The 390 Adventure Project: Tackling the Biltwell 100

Cait Maher
by Cait Maher

Racing our project bike in the SoCal desert

Photo by Cait Maher

If you’re new to this series, I’ve been documenting all of my experience off-road on the KTM 390 ADV here on MO. Aside from one single additional weekend, where I went out and got some drill practice and trail time in Ridgecrest, just a few weeks before the Biltwell 100, I had little to no experience riding the bike off-road in anything resembling deep sand, much less doing it for multiple 25-mile laps of an off-road race.

The Biltwell 100 is a just-for-the-heck-of-it off-road racing event hosted by the brand most known for its candy-coated brain buckets, and only slightly less well known for its rowdy campouts and events hosted throughout the year. This year was the fourth exhibition race since its inception, and in my humble opinion, the best course layout yet. I had previously done the race in 2021 and 2022, both on my Yamaha TW200, and at the time it was, without a doubt, the hardest thing I had done off-road. There are 20 different race classes, ranging from the typical expert/novice dirtbike classes, to vintage bikes, Pan Americas, Coleman pull-starts, misfits and more. This year I found myself in the Women’s ADV Lite class, which is any adventure bike under 900cc’s, along with four other women, all of whom were sporting Suzukis. Each class is slightly different in that experts are required to run four laps, novices need to do three laps (which was the case for Women’s ADV Lite class), vintage and some other specialty racers require two laps to finish, and the pull-starts and misfits require only one 25-mile lap.

Throwback photo from the 2022 Biltwell 100, which I raced on the TW200 in the Misfit class. Photo by Dylan Martin.

I had signed up for the race in January, roughly a week after I got my hands on the 390, with the optimistic goal of racing the bike in the ADV class, knowing fully that I’d have to spend every minute of the next three months training for it. I dragged myself to the gym, found a physical therapist to work with on some shoulder rehabilitation, and said yes to every training class that I thought would help me build skills for the 75 miles of sand and rocks that I knew was headed my way. My biggest worry was getting gassed out mid lap and not being able to lift the bike simply because I was in less than great shape. While my physical prep went on its slow but steady trajectory, I naturally waited until the last possible minute to prep the bike for the race.

Practicing drills and getting some training in the same place the race will be held did wonders for my confidence a few weeks before the big day. Photo by Susan Seo.

And so I scrambled for tires the two weeks before, ordered what I could find in stock online, and patiently lost my mind as one tire was lost in shipping, and the other was too knobby to fit under my front fender. After the second round of ordering, I landed with a Shinko 805 Big Block for the rear and made a local pickup of a Motoz Tractionator DualVenture for the front. While I had other plans for the tire choices initially, I was surprised how many options were out of stock online, or just plain discontinued, and will absolutely keep that in mind when it comes to choosing tires for the BDR’s I have planned later this summer.

The KTM 390 Adventure prepped and ready for the race, with new tires from Shinko and Motoz.

I had recruited a friend to pit crew for me: Josh Jones, who is a coach at ATX Moto Adventures and an accomplished desert racer, knowing there was no better person to either tape my bike back together or hype me up for another lap. We loaded up the 390 ADV as well as my TW200 to head out to the desert bright and early on Friday morning with the goal of unloading the bikes and getting some trail time on the freshly applied knobbies. We didn’t really account for how cold it was going to be, with 30-mile-an-hour gusts blasting across the desert, bringing the chill of a nearby winter storm hurtling down from the mountains west of us. As our friends rolled in and the pits started to materialize around us, we slowly layered up, found our warmest gear and set out for a quick trail ride so I could get used to having proper adventure tires on the bike. I had picked up a set of Alpinestars Bionic 7 knee braces upon a recommendation from a friend who had raced the ADV Heavy class the previous year, and after some adjustments, found they fit well under my Atwyld Adventure pants. I felt a little apprehensive about throwing new braces on and not being used to riding with them, mostly because I felt disconnected with the bike, but figured if I could work through it, it would be smart to have some extra protection.

Josh and I took off along the trail in the direction that I knew the race might be headed. Right away I noticed a massive improvement in stability while cornering with the knobbier tires. Once we found some deep sand, I quickly dove in with hopes that the bike would just skim right over the top. Instead, I immediately sank the rear wheel and was stuck. Recalling the techniques I had learned at ATX Moto, I promptly knocked the bike over, filled the hole with sand, stood it back up, kicked the bike into 2nd gear, and managed to power out of the sand and back onto the hard-packed trail.

