It was that time of the year: The XR boys head for the Rockies to take it to the edge. Steve, my long-time riding partner, and I embarked on this journey from the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, heading for Clark, Colorado, a little town of log cabins perched on the mountainside just northwest of the popular ski slopes of Steamboat Springs and adjacent to the Routt National Forest.
Traveling from the West Coast were our counterparts, Bob and Glen, in an '01 Chevy Suburban equipped with a big 8.1-liter V-8.
When it comes to dirt bikes, we all agree the best way to hop rocks is on the bulletproof Honda XR. This year's fleet consisted of two XR400Rs, three XR600Rs, and one old but reliable XR500 for backup. The XR400R and 600R are similar in design, with the larger holding the advantage in power and the smaller boasting lighter weight and more agile handling characteristics. The low-end torque of the four-stroke, as opposed to a higher-revving two-stroke, is essential when it comes to serious mountain riding.
For this venture, we went with the all-new '03 Ford Expedition/Eddie Bauer 4x4 to trailer our Honda two-wheel off-road machines. We'd put a decent-size cargo load in the back, and the power-folding third-row seat made packing the gear no trouble. We had a minimal trailer load of three bikes on a single-axle flatbed.
After logging the coordinates into the Expedition's navigation system (the first in a Ford vehicle), we adjusted the six-way-power leather buckets with the heat/cool option and headed north across the plains toward Kansas.
The ride was exceptional with the addition of a rear independent suspension attached to a 70-percent stiffer hydroformed frame. The upgrade to rack-and-pinion steering provides the new Ford with an improved road feel. Acceleration from the 5.4-liter Triton V-8 bolted to a four-speed automatic transmission is reasonable, but not overwhelming.
Darkness set in as we passed through Denver and began our climb up the winding mountain roads. There was a typical loss of power as the low-oxygen content took effect on the engine.
The first morning began with the required mechanical preparation to our off-road motorcycles: jetting the carburetors to obtain an optimum air/fuel mixture at 10,000 feet above sea level, adjustment and lubrication of the drive chains, and tweaking the front and rear suspension in accordance to the rough terrain.
We started out on the loose-rock slopes of Hahn's Peak where an XR can't quite make it all the way to the top. It requires a hike up a nearly perpendicular wall of rocks to reach the aged, wooden observation post that bears a history of lightning strikes. Riding east on a wide variety of trail contours, burms, and obstacles brought us to a well-known high spot, Farwell Mountain. We pitted our bike's knobbed tires against the boulders and logs at the level peak before descending the steep grassy slope on the far mountain face.
The next day's run was at the Wyoming Trail, along the Continental Divide toward the Northern Colorado border. We've previously been unable to reach Encampment, Wyoming, within a safe time margin to regain fuel and water for the trip back. It was a long ride following the Western frame of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. Midway up the trail, we came across a grueling, downward pass of unfriendly rock and debris that jerked and bounced our bikes and bodies more than anticipated. After coming to rest at the bottom, the only thing on the riders' minds was a different route back to Clark.
Stubbornly proceeding north, we entered new territory and came upon a marker designating the Wyoming border and the beginning of the Medicine Bow National Forest. This gave us a well-earned feeling of accomplishment as we killed the engines and stopped for a rest. But high hopes were short lived after riding a few miles further into several dead-end trails, where our limited-detail map was no longer any help. Once again, there was no choice but to turn back to avoid darkness and fuel depletion.
The mountain trails are punishing and have an effect on rider and machine. We suit up with a full set of protective body gear, but there's no escaping bruises, scrapes, and the possibility of serious injury. Equipment casualties, such as brake and clutch levers snapping off on impact, are inevitable in this type of hardcore off-road sport.
Our next outing involved one of the most dangerous routes we've come across: "Root Trails" of Nipple Peak. The course has a narrow trail around the mountain where a slight navigational error could result in a severe fall from the trail's edge. It requires a cool head and a firm grip on the handlebars. Another hazardous part of the trail was a steep incline where large roots protrude from the ground. We made it without incident, as we recalled a more difficult crossing over a slick surface following heavy rain a few years back.
While hitting third gear and barreling down the tree-lined mountain trails, there's no safe way to view the majestic landscape, but when we did have a moment to stop at a rock ledge and shut down the engines, we were overcome by the breathtaking beauty of the Colorado Rockies. The utter silence on a still day is awe-inspiring. When night falls on a cool, clear evening, there's nothing to overwhelm the mind more than the brilliant stars and heavenly perspective of a universe unaffected by city lights and earthly pollutants.
Getting closer to the end of our expedition, we set out toward the "Blow Down" area near the North Fork River. This is where thousands of trees have been knocked to the ground by violent storms, leaving several trails impassable. While speeding toward the east side of the river, everyone was disappointed as we encountered a recently constructed bridge. In the past, we enjoyed crossing the shallow rushing water with no help from civilization other than our XRs.
The next target was another difficult route north. The extremely tight passages require precise maneuvering. Often we had to plant a foot and hit the throttle to pivot the bike and power-slide the rear wheel around a sharp adverse turn. We diverted to a natural phenomenon on the way up. It wasn't an easy path and involved a demanding section of large, embedded rock en route to our objective. A key to off-road riding is evading obstructions whenever possible, but when there's no way out, you hold on tight and take them head on.
We finally reached the crest of the desolate gorge where, over the centuries, enormous jagged boulders have broken off the cliffs and accumulated in the valley. After taking a few pictures, it was back to the trail--and something unexpected. The upcoming area had recently undergone a forest fire, and firefighters had been able to contain it before it destroyed more than 10 acres, thereby preventing the fire from reaching the highly ignitable blow-down region. Glen and I attempted to cut several trails through the blackened debris. In turn, we discovered a severe lack of traction in nearly a foot of pure ash. After efforts at every angle failed, we reluctantly returned to the cabin.
The adventure was ending as Bob and Glen headed back to California. Steve and I took one last pass around the nearby peaks during our final hours on the trails. The aches, pains, and exhaustion were setting in as riding skills seemed to diminish. We quit early and packed for the return trip to Dallas. It felt good sliding into the contradictory comfort of the Eddie Bauer Expedition as we pulled away from the small town. We'll no doubt finish our run at the Continental Divide next year. TT
Caution Equals Safety
Off-road motorcycling requires a lot of practice before tackling heavy terrain--it's dangerous however well you ride. We recalled one of the crew getting "some air" not long ago. This means becoming airborne after hitting a dirt ramp at the right speed and making a good jump out of it. He landed with the front wheel in an eroded gully at the center of the trail and the rear wheel in an adjacent gully to the right. The bike twisted and went down on impact. A cracked rib suffered in the fall took some time to heal. The bike damage consisted of bent handlebars and a foot peg.
Last year, a serious, off-the-wall injury put a damper on the trip. Our friend was riding at a good clip down a wooded trail. Out of nowhere, a jagged branch, protruding from a log at just the right angle, pierced his leather motocross boot, went completely through his foot and out the other side of the boot. As the branch pulled back it ripped him off his Honda like a rag doll. It was a project transporting him to a hospital (and his XR back to the cabin) after getting the bleeding under control. The bike was okay, but the surgery kept our buddy out of action for quite a while.
Another rider took a decent fall this time around. While riding at a high rate of speed and taking a turn over exposed roots, the front tire washed out from under him without warning. The bike went down hard, and his helmet and shoulder hit the ground simultaneously. The result was a slight concussion that took a few miles to ride off. The real damage was the bent tail section of the XR's frame and a banged up exhaust pipe.