Common Tread

Surviving L.A. to Barstow to Vegas on a Ural

Dec 02, 2016

Gravity has a tendency to win most battles and a Ural sidecar rig is certainly not an outlier.

At first, I really thought Abhi was going to make it up the hill. The Ural’s two wheels dug into the loose sand and gravel, lurching forward and slowly climbing the steep terrain, while I pushed from behind. We had jettisoned all the excess weight (in this case, at 205 pounds, I was the “excess weight”), Abhi kept the throttle pinned (momentum is the Ural’s best friend), and for a split second he looked like a pro piloting that 750-pound beast. Then things went downhill, fast.

The Ural’s commanding 41 horsepower and 42 foot-pounds of torque were no match for the laws of physics. About 50 feet from the top of the hill, the Ural began to slow, sputtering and straining before the engine stalled, bringing the whole rig to a complete stop. With the brakes locked, gravity took hold. The Ural slid precariously back down the hill before coming to rest atop a KTM 690 Enduro R and its rider, who were having problems of their own ascending the hill. Rest assured, a Ural landing on top of them did little to improve their situation.

The collision happened at slow speed, and no one was hurt, but it would take a few helping hands to get the mess sorted out. The bikes were moved off the trail to the safety of a small plateau about halfway up the hill. It was here, stuck on the side of a mountain, less than 30 miles into a 500-mile course, that Abhi and I first began to question our decision to tackle 2016’s L.A. to Barstow to Vegas dual-sport ride aboard a 2017 Ural Sahara.

Surviving L.A. to Barstow to Vegas Abhi
I met Abhi Eswarappa in the desert at the launch for Yamaha's SCR950. A few late-night conference calls and countless emails solidified a plan to tackle L.A. to Barstow to Vegas on a 2017 Ural Sahara. Photo by Nathan May.

Whose idea was this?

I first met Abhi Eswarappa at Yamaha’s launch of the SCR950 in the desert outside of San Diego. In addition to being the co-owner of a medical documentation startup, Abhi runs his own motorcycle website, Bike-urious. In addition to posting rare motorcycle finds, and showing up for guest appearances on Jay Leno’s Garage, Abhi and his team of photographers/videographers/partners-in-crime, Nathan May and Aaron Schasse, produce original content for the site.

Over dinner at the end of the SCR950 launch, Abhi mentioned that he and Nathan had participated in L.A. to Barstow to Vegas the previous year and were looking to return. This time, however, they were planning on bringing a video crew and riding something less appropriate than the KTMs the duo previously used. I wanted in.

Surviving L.A. to Barstow to Vegas Maps
Maps outlining the easy and hard routes for both days of the rally. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

For those of you not familiar, L.A. to Barstow to Vegas is a (about) 500-mile off-road ride held by the AMA’s 37th District in Southern California. This year marks the 33rd anniversary of the historic event, which starts in Palmdale on Black Friday and ends in Las Vegas on Saturday night with a stop in Barstow in between. I have wanted to participate in this event since I first heard about it 10 years earlier.

Fast-forward a few months and there we were, sitting together atop a Limited Edition 2017 Ural Sahara 2WD, on the side of a mountain in the desert north of Palmdale, trying to figure out what our next step would be. Nathan, running support and riding a Honda XR650L, was above us while fellow Zillan, Brett Walling, waited patiently at the bottom with a Kawasaki KLR650. The rest of our crew consisted of Nathan’s wife, Ellen, and Aaron, who were meeting us at the checkpoints in a support truck.

We were about to give up and head down the hill to scout for an alternate pass when a Jeep Wrangler casually drove up and offered us a tow.

Surviving L.A. to Barstow to Vegas Abhi
The kindness of strangers. Getting towed up the hill by a passing Jeep Wrangler. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

“Just throw it in neutral and hold on,” shouted the driver, as I finished wrapping a towrope to the mounting frame of the sidecar. I watched as the Jeep effortlessly pulled Abhi and the Ural to the top of the hill. Apparently, Jeep has a leg up on gravity.

