One of the veteran BIG DOGS takes on the impossible with his BMW G/S. Two hours later, with snow swirling around, he managed to get off this goat trail.
"DOGS, start your engines!" But before the flag drops at the beginning of the annual BIG DOG ADVENTURE RIDE the veterans know to jump the start. Those that let clutches fly before the starter begins the downward motion are the first riders up the hill and will not be eating dust or rocks. The new DOGS immediately learn it is not much fun at the back of the pack where they chew gravel, inhale dust and cannot see. Their learning curve flattens out a bit as they discover there are not many written rules in the BIG DOG ADVENTURE RIDE, other than to have fun while not disgracing themselves.
The BIG DOG ADVENTURE RIDE is neither race nor rally. The event is the annual gathering of an elite fraternity of like-minded alpha-male aficionados of big dual-purpose motorcycles, self-described as motorcycle agnostics when asked which is the best model or make. They enjoy the camaraderie of riding with old friends and making new ones over some of the best high-altitude gravel roads or tracks on the globe. While lightheaded critics could call them adventuresome followers of Saint Fermin, the patron Saint of Fools, that classification would be considered a badge of honor amongst the BIG DOGS, not a derogatory description, and batted away by the BIG DOGS like fleas on a pooch.
The BIG DOG ADVENTURE RIDE morphed from a small customer appreciation dual-sport ride for a select group from BMW of Denver into what in 2008 will be the 19th Running of the Dogs. The earliest group, owners of large-displacement BMW enduro or "GS" (Gravel and Street) models liked the idea of being able to ride their motorcycles to the event, strip them of unneeded accessories such as saddlebags and windscreens, then tackle serious gravel roads, jeep trails and goat paths.
The event grew as word spread there was fun to be had off- road riding with big BMW's. What started as six soon became 20, then 40, as veteran BIG DOGS got their riding buddies invited to join in the fun. The popularity of the BMW GS models also increased demand. Finally the organizers said "Enough! We don't want to deal with U.S. Forest Permits for a large group, we're not in it for the money and we want to meet and get to know the people with whom we are riding."
Several other factors affected the present day BIG DOG ADVENTURE RIDE. As the size, weight and expense of the BMW's increased, riding them across treacherous snow fields or shale rock slides, or sometimes over cliffs, became more dangerous for the physical well-being of the rider, his wallet, and the Bavarian behemoths. While the big Beemers were a good super-slabber to ride to the event, dropping one of the $15,000 adventure motorcycles on Imogene or Black Bear Pass became a bigger two-fold adventure: picking it up at 12,000 feet above sea level and paying for the cosmetic damage to the pricy German plastic.
The BIG DOG ADVENTURE RIDE wanders through some of the most beautiful country in the U.S., with the route often picking through the high-altitude of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
The event organizers decided suggesting three different routes for the riders, ranging from extreme to soft. The "A" route was recommended for those exceptionally talented riders, experts at managing 400-500 lbs of heavyweight motorcycle up 80-degree rock faces or through knee-deep mud or the sand ruts across desert areas around Moab, Utah. The "B" route used much of the same recommended "A" route but was mapped around the baby-head rock fields, swamps and collarbone breaking sugar sand. The third option, or "C" route, was a kinder, gentler ride, but still used much of the main "A" and "B" routes.
The first year the alternate route options were announced the organizers described the "A" route as being for the truly crazed rider, those that pushed their personal riding envelopes to extremes and had the talent to do what BMW advertizing depicted in sales material and promotional campaigns. On Day 1 that first year 20 of the 40 BIG DOGS left the start in the "A" group. On Day 2 the "A" group had shrunk to eight. The lesson learned was few entrants wanted to admit they were not talented enough to run up front, ride with the best, and most had alpha-male personalities. It was also discovered these were generally not dim-witted alpha DOGS. Licking their wounds at the end of Day 1 they realized they had one more extreme day of riding over football sized rocks, downed trees, slippery roots and through waste deep streams before they rode home, in some cases thousands of miles away. Saving their bodies and bikes, in some cases merely surviving, and riding some of the highest, toughest trails on the planet, while laughing, they opted for less alpha and more fun. Their ego-need to keep up with the front runners had been beaten to the point of rational decision making with respect to the best path to ride.
