Baja 250 San Felipe 2012
This was a crazy idea that just got crazier...
My initial intention was to build from scratch a replica of the bike that Al Baker rode to victory in the Baja in 1981, the XR500 C&J Mugen "Baja Commander". To be really serious about it, the project had to be completed by taking it to the starting line of a desert race in the Baja.
As it happened, one does not just casually turn up in San Felipe, ask to stand on the starting line of a Baja race, wave hello and ... ride to the nearest beach for a Margarita. If you want to be in the race well, you have to be in the race...
There I found myself, having shaken Sal Fish's hand and acknowledged his "have a safe race, boy", kicking the bike to life, approaching the red arch that opened into the vast expanses of the Baja, thinking "I am actually gonna ride the Baja, this is crazy"!!
This was Saturday March 9, 2012 at 6:29 am. My heart was beating at least as fast as the 520cc Honda motor was revving under me. This was a unique moment, what a buzz!!!
How exciting, it was actually happening and I was certainly not prepared for what was to come. My last race had been an enduro, 30 years earlier which I had barely managed to finish. Desert racer I am not, but hey it was by then too late to bail out. I wanted to test the bike I had built, having run it for no more than ... 9 miles before showing up in San Felipe.
In fact, it was pretty much a miracle that on that Saturday, the bike started when I kicked the engine. The previous Monday, my latest test ride day in California, the bike would simply not run. It would stall every time I tilted it to the right. There was obviously something wrong with the 30 year old Lectron carburetor...
But that was only one of the problems. When we arrived in San Felipe on Wednesday morning, the list of things to do to get ready was dishearteningly long. We started with taking the motor out to reseal an oil leak on the rocker cover.
Only a few days before had I fitted the 91mm high compression piston, the brand new cylinder head from EdCo with +1mm stainless valves, RD springs and titanium bits, the Megacycle camshaft. And I had not even managed to ride the bike at all with its new engine configuration. The Baja 250 was to be the maiden ride with me a "Baja virgin" at the controls.
There were still no lights fitted, the Score Races regulations demanded that the suspensions bolts be drilled and safety-wired, the throttle was sticking, one of the rebuilt Ohlins shocks was squeaking, the fork oil had to be topped up after leaking during the trip on the trailer, the spokes had to be tied, the makeshift side covers had to be fitted somehow, I had to find 110 octane fuel somewhere etc etc... two and a half days of work in the garage of the rental house and no certainty that the bike would make it through technical inspection, the starting line, let alone to the finish.
The night before the tech inspection, it finally moved!
Then there was all the other bits that were new and unknown. What to carry in my backpack, what was an IRC tracker, what would happen in case of breakdown, of injury, finding a Wifi spot to download the GPS files and the maps tiles to the army of Android phones we had brought, making contact with the Mag7 the pits folks, learning how to use the radio handsets? If it had not been for Johann, a work colleague who decided to join me on the adventure, I dont think I would have made it.
On top of the work and the anxiety over the bike not being ready, I also had to deal with the fear of the unknown. What the hell was I putting myself into? Should I write a will? What about my wife and two kids? How crazy was this. I certainly was in no physical condition to run a race like the Baja. I am just a garage chap who likes to tinker with old bolts and nuts and then, there I was on the starting line of the most "brutal" version of the most famous series of desert races.
There was no escaping it, I had to take the bike through technical inspection and get my pass for the race. Saturated with anxiety, under the burning sun, but in the middle of the pre-race party, weaving my way through a sea of intimidating trophy trucks, scantily clad young women languishing on top of cars, dazed tourists and excited kids, I was one of the last ones to make it to the inspection. A very laid back, but rigid technical inspector went over the bike, ignoring all the hard work we had put into wiring the suspension bolts and noting that the rear light did not work (whaaaat??), tied a pink ribbon to the forks and a lead stamp to the frame. Was it my imagination or did he send me on my way with a tear in his eye? Was that tear an omen of my upcoming demise or a sudden memory of him doing the same thing 3 decades earlier to an exact same bike??
I did not sleep much that night, so much going on in my head. As a relîef, the alarm clock rang. I was beyond fear, in fact I thought that I had taken the project far enough, I could now go home... But I did not. Slowly waking up while pretending to perform essential tasks such as checking for a wifi connection that I know did not exist, somehow I found myself riding the bike through the few miles of night into San Felipe.
As light came from the east, I mingled with the other soldiers of the upcoming battle against the desert, looking for the polite spot for my number 260X. Finally, some humans to talk to about the race. It finally struck me, in my obsession with getting the bike ready, I had just forgotten to learn about the other fundamental part of this adventure... the race itself. Beside some beautiful videos captured on YouTube, I really had no idea what was ahead ... today... right now... The conversations did not help...