Things progressed smoothly as checkpoint officials redirected us to the highway to make up time and regroup at Jawbone Canyon Store. There, we turned off-road and followed a small sandy section of whoops that paralleled a set of railroad tracks before heading north into the mountains. Gluttons for punishment, we once again decided to try our hand at battling gravity via a rutted dirt road.

Surviving L.A. to Barstow to Vegas Spurgeon Dunbar and Abhi
Recovering after getting off track. The Ural has a tendency to pull to the left and in this case it led me right over the edge of the trail. Photo by Brett Walling.

I learned the hard way that once the Ural has made up its mind it wants to go somewhere, your chances of changing its course are slim to none. In this case, the Ural wanted to explore a steep gully to the left of our intended trail. Through blind luck, and no actual talent of my own, I was able to keep the rig upright as it careened down the ravine. I could hear Abhi directing a slew of profanity my way as he bounced helplessly in the sidecar.

Engaging first gear and popping the clutch, the engine spun, but the bike didn’t move. The distinct scent of burning clutch plates filled the air. Never a good sign.

Sliding the bike backwards, we disengaged two-wheel drive. This time, with Abhi pushing, I tried again. The gears caught, the Ural lurched forward, and was able to gain enough momentum to launch the rig up the hill, spiraling over the top of the ravine and back onto the trail. It wasn’t what you would call graceful, but we were back on track.

Surviving L.A. to Barstow to Vegas Jenny Smith
Fellow Ural rider Jenny Smith and her team were having struggles of their own. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Pulling over, we weighed our options. We weren’t even halfway through our first day and already two-wheel drive seemed to be malfunctioning. The bike begrudgingly limped along if we left it in one-wheel drive, but the lingering smell of burning clutch plates didn’t exactly instill confidence. A few feet from where we pulled over, Jenny Smith from Rider Magazine was having problems with a Russian mount of her own. (We found out the week before that Jenny had also decided to enter the rally on a Ural.)

Surviving L.A. to Barstow to Vegas on a Ural Abhi
We sat contemplating our next move as we let the Ural cool down. In the end we decided it was best to turn around and bypass this rocky hill. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Sitting together, we watched riders on bikes much more capable than our own mounts abandon this section and turn around in search of a more manageable option. We decided it best we live to fight another day, and slowly made our way back down the mountain, opting to finish day one on the highway.

Day two: Converting miles to kilo-disasters

Brett had succumbed to a back injury sustained from a crash on the first day, so we greeted the second day with only three riders in our group. When our alarms went off at 4:45 a.m., the temperature outside was a mere 28 degrees. It takes a certain kind of crazy to find joy in rising before the dawn to ride motorcycles across the desert in sub-freezing temperatures. You know who you are.

Surviving L.A. to Barstow to Vegas on a Ural Abhi and Spurgeon Dunbar
Listening to course officials, we decided to follow a new route on the morning of day two. Photo by Nathan May.

Following recommendations from course officials, we decided to alter our route and spend the morning riding powerline trails along Interstate 15. This route would allow us to travel by dirt while bypassing some of the more treacherous stretches of deep sand that would most likely upset the Ural’s well being. We were promised the Ural would have no problems with the route onward from Baker, California, save for one particular section of rocky trail in Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area.

Temperatures soared to 57 degrees as we made it to the famous Baker thermometer. Photo by unknown.
Reaching Baker, we followed other riders back into the deep sand washes and rolling hills of the designated course. Among other problems, our team struggled with navigation due to the Ural’s trip meter. The roll charts provided were calculated in miles while the Ural provided a read out in kilometers.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, a roll chart is a simple device. It is essentially a preprinted scroll of paper, which offers directions via miles traveled. Essentially, it’s a rudimentary GPS unit without the robotic English accent.

Shortly after leaving Baker, we missed a turn point and ended up down a section of the course we had not intended to traverse. Nathan tried to warn us via our walkie-talkies but it was too late. We soon found ourselves stuck in a deep sand wash buried up to our exhaust and unable to move.

