I answered JