Old Dog, New Tricks: Tackling The LA-Barstow To Vegas Dual-Sport Ride
Joining the 39th running of the famed event on a Ducati DesertX and a Kawasaki KLX300
Let’s be honest, dual-sport motorcycles aren’t really designed for touring, despite my best efforts ( here and here). The bikes are merely street-legal dirt bikes without much accommodation for creature comfort. So, spending 220-ish miles flat in the saddle from Las Vegas, NV to Palmdale, CA, mostly on Interstate 15, is a platform for cataloging discomforts, and after riding approximately 360 miles, mostly off road over the two previous days, my aches-and-pains were legion. Still, with sore muscles from my arms all the way down to the arches of my feet, why did I spend most of my time grinning as I cranked out the miles? I’d finally participated in the LA-Barstow To Vegas Dual-Sport Ride, an event that had intrigued me for over 25 years, which is 23 years longer than I have been actively riding in the dirt. Achieving life goals is always good, but somehow the physically-challenging ones accomplished after the half-century mark are even sweeter.
For this plan to work, though, I needed an accomplice, and I looked no further than Ryan Adams, who has witnessed quite a few of my off-road follies. While he didn’t surprise me by agreeing to ride the event, his choice of mount gave me pause. Rather than riding his personal KTM 500 EXC, he decided that nothing would do but a Ducati DesertX. Suddenly, I no longer felt I was the crazy one for attempting this ride. Ducati happily obliged Ryan’s request. The plan was a go. What I didn’t know at the time was that Friend of MO, Cait Maher, was preparing for a solo run on her Yamaha TW200.
Cait’s struggle to find information about the event is similar to many prospective riders: A long series of trail rides and campfire conversations lead to submitting my registration for the 39th annual LA-Barstow-Vegas, the sleuthing preceding my registry was extensive – there is almost no information provided by either the LAB2V Board or District 37. The website leads to a simple one-page littered with sponsor logos and a ‘Register!’ button.. And that’s it. No FAQ, no previous routes, no inkling as to what terrain a registered participant should expect to ride throughout the 2-day mostly off-road course.
I managed to interrogate friends who had previously ridden the 2019-2021 LAB2V routes, which prompted various responses including “Never again, I hated it” and “Hope you like sand.” Most actually had some interesting tips for utilizing bailouts and easy versus hard route options throughout the two days of riding. I tracked down the GPX files from the 2021 event and drove out to pre-run the first few hard sections. While it was initially pretty fun and flowy through the Calico Hills, it immediately turned into 25 miles of gross, deep sand, and quickly drained any previous confidence I had gained in the rocky sections.
Ryan has similar issues with the lack of event information: If you’re not in the know as a veteran of the event, have friends or family that have ridden in it, or happen to work in the motorcycle industry with plenty of contacts who can fill you in, it’s really hard to find any information about the LA-Barstow to Vegas dual-sport ride. The websites are sorely out of date, the private Facebook group is difficult to parse reliable information from, and it seems the best source of information are write-ups, like these, from professional (ha!) publications. It’s probably my biggest complaint about the entire shindig – there isn’t a reliable place to find information about the ride before it happens year to year. Veteran riders may scoff at that, but for riders new to the event – experienced or not – it’s a barrier to entry that the folks putting on the ride don’t seem to consider.
What is it about the LAB2V?
The LA-Barstow to Vegas dual-sport ride shares DNA with an extremely popular Barstow to Vegas off-road race which started on November 25, 1967 with 617 riders in attendance. By 1974, the race had blossomed to 3,000 entrants plus their support crews and vehicles. Unfortunately, that number of riders bombing through the open desert caused extensive damage to the environment, and a 1975 environmental impact report caused the Bureau of Land Management to deny the event its permits, leading to roughly 10 years of unofficial rally skirmishes between riders, environmentalists, and the BLM. Although there was a Barstow to Vegas race allowed in 1983, the LAB2V, as we know it, began in 1984.
