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The longest day: How two Americans conquered Canada in 17 hours

Jul 13, 2016

Victory tastes a lot like champagne mixed with Canadian mud.

We had just conquered over 500 miles of Canadian wilderness in a little over 17 hours and Steve was spraying me down with an explosive blast of champagne. This is a tale of how two strangers became fast friends while riding in one of the longest single-day off-road endurance events in North America.

Spurgeon Dunbar and Steve Kamrad Triumph Tiger 800
What better way to get to know a new friend than embarking on an epic 500-mile ride across the Canadian wilderness? Photo by Steve Kamrad.

Steve Kamrad is one of those people you take one look at and say, "I am going to be friends with this one for quite a while." He’s the type of guy who is just a hair crazier than yourself and who will push you to step out of your comfort zone while stopping just shy of getting you arrested, usually. 

I first met Steve and his wife, Amelia, at AltRider’s Conserve the Ride event a few weeks back. Amelia had crashed her Husaberg 390 and hit her head pretty hard. Steve threw her on the back of his bike and rode her out of the forest and to the hospital. As soon as she was discharged, Steve was heading back into the woods to keep riding. His passion is dangerously contagious.

Steve documents his adventures for ADVMoto, an online and print magazine catering to the adventure segment. As we sat talking after the AltRider event, Steve mentioned that he was considering racing in the Rally Connex Dacre Dual Sport Challenge but needed a teammate. He explained that it was an endurance challenge held in Ontario and the goal was for riders to tackle 800 kilometers, off-road, in less than 24 hours. For those of you who don’t speak Canadian, that’s 497 miles.

I was sold.

Triumph Tiger 800 and Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro
Our support vehicle and Tigers in tow as we set off to cross the border. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Two weeks later, Amelia, who would be navigating our support vehicle, was riding shotgun in Steve’s 2015 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro, while I sat in the back, on top of all the gear. After 10 hours, Team #DunRad, as we dubbed ourselves, crossed the Canadian border with a pair of Triumph Tiger 800s in tow.

We decided to enter the ADV class after being warned we would never be able to finish the Enduro route on the Tigers. The ADV course loses the single-track section of the ride, incorporates a bit more street riding, and adds an extra 45 kilometers of ground to cover. Because the ADV route would have no sweep riders or medical support, Amelia would be meeting us at checkpoints with fuel, water, and medical supplies.

Spurgeon Dunbar, Steve Kamrad, Amelia Kamrad, Triumph Tiger 800
A pre-race photo. We were all so happy and clean. Photo by Steve Kamrad.

The race was scheduled to begin in the early hours of Saturday morning. In order to finish the event in under 24 hours, a considerable amount of the course would be run in the dark. Arriving late in the afternoon on Friday, we scurried about, preparing our gear and bikes.

Dacre Dual Sport Challenge
The starting line at shortly after 4 a.m. Photo by Amelia Kamrad.

I had five different alarms set on my phone, the first starting at 2:30 a.m. By the time my second alarm went off, we were already breaking camp. After drawing straws it was determined Team #DunRad would be heading out at 4:04 a.m. With less than five hours of sleep and more than 500 miles to ride, Steve and I thumbed our starters and tore off into the inky blackness of the cool Canadian night. Amelia waved us on.

Reality set in shortly after our start in the form of GPS problems and the difficulty of riding off-road in the dark. The first 100 miles were mostly a combination of paved roads mixed with gravel and sand. We would enter a corner at speeds appropriate for the street and halfway through encounter a combination of silt and sand that felt like ice. There were a couple of close calls during this section.

Steve Kamrad Triumph Tiger 800
In this particular stretch, the tall grass rendered our headlights almost completely useless as we tried to navigate to our waypoint. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The hardest part was keeping tabs on the GPS to make sure we hit all of the waypoints. Often times we would be required to randomly ride down a snowmobile trail or through a farmer's field only to meet back up to the main route a quarter of a mile down the trail. Any missed waypoints would result in disqualification.

