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ADV RidesMishaps and Mayhem Riding Big Bikes in the Anza Borrego Desert

Mishaps and Mayhem Riding Big Bikes in the Anza Borrego Desert

 Another One Bites the Dust at the Geico ADV Rally in Southern California.

Published on 05.05.2020

I glanced down at the trip meter and sadly it read only 14.7 miles. A short distance for a day’s ride but we’d already broken a BMW F850GS, and a KTM 790 Adventure R twice. Here we were, stuck on the side of the trail waiting for a recovery vehicle, with the last rays of sun dropping fast. It was supposed to be a big day of riding, covering a hundred miles or more of desert terrain. But I guess it wasn’t meant to be.

That morning we started off with high hopes, the first day of the Geico ADV Rally 2019 in Southern California. The format for this ADV Rally is different from most. Basically, it’s like a scavenger hunt for unique points of interest on the trail, and teams of two or more riders get points for each one they find. There’s no GPS, just a map and guide book. The more technical the terrain, the higher the points scored, with trails rated like ski slopes.

We put together a group of veteran dirt riders for this event that consisted of Corey Hanson (owner of Camel ADV), and three ADV Pulse contributors – Steve Kamrad (that bearded dude), Spencer Hill (The Gear Dude), Mike Massucco (the guy who breaks stuff), and myself. Corey had ridden this ADV Rally the previous year, so I asked him what our plan of attack should be for scoring big. Looking over the map, he showed me a long string of black diamonds and a couple of blue squares on a trail that we could gather up in one fell swoop. It didn’t look like more than 30 miles on the map, so should be easy peasy.

Southern California ADV Rally
Rob Dabney, Spencer Hill, Steve Kamrad
Any weekend that starts off with these characters is bound to include some mayhem. From left to right – ADV Pulse Senior Editor Rob Dabney and contributors Steve Kamrad and Spencer Hill.

Seeing the proposed trail and remembering doing it before on small dirt bikes many years ago, I asked Corey if he thought it was doable on Big Bikes. He said “Yeah, it’s doable. I don’t think anyone else here on big bikes will do it though, so we can get all the points.” And with that, Team ADV Pulse set off at morning light, eager for our first taste of the Anza Borrego Desert.

Honda Africa Twin, Scrambler 1200 XE, KTM 790 Adventure R, BMW F850GS
We put together an awesome array of adventure bikes to take on the challenging terrain at the ADV Rally – Honda Africa Twin, Triumph Scrambler 1200 XE, KTM 790 Adventure R, and BMW F850GS.

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I was on a Honda Africa Twin. With me were Spencer on a KTM 790 Adventure R, Corey on another 790R, Mike on an F850GS, and Kamrad on a Triumph Scrambler 1200 XE. Just 100 yards off the road, we were already in deep sand riding some beautiful desert double track at speed. 

ADV Rally in Anza Borrego
Africa Twin in Anza Borrego

We eventually caught up to a few small dual sport bikes and didn’t have any trouble passing them by. Eventually we got to somewhat of a traffic jam, and it became clear we weren’t the only ones dumb enough to get on this trail with big bikes. There were a range of big-bore ADVs on the trail, waiting to get through our first black diamond – “The Squeeze.”

KTM 790 Adventure R Anza Borrego Desert
The Squeeze Anza Borrego

After rearranging a few stacked rocks, we proceeded one at a time, making sure to help those in need with a push, and of course to get the perfect photo of any fails. We continued on through many sections of rocky inclines, switchbacks and slick rocks until we got to our next black diamond site – Pinyon Drop-Off. As I glanced down the steep trail, memories came flooding back from riding this section 10 years earlier, and it occurred to me that I never would have imagined going through here on a 1000cc Adventure Bike back then. It’s steep, long, and more importantly, slick. More of a controlled slide than a ride down the descent and once you’re down, there’s no riding back up on a big bike. At this point, several onlookers who’d made it this far decided it was time to turn back, but not before being entertained by us gingerly slithering our 500+ pound behemoths down to the bottom.