In 1983 Jim Pilon (known as the Godfather of the LAB2V) and Ed Waldheim began discussing doing a dual-sport event alongside the competitive and road event. (In fact, if it weren’t for Pilon and the LAB2V, we’d probably still be riding dual-purpose motorcycles, which sounds about as fun as roast beets. Pilon came up with the dual-sport name while trying to find a way to make this kind of riding sound more exciting. But I digress.) For the first year of the dual-sport ride, the event retained its Barstow to Vegas format and attracted just 49 riders. However, in the second year at the suggestion of AMA Amateur Competition Manager, Roger Ansel, Pilon added a day to the beginning, and the ride has been two days ever since. Somewhere between 1985 and 1987, the race and road portions fell away, leaving just the dual-sport ride as the entire focus.
From its inception, the LAB2V has been put on by volunteers. In my interview, Pilon stressed that, particularly during the early years, it was him, friends, and family doing everything. Eventually, after skating under the radar of the BLM, the organization took notice and began to require permits. Pilon and Waldheim had to convince the BLM that the event wasn’t harmful to the desert, and over the years the requirements to get the permits have grown. And so has the number of needed volunteers. Yet, LAB2V perseveres as a volunteer operation that is now run by a committee of enthusiasts dedicated to the spirit of the original events by doing things like never running the same route twice. Next year, the LAB2V will celebrate 40 years of carrying the dual-sport gospel to riders from across the country and even around the world.
Although I’ve written two articles on setting my KLX300 up for off-road/adventure duty, I did make a couple of changes to the bike for the LAB2V. First, because my weather app was warning that the mornings would be in the mid-30s, I added an Aerostich SAE Thermostat and wiring for my Aerostich Electric Warmbib. My thinking was that I’d be generating enough internal heat for most of the ride and wouldn’t want a full vest layer. Instead, the bib would pump a little warmth into my core without baking me. The controller allowed me to adjust the power level from full blast at the start to just a trickle before the weather got warm enough for me to peel off layers.
My second change was a big one. I knew from experience that the stock Dunlop D605 tires weren’t the best choice for sand, and when I contacted a Dunlop rep to ask for a DOT-legal recommendation, I was told that I should try the Dunlop GEOMAX EN91 enduro tires instead of the D606 option I expected. Looking at the tires, the reasoning makes sense. The block design is quite aggressive compared to the D606. The only question I had was about how durable they would be on pavement. The event, and the 230-mile ride home would tell me that.
Given that my philosophy of riding long distances is to be as prepared as possible without going overboard, I broke what I was carrying into two categories: tools/repair supplies and food/water/clothing layers. For the tools, I mounted up my Wolfman E-Base and Small Rollie Bags (reviewed here) plus a medium bag that I would put my street clothes in and have carried in a truck between hotels then lashed to the bike for the slog home. In the small rollies, I carried two tubes, a tool kit, a pump, and a first aid kit.
On my body, I carried a Mosko Moto Wildcat 12L with Chest Rig. This nifty backpack, which I will review soon, had enough expandable storage to accommodate the water, food, and multiple layers of clothing I’d be taking. The coolest feature of the pack is the Chest Rig that placed my snacks, phone, and inReach Mini 2 where I could access them without taking the pack off.
In contrast to me, Ryan simply took the pillion off the DesertX and mounted up a tiny tail bag. Well, maybe a little more than that: I prepared for LAB2V the same way I prepare for most rides, by not giving it much more than a fleeting thought until a day or two before the event. Hell, I hadn’t even locked down a motorcycle until a week before the ride. Thankfully, the good folks at Ducati were more than willing to lend their new middleweight adventure bike for the task. Already shod with Metzeler Karoo 4s, the DesertX needed little preparation. I opted to remove the stock mirrors because they thread into the clamps that the clutch and front brake master cylinders connect to. I didn’t want to risk the clamps if the mirrors sustained damage. Rather, I swapped in a single Doubletake mirror on its own Ram ball mount. After that, I removed the passenger seat (which is finished underneath and not required to keep the rider’s seat attached) and strapped down a Kriega US-10 Drypack that would hold my off-road tool kit and additional layers during the event. Mounting up my Garmin Montana 700i was the final piece to the puzzle.
