Saturday, June 6, 2015

Ride report: Roaming Rally 2015

The goal: 110 riders in teams of 3-5 navigating 1000+ km through the backcountry of eastern Ontario over two days. About 300 km paved, the rest a mix of remote gravel roads, rough ATV trails, and single-track.

The night before

Teams convened at the provincial park in Kemptville to check in, set up camp, and hear the ride briefing. This was the first organized motorcycle event I'd joined and it was impressive to see so many tricked-out bikes arriving in loud packs. Riders came from as far away as Victoria and there was a large contingent from North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. I saw two women riders; the rest were guys from across the social spectrum. Some rough-and-ready whose sole possession and passion is their bike, some wealthy businessmen with top-end gear and a stable of toys. The endless trails and wilderness of eastern Ontario must've been irresistible to all given the riding restrictions they faced at home.

Bikes covered the full spectrum from several WR250R's set up identically to mine, to DRZ400's, XR650Ls, a few older KLRs, some Huskies, and a ton of KTMs of all sizes. KTM 690's were popular. Our team, the "Filthy Knobs," consisted of me on a WR250R, Rob on an XR650L, and Marc on a KTM350 EXC-F. (Marc's in the red jacket above. Note how clean he looks.) Both Marc and Rob are skilled and fast riders who set a pace at my limit of being able to keep up.

Gear setups were equally diverse: some guys rode with huge hard-cases, some had support crew following (they had trailered their bikes to the start). It seemed like everyone had wacky bungie-corded stuff all over. We took a minimalist approach. I thought my load was reasonably stripped down, but after seeing how little Marc and Rob brought and discussing their ride strategy (basically, ride fast until you drop), I ditched an entire bag's worth of stuff and kept a change of clothes, tent, tools, sleeping bag, energy bars, and first aid. Even then it would've been good to go with less, or at least a smaller tent. Happy to say my combo of Wolfman Expedition bags and a dry sack for first aid and snacks worked well. Rob had ridden to camp with a ginormous pack full of extra stuff for the sag wagon, but only carried a Giant Loop bag and an OGIO Tac vest on the Rally route. That combo seemed to work out pretty well and saved the weight of needing a rack. Hmm... something to consider for future. Since Marc bunked in my tent, he only needed to carry one little dry bag and a small backpack for tools and food.

Here's my load before getting rid of stuff:

Day 1: Kemptville - Prescott - Merrickville - Almonte - Calabogie - Killaloe - Round Lake

Bikes started firing up around 5:30 and by 6:00 we were packed and following the route on our GPSes south to Prescott. Lots of great roads in this area, pretty farms and fields. After breakfast at Angelo's where the 416 meets the 401 (great food!), we hit our first real obstacle: a long water crossing in three sections. This was the real start of the adventure.

Rob stalled out his XR in the second crossing and couldn't restart--he thought he'd watered the engine. The mud was awful and it took all three of us to pull him out.

That was just the warm-up. Right after was a stretch of WW1 shellhole-grade fine mud under waist deep water. Reefing on a bike would push your boots so deep it was almost impossible to pull yourself out or even move your feet without help.

I wanted to take photos but was so covered in mud I couldn't even clean off my glass. ADVRider has some great pics from this section, dubbed "mile from hell". Here's a couple from Lorry at Outback Motortek:

It took teams of 3-4 working together for 30-45 minutes to pry, pull, and muscle each bike through just a few tens of feet of the stuff. And that was just the small bikes like my WRR. Marc got stuck partway and put his left foot down only to discover a hole. He barely kept his bike upright and running and we dove in to rescue it, then him. Later we found his air filter caked with mud on both sides. Amazing he didn't stall out. 

Nipples-deep, in fact:

We didn't know these would be the worst water crossings of the whole ride. They burned up a lot of our precious time and energy. In retrospect, we should've gone around. 

As the rest of the groups arrived and watched us struggle, most opted en masse to turn back and find a road around, even though that meant riding back through the two long water stretches. It's unlikely the big bikes would have made it anyway. Here's a great vid from KTMAdventure Rider:

Now we looped back north through Merrickville. Here I removed about a half kilo of fine silt that had filtered down my riding gear into my boots, where it formed a layer of cement that locked my toes uncomfortably into place. Everyone looked like hell on an otherwise gorgeous day, attracting many stares from locals. 

Past Merrickville, as we headed into a bush section, Marc and I came around a corner to find Rob on the ground, yelling in pain with his bike on top of him. Our immediate worst fears of a broken leg were somewhat alleviated when it turned out that Rob had "only" gotten a serious charley-horse from having his leg squashed between his bike and a branch on the ground. Although there was no broken skin, the subsequent swelling indicated a significant deep-tissue injury and Rob wasn't sure he'd be able to finish the ride.  

By noon on the first day we'd barely covered a third of the day's route. Rob was sore and limping hard, we were infused and exhausted by the mud. A short stop at my house in Almonte (fortunately, right along the route) was needed to refresh ourselves and hose off our bikes. 

With hundreds of kilometers of technical riding left in Day 1, there was no time to stop for pictures now and we decided to cut out a section past Calabogie (which we'd ridden before at other times) in favour of making it to Camp 2 before dark. At Calabogie we saw one guy who'd snapped the trellis frame of his KTM 690 in six places. That one was going back to Austria for inspection.

Finally we hit Killaloe. Nothing open except a pizza joint and the LCBO.

Armed with much-welcomed food and cold beer for later, we set out to find gas because there was no guarantee of refueling for the next stage in the morning. This meant a side trip to Golden Lake, a 50 km detour that hardly seemed worth it given the gas it used up. 

