Lessons from Taste of Dakar

I have no idea why I say the things I say or do the things I do, but I always think back and laugh about them.

I remember shouting, “Standin’ on it, bitches!” at my riding group as I poured on the throttle in second gear and pointed my bike towards them all the way at the top of the first sand dune I had ever seen, let alone ridden on. Two seconds later, I smashed through the top of the dune with the brakes locked in an effort to stop myself before everything went sideways.

It turns out that dunes can be mild on one side and straight down on the other. A Taste of Dakar? More like a hefty portion of it.

Start of Taste of Dakar

How I got to Taste of Dakar

Two weeks earlier, Jeremy Lebreton, AltRider’s CEO and founder, had called me with his usual enthusiasm. The call went something like this: “Come out to Taste of Dakar, ya crazy monkey. We’ll figure out a rental bike, and we’ll tear it up in the desert.” Not used to hearing “no,” Jeremy magically made it happen.

Taste of DakarAnd before you write me off as one of those lucky guys who knows the right people and has things like this happen all the time, stop. Nine months earlier, I had attended another of Jeremy’s rides, and through a series of events I’ll leave off, I ended up riding with him towards the end of the day. Just riding with someone as talented as Jeremy for a few miles was eye-opening. Having a talented rider push me on the trails brought out a whole new level in my riding. The day over, I never expected to ride alongside Jeremy again. Until that phone call.

You never know what you’ll get into when attending these organized adventure rides — who you’ll meet, the trails you’ll experience, and the happenstance that has you riding next to someone like Jeremy. The only thing that’s a sure thing is that if you stay home, you won’t have any of these experiences.

Three days before the event I flew into LAX and collected my rental BMW F 800 GS from MotoQuest.com. I had emailed them ahead of the event, suggesting we swap the street-oriented tires for knobbies so I could keep up with Jeremy on terrain I’d never experienced and an unfamiliar bike. Fun fact about Jeremy: He was running third in the Inaugural Baja Rally until a crash caused by contact with another rider late in the race bumped him back to a fifth-place finish. What’s impressive is that he was running that well with no rally navigation training and on a borrowed KTM 450 he built up two days before the start of the race.

The fifth Taste of Dakar was hosted in an old gold mining ghost town named Gold Point in Nevada, about six hours north of Los Angeles and three hours northwest of Las Vegas. Gold Point looks like it’s been carefully curated by air dropping old mining equipment with a DC-10 plane on a bombing run. It adds to the rustic charm in a good way, though.

Dennis Godwin at taste of Dakar

The event offers an evening skills course built by Dennis Godwin and then a day of riding at various skill levels, complete with food, beverages, and lodging. You can also attend a riding school on Friday if you need to brush up on those off-road skills. Tent camping was available, but I ended up crashing in AltRider’s rental cabin. Too many adult beverages while hanging out by the campfire meant tent poles were above my skill level.

The day of the ride I asked Jeremy about the riding group that he had put together, hoping for a weak link, because if you don’t know who the weakest link is, then it’s probably you. Jeremy gave me the rundown of riders and what they were riding:

  • Kellon Walch, riding AltRider’s Honda Africa Twin. His LinkedIn page reads “Professional motorcycle racer 1999-2007. First American ever to win a Dakar Rally stage.”
  • Dennis Godwin, riding a BMW R 1200 GSA. BMW GS Trophy participant for the U.S. team in 2016.
  • Jeff Irvin, riding a KTM 990. Lead riding coach for BlackSwanMoto.com, suspension guru, and desert racer.
  • Rob DabneyRob Dabney, squashing a Suzuki DR200. ADVpulse.com senior editor.

I am the weakest link: goodbye (reference circa 2000, still relevant). It’s clear to me that I’ll have to step up my riding, and with the added pressure of leading the group (the good Marine in me came prepared with a RAM X-mount and cell phone pre-loaded with GPX files, so Jeremy told me I was the de facto leader). Not to mention that we were all-in on doing the “hard” route, and it didn’t matter to the rest of these fools that the pre-ride reports were coming back as “impassable due to snow.”

repairing a motorcycle on the trail

A frozen Taste of Dakar

A few rough minutes into the ride (getting some turns right, some wrong), we came upon a group of stopped riders. A KTM 990 had a broken side stand switch five miles into the day. Now it became clear why Jeremy wanted us to wait to be the last ones out the gate. Jeremy acts as a sweep crew for all his events to help any breakdown or crash victims, a neat gesture he learned from Mother Teresa. Jeremy jumped off his bike and into action and started stripping wires. Four minutes later and boom, the KTM rumbled to life and stayed running. Broke day made.

