As I grew up in the country of Colombia, nestled in between the central and western ranges of the Andres, I was no stranger to long, twisty, gravel and dirt hill climbs that were often muddy. As a child, I could be found on the back of a street-oriented bike with slick tires, navigating up and down these badly mended roads, and became an essential part of my childhood. It was a part of the routine.
I learned to ride at a young age before I could even put my feet down. My uncles would sit on the back of a bike and hold the bike up with their legs, while I was in front and in charge of the hand and foot controls. We did this around the farm without wearing a helmet, gloves, proper riding boots or any kind of gear. It just wasn’t something we were aware of in my upbringing. My first helmet was a very loose, hand-me-down that had already been crashed in, with a shield so scratched up you could barely see what was in front of you. I suppose you don’t miss what you don’t know, so I was a happy teenager riding up and down the rocky, muddy, sandy and scarce asphalt roads of the city of Pereira on my uncle’s Suzuki Best 125, Paprika. This bike was just a regular street bike off-road, sound familiar?
If you read my previous post, then you know what I’m getting at with this. Riding a regular motorbike off-road wasn’t unknown to me, but the idea of racing a naked sport bike off-road? Now that’s a madwoman’s thought. There is a huge difference between commuting on dirt roads between the farm, city and school versus racing in the middle of the desert. But I trusted my bike and its capabilities, as well as my riding abilities to get me through the race. After my Yamaha TT-R let me down due to a faulty float needle and petcock, all I wanted was to try, and so I did.
Just two days before the race, I had managed to put some oversized knobby tires on my G310R, Wildcat, after talking myself into not giving up my dream of racing the Biltwell 100. It’s not a big race, but for me, it meant the start of an off-road racing career that I hope will someday lead to me writing my name in history with tire tracks as my pen, and the blankets of sand dunes in the African desert as my paper. Just like Patsy, the Desert Rose.
We arrived the night before and registered as number 237. I was tired and didn’t ask any questions about switching classes. The 310R technically still counted as a “modern class” bike, despite being 164 pounds heavier than my little dirt bike. Besides, they described the race course as “fast, lightly whooped out and not very rocky or technical.” So it shouldn’t be a problem, right? Not quite.
There is nothing quite like waking up to the sound of brappy and rumbling engines. The morning was cold and frost covered our tent, car and the seat of the bike. There was nothing but a sunny day ahead though! Everyone was riding their bikes around or putting their gear on, including me. I got to ride Wildcat with knobbies for the first time that very morning, and only for about 10 minutes. Everything on my bike felt different, because it was. What was I thinking? At this point I probably wasn’t. The riders meeting was brief and fun, and I could feel people’s eyes on Wildcat as they walked by us. She didn’t belong there and that fact was amusing to anyone who laid eyes on her.
We lined up at the start. We were starting in waves and all around me there was nothing but extremely capable looking dirt bikes. I knew I’d be left in the dust, so when the cord was dropped I took it easy, let everyone else in my wave get ahead so I didn’t lose all sight of the course in a dense cloud of dust. I was there to have fun, not to win, so I enjoyed every bit of challenge the first few miles had to offer.
Cruising down long, whooped straights proved very challenging with only 5.5 inches of travel with the stock suspension. Very early on, I heard the forks bottom out, making a wretched sound that was painful to the ear. Not to mention the handling of a 17 inch front tire in the deep sand was terrifying, and it eventually took me down on a left hand turn that would have otherwise been easy on the TT-R. The crash wasn’t bad. My body was intact, but my head did bounce off the ground fairly hard when I landed. There was no question I’d be whiplashed the next day. I checked that everything else was ok, picked up the bike and took off again. The deep sand section was just getting started.
About 9 miles into the course the deep sand had another trick for me: it hid a pretty huge rock underneath the surface that caused me to crash again. Once more and on the same side, my head bounced off the ground. This time so hard that I could only curl down on my knees and hold my helmet between my hands. I waited for the pain to dissipate while I whined to myself. A couple of riders stopped to check on me and helped me get the bike up before going on their way. I continued off the bike, using the throttle to help me push Wildcat out of the sand. A tunnel was in sight and after that, there would be no more sand. Once I got to the tunnel I noticed my windscreen, along with my racing number, was gone. I parked my bike to the side of the course and walked back to get it. I took off one of my gloves to tie it down to my Sedici drybag, which I was using as a tail bag. I jumped on the bike again, and for the rest of the race the windscreen was bouncing against the exhaust and getting pushed around by the rear tire. About a mile past the tunnel, I realized I had lost my glove. This time I didn’t want to go back for it.
A few miles later, I reached a hill climb that was humbling everyone. A couple racers broke their ribs trying to climb it and I got to witness a few crashes while building up the mindset to “send-it” up that hill on Wildcat. I tried it twice, and twice I failed without hurting myself. I was lucky enough to get someone’s help picking up the bike and bringing it downhill again. This person looked awfully familiar. She was wearing a Hi-Viz REV’IT! Jersey and helping so many people at that hill that you would think she was a volunteer, not a racer. So recognizable was her voice, that I had to ask her name. It was Cassie Maier. I was thrilled, though the exhaustion didn’t allow me to express it.
