The Sportster Built for Baja
RACING A HARLEY-DAVIDSON B1,000 MILES IN THE MEXICAN DESERT
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