What Went Wrong

Keep your eyes on the (dirt) road

Motorcyclist - - Contents - —Chris Jon­num


What was a barbed-wire fence do­ing across this per­fectly good dirt road? That was my ques­tion, and there wasn’t much time to an­swer. I locked the rear brake and squeezed the front lever as hard as I dared, but nei­ther had much ef­fect given the al­most nonex­is­tent grip af­forded by fine sand atop hard­pack. Ac­ced­ing that a crash was in­evitable, I laid the speed­ing dual-sport bike on its side with wheels lat­eral to the rapidly ap­proach­ing bar­rier. The sac­ri­ficed ma­chine valiantly punched through the wire (tak­ing three wooden posts with it), and I slid through in its wake. For­tu­itously, bike dam­age was lim­ited to a sheared-off front fender and shift lever, while proper safety gear meant I was more or less un­scathed. Nonethe­less, as I shak­ily got to my feet—my brush with fate hav­ing been wit­nessed only by an unim­pressed buz­zard—i felt ashamed to con­sider that I might eas­ily have been se­ri­ously in­jured and/or stranded, alone in the re­mote Ne­vada desert.


I was cov­er­ing the Ne­vada Rally—a week­long in­ter­na­tional off-road com­pe­ti­tion—and in order to pho­to­graph the rac­ers on each day’s point-to-point route, I’d leapfrog them by mak­ing time on the high­way. Once ahead of the lead rider, I’d spot a suit­able ran­dom side route—typ­i­cally a ranch dirt

road—and use it to ac­cess the course, find a good photo spot, pull my cam­era gear from my back­pack, shoot the rac­ers, and then ride back to the high­way and re­peat the process. Lo­cat­ing a wide, smooth dirt road late one day, I up­shifted to fourth gear and stood on the pegs, scan­ning the dis­tant foothills in a search for dust—a tell­tale sign of rid­ers on course. My speed didn’t seem ex­ces­sive given the lack of ter­rain ob­sta­cles, but when I re­turned my gaze to the dirt road and spot­ted the fence, I be­lat­edly re­mem­bered that the stock dual-sport tires of­fered next to no pur­chase in the con­di­tions. Time to en­gage dam­age-con­trol mode.

When I spot­ted the fence, I be­lat­edly re­mem­bered that the stock dual-sport tires of­fered next to no pur­chase.


As usual, there’s no short­age of dic­tums that can be drawn from this act of folly, but here are a few of the most per­ti­nent: Pay at­ten­tion to where you’re go­ing, and never make as­sump­tions about the route; re­mem­ber not to over­ride your brak­ing dis­tances, and know that those dis­tances can in­crease de­pend­ing on con­di­tions (stop­ping in time wouldn’t have been a prob­lem on the as­phalt I was rid­ing five min­utes ear­lier); and never ride alone in re­mote ar­eas.

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