Mud Races, Wired Grips and Pythons

By Jerry Bernardo

Tuffy and I were chin-wagging recently about some of the toughest days we’ve spent on dirt bikes. Naturally, he asked which one sticks out in what’s left of my mind.

I immediately thought back to one of the days that it was raining the whole time during a rally I raced in Peru. Franco Acerbis of Acerbis Plastica took a huge contingent of people to Peru one year for a “made-for-TV” rally. It wasn’t a proper GPS-mapped, ride-all-day-style rally. It was more like a gnarly three-hour test in the morning and then in the arvo we would do something odd or out of the moto norm. One day we raced on the bitumen at the airport through construction cones; another day we raced up a 15-kilometer stretch of rocky dirt road and then loaded our bikes onto big white-water-style rafts and paddled Class-3 rapids for an hour and a half. At the end of the grueling challenge we unloaded the bikes (still on the clock) and raced up a loose off-camber hill to the finish. The afternoons were always fun but a little crazy.

Another special test was racing on the clock up the twisty mountain road that leads to Machu Picchu. (A tour bus climbs the route in 30 minutes; we did in in seven!) I was hosting a TV show at the time called Motoworld 2 and was both presenting the show and competing in the event. It was the funniest and most insane thing I have ever done in TV in my 18-year career.

Well, it was all fun until the day in the jungle when it pissed down rain.

We were in Puerto Maldonado (a city in southeastern Peru in the Amazon rain forest 55 kilometers west of the Bolivian border) for one day of racing after horrifying the town with an impromptu scooter race around a park at night when we woke to torrents of rain. Hardcore Italian enduro masochist Franco says, “We race!” with a big, shitty grin. I was teamed (it was a two-man team race) with six-time ISDE gold medalist Chris Smith who was riding a CR250R. Me? I was riding what they gave me when I got there: an XR600R. Great rally bike for fast, long, dry stuff, but wet, greasy, single-track in the jungle? Maybe not the bike of choice.

From the cover of his cute little umbrella, Franco barked, “We race, three hours—no matter what!” The riders were a bit quiet because all knew we were in for a bit of a muck-fest. Chris and I had finished second every day so far so we took off (on the clock) behind top racer and Dirt Rider magazine Editor-at-Large Jimmy Lewis on his KLX300 and four-stroke World Enduro Champ Arnaldo Nicoli of Italy who was riding a Husqvarna at the time.

We got into the bush and straight away it was slippery as eel crap. I was following Chris, trying to minimize wheelspin and avoiding trees. The bike was all over the show (team riders had to cross the finish together so we were always close during the race).

The first obstacle was a little creek crossing with a crappy wet bridge fashioned from pallets. On the other side was a muddy little 10-meter uphill which wasn’t too bad on the first loop. Only Lewis and Nicoli had been through so we blast up it no worries. On the second lap of the 15-mile course, we arrived back to the bridge to find lappers strewn all about—some just watching in no apparent hurry, waiting or bogged in, stuck on the now wheel-deep rut up the hill. Riders could help riders, but spectators could not assist. The TV cameraman had arrived on scene by now along with a few international photographers. We all started grabbing bikes—six guys per bike—and exhausted ourselves getting each one to the top. I was boot-deep in the stickiest mud I’ve ever been in; just walking was a draining task. The rain was coming down and all our goggles were off. It was about as ugly as you can get.

Another rider from Chile was also on an XR600R and was in the middle of the bridge frantically kicking his bike, which wouldn’t start. I offered to kick it for him because he was spent and I wanted to get him the hell out of the way so Chris and I could jump into the conga line.

I hopped on to go through the clean-out trick you use on XRs when they won’t start (I’m sure he didn’t know the drill because I’m sure he had flooded it in desperation). I stood on the pegs and told him, “Hold the handlebar!” (He was on the clutch side, disheveled and huffing.) I started to kick the bike through to clean it out and then give it a good crack to try to start it.

This was when the true fun began.

He apparently hadn’t wired his grips on and with all the water, the clutch-side grip slid off in my hand, as the bike and I fell in slow motion into the creek with an enormous splash! I found myself somehow standing chest-deep in dirty water, my hands above me, bench-pressing the XR to keep it from putting me under and trapping me.

Picture this, if you can: The wheels were still on the deck, the bike was at an angle and just off the water thanks to me holding it with all my might so I didn’t get trapped and drown. I was yelling like a madman: “Get the f____g bike, get the bike!” He stood there, gob-smacked at the situation and frozen like a mud-covered gear mannequin in a bike shop. All I could hear was the motor-drive of a camera off to my left. One of the Italian photographers crouched at the water’s edge was gleefully snapping away, forgoing saving me for a great action shot right before I drowned. He was chanting, “Bravo Jerry, bravo!” I wanted to throw the bike on him like a super hero could!

But I managed to escape that near-death experience and soldier on. Chris and I finished second on the day once again. Of the 26 racers who started that morning, only five of us did two and a half loops before the race was called. It took us three hours to go 37 miles!

In a cruel twist of fate, the rain stopped right as we finished and we all sat in the steamy humidity of a post-rain jungle, drinking water and trying to laugh about the day’s events. Bill Berroth, who was Franco’s right-hand man at the time, told me later, “You know the creek where you went in under the bike? I was there the day before scouting out the trail and went off to the side to see if [the race] bottlenecked, was there another place to cross? I saw a 12-foot-long lying python laying in the water’s edge just hanging around.”

If that thing had slid between my legs under water when I was in my moment of “bike shoulder-press” peril, I would have tossed that bike on that stupid Italian photographer so fast it would’ve looked like a booby trap exploded!

Chris and I—also known as Team Cosa Nostra—would finish out the week-long Incas Rally in second place with big smiles, great new friends and a lifetime of memories.

Now, about learning how to wire your grips for a mud race….