Updated: Mar 28, 2022
A total adrenaline rush while raising support for our wounded warriors....
Anyone who grew up riding dirt bikes has entertained the thought of competing at Baja. After all, the BAJA 1000 is the longest off-road point to point race in the world. The opportunity to ride as fast as you can, for as long as you are able, sounds more like fantasy than a real possibility. But that is exactly what this race is, a two-wheeled marathon in the dirt, run at a sprinters pace.
I was a kid when I first learned of this event. The combination of my age, living 2,500 miles away in Western Pennsylvania and my only riding experience being a Honda ATC 90, the stars had not yet aligned to make this a possibility. So, I waited. Then in my mid-thirties an opportunity presented itself. I read of a tour company offering guided off-road tours that included much of the legendary BAJA 1000 racecourse. Having never been to Mexico this was just what I needed to make a Baja experience a reality.
Thanks to GoBajaRidin Tours I was able to fly into San Diego and be picked up by our guide, Bruce towing a trailer of Honda XR400 and XR650 dirt bikes. (This is so much better than business travel!) He would drive us across the Mexico border to our starting destination in Ensenada.
Welcome to the semi-lawless world of Mexico! Hopping on our dirt bikes and riding down city streets through the heart of town. Approaching a toll gate, going around it onto the sand and down the coast. Initially, these things felt like we were asking to be arrested. But “when in Rome.” …or Ensenada?
Bruce led us on five days of amazing off-road riding. Crisscrossing the peninsula, we enjoyed riding on the surf of the Pacific, navigating washes and creek beds, traversing steep mountain trail climbs and back to the surf on the Sea of Cortez. This was without a doubt the best off-road riding I had ever experienced. I knew one day I would return and do it all again.
Being a good businessman, Bruce would call me each year to see if I would come back for another tour. My interest was there but it seemed to be a challenge to find someone else who had the skills, desire and time to commit to going along with me. Then he raised the bar and suggested I consider joining a team to race in the Baja 1000. He would pull together the team and provide all race support. This was an opportunity for a much greater experience and Bruce was handling the logistics. I was more than just intrigued, I wanted to make this happen.
There were still some challenges. Eleven days away from work on short notice, would not be an easy feat. Then there was my issue with the race format. Most years Baja is a loop race starting and ending in Ensenada. I really wanted the full Baja experience I had read about as a kid. If I was to do this, I wanted to compete in a point to point race format the way it was first run. So, I passed.
A few years later, in my mid-forties that opportunity presented itself. Bruce called saying this year is a point to point race format and the course looked to be one of the longest in the history of the Baja. The route would be 1,288 race miles. It was starting to look like my year. I asked if he had assembled the rest of the team? Ready with an answer Bruce indicated he had three other riders. Two of which are service veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, and that we would be racing for a cause to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project. The timing was right. And a point to point race for a worthy cause had me sold!
Although nearly ten years had passed since I was first in Baja, arriving in Ensenada the only thing that felt different were the bikes. Gone were the big Honda XR650’s replaced by the much lighter Honda CRF450X. This was great for me since the 450X is my off-road bike of choice when I ride in Virginia. Now I was going to experience my bike with a fully desert-race prepared setup.
For the next seven days Bruce and his support team led us through all 1,288 race miles. We would see first-hand where there could be unusual hazards, identify check points for rider changes and get a comfort level with the speed, navigation and conditions we would encounter during the race. The plan was for each of us to be on the bike four times throughout the race. Each night we would relive the days ride and throw in a little strategy to align race sections to each team member’s riding strengths. After seven epic days of pre-running we arrive in La Paz. Phase two of our adventure was just about to begin. We would leave our bikes here and fly back to Ensenada to pick up our race bike and be ready for the start of the race the following morning.
We arrive to a huge party in Ensenada. The race teams and sponsors are all in the streets with the race vehicles on display. Live music, street vendors and thousands of spectators are all adding to the energy. We spend a few hours to take it all in before Bruce would get us to focus on the logistics for the start of the race.
The bikes will leave the starting line first, beginning at 6:00 am. Our starting rider, Bobby will stay in Ensenada. The rest of us will split up and travel to the first two check points to prepare for rider changes. We will have radio communication with our other support truck and the race officials at each check point. The rider on the bike has a GPS tracking device but the only verbal contact will occur at checkpoints and pit stops.
At approximately 6:15 am we receive word that Bobby has left the starting gate and our race is on. I’m at the second checkpoint preparing for a rider change near 8:30 am. My first leg of the race will be a 35 mile moderate to high speed section with a few washes and silt beds to change things up. A few bikes go by before we spot Bobby and flag him in. After a quick inspection of the bike while my teammates top off the gas, I am in the saddle and my race has begun.