BMW F850GS Pinyon Drop-Off
Triumph Scrambler 1200 XE Pinyon Drop-Off
A surprise of the ride was how well the Triumph Scrambler 1200 XE handled Pinyon Drop-Off (Heart Attack Hill) and the other rugged terrain in the Anza Borrego Desert.

The Rescue Plan

Soon after we reached our third black diamond point, fittingly called “Split Rock,” it seemed like our Team was on its way to being point-scoring champs. As we waited for Corey and Spencer to catch up, it soon became clear something had happened. Suddenly, Corey came blasting down the trail on a 790 R, but it was Spencer’s bike… not his. He explained that he had been testing a new ‘prototype’ shock on his project bike and it had blown its guts out on the trail. He didn’t want to ride it out because he was afraid it would destroy the casing, costing him thousands of dollars more to fix.

Split Rock Anza Borrego
KTM 790 Adventure rear shock failure.
This prototype aftermarket shock for the KTM 790 Adventure R didn’t last long before it exploded.

His plan to resolve the issue was a complicated one: go back to camp where he’d pull the shock out of Spencer’s 790; return on his spare bike, a Euro Spec Yamaha Tenere 700; swap shock on broken 790R. He estimated it would take a couple hours max to return. So we headed back to where Spencer was waiting to keep him company while Corey took off at lightning speed to implement his master plan.

Mid-November in the Southern California desert is still pretty hot, so we all sat around under our own personal desert shrub trying to avoid overheating while keeping hydrated and taking in a snack. Eventually, we began to pass the time by goofing around and taking some action photos. That’s when Mike decided to do his Eli Tomac impersonation on a banked berm, only riding an F850GS that weighs twice as much. It was a pretty spectacular fall but a soft landing in the sand, so he was fine. As we picked up the bike, it immediately started gushing oil out of the side cover. Quickly, we heaved the bike up and over to the other side to avoid losing any more precious oil. As it turned out, a small, loose rock punched a hole through. No big deal though. We broke out the JB Weld and had the bike running again in about 45 minutes. When we checked the dipstick, the oil was at its lowest ‘in range’ measurement, so Mike was good to go.

Southern California ADV Rally
Everyone was looking for shade while we waited for our teammate to return. Even in mid-November it’s pretty hot in Southern California.

At this point we had all been waiting for more than two hours wondering when we’d hear Corey’s sweet-sounding T7 ripping up the trail. That’s when we got a text via satellite messenger saying he had just reached asphalt and still had to drive another 40 miles or so to get back to camp. Clearly, this was going to take a lot longer than originally expected. So, I offered to stay with Spencer while Mike and Steve would go enjoy the rest of the day riding.

We waited there for another hour or so when we received a new text from Corey. He realized he didn’t have the right tools for the job, so he said to go ahead and ride it out. Wish he had known that earlier. Spencer tried to ride Corey’s 790R as gently as possible, but on this trail it was easier said than done. And with no damping in the shock, he was pogoing all over the place.

After blowing a turn, Spencer tried to do a U-turn and stalled the KTM in the sand. To our displeasure, the engine would not restart. An ominous error message on the TFT read “IMMOBI. ANTENNA FAIL.” Turns out, in addition to the suspension, Corey had also been doing some “custom” work on his bike’s electronics that disturbed something in what we assumed was the ignition’s security system. We tried everything we could think of: cycling the ignition, checking the kick stand sensor, disconnecting the battery, even shaking the cables, but to no avail. Eventually, we messaged Corey letting him know if he wanted his bike, he’d need to come get it in a truck. Back to waiting again…

IMMOBI. ANTENNA FAIL.
SoCal Desert ADV Rally
Waiting, waiting and more waiting… Getting project bikes dialed in can be a bit of trial and error.

