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LA Barstow to Vegas Off-Road Adventure Ride

 Two Adventure Riders take on the famous 450 mile run through the desert

Published on 09.27.2013
Two riders take on the LAB2V Dual sport ride
Riding the LAB2V Dual Sport Ride

It takes 45 minutes to fly from Los Angeles to Las Vegas or 4 hours driving in a car. Along the way the view is of a desolate landscape.  You see nothing but open desert, hills, dirt, rocks and the occasional dry brown bush clinging to life. It’s a place where nothing much exists except rattlesnakes, tarantulas and scorpions.  This is not a place most people want to visit.

Most people traveling from Los Angeles to Las Vegas never give much thought about the vast open desert they are traveling through. To them, the journey through the desert to Las Vegas is just a nuisance.  Their thoughts are on their destination.  They just want to get to the bright lights as quickly as possible.

If you own an adventure motorcycle, you look out the window with a completely different perspective.  The sparse beauty of this sun-scorched landscape captures your imagination. You wonder about the trails that might lead through the crevices and contours of the mountains and canyons you see.  You ponder if anyone has ever been to the top of the hill off in the distance.  What interesting place might be hiding out there?

You want to be out there deep in the endless desert on your Adventure Bike feeling free and detached from the real world, riding fast but in no hurry to get to your destination. You experience the full detail of each new panoramic view as it appears around the next corner. You are in the zone and there is no place else you would rather be than here right now, on your bike.

I had the privilege of riding that vast California desert on an Adventure Bike tour a few years back when a friend and I participated in the LAB2V (LA Barstow to Vegas) Dual Sport/Adventure Ride. The LAB2V ride is a 450 mile two day, mostly off-road ride that starts just outside of Los Angeles, California and ends in Las Vegas, Nevada. This is the longest running two day organized Dual Sport group ride in the world, now going on 30 years. Most riders take the tour on smaller Dual Sport bikes, but every year more Adventure Bike Riders join in on the fun.

The trail options are divided into “Hard” and “Easy” routes you can navigate by map, roll chart or GPS.  The “Easy” sections consist of mostly wide-open dirt roads that could be negotiated by a 2-wheel drive car with high clearance.  These “Easy” sections are designed to give novices and big Adventure Bike riders a scenic tour of the landscape without the harshness of rugged off-road trails.  The “Hard” sections include double-track, rough jeep roads, single track, rocky hill climbs and steep descents. The “Hard” sections are more suitable for small Dual Sport bikes.

Riding with me on the LAB2V was my good friend Mike from Northern California.   Mike’s in-laws live in Southern California and every year we plan a couple of days of riding during the holidays when he is in town.  We were both riding KTM 640 Adventure Bikes and this was our first time experiencing the legendary LA Barstow to Vegas ride. We challenged ourselves to do all the “Hard” sections for two days of off-road riding to Las Vegas. Then we would ride the highway back to Los Angeles on the third day.

The ride started the day after Thanksgiving. I awoke much earlier than I would have liked to on Friday morning, still feeling stuffed with turkey.  We arrived at the meeting point at 6am.  The excitement of the day and a few cups of coffee had me fully alert.  After signing in, loading our GPS’s with tracks and making a few final preparations, we were off.

We rode through town a few miles and were soon on a dirt road leading into the mountains of the Lake Arrowhead area.  Having recently purchased my new KTM 640 Adventure, I was still getting used to the bike and feeling a little nervous on dirt roads.  The bike looked clean and shiny without a scratch, but I knew that was likely to change over the course of the next few days.

After riding just a few short miles on the dirt road, I could see a group of riders stopped on the side of the trail ahead. We were traveling on one of the sections marked “Easy” and it looked like there was already some kind of trouble.  As we got closer, I could see the group was trying to recover a rider that had launched himself and his bike off the trail down the hillside.  We stopped to see if they needed anything, but they said the rider was OK and they had it all taken care of.  Since the situation was under control, we continued on.  This only made me feel more concerned about taking my brand new Adventure Bike on some of the tough sections that lay ahead of us. So I tried to relax and make sure to keep my eyes on the road.

As we got our first taste of the “Hard” sections I was feeling more confident that this was nothing we couldn’t handle. The KTM 640 Adventure was in its element and the race bred suspension was soaking up everything the trail threw at us. With every mile, the bike felt less and less like a heavy Adventure Bike and more like a light dirt bike.

Suddenly, we came across some giant whoops.  I slowed way down and we rolled over the whoops cautiously to avoid any issues.  The whoops seemed to continue indefinitely and I was wondering if we had taken a wrong turn.  Double-checking the GPS, I could see we were definitely still on track.  So we maintained our course, getting a full body workout making our way through the field of whoops.  Luckily the whoops smoothed out though and I was back in my rhythm enjoying the trail again.

