They call it the “Judge,” an American muscle bike with meaty Dunlops and over 100 lb-ft of torque. In the desert sun, its “Gloss Havasu Red” paint job is catching every glimmer of light on its chiseled tank, lighting up the shiny bits of flake in the paint. With wind whipping mercilessly across the Mojave, we knuckle down for a 140-mile ride through the heart of the desert for the annual Laughlin River Run
poker run. With paint named “Havasu Red,” it seems only appropriate one of the stops on the route is at the namesake town, Lake Havasu, Arizona. We’ll see if the landscape surrounding Havasu is indeed red.
The inside of Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort pulses with energy, lights flashing, sirens sounding, and the roulette wheel spinning as the morning crowds are already hitting the gaming tables. The vibe is infectious, upping our eagerness to draw our first card of the day. Maybe it’s just being in Nevada that brings out the inner Phil Hellmuth in me, eager to dump the meager contents of my wallet into the nearest slot machine. We opt for a trip upstairs to register for the poker run instead.
The line to sign up is already long, stacking the odds of winning against us. But winning isn’t our primary objective. Riding is, as poker runs often venture beyond the confines of a rally and into the surrounding countryside. We wait our turn to pick a number. The number we draw is then punched onto our envelope numbered 1 – 52. Inside and unseen, each number is assigned to a card in the deck. Not sure if No. 28 is lucky or not, but with map in hand we venture into the desert.
With a push of the starter button, the Victory
Judge fires to life willingly, its 1731cc V-Twin drumming as a low rumble spills from its dual staggered exhausts. Between the combination of traffic and two-lane roads, it’s slow going getting out of Laughlin. Before long the road begins to roll and dip, roll and dip. Nervous energy fills us as with each rise there’s that blind moment before you crest, then drop back down, waiting for your stomach to catch up to you. Needles Highway then
London Bridge Harley-Davidson was one of the card stops at the 2014 Laughlin River Run poker run.
'Desert Storm' was going on in Lake Havasu at the same time as the Laughlin River Run and a constant stream of boats flowed under the London Bridge.
This park-like setting in front of London Bridge Harley-Davidson was a great place to relax after 100 miles in the saddle of the Judge.
turns into a washboard mess, and no matter how hard you try to avoid the major holes, the roadway is too beat up to avoid them all. The 43mm fork is ranging through all of its 5.1-inches of travel but is doing a great job of keeping the front wheel on the ground while the single gas shock on the back is keeping our kidneys from taking a pounding. If ever there was a road built for testing a motorcycle’s suspension, it’s this stretch. We’re grateful the capable suspension of the 2014 Judge is making the grade.
While directions listed Lake Havasu Harley-Davidson as the first stop after the Riverside Resort, the “One Stop Store” at Palms River Resort is along the way right off Needles Highway so we pull into there first. We’re feeling lucky as we draw our second number, 37. Not knowing what card is under 37 is making us restless with curiosity, but it’s in a sealed envelope so all we can do is speculate and hope for the best.
Gearing up in front of the Palms River Resort, a grey-haired gentleman with a friendly smile sits just outside the front door wearing a seasoned leather vest with a big Harley Owners Group patch and buttons from years of rallies and HOG events. Turns out he’s from the Perth Chapter in Western Australia, and happened to be riding around the country with his wife. He had heard the rally was going on so they decided to join the party. He said they’ve made several trips to the US to ride, even catching the 70th annual Sturgis Rally. We tell him we’d love to visit his country to do the same someday, then share a handshake before hitting the road again.
Havasu sits about 50 miles away, so we hop on Interstate 40 and finally get a chance to open the Judge up. The motorcycle is loaded with low end torque, so we grip the bars tight as we bang through gears. In seconds we’re above highway speeds with a couple of gears to go. We settle into overdrive sixth and the big V-Twin settles into a soothing cadence around 3000 rpm, white noise for motorcyclists.
The browns of the desert are broken by big patches of yellow wildflowers spread between cacti and creosote bush. Though it’s a desert, almost 2000 species of plants grow here, and about a quarter of those aren’t found anywhere else in the world. Giant boulders teeter on precarious ledges, their positioning carefully orchestrated eons ago by the upheavals that formed this land. This is an area of raw beauty, largely unspoiled by the exploits of man, unchanged for thousands of years.
