Words and Photos: Olivier de Vaulx
Adventure stories are too often featuring old dudes on heavy bikes, making the ADV world look too much like an almost-retired-male-only hobby. But why not give younger and less experienced riders the right tools to explore the world? With her father on a big Africa Twin and herself on a nimble CRF450L, a 17-year-old female rider took the opportunity to ride the southern part of Arizona Backcountry Discovery Route and proved that adventure doesn’t wait.
In the last few years, the ADV community has been blessed with more resources than ever to plan end enjoy great motorcycle adventures in the USA. The work put together by BDR, a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization, is a big part of this new equation. With maps, GPS tracks, pictures, videos, and updates, their website (https://ridebdr.com) is an open and free gold mine. With so many options available, it’s hard to resist the call of the true adventure, no matter who you are. Novice ADV riders, which means people with some riding skills but less adventure experience, will need to take the weather into consideration, especially knowing that most of the routes will bring you to the high elevation of remote mountains. Even with most of the western states covered on the BDR website, you still have to pick your route carefully, as the heavy snowfall of the winter could make most of the northern routes impassable before summer time.
Planning the Route
It doesn’t mean that the BDRs are only dedicated to adventurers with years of experience. To make it clear, we decided to go for a spring break trip with Julie, a 17-year-old high school senior with some limited seat time this year. With her, we couldn’t take the risk of getting in trouble in snowy passes or muddy trails. The main goal is to give the youth a glimpse of a real adventure, with navigation, long days on the bike and beautiful scenery, without putting them in a risky situation or the nightmare of impassable wet trails. We also know that, with less fat on their body, the young riders would suffer quickly from the cold and wouldn’t easily endure long rides below 30 degrees. With all this in mind, we checked the website and the southern sections of Arizona Back Country Road quickly appeared to be the perfect choice for a mid-April ride. We then downloaded the GPS tracks and ordered the paper map from Butler. While elevation on the whole route is frequently above 7,000 ft, the temperature and dry conditions in the south were a green flag, at least up to the Mogollon Rim underneath Flagstaff. Knowing that our teenager had some great riding skills but not the physical endurance of her almost fifty year old father, we used the GPS tracks along with the Butler maps to cut the ride in short stages of approximately 100 miles. In order to remove the pressure of having to ride to the next city each night, we decided to camp, with the help of a chase truck driven by Julie’s mother and brother. Instead of sacrificing the holy spring break family time to pursue our passion of motorcycle riding, the trip then became a fully family-oriented adventure, with everybody on board. All guilt erased! To facilitate the coordination between the truck and the riders, we couldn’t rely solely on cell phones as the route was going through very remote places with absolutely no service. We then reached out to Midland, and they immediately provided great advice to build a communication system using GMRS radios (see full review here). A mobile MXT115 unit with an extended antenna was installed in the truck, while each rider received a GXT1000 hand-held device and a headset.
The Right Bikes
The next step is to choose and prepare the bikes for the ride. With tools, water, snacks, power supply, recovery strap, extra heavy duty tubes, tire irons, and rain suit to carry with you on a remote exploration, the bags can get heavy pretty quickly and impact the balance of a light motorcycle. For the main bike, we decided to rely on the 2019 Africa Twin with an automatic DCT gearbox. We loaded this CRF1000 with Kriega bags mounted on Outback Motortek racks, added additional crash bars and skid plate from the same manufacturer, a pair of Cyclops LED, a Trail Tech Voyager Pro, a pair of Shinko E804/E805 tires, some custom Fasst Company Impact Moto Peg, and last but not least, a Yoshimura RS-4 slip-on providing a not-too-loud-racing-note at each twist of the throttle. Fully loaded, the big Honda was ready to travel the world with the father but was way too big for our skinny teenager. Wanting to stay on a very light and reliable machine without giving up too much in terms of power and speed, we opted for the Honda CRF450L as the second bike. With great suspension and a powerful yet easy to use engine, it seemed to be the perfect match for her. A pair of Mosko Moto Reckless 40L bags and a Trail Tech Voyager Pro were added to the bike, along with an IMS 3-gallon tank to replace the small original titanium part. The little Honda then received a fresh set of Dunlop D606, a comfy Seat Concepts seat and was ready to go.
