DISCOVER THE HIGH SIERRA: PART 2 - NEVADA BDR
BY: OLIVIER DE VAULX
Gold Rush and Snow / Winter gold rush
The Nevada BDR is a difficult trip to plan. This backcountry road can be cut into two parts: the Southern leg which traverses lower elevation areas, and the Northern leg which goes up into the mountains. This means that while the Southern half will be too hot in the summer, the Northern half will be covered in snow during the winter. In other words, there’s little chance that the whole route can be done in a single trip. Knowing that our attempt to ride on the CA BDR during the winter (documented in Upshift issue #42) brought us very close to Tonopah, NV, located in the middle of this NV BDR, it was tempting to try the Southern portion of the trip. Having already downloaded the GPS tracks from the ‘RideBDR’ website, and after three days in the California deserts, our fleet of Hondas was ready for the challenge. The XR650L, the CRF450L, and the Africa Twin just needed some fuel to go back on the dirt after one cold night parked in front of the Mizpah Hotel in Tonopah, NV.
Fighting the cold
Knowing that the temperatures would be at their lowest two hours after sunrise, we were prepared that the start of the ride would be a bit tough. Starting at 7am, with the thermometer showing 25F, the first trails were indeed taken at a relatively slow pace, our fingers stuck in heavily insulated gloves and barely able to squeeze the levers or to twist the throttle. Luckily, the sunlight is not as rare as gold in Nevada, even above 6,000 ft, and we quickly warmed up as the colors in the desert became more saturated, making us feel as if we were starring in a technicolor movie. We already felt warmer when we reached Goldfield and its forest of cars. This land art project sounds fun on paper but from these rusty cars planted into the frozen ground exudes a mixed feeling of sadness and creativity. Yet, art is subjective and our take on it may have been influenced by the three days we spent in the open desert with very little contact with civilization. We didn’t stay long and followed Main Street to exit Goldfield, just to realize that the XR’s front tire had a flat, caused by a rusty screw. We stopped between an antique steam locomotive inherited from the gold rush and an abandoned house with a confederate flag. Trying to work efficiently without being disturbed by ghosts of the past, we used a piece of wood to stabilize the 650L while we removed the front wheel and changed the tube. The whole operation took only a few minutes and gave us hope that we could still reach Gold Point, our next stop, in time for lunch. But we should have known better; as we make plans, God laughs.
Stuck in the snow
The dirt on the very first miles of double track out of town was perfect and each rider used their bike at its full potential. That’s the kind of riding we look for, but the exhilarating experience was short-lived; we soon encountered a first patch of snow, and then more and more, until it formed a continuous white layer. Moving forward became a challenge, and we picked our lines trying to avoid both the deep snow and the ice patches. On their CRF450L and XR650L, François and Julie advanced with relative ease, finding traction with their Shinko MX216 knobbies while I felt like crawling at a turtle pace on the Africa Twin, struggling with its more prevalent Shinko E804. The key here was to use the momentum, trying to keep the balance and the traction at all costs. It was an exhausting workout and the Fly Racing Terra Treck jackets were soon too warm. We strapped them over our bags, and we kept fighting gravity. It would have been easier, and maybe smarter, to do a u-turn when it was obvious that the trails, going up in the mountains, weren’t going to be free of snow anytime soon. But we riders are somehow proud of being stubborn rebels, so why not try and see where it brings us? Yet, after eight excruciating miles, our foolishness was not rewarded, and the tracks just disappeared under a fresh blanket of snow. The tires broke the thick layer, but even with some speed and full power, the bikes were no match for the white mattress. Besides, our fuel consumption was getting a bit out of control and the gauges were already showing signs of distress. Riding back was the only option, despite adding more miles to the loop. Alas, going downhill was not easy in such slippery conditions, and François couldn’t brake in time before a tight corner and crashed, disappearing under the XR650L.
Extracting himself from under the frame, his first words were to praise the Pod knee braces that just saved his knee! Relieved that all went well thanks to these rigid carbon protections, we kept going. A few minutes later, the Africa Twin was tricked by similar conditions, its non-disconnectable ABS on the front was unable to stop the heavy bike in time. Luckily, the outback Motortek crash bars were there to prevent any damage to the big Honda, and it was with more fear than harm that we kept going. Finally reaching a small highway, we gave a quick phone call to Walt, who lives in Gold Point, to check the availability of fuel in the ghost town. Finding our way around the mountains, we stayed in the valley and finally arrived without any more delay in front of the antique saloon, exhausted and thirsty like cowboys after a month-long horseback ride. Inside, the decoration of the room left no rest to the eyes, jumping from one artifact to another, from the framed black and white pictures to a vintage metallic ad for a long-gone brand. Sipping a fresh drink in the warm and colorful restaurant, we took the time to soak up the atmosphere, before following Walt to the gas station. Gold Point’s fuel service had nothing in common with a modern highway service area, and we filled our bikes from a huge, rusty fuel tank. The sun was lower already, January having the shortest days of the year, and it was time to head toward Beatty if we wanted to arrive before the night.
