance kick would bring the bike right to life. I figured this was a battery issue, so I installed a new one before leaving for San Luis.

Neena, Gnarly Dave and I got on the road Saturday for the 3 hour drive to San Luis. We crossed the border at Mexicali and the gang was ready for some tacos. The first likely looking place was a roadside carnitas stand and we decided it looked pretty good. Upon sitting down we attempted to order, but it was a bit confusing.

Motorcycle impound prior to rally start

There was enough road noise it was kind of hard to hear, but the gist of it was that they were out of the good stuff and what was left were the less choice selections of the hog. I thought we ordered something suitable, but it turned out to be buche (pork stomach). Gnar and I both managed through, but Neena was having no part of it. Honestly, I don’t blame her. Later we found some fabulous Mexican roasted chicken that made up for the earlier meal failure.

For the Sonora Rally the organizers used the Rally Comp system developed by Mike Johnson. It is a sophisticated electronic gizmo that mounts on the bike with the rest of the navigation gear. It does all kinds of cool things. It electronically marks checkpoints and transmits real time status and location back to the organizers. It required a fair bit of additional installation, wires going everywhere. But we got that all sorted without issue.

Staging in San Luis Rio Colorado, just across the border from Yuma, the race headquarters was at the Ariaza Hotel, all very nice. Things were fairly well organized. On Sunday we took the bikes through tech inspection and got ready for the short prologue.

Finish of prologue

The prologue would determine the starting order for the first stage on Monday. But the time did not count towards the total score. Lining up for the start, I was still trying to figure out everything the Rally Comp instrument was trying to tell me. I had already decided to not try to go fast, no sense starting in the front anyway. It is much easier to just follow and let the leaders navigate for a while.

Even though I decided not to go fast, I still blew right through the third corner on the route. I guess my navigation was a bit rusty. Actually it was good, it made me stop and figure everything out. Better to make some mistakes in practice than in the first stage.

My suspension was feeling very soft with the front diving too much in the deep sand. I stopped and made some adjustments which helped. I was concerned about fuel mileage, so I had switched to the Acerbis six gallon tank. The extra weight really throws things off. But I guess it is better than being stranded without fuel in the middle of the desert.

Skyler Howes ready for rally to begin

We spent the previous night in a moderate hotel, that is to say only moderately quiet or comfortable. For Sunday night we opted to sleep in the van in the parking lot. Nothing like a well set up van for a motorcycle racer. It is one of my favorite beds, almost like sleeping at home.

Monday morning I got the 525 out of impound. The night before I had noticed a small trickle of coolant coming from the water pump seal weep hole. When I fired the bike up Monday, the trickle was more pronounced. This was a major cause of concern.

Fortunately my friend Radek Burkat was parked next to us and just happened to have spares on hand. So we quickly did a water pump seal replacement. It isn’t a difficult job with the correct parts but there are two seals that press into a carrier. The seals were loose and would need to be installed.

Water pump seal replacement morning of rally

Fortunately, on the other side of us was a rider with a small vise. Funny how those things work out. I had helped that rider the day before to dial in the adjustment on his Rekluse clutch. I was able to call Idaho Joe at Rekluse and he walked us through the process. Its nice to be in a fun communal setting where everyone is willing to chip in.

My other slight concern was that my battery still did not seem to be holding enough charge to start the bike well. Like before, with just a slight assist with the kick starter, the 525 would come right to life.

We started out into the desert for the first stage. The open roads proved relatively fast, 50-60 miles per hour stuff. The terrain slowly started to undulate as we moved closer to the dunes. Of the parts I would ride, the rolling foothills were by far the most enjoyable.

Starting near the back, the navigation was simple, almost non-existent, just follow the tracks. The Rally Comp beeps and opens up an arrow once you get within a few hundred meters of a waypoint (checkpoint) and then you follow the arrow to the waypoint. Once there, the Rally Comp beeps a couple of times to tell you it has recorded the waypoint. Outside of the vast dunes, this system greatly simplifies navigation. Most of the waypoints were also at changes in course direction, so often I wouldn’t even slow down, just listen for the beeps  and start onto the new course heading.

The dunes continued to grow, not huge but nevertheless significant. I pushed the front end in a deep corner and tipped over. With the bike back up I hit the starter button and nothing happened.  Not even a hint of trying to turn the motor over. It is one thing to kick over a cool 525 with an assist from the starter. It is quite another to do it while it is hot and there is no help from the button. It took me a good 10 kicks and a fair amount of energy to get going again.