Another way to get disqualified is to exceed 63 mph (100 kph) at any time during the event. This ensures riders can’t blow down the paved sections to make up time lost on the harder off-road sections.

By the time we reached the first checkpoint, Steve and I were leading the pack of ADV riders. Lee, from Rally Connex, reminded everyone that the only person you're racing is yourself (and the clock). He insisted the real reward would be to cross the finish line with your team intact. Steve and I weren’t buying it. We had talked to other riders who had ridden this event previously and there was an unspoken pride among those who clocked the best times. 

When it came down to it, we were having a blast slipping and sliding our way through the dirt and gravel. The sense of competition just added to the fun of it all. By the time we hit our first long stretch of rocky snowmobile trail, the sun was starting to crest the skyline behind us.

The sunrise in Canada pretty much guaranteed a postcard-worthy shot. Photo by Amelia Kamrad.

On one particular long, downhill section, the trail disappeared into the darkness below. I could barely make out Steve’s figure in front of me as I tried to navigate the correct line through the jagged rocks. Steve stopped abruptly, stalled out on top of what looked to be a small boulder, causing me to run wide to avoid plowing into him. In normal conditions, locating and executing an alternative line usually isn’t a problem. In the dark, it’s a different story. Once at the bottom, we decided to slow our pace a bit until the sun got higher in the sky.

Spurgeon Dunbar Triumph Tiger 800 XCX
This shot was taken from the bottom of a large rocky hill and shows the darkness in which we had to ride. Photo by Steve Kamrad.

Slowing down wasn’t a problem as the Canadian scenery made it hard not to stop and stare. Riding down dirt country roads with old trestle bridges, we stopped constantly to take photos of the sun rising over the countless swamps, lakes, and rivers we passed. While we were competing to win, we were also interested in documenting as much of the event as possible. After all, how often do you find yourself racing motorcycles hundreds of miles deep in the Canadian wilderness?

Spurgeon Dunbar Triumph Tiger 800 XCx
Conquering a rocky downhill section. Photo by Steve Kamrad.

When we reached our mandatory 30-minute lunch stop shortly after noon, we had covered 250 miles and had been riding for just over eight hours. By that point, I had crashed once and Steve had nearly broken his foot on a rock and was suffering a tremendous amount of pain. We had tackled swamps, sand and rocks, nearly ran out of fuel, and swapped our jackets for jerseys as the temperatures climbed into the high 80s. We weren’t even halfway finished.

Steve Kamarad
Steve using his amazing napping abilities to close his eyes for a few minutes over our lunch break. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Before eating, we set about charging Senas and fueling the bikes. We were all set to leave as soon as our 30 minutes had expired when our GPS unit failed. After working with some of the on-site officials, we were able to get it sorted out, but only after suffering a 15-minute setback. Shortly after getting back onto the road, we got word from Amelia that the other ADV teams had started showing up, which meant our lead, while still considerable, was shrinking.

Spurgeon Dunbar Triumph Tiger 800 XCx
Some of the trails went directly through swamps and lakes with no alternate ways to cross. Photo by Steve Kamrad.

The first few hours back on the trail were rough. Drowsy from the combination of heat and food, we were feeling the lack of sleep from the night before. To clear our heads, we began taking detours to splash through ponds and ride through mud holes while setting up impromptu photo shoots. At one such stop, I watched as Steve jumped off his bike, dived headfirst into a murky swamp, and emerged holding a snapping turtle in his gloved hands.

“I am glad I kept my gloves on,” he said with a laugh, throwing the turtle back into the water, “I thought it was a box turtle.”

Spurgeon Dunbar and Steve Kamrad
Boring Amelia with our tales. Photo by Amelia Kamrad.

These short diversions helped to break up the longer sections of the route while keeping us engaged and focused on the ride at hand, instead of dwelling on all of the miles left to conquer. I even talked Steve into stopping for ice cream in one of the towns we passed through.