We figured it would take hours for Corey to show up in a four-wheeled vehicle, but he appeared rather quickly, thanks to one of the event organizers who owned a well-equipped Ford F150 Baja-style chaser truck. Annoyingly, the 790R fired up as soon as we put it on the back of the truck. At least I got to let out some of my frustration while riding the final 10 miles out of the canyon through a sandy wash, sliding around the Africa Twin.

Arriving back at camp, I was more exhausted mentally than physically. Our day one point scoring strategy had been a disaster but at least everyone got back safely. Cold beers and telling war stories by the fire somehow made me forget about everything that had gone wrong that day. And day two would have to be better… right?

Another One Bites The Dust

On the second morning, we reformed the team and added a new member who had just arrived the previous evening – ADV Rally event photographer and fellow motojournalist Sam Bendall. At 6’5” tall, Sam looked a bit gangly on the Honda CB500X he was riding, but he seemed to scoot around on it just fine. 

Sam Bendall Honda CB500X
Sam came to the ADV Rally ‘Ready to Rip’ on the Honda CB500X, although at 6’5″ tall he did look a bit gangly on the little bike.

Since we were so behind on points from our first day’s debacle, our plan was to just take it easy and go explore, maybe pick up a few points while we were doing it. Going for the greens and blues was actually quite enjoyable, and we found some amazing views and interesting oddities that we would normally have sped right past. While this event does have a competitive angle, finding new spots you didn’t know existed is what it’s really all about.

On the west side of the mountains around Julian, CA, the terrain changes into rolling grassy hills and oak trees – picturesque California cow grazing land. Throughout the day, we had a mixture of twisty asphalt and smooth scenic dirt roads that were a nice change of scene. 

Rob Dabney Honda Africa Twin
Breathtaking views and exhilarating twisty roads around the town of Julian, California were a nice change of scene on our second day of riding at the ADV Rally.

While most of us were cruising, looking for spots to stop and pick up points in our guide books, Steve Kamrad was way up ahead of the group doing his drift thing on the dirt roads. Sam wanted us to stop to get some scenic shots with the big lens, so I told him to go catch Kamrad. Sam took off on his mission to stop Steve and I realized then it would have made more sense to pull over and wait for Steve to figure it out. These two are great friends and when your buddy comes up fast in your rear view mirror, you know what’s going to happen next.

The two of them were jamming along for a couple of miles when suddenly they came up on a smooth, slick, decreasing-radius turn. That’s when our next disaster happened. Steve was barely able to stop before launching himself, and the Scrambler off a cliff, but Sam was less lucky. He low sided his Honda CB500X and somehow caught a boot under the bike.

Emergency response motorcycle accident.

As Mike and I caught up, we checked on Sam who said he’d heard a pop. We discussed putting him on the back of a bike and riding him out, but Sam was having none of that. He was pretty certain he’d snapped both tib and fib. And we inclined to agree, because we could barely move him a few inches before he’d go into extreme agony.

We made the call to 911 and the ambulance was on the way, along with a policeman to make a report. After getting Sam stretchered out of there, we next turned our attention to getting the bike back to camp. That’s when the police officer overheard us talking about how it was a media loaner bike. He immediately said, “if his name was not on the registration, we are going to tow it.” After arguing for some time that we had a truck en route to recover the bike, we realized ‘officer by the book’ was not going to be persuaded, so we left him to wait with the bike for a tow truck.

Broken Tibia and Fibula
After reaching the hospital, Sam learned he had suffered a spiral fracture of the tibia midshaft and fibula fracture at the base.

Back to riding again, we got on some technical dirt roads for a few more hours before sundown in the rolling hills east of San Diego. As we exited a trail onto a main dirt road, we came across a guy looking perplexed in a large flatbed tow truck. Turned out he was the tow guy tasked with getting the CB500X, and his GPS was telling him to go seven miles in the direction we just came for the pickup. We warned him the dirt road was tight and twisty, rough with steep drop offs, not well maintained, nowhere to turn around… He still seemed to be considering it but eventually relented and took the long way around the mountains on smoother roads. Somehow I didn’t mind that the cop would have to wait there by the bike for another couple of hours.