"Hey, how old is this thing? Do you really intend to race it?"
"How many riders will you share the race with. We are doing three changes"
"This year is bad, there are lots and lots of whoops, huge ones, scary ones"
"How did your pre-run go"
"But hey, good luck..."
Then some scruffy looking dude came out of the crowd, he looked important, he was talking to people like he owned the place. He zoomed in on me and asked to see my helmet. I realized he was doing a safety inspection.
I proudly handed to him the expensive Skyracing F2 helmet in bright orange color with my name and blood type painted on the left (as per requirements), that I had bought the week before, pointing to the Snell decal on the back.
With no hint of a smile or emotion he dug inside the helmet looking for a sewn safety label that .... was not there. "You can't ride today with that helmet my friend, did you get it at Walmart?"
What, was that it? The end of the road? Wait, did I feel a deep sigh of relief come out of my lungs, or was that a snort of anger from being deprived from my prize or may be a hiccup of humiliation for having been conned by a low ethics merchant? A battle of words ensued, no I was not having it. Together we dug into the helmet, found various labels and stickers but not the one he was looking for. Eventually, may be because I was taller than him... he surrendered and applied one of his "Passe safety" stickers on top of my helmet, and sent me on my way with a dire warning "I got your number, dont come crying if you get hurt".
Well that was neither pleasant not reassuring. I was already redcting in my head the nastigram I would send the Skyracing folks upon my return... Johnn appeared in the crowd, looking very agitated, probably as he saw from a distance that something was not right. I went over to him, needing a bit friendly soothing... "This is awesome, this is incredible, you are going to race the Baja man", he was jumping up and down with the earnest excitement of a young boy getting his first bike at Christmas !
That pumped me up big time, he was right, big picture, beside all the logistical complications, here I was, as the sun rose on the Baja, with a bike I had built from scratch over a 2 year period, a tribute to a hero, thousands of kilometers away from home, a few minutes from my goal and possibly one of the most extraordinary days of my life. Woohoo!!
5- 4 - 3 - 2 - ... and the green flag went down. What a delight to hear the roar of the freed up motor through the Mugen muffler, knocking the gears up as I was gaining speed before hitting the dirt. I had to go easy on the throttle, everything inside there was new, I was really on a run-in ride. "Woohoo!" jump on the dirt road, nice smooth and flat, some soft sand, some stones, what a delight, quick look at the Vapor electronic speedo, 60mph, fourth gear, Baja, here I coooome.
Am I pushing it too hard?
The answer came at the second mile with the rear wheel blocked, swinging right and left, digging a deep groove in the dirt behind me... piston seized.
Ah well, it was already the end.
I felt elated, frustrated and somewhat relieved actually.... Pulled by the side of the road while the guys behind me blasted by. Got in neutral, gently pushed the kick down, it moved alright. Found the TDC spot, let the kick back up, one more notch down, back up again, and wham, the bike roared into life again, first shot.
I was off again.
Veered to the right and then, as far as I could see through the bushes in front of me... the 30 miles of... whoops...
Took the first few valiantly at speed, standing up, only to realize that given my size (6'4") and the very shallow handlebars I had not set myself up for success. My unprepared legs could take me through ten of the jumps at reasonable speed, but then I had to sit and ... slow down.
On top of this, my heavy backpack was not helping and having to stretch my neck up immediately caused a nagging pain in my upper back. Yep, I was out of my depth. At least I could run the bike in peacefully while others blasted by at full speed hopping over the crests of the whoops.
I was a noob, may be that day the noobest of noobs.
Had I done a pre-run the day before I think I would have not turned up for the race. The first 30 miles were just crazy. It dawned upon me that for decades, racing machins had been digging up this part of the Mexican desert shaping it into this endless minefield of peaks and troughs between thorny bushes and rocks, soft sand and harder soil, what some would candidely call a "very technical terrain".
The fun quickly wore out, this was more painful and unpleasant than I had imagined, simply because I was a noob and had no idea what I had out myself into. That's what happens when you want to play with the big boys... (but there was more of the same later).
By then, every half minute or so, one of the guys behind me flew past in a burst of dirt and rocks. From time to time I tried to keep up with one of them, doing a reasonable job for about 10 whoops before my legs and my back gave in. I was clearly in no physical condition, at my age to do something like this... yet, here I was.
Finally we got to Zoo road, turned left into the mountains. What a delight, the motor was getting better and better, a slight turn of the throttle was propelling me ahead in a way I have never experienced on a XR500 and this despite the very long 40 tooth sprocket at the back. Time for a full throttle and.... a blocked rear wheel again. Same as before the willing motor started again impeccably, so I did it again, and seized up again and started again.