Africa Twin in snow

As we kept moving along the “hard” route, we passed other riders heading in the opposite direction who were making the gesture of a hand slicing their necks, signaling that the trail is a no go. Soon, the Hondas were buried in snow, sitting on their skid plates, and Dennis’ R 1200 GSA was dragging its cylinders through the snow. We’d made it about half a mile further in than anyone else and a shirtless Jeremy started hiking deeper into the trail to find a pass.

snow on Taste of Dakar

At this point, I personally would have turned around. We were 15 miles into the day and at 6,000 feet. This pass has an elevation of 11,000 feet and the next pass reaches 10,000. Still, we tried for the next hour to find a way through the snow and made it over the first pass. Blazing a single track where there wasn’t one up the side of the mountain, we eventually broke through to the other side, but the entire valley was snow-covered and truly impassable in 10 to 20 inches of the white stuff, with no go-arounds.

At this point, we were facing the task of doubling back and had to make a decision about where we to go. Then Kellon spoke up. It turns out that this part of Nevada is Kellon’s backyard and Dakar training ground. To this day, I still cannot figure out why he didn’t lead from the get go.

Kellon Walch

Learning by example

With Kellon leading, we were moving! The pace I had set earlier was decent, but Kellon’s is otherworldly. Riding behind him, I could feel him back off his pace a bit to match mine, and we actually started pushing together. Now we were blowing turns by braking too late and ripping the ADV bikes around berms built up on the sides of the sandy roads. What an experience. Once again, I found myself riding behind a guy with more skill and bike experience than I ever imagined. By stepping out of my comfort zone and into this group of riders that I’d never dreamed of riding alongside, I was given an opportunity to expand my own ability.

Kellon actually taught me a lot of riding techniques just by leading me at a decent pace rather than blowing me away at race speeds. I knew he wasn’t trying too hard as he locked up the rear tire and slid the Africa Twin into the next berm while watching me in his mirror. I followed suit by tossing the F 800 in and blasting out the end of it. I know Kellon was watching because he gave me a thumbs up as we tracked each other through the desert and into the next turn. These are the types of experiences that you get by going to events.

Jeremy and Kellon

After a while of me pushing my skill level, I backed off and let Jeremy and Kellon push each other, ripping down a rocky, rutted power line trail. Even at a slightly slower pace, and with the BMW’s electronic suspension in enduro mode sport, my skid plate still bottomed out in the deep G-outs. I couldn’t tell if the Africa Twins that Jeremy and Kellon were riding were that much better than the F 800, if they were picking better lines than me, or if they just didn’t care about the big hits the suspension and rims were taking. After four minutes of riding, they were at least a mile ahead of me. I kept to my own pace and tried not to be a hero. A crash at these speeds would be much worse than them having to wait for me at the next turn.

After a lunch consisting of a barbeque chicken sandwich and a Red Bull, we were easily an hour behind the rest of the event. Instead of following the prescribed “medium” route to the south, we decided to head north to a mammoth sand dune Kellon knew about, as we had skipped the sand dunes earlier in the day while we did battle with the snow.

Jeremy and Jeff

The rest of the day went off without a hitch except for that incident at the sand dune. Said incident was a magical experience (riding up it) and massive leg workout (riding down the steep side of a 500-foot — low estimate — dune). There was no chance of wrestling the BMW back to the top once I had gone over, so the boys gave me their advice and I committed. I have to admit, I almost had a “can you ride my bike down the sand dune for me” moment before setting off. I was way out of my zone. But I manned up and made it out and shortly after that we made our way back to camp.

back at camp

Why we do these kinds of events

Back at camp, I found myself smiling into my beer. There was no way anyone could have had as much fun, pushed themselves so hard, and gotten to ride such amazing terrain. But instead of shouting “I had the greatest day,” I blended into the crowd and listened to everyone else’s stories. It was clear that others had similar experiences in their own groups: learning from each other, stretching their abilities, making wrong turns, and epically crashing.

In the end, that’s what this trip was about. It didn’t matter who I rode with, just that I was able to learn from them, make them laugh (hysterically, if you’ve watched the video), and get out there.

obstacle course

Think about it. You don’t want to live a life without any good stories of adventure and excitement, do you? So book the trip, buy the ticket, rent the bike if you need to and get out there and do it.

Events like these give you a route, a sweep crew, riders at your own skill level to befriend, and a ton of like-minded people. If you let the fear of scratching your adventure bike, getting outside your comfort zone, or making sure you have perfect attendance at work hold you back, you’ll never have an adventure.

day's end

AltRider’s next big adventure ride is Conserve the Ride, held this year on a new date and at a new location, June 30 through July 2 at Blue Mountain Resort in Pennsylvania. See you there?

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