There is always enough time for ice cream.

Steve Kamrad Triumph Tiger 800 XCx
Steve gathering logs to build a ramp to get over a fallen tree. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

As we neared the 400-mile mark, we suffered a major setback. After a particularly spirited section of sandy whoops and rocky jumps, including an area where we had to build a ramp over a fallen tree, we stopped for a drink of water and to study the GPS.

Reaching around to get my water bottle out of my tail bag, I realized it was empty. Everything was gone. With a sickening feeling, I realized I had left my bag unzipped after our last break. I had been carrying water, granola bars, tubes, tire irons, an air pump, CO2 cartridges, tools, battery packs, and medication. All gone. After evaluating the risk of trying to finish the last 100 miles or so without any tools to aid us in the event of a mechanical failure or a flat, we decided to turn around.

Steve Kamrad Triumph Tiger 800
Using an impromptu ramp to cross a tree which had fallen across the trail. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Slowly, we backtracked down the trail scouring the rocks and sand for the lost items. After covering about five miles and collecting nearly all of the missing gear, we noticed a pack of motorcycles in the distance heading straight for us. Pulling to the side of the trail and allowing them to pass, we realized it was the second-place ADV team. They had caught up to us!

It was here I learned exactly how fast Steve was off-road. He ripped a U-turn and tore off down the trail, screaming at me to follow him. A few minutes later, we reached the BMW riders entering a sandy section of the trail. Steve tore past them as if they were standing still. I took a more cautious approach.

Together, we traveled the next 60 miles as fast as the terrain and fading daylight would allow. While this was some of the fastest off-road riding I have ever done, Steve looked as if he was barely breaking a sweat. You would have never known his Tiger was the mag-wheeled, road-oriented version by the way he was sliding it around like a tiny dirt bike.

Spurgeon Dunbar and Steve Kamrad
Even with the second-place ADV team tight on our tails, we couldn't help but stop to snap some photos when we hit 500 miles on the odometer. Photo by Steve Kamrad.

Pulling into the final checkpoint before reaching the finish line, we quickly explained to Amelia what had happened as we fueled the bikes and slammed Red Bulls. We were no sooner back on our bikes when the second-place team pulled in. It was going to be a close finish.

Spurgeon Dunbar Triumph Tiger 800 XCx
A stop for water made for a fantastic photo opportunity. Photo by Steve Kamrad.

This final leg of the rally was probably the most grueling. The setting sun mixed with the shadows of the forest made it impossible to see. I immediately regretted not swapping out my goggle lens for the clear one. Drained and tired, we missed a checkpoint, and then another. Forced to backtrack, we slowed down and focused on navigating the remaining miles of the course correctly.

Spurgeon Dunbar, Steve Kamrad, Triumph Tiger 800
I was rambling on with some half-cocked victory speech as Steve blasted me with champagne. Photo by Amelia Kamrad.

We crossed the finish line at 9:13 p.m., clocking in at 17 hours and nine minutes. We were the first team to arrive overall as well as finishing first in the ADV class. There was a lot of champagne and yelling.

Sometimes, all we need is a friend to help pull us out of our comfort zone. We let ourselves fall into ruts of complacency and we need someone to buy us a beer and ask, “Want to go racing motorcycles in Canada next weekend?”

Spurgeon Dunbar, Steve Kamrad, Amelia Kamrad, Triumph Tiger 800
Our full team photo. Photo by Unknown Canadian.

The Rally Connex Dacre Dual Sport Challenge takes place every two years. You can bet your ass Steve and I will be returning, hopefully with Amelia riding alongside us. Having two Kamrads riding together means we’ll have to change our name to Team #DunRadder in 2018.

We’d love to see more people involved in this event. Think this sounds like something you would enjoy as well? You’ve got two years to prepare. We’ll see you there.