Getting a Taste of Dakar on Small Bikes
We go small for a weekend of big adventure at AltRider's Taste of Dakar.
Sunday morning saw the bar filled with stale air and cigarette smoke. Stevie Nicks played in the background while a few locals tended to glasses of whisky. It was easy to imagine this as a typical scene for Gold Point; the almost non-existent ghost town in southwest Nevada. What I am sure was not typical was the 100 plus adventure riders that had taken over their town for the weekend.
What could possibly bring so many enthusiasts together in such a remote setting? None other than AltRider’s Taste of Dakar 2017. In its sixth year, the event took on a new location with all-new routes. It was the ideal setting for a weekend filled with epic riding, amazing views and colorful locals (all ten of them).
Our adventurous weekend began in Panamint Springs, California Friday morning where we fueled up on cheeseburgers and gasoline. Even at this remote outpost in Death Valley our tiny adventure machines were already getting attention from other riders passing by. The motorcycles in question: a Yamaha XT250 and Suzuki DR200 were fully loaded and waiting for us in the parking lot. Why would we choose such diminutive machines for such a big adventure? We thought there would be no better way to test these pint-sized dual sports than at an event where it is commonplace to see riders on Adventure Bikes twice the size and costing four times as much.
From Panamint Springs we took a scenic track through Death Valley stopping at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, riding past Scotty’s Castle (Closed due to recent rains) and then slogged our way through 15 miles of deep sand on final approach to Gold Point.
Arriving Friday evening, we were greeted by a deceivingly large group of riders dispersed throughout the town site. Accommodations ranged from single person tents to full-size motorhomes with just about everything in between. Some people had traveled great distances (as far away as France and Australia) others had ridden their bikes in from nearby, but they all shared the same excitement for what the weekend had to offer. They also all looked at us as if we had missed the memo on bike displacement requirements for this event, something I kept in mind the next day while passing many of these same riders on the trail.
After setting up camp and enjoying our first catered meal of the weekend, we were treated to a fascinating presentation by Dakar Rally veteran and stage winner Kellon Walch that included a slideshow of his 2001 effort. He offered an interesting perspective on the race and set the tone for the next day’s ride. The evening wound down with ride sign ups, tall tales by the fire and plentiful consumption of spirits.
Saturday’s alarm clock was pre-dawn coyote chatter and the sound of jackrabbits thumping past my tent. I watched the sun come up over abandoned mining equipment while contemplating the hard luck prospectors who had done the same thing (in the same place) a hundred years before. I was anxious to ride on this unfamiliar terrain and the meal bell couldn’t have sounded soon enough. Scenic, Intermediate and Advanced self-guided GPS routes were offered, departing directly from Gold Point. Since plentiful snow and deep cold-water creek crossings were on the advanced route menu, I opted for the intermediate track and jumped in with a group of new friends.
It was a decent amount of off-road miles for a group ride (160 miles), especially considering our sit-down lunch at a brewery in the small town of Tonopah. I would say that I spent at least fifty percent of the day with my throttle wide open weaving in and out of bikes. It made for a good conversation piece throughout the day when people would say: “Hey, you’re the guy flying around on that little 250 aren’t you?” The XT made quick work of the deep sand we encountered, while others struggled with heavier machines. However, I had to work much harder to gain speed and momentum for steep hill climbs compared to the other bikes.
Overall, the route itself was a little less challenging than expected but it was very scenic and well scouted. No mechanical issues in our group and only one minor injury allowed us to get back to camp in time to try out the skills course for a while before the dinner bell rang.
Saturday night was filled with high spirits as we enjoyed a steak dinner with new friends while swapping war stories from the day’s ride. Senior Editor Rob Dabney shared his accounts from a day of riding the DR200S on the Hard Route with a group led by Kellon Walch and AltRider President Jeremy LeBreton. We heard about their valiant efforts to cut through deep snow in an attempt to make it over a high mountain pass. The lightweight DR200S was able to easily ride on top of the snow and was the only bike that didn’t require assistance to make it through some of the deeper snow patches. Unfortunately once the peak was crested, there was nothing but several feet of snow as far as the eye could see and it would have taken snowmobiles to continue.
Luckily Kellon Walch, who grew up riding the trails around Gold Point as a kid, was able to lead the group on a new route. Terrain included everything from overgrown single track, rocky jeep trails, deep sand washes and giant dune fields. The DR200S was able to hold its own in a group of riders on GSs, Africa Twins and a KTM 990 Adventure with the exception of making it up a giant 250-foot dune, and on the final stretch of highway back to camp where the big bikes quickly disappeared.
The night was capped off with a ruckus awards ceremony presided over by an entertaining Jeremy LeBreton. Prizes were provided by the events sponsors for categories such as farthest distance traveled to the event, worst crash, oldest bike, etc. Saturday night wound down much like the night before, except with even taller tales by the fire and a new sense of camaraderie.
AltRider did a lot of things right for this event: First and foremost they went out of their way to get riders to interact with each other. Multiple times throughout the weekend, they deployed tactics that made it easy for riders to mingle and move out of their comfort zones. They also did a great job not pushing any of their products or turning the event into one large sales pitch. It truly did seem like they were more interested in the riding and community than selling products. There were some growing pains associated with this being the first year at a new location but I am sure that things will only improve if they stick with Gold Point. Another advantage of the new location is all the phenomenal riding that can be found nearby making ride in/ride out options even more appetizing!
Sunday morning, as we topped up our bikes from jerry cans provided by a pistol packing local, I couldn’t help but think what a great experience the weekend had been. I don’t know if it was a ‘Taste of Dakar’ for me exactly but it was certainly a taste of adventure and an experience I won’t soon forget.
Our route back through Death Valley took us to Ubehebe Crater, through Teakettle Junction, past the famous Racetrack (mysterious sailing stones on a dry lake bed), over Lippincott Pass and finally back to Panamint Springs.
When all the dust had settled we covered more than 400 miles on our mini adventure machines and lived to tell the tale. Off-road we did everything the big Adventure Bikes did and more, on road we could almost go the speed limit…
But we proved that it doesn’t take a $20,000 dollar machine to experience an amazing event like this one. These small bikes really are capable of big adventure and we had a hell of a good time confirming it!