We were somewhere in the hills above the old Ghost Town of Garlock, California feeling excited about the new terrain we were exploring. We were traveling on one of the “Hard” trails cruising along at an aggressive pace. Looking over my shoulder, I noticed a small black dot off in the distance behind us. It seemed to be getting closer and after a while, I could see it was a rider on a black KTM 990 Adventure. I thought, this guy must be a little bit nuts taking that big bike on these “Hard” trails.

The KTM 990 Adventure is the Big Brother of our KTM 640 Adventures, outweighing our bikes by more than 100 pounds. I had heard stories from the KTM salesman about how good these bikes were off-road, but I thought that was just sales talk. The laws of physics were working against such a big bike on trails like these.

To my surprise, a few minutes later the black KTM 990 Adventure had caught up to us and was just 50 meters behind us. At this point, the trail split into two options.  One was a steep downhill with loose dirt and rocks. The other option was a bypass that provided a more gradual descent down the hill.  We chose the harder option and followed a few small Dual Sport riders down the dusty rocky downhill.  As we slid our rear tires over loose rocks, struggling for control, I figured the KTM 990 Adventure rider took the bypass. But as we exited the bottom of the hill and the cloud of dust cleared, to my amazement he was still right behind us.

By this time Mike had also become aware of the KTM 990 Adventure rider right behind us and this got our competitive juices flowing. I was impressed with his off-road skill and wanted to see how hard he could ride that thing, but I also didn’t want to get passed by a guy on a bike 110 pounds heavier than mine. I figured there would be no way he was going to keep up with us if we increased our pace a bit.

We began riding on a road with fast, rocky loose dirt that reminded me of Baja, Mexico. Mike and I upped our pace to near race speeds and passed several riders on lighter KTM 525EXC’s and WR 450’s.  For some time, I kept my focus on the road ahead, riding in the attack position up on the pegs.  I began to hear an engine revving close behind me and I looked over my shoulder expecting to see Mike there. But it was that crazy guy on the KTM 990 Adventure looking to get by me. I figured this must be Kurt Caselli or some other Pro rider on his day off having some fun on a big bike. I had been pushing the pace hard for some time now, so I “let” him pass since we still had a long day ahead of us.

I followed behind the KTM 990 Adventure rider for some time and enjoyed watching the guy masterfully control the big bike through whoops, berms and big rocks. He seemed to be able to finesse the bike as easily as a 450cc dirt bike. He had a couple of close calls, but never seemed out of control.  I was just as amazed by the bike’s prowess in the dirt as I was with the rider.

We got to the end of the dirt road and the KTM 990 Adventure rider was stopped at the highway. Mike and I stopped to chat with the guy for a few minutes asking him “Is that thing stock?” and “Do you race?”… Turned out he was just a regular guy from France who was passing everyone on the trail that day, no matter what you were riding. As we got on the highway for a gas stop, our French friend turned into a little black dot again as he accelerated off into the distance to the sweet soundtrack of his powerful V-Twin engine.

After lunch, we were back on the trail again. Cruising along another dirt road, I could see a guy on a tiny 1960’s era motorcycle ahead of us. As we got closer, I could see it was an old guy on a little blue bike wearing jeans, hiking boots and an open face helmet. He was buzzing along on the little two-stroke at full speed (maybe 35mph).  I could not help but chuckle about this peculiar sight as we carefully passed the small bike.  I tried to make sense of it and figured this guy was just out here for a quick joy ride.  There was no way he was doing the LAB2V on that bike.

About an hour later we encountered our first mechanical issue. Mike’s centerstand decided to rattle loose and we were stuck on the side of the road sifting through our bolt bags trying to find the right sized nut. Suddenly, that little blue bike we saw earlier came up the hill making a high pitched whine and passed by leaving us in a cloud of two-stroke smoke. “Wow!” I thought.  This guy really was doing the LAB2V on that little thing.  Then, the thought came that we must be going pretty slowly if he’s keeping up with us.

After about a 20 minute delay, we were back on the trail determined to get back in front of the little blue bike again. He was soon in our crosshairs and we made the pass.  After passing, we upped the pace to put some space in between us and the little blue bike.

Out in the middle of the desert near Barstow, things started to get rough on the trail. We were on one of the “Hard” sections again and we could see a group of riders piling up in a line waiting for their turn to attempt a challenging hill climb. A few guys were having trouble getting up the hill and they were all on small Dual Sport bikes, so we began to get a bit nervous about the climb since we were on the big KTM 640’s.

We watched a few riders get up the hill and after a while it did not look too bad, so I decided to give it a try. As I approached the steep section of the hill, I could feel the big heft of the KTM 640 Adventure kicking and bucking on the loose dirt and rocks. But the big bike dug in and the LC4 motor’s power kept me on course and I reached top of the hill successfully.

