The Sport­ster Built for Baja

RAC­ING A HAR­LEY-DAVID­SON B1,000 MILES IN THE MEX­I­CAN DESERT

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The NORRA Mex­i­can 1000 is a five-day, off-road rally down the Baja Penin­sula. It trav­els much of the same ter­rain as the treach­er­ous Baja 1000, and it is not where you’d ex­pect to see a 2000 Har­ley-david­son XL883 Sport­ster in com­pe­ti­tion. Yet there it sat at the start line, Fri­jole 883, the Biltwell en­try, a chunky bull­dog amid the tall Hon­das and KTMS wait­ing for the flag. The more you looked at it, the more wrong it got. The ex­haust ends in a stubby, welded can mil­lime­ters from the rear shock, which stands at at­ten­tion and is sur­rounded by gear and ex­tra fuel. If the rear sprocket was a pizza, it could feed a fam­ily of five. The grafted-on Honda fork looked spindly in front of the Sport­ster’s hunch­backed tank, painted with “No. 420” in var­ie­gated gold leaf. It’s clear the Biltwell team doesn’t take its rac­ing too se­ri­ously.

At the start of the fourth day’s stage, suited up and in the count­down, rider Mike “Otto” Deutsch was jok­ing around. The starter held up her hand, 5-4-3-2… “I should have stayed in school. I could be play­ing golf right now,” he said. Then he twisted the throt­tle and aimed the bike south.

Biltwell isn’t the first team to have the ter­ri­ble idea of at­tempt­ing 1,000 miles in the Baja desert on a Har­ley Sport­ster. In 1986, TV di­rec­tor David Far­row took a heav­ily mod­i­fied Sport­ster called Har­ley’s Comet to a fourth-place fin­ish in its class at the Baja 1000—but there isn’t much the Fri­jole shares with the Comet. The Biltwell team wanted its bike to use the stock frame and 883 en­gine. To pre­pare it for the hill climbs, the heat, the wa­ter cross­ings, and the dust of Baja, me­chan­ics Erik Wester­gaard and “Rouser” Rob Galan brain­stormed a cruiser-to-off-road con­ver­sion.

Gi­ga­cy­cle Garage ma­chined the steer­ing stem and triple clamps that al­lowed Biltwell to bolt on a fork from a 2005 Honda CRF250R. A dirt-bike han­dle­bar, grips,

“IT’S LIKE RAC­ING A TRAC­TOR.” —BILL BRYANT

and levers were also added. The en­gine is un­changed ex­cept for the valve cov­ers, which were sourced from a Buell. They use one-way PCV valves that vent gases and oil to a catch can.

There are re­dun­dant coils, bat­ter­ies, and mul­ti­ple fil­ters. The shift lever was re­versed, GP style, and tucked closer to the en­gine case. The rear brake uses a four-pis­ton To­kico caliper with a cus­tom car­rier also made by Gi­ga­cy­cle. The shocks are Elka units, and that hi­lar­i­ously large 65-tooth sprocket gives the Har­ley enough bot­tom end to get mov­ing in sand. The Rek­luse clutch was an­other Baja-spe­cific change, says Galan. “We wanted the rid­ers to be able to come to a stop without hav­ing to go to neu­tral, without stalling the bike.”

The re­sult is still a brute, at 525 pounds. “If you hit some­thing, you don’t pull it back like with a dirt bike,” says Wester­gaard. “You just let it move over un­til you hit some­thing else that hope­fully moves you back.”

That strat­egy seemed to work. On the first day, Wester­gaard crashed once, and Bryant dumped it in the silt, but most of their crashes dur­ing the week were low-speed tip-overs. In one in­stance, Bryant hit a rock on an up­hill sec­tion. The mo­tor­cy­cle reared up be­fore top­pling over. At a pit stop, Brazil­ian racer Daniel Fink told us he heard the crash: “I fig­ured you weren’t hurt be­cause you shout like joy, ‘yeeee haaaaaw,’” he said over pineap­ple so­das in the shade of a tin-roofed shack. It was the only build­ing for miles in any di­rec­tion. “I was just so happy it didn’t land on me,” replied Bryant.

At the time, BMX hero Chris Moeller was on the bike, and he had been tak­ing a while. The team started to won­der if he was go­ing to want to swap out or fin­ish the whole 198-mile stage on his own. “His nick­name is ‘Mad Dog,’ so we prob­a­bly aren’t get­ting him off that bike un­less we drag him off,” said Deutsch, leav­ing noth­ing to do but eat tacos.

“IT’S LIKE DRIV­ING A BOAT.”

—ERIK “WESTY” WESTER­GAARD

Chasing a desert race is a lot of sit­ting around wait­ing for your rider to come into ra­dio con­tact, pre­tend­ing you aren’t steal­ing anx­ious glances at the GPS tracker, which is mad­den­ingly slow to up­date when you’re 50 miles from nowhere. The wait­ing gives you plenty of time to make friends with the lo­cals, ac­com­plished in a mix of bro­ken Span­ish and English, with the goal of learn­ing the fa­mil­ial re­la­tion­ship of the bat-eared Chi­huahuas milling around our feet. “Es­posa,” de­clared the owner of the shack­restau­rant. Oh! They’re mar­ried.

When Moeller came in, he was laugh­ing. The stage had been straight and fast. Not ev­ery day was that easy. The Baja land­scape twists and morphs from mile to mile. A graded farm road be­comes a rut­ted ob­sta­cle course. Small flow­er­ing sages, eas­ily rid­den through, be­come im­mov­able car­don cac­tuses—pachyc­ereus pringlei—con­tact with which would be like hit­ting a barbed skyscraper. Wa­ter cross­ings can be shal­low and swampy or deep enough to cover the tank. De­spite silt and swamps, the Fri­jole made it to the end, and out of 40 com­peti­tors, the Har­ley was one of 32 to com­plete all 1,000 miles, fin­ish­ing 27th.

The se­cret is in the prep, the team agreed. Not just of the bike, al­though Galan worked late ev­ery night chang­ing flu­ids and check­ing fas­ten­ers, but in the peo­ple as well. “We act like a bunch of dum­mies, but we re­ally did train and test our­selves and the bike be­fore rolling up to the start,” Bryant told me. That’s the ap­proach that keeps bikes and rid­ers in one piece, no mat­ter what the land­scape. But here’s the big ques­tion: Will they do it again? “We met our goal,” says Bryant. “I told ev­ery­body that if we didn’t make it, we’d come back and try again next year. No­body wants to do that.”

“I WOULDN’T RIDE THAT.”

—A SEN­SI­BLE PER­SON, OVER­HEARD AT THE START LINE OF THE 2018 MEX­I­CAN 1000

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