Looks like this:
I guess this is the place to post all of this stuff - and Ned gave me permission to put it up here a while back - but I wish it would get more of an audience at the same time. I suppose that everyone who is following Ned will be watching this and that is all that matters. Anyway, this is longwinded but I can't get to sleep for some reason(did not get enough exercise this week...) and I finally got all these videos uploaded
In any case, when Ned told me he had "...sent a year's worth of mortgage payments to the ASO..." I immediately took an inventory of what I had to offer to help. At first, I didn't come up with much. I'm limited in my job to the quantity of free time I can take away(and when, too, really...) - so riding along or wrenching or any of the other aboves that involved time off and contributed labors would be out on the scale he needed for the race itself. I don't have enough digits to the left of the decimal point in my paychecks to make any real dent in the expenses(I am a "stage supporter"
though...), nor the contacts at the executive-corporate level to hook ned up with someone who needed a $75k writeoff at the end of the fiscal 20111 year. I've done a lot of riding with Ned - enough to know that he is very adept most everywhere. But...Ned hadn't spent much time in any sort of real sand dunes. And, in watching the meager coverage of the Dakar(both African and South American) in years past, I had noticed how big of an obstacle that the dunes seemed to pose to everyone.
Without realizing at the time that there was navigation involved, it seemed to me that everyone was riding the dunes about as opposite to the way I learned to ride them as I could imagine - at least the ones in Southern California that I learned in.
A little backdrop: I grew up in Flagstaff, AZ, which is adjacent to one of the largest cinder-fields in North America. Cinders, being the oddly porous pebbles that blanket the ground where the fallout of a giant volcanic explosion fell in the distant past. Because they are an expansive area that is basically a wasteland(a designated OHV area, actually) that you can't build on and you can't mine and you can't sell and...well...about all you can
do is have fun on. So, that's where I learned to ride soft terrain without a paddle tire(cinders destroy a paddle, unlike sand), to carry extra momentum, to wring the bejeesus out of a motor, to clean airfilters every ride, and to ride in a place where few get the chance to have in their backyard.
The point being here, is that when I went to the sand dunes for the first time, I was ~14 and on a clapped out KDX200 with a six-paddle on it...and I fit right in. Where my friends struggled to climb, to turn, to carry speed and hook turns together on soft off camber slopes, to read where it was soft and hard - it all came very naturally to me because I mostly learned
to ride in that environment. And a paddle made everything easier still. Fast forward to my college years, where to cover tuition I got a job as a fabricator at a sandcar shop: I obviously could not afford a sandcar, but I could afford a bike and a paddle for it and when the guys at the shop went to the dunes(specifically, the ISDRA - otherwise known as Glamis or Buttercup), I had a free ride and a spot on the floor of an RV. And a lot of experience on tap to sponge up on forays into the bowls and slopes of the dunes. We would go for 5 - 7 weekends a year, and I did that for quite a few years even after I moved on to a "real" job and career, etc. I had a CR500R that had a dedicated 10-paddle on it, and was juiced to about ~65hp(that was a really fun bike at the dunes...).
Needless to say, I learned to get around in the dunes pretty good. Good enough, I thought, that I might be able to help Ned learn to "dune," or at least read and get through them, before he encountered them in a stage and while racing the clock. So, at the beginning of December 2011, Ned took a weekend and headed down to pick me up in Phoenix where we departed for the ISDRA Dunes. I had layed out some GPS tracks that I knew would use the area as best as possible, such that we would approach the dunes from the flat desert and climb in to and over them, just as they often do in the Dakar stages. And, we'd run these at different times of the day(s), to show him how different even the same dunes can appear depending on the sun and illumination angles.
I had a helmet camera along and got lots of clips, but my damn video editing software failed to run and I've been unable to fix it, so these are individual clips that I broke up with the crappy software that came with the camera. But, they get the point across, I suppose. SORRY ABOUT THE WIND NOISE TOO, the foam I had over the microphone came off...
So, we started off bright and early in the morning, right at sunrise:
Instruction and pointers started on the drive out there, so we pretty much unloaded at daybreak and headed out(Ned is trailing me here):
And when I'd find a feature that I'd described in the van on the way out there, we'd stop and confer on it:
At first, things were a little clumsy for me(having not spent much time in sand like this with a full, big(6.3 gallon) tank and no paddle), and a lot clumsy for Ned(for same reasons + inexperience + trying to follow experience). It had been very windy the days before we arrived, which meant that most of the sand was freshly blown and soft pockets were extra deep:
Great for simulating the real thing like he'd be riding in the race, but a little daunting to learn in at first - especially without paddle tires on. And also, a great risk to his tender wrist at a time when it needed to be cared for in the gentlest of fashions. And they don't just happen in the lower, tighter dunes - sometimes, these strange pockets(call them baby powder, or fesh-fesh, whatever you want) - even form on the sides of large dunes. They are hard to read until you are in them already...at the best, they just stop you or divert you. At the worst, you really auger in at speed and can hurt your wrists, thumbs, shoulders...etc.