My excitement and anxiety combined to make finding my race pace difficult. My heart rate up and the dust was thick. Adjusting my line to get a clearer view outside of the dust, I am passed by a few riders and briefly question if this was one of my better life choices. However, I soon embrace the obvious. If I can’t see to race, then neither can they. Many of these guys were racing on sheer adrenaline and just pushing their luck too far by racing with such low visibility. Over the next hour I started passing a few of these riders who had gone down while pushing to hard. One in particular, passed me twice and each time I passed him back he was on the ground.
As the race goes on the field spreads out and you begin racing against yourself and the clock more than banging handlebars with other riders. I found my pace and my confidence near the end of my first leg and delivered the bike to my teammate in great mechanical condition and needing only fuel.
There would be four more rider changes until I was back on the bike. At 6:30 pm the bike came into our check point and my teammate had taken a hard crash. He was sore but his gear had done its’ job in protecting him. Our Honda however, needed work. The GPS and it's wiring had broken from the handlebar, the rear wheel was bent, and the bike needed to be serviced. Repairing our damaged bike was becoming rather common theme of our rider changes as everyone struggled with finding their pace while managing the adrenaline rush of competing. We got to work repairing and servicing the bike. Nearly 90 minutes later, our repairs were complete and I began my second leg, in the dark.
The field was very spread out at this point and I raced largely alone. Getting used to the strange feeling of riding by myself in the dark may have been the biggest challenge of this section. But, this time out I was riding well and any competition nervousness had long since worn off. I was having fun and this section would take me through slower more technical terrain. Rocky washes and stream crossings that were more similar to the riding I was accustomed to on the east coast. The bright headlight setup made for a much better experience than I had in the thick dust my first time out. Forty miles later, I arrived at my next rider change still upright and without mechanical issues.
There would be three more rider changes until I was back on the bike in San Ignacio. A chance for some rest before the longest individual section of the race. This section would be nearly 200 miles and would separate me from my support team by miles of rugged terrain. The race route would lead me south along the west coast while my support team was headed south along the east coast. We would not meet up again for several hours.
At this point, many teams had already dropped out of the race and this section would no doubt cause more to do the same. The pit area was chaotic with nearly every team needing a rider change at this stop. Following a complete service including new wheels and tires, I was off and racing out of town and into the darkness, again.
A short stretch of asphalt allowed for some fifth gear speed before I would be turning off and into the silt beds. Silt is the nemesis of every competitor on two wheels and from pre-running I knew what I was about to encounter. With some apprehension, I selected my line, dropped the bike down a gear and did my best to hold the throttle wide open. For several hundred yards I wrestled my bike through the dense silt. Down shifting to try and power through as my momentum slowed, before going down from sheer exhaustion. Luckily, my Honda was still running and nothing was hurt but my pride. So I picked up the bike, shook the dirt out of my goggles and went back to the task at hand. With no momentum to help me, I was forced to simply rev the engine and just spin my way through. Hoping the bike would not overheat and would still have a clutch left when I reached the other side.
Eventually, there was an end to the silt and my reliable Honda was still up for more racing. With this section behind me the next four hours would bring some of my most amazing moments I’ve ever experienced while riding. The remaining course seemed to have a perfect mix of fast flowing surfaces along with technical rocky sections and single tracks. With the smell of the salt air and the sun coming up over the mountains to my east just as I was hitting the hard packed coastal sand. The experience was intense. I raced the next several miles down the coast with the waves of the Pacific crashing to my right and the bike carrying me just as fast as it would go. In that moment there was no race, just pure exhilaration.
Turning inland the course wound through some spectacular dunes that made for fabulous deep sand riding with only the tires tracks to serve as a reminder that I’m still in a race. It was on this section where the most random event of my trip occurred. I came upon another motorcycle leaning against a cactus. It didn’t really look like the bike could have been in the race, but I slowed to see if there was anyone who needed help. When a guy with no gear walks out of the bushes.
I hurriedly stop and yell to him, “are you OK? …do you need anything? …I have water and energy bars?”
He mumbles, “No man …Thanks. I’m just waiting on my friends.”
Not having seen anyone in hours and feeling like we were truly in the middle of nowhere, I asked him again if he was sure he didn’t need anything.
In an oddly happier and louder voice this time he replies with “yeah Man. I’m sure. …I’ve got like a bag of weed and four jolly ranchers. ...I’m good.”
Well… I’ve got to get back to the race. Good Talk!
After two more pit stops for fuel and hours of epic riding I finally met up with my team for our next rider change. Handing off the bike it occurred to me what I had just done. That section alone was longer than and single day dirt ride that I had ever done before coming to Baja. And I still had one more leg to race.
My last section was 35 miles of primarily sand, dunes and ruts that had been carved out from pre-running trophy trucks. This was a section that I had struggled through in second gear while pre-running. But after all of the time on the bike my confidence was high when I got my chance to ride again. This time instead of second gear, I flowed through alternating between third and forth gears. Jumping across the tops of the deep sand ruts and even throwing in the occasional double. I finished thoroughly exhausted but ecstatic that I had been able to ride at this pace and my best one was the last one.