As I reached the peak, I let out an excited celebratory yell.  I then began to turn the bike around as quickly as possible so I could watch Mike’s attempt. My elation soon turned to dismay though, as I lost the front end on a loose rock and the bike started to tip. With every ounce of strength I tried to keep the bike from tipping, but I could not hold it up.  It seemed to happen in slow motion as the bike smacked the ground with moderate force.

With a shot of adrenaline, I heaved the heavy bike back up on two wheels as if that would erase what had just happened. Unfortunately, the damage was already done and I could see several scratches visible on the left side of the tank.  After letting out a few expletives, I consoled myself with the thought that it had to happen sometime.

My attention was now on getting my camera out and getting a shot of Mike coming up the hill. By the time I rejoined the action, Mike was half way up the hill and had gotten totally off the trail.  He was bouncing through softball sized rocks trying to keep the bike upright and steer the bike back toward the trail. Eventually, he got it back on course and joined me at the top of the hill to the applause of all the riders watching. Everyone seemed impressed at how we had conquered the hill on our big Adventure Bikes.

We stayed for a little while cheering on more riders as they got to the top of the hill. With high confidence now, we picked up the pace for the home stretch, feeling as though we could conquer any obstacle. About 20 miles away from the first night’s stop in Barstow, California, my enthusiasm got the best of me and I suddenly realized I had a flat tire.  I had been too eager, riding too fast over sharp rocks and punctured the inner-tube.

We made quick work of taking off the front wheel using the centerstand and my helmet to balance the bike. As we worked, I could see the sun was starting to hang low in the sky and I could feel the fatigue setting in from a long days ride. I knew that as soon as we could get my bike back on the trail, there were burgers and beers waiting just an hour away.

That’s when our luck changed for the worst. We were just getting the tire re-inflated when I began to hear a strange high pitched sound off in the distance. Panic set in as I realized it was that old guy on the little blue bike again about to pass us. “Not again!” we yelled simultaneously. We began working as fast as we could to get the front wheel back on.  Soon we could see the little blue terror coming down the hill approaching us. To our dismay, he flew by us at a measly 25mph. Our egos were instantly crushed.

Back on the road, Mike looked at me and said, “We can’t let that guy beat us to Barstow!” With renewed motivation, we overcame our fatigue and continued on at a brisk pace. Within about 15 minutes, we had caught up to the little blue bike and it felt good knowing we were getting close to  Barstow and he would not have another chance to get by us if we could just keep our bikes on the road. With some luck, we made it to Barstow with no sign of the little blue bike.

After a nice meal and some laughs with new friends, we called it an early night. We woke up the next morning determined to get an early start to avoid being embarrassed by little blue bikes again. Word around camp was that Robert Koch, the rider of the little blue 1964 Tohatsu 50cc trail bike, had blown his engine on the final stretch going to Barstow. No doubt, he must have been pushing his tiny engine harder than ever in an attempt to humiliate us once again. My relief at the threat being eliminated disappeared quickly though as we learned Robert had packed a backup motor in a support vehicle and had completed an engine swap overnight!

With a new sense of urgency, we set out early with another 200+ miles of off-road riding between us and Las Vegas. After all the stops we dealt with on day one, I remembered the old off-road adage “Slow is fast.” So we tried to keep our speed down on day two in an attempt to reduce our maintenance stops.

We traveled along the historic Mojave Road leaving the town of Barstow. The Mojave Road is an ancient Native American pathway also used by the Spanish missionaries and later by U.S. Troops protecting western settlers from attacks by tribal residents of the area.

The Mojave Road was just a big wide open dirt road with a few whoops and sandy spots.  Everything seemed pretty laid back until we reached the Mojave River.  A slow moving river, about 50 meters wide, covered the road ahead of us.   As we approached its banks, we could see several riders in front of us. Like wildebeests preparing to cross a croc-infested river, they apprehensively surveyed the waters for the best line. Across the river, we could see a completely soaked rider attempting to get his stalled bike started again. A few spectators stood ready with cameras for more carnage to unfold.

Mike didn’t hesitate and decided it was best to just go for it. He attacked the thigh deep water with aggression and created a huge spout of water several feet above his head. The water seemed to part effortlessly to his will. Holding the throttle steady, Mike made it successfully through the deepest section and across to the other side.

As I peered across the river, I congratulated Mike on his dramatic performance. I could see, however, that he was now completely drenched in water. Entering early winter, the temperature was in the low 60’s Fahrenheit. I knew that with roughly 200 miles ahead of us, that would not be comfortable riding soaked in cold water. Having submarined a few bikes in my time, I’m not as big a fan of water crossings, so I decided to search for a bypass. Backtracking a few hundred yards down the road I found a railroad bridge that crossed the Mojave River and took the tracks across to the other side safe and dry. Mike was still shaking off all the excess water when I caught up with him, but he had a big smile and no regrets.

