There I was standing in the middle of nowhere, watching my riding partner, certifiable Glamis Dunes freak Scott Shaffstall, have a blast while skiing one of our shiny Honda Africa Twins in some sand dunes in the middle of nowhere in Southern Nevada during AltRider’s 2017 Taste of Dakar adventure ride.
“That looks pretty cool,” I said. “Let me get out my camera, and I’ll shoot some pics of you.”
Shaffstall looped around one time, came blazing down the face of a dune and… promptly high-sided, planting himself deeply in the fluffy medium, cracking the Twin’s fairing, tweaking the bars and messing up his right leg in the process. The moral of the story: Never tell someone you’re going to a shoot a photo of them in sand dunes in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, the damage to both man and machine were not terminal, and we were able to continue our Taste of Dakar adventure.
If you’ve never heard of it, Taste of Dakar is one hell of a fun little desert suarez put on by the folks at AltRider, a Seattle-based manufacturer of hardcore parts and accessories for adventure-touring enthusiasts who actually use their motorcycles off-road. Accordingly, Taste of Dakar is not your average fun run. The goal is to give the participants as much varied terrain as possible, with off-road segments ranging from high-speed fire roads to sections that are nearly impassable – and this year some of them were completely impassable due to snow in the higher elevations. AltRider’s underlying message here is that riding an adventure-touring machine on pavement all day, every day, is a waste of time, and company CEO Jeremy LeBreton has been guiding Taste of Dakar with that philosophy for six years.
“It’s funny because we had to actually look at it and ask ourselves, ‘What year is this and how many years has this been going?” LeBreton said. “Time has flown by, and I’m really glad it’s working as well as it is. Sometimes it can be quite stressful, but then, hey, you get it done and what an amazing experience, from Kellon [Walch] to the guy getting his face sewn up on the table. What a great time, and in the end it is also bringing the industry up, even my competitors.”
That’s okay, says LeBreton, who has always viewed Taste of Dakar and other AltRider-sponsored rides, such as the Hoh Rainforest Ride near AltRider’s and Conserve The Ride in the woods of Pennsylvania as more of call to action than just an event to promote his company.
“We are not an events company,” LeBreton said. “We do these events because we need to get more people on their bikes. The industry fails miserably at it. The industry needs to step its game up, the companies with the resources and the revenue. We need support from the OEMs. Motorcycles are a sustainable cool. Look, I’d love to tell you what AltRider does is magic, unobtainable and unable to be recreated, but I’ve watched my competitors start doing rides like these, and the OEMs should be doing rides like these. We should all be doing this at a much higher level.”
Taste of Dakar actually began in 2012 in Shoeshone, Nevada, before switching locations to Pahrump, Nevada, for the next four years. This year, the event switched locations again, moving to the even more remote “old west” ghost town of Gold Point, Nevada, population five! That’s not a typo. Gold Point has five permanent residents. There’s a post office and a saloon, and a whole lot other 1880s-era buildings, along with a bunch of abandoned vehicles and ancient mining equipment, and that’s about it. So when the 100 or so Taste of Dakar participants showed up, coming from places as far away as Sweden, they created a rush hour the likes of which Gold Point probably hasn’t seen in centuries.
“This place is great,” LeBreton said. “Logistically, making the move was very difficult, and it took a lot of coaxing to get this town to host us. They hear the word motorcycles, and it is not a positive thing. But now they’re onboard. The feel here is way better. The routes we are going to be able to do out of here are way better. As far as I’m concerned, this is our new home.”
The reason for the move was simply because Taste of Dakar is about experiencing new terrain, whether you are first-time off-road rider or a seasoned veteran, and the Pahrump location was pretty much tapped when it came to previously untraversed terrain. By contrast, the Gold Point location was practically untouched, offering endless miles of mining roads, two-track and single-track trails that ran through the desert.
Shaffstall and I arrived on Friday evening, just in time to be the last guys in line for dinner and just before the featured presentation of the evening, a talk with former factory KTM rally rider Kellon Walch, who entertained the crowd with many humorous tales of his exploits in the Dakar Rally.
“We were in a sandstorm in the dunes for, like, six or seven hours,” Walch said, spinning one of his many yarns. “You couldn’t see where you were going at all. Then all of a sudden I come over this dune, and there’s this local Tuareg just standing there, watching us go by. We were in the middle of nowhere, and I have no idea where he came from or where he was going. He was just… there. It scared the crap out of me because I didn’t expect to see anyone.”
Taste of Dakar offers riders a chance at camaraderie. Riders leave in groups on the GPS-led ride, which helps to keep things safe in case of a mechanical mishap or worse. Riders are seriously encouraged not to try and take on the 150- to 180-mile routes on their own. During his talk, Walch used one of his Dakar Rally stories to more or less underscore the point.