Cait had to do some additional planning due to the constraints of her TW’s range, and she was only riding Day 2: The TW200 has a 1.8 gallon tank, and based on my previous off-road adventures, I knew that my range was anywhere between 70-80 off-road miles. The average distance between the gas stops was 85-90 miles according to the rider info email sent out, so I knew carrying a bit of fuel was necessary. I went with a 1.5L Primus fuel bottle strapped to my luggage rack. I spent the night before the ride also mapping out key spots to stage my chase driver and spare fuel can, most often before some of the longer straightaways that would put me right at the limit of my range. While I knew running out of gas was unlikely, I also knew there was a chance I could get off course and run a few miles in the wrong direction…which ultimately did happen.
Aside from the fuel, I didn’t carry much on the bike. Basics like zip ties, tape, extra Voile straps were easy to store in my 3L hydration pack, along with snacks, energy chews, electrolyte tablets, cash, and my Garmin InReach Mini 2. I ride very conservatively, so high speed crashes weren’t likely. At most I would be able to limp a flat tire or similar to an area where my chase vehicle could reach me. In the chase vehicle, I had a full tool set, spare tubes and parts, and a competent mechanic who could fix just about anything I had managed to break.
Day 1 – Palmdale, CA to Barstow, CA – 110 miles
Because I had no experience with the GEOMAX EN91 tires on the highway, I opted to truck the KLX to Palmdale so that I could start the ride on completely fresh rubber. (In the end, it turned out that I didn’t need to.) The atmosphere at the Embassy Suites LAB2V HQ was that of festive chaos. People were unloading bikes – even doing repairs before the ride – checking in, and donning layers. The packet pickup and GPS map loading were efficiently handled. Since some of the more experienced riders treat this ride as somewhat of a race, Ryan and I, mostly I, opted to leave about mid-pack to avoid getting run over in the dust.
Ryan recounts the start: After taking our time to be sure we had our bikes and kits sorted, we leisurely peeled out of Palmdale and headed for the dirt. Our first bit of sandy terra was a jeep road out of town absolutely littered with garbage for what felt like a few miles. Interspersed was a mixture of sand and deeper sand. Conditions were dry. So, dust was a factor. If you’re following someone too close and hit a dryer section, visibility could be quickly reduced to zero. I’ve ridden big adventure bikes in the sand plenty of times, but each time, depending on the bike, it takes some time to get my sand legs. With the entire first day basically consisting of low desert sand with whooped out sections and even the odd single-track, I’d say it was a good test of how the Ducati handles its namesake. Great sand practice in general for a big bike. Like I mentioned in my First Ride review of the DesertX, the machine does feel every bit of 500+ lbs (mine weighed 513 fully fueled before our ride), but the entire package allows it to stay composed really well in every condition I’ve put it through, which now includes more than 100 miles of sand over a day’s time.
The initial part of the ride was all on streets to get the party out of the city and into the desert, and as is frequently the case, the transition between the two was filled with illegal roadside dumps. Ryan and I were lucky enough to avoid the garbage, but before we were even 15 miles into the trip, we passed several riders who’d gotten flats from the debris. So, when we first encountered deeper sand, I was relieved. I figured the dumpers wouldn’t venture beyond the nicely graded roads to break the law. Instead of watching out for garbage, I got to enjoy the desert opening up in front of me.
As a neophyte dirt rider, I have suffered from a natural fear of sand, and I knew that I would be forced to ride through quite a bit during the event. My thinking was that I’d either arrive at the end of Day 1 more comfortable and accomplished in sand or as a broken shell of my former self. The good news is that the EN91s felt so much better in the loose stuff that I quickly got up to speed. While I never got to the point that I wasn’t holding Ryan back, I think that I did cut down on the amount of time he had to wait for me. (Though it still was considerable, at times.)
Brimming with confidence, I saw my sand speeds rise, and I learned that it really is true that momentum helps with stability in the sand. Until it didn’t. In a wash with fairly deep sand, gravity gave me a refresher course on hitting the ground. One moment, I was riding along through a turn; the next, a rut grabbed the front wheel and threw me down on my head in the sand under a bush with enough force to partially separate my Shoei Hornet X2’s peak from the helmet. I literally saw stars for a moment before I jumped up to grab my bike to get it out of the trail. All the while, riders were plowing past me at a wide variety of speeds. Suitably humbled, I continued.