Surviving L.A. to Barstow to Vegas Spurgeon Dunbar and Nathan May
Nathan and I push the Ural through the deep sand washes north of Baker, California. Photo by Abhi Eswarappa.

With the help of Nathan pushing, we were able to move the Ural further along the trail. However, we were measuring our progress in inches, not miles. All said and done, it took us nearly two hours to get through less than six miles of trail. While determined to complete the entirety of the Baker-to-Vegas section, we knew we would have to make up time if we hoped to finish the off-road section of the route before nightfall.

Making up time and full-throttling the Ural across the desert. Photo by Nathan May.

Limiting our lunch stop to roughly 15 minutes, we let Nathan take the lead, as his XR650L had a trip meter with a read out in miles. Engineering genius.

In spite of this, we still managed to get turned around just as we were entering the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation area to the west of Las Vegas. Stopping another rider for directions, we wanted to avoid the expert section of this final stage as we were assured the Ural wasn’t cut out to tackle the jagged rock garden.

Surviving LA to Barstow to Vegas on a Ural Spurgeon Dunbar and Abhi
Roadside repair to reattach the Ural's left muffler, which had worked itself loose. Photo by Nathan May.

The easy route proved to be hard enough on the Ural and it was only a matter of time before Abhi dislodged the left side muffler on a large rock. Luckily, the Sahara ships with a robust tool kit and after a few modifications the muffler was back in place and we were on our way. But not for long.

At this point we had been riding for nearly 12 straight hours and we were getting tired. Even Nathan, who had been expertly piloting “Big Red” all day, made a show of dropping the ol’ gal more times in this last section than during the whole ride combined. We could feel the temperature dropping as the wind picked up, whipping and twisting its way through the canyons of red rock. After traversing a particularly rocky section, we lost the Ural's left-side muffler for the second time in under an hour. This time I was to blame.

Surviving L.A. to Barstow to Vegas Abhi
Less than an hour later, we lost the muffler again. This time we opted to remove it and keep moving in order to make it out of the desert before nightfall. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

With light fading, we opted to remove the muffler in lieu of attempting another roadside repair. The last thing we wanted was to find ourselves stuck in the rocky canyon after dark, miles from cell service, and long after the last of the sweep riders had passed us by.

It was about 20 minutes before we were moving again. Battling against the clock, the nipping cold, and the ebbing blackness of night, we barreled down the trail, fighting our way toward the Vegas skyline. Only one of the Ural's original four headlights was still operational, dimly lighting our path. Fuses for the other lights had worked themselves loose and we didn’t have replacements.

Eventually, the rock smoothed to gravel, which lead to pavement as the route spit us out onto Nevada Route 160, roughly 10 miles from the city limits of Las Vegas. We had made it.

The Mo-Ural of the story

While we had to modify some of the harder sections of the route, we certainly had ourselves an adventure. In the end, that was our only real goal. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we weren’t looking for easy. We were looking for an experience, something that would challenge us in a unique way. A Ural is just that: an experience.

Surviving L.A. to Barstow to Vegas Finish Line
The whole crew celebrating in Vegas as we met up with the support truck. Photo by Ellen Oliveira-May.

Before this trip, Abhi and I had little to no experience piloting a sidecar rig. By Saturday night, we were old pros. Before this trip, the Ural Sahara was pretty much brand-new. By Saturday night, she had bragging rights and battle scars to show off.

Surviving L.A. to Barstow to Vegas Finish Line
L.A. to Barstow to Vegas was a well organized event that is extremely welcoming to newcomers. Whether you've never heard of it before or you've been wanting to tackle it for years, I encourage you try it and look for us next year. Lord knows what we'll be riding. Photo by Aaron Schasse.

L.A. to Barstow to Vegas was one of the best organized events I have yet to participate in. The folks of District 37 of the AMA couldn’t have been more accommodating. The riders we met along the way were some of the most supportive and encouraging motorcyclists I have had the pleasure of riding alongside.

So, would I do it again? Absolutely. Would I do it again on a Ural? Give me a few months to romanticize it in my mind and I’ll get back to you.