“I had been following Giovanni Sala all day, and we came into this one area where he had to stop for gas. I was just following him, so I really didn’t know exactly where we were. We pull in, and he says to the French guys who were there, ‘We need gas!’ They only give him about two gallons and say, ‘That’s it. There is no more.’ He said. ‘We need more!’ He’s a big, old Italian guy. So he just takes the gas can from the French guy and starts filling up. I said. ‘Hey, what about me?’ Do I need more gas?’ And he just walks back to me and starts filling my bike up too. That’s the cool thing about Dakar. When you get there, it’s all competitive, and in the end it just becomes a game of survival.”
Walch also alluded to the gamesmanship that can take place in the big race. When he rode the Dakar, riders were only allowed to make one motor change during the event.
“You are only allowed to have one extra motor,” Walch said. “They take the motor, and they know the serial numbers and they mark it with paint – you know how the French are. I had already changed motors, and I was on my second motor, and it blew up. I was just left sitting there. But it just so happens that KTM has a truck entered in the race, one of those big dump truck-style trucks that you see. In that truck are three KTM mechanics, and they also carry a spare motor with some of the serial numbers filed off it. And they have that same paint. KTM probably wouldn’t like anyone to know that. Anyway, they changed my motor out. But I lost about five or six hours that day, and basically after that, my rally was over.”
Eric Hall has been organizing the routes for the Taste of Dakar since last year when he took over for Jimmy Lewis, and for 2017 he laid out some fantastic routes for the participants to enjoy.
“The goal was to pretty much offer a scenic route with, very easy roads that are not going to give you any trouble [for novices], and an intermediate route that can get kind of gnarly but isn’t really super advanced,” Hall said. “Then there is the Advanced route, which really takes a smaller bike to negotiate. We scout them out, paint a bunch of tracks with Google Maps, and then we have to come out here to find out what is rideable and what isn’t, because we don’t know what is locked or on private land. Three of us came out for three days and we covered 380 miles a day over the three days to come up with the routes. We didn’t know this area at all. We knew Pahrump because we had ridden around there for the past five years. Initially I was a little concerned because we thought people would think it was too easy. But when the snow melted it got a lot sandier, and it provided that adventure and that challenge that people were looking for.”
While the last thing AltRider wants is a group of disgruntled riders whose bikes are bashed beyond repair at the end of the ride, Taste of Dakar’s routes are challenging enough to entertain without being too difficult to navigate or negotiate for those who are honest about their skill levels and choose the appropriate route. Both Shaffstall and I were gung-ho to take on the Advanced route, but when we heard that it would be traversing through the nearby mountains, which were still capped in snow, and the routes might not be passable, we decided to use discretion and take on the Intermediate route, which at 180 miles was also the longest.
After a hearty breakfast that included eggs, pancakes, bacon, sausage, potatoes, fruit and various other yummies – all food for the weekend is part of the AltRider ticket package – our group of six saddled up to head out on the ride. Only, we didn’t get going so quickly because one poor kid from Oregon who had elected to ride a KTM 300 two-stroke could not get it to fire up. He banged away on the electric starter, kicked it mercilessly, had others help him try and bump start it, all to no avail. After what seemed like his 1,000th kick, he turned to us and said, “You guys should just go.” And then he proceeded on to kick 1,001 whereby the KTM roared to life as if nothing had ever been wrong. Karma.
So off we went.
The early part of our route included a kick-ass two-track road that snaked down a long wash in an expansive canyon. The dirt was perfect, and Shaffstall and I had tons of fun brake-sliding around corners and banging the big yet nimble Africa Twins off the berms that lined the edge of the road. Eventually, we climbed out of the wash to the site of an expansive valley that ran in all directions. That would be our playground for the next few hours. Sadly, the KTM kid’s ride would be over almost before it started when he realized there was no way he could make it to the gas stop in Tonopah. Bummer.
Traversing roads and sandy sections, we eventually came to what had to be the world’s longest pole line road, which was as wide as an eight-lane freeway and about as smooth. Despite the heavy dust due to the dry conditions, we raced on for what seemed like an hour but was more like 20 minutes to cover the distance to the next transfer section.
Then it was more two-track that led to an open expanse of desert with the most majestic sand dune plopped right in the middle of it, almost for no reason at all. Naturally, it was a worth a closer look. With the dry conditions, the dunes were practically of flour-like consistency, but that didn’t stop our group from having a good time ripping around in them. Everybody ate it at least once. Our ride leader actually managed to biff twice, making us a little nervous that he might actually hurt himself and not be able to continue his Moses role and lead us back out of the desert. But it was all good.
As the morning swept by into early afternoon, we continued to enjoy scenic mountains, beautiful rock formations and even wildlife. Shaffstall was absolutely enamored with a group of wild mustangs that we came across while riding a fun two-track road in the main valley where the ride took place. The desert is such a beautiful place, and seeing it from the saddle of competent adventure-touring rigs like the Africa Twins we were astride is truly the best way to see a lot of it in a single day.
Eventually, we came to the town of Tonopah, a rather bustling metropolis when compared to the other tiny hamlets that dot the region. We happily wolfed down some pretty decent barbecue at a joint called the Tonopah Brewing Co. As the name implies, it’s just the place to visit if you are well-versed in the hops. However, drinking and riding is a bad choice at best, and at worse a deadly combination, so we stuck with ice tea and soft drinks but made a mental note to someday make a return trip to sample Tonopah Brewing’s craft brews, which teased us with names such as Stinkeye Porter, Half-Life Hefeweizen and Frail Sister Pilsner.