Ned is a fast learner though - and a good listener - and I blab a lot(mostly coherently) so by the middle of the first day he had at least gotten in his mind what he should do, even if he couldn't always put it together yet:
After that first loop, we headed back to the van to meet James Embro(who, sadly, just dropped out of the rally after some sort of accident on Stage 6
). Ned had mentioned we would be out here and James said he needed the practice too, as he hadn't ridden dunes since his last Dakar back in 2006?:
James suited up and we all went out to make use of the noon light - the hardest to ride in. James had the steepest learning curve of the day:
After a couple of more large loops through the bigger dunes, we headed back to the truck for the day. What they both learned on the way back, is that it's a lot harder to go some directions in the dunes than it is the other...they have a "grain" to them, because they are formed by the wind. They also vary radically in size - the bigger dunes are easier to ride through(to a point), despite the grain, but the smaller ones + riding against the grain can be a lot harder. James demonstrates again:
Looking roughly back from a little beyond where James was above, you see only the smooth rounded packed faces - not the soft steep ones:
A great dinner(thanks James!) and a hotel/shower, and we went back out for the next session bright and early the following day. This time we moved our basecamp a bit, to where there are much bigger dunes and a little bit firmer sand. This allowed for easier riding, more similar to where they would actually be in the stages of the Dakar, and also for some heading and navigational practice:
We were the only ones out there with knobbies on!:
For reference, the dunes in the backdrop of this photo are about ~750 feet high:
...and the highest ones are about ~four miles away. The longest section of dunes in Stage 7 of the 2012 Dakar, according to the chart at the top of this post, are 27kilometers, or 16 miles worth. They are also significantly higher at about 400 meters or 1300 feet, and steeper from what I've seen and can tell. Perhaps there will be more of them, it's hard to tell.
From where we started, I gave them a heading to follow and a mileage to keep. I was the only one who had the GPS tracks in my GPS; they just used theirs as a compass and the odometers on the bike for simple practice. So, I just let them pick lines and hold course, and followed along with the helmet camera. Note that I have them riding INTO the sun here, and with
the grain of the dunes - the easiest way to start off the day:
We quickly learned that both Ned and James tend to veer left, on average, about 5 degrees. This was a common theme regardless of travel through the dunes, or sun angle. Both are predominantly right handed - thisprobably has a lot to do with it. At any rate, it's good they both learned that now, instead of when they are lost and running out of fuel! Another important thing that we noticed(I had never bothered to cross-check them together) was that between the front-wheel odometer and the GPS track I was taking on my GPS(30 feet between points), there was about 7-10% slip - meaning loss - on the odometer versus the trip odometer on the GPS(even with the truncation due to point proximity). This was another important reference point that I hope may behoove them at some point in the race.
After we got close to one of the closed areas of the dunes on that heading, I gave them another heading - this time into the bigger dunes, along the grain
(transverse to it, mostly), and with the sun to their backs:
This actually headed us for one of the biggest, steepest single hills there: China Wall. I know I have seen similar obstacles on the Dakar coverage, so I figured I'd throw it into the mix because they'd be a whole lot better off learning to get up a hill like this in ~75 deg F temps and safety, than in 115 deg F and int he middle of a Special with a tired motor and dirty air filter:
James went up pretty readily - but remember, he was on a 2012 Beta 450RR with no big tank and a fresh knobby tireand - that I found out after riding it later - was probably ~10 hp up on the XC-W motor Ned had in a bike that was probably 75 lbs of fuel and tank and stuff heavier. That, and Ned had to learn just how hard you have to run a motor to get around in the dunes. As it worked out, James made for a nice demonstration, Ned conquered his fears and everyone's confidence blossomed:
He even got a nice clean downshift near the top! Perfect. As usual, the videos never do justice to just how steep a hill like this is...this shot is of James sitting right on the edge of the crest of that hill. If you draw a line across the picture from his left shoulder, the first slope the slopes down to the right matches the entirety of the slope of that hill:
I was hitting it in 4th gear at the bottom, dropping to 3rd, and then having to scream it in 2nd over the top. Ned was the same; the Beta would pull 3rd easily all the way up. To complicate things, they always get softer at the top because that's where all the new sand gets deposited by the wind - and where you run out of drive because of that fact. If you don't have enough momentum, or enough traction/power to compensate, you quickly dig in and stop.
We continued on to another turn in the course:
With Ned's scale for what is steep and what is fast and what is hard on a motor set a little more realistically now, the next set of lessons awaited. The next major dune-train past the backside of that hill was perfect for learning just how hard it can be to dune at or around noon, especially with the sun to your back. You lose almost all depth perception at times, and it can be really difficult to maintain enough momentum and speed while still being able to react to angles and changes in density of the sand as you ride into it - you have no other cues, oftentimes. The lesson worked, as both Ned and James struggled but learned a lot at the same time:
In the end, after only about a day and a half, the difference in both confidence and ability was stark. The last time I sent them off, I gave them a dead-reckoning landmark and let them go as they pleased, and they both did famously all the way back to the basecamp:
We will see if the lessons stuck for Ned tomorrow! *fingers crossed*