Meanwhile, Ryan proceeded to muscle the DesertX through the sand, which we encountered with and without whoops for the rest of the day. When we arrived in Barstow for the evening, I was happy to have made it, but I was wondering what Day 2, with double the mileage, had in store for us.
Day 2 – Barstow, CA to Las Vegas, NV – 230 miles
At dinner the night before, Ryan and I made a difficult decision: we would take a shortcut by riding directly to Baker, CA, from the hotel. Day 2 is so long that the organizers kept telling us to keep the stops short and to a minimum if we wanted to get to Red Rock Canyon’s challenging section before it closed for the day. We figured that since we had to shoot photos and a couple video standups (in addition to my pace), we might not make it in time. Riding through the “rock garden” of Red Rock Canyon was one of the reasons we were doing the LAB2V.
Ryan’s perspective: Boy I wish that the heated grip button on the DesertX did something during our 32° hour’s ride on the 15 early Saturday morning – you’ll have to pay extra for the software to be turned on. Getting ahead of the pack by skirting to Baker on pavement was a bypass we were hesitant about initially, but it paid off big as the ride continued. We were bikes three and four through the checkpoint at Baker, and as we kept our pace up, we were rewarded with nearly clean tracks all the way through to lunch. With my chest pumped up from a good first day, I was feelin’ my oats, as they say, through Day 2 – so much so that I had to remind myself not to get too cocky. Thankfully, all went well.
As Ryan noted, we did suffer for our decision because our route began with 60 miles of interstate in 32° F weather. (We celebrated when it hit 36° on the DesertX’s dash!) At one point we found ourselves parked on the side of the freeway, Ryan wrapping his gloves around the Ducati’s muffler and me dancing around waving my arms while still wired to my bike. After gassing up and checking in at Baker, we finally got off the pavement – and back into the sand. Ryan, as usual, blasted off into the distance down the straight, power-line road. Although I wasn’t as fast as Ryan, my sand speeds had shifted from 20-25 mph to 35-40 mph for everything but the really deep stuff. After endless miles and a few close calls on my part in the deep sand, we exited onto a paved road for a while.
Cait’s morning got off to a rough start, and it never let up on her: Clearly set up for nothing but pain and glory, my frosty morning on Day 2 started at 6am, where I promptly lost my bike keys and spent about an hour tearing through everything in the chase truck to try to locate them. Once found, I hurried through the starting checkpoint with minutes to spare, where a very concerned B2V volunteer did not want to let me set out solo. Completely disregarding his misplaced worry, I headed for the starting hill, where I recognized the pre-run tracks I had ridden only a few weeks before. Flying through the rocky hills was exhilarating, all I had to do was keep up with the GPS, try not to fall over too many times, and I was sure to make it to the crown jewel of the ride – Red Rock Canyon just outside of Las Vegas.
I made it to the end of my pre-run route without much ado, stopping by my chase Jeep twice to swap layers, fuel up, and crunch on some electrolyte tablets. Hopping back to the easy route post-meal in Baker was almost too easy – and very much too good to be true. Immediately I hit deep sand as far as the eye could see, and in a desert valley, that’s an incredibly long way. I had half a mind to turn around about 5 miles in after losing the GPS route and backtracking along what was clearly a goat trail. Freshly churned tracks told me I wasn’t the only one to make the same mistake that morning.
Here was the point where I was starting to feel like skipping ahead was the better option, but since I was smack in the middle of nowhere… Well, I no longer had that luxury. If I had a dollar for every rider who stopped to tell me to “go fast, lean back” in that sand pit, I could buy a dirtbike that actually responds to “go fast, lean back”. If you’re completely unfamiliar with the Yamaha TW200, it does NOT respond to “go fast” or “lean back” in any meaningful way, especially when piloted by a small lightweight rider with a short arm span. After stopping to assess life choices, texting my chase driver “no longer having fun,” and buckling in for at least another two hours of sandy hell, I finally slogged though the last powerline road to pavement. Immediately I was met with a sweep team who assured me it was flat road to the next checkpoint at Sandy Valley. At this point, it was far too late. The sun was already hidden behind cloud cover, and I was maybe an hour’s pavement ride to a spot where I could meet my chase driver. Not to mention the temperatures had started to drop. I had to call it.