From there, we gassed up for the return portion of the loop. The afternoon portion of the ride was much like the morning. The scenery was breathtaking as our group meandered back toward the steak dinner that was awaiting us in Gold Point. The only bummer for the rest of the day was that our group leader made a small navigational error that took us the wrong way down the world’s longest pole line road again, so we had to double back all the way to the other end of it. It was at this time that I decided to throw a little caution to the wind and really stretch the legs of the manual-shift Africa Twin. Bags and all, I saw 110 mph indicated for most of the stretch back down the road, and even then the ride felt like it still took about 10 minutes of riding at that sustained speed to get from end to end.
It was late afternoon when we could see the small buildings of Gold Point across the valley from the mountains we were traversing. While the group decided to make one last photo stop, I made an executive decision to take a different route that would keep me off the paved highway section that lead back into town. Instead of going left, I clearly took the road less traveled, and it turned out to be the best part of the ride as I found myself headed down a sandy two-track that had maybe two, maybe three tire tracks from other bikes on it all weekend. The rutted route took me through some of the most awesome Joshua Trees I had ever seen. Unfortunately, I was back on the Africa Twin that didn’t have saddlebags, so I missed a great photo op.
As the sun became golden and the shadows grew long, I arrived back in Gold Point just a few minutes ahead of my group. The ride was over, but it was the kind of ride that you wish would never end. In fact, a lot of the Taste of Dakar participants were so enthralled with the area that many elected to stay for a couple more days and explore even more of it. That’s a testament to just how awesome the Southern Nevada desert really is.
Dinner that night was a real celebration. The camaraderie of the event was in full force as the AltRider crew solicited stories from the day and then handed out some pretty awesome prizes for a number of categories, such as hard luck, biggest crash (no one was injured) and longest haul to the event. It was fun to listen to people share their experiences, which is why LeBreton has continued to not only organize Taste of Dakar, but also plans to expand the number of AltRider rides to include possibly up to six events around the globe.
“We want to do one in the UK, and I want to get one in Romania,” LeBreton said. “And then look at the enthusiasm of the Canadians. Some of them who came down here want to talk to us about doing a ride in Canada as well, so we’ll be talking to them.”
“I don’t consider myself to be a prideful guy,” LeBreton added. “But I have these mentors who have said to me, ‘Jeremy, all these years later, you’re keeping it going.’ We have to keep it going.”
At the end of the day, even genuine Dakar Rally veteran Walch said he was impressed with the Taste of Dakar event.
“Honestly, I really didn’t know much about it before this year,” Walch said. “Everyone involved is just a good group of guys. They are all enthusiastic about riding in the desert. I had a great time. Everyone here had a great time. I know this area really well. I live in Alamo [Nevada], and Gold Point is a lunch stop for me. So next year I’m going to help with some routes that I know, and it should be really good. I am excited!”
One of just eight women riders among the over 100 participants was, Sharla Carstars of Edmonton Alberta, Canada. Carstars may have been on the most unique bike in the event, a Honda CB500X equipped with an aftermarket upgrade kit from Rally Raid. The kit includes new rims and upgraded suspension that adds two inches of travel. Carstars raved about her Taste of Dakar experience.
“This was my second day of adventure riding, ever” Carstars said. “It was difficult, but it was really good. The sand was way harder than I thought it would be. It was tough, but it was a lot of fun – go big or go home, I guess. It was a little tricky with the routes with the GPS. It was off a couple times, but the route was good and the organization was good. It was nice to have that camaraderie with other people. I would come back.”
But the best story of the 2017 Taste of Dakar weekend is the last one we’ll tell. Another Canadian, Chris McInroy, truly had a one-of-a-kind experience at the event on BMW R1200GS Adventure.
“This was my first Taste of Dakar and my first time being off-road, and it was my first time tasting a windshield,” McInroy said. “I was coming around a 120-degree corner, really shitty stuff, really loose gravel. I gave her the beans to try and keep her straight, but she threw me into the side of the berm. My hand slipped off the bars, and I ate the windshield and dropped the bike. When I got up, I knew my face was leaking. I know what blood tastes like. I’m from Canada and I’ve played hockey [but then who doesn’t, eh? —Ed.].”
After arriving back in camp, McInroy’s friends realized that the wound above his upper lip was more serious than what was first thought. It just so happened that among the participants on the ride were two doctors. A suture kit was obtained, and McInroy was laid on a rickety wooden table outside the saloon to have his face stitched up under the light of a lantern in the cool Nevada night while a score of observers watched the whole thing. Vodka proved to be the anesthetic of both choice and necessity, and the doctors got to work. A few stitches later, McInroy looked like a different man, save for the swelling, which would be mostly gone by morning.
“These were my first stitches,” McInroy said. “I’m glad I could have them on a wooden table in a deserted ghost town by a doctor who does circumcisions.”
AltRider Taste of Dakar 2017! [mic drop]