Crash course in ex­plor­ing 50 years of the Baja 1000

Cycle World - - Contents - By ZACH BOW­MAN

We had to be here. Had to load up the van and shuck south across the bor­der be­cause this is the 50th an­niver­sary of the Baja 1000. No mat­ter how many times you’ve looped “Dust to Glory” or “On Any Sun­day” in the garage, you can’t un­der­stand this place or the race that runs through it without put­ting your boots in the dirt.

This is an entire penin­sula of ab­sur­dity. A place where some towns have only re­cently re­ceived pave­ment and elec­tric­ity while oth­ers still wait. A place where cell­phones and credit cards are still quaint cu­riosi­ties, and no one bats an eye if you go gun­ning through the heart of it on a pair of red-sticker 2017 Honda CRF450RXS.

The ma­chines are spe­cial. Brand-new and laden with a stack of af­ter­mar­ket good­ies. LED head­lights from Baja De­signs, IMS desert tanks, and Acer­bis Bark Busters, all without a scratch on them. Honda took the 450R, threw on an elec­tric starter and a hand­ful of spe­cific en­gine maps, re­tuned the sus­pen­sion, and called it a day. It’s made for hare scram­bles and en­duros, a full-on com­pe­ti­tion ma­chine with a tog­gle for a throttle and zero pa­tience for any­thing less than a full-on sprint. We would put more

than 800 miles on them in four days, rid­ing from the hotel where we left the van in Ense­nada all the way south to Bahía de los Án­ge­les and back again.

We were dirt­bag­ging it. No sup­port. No reser­va­tions. Just a wild no­tion to ride some of the course be­fore the race got go­ing and to see how far south we could get be­fore hav­ing to turn north again to meet my flight home.

Ense­nada is a sprawl­ing, low city with a mirac­u­lous tan­gle of traf­fic. Belch­ing city buses, all of them re­pur­posed Blue Birds and Fords from the sur­plus school fleet up north, jockey with scrap trucks and brand-new Re­naults. We were three days ahead of the race, and al­ready the town was fill­ing with teams. Tro­phy trucks, bug­gies, and trail­ers were ev­ery­where we looked. Bikes too.

We caught High­way 3 out of town, through the sal­vage yards and ceme­ter­ies that make up the out­skirts, and on through the low hills. When the course left the pave­ment at Ojos Ne­gros, so did we, turn­ing off and fol­low­ing the or­ange mark­ers staked in the dirt. What be­gan as a wide, hard-packed road quickly de­volved into my personal rid­ing night­mare. I’d ex­pected sand and whoops and silt and nasty climbs. I didn’t ex­pect all four to hap­pen si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

It was the third down in­side that first hour. I can­not in good con­science call it a drop; it was an hon­est crash at the bot­tom of third gear with the throttle yawn­ing wide. A good and meaty low­side. My right arm burned with blood, sand, and dirt—the first of many gifts from Mex­ico. There wasn’t time take stock of what was torn or bro­ken. Jeff Allen, our pho­tog­ra­pher and my rid­ing com­pan­ion, had

been clear be­fore we set off: Teams were pre-run­ning the course. At any time, a truck, buggy, or bike could come rip­ping around the blind cor­ner be­hind me at race pace.

We hadn’t cov­ered more than 30 miles and al­ready ev­ery inch of me had some­thing to say about the life choices that led me there. At some point, my con­fi­dence aban­doned me for some­one who wasn’t in­tent on snap­ping a limb. It was re­placed by fa­tigue and hes­i­ta­tion, that hate­ful cock­tail that leads only to more drops. Af­ter getting pitched from the bike again on an off-cam­ber rock step, it dawned on me that I was no longer on a mo­tor­cy­cle ride. I was in a fight. And I was los­ing. Mex­ico was kick­ing my ass.

We’ve heard the words “Baja 1000” so many times that they’ve lost their mean­ing. Some­where along the dusty years, the jagged im­pos­si­bil­ity of the race fell by the way­side, re­placed by dreamy im­ages of rid­ers loft­ing their front wheels down im­pec­ca­ble, empty beaches at 100 mph. But right then, sweat­ing and bleed­ing and ut­terly in­ca­pable of curs­ing, it was the first time I fully grasped what this race means. One thou­sand miles. Of that.

I had to swal­low my pride. I choked it down with the rest of the grit be­tween my teeth and ad­mit­ted I couldn’t keep rid­ing the course. Allen agreed to change our tack, and we spent a few hours ex­plor­ing the penin­sula’s in­te­rior, sling­ing down ranch roads and chas­ing out dry washes, their bel­lies full of loose, dry sand.

The RX and I never quite came to an un­der­stand­ing. The bike’s meant to be rid­den like death’s not far be­hind. I don’t have the skill set to whip it down a riverbed or up the rut­ted ridges that be­came the fla­vor of the day. Not at full-tilt.