I handed the bike off for my final time with three more riders needing to take their turn to get us to the finish. At this point, the clock was our greatest competition. The time we had spent repairing damages to bike from earlier in the race had set us back, and our ability to complete the race within the allotted 40 hours was in question. If we were to finish, we needed to stay in motion, and avoid injuring a rider and further damaging the bike.
The challenge seemed to rally our team and we completed the final three rider changes without incident. And, as Russ our anchor rider, headed out into the darkness for the final leg there was still a possibility of an official race finish.
Both support trucks raced down the highway to wait for Russ at the finish line. With no way to communicate with him all we could do is wait, watch the clock, and hope he had enough energy left to maintain his pace. We knew it was approximately 6:15 am, the previous morning, when Bobby left the start line. So anything after 10:15 pm would not be good for us. As the clock ticked passed 10:05 pm we could see a headlight on the horizon. If this was Russ the finish was going to be a nail-biter. Soon the sound of the Honda gave him away and we all knew it was our bike. Russ crossed the finish-line with an official race time of 39:55:25. Less than five minutes to spare but good enough for second place in our class and an official race finish!
We didn’t compete in this race for the win. It was the thrill of the experience, the personal challenge, and bragging rights of having done it. This ride is not for everyone but with preparation and the right team around you it is one life experience you will never forget. Thanks to Bruce and the GoBajaRidin Team! And a sincere Thank You to all who donated to support our Wounded Warriors.
See below for more info on what it took to make this incredible experience a reality.
· The Bikes – It would just seem wrong to compete in this race on anything other than the winningest brand in Baja history. Our pre-run bikes and competition bike were all Honda CRF450X models.
· The Gear- I used my own gear and primarily chose Fox Racing other than my HJC helmet. The key to gear in this event is obviously safety but a close second is comfort. It’s rather easy to buy gear that protects like armor, but it often feels like armor and that’s not good. To compete for forty sweat soaked hours the gear needs to fit the best it possibly can. I highly recommend using a Fox Titan Sport Jacket and Sport Shorts with the protective armor built in. This gear keeps the armor in place and is quick to take off and on. It’s also a good idea to have multiple base layers (T-shirt, underwear and socks) that can be changed after each time you are on the bike as well as a few race jerseys. Glove liners are essential to prevent blistering your hands.
· Skill Level – On a scale of 1 – 10 this is an 11! The constantly changing off-road conditions and the race pace test every bit of technical skill, endurance and mental discipline.
· Travel logistics – Thanks to Bruce and GoBajaRidin for and amazing all-inclusive race experience. Bruce’s 35 years of racing and riding in Baja was invaluable in enabling our team to compete in this event. After landing in San Diego they took care of everything so that all we had to focus on was riding, competing and having a great time. Learn more at https://youtu.be/n3GCysqGnWo
· Greatest challenge – Sand and silt followed by more sand and more silt. Prior to traveling to Baja I had never ridden in the sand. Learning to navigate it takes some effort and perseverance. The key is to keep the front wheel light by keeping your body position further back on the bike. Using a heavy throttle hand to spin and help steer with the rear wheel. A similar concept to getting a boat up on plane. It’s a lot of throttle and wheel spin to get started but with some momentum the feeling of the bike becomes light, predictable and a whole lot of fun.
Silt however is something entirely different. It’s extremely fine like flour, dusty, deep and can easily swallow you up and zap you of all of your strength. To ride it requires committing to a line, a gear, staying on the throttle and hoping for the best.
· What could go wrong – A lot! Getting lost, injured, or experiencing mechanical failure are all very real possibilities. Our GoBajaRidin crew stressed safety. However, the race is not on a closed course and with ever changing course conditions you need to have the mental disciple to ride within your abilities.
· Cost (per Person) – Airfare from Washington DC to San Diego $485. The all-inclusive package was approximately $8,000. This included all meals, hotels for eight days of pre-running and two race days, entry and pit fees, fuel, transportation a race spec’d pre-run bike and a fully race prepared Honda CRF450X race bike.
· Time Required – My trip was 11 days total. Nine days on the bike and a travel day on each end.
· How physically demanding is this ride – Very! On a scale from 1 – 10 this is easily a 10. Our race course was approximately 1,288 miles making this a test of both strength and endurance. I prepared by doing a lot of cardio work and distance running. It is very helpful to be in tune with your breathing to determine when you are able to push and when you are nearing exhaustion and need to slow your pace. Fatigue in the deep sand will end with you on the ground.
· Who will go with me – There were a lot of hurdles to overcome if I was to recruit a race team on my own. Joining a team up with Bruce and the GoBajaRidin team was definitely the right choice. Racing to support our Wounded Warriors made an already epic experience that much more meaningful.