I don’t want anyone to think I was disappointed at this point though. I had already done some of the hardest off-road riding of my very short dirt life – 160 miles through the Southern California desert is no small feat. Months of working out prior to this paid off in a big way, and as I pointed the TDub towards I-15, I couldn’t help but think “Well, at least I’m not too tired to party in Vegas.”
While loading up the TW at a gas station at State Line, dirtbikes in various states of disrepair were scattered throughout the parking lot on assorted truck beds, trailers and hitch racks. I came across quite a few riders I had seen on the trail. All of us with the same slightly dazed and dusty look on our faces, those on ADV machines giving an especially knowing nod acknowledging that they may have picked an inappropriate tool for the task.
From the desert into the mountains
Our experience of the Easy Way, which Ryan and I were also taking, was quite different, and after the sand where Cait jumped off the course to head to the interstate, the route shifted to wide, graded dirt roads (with just enough nasty washouts to keep us on our toes) that headed up over the mountains and down into Sandy Valley for lunch. After that, we were on largely more well maintained roads until we got up to about 7,000 feet in the mountains where we switched back to jeep trails. The views were spectacular, and frankly, the rest from flailing in the sand was appreciated. All that remained to complete our checklist for the day was the rock garden.
More from Ryan: It was cool seeing another Ducati DesertX at the event. His was set up nicely and even featured a Lucky Explorer livery on it. I wonder what MV or Ducati would think of that… Either way, it looked good, and its pilot, Padu, had a big smile on his face everytime we interacted. He even noted we were both wearing FXR vests, so we basically looked like the factory team! Ha!
One of the crew running with Padu wanted to do the hard route through Red Rocks, but the rest of the group didn’t. Since Evans and I had our sights set on it, Robert joined us for the last half of the day on his KTM dual-sport.
Red Rock Canyon was the only Hard Way we took throughout the event. Being first timers with me on the lower end of the skill range and Ryan on a 500 lb. adventure bike, we didn’t want to get in too far over our heads. As tired as I was at the beginning of the road into the canyon, I know I made the right choice.
And finally, the moment arrived. I thought I knew what to expect after watching numerous videos, but the camera flattens things out. The first rock steps I had to surmount had my pulse up before I even thumbed the starter. I was elated when I made it over the first step, but that immediately faded when I got stuck on the second. Fortunately, someone came to my aid, giving my front wheel a quarter-turn pull to help out my spinning rear tire – which was beginning to smell of burnt rubber.
Ryan was right in the thick of things when I passed him: It was fun picking my way toward the crux of Red Rock to pass a group of dirt bikes on the DesertX while they decided to reconsider their passing through the hard route.
Getting into the hardest portion of the route I ended up toppling over at walking speed. My short 30-inch inseam doesn’t do me any favors on big bikes in tricky terrain, not to mention once the big bike is past the point of saving, there’s not much to be done with all that heft. I had made my way toward a line that wasn’t going to work, so I had to turn around and reconsider. After muscling the big DesertX back to the beginning of the trail, I was able to clean the first section with ease (thankfully, because I was already plenty sweaty from getting the bike turned around). I ended up getting the rear hung up on a rock later, and a nice gentleman on a WR450 gave me a push. I saw him having the same issue so I found a place to park the Duc out of the way and went and repaid the favor. This is one of the coolest parts about riding an event like this. I didn’t ask for help, and he didn’t need to either. Everyone looks out for each other.
Strangely, after that first obstacle, my fear passed, and the garden became a puzzle in which I just had to figure out the proper line. I came close to falling over a couple of times, and really bashed my skid plate a few more, but I made it through the challenge, panting and dripping with sweat. My elation, however, was short-lived, as we still had to ride down the back side of the canyon into Las Vegas.
