MOfiles in Blurrage: Ernie Vigil

John Burns
by John Burns

It’s exactly like one of the guys in the Alcan 5000 video (embedded below) says about Ernie Vigil (Vee`heel): “His happy place riding a motorcycle, I would consider a crash.”

Beginning a decade or more ago, Vigil’s sheer motorcycle control in a bunch of Icon-sponsored videos began creating big waves. Ever since then (and before, too, since his first film credit is for Jim Carrey’s stunts in 2008’s Yes Man), the kid from Albuquerque has been bringing his uncanny skills to even more videos, movie sets (John Wick 3: Parabellum most recently), and serious endurance races – including finishing fifth overall this year in the Mexican 1000 on a Triumph Scrambler 1200XE. In fact, Ernie has a history with Triumph triples, one of his favorite motorcycles to abuse. And so it was only fitting that Triumph brought him to last week’s unveiling of the new Tiger 900 in St. Louis. While he was briefly stationary, I cornered Edub to resolve a few questions that keep me up at night.

John Burns: Ernie, you said earlier, you’re a big horsepower guy. Now, everything else being equal and you’re going through nasty terrain, would you want to be on a Triumph Tiger 1200 or 900? More power or less weight?

Ernie Vigil: I think for me, when I’m on crazy tricky technical terrain, I want something smaller, a little more nimble. But if I’m out on the open road or travelling cross-country, I want bigger, more power.

JB: When you’re talking tight gnarly terrain, how often do you go there on a big adventure bike? Do you ever do that? I guess you have to, it’s your job. Do you ever get to places and think, what the hell am I doing here?

EV: Oh, endlessly! Endless amounts of times. We’ve been in Moab, there’s this one path called, uh, Top of the World. It’s not a highway, it’s just an off-road trail, and it’s like nothing but rock ledges, and these really huge technical sections with huge heavy rocks… I was there with four conventional dirtbikes, 450 dirtbikes, on this Tiger 800. And you know when you’re looking over and seeing the dirt bikes are having a hard time getting through it, and you’re looking down and going hmm, I’m on twice the size, twice the bike. And while you’re going over it you’re trying not to think about it, because as soon as you think about it you’re going down… but looking back on it, when you clear an obstacle and look back, and you’re thinking oh man, I don’t know how the hell I got through it, and what the hell am I doing here on the total wrong bike… it’s a good feeling. But what’s mindblowing is that these bikes are capable of doing terrain like that.

You run into issues at times with things like ground clearance, but for the most part, for a competent rider who has a dirt background, you can take these bikes into places you never thought you’d be able to take them.

JB: How’s your life insurance situation, paid up?

EV: I’m all caught up right now. For the longest time, I didn’t have medical insurance. So I was always really worried. It’s hard to get medical insurance for somebody who does what I do. After three or four $7 or 8,000 a month quotes, I was just like, well, looks like I’m going insurance-less. But then I started working in TV shows and movies with SAG, and I finally got insurance. Now I’m covered. It’s really a relief.

JB: You’ve been doing movies a long time.

EV: Lots of movies, lots of TV shows. For the last decade or longer, we’ve been doing our own video projects, which are the same concept, same ideas on a much smaller scale. It’s the same onscreen etiquette, it all crosses over.

JB: Have you ever got stuck somewhere, out in the desert, on top of a rock? Have you ever had people have to get you out? Or do you always have to be the guy other people turn to to get them out?

EV: More often than not I’m the guy who’s pulling people out.

JB: Help meee!

EV: We did a video called Portland to Dakar with Icon, on Tiger 800s. The idea was to put the bike through its paces: mud, dry, snow, everything. So we had this bright idea, we had these big studded tires, and we were in Bend, Oregon, in the middle of winter, and wanted to take the bikes in the snow.

The studded tires are more for ice. So here we are on Tiger 800s on snowmobile trails, nothing but snow. Five am, we’re good, 6 am we’re good, 7 am the sun peeks up… by 8 am, we’re deep down the trail when the snow starts to melt a little on top. It took us like three hours to get out from about four miles in. It took forever. You couldn’t go faster than 5 mph without completely eating shit, just because it was so slushy and muddy. We were just sinking like in a swamp and all over the place, myself and my buddy Joel. We must’ve dug each other out 50 or 60 times. My legs were just Jello by the end of the day. It was really a lesson in what not to do. And here we are doing it.