First thing we see turning off Interstate 40 onto 95 is an Arizona state trooper. This is a recurring theme on this stretch, the Arizona Highway Patrol flexing its muscle, ticket books at the ready. I’ve always wondered if racy red vehicles were targeted more so than others, and the Judge’s paint and styling is definitely eye-catching. Luckily, we roll into Havasu unhindered.
I barely recognize the area. My Uncle Bud and his family once lived here, my uncle one of the workers who helped reassemble the London Bridge in Havasu. What was a sparsely populated, sleepy little town is now a bustling tourist destination, with housing tracts and strip malls crowding its shores.
We ride over the bridge for the next card stop at Lake Havasu Harley-Davidson inside Island Mall. Expecting a full-on dealership like Kingman’s Mother Road H-D, it takes us a little bit to locate the small Harley-Davidson retail shop tucked into a multi-level shopping center. We head inside to draw our next card, first pulling a 28, which we had already pulled.
An Aussie in America! We met this interesting fellow at the Palms River Resort store during the Laughlin poker run.
The roads in front of the 'One Stop Store' were brutal, all potholes and washboards. Luckily, the suspension of the 2014 Judge was up to the task.
The final poker run stop in front of the Colorado Belle was packed with people waiting to pull their final card.
Putting it back in the bag, we draw again, this time grabbing a 37, another number we had already drawn. What are the odds! Maybe it’s our lucky day after all. On the third draw, we finally pull a 36. The gambler in us thinks we’ve got a chance for a straight or flush.
It’s a spring break-like atmosphere in Havasu as a steady stream of high end boats cruise beneath the arches of the bridge and are squeezed in almost every inch of shoreline. Turns out the town was holding its annual “Desert Storm” nautical party, and while people watching from the park-like setting outside of London Bridge Harley-Davidson is fun, we’ve got a clock to race and two more cards to draw, so back on the bikes we go.
Heading back the same route we came, we’re approaching a hundred miles in the saddle of the Victory Judge and still feel fresh. A bit of wind is creeping over the bars and is buffeting our head a bit, but otherwise we’re sitting high in the saddle. Much has been said about the new ergonomics of the 2014 Judge, its bars pulled back 3.75-inches more than before and its foot controls moved forward 4-inches, but the new arrangement is allowing us to ride longer, more comfortably. Performance-wise, we still love tapping into that 100-plus lb-ft of torque with every twist of the throttle.
In less than an hour we’re at the next stop of the poker run, Pirate Cove Resort. Palm trees line the road into the resort that sits along the banks of the Colorado River. A zip line stretches over the river, white sandy beaches and wooden canopies below. A din of people laughing and music spills out of the pirate-themed bar, and as much as we’d like to belly up, we’re on a mission to draw our next card and get back to Laughlin before the sun sets. But the person with the grab bag of numbers is nowhere to be found. After a few false leads from oblivious workers, we finally find the man in charge who tells us they had packed up already. To our relief, he’s kind enough to track down the bag, let’s us draw our fourth card, and punches our ticket for us.
With four out of five cards in-hand, it’s a leisurely ride back to Laughlin and the final stop at the Colorado Belle. We get one more trip over washboarded Needles Highway, a teeth-rattling strip for the guy on the rigid in front of us. The Judge’s suspension never gets out of sorts and its Dunlops grip tight to the road as we fall in line with the stream of motorcycles heading back to Casino Drive.
There’s a long line of people waiting to pull their final card at the Colorado Belle. We draw our last number, our ticket is punched, then organizers finally open envelopes to reveal hands. To our chagrin, all we mustered was a measly pair of fours. Later we found out Jimmie Aday of Henderson, Nevada, somehow pulled a Royal Flush, all hearts, with only five cards. This means Mr. Aday beat 1 in 649,740 odds according to Wikipedia. Turns out, four people drew four-of-a-kind, with Paradise Valley’s Charles Delaney having the second-best hand with four Jacks. Maybe next year.
Though we didn’t win the poker run, the Mojave is beautiful this time of year, seasonal blooms and patches of green, roadrunners and spiny cactus. We also got to put in 140-miles on an American muscle bike, the Victory Judge, its more relaxed riding position making our journey that much more enjoyable. But don’t be fooled. Though it lost a bit of its drag bike aesthetic, as judge and jury we can attest that it’s still ready to rock-and-roll at any given moment.