All Photos Provided by Stumpjumpers Motorcycle Club
For the unfamiliar, the Desert 100 is the premiere off-road motorcycle event in the Northwest, and has been since 1969. The Desert 100 is more than just a race, it is a community, and now I understand for some, a religion complete with annual pilgrimage to Odessa, WA. Weeks have passed, and while my blisters and bruises are healing, I am still struggling to find the words to fully describe the scope of this experience. Epic is an often overused term, but here it truly fits.
Camping In Motorcycle Valhalla
As we rolled through the gate at 7 am on Friday our event hosts from the Stumpjumpers Motorcycle Club offered just one simple instruction in regards to camping:
“Be good to each-other, and stand your ground.”
As the day progressed, we watched a city of nearly 6,000 people rise in the middle of the muddy desert as the constant stream of new arrivals found their places. With no set campsites, this city forms organically as any free space gradually becomes occupied. This requires flexibility and friendliness, but also creates the community feel of the camp as the logistics of simply being there literally requires everyone to work together for the common good. By the evening a desolate desert range had become a mile-long rolling sea of jumbled trailers, trucks, and off-road motorcycles of all types.
Here you find children, serious racers, not-so-serious racers, families, spectators, vendors, and adventure riders all milling around – all brought to this little corner of Washington by a shared love of off-road motorcycling. The soundtrack is constant; a mix of playing kids, revving race engines, the clink of wrenches, busted-knuckle curses, new and old friends laughing and the hubbub of suspension and tire talk, of tall tales of victories and crashes. The air is thick with dirt, sage, two-stroke exhaust, and vibrating with excitement and anticipation of the race.
Ironmen and The Best Day of a 6-year-old’s Life
This year the Desert 100’s characteristic dust was replaced by mud as Saturday dawned cool, wet, and muddy, but this had no effect on the enthusiasm of the nearly 3000 riders lining up for the various poker runs. In addition to the race, the event also includes poker run-style rides for families, larger dual-sport bikes, and the Ironman, a 70 mile shortened version of the race course for those who might wish to try their hand at something more technical. As a middle-aged average rider on a Suzuki DRZ-400, a screaming desert racer I am not, none-the-less my good friend Randy and I set off on the Ironman both for the challenge, and to gauge if we might have what it takes to get through the race in dualsport trim.
You simply cannot discuss the Desert 100 without the word “whoops”. These aptly-named close together repeating patterns of 1-3 foot deep bike eating holes are punishing to man and machine, and are a near constant on the course. I found that simply riding them was not too hard. Riding them at race-pace on a 300lb dualsport in greasy clay mud was another thing entirely, however. By the end of the first 35 mile Ironman loop I had gone from feeling fit and comfortable to battered, blistered, and exhausted. It was clear than any hope of success we might have would require a new strategy. Setting out on our second loop I focused on picking better lines, making time where the riding was easy, and conserving energy where the riding was harder rather than pushing my pace. Smooth is fast. Smooth is fast. Smooth is fast. That mud looks bad. Uhhh, This mud tastes bad. How did I get under the bike? Pick her up, count to 10, and stay loose. Smooth is fast…
Saturday was also race day for the kid’s classes. As much as the Desert 100 is for some a serious race, it is also very much a family event. Seeing the nervous excitement of an 8 year-old as she pulls on her gear and kickstarts her own bike, or the face-splittingly proud, milestone-making moment look on the face of a 6 year-old as he wins a trophy taller than himself for being a MOTORCYCLE RACER! is truly wonderful, and kept my own ride in perspective.
After more heavy rain during the night we forced down some food, stretched our sore muscles, donned cold and muddy gear, and joined the crush of riders completely filling the entire north end of the camp wheel-to-wheel and bar-to-bar for the rider’s meeting. Truth be told, I don’t remember much of what was said. What I do remember, and will never forget, is the slowed-down-time excitement of lining my bike up in one of the most audacious mass starts I, or anyone, could hope to participate in.
The next few minutes were a blur of a seemingly never ending stream of nearly 1000 of my closest friends forming a mile-long grip to grip line of motorcycles, the crack of the start cannon, the sprint to the bikes, and the deafening wild-beast roar of the multitude of engines starting. Standing up on my pegs and launching forward as my new rear tire bit into the rain-softened ground, picking my line across the open desert avoiding rocks, ditches, and sage, and laughing in my helmet as fun replaced nervousness and I found my pace and place in the pack as we all converged towards the first choke point – a narrow gap over a nearly blind ridge that the hundreds of screaming bikes squeeze into and then shoot over like some sort of moto gatling gun in a futile attempt to bring some order to the chaos. It was like jumping from an airplane while riding a tiger… on fire.
Through the day we raced through footpeg-deep chocolate mousse mud, up gnarly rock ledges, through narrow slot canyons and twisted washes, along off-camber slippery riverbanks, over narrow bridges, and through endless… crushing… demoralizing… exhausting… whoops.
I crashed (repeatedly and comically), got needed fuel from broken and crashed bikes, was cheered passionately by strangers as if we were family, helped broken and crashed riders, shared the brotherhood of competition, had transcendent moments of absolute pure riding bliss and primal screaming in my helmet total frustration. It was a truly excellent ride and experience.
And Now the Countdown Begins
The bike is cleaned up and the bruises and blisters are healing, but the impact of the Desert 100 upon me is not fading away. This is truly an extraordinary event in terms of scope, terrain, community, challenge, and fun. The sheer scale of the event simply has to be experienced to be understood (the Race in particular), and even if you are not a “competitive” rider, I would highly recommend making the trip.
I’ll see you there.