So Much Winning…

By day three of the ADV Rally we had accepted failure and were done with point scoring, so I wanted to show the crew one of my favorite trails in the area that was not part of the designated routes. It’s a rocky, technical path that takes you from the Anza Borrego Desert, all the way up the mountain to Julian. I traded bikes with Spencer and jumped on the 790 Adventure R for the day, but this would turn out to be a bad move.

KTM 790 Adventure vs. Yamaha Tenere 700

As we got to the trailhead entrance, we noticed we were behind a procession of classic Ford Broncos that we had to pass on a narrow trail. It seemed like an eternity squeezing by probably 20 slow-moving vehicles but we finally made it through. Just when we had gathered our group, I noticed my 790 R’s temp gauge was in the red. I tried letting it cool for a while but it would quickly turn red again after a few minutes, and we were heading directly toward a set of slow, technical, uphill switchbacks. I could hear the low growl of Broncos coming up the trail behind us. I told the rest of our group to continue on and that I’d try to catch up with them later.  After some head scratching, I eventually went back to camp for a proper diagnosis in the shade. I finally discovered the problem was a vapor locked coolant overflow hose. A long time to diagnose but the fix was pretty simple in the end. Just more bad luck. Now this trip seemed even more cursed than our first Geico ADV Rally in 2017.

Our final day of the ADV Rally, we got an early start to make the trek back to Los Angeles. While only three hours on the highway, we turned it into a full-day of riding on the backroads and trails that snake their way in and out of suburbia. You’re never far from civilization but it looks like it most of the time.  This was some of the best riding of the whole trip and it definitely brightened my spirits.

Riding home from the ADV Rally
The view of the desert from Julian, California.

Returning to the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, only reminded me that even a bad day on the trail is a way better day than being stuck behind a desk. So I guess maybe we’ll be giving it another go this November. Third time’s a charm right?

Photos by Spencer Hill, Sam Bendall, Steve Kamrad, and Rob Dabney

Author: Rob Dabney

Rob Dabney started a lifelong obsession with motorcycles at the age of 15 when he purchased his first bike – a 1982 Honda MB5. Through his 20’s and 30’s he competed in off-road desert races, including the Baja 250, 500 and 1000. Eventually, his proclivity for exploration led him to dual sport and adventure riding. Rob’s never-ending quest to discover what’s around the next bend has taken him on Adventures in Mexico, North Africa, Europe, and throughout the American West. As a moto journalist, he enjoys inspiring others to seek adventure across horizons both near and far.

Author: Rob Dabney
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19 thoughts on “Mishaps and Mayhem Riding Big Bikes in the Anza Borrego Desert

  1. Yikes! You should rename that the Snakebite Rally. I like a little less pain and destruction in my adventures.

    • Yeah, we are the masochistic types. But the ADV Rally lets you choose whatever adventure you want it to be. Plenty of great scenic riding and interesting locations to explore in the area. Just avoid those black diamonds!

  2. You guys saved my buddy Steve and I on Day 1. You hopped on his 1190r and he jumped in your truck. Turns out he had a broken foot. I followed the truck out on my 1190s. Thanks for helping us out! We definitely would have been camping out there for the night.

    • Hey Ty. That was a whole other crazy part of the story I just didn’t have room to include. That was Spencer that jumped on the 1190R and I was on the Africa Twin. I’m glad we came across you guys in time for Steve to hop in the rescue truck. I remember riding out with you, giving you some tips on deep sand. Drifting that Africa Twin in the sandy wash was probably the funnest part of the day for me. Glad we could help and hopefully Steve’s foot is better now. Good riding with you!

      • Those tips made a world of difference! Too bad my forearms were pumped and I was pretty wiped out at that point. Hopefully this years rally is still a go, maybe we will see you out there.

  3. Our first attempt was an epic failure…This year we did even worse! I would totally do it again…What bike should i Break next year?

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