The BIG DOG ADVENTURE RIDE tested different riding areas over the years, like Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah, but the hardcore DOGS preferred the high passes of Colorado's Rocky Mountains. The cool riding days through glacial fed streams and over 12,000-14,000-foot high passes unique to Colorado was voted on as the perfect riding area for the big dual-purpose motorcycles.
Event organizers also took notice of shifts in motorcycle brands by some of their core group. Longtime BMW owners were trying other marques like KTM, or worse to the German loyalist owners, Japanese dual-sport models. A decision was made to let some of the veteran BIG DOGS return, even though they would be entering the event on non-BMW models. This was based on one of the early findings by event founders, that it was the riders and their unique personalities that made the event so successful. They rightfully concluded that while nearly all entrants had their introduction to the event as a BMW owner, their personalities did not change if they tried another brand of motorcycle.
A couple of the C Group riders take a break at a pristine Rocky Mountain lake seldom seen by the average Colorado tourist. The C Route has now become known as the Cheeseburger Route to honor a fallen BIG DOG who placed a high priority in his day of riding on finding a good cheeseburger for lunch.
BMW of Denver did not flinch at the suggestion of allowing some of the lost veterans to return riding other brands of motorcycles. When KTM of America was invited as a sponsor BMW of Denver encouraged the competition to join in the fun by saying, "This event is about motorcycling, adventuresome riders and big motorcycles. A KTM rider today may well be a BMW rider tomorrow." That year the entry door to the BIG DOG ADVENTURE RIDE cracked open for dual-purpose motorcycles 640cc and above.
A whole new dimension to adventure riding soon surfaced in the fraternity. It was discovered that while numerous veteran BIG DOGS owned BMW dual-sport motorcycles, they liked 650cc Japanese Singles, such as the Kawasaki KLR, for their off-road dirty work. Soon Kawasaki Green was at the start of the event and in the first year chagrined the Beemer men by leading the "A" group over one of the ugliest passes in the Rocky Mountains, Red Cone Pass. The BMW and KTM riders were able to keep up but it was a stock Team Green KLR that led them over the top and down the other side.
Some components of the early BIG DOG ADVENTURE RIDE have remained the same, like the Saturday night, 2-inch thick, T-bone steak dinner, known as the biggest motorcycle steak dinner in the world. Big dual-sport adventure motorcycles were still at the core of the event, however appreciation grew for the smaller-displacement, lighter and less expensive models.
New elements were well received, like the volunteer wives and girlfriends, known as "Doggetts" and a BIG DOG master chef, who jointly added a traditional Cajun Gumbo dinner to Friday night, importing the authentic fixings from the swamps of Louisiana specifically for the DOGS. On both nights BIG DOGS shared stories of adventure riding and travel, soon with the aid of multi-media presentations. Sponsors stepped up to provide riding apparel, accessories and discounts for parts.
While fun, food and high-altitude riding remained central elements of the event, the camaraderie of the entrants was the thread that pulled the riders together each year. A newbie DOG soon discovers there was little room for an inflated ego among the DOGS. The veteran entrant standing next to the first year entrant watching his steak cook on the BBQ could well be a Dakar Rally finisher, hillclimb record holder, Bonneville Salt Flats speed junkie or ISDE qualifier and the newbie would not know it. Instead these icons were just one of the many quiet riders they spent the day with and who may have helped them pick up the newbie's bike when it went down or supplied a spare master link when needed.
The BIG DOGS are men who can laugh at themselves. One rider over cooked a high-speed gravel curve, sailed with his motorcycle 50 feet off the road and landed 60 feet below in the middle of a camp site where Grandma and Grandpa were sitting in lawn chairs watching their hot dogs cook. The rider's BMW was bent but not broken, however his collar bone was. As he pushed the bones back together Grandma and Grandpa asked if there was anything they should do. The wounded DOG said, "Move the campfire. I was in the lead and there are 10 more fools behind me."