I was spent. Exhaustion had set in. My legs were toast and could barely stand on the pegs, and my arms still functioned but screamed at me every time I hit the brakes on the downhill. Meanwhile, more experienced riders were passing me, riding over the same rocks that were knocking me about, looking like it was a bed of pillows. It was at this point that I remembered that more fatalities occur on Mount Everest on the descent because of mental fog and physical exhaustion. This gallows humor got me through the last couple of miles to the pavement that would ultimately take us to The Orleans Casino in Las Vegas. How tired was I? When I was handed things at the finish line, I couldn’t think of where to put them until Ryan reminded me that I had the Chest Rig literally under my nose.
The rest of the day is a blur of a hot shower, finger food, a huge awards/raffle ceremony, and an after party in the organizer’s suite. At some point, I told Ryan and the person we were talking to that I was done. After a little struggle finding the right room, I fell face first into my bed.
Would I do it again?
As I sat in traffic, waiting to get to the California border so that I could split lanes through the holiday gridlock, I asked myself this question repeatedly. The short version would be yes. Now that I know I have the skills to survive, I want to do the entire course plus some additional Hard Ways. I’d like to do the ride without the task of looking for photo stops or thinking about what to say in a video or this article. I’m not complaining; I’m just saying that it would be nice to experience the entire event as just a participant with nothing more to do than soak it in. I love events like this and 24-hour endurance races because they plop a bunch of motorcyclists together around a common struggle over a set period of time. The atmosphere is electric, and I get a contact high from just being around other people who are so jazzed about motorcycling. I can see why people would spend months volunteering just to get to the point of the big payoff of seeing all the happy motorcyclists.
Ryan’s thoughts are slightly different: Would I do this event again? It’s tough for me. I’ve been spoiled by getting to tag along on incredible dual-sport rides organized by friends of mine who’ve been riding all over the southwest for decades. We rarely see anyone else, and there are almost no tracks on the trails we use. So, in terms of a dual-sport ride, I prefer those. Being part of an event almost 40 years in the making though and the camaraderie found at LAB2V, are the reasons I would consider coming back. It was a lot of fun chatting with the other ADV riders afterward who I’d talked to at the start. Most made it through, some didn’t, but all were stoked to have been out there, and so was I. It’s not an inexpensive endeavor either though – I think my half of our expenses came up to about $500. That’s not taking into account gas and the fact that I used a borrowed bike that I could ride to and from the event.
When I first read Cait’s thoughts, I thought she was done with the LAB2V, but she wavers a little at the end: Looking back on the ride after a few days have passed, I’m still not sure I’d ride it again. For me, it wasn’t quite a matter of technical skills needed, or seat time to rack up, but rather just how unorganized the pre-ride info doc was, the clear lack of information available for those who are brand-spanking-new to the ride itself, and the separate logistical nightmare that is hauling a bike around before/during/after. It’s just not easy as a solo rider. I was incredibly lucky to have a friend to drive chase for me, and miraculously, I did not run into bike issues. Conservatively, you’re looking at spending $500-800 for two days of sandy riding, assuming you already have your spare parts, tools, and gear stocked up and ready to go. Maybe it’s worth it once, but I’d be hard pressed to find the motivation to do it again. My only regret is not getting to ride the iconic finish through Red Rocks. Maybe 2024 will be the year for that.
For me, I can now say that I’ve done the LA-Barstow to Vegas ride. So, it’s crossed off of my life list. However, there’s that little asterisk next to the memory, which leads me to believe that I’ll be back so that I can say I’ve completed the LAB2V without skipping any part of it. Let’s see what happens next year as the 40th anniversary rolls around. Who knows, I might still be riding high from the fact that Ryan tipped over one more than I did. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!
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Like most of the best happenings in his life, Evans stumbled into his motojournalism career. While on his way to a planned life in academia, he applied for a job at a motorcycle magazine, thinking he’d get the opportunity to write some freelance articles. Instead, he was offered a full-time job in which he discovered he could actually get paid to ride other people’s motorcycles – and he’s never looked back. Over the 25 years he’s been in the motorcycle industry, Evans has written two books, 101 Sportbike Performance Projects and How to Modify Your Metric Cruiser, and has ridden just about every production motorcycle manufactured. Evans has a deep love of motorcycles and believes they are a force for good in the world.
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