JB: Is the whole adventure bike movement a good thing for old guys who never rode off-road that much? Or a huge mistake?

EV: Everybody always asks me what bike I’d choose if I could only have one for the rest of my life. For me, having grown up on dirtbikes, then getting into the whole streetbike stunt thing, for me the perfect mix is a sport adventure bike. You can still go off-road like a dirtbike. But you can also pack up the bags and take off with a passenger, go camping. It’s the best of both worlds and it’s kind of igniting this whole ADV movement, just riding bikes because bikes are fun.

JB: Should most people stick to graded roads? I guess it all depends on your experience.

EV: These bikes are amazing on graded roads and fire roads, they’re amazing, and you don’t even have to be all that experienced to use them. It’s more the real technical stuff, then it comes down to having good clutch control, throttle control, all the things you hope you picked up along the way, balance… but I think the sport adventure is a good platform for people entering in, who want to ride off-road.

I did a rally in Alaska called the Alcan 5000, and it was 5000 miles over ten days and a 50/50 mix of off-road on-road – dirt roads connecting paved sections. So, we did that, through Canada all the way to Alaska, and it was one of the funnest things I’ve ever done. Of course, I was with five of my buddies, and it was just one of the best experiences I’ve ever had motorcycling. It had nothing to do with riding the gnarliest technical trails, it was just fun. That’s what bikes are for.

[You should find 24 minutes to watch this one.]

JB: So I was looking at your Triumph 1200 XE, the bike you raced in Baja. What’s gonna be better for the average Joe, new Tiger 900 or the XE? Are you allowed to comment on that?

EV: The thing is I’ve raced both of them, in the same race, the Mexican 1000 on the Tiger 800, then I did it on the Scrambler. The Scrambler has a lot mooooore… dirtbike commonalities I guess, it’s a lot more like a dirtbike.

It’s a little heavier, but at least the reaction of how the suspension works, the ergonomics are more similar to a dirtbike, whereas the Tiger 800 was a little more limited, didn’t have as much suspension travel, a little bit less power – but better for travelling. You can still do the same things on each one, but it comes down to how hard do you want to ride. For racing, obviously, as hard as you can. The 1200’s got the power and the suspension travel. You can ride that much more aggressive and enter things that much faster and still have a chance to not completely destroy yourself.

Ernie Vigil Finishes 5th At Mexican 1000 Rally Aboard Triumph Scrambler 1200 XE

JB: So you were saying earlier, faster is better through obstacles, but the photographers always insist you slow down so they can get the shot?

EV: Exactly.

JB: What’s your number one piece of advice to an idiot off to ride a big adventure bike in semi-gnarly terrain?

EV: You want to keep your momentum because the slower you go… you don’t feel the weight of these bikes until you’re going down. The slower you’re going, if you put yourself in a position where you might get off balance and need to carry the weight of the bike on your own, that’s when you feel the weight of these bikes. Momentum is your friend, you want to go through tough parts with momentum.

By the time your brain computes what’s going on… if you’re going slow you’re already going down. If you have a little bit of momentum, you have a second to shut your brain off, and let your brainstem say `I need to gas out,’ and you still have the momentum to keep going. It’s kind of a crutch but it helps. If you’re going to crash, it’s better to crash later than now.

JB: So that old saying, when in doubt gas it, is true. I never knew if people were kidding when they told me that?

EV: No. You’d be surprised how many wrecks I’ve saved, wrecks where I could’ve completely destroyed myself, by just getting on the throttle. Just get on the throttle. When you lift, when you let off the gas, it disrupts the bike’s movement, the suspension resets, and in those moments you need to maintain course the most to extricate yourself. Getting on the gas keeps the bike from working against you, it wants to work with you if you’ll just let it.

JB: So, just stay on the gas all the time.

EV: I try to.

The End.

John Burns
John Burns

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