If you don’t stop for a photo when your tire is buried in sand, did you even ride in the desert? Photo by Josh Jones.

We circled back to camp to welcome some friends and recruited a few more folks to head back to the trails for some practice. We tootled around on trails for another hour and headed back to basecamp as the sun was disappearing behind the mountains. The excitement was at an all-time high as we spent the rest of the evening reminiscing over past Biltwell races, catching up with friends, and making some predictions about where we thought the race course was going to head the following day. Determined to get some rest, I tucked myself into the backseat of my rental truck, layered with my sleeping pad, quilts, and sleeping bags. I was very thankful to stay out of the wind and cold that night.

The next morning came quick, and while I managed to choke down a small breakfast burrito and at least one cup of coffee, I was eager to suit up and get to the starting line. I knew from my previous two races that I don’t really get pre-race jitters. The nerves just seemed to skip right over me, and in its place was pure excitement to see how I’d manage the course. I knew if I could at least do one lap without serious injury, that I could definitely get out for one more. I connected with a friend who was also riding in the ADV Lite class aboard his KTM 690 Rally and he offered to ride with me for about a while. Thankful to have some backup in case I was really struggling, and knowing that Josh would also be somewhere out on the course, I felt confident as we staged for the rubberband start. Josh had been press-ganged into racing just a few hours before the start, transferring registration from a friend at the last minute and applying his newly acquired race numbers to the humble TW200. He would be staging at line 20, along with the rest of the misfit class.

The view from line 12 on the morning of the race. Photo by Cait Maher.

We saw the dust cloud rise up above the colorful field of helmets and jerseys ahead of us, signifying the start of the Expert classes. Slowly the field thinned as each class started its race. Finally, it was time for the ADV Lite class to choose a spot along the rubber band stretched across the trail. My plan was to let most of the riders get out in front of me, carefully pick my way through the lightly whooped out beginning section, and hope that the dust didn’t completely conceal any fun surprises in the trail. The rubber band disappeared from sight and we were off!

Spectators lined the tracks above and alongside the trail markers. Photo by Camerson Allsop.

I focused on maintaining a steady speed and went through a mental checklist of everything I had learned through the previous months training classes. Keeping my knees tucked in and toes turned in was difficult with the new knee braces, but as I rolled up and over the first of a few climbs and whoops, I settled into a rhythm and felt my confidence blossom. After my first road crossing, I came across a mile marker, and I was surprised to see the number 7 on it. The first quarter of the course had flown by!

Coming upon a small pond sat to the right, I knew what to expect next: the first section of deep sand after a rocky drop at the end of a trestle tunnel. The sand trap already had a few victims. I picked my way through, attempting to miss most of the knee-high silty sand piled up in the corners. Maybe too thrilled to have that behind me, I promptly blew a corner and found myself up close and personal with the ground. Safely past what was supposedly the hard part of the course, I was working on passing a few riders when mile marker 13 whizzed past.

You can tell how early it is in the race, as the bike and rider are not completely coated in dust and sand. Photo by Ed Subias.

The sandwich board marking the split between the hard and easy options came into view ahead and I veered right to take the easy route. After carving up and around some rocky hills, a sloping gravel trail framed in bright wildflowers twisted down into a small valley, and off to the right over the next rise. Just ahead I saw where the hard course linked back up, and pulled off to the side to take stock of myself and the bike. I ended up on my side a handful more times, all in the deepest sand sections. At one point, the work to get myself up had thoroughly fogged my goggles. After taking a moment to clear them out, my friend Annie whizzed by in a blur of high viz yellow and blue, screaming words of encouragement as she sailed past. I hopped on the bike, kicked it into gear, jammed on the throttle, and in the blink of an eye, the 22nd mile marker was on my left. I was almost back! And, best of all, I felt amazing!

Winding up the back of one final hill, I stopped at the crest along with a handful of other riders, taking stock of the steep, rocky downward slope. We slowly picked a line downhill through what looked like the smoothest sections of gravel and dirt. The last two miles flew past through smooth single track.

In the zone on the last mile or two of the first lap, keeping the motivation up as I rolled through the dust of the riders ahead of me. Photo by Cameron Allsop.

