GOOD TIMES, BAD IDEAS
BILTWELL RACES A HARLEY SPORTSTER IN BAJA
Biltwell Races a Harley Sportster in Baja ............................................
Brainstorming with friends around a fire pit at Cuatro Casas surf hostel in Baja last November, our crazy idea sounded great at the time. We were down there riding dirt bikes, surfing and watching the Baja 1000 a hundred miles south of Ensenada, Mexico. Of course, after enough beers, we started dreaming up ways to participate in the legendary off-road event personally. I’ve volunteered for pit-crew duties in previous Baja races since 1983, and have even done a few seasons behind the wheel in Vw-powered Class 11 and Class 12 buggies. I’m no pro by any means, but my dusty Baja roots run deep. As we drank and smoked around the fire, everyone agreed that since Biltwell specializes in chopper parts and riding gear, racing a custom two-wheeler made the most sense. Because a traditional dirt bike wouldn’t be relevant to the bulk of our customers, the idea of an off-road Sportster started to make sense too. Biltwell staffers Otto and Westy were the first guys to take my bait. Our friend Chris Moeller at S&M Bikes—a legendary BMX dirt jumper and skilled vintage motocross racer in his own right—agreed to split the entry fee in exchange for time in the saddle. With our four-man race team assembled, we headed back to Biltwell headquarters with a rough plan to do the improbable: race to the tip of Baja on an American V-twin motorcycle. Project Frijole 883 was in high gear.
THE RACE OF NOT-SO-GENTLEMEN
The National Off-road Racing Association Mexican 1000 is a point-to-point off-road rally that snakes down the entire length of the Baja Peninsula from Ensenada to San Jose del Cabo. It’s 1,000 miles—not kilometers!—of off-road racing, plus another 300 miles of poorly paved transit stages, that runs the gamut from washboard ranch roads to deep sand washes, rocky ascents, technical water crossings, dreaded silt beds and many miles of whoops created
by 800 hp trophy trucks in the Baja 1000. NORRA’S format differs from the Baja 1000 in that it includes five days of racing with timed checkpoints at the beginning and end of key stages. This format breaks the race up into smaller chunks, which we agreed might improve our chances of success since we could work on the bike every night between stages. Of course, this multiday format also complicates logistics by throwing pit stops, rider changes, overnight accommodations and other time- and money-sucks into the mix. Get everything right, and one week later, you and a dozen co-riders, chase-truck drivers, friends and volunteers get to party in Cabo for a night or two before traversing a landscape twice the length of Florida north to the San Diego border and civilization. Like I said—this had the potential to be a very bad idea.
Our good friend “Rouser” Rob Galan lives a surfer’s dream in Panama and Costa Rica for most of the year but works in the Biltwell shop every winter to cover his nut in paradise. In 2017, Rob’s usual three-month swing grew into eight months with the Frijole 883 project. Rob is a certified Harley mechanic and a certified nut job who loves dirt bikes and Toyota 4x4s. He’s ridden and driven through nearly every square inch of Central America and is just the right mix of creative H-D chopper guy and off-road adventurist. Before the project started, everyone on our team agreed to some basic parameters: Keep the stock frame, swingarm, tank and rear fender—the Frijole had to look like a Harley. Rob worked for months, and as the Frijole took shape, we did test runs in the wash behind the shop in Temecula. Once it was a runner, we took it to an infamous off-road test spot in Barstow for a real shakedown. We wanted to keep it an 883 for pure reliability—this bike had to run on notoriously crappy Mexican gas and stay cool when lugged through sand washes for days on end. That stock 883 mill would barely spin the dirt-bike-size 18-inch rear wheel, so we went through a variety of custom sprockets, finally landing on the pizza-size 65-tooth. Biltwell product manager and Frijole team rider Erik “Westy” Westergaard worked with Precision Concepts to get our Honda CRF250 forks dialed, and relied on UTV suspension guru Doug Roll for swingarm mods and custom Elka shocks. The first round of suspension was subpar, and the 500-pound bike bucked like a burro with a cactus in its butt. Westy wadded it up at speed on our second test session and reinforced what we already knew—silly ideas often have consequences.
HEADING TO BATTLE
Logistics for our Frijole 883 assault made it feel like we were invading Mexico, not racing there. We built and bought enough spare parts to rebuild nearly everything on the bike should the need arise. I was sure we’d have at least one all-nighter if one of us ran out of talent during the race or if the bike sucked in some legendary Baja silt, so one week before the race, we bought a backup bike and pulled the motor to have a spare, just in case. We ended up destroying more parts in testing than we did in the race, which is exactly how testing is supposed to work. We ruined one rear wheel but finished the day thanks to using Nitro mousse instead of inner tubes. We swapped a rear sprocket on night four since the teeth were just about gone at the end of that day. Rob tightened spokes, adjusted the chain, double-checked fasteners, adjusted the clutch and primary, changed engine oil, and replaced air filters
every night. His attention to detail and insane work ethic made this possible. While we crashed the bike several times, there was never a single mechanical issue, and I was really stoked that none of the custom parts we made broke or gave us problems during the beating.