In the sandbox
The next morning, the trails after Beatty crossed a rugged desert with a magnificent point of view over the valley, where we stopped to enjoy a hot coffee from our insulated bottles. Those are the kind of small moments where you feel privileged, being the only ones to enjoy such a panorama as mother nature awakes. The multiple layers of mountains on the horizon all wore different shades of blue, and after seeing the trail winding in this direction, we became even more excited about the day ahead. Yet, it was not an easy path, since our Voyager Pro GPS guided us through a 5 mile-long section of deep gravel. Using its big torque, the CRF1000 DCT compensated weight with power to follow the two little dual sports. But the trails suddenly changed, the dirt took over the gravel and the scenery brought back memories of Africa. We were suddenly in rally mode, twisting the throttle and going full speed through these vast plains, our motorcycles almost invisible in this vastness but betrayed by a gigantic cloud of dust. At this game, the stable and powerful Africa Twin was an easy winner, letting the two other bikes disappear in its mirrors. As it turned out, this success would soon be challenged. The route passed near Big Dune, a very descriptive name for what was indeed a big, uh, dune. Luckily, it is also a recreation area open to motorized vehicles and we couldn’t resist the opportunity.
After all, the Dakar rally was won by an American rider for the first time, and we felt that riding this dune was a mandatory homage to the historic victory. Yet, none of us have Ricky Brabec’s skills or his CRF450 HRC Rally bike, so we were a bit worried in front of this giant wall of soft sand. Of the three bikes, the CRF450L was the easiest and, after taking turns on its seat, we quickly discovered how fun it is to play in this oversized sandbox; climbing the dunes in a loud roar, before leaning the bike at high speed and finally gliding our way down, trying to keep the front end light and in line. It was exhilarating, and soon François and Julie chased each other all over the place, while I tried to steer the heavier Africa Twin into banking turns big enough to dwarf the Daytona Speedway. With the wheels floating on the edge of the bigger dunes, we had a quick but exciting taste of Dakar, and realized, once again, how talented those riders are to take on the monster dunes day after day. Back on the gravel road, we made up some time at high speed until we reached Pahrump, NV. A quick refill, a snack, and here we were headed for the last leg of our journey through Nevada.
While we expected the last 70+ miles to Primm to be somewhat easy and uneventful, we soon discovered that it would be the exact opposite. The two-track out of Pahrump was an excellent ride, with an abundance of tight corners, ruts, jumps, last-second line changes, berms, whoops…everybody was riding, once again, at the maximum of their ability and the potential of their bike. The suspensions of the big twin were way too soft for this ISDE-like ride, and they bottomed-out on many jumps, the engine saved by the robust ACD skid plate. On the motocross-based CRF450L, our teenage girl Julie gave a hard time to the 62-year-old veteran François riding the old school XR650L. They raced each other as they would on a track, at a pace not fully compatible with long-distance travel. The sun already started to set for the night, the light turning more yellow every minute. As the trail started winding into the mountain, we tried to keep a fast pace through the rocks. It put a tremendous strain on the Africa Twin’s rear tire which suddenly went flat. It was a bit late to change the tube and there were not so many miles left. With the help of a bottle of Slime and an electric tire inflater, we fixed the problem in no time and kept riding as the night settled. The big twin and its Cyclops LED headlights opened the way, illuminating the trails as the three bikes finally reached Primm in convoy. Loading the bikes on our trucks that we left there five days before, we then ordered a quick meal at the Greek Cafe to comment on this Nevada BDR.
It was cold in high elevation around Tonopah, difficult at times with the snow, but the sceneries and the quality of the riding were just awesome. Being so close to the CA BDR, this portion of the Nevada Backcountry Route is the perfect complement to its California counterpart and allows riders to make a great loop. Though the two routes are not geographically far from each other, the experience is nonetheless very different in terms of riding conditions as well as scenery and historical landmarks. Having ridden these two routes with no major problems (other than some minor detours), only ten days after a major storm buried California and Nevada under snow, we can encourage any ADV or dual sport rider looking for a winter experience to try this loop. Any big town on the itinerary is a potential start and end point of the journey, which makes it even easier to plan depending on where you come from. Whatever your expectations are, chances are they will be exceeded!