At mile 38, an ATV on the side with a broken motor asked me for help, trying to contact his team by radio. Long curves and straight stretches up the mountains were wonderful, soft sand, very soft sand saw my first fall. Slightly bent the handlebar on the left.
Then came the coming down the mountains and hell started again in the form of super soft sands leaving no marks of the vehicles in front. I could not gain speed, I was digging myself in the sand, every shot of the rear wheel was challenging my balance, front wheel shifting right and left, two more falls, and dropped the bike twice. One time I fell with the bike on top of me, my right leg stuck and the rear wheel spinning, I was below the bike on the slope. That took me a while. Damn heavy bike!
On the other side of the mountains before the powerline came another infinite field of whoops, I was exhausted and finally came the pit, the wonderful orange tent of Mag7, with fuel and a cold drink.
"You've got to pick up pace, the cars will set off in about 1 hour"
"OK, that's it, I am out, how do I get back to San Felipe"
"No, no you should go on, just 3 more miles of whoops then you get to the dry lake, it's great. You have time to get to pit 2"
I was two and a half hours into the race and had covered only 50 miles. The powerline road ahead looked horrible: huge whoops as far as one could see and much more than 3 miles of them... then soft sands again, got a big branch in my face, a cactus needle in the pinkie... lots of whoops, one more fall and then... the dry lake.
Huge flat area as far away as the horizon, hard friendly surface, full throttle in fourth easy in fifth, closing the throttle every five seconds to keep good lubrication on the piston, 70 mph, long bends, some nasty silt in places, what a delight.... It was all well worth it. This was really what I was hoping for, breathtaking landscape, blasting through the desert, my ears full of the deep roar of the tricked Honda, pulled forward at each twist of the throttle, damn that motor was awesome... burning dusty air in my nose. Until....
Well, after the bottom of the lake, came... the shore, the same as the one I had gone through to get to the flats, but in reverse, uphill.. And hell started again, except this time, I was tired and had a really sore ass, back, neck and hands. Whoops, soft sand and whoops again and soft sand again.
Something quite funny happened on the shore sands. Out of nowhere appeared this blue bike, with a rider carrying nothing, number 294. By that time the whoops were hypnotizing, regular waves of up and down motion... I was getting sort of delirious, I had these visions of riding ocean waves in the company of a dolphin... 294 overtook me again giving me a few thumbs up, then I noticed the two long braids coming out of the back of the helmet and the name on the back of the shirt "Kitten". Well, Miss Kitten 294, thank you for riding a few miles with me and encouraging me.
Eventually, the whoops stopped, what a relief... to be replaced by ... rocks, lots of rocks, big ones, small ones, sharp ones, everywhere. On a track totally destroyed by decades of racing.
At that point, I was pretty much done for, I was hurt, in pain all over, resigned to the idea that I would not go very much further. I needed to stop, rest, have a drink.
At mile 104, I came across an amazing sight. The pit setup for the McMillin trophy truck. Now these are people who are serious about racing the Baja. Articulated truck, massive coolers, chairs, a whole restaurant for what I could see. I found refuge with them, what a wonderful bunch of people. I fed me, they quenched my thirst, pumped up my ego and gave me the strength to continue a little further.
By then my mind was made up, I had to come to my senses and get out of the race. The cars were coming, not far behind me, this was all becoming qite unsafe, the first trophy trucks would be coming hurling down the track at close to 100 mph. I had a few minutes to fiund the way back home.
At mile 114, I left the track, cut across the main gravel road and found the orange tarpaulin of the Mag7 Pit no.2.
This is where I finished my racing adventure to start enjoying the show and what a show! Those cars and trucks are just crazy.
After an hour or so, resting my poor body, I found my way back to San Felipe via the main gravel road. That in itself was painful. My ass was so sore. Clearly the new foam I had fitted to the seat was simply way too hard for this sort of riding.
On that long trek back, I encountered some comotion over a non racing pick up truck overturned on the side of the road. I heard the day after that someone lost their life in that accident, a tragic reminder that driving and racing around here is no picnic.
I was so happy to find Johann again and gt a cold drink and get ready for the party. What a bunch of nice people!
So I was one of the "DNF" on the final roster. I consoled myself speculating that I was probably the DNF that rode for the longest time, over 5 hours. Not because I was any good, but because I was very slow!
My objective was reached though, I had compkete my replica Baja Commander project and raced it in the sands of the Baja, like Al Baker had done 31 years before.
We left early the day after on a 19 hour non-stop journey back to the Silicon Valley.
Actually, we did stop, to spend some time with Jeff Cole, but this is another story.