Team Green Kawasaki DOGS have infiltrated the ranks of the Beemerphiles but have been well accepted.
The BIG DOG ADVENTURE RIDE, like any fraternity, is not for everyone. Just to buy and ride a big dual-sport adventure bike and be described as a "good rider" is far from being able to fit with this unique group, or being invited to return. Sometimes a rider can work their way to being asked to join only to find the next year their name was removed from the list of those in good standing, they did not fit. On the other hand a last minute, unknown substitute rider might find himself being asked to return year after year.
One year a newbie entered his BMW and seemed to qualify as a member in good standing until he reported he could not agree with paying an entry fee to ride the same mountains and passes he could for free. That was where he found himself in the years that followed, riding for free but not with the BIG DOGS.
Another one-time entrant wrote a long letter after the event to the organizers expressing his dismay at why, when there was a perfectly good paved road running parallel to the dirt track, the suggested route was over the gravel and not the macadam.
A third group laicized themselves when they left one of their riding pals, and a BIG DOG founder, on a slab in a mortuary in Mexico. After they were all back home in the United States the Personal Representative of the deceased was finally able to get the remains returned to Colorado by Fed Ex, but sadly in a used McDonalds hamburger box that said on the side, "I'm loving it." To this day the BIG DOG's motorcycle is still in Mexico, something else they left behind. They had not lived by one of the BIG DOG ADVENTURE RIDE unwritten rules: Don't leave your dead behind, or your riding pal on the mountain.
New DOGS are sometimes surprised to find that while their fellow DOGS will do anything to help them if they or their motorcycle are broken, to the point of lending them a bike to ride if the owner is disabled, there are certain exceptions. One adventurer dropped his motorcycle when riding across a swift glacial stream. Pinned under it he could barely keep his helmet above water for air. After he gasped to the buddies in his group that he was OK he wondered why they were not rushing to help him. He quickly learned photo ops of downed DOGS were premium entertainment for the evening multi-media shows as long as no one and nothing was hurt. That night, although still chilled from his two-three minutes in the cold stream, the wet BIG DOG was able to laugh as he saw video and pictures on the screen of him flopping like a cow on its back. Later he said "Even us alpha dogs can use a bath now and then."
Ouch! This dented tank on a valuable BMW R80 G/S meant it was on its side or upside down.
Broken bones and motorcycles are a real possibility in the BIG DOG ADVENTURE RIDE. During the 2006 event one rider broke his arm and had to ride bitch on the back of a fellow rider's bike off the mountain to a clinic 50 miles away. By nightfall both he and his motorcycle were in the BIG DOG base camp enjoying the camaraderie of those that had not left him, or his motorcycle, on the mountain. Especially comforting was the friendship he shared the next day with his fellow entrant from Louisiana, who also could not ride due to a broken leg. The busted duo spent the day lounging by the motel pool, swilling and chilling, while their wives berated them for not growing up.
The BIG DOG ADVENTURE RIDE has been called the "world's highest, dirtiest, meanest" adventure ride. It is also an invitational charity, with any net proceeds going to worthy causes like American Indian educational projects or Joe Cocker's Kid's Foundation. One year the BIG DOG ADVENTURE RIDE and individual BIG DOGS financially helped sponsor a fellow BIG DOGs in the Dakar Rally The BIG DOG ADVENTURE RIDE has been copied in countries like Japan (BIG BIRD RIDE), Republic of South Africa (GS Challenge) and even the United States with the Big Cat Ride and Little Puppy Ride. Still, it remains the premier event of its kind, an exclusive, and possibly elusive, challenge for the true adventuresome motorcycle rider.
If you are an avid adventure rider interested in joining an "elite group be election," log on to their website at www.horizonsunlimited.com/bigdog/
and scroll through to see if you have the "ride stuff." They have a historical DVD available for $19.95 plus $5.00 S/H from the Whole Earth Motorcycle Center (1-800-532-5557) for MasterCard and Visa orders. The dates for the 19th adventuring with the alpha dogs are August 14-17. However, if you are one of the cyber keyboard adventurers this might be the event you watch from the porch.
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