All Quiet On the Mexican Border
The first day of a long ride is always special. You probably had to drive long hours the day before, and you’re very likely to experience a mix of excitement, sleep deprivation, and fear of the unknown. Unloading the bikes next to the Coronado National Memorial sign, we experienced all these common feelings along with the additional anxiety of bringing someone from your own family on the adventure. But as soon as we pushed the red buttons and started the two engines, there was nothing but the urge to jump on the bikes and go. With the trail going up in the mountains, the very first minutes of the day already called for a photo stop. In front of us, an infinite sea of rolling hills stretched to the horizon. The only sign of human presence was the thin line of the Mexican border, splitting this peaceful landscape with no detour. Moving forward, the perfectly maintained fire road offered perfect curves and the ride unfolded like a dream. Using the large platform of our Fasst Company footpegs, it was easy to lean the Africa Twin inside the corners before moving your upper body forward to slide your rear tire at each exit, playing with the throttle to take advantage of the perfect traction. The CRF450L tried to keep up, looking like a supermoto on the dirt section of the track. There was no traffic whatsoever and we rode quite fast, but still on the right side of the trail when our line of sight was blocked. You definitely don’t want a head-on collision with a border patrol truck! We headed toward the border, crossing the fields of wild grass. A couple of black cows moved away from us while a few hawks saw the scene with their effortless glide. The whole ride was so smooth it felt like a video game! We slowed down and really tried to enjoy each mile. We finally reached the border, an uninterrupted line of steel girders and barbed wire in the middle of nowhere. We couldn’t help stopping, caught by the singularity of this place: experiencing such freedom of movement with our motorcycles while riding near a border where so many stories come to an end, makes you really appreciate things with a different and deeper perspective. After a couple of pictures, the ride finally resumed. The wind drew ripples in the tall grass and the growling roar of the Yoshimura exhaust sounded like a symphony to our ears. When we met the truck near Benson and removed our helmets, our faces showed nothing but a wide smile. The second day started on more dusty fire roads and seemed to lack the magic of the first section, but the view of the first giant cactus quickly cheered us up. Incredibly tall, their silhouettes were impressive figures that stimulated our imagination. We were back in one of these western movies of our childhood, the bikes being our mustangs! No wonder why we stopped at the first corral and fed the beautiful horses with fresh grass, patting their silky necks with our motocross gloves.
Next the GPS track brought us to Mammoth, where we met the truck, thanks to the long range of our radios. After filling the tanks of the two Hondas, we enjoyed a friendly welcome in the Mexican shop and restaurant near the gas station. We showed them our map where their fresh food was mentioned and they couldn’t believe it! Seated in the small cantina with a cold drink and a big plate of tasty Mexican burritos, it was almost nap time. The afternoon brought us to more technical trails, with some small rocks and even a bit of sand along the railway. The cactuses were still surrounding us, like vultures waiting for us to give up in the heat. Fortunately, the vents of our Alpinestars SM10 helmets brought a fresh flow of air and prevented us from overheating. Still, when we finally decided to call it a day and stop, the first thing we looked for was the shade of a tree! Once again using the radios, we gave direction to the truck and prepared for the second night of camping.
Graded Pioneer Pass
The third day was supposed to bring us to the infamous Pioneer Pass. Everything we heard about this trail was pretty scary. From other travelers showing us videos of people riding on the edge of a vertical cliff to pics of washed out trails full of rocks, we felt like going there was looking for trouble. As a responsible father, I really thought about skipping this section, but the ADV community is reactive and eager to help, with forums updated in almost real time. Connecting our phones on ADV Rider, we then learned that Pioneer Pass had just been graded the day before! It was great news to hear just before going to sleep. Waking up with the sunrise at 6am, we zipped up our Alpinestars Venture jackets to fight the cold temperature and quickly started the ride. As the trail climbed in the mountains, it narrowed and got more rocky. The Africa Twin relied on the comfort of its suspension and its monstrous torque to compete with the nimble 450L. However, the small bike had an edge on this bumpy and technical section and easily overtook the big twin. Our young rider couldn’t help but show off, using the radio to tease her dad. The bulldozers were still on the trail and the end of the ride was completed on a perfectly graded fire-road, and under the shade of tall pine trees. It looked like a totally different place altogether. How did the ambiance change so fast? Stopping for gas and food at Globe, we acknowledged that we learned a valuable lesson today: the worst is never certain and one should never give up before at least giving it a try! If we had only listened to people giving bad news, we would never have even tried Pioneer Pass and we would have missed a really nice ride.
