Pushing man and machine in the desert…again
After getting my ass kicked last year on my trusty Triumph Scrambler — affectionately known as the Bullitt OG2 — I told myself that I would never race it again. At over 500 lbs with antiquated suspension and underpowered, it’s no match for the more modern bikes coming out these days. And maybe that’s ok. Still, I was convinced I would fare far better on my CRF450R even though I know I could never contend with the truly experienced desert racers in a modern class. I wanted my time at the 2023 Biltwell 100 to go better than 2022 (pics below for reference).
Just race your dirt bike
I had all intentions of signing up for the modern class for 2023, until a very chance happening altered my path. In December 2022, we had interviewed an insanely talented Italian artist, Gianpaolo “Gianpa” Bertoncin aka The Junkers for our ‘Behind the Bars‘ series. As a thank you back to me, Gianpa sent me an illustration he did of me from last year’s Biltwell 100 on the morning of this year’s signups ! I was utterly humbled to receive such a thoughtful gift and took that as a sign that I need to battle the elements again on my heavy beast!
Why take the easy route?
I logged in to sign up for the races with a new loose plan to enter aboard the Triumph. In 2022, the class the OG2 fell into was the ‘hooligan’ class which had limited competition. For 2023, Biltwell tried to mix the classes up and created a new category called “ADV Light” and “ADV Heavy”. ADV Light was street-legal, 900cc and below, ADV Heavy was the same but 901cc+. That means I’d be up against far more capable bikes like the Aprilia Tuareg 660, the Yamaha T7, Triumph Tiger. Yikes!
OK, we’re now committed on the Triumph, and had to get a plan going asap to build it back up better and stronger. I had a lead on a new frontend from a colleague and hit him up. We agreed on a price and had purchased a full front end front big axel KTM, complete with triples, wheels/tires, aluminum tank, bars, rear shocks, and more! There was little time to get the build done yet I was still optimistic I could get it one. I made the mistake of underestimating just how much work front end swaps were. Just like I did for the first time on our original Bullitt OG.
Help a brother out
In need of support, I phoned up my buds at British Customs and let were kind to oblige. They helped my figure out how to get out the stock bearings and custom made me a little tool to know out the lower race. And as much as I absolutely love the look of the 2-into-2 shotgun high exit exhaust (see above), when standing on the pegs for extended periods of time — like 100 miles in a desert race — the pipes don’t allow you to keep your legs tight against the bike. After some discussions, we decided to give their 2-2 Drag Pipes a go. Those lower pipes, coupled with the extended Pivot Pegs I had previously installed and we were starting to feel more like a dirt bike.
Time to wrench
With the new parts finally in-hand, I wasted no time. I attached the rear first, installing taller and stiffer Nitron rear shocks and a new rear wheel comprised of Talon hubs, Excel rims, wrapped in Pirelli Scorpion Rally rubber. To clean things up a bit, I also installed BC’s shock hardware dress up kit and snuck in some discreet Analog universal signal pods. With the rear end mostly sorted, it was time to attack the front end.
It’ll be easy, right?
The front end swap was it’s own separate adventure, and I’ll share the details in its own post so we can get back to the race itself. What I will share here is that it was not nearly as simple as I hoped it to be and just barely got the bike put together before this year’s race.
Fu$k it, we’ll do it live!
Running so short on time, there was no chance to get any shakedown miles in or pre-running done before the event. I was loading the bike into the truck with zero miles on the new set up before the race. Never exactly what you want going into a race. In any case, the bike was “done” and we were going racing!
I headed out early Friday am to get to Ridgecrest, CA with the hopes of at least getting a few miles in under my belt before Saturday’s race. I was out riding with experienced riders in modern dirt bikes who were much more comfortable than me in the loose sand. We set out to complete one 25 mile loop and I crashed twice, the second crash snapping my shifter and bending it into my engine case. I had no spare and limped back to camp stuck in first gear. The bike was messed up and my ego was badly bruised.
Making it work
I spent most of the evening seeing if anyone had a spare shifter — with no luck — and had to rig it the best we could. Zip ties, duct tape and random bolts were all employed and somehow it appeared we might have made something that would work. That was as good as it was gonna get. Off to bed ‘cuz we’ve got racing tomorrow!
Slow is fast
Last year I stated the race off a little too eagerly and ended up going ass over tea kettle on the very first downhill. With my confidence in short supply after a rough pre-run the day before, I really just wanted to complete lap 1 with no drama. Slow is fast, and not eating shit is even faster. Fighting the urge to really go bar-to-bar off the line, I purposely took it easy and let my competitors jump ahead. Getting my bearings and building up confidence would pay dividends in the end.
Just keep moving
This year’s race seemed to be more challenging all round. More sand, more hill climbs, active street crossings and a much larger number of racers all added to the difficulty. There were also a handful of tunnels the course fed through, and often there was a decent drop off outside the tunnel into a lovely soft sand landing. If you’re not prepared for this, or frankly not going fast enough, things will not end well. So going slow was not an option here, but this is also an absolute bottleneck location.
More challenging terrain
For the 2023 Biltwell 100 there were also splits in the course where racers could choose between the shorter, more technical “hard” route, or the longer “easy route”. I told myself that I’d take the easier route on lap 1 but caught up in a pack and not seeing the split, I found myself navigate the steep and rocky hard route. It’s not easy to change direction on the heavier Triumph so you kind of just point it up hill, hold the throttle open, and hang on. Getting off line or restarting mid-hill is not fun.
Not crashing is way more fun
Somehow, I managed a clean lap 1. Running through the pits, I stopped for a few quick seconds to drink some fluids and was right back at it. Maybe things were going to go my way this year after all. On Lap 2 I was able to pick up some steam and know what to expect around each bend. One challenge I face this year was it felt like the course was harder to follow. Not sure if it was less markings, more dust and general chaos from the additional racers, the fact that we had to cross roads, the splits between easy and hard…whatever it was, I felt like obstacles crept up faster on your this year. There were arrow markers for turns but it seemed to be like “TURN NOW” will little advance warning. Could absolutely be my limited experience with race layouts like this. Defying the odds, I ripped through Lap 2 feeling good.
Hit the easy button
Lap 3 came by and I was still feeling good. I opted for the hard hillclimb area for the third time and was chasing someone on a modern dirt bike. My assent felt reminiscent to riding a bucking bronco so when the dude dumped his bike about two-thirds up the hill, I panicked. Swerving to avoid him, I high-sided my bike on the lip of the trail with my bike teeter-tottering over the edge. I tried 1,000 times to yank my bike back onto the trail and kept tipping over one way or the other before ultimately giving up and bombing down the side of the hill to the flats. As I was turning around someone pointed over at the easy route and I happily took it. Time was already sacrificed and I was exhausted. Seemed like the right call.
Losing out a fair amount of time on the hill fiasco, I made it back to the finish line feeling pretty good. Forgot to mention that this year Biltwell switched all novice classes to only 3 laps instead of 4. Could have really used that last year guys! In fact, I might be one of the reasons they made the move as last year I took five hours to finish!! This year, I had some proverbial gas in the tank but was still pretty pleased to be finished and not nearly as banged up.
Maybe next year
I’m still thinking about actually racing my modern dirt bike next year, but that’s a ways off and I’m bound to get some new crazy idea that likely involves something less practical. Big thanks to Biltwell for the amazing event and good times, to British Customs for their support, to the countless racers who lent a hand on Friday night, and my buds who offered a spare hand in my garage; Jordan, Ben and CJ.