Woody Navigates the Baja Rally: Part 1

By Brian Pierce

By Brian Pierce

When I decided to take on the Baja Rally, the decision came as easy as every new adventure. I saw an opportunity to learn something completely new and a chance to come off of the Seat Time couch and get more involved with the events we cover. So far it has exceeded my expectations and I am thrilled to fill you in on the progress that we have made.

Since I have never ridden in any type of desert terrain for more than a few hours, I knew some testing was going to be in order. Not just to get the bike and rider dialed in, but to learn how to navigate using a Roadbook and all the other Rally accessories. We got in touch with Dave Peckham from Rally Management Services, filled him in on our Baja Rally plans, expressed our complete lack of Rally knowledge and told him we needed a jumpstart training course. Before long my dad and I found ourselves headed to the Nevada desert (in July) to meet up with Dave and his crew.  Our mount of choice was my dad's 2005 KTM 450 EXC.

My dad, being the awesome father he is, decided he would drive the bikes across the country. I would fly into the Las Vegas airport and he would pick me up so we could finish the drive together. The only hiccup in the plan was that we didn’t get the bike ready, van packed or dad showered until 11pm Thursday night. Fulfilling the awesome part again, my dad loaded up on water, food, energy drinks and audio books to make the 20-hour drive to Las Vegas straight through the night. He arrived at the airport just an hour and a half after my plane arrived. See where I get my "crazy" from?

Meeting up with Dave and crew was fairly easy; we only needed a GPS unit and some coordinates. Seriously, we were given coordinates to find the camp. Little did we know that Dave began our navigation training before we even got to camp!

Ian Blythe and Scott Bright were the two RMS riders testing with Dave in preparation for their riding the Dakar Rally. As they were going through their Roadbooks for the next day's routes, I asked them many questions about the markings and notes they were adding. Dave also shared with me what I considered the most important single thing I learned over the weekend: Rally isn’t a sport set up to trick you. Being new to the sport, this fact really did help me over the next few days: I should just trust my instincts and the Roadbook!

Geared up with a full 6.6 gallon Acerbis tank, my Garmin GPS, my SPOT geo-locator, RMS Roadbook holder, and ICO odometer, I left the starting point around 7am. This may sound early, but I was a full hour behind Ian and Scott who left just as the sun crested the mountains.

The minimum accessories needed to navigate.

My first day of Rally navigation went better than I expected. I only had a few minor mistakes that were easily corrected. I learned to trust the Roadbook and other navigation aids. For example, there was one course event requiring me to following a compass (CAP) heading for a number of kilometers. There was no trail, just desert, rocks, and scrub brush. I had to trust my technology. Even though I had to slow down, or stop, regularly to make sure I was headed in the correct direction, the ‘faint road’ mentioned in the Roadbook was exactly where it was supposed to be. It felt strange to put so much trust in the Roadbook and GPS unit because I am so used to following marked and arrowed trails.

At the end of the day, dad and I reviewed the many lessons learned. This included additional parts needed, as well as spares. We also discovered a leaking counter shaft seal. Since the bike had been sitting up for 3 years, we were glad this was the only mechanical challenge we had. Once removed, we verified it wasn’t torn, cleaned it off and stuck it back in. Dad soaked it in brake fluid for a little bit, saying it makes the rubber swell. It must have worked, because the leaking wasn’t nearly as bad on day two.

That’s a little bit of leaking, right?

My biggest takeaway from day one was to go back through the Roadbook and highlight what was most important and apply what was learned to the next day's ride. For example, there was a route from day one that followed power lines for around 5 miles. The Roadbook had many entries for this section. The night before I thought these entries were turns or trail changes. However, they turned out to be hazards, such as washes or road crossings, but not direction changes. If I had done a better job studying the Roadbook, I would have realized the course went straight for 5 miles instead of each course event being a turn. Little details like this can save large amounts of time during the actual race.

Day two started earlier for me and so did bad luck. I left my GPS unit at the truck, so I raced back to go grab it before my dad took off to chase me. In doing so, I slammed into some rocks harder than I should have, ripping the valve stem out of the front tube. After a quick moment of anger, I quickly changed the tube and got back to it. For the Baja Rally we will be running bibs. We decided this over the Tubliss setup because of the high possibility of slicing a tire. Dave warned us this could easily happen when riding through the unknown on the Baja Peninsula. The bibs will be mounted inside some DOT legal Kenda Parker tires.

The route I rode on day two with Phil was epic. Though not terribly tough, it covered awesome terrain. There was one wash that had 100-200 ft tall sides and was barely handlebar wide. On the mountainous sections we encountered fast double track trails with good flow up and down the ridges and led to hidden single track.

Knowing that we had to load up and get me to the airport for my flight, I didn’t get to ride any more major routes. Instead I was able to re-ride some photogenic terrain, capturing helmet cam footage.

6.6 gallons of Acerbis awesomeness, you know you’re jealous!

Although the drive back to the airport was uneventful, once cresting the mountains surrounding Las Vegas the skyline looked quite spectacular. After my dad dropped me off he started his long drive back to Texas. Without the timetable looming over his head on the return, he was able to make a few spectator stops in Arizona and New Mexico.

Because of this training experience, we are better able to prepare for the Baja Rally in September. The suspension will be re-valved and the correct spring rates installed by Konflict Motorsports. The needed replacement parts and spares will be ordered. Once the bike is ready, I will get more practice time on sandy terrain in the area that simulates the Baja Rally terrain. If possible, we will try to work up some local navigation practice routes.

Read Part 2 >>

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[Even though this post was from 2014, Woody has been riding and racing as much as possible. You can follow along with his adventures on the Seat Time YouTube channel, the Podcast feed or on Instagram. Remember, always enjoy a #PintFullOfAwesome.]