Lucky Gamble to Young
Feeling confident since we went through this last section with ease, we studied our plans for the rest of the trip. There were two options to reach the small village of Young: one on pavement and one on what was supposedly the most technical section of the whole ride. Being prudent, we checked the weather. According to our phones, it said that we would get a ton of rain, which meant a miserable day if the trails were technical. We luckily remembered that our radios had an NOAA function and switched them on the weather channel. The operator gave a very different forecast, with the rain only to be expected in the late afternoon. That was good news and literally a game changer! Julie decided to try the expert track to Young, with the option to turn back if things got wild. The journey to Young starts in a canyon, with the cactus standing out in the immaculate blue sky. While the fire road takes some elevation, we discovered the San Carlos Reservoir on the horizon. The mix of water in the background and desert rocks around us made these first few miles unforgettable. We enjoyed the scenery so much that we didn’t really pay attention to the GPS. We crossed a deep river and finally stopped to look at the map, wondering if we should pursue this nice but unproven trail or go back to the exact track on our GPS. A true cowboy on his gigantic horse then appeared like a good samaritan and made a detour to meet us. Sharing stories about the mountain lions he hunts in the surrounding canyons, he strongly encouraged us to follow the original route. We cheerfully thanked this authentic clone of Clint Eastwood and got back on the route, paying more attention to our navigation devices. Quickly, things got tricky, with miles and miles of rolling rocks. In these conditions, while you need to ride carefully on the Africa Twin to avoid pinching the front tube, the light CRF450L just flew over the obstacles. The perfect suspension of the Honda was confidence-inspiring and Julie just blasted through the rocks and the ruts. I really had to give it my all to follow her while riding the big twin, but it also made the ride super fun. There was no high speed and therefore no real danger, just constant line changes and improvisations. To be fair, the DCT is a big help here, since you don’t have to shift or to use the clutch! This automatic gearbox lets you focus on the best lines without having to be scared about stalling in between two big rocks. It almost makes you a better rider! Not having to worry about the clutch at all times on these technical trails was a blessing and definitely the best option ever to avoid arm pump; yet after a while, the shoulder muscles started to burn and the climb felt like a real work out. The trail finally eased with the elevation and the dirt became smoother, with a bit of silk to cover it. The end of the ride to Young was just an easy cruise through beautiful landscapes under the pine trees and we stopped at the local store with a big smile. A kid with a cowboy hat driving a huge tractor waved at us when we reached the pavement to meet the truck a few miles away.
Road Closure Up North
While riding on the road might seem like a burden, we nevertheless encountered probably the best scenery of the ride: A black canyon opened to a large open landscape, and with the golden light of the sunset, the scene was amazingly captivating. Since we had no plans to try skydiving from the edge of the cliff, it was time to find a camping spot for the night and to check the map. Having ridden faster than expected so far, we decided to give a try to the Mogollon Rim the next day. It was a bit more pavement but why not try? Despite having no vibrations and a very comfortable seat, the CRF450L can’t really compete with the Africa Twin on the road. In order to avoid excessive fatigue we ended up switching bikes, the youngest rider enjoying the protection offered by the big bike’s fairing. Unfortunately, the whole area around the Mogollon Rim was closed due to the snowfall and the very bad condition of the trails. It was a bummer, but it also proved that our initial plan of staying on the south side of the state was a wise one. Besides, it gave us another reason to come back and finish the ride later in the year.
A Perfect Match
The end of the adventure, with the four of us talking in the pickup truck loaded with two bikes in the back, was just a long drive home on the highway. But it was also the time to share memories and to discuss this epic adventure. First of all, we all agreed that mixing two bikes as different as the CRF450L and the Africa Twin allowed for a better balance of skills. While the most experienced riders will more likely be wise enough to wait for the novices on the easy stretches of the ride, they will lose their advantage on the technical sections, allowing the youngest to keep pace easily. Obviously, even if our teenager enjoyed the twin on the road and some graded fire roads, it would have been way too risky to put her on such a big bike for the whole trip. On the other hand, the enduro DNA of the CRF450L made it less comfortable but also lighter, inspiring more confidence to our female rider who knew she could pick it up in case of a crash. Despite the smaller tank, the 450 was sipping gas, making the twin look thirsty in comparison, and allowing a range of 120+ miles on the 450 versus 160 with the big bike. It was still more than enough for most sections of the BDRs and we never had to worry about it. Communication with the radios was key, as it allowed the first rider to warn the following one when crossing a vehicle or some cattle. It also removed a ton of stress when waiting for the truck or for the second rider. Last, but definitely not least, sharing the adventure with the non-riding members of the family was a great bonding experience. Setting up the tent, sharing food around a bonfire and contemplating the stars with your loved ones gives a lot of strength to tackle the next day of riding. At the end of the trip, if there’s only one thing we should remember, it is that today, the true adventure is just one drivers license away for any teenager. No need to have gray hair to enjoy the ride, just call the DMV and book your appointment, the BDRs are waiting for you!
THIS STORY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN UPSHIFT ISSUE 34, JUNE 2019 HERE>