None of our crew had ever raced in Baja, and my experience was so stale it almost didn’t count. By the end of day one, everyone got in a groove, understood their role and worked their asses off. Due to our bike’s limited fuel range, we set up pits more frequently than traditional teams. Several times, our riders had to dump their own gas from three reserve bottles stored in our tank bag and on the sides of the bike. We also used neutral tech support from a group of desert rats called Mag-7 when our chase vehicles couldn’t reach the course. When I had a 200-mile stretch with no Biltwell team support on day three, I was thrilled to get a top-off from the guys at Mag-7.
We split our four-rider crew into groups of two. Four riders might seem like a lot, and it was—most competitors in our modern bike class rode solo on sub-300-pound Honda XRS, Huskies and KTMS. With a bike as heavy as ours and one completely inappropriate for the task, splitting the 1,300 miles four ways just seemed prudent. I coldly estimated we’d have at least two injuries and any of us might have to ride farther than originally planned. Westy and I rode three days, and Otto and Moeller rode two. The mileage per rider was determined by terrain, experience and where we had access to the highway to do a rider swap. I don’t think any of us felt short-changed at the end of the race; we all had our own challenges and were exhausted and satisfied when the checkered flag dropped in San Jose del Cabo.
THE HAPPIEST RACE ON EARTH
NORRA’S Mexican 1000 bills itself as the “Happiest Race on Earth,” and its multiday format allows for partying every night and a less blistering pace than a single-day assault from top to bottom. Much of the course comprises popular sections of the Baja 1000, with a few brutal sections mercifully deleted. On long stretches of washboard roads that connect small fishing villages to free-range cattle ranches inland, the Frijole held its own, and we passed several more practical desert sleds from time to time. In the deep sand, our little Milwaukee tractor chugged right through with no problem. The extra weight helped with traction so long as we stayed in motion, though the front end was unpredictable in deep ruts. In early training rides, everyone on our team agreed the best tactic was to lean back, hold on and stay on the gas—the bike would do the rest. Trying to muscle a 500-pound desert hog into the perfect line was utterly impossible, and we did our fair share of overshooting berms, riding through bushes and bouncing off rocky sections. The most difficult aspect of the race was picking the bike up after a get-off. Otto made both of his days clean—not a single crash, which was totally out of character for our old friend. I crashed the most. At least once per day, and most of the time I got the bike back up on my own, but at the end of my hardest day, in a deep gravel wash into Loreto, I had to call for help. I knew the finish line was only a couple of miles away, but the bike just pushed into the deep gravel and the bars were buried to the neck in the rocks, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not get it dug out and back on its wheels. I knew our crew was less than a mile away, so I pulled out my cellphone and begged for an assist. Seeing Mcgoo, Biltwell’s co-founder, bashing through the wash in my truck was a glorious sight, and we got the bike back up. Of course, about a mile later, I dumped it again, and thankfully our guys were right there. The race might be the happiest on earth, but it’s punctuated by sections of brutal terrain that the Harley factory never imagined its bike would encounter.
FIRE IN THE HOLE
The guys insisted that I finish the last leg of the race on day five. It was about a hundred-mile stretch for me, and the first 75 were fast and fun, weaving their way through small villages and rolling terrain from the surf town of Todos Santos southeast to San Jose del Cabo. The last 25 miles was a special stage with no GPS navigation that chicaned its way back and forth through a massive sand wash west of town. As I started that last stage, there were two V8-powered Class 1 buggies queued up just after me, so I knew they’d be passing me soon. The terrain was sandy and curvy, with tall bushes on both sides, so the cars couldn’t see me until the last minute. I had been trading positions all day with John from Black Mamba Racing on the No. 43 bike, and I wanted to keep him between me and the buggies, but I couldn’t quite match the speed of his XR650. A couple of miles in, I spotted him standing next to his bike, which was on its side at the exit to another sand wash. I rode up and immediately fell over like a short-legged dork. After getting the Frijole up and stuffing it in a manzanita bush, we got his bike up and attempted to push it off the course. Remember, those buggies were coming our way any second. The sand was too deep to push the bike, and when he tried to start it, all it took was one backfire and John’s leg went up in flames. He got that out, and then the air box caught fire and we started to bury it with sand. We dug like mad, but it kept bursting into flames, and at one point, the affable Aussie said, “I think she’s a goner, mate!” We gave up, moved the Sportster to safety and watched it burn. I left him with a thin tarp for shade and confirmed he had water and a cellphone. He didn’t want to ride in on the back of a Harley and just said, “I’ll see you at the bar!” Later that day, he walked across the finish line holding the melted aluminum neck of his dirt bike, but I guess it didn’t count since he didn’t ride it. It was his fourth (I think?) failed attempt at the Mexican 1000, and while his team might not have completed the last 18 or so miles, they had a winning attitude, and I wouldn’t doubt you’ll see them out there again next year.
The Frijole? After watching the Honda burn, and being passed by a few cars, I popped out of the riverbed into town and pulled into a checkpoint. They wrote the time on the front fender, and I asked how long the next stage was. “You are done, man. Ride around the corner and go to the party.” I pulled up right behind the winning trophy truck of Mark Post and was honestly a bit teary-eyed as I saw my wife, son and our whole crew on the sidelines, stoked that the Biltwell crew and a band of dedicated close friends had pulled off such a crazy idea.