GOOD TIMES, BAD IDEAS

BILTWELL RACES A HAR­LEY SPORT­STER IN BAJA

Hot Bike - - Contents - WORDS: BILL BRYANT PHOTOS: GE­OFF KOWALCHUK AND BILTWELL

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.

ROUSER-BUILT

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.

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