We took a break, the sun fil­ter­ing be­tween the hills and the clouds be­hind us. It was so quiet, I could hear my blood in my ears. The desert ran out for miles around us, noth­ing but scrub and cac­tuses. The harsh­ness of that place ebbs at dusk. The sky shades pink and soft, and you can’t help but feel the beauty of it in your chest. I added it to the day’s bruises and abra­sions, glad of the ache.

It was a long, dark ride to San Felipe. The big tanks gave us a range of well over 160 miles, but gaug­ing dis­tance be­tween fuel sta­tions is an im­pos­si­bil­ity down here. Some­where down High­way 5, we stopped at a small store to ask about fuel. The owner pointed us up a dirt track, where we found a fam­ily in the mid­dle of their evening meal.

Baja makes it easy to come down and visit. Busi­nesses read­ily ac­cept Amer­i­can dol­lars, and nearly ev­ery­one speaks English. Those who don’t were tol­er­ant of my man­gled high school Span­ish. Ev­ery­one gets on, and when we asked about fuel, the ma­tron of the house pointed us to­ward a cou­ple of 50-gal­lon drums. A gen­tle­man was glad to mea­sure us a few gal­lons by milk jug and fun­nel, the scene play­ing out by cell­phone flash­light under a wide blan­ket of stars.

The next morn­ing, we couldn’t help but point the bikes to­ward the long beaches that par­al­lel the high­way. Baja is an as­tound­ing play­ground. There’s no one to tell you where you can and can­not go. There are no rules about leav­ing the pave­ment and head­ing through the dunes. I dropped the bike twice more in the sand, drops eight and nine, re­open­ing my fore­arm’s ten­der skin. I was in the mid­dle of a rang­ing rant about Allen, sand, Honda, and grav­ity when I crested the last dune. The words stuck in my throat. The view was stun­ning, the beach run­ning out for miles, noth­ing but white sand, shells, and a per­fect blue sea.

Was this what South­ern Cal­i­for­nia was once like? Empty and gor­geous? High­way 5 be­came a won­der, a gleam­ing, paved two-lane thread­ing through alien ocotillo flats, then jog­ging back to­ward the coast. We called the day at Bahía San Luis Gon­zaga, rid­ing up the cove to a $100-a-night hotel with an endless sup­ply of Paci­fico and rooms that open onto the water. That’s where we met Curt Fournier.

“Ev­ery­one takes a beat­ing their first time down here.”

He’s been com­ing down to watch the race for 30 years, usu­ally on bikes. It’s a long time to do any­thing.

“I’m a high, type-a, fast-paced hurry-up-let’s-go-go-go,” he said. “I get down here and I just let it go. You go to a gas sta­tion, they’re in no hurry to do any­thing. You go to a restau­rant, they’re in no hurry. You just kind of go with that pace, and pretty soon you feel your blood pressure go­ing down. It’s a good thing.”

That, and watch­ing rid­ers come sail­ing through the desert is an ex­pe­ri­ence.

“The ma­chin­ery has im­proved vastly. Back in the ’70s, ma­chines had very lit­tle sus­pen­sion travel. And I think a lot of guys did it Iron­man. One guy rode the whole thou­sand miles… Can you imag­ine rid­ing a thou­sand on a 1974 Husq­varna? It’s crazy.”

I ad­mit­ted I could not. I barely man­aged 30 miles on a modern, fuel-in­jected Honda. Fournier laughed and said he couldn’t help but no­tice my blos­som­ing right arm. Said not to worry about it. Ev­ery­one takes a beat­ing their first time down here. When I asked him what this place means to him af­ter all these years, he went quiet.

“My fa­ther passed two years ago,” he said. “He drove the chase truck for us. I don’t know how many times we sat right here…”

He didn’t finish the thought. The tears that welled in his eyes fin­ished it for him. On the hu­man scale, 50 years is a ten­der blink. For a race that runs down pub­lic roads and over pri­vate land for more than 1,000 miles, it is a rare and pre­cious eter­nity, one that spans gen­er­a­tions. Maybe that’s why we keep com­ing to the desert. To get close to the ones who blazed the trail. The ones who left for bet­ter rid­ing.

The next day, the high­way dis­solved into a shade of its for­mer self. The pave­ment ended, re­placed by a smooth and fast dirt road through the desert. The as­phalt has been claw­ing its way south year by year as con­struc­tion crews work to unite the penin­sula’s north­ern and south­ern ends, and we found our­selves rid­ing on the fu­ture roadbed, squar­ing off with heavy graders, bull­doz­ers, earth movers, and on­com­ing traf­fic. It all felt like the wan­ing hours of some­thing wild. Progress, even here.

We couldn’t stand the sight of it, and af­ter two days of stick­ing to main roads, Allen sug­gested a de­tour. It was a

20-mile blast down an easy two-track, the road al­ter­nat­ing be­tween sand, silt, and loose stone. For the first time this trip, the RX and I were getting along, the bike glad to stretch its legs down the long straights. There was no prepar­ing for what we found at the end: a 300-year-old adobe Je­suit mis­sion crum­bling into the sand. It seemed im­pos­si­ble for any­thing to be out here among the noth­ing, and yet, there it stood. And its suc­ces­sor, a stone Do­mini­can mis­sion built in 1801.