Here's Rob, checking messages. Yes, he’s decked in KTM orange and riding a Honda. He has three KTMs besides this Honda and a Husaberg. Most of the guys who do this stuff have multiple bikes for different types of riding.

By now it was getting dark and we joined several other teams who struggled to find the campground, which wasn't where the day's GPS track ended. Turns out it was a few kms further down the road and named something else. By the time we'd futzed around for gas and looking for camp, we probably could've done the section we missed near Calabogie. But with Rob's leg still aching and already 14 hours of riding in, our earlier decision proved smart.

Camp 2 - Round Lake

Levair's campground had only rudimentary facilities reminiscent of my travels in Africa. And delicious water. After 14 hours of riding it was heaven to simply strip off wet, muddy gear. I'd developed some spectacular saddle sores on my butt which made it painful to sit, stand, or even think straight. Fortunately Rob had an extra container of special butt-cream for just this calamity and it made the pain bearable. 

What a day: A remarkable range of scenery, from early 19th century stone houses on lush farmland in the south, to dilapidated log houses and creaking wood-frame cabins in the north. Southern limestone soils with dense cedar and spruce stands turned to Canadian Shield with maple and oak forest, and eventually to great valleys full of endless golden sand deposited by the retreating glaciers and massive stands of red and white pine. 

Day 2: Round Lake - Barry's Bay - Bancroft - Bannockburn - Flinton - Sharbot Lake - Perth

Gorgeous sunrise. Again we were away before 6:00 a.m., one of the first groups to hit the road. Most other people were still asleep or moving slowly -- clearly still worn out from yesterday. The night before we'd heard of several more riders who'd dropped out because of injuries or broken bikes. Today we rode even lighter, ditching the tent and all extra clothing and unnecessary gear for the support truck. The additional weight loss was noticeable and important for what would turn out to be a more technical ride day with long sections of whoops and rocks.  

Turns out there's an open gas station right beside the campground! It was not visible the night before. After gassing up we immediately hit one of the more challenging obstacles for the day: acres of sand rippled into gentle dunes by the wind, adjacent to what looked like an old WW2-era airstrip that was now abandoned and being taken back by nature. The sand had a delicate crust of firmness on top thanks to a night-time rain shower. Break that crust and your bike flopped all over. Had to ride full-throttle to keep the front wheel floating on top, back wheel shooting a massive roost and precious little thrust. 

Then through pine forests to what seemed like a half-hour climb up a mountain at full throttle on a loose, rocky, twisty trail. Gained about 1500 feet elevation and took air over several bumps along the way. Drilled in the lesson of "when in doubt, give it gas". No time for photos. 

Barry's Bay provided an interesting breakfast of a pancake/sausage contraption. While I'm not normally a fan of gas-station food, this was actually tasty if not filling. 

Later in the day, as we stopped for a burger at a roadside shack, the forecasted storms finally started moving in. First a huge squall line whipped up dust and debris, then torrential rain, hail, and lightning pounded down. Fortunately we missed the hail. No choice but to ride on after the first squall passed. Played cat-and-mouse with the storms for the next six hours, racing along stunningly beautiful old pioneer routes like the Hastings and Frontenac Roads (now all-but-forgotten dirt tracks through dense forest) to reach the end before dangerous cold set in. Got stuck behind a Sienna van poking along at 20 km/h, clearly out of its element and lost, refusing to give way to our bikes. Managed to squeeze past only to encounter a car attempting a 30-point turn on the narrow track a few hundred meters later. Wish I'd been there to watch the Irresistible Force meet the Immovable Object.  

Rain picked up so hard we could hardly see at times. Lightning struck in the fields beside the sheltering tunnel of trees where we rode. Still: throttle, steer, slide, brake…. mostly riding by instinct, trying to keep enough adrenalin rushing to generate warmth needed to make it safely to the end despite being soaked to the skin. Marc and Rob made a game of it, challenging each other to a drag race (Marc won). While I struggled to keep up it was awesome and motivating to watch these guys have so much fun being hooligans despite the miserable conditions. 

Twelve hours after starting out we reached the end of the route at Woody's near Perth. Woody is legendary in the Ontario off-road biking scene. His shop is located on 1000 acres of bush and he had probably thousands of old bikes in a “graveyard” on the property. 

Despite being power-washed by rain for several hours we were still Filthy Knobs. 

One guy arrived with a KTM that had lost its rear axle nut and spacer. He'd jury-rigged a rock, the heath shield from his stove, and some zip-ties to secure the axle in place, allowing him to ride the last 150 km to the end.

Between 6:00 a.m. Friday and 6:00 p.m. Saturday (a mere 36 hours) we'd covered 1024 kms in 26 hours of riding. Big thanks to Rob and Marc for demonstrating awesome riding skills, sharing their knowledge, and being generally patient and fun riding buddies. This trip was a major leaning curve for me and I'm happy to say it turned out well. Only hit one tree! 


My sore throttle-hand:

Socks still stiff from the clay:

Pretty much worn-out rear tire. This was a new Trakmaster II 110/100-18 mounted just before the ride. It performed beautifully, although mine seemed to wear more than others.

Pirelli Scorpion Pro was also new and showing some good wear. Still some life. Not convinced this is the right front tire for me. I ran it at around 21 PSI to avoid denting my rim with the loaded gear. With all the standing turns and pounding rocks in this ride I was pretty heavy on the front end. When I'd run this tire lower it tended to bottom out and I dented the rim. It's amazing how much abuse the front wheel can take! 

Rack showing some serious wear where endless pounding from my bags and pervasive grit sanded through the powder coat:

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