We continued on our journey toward Sin City.  I felt a sense of appreciation for the opportunity to ride through this majestic land ready for the next strange incident to unfold.  It was a unique experience being out there with hundreds of other riders all creating their own stories of adventure to share with family and friends back home.

I guess I was day dreaming a bit, because I looked down at my GPS and we were completely off the track.  I abruptly hit the brakes to turn around, not knowing Mike was right behind me.  All I heard was Mike yelling “Oh Sh*t!” as I quickly tried to release my brakes to reduce the impact.  Unfortunately, Mike did not have enough time to avoid hitting me.

Assessing the damage, we discovered I had a chunk of aluminum gouged out of my swingarm, and Mike had a bent front disc brake.  Mike tried riding a few yards but his brakes were no longer working on the front wheel. We limped Mike’s bike to our lunch stop and located a local fireman that allowed us to barrow a large rubber mallet. We took off the wheel and tried beating the disc back into shape. A veteran off-road rider came by to check on our progress and gave us some advice. He explained that he had tried fixing a bent disc before and that it would never work without machine shop equipment. Even If the disc is just slightly bent, it will wobble around in between the brake pads causing the hydraulics to lose pressure. He suggested we remove the disc completely to avoid rubbing and continue on with the ride at a cautious pace.  We took his advice and soon we were back on the trail.

Our goal at this point was just to arrive in Las Vegas safely. A motorcycle’s front brake is responsible for 75% of your braking force on pavement.  With the rear tire locking up more easily in off-road conditions, the rear brake has even less control over stopping your bike. It is extremely tedious riding with your rear brake alone.  We rode at a snail’s pace, giving Mike more time to slow his bike down at each turn.  We controlled our urge to ride fast, even as bikes we had passed hours earlier whizzed by us.  We had just 100 miles to go to our final destination.

We soon entered Red Rock Canyon, Nevada which offered some of the most picturesque scenery of the entire trip. We began to climb in elevation and traveled through canyons lined with beautiful red rock formations. The desert terrain changed to mountains with coniferous trees sparsely dotting the landscape. Quaint campsites appeared along the road and I could see the surprised look of the campers as they viewed our parade of motorcycles, kicking up dust as we traveled down the road.  I could not believe such a beautiful place existed just 45 minutes from the Las Vegas strip.

Mike had to be ever vigilant with his brakes as we began to drop in elevation on the cliff-lined road leading out of Red Rock Canyon.  I rode slightly ahead looking for any surprises I could warn Mike about that would require extra braking.  While Mike sweated it out, I enjoyed a nice leisurely cruise through this scenic landscape.   We were going so slowly now that I began to wonder if we would see that little blue bike again.  I made the decision that if I saw any flashes of blue coming up behind me, I would have to preserve my own pride and leave Mike behind.

Luckily, the dreaded incident never occurred and we were soon at the end of the dirt road and back on pavement entering the city of Las Vegas. I could feel that slight disappointment you get when you realize your journey is about to end. But we were exhausted and our bikes looked just as beat up and exhausted as we felt. Covered with dust, blinkers dangling, brake light out… we entered downtown Las Vegas.

We checked in our bikes at the Tropicana Hotel & Casino secure parking lot and retrieved our bags from the organizers who had graciously transported our luggage. We walked into the posh hotel lobby in full off-road gear and heavy motocross boots.  We were still covered in two days of dirt, smelling not so great.  The front desk attendant looked at us strangely having no idea why there were so many people in the lobby with the same strange outfits as us. “Is there some kind of Sci-Fi convention going on?” she asked. We shared a laugh and got our room key.  Feeling fresh and clean, we joined the celebration at the Banquet and Awards Ceremony concluding the LA Barstow to Vegas event.

The following morning, we slept in, got packed and got on the highway back to Los Angeles. We traveled on Interstate 15 cruising along with our buzzy 650cc engines at a steady 75mph. I couldn’t help but scan the topography off to the side of the highway.  I tried to connect the landmarks I could see with places I had visited during the two previous days. For hours we drove on the arrow-straight highway. A bit bored, I fantasized about taking the next exit and retracing our steps off-road back to Los Angeles… Oh, if only my body would comply.

Join the fun this year
Interested in joining the LA Barstow to Vegas ride this year?  Check out the event details for the LAB2V here.

If you would like to read more about Robert Koch’s LAB2V adventure on his little blue 1964 Tohatsu Trail Master, check out the story here.

Author: Rob Dabney

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