Once we entered the dunes the fan was running constantly and what had been a slight lack of charging was now a full on deficit. Not stalling the motor was now my top priority. With the Rekluse I had some advantage, the bike naturally wants to keep running all the time. But the flip side is that bump starting it is not an option either.

Riders arrive at El Golfo, finish of stage 1

In the largest dunes of the day I chose to navigate my way around instead of charging full on up. A few of the other riders back with me were doing the same. But the track showed that the leaders had ridden right over the top of them.

The deep stand was a constant struggle. Or was it the 6 gallon tank? Regardless, it took a fair bit of energy to keep everything upright and pointed the correct direction. But before long, the dunes diminished and we were back into rolling sand hills and eventually roads.

The speeds crept back up. Seventy miles per hour would have been easily achieved had I cared to do so. It was then that I started to realize the flaw in my logic for this event. While I spent years as a desert racer, I never cared for higher speeds.

Radek Burkat at stage 1 finish

 I was the one who excelled in the nastiest terrain, rocks and mountains. So in the right kind of desert race I could do pretty well. But in the faster ones, I always struggled. As I looked around at the desert plains of Sonora, I realized that I probably wasn’t going to find the terrain that really motivates.

El Golfo Bivouac

When I arrived at the gas stop, I could see that I had only used three gallons of fuel. I would have been fine with my four gallon Safari tank. It would go on the following day for stage 2. The rest of the day was okay. Starting so far back I had surprisingly little dust to contend with.

By the end of the day I was getting a little tired. It was warm and I had not had enough sleep for a couple of days. The final stretch was some two track through sand hills near the beach. It was pretty cool, but I still had to manhandle the bike a bit too much to be on good pace.

We finished the day on the beach and rolled into the fishing hamlet of El Golfo. After cooling down and eating we started to work on the bike and its charging problem. Not really knowing the cause of my problem, we went ahead and changed the stator and battery. But I had lent the spare battery out the day before and while I got it back, it was dead from trying to fire a different bike that had met its demise.

I replace the stator while Gnarly Dave looks on

I hoped for the best and finished going over everything else on the 525. We didn’t really ride that many miles, so everything was still new looking. I marked up the road book for stage 2 and locked the bike up for the night.

El Golfo is a sleepy village that has fallen on hard times. Most of the fishing has been closed down. We wandered into town and found some tacos for dinner. Our bivouac was right on the beach, beautiful little spot. It happened that the Grunion were running that day, so we strolled down to the water’s edge to watch the spectacle as they laid eggs in the sand.

For stage 2 we were running early. This would be the big day of dunes. It was a 10k liaison out to the start of the stage. Again, I had no battery power. Maybe more run time would give me some charge. Quickly we were back into the rolling sand hills, but they soon gave way to dunes that grew larger and larger. We are talking heights measured in hundreds of feet.

Grunion on the beach of El Golfo

I knew these would be here. Again, I contemplated the logic that brought me here. Dunes have never held any real appeal to me. The good news was that with the smaller tank and another go around on the suspension clickers to stiffen everything, the 525 was feeling much racier. On we went. At first I would follow the track, and then as the climbs got bigger, I would look for an easier way around. In the back of my mind I focused on not stalling the engine.

But it was inevitable, I stalled the bike as I was pushing it over the crest of a large dune. Knowing how to time the climb to the top is a real art form and me with my crayons. You need to reach the summit of the dune, get the front wheel over and then survey the other side before committing. You never quite now what awaits you. Too fast and you may cartwheel down the other side. Too slow and you may have to make another attempt at the climb, even if you are just feet short of the summit.

With the bike stalled, I had to push the KTM to the bottom. Then it took me a good five minutes to get it started again. I was sweating hard and my heart rate was up. I reasoned that maybe disconnecting the fan would help me out. But once going again, it only took minutes before the coolant started to boil. I was riding myself into a difficult situation quickly.

At the next waypoint there was a support crew on the course. A couple of guys from the local 4×4 club, Los Cheyenes had driven out into the dunes to give assistance if needed.  I stopped in and explained my situation. They didn’t speak much English. I let the bike cool and filled the radiator back up. Then we used their truck to jump start the bike. I was ready to go again.

Sonora desert vista

Within a short distance it was obvious that we were just arriving at the “big” dunes. Everything up to this point had just been a warm up, kids’ stuff.  I was riding along, apparently doing something other than looking where I was going. Likely I was looking at the road book and large dunes ahead. The short lapse in concentration was all it took.

When I realized what was about to happen, it was too late to do anything but lean back and grab a handful of throttle. It was a grass hummock, a big one. The face of it was a two foot high square edge. From there I am not exactly sure of the chain of events. I think the bike hit me as it shot upward, throwing me up in the process.