After failing to climb the hill two times, I decided to find an alternate path. I went around the hill and was lucky to find a slightly easier way to the top. It rejoined the course just a few yards past the top of the hill. I could feel the fatigue getting to me though, and all that pushing up and down the hill without taking my helmet off even once was making my headache worse. My path ahead was extremely rocky and I knew that attempting it with my 17 inch wheels and low clearance meant crashing again, and very likely getting hurt. I had to stop and think for a second.
My head was cloudy. Having hit my head pretty hard for that second time and hearing the radiator fan working as hard as it could to keep my bike from overheating were my signs. Both Wildcat and I were tired. I decided to give my Stuck Stub to the next rider that went by. My head was pounding, I was ready to go home. I sat next to a bush waiting for the volunteers to come pick me up. My race was over.
I sat by the bush for maybe 10 minutes or so while drinking water from my Fly Racing Hydro Pack. I saw many riders struggle with the gnarly rocks and only a few skilled enough to get through without crashing. Even the misfits were having trouble. I saw Cassie again, she’d somehow gotten past me and was walking back to check on me. She told me I could keep going even if I went off the course - again - and joined it past the rocks. I thanked her, but told her I had already given another rider my Stuck Stub and that I wasn’t going to continue the race. About 15 minutes later a couple of volunteers showed up on their dirt bikes. My head was still a bit sore, I still can’t remember their names, but they made sure I was good enough to ride back to the pits with them. The bike had some time to cool down, and I had a bit of a break while waiting for them. Not long after they escorted Wildcat and me past the rocks, they too insisted I should continue to race. Outvoted 3 to 1, I continued to race.
With only 14 miles to the finish line, a simple tip over result in my left footpeg snapping off, irreparably. If you’ve ridden off-road before, then you know how vital your pegs are. Nonetheless, I had already made up my mind about finishing this race, even if it meant dragging us across the finish line.
Those last 14 miles were an absolute nightmare. Not being able to properly balance or maneuver the bike around obstacles made things very difficult. I constantly fell over in challenging, and even simple climbs. At one point, I even rolled down a hill and hit my knuckles on a rock. Of course, it was the gloveless hand that had no protection on it. I tipped over so many times that I got nauseous dragging Wildcat around and picking her up over and over again. While I was frustrated, I took my time, rested if needed, yelled as needed, and banged my fists on the ground when I wasn’t strong enough to lift my bike. I had to be very patient with myself and my physical capabilities, and many of the times working smart and not hard did the trick.
The mile marker numbers kept going up, and every bit of effort was bringing me closer to the finish line. The whoops that were initially bottoming out my suspension had to be ridden even slower now, since I could no longer stand on my pegs. My body was taking every bit of impact that I couldn’t reduce and my hands were fatigued. I was happy when I could finally see the staging area. Though still far away, at least it was now in sight.
One of the things I’ll never be a fan of on Wildcat is the clutch. Even after adjusting the cable, the friction zone doesn’t give you much to play with. I forgot this and somehow stalled the bike after reaching the top of a difficult hill that IMMEDIATELY turned downhill. A very rocky, steep and loose downhill. The bike was still off and I couldn’t let go of the clutch since that would send me over the bars, no question. My engine braking solution had disappeared. The other thing I don’t like about my 310R is that I cannot turn my ABS off. My rear brake was clicking all the way down without even tickling the brake pads. I was doomed. My lizard brain kicked in, I went into fight or flight mode, and fighting was the only option I had. Commit! “Fake it ‘til you make it Maja, or you’re going to break your neck at the bottom of this hill and that’ll be the end of things. You didn’t even write your brand new husband a goodbye letter.” I thought, for sure, I was crashing into the rain rut at the bottom IF I survived that terrifying downhill. I had no way of stopping, no pegs, no clearance, short suspension travel and small front tire. All odds were against me, but I didn’t crash. “Ha, ha!” Once I reached the bottom I laughed out loud so hard, you could probably hear it from the pit area.
I rode maybe two or three more miles before reaching the finish line. I couldn’t believe I had made it! I went to the pits looking for my husband. He hadn’t heard from me in 4 hours, and all he knew is that I had crashed and hit my head. Because I had turned in my Stuck Stub, the scoreboard only showed a DNF (Did Not Finish) next to my name. The bike and I looked like we’d been to hell and back, but he was relieved to see me arrive on the bike, and not on a stretcher.
I got checked by the EMTs and was cleared with no concussion, but I did have a pretty bad headache. We saw part of the awards for the first handful of classes. One of the guys called to the podium had actually changed to a different class because he ended up racing a different bike than the one he had registered with. My head was still a bit cloudy and we decided to leave during the awards due to my headache. I was exhausted and trying to sleep in the car on the way home, but had short nightmares of crashing my bike the entire drive.
It didn’t click for me until the next morning. Someone changed classes because they raced a different bike. “Hello?! So did you!” I reached out to Biltwell right away, and they kindly agreed and got Moto-Tally to update their scoreboard. They moved me from 20-40 Modern Novice Women class, which was all dirt bikes, to ADV Lite Novice Women class. I was pretty happy with that, until I actually went to the results page to find myself after the change was done. Second! Moving me to this class meant I got second place. I was even happier! I couldn’t believe it and was very proud that, despite the pain and all the difficulties I encountered during the race, I didn’t give up. I will be back next year, but on my dirt bike!