Jose An­gel met us at the mis­sion steps. His fam­ily has been care­tak­ers there for eight gen­er­a­tions, work­ing to re­store the Do­mini­can mis­sion. He was born there on the stone floor. So were his chil­dren. The pride he feels for that place was clear in his eyes as he walked us through the tall, carved doors and into the sanc­tu­ary, the room a full 10 de­grees cooler than out­side. The mis­sion ex­isted pri­mar­ily to con­vert the na­tive pop­u­la­tion to Chris­tian­ity, but it also served as a launch point for Span­ish ex­pe­di­tions to the north.

When the tour was over, An­gel qui­etly asked if we would like to ring the bells. At first, we thought we mis­un­der­stood. Ring­ing the bell in a Span­ish mis­sion isn’t some­thing that usu­ally comes with the $10 tour, but when he re­peated the ques­tion, we ac­cepted with all the grace we could muster. The spi­ral stairs were nar­row and worn with 200 years of hu­man steps, and when we reached the top, the view of the sanc­tu­ary was un­like any­thing I’ve ever put my eyes to. Timidly, I reached out and rang the bell, the sound sing­ing out against the stone.

“Otra vez,” An­gel said, his eyes gleam­ing. I can­not fathom the thou­sands of times he must have heard that bell or the love he must feel for the place to want to hear it one more time.

Maybe that’s what I was thinking about as we gunned back to­ward the high­way when I high-sided the bike in fourth. Lucky drop num­ber 10. It hap­pened so quickly, I didn’t have time to reg­is­ter be­ing air­borne. One mo­ment I was on the bike, the next I was face­down in the rocks 15 feet up the trail won­der­ing what was mak­ing that mewl­ing sound. It was me.

I’d rung my sec­ond bell for the day, my ears sing­ing, ev­ery limb hot and an­gry from bounc­ing off the rocks, my mouth full of blood and snot. In a mo­ment of clar­ity, I re­al­ized I wasn’t on the race­course. I could lie there in the road un­til the vul­tures got cu­ri­ous. By some hon­est mir­a­cle, noth­ing was bro­ken, just bruised and hate­ful.

It was a long ride to Bahía de los Án­ge­les, the bars bent and my right arm shout­ing in hot pain with ev­ery bump in the road. It was near dusk by the time we ar­rived to find the town booked solid. We set­tled for tequi­las and fish tacos at a hotel on the north end of town, waited pa­tiently and hoped some­one would can­cel their reser­va­tion. When they didn’t, per­fect strangers of­fered us a cou­ple of sleep­ing bags. With the hotel man­ager’s per­mis­sion, we found a flat spot on the beach and bed­ded down a few feet from the bar. The magic of Baja.

The morn­ing was cold and clear, the sun start­ing as a dull glow on the water, the up­turned cres­cent moon and a hand­ful of stub­born stars the last threads in the night sky. It was im­pos­si­ble not to be ex­cited about the day, about what else this place could show us. I limped to the water and watched the sky brighten, know­ing this place was worth the blood.

We found a spot for break­fast, the pa­tio over­look­ing the main drag through town. The race fi­nally caught us, and the first rid­ers came through just be­fore 8 a.m., about the time our chi­laquiles and coffee hit the ta­ble. The drone of a he­li­copter pre­ceded the pop and thrum of a sin­gle­cylin­der, and ev­ery­one in the restau­rant aban­doned their plates to rush to the road to clap and cheer the rac­ers on. The bikes are speed-lim­ited through town, but the open desert’s never far, and we heard the throt­tles crack wide from where we stood.

There were miles to cover, and with the bill paid, we pointed the bikes north for the first time in days. We waved to the rac­ers com­ing south as we rode. Stopped here and there to watch them gun through the desert, spec­tat­ing from our han­dle­bars. There is noth­ing bet­ter than a race you can watch from your mo­tor­cy­cle.

It would be hours be­fore we found a room and a shower, two days be­fore we’d cross the line into the U.S., and a month be­fore the last of my bruises faded. I’m still wait­ing to stop thinking about that place. About its lonely deserts and empty beaches. About that per­fect penin­sula of ab­sur­dity and the race that runs through it.

BE­LOW: The coast is dot­ted with tiny vil­lages, their homes ar­rayed along still coves. BOT­TOM: Baja is as hard as you make it. The high­ways are dirt, and the coun­try roads are riverbeds. RIGHT: Coco, of Coco’s Cor­ner, poses for a por­trait.

Where there are fish­er­men, there are fish tacos. The course ran right by this stand. “I’ve al­ready built a few jumps,” the pro­pri­etor said.

OP­PO­SITE TOP: The af­ter­noon sun lights the sanc­tu­ary of a 200-yearold Do­mini­can mis­sion. OP­PO­SITE BOT­TOM: High­way 5 is a lonely stretch of per­fec­tion dot­ted with fish­ing camps. BE­LOW: The penin­sula is webbed with ranch roads is wait­ing to be ex­plored.

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