We both came down hard. As we hit the ground again, my helmet collided with the road book. The chin bar of my Arai took the brunt of the impact, but my neck and chin would hit too. At that point the bike came to a stop in the deep sand and catapulted me over the bars. I distinctly remember having enough time in the air to contemplate the impending result.

I hit the ground hard. It was like being slammed down violently. Considering I landed in soft sand and nearly all my body hit the ground at the same time, the result could have been much worse. But it was enough to cause me to take inventory as I lay there. Every part of me was shaken, but nothing seemed broken.

My Sonora Rally souvenir, scraped and bruised but nothing too serious

I could hear the bike still running, so I quickly collected myself and got back to the bike. But it died before I could lift it. As I stood there in the quiet, I was contemplating what had just happened. I looked down and saw a few drops of what was obviously blood on the ground.

 I must have taken my gloves off, they were full of sand. Then I noticed one finger covered in blood. I had to wipe it off before I could determine if it was from the finger. Finally I realized it was from my chin that was throbbing. It was a little cut, nothing to worry about.

Wondering what my next move was, a couple of riders came by me. They were not moving too fast. My first instinct had been to pack it in for the day, head back to the 4×4 club workers. But seeing the other riders motivated me, perhaps I could trail along with them and ride my way through the coming dunes.

And that is what I did for about the next mile. At the next big dune I came up about 5 feet short of clearing the top. As I got off to push I realized there just wasn’t much strength or fight left in me.  As much as I hated too, I pointed the KTM back.  I just wasn’t in a state to continue.

When I got back to the 4×4 guys, they were happy to see me, mostly just to have some company. They didn’t speak much English, but my Spanish is better than average, so we made a time of it. The first of the cars came by as we cheered them on. Side by sides made up the bulk of the other racers. It is amazing to see how much their performance has increased. Later a vintage Meyers Manx came along. I marveled at its ability to find a way through the mountainous dunes.

Not all days are wheelies, tacos and trophy girls, reality can be a tough mistress

Later yet I could see two motorcycles coming from some distance away. They were better than an hour behind the last bikes. I could gauge from their speed that it was time for them to call it a day too.

I was surprised that it took a real effort for me to flag them down and motion them over to the truck. One rider was Japanese and spoke little English. I couldn’t even get him to turn the bike off so I could talk to him, he was so eager to continue on. The other rider was from Hong Kong and spoke perfect English. It only took a minute for me to explain the situation to him. It was getting on in the day, they had taken far too much time to get to this point and the biggest dunes still to come. He was happy to join up with us.

With both riders stopped. I could see that at least one of them was out of water. The Mexican crew had given me some cold water and I asked for more for these two riders. Turns out there was only one bottle left, but in typical Mexican fashion, there was still plenty of cold beer on hand.

It would be another hour or so before we got the all clear sign and the workers could leave their post to guide us back to the highway. It wasn’t far or difficult, but with the group we had I figured it was best if everyone stayed together until we got out.

Garrett Poucher prepping his Honda CRF450x

It was late in the afternoon when we returned to the bivouac. I briefed Neena and Gnarly Dave on the situation. Regarding the charging on my bike, the only part we had not changed the night before was the regulator/rectifier. I have never seen one go bad in this manner. But I had a spare so we swapped it out. As we were out of the biggest dunes, it probably would not be a problem anyway.

It was about at this time that the trauma from my crash started to really set in. I was feeling poor enough that I had to go to bed for a while. It was clear that I wasn’t going to be in any real shape to race again the following day. So I decided that would be the end of my Sonora Rally adventure.

The next morning we loaded everything up and started north. For the next few days new parts of my body would start to hurt as others got better. It was not the race result I had planned on. There is something awfully embarrassing about not finishing a race, any race. You take your chances, roll the dice and sometimes it comes up craps.

I also feel bad about the bike, other than the charging, I had everything else feeling really good. I think it would have performed well for the remainder of the rally. In 17 years of riding RFS KTM’s I have never had this exact problem before. But I didn’t put much hard use on it, so it will be ready to go next time.

Skyler Howes went on to win the Sonora Rally and in doing so a trip to Dakar. My congratulations go out to him and all the other finishers, fast or slow. Most of the participants were enchanted by the Sonora Rally. For the group of Canadians coming south to get out of winter, it was certainly so. Rally racing in Mexico with its miles of open desert and giant sand dunes is an exotic novelty many riders will only dream of. It really may be the closest thing to Dakar in the Northern Hemisphere.



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