My first-time riding sand was somewhere near Mollendo, Peru, on a tiny little path connecting two villages nestled among coastal dunes. I’d learned to ride just a couple of weeks ago, and the notion of riding off-road was quite alien to me. For one, it was because back then, I assumed off-road riding was for professionals only.
For another, the term “off-road” is debatable when you’re riding Peru: for many locals, taking a gravel or dirt road isn’t “going off-road”, it’s just going, because that’s the only road available. While exploring Peru, I more or less adopted the monkey see, monkey do principle learning to ride: I rode like the locals did. If locals filtered through traffic, so did I. If localWhat s rode across or around landslides or footbridges or fields to avoid a blocked road, so did I. If locals used little dirt roads, so would I – it seemed perfectly normal, and my Chinese 150cc bike fit into the local bike scene so seamlessly I more or less started to feel like a local, too.
That’s why riding that sandy trail between the dunes seemed like a perfectly logical thing to do; local tuktuks and bikes went there, therefore, so could I. Except, of course, I had zero skills, and my first attempt ended in fishtailing all over the place, then landing in the sand face-first. No biggie – the landing was soft – but I felt puzzled; so far, the monkey see, monkey do policy had worked, yet here on sand, I was powerless. After a few more attempts – I had no idea about standing up on the pegs, getting on the throttle, and letting the rear wheel do its thing – I figured that perhaps this particular surface just wasn’t for me, and left it at that.
My second standoff with sand occurred in Southern Bolivia riding the Lagunas route. Out there, sand is everywhere, and there is no option to ditch the off-road tracks and ride pavement because, well, there is none. That section of the road, as well as the one from Challapata to Uyuni, was the most challenging I’d ever ridden back then; I managed, in the end, but the going was so painfully slow and there were so many offs I swore I’d never ride sand again. Never.
Much like riding sand, my other nemesis was all things mechanical. As a sworn humanitarian, I’d told myself maintaining and fixing my own bike just wasn’t something I could – or, frankly, wanted – to do. I was all about poetry, not bolts and nuts, let alone the mysteries of carbs and engines – it was too much for me, and that was that. For years, I happily paid for motorcycle maintenance and service or had the luck to ride with people who had the skills and the know-how to help. The more I convinced myself I was useless with mechanics, the more it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The third thing I thought I’d never do on a bike was race. Even once I did finally get some off-road training, began riding dirt more, and gotten a little better at it, I was never one for speed, and racing seemed like something I would never do, not in a million years. I told myself I was happy being where I was in terms of skills and speed – after all, it was all about overlanding and traveling rather than technical trails or enduro racing – and I’d decided I will forever remain a spectacularly mediocre rider interested mostly in plodding along rather than power slides or endurance.
In many ways, I was right about my inability to cope with sand, mechanical issues, or racing speeds. And I could have remained right, but that’s the thing about telling ourselves stories about ourselves. They’re completely true – until we realize they’re just narratives. Once you see the story you’ve been telling yourself is just that – a story – it can be changed, and there’s no telling where that may lead to.
For me, it led to riding the San Bartolo dunes with Dakar riders, completely re-modifying my old bike, and entering and finishing several rally races in the course of just two years. To be sure, I’m still not nearly as confident in sand as I would like to be, I’m still unable to rebuild an engine, and my rally results are solidly in the Back of the Pack, Barely Keeping Up category rather than anything worth mentioning. And yet, there was a time – not that long ago – when I thought I couldn’t do any of those things at all.
Now, I still tell myself all sorts of stories like “I could never do Romaniacs”, along with “there’s no way I could chase the Dakar in Saudi” or “I can never afford a second bike”…but then, I pause and, at the very least, get rid of the “never”.
Because you just never know.
What was the thing you thought you’d never do on your bike, but did? Share in the comments below!