After a slight left, the flags appeared before me – I made it! I tiptoed to a stop to get my lap checkmark, and took off for the pits, knowing already that I needed to get back out on the course as soon as possible to finish my race. Rolling up to my friends cheering encouragement was something I won’t forget anytime soon. In my hastiness to get water and a snack, I didn’t quite apply the brakes enough to come to a complete stop before sticking my boots out, and tipped sideways into the dirt in the most spectacular fashion. Hearing someone say “What a way to end a race,” I immediately shouted “I’m going back out!” I did first take a few minutes to rehydrate, crunch some electrolyte tablets, and eat a handful of energy chews before informing Josh that he and the TW were going to tag along for my second lap. He had flown past me very early on, likely while I was picking up the bike, and had spent the last hour in the pits helping out various other riders as they came in to regroup.

Gearing back up for the second lap after taking a break to hydrate and snack on a protein bar. Photo by Chelsea Summer.

While I was feeling fairly good, I now had a good idea of what parts of the course were going to challenge me on the second try. There were a few sections of deep sand that I knew I’d get stuck in, but aside from that, I felt confident in my ability to handle everything else the course had to offer. Josh tagging along as my ‘dirt sherpa’ was more of an insurance policy so I wouldn’t have to hope someone could stop to help if I did manage to end up wrong-side-up on a hill. We took off and sailed through the first sections without much drama. Sand pits one and two each fed me sand sandwiches, but I made it through the third without eating any! I was already feeling better about sand – and then in an effort to avoid another rider in a corner, I found myself on the ground again anyway.

Headed back to the start of the course to attempt lap two, Josh very clearly unfazed by another 25 miles of sand. Photo by Gregg Boydston.

Dusted off and now making good time, the mile markers flicked away on the side of the trail. I reminded myself that since I’d already made it through all of this and I could absolutely do it again to hit my goal of 50 miles (two laps). Passing a few of the trail crew off to the left, I looked ahead to realize I needed to pick up some speed for an impending hillclimb. About halfway up, I realized that I had, in fact, not done this before. Shit. About 10 yards from the top, I lost momentum and desperately tried to downshift to keep what little bit I had left. It was no use. I was upside down and backwards on the worst part of a rock garden, and bikes were flying up past me on either side. I collected some friends in the worst way, as two riders attempted to go around me and failed, one looking up with his bike still on top of him to say, “Hi Cait,” while the other made it further than me, but stalled and needed to kickstart her bike to get going. We ended up pushing her dirtbike further up the hill to a slightly less steep section, and she doubled back to help me manhandle the 390 up and out of the rock garden and onto the side of the trail.

I took a look at the bikes whizzing past me, and realized that I had somehow missed the turn for the easy route, instead ending up on the ‘difficult’ shortcut that I had avoided during my previous lap. On the bright side, this was actually the hardest part, and it could only get easier from here. Ahead of me was a section of deep sandy whoops that looked like it stretched on forever. I switched gears internally and decided that slow and steady was the name of the game, the less tip overs and stops the better.

Most of the course was two-track, which made passing Coleman pull-starts or being passed by faster dirtbikes fairly easy. Photo by Geoff Kowalchuk.

I focused on recognizing parts of the trail and counting down the mile markers, fully aware that my hillclimb adventure had left me winded and tired. I only had one more bike lift in me, and was determined not to have to use that energy unless it was a last resort. I stopped once more around mile 20 to clear the fog from my goggles and decided that moving faster was now in my best interest.

The route tipped back into the familiar and I felt a burst of energy as I spotted the last big hill between me and the bright yellow flags waving in the distance. Not pausing at the crest, I sailed down, hit a tight left turn, flowed over the single track, and skidded into the cones just before the giant yellow arch, collecting my second check mark. Rolling into the pits for the second time that morning, I made sure to actually get myself stopped and even used the kickstand before dismounting and jumping into the arms of my friends who were again cheering my efforts. It’s hard to describe what a rush you feel when you realize that you’ve not only made your goal, but arrived at the end not broken or bloody.

Rolling back into the pits after completing my second lap on the Biltwell 100 course. Photo by Johnathan Ward.

I didn’t have to look far to find Josh, who immediately recounted what it was like to roll into the pits without me, getting the nth degree from the friends who knew we left together. He said there was a chorus of “WHERE’S CAIT!?” Thankfully, our friend Hailey had my GPS location saved from a previous trip, and they were able to track my progress throughout the course instead. Josh thought I chose the easy route again, and waited at the point where they rejoined each other for quite a while, likely taking off to run ahead just a few minutes before I came through.

I took stock of how I was feeling and, after conferring with Josh and a few others, I decided it was better to stop while I was ahead, calling it after the second lap. I felt the strain of picking the bike up about half a dozen times over the previous few hours, not to mention the hillclimb incident which left my hip and side feeling bruised and beat up. Oh, and the breath I had yet to catch since arriving.

Marking that decision with a celebratory swig of mezcal, I sat down and watched the riders still filtering through the pits. I spent any additional energy left cheering on my pit-mates as they ended their own races. Around 4pm the course was officially closed. We maniacally hit refresh on the Moto-Tally website hoping to see the official lap times start to materialize. It was hard to know who was on which lap while you were out on the course, and the mix of dirt bikes, adventure bikes, and Harley Hooligans flying around left us in suspense as to the standings.

The crowd gathered around the grandstand to see who would be making it to the podium. Photo by Geoff Kowalchuk.

We wandered over to the Biltwell Grandstand, drinks in hand, eager to see what had shaken out over the course of the day. It was wonderful to see so many women participate in almost every class, a major improvement from the first year back in 2021 when less than 20 had registered in total. We exchanged high fives with friends we had seen on the trail, as the crowd buzzed with excitement and anticipation around us. Finally, Otto from Biltwell began to work his way through the 20 race classes, starting with the experts and winding down to the more interesting ones. Skipping ahead to the Misfit class, there was little to no surprise that Josh landed on the podium, taking 2nd place for his efforts on the TW200, squeaking into the finish only 4 minutes shy of the first place finisher.

Maja took first on her DRZ400, Marie second with her DR650, and Cait third with the 390 Adventure. Photo by Geoff Kowalchuk.

Suddenly, more nervous than I had been on the starting line itself, I was very surprised to hear my own name called for third place in the Women’s ADV Lite category. I was sure the other girls had managed to do all three laps. I took my place on the podium, and congratulated Marie who piloted her Suzuki DR650 into second place while Maja claimed first place with her Suzuki DRZ400. Checking the lap times a little later on, I was thrilled to see that Marie was less than three minutes ahead of me at the finish! We had both only done two laps but for us, that was enough. Wandering back to camp, the night progressed into a whirlwind of recounting the course and celebratory drinks, eventually ending with our crew gathered around a campfire, faces glowing from the thrill of the weekend.

Overall, the bike was incredible. It powered through long stretches of silt and up rocky climbs with ease. The only strain I felt was landing on some of the deeper whoops and clunking to the bottom of the front suspension multiple times. I do wish I had spent some time stiffening up the fork in between laps, but overall that was the only thing I would change with the suspension. One issue I found to be persistently annoying was setting the MTC (Motorcycle Traction Control) every time the bike was cycled off. While the ABS will stay in Off-Road mode when turning the bike off or killing the engine, the MTC resets to On-Road even if you intentionally stall the bike and leave the key and kill switch alone. This was particularly annoying during my hillclimb, as I was off the bike attempting to both hold it upright and use the engine to power it through a rock garden. Having to dig through a menu, then hold a button for 8-10 seconds to reset the traction control was a real pain. While it may seem somewhat trivial, stalling and having to reset almost a dozen times was incredibly frustrating in the moment. I’m going to be on the hunt for a bypass dongle that can save the off-road settings though, as it sits, I’m not sure whether or not one exists.

I will be detailing the aftermarket additions that I made to the 390 ADV prior to the race in a follow up article, so keep your eyes peeled for that next. In the meantime, the next big leap for me is going to be choosing a Backcountry Discovery Route to ride this summer.

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Cait Maher
Cait Maher

Cait is a motorcycle enthusiast first and foremost, often spending weeks at a time crisscrossing the country on her Moto Guzzi V7. She got her start in the industry running a women’s moto gear market that travelled the country, and has been able to see the women’s moto community grow from the inside out over the last 10 years. She is typically found on pavement but has been eagerly diving outside her riding comfort zone for the sake of a good story, previously riding her TW200 through two Biltwell 100 races and one very well intentioned LAB2V. While not glued to her motorcycle, Cait lives a secret life as a hairdresser and quilter.

More by Cait Maher

Join the conversation
  • Marcus Marcus 5 days ago

    This sounds like epic fun. When I think of races in general, I think of punishingly competitive events among bloodthirsty rivals, and then I'm not interested. Well, I actually don't know beans about racing, so this camaraderie sounds invigorating and joyous.

  • Honey Honey 5 days ago

    We always laugh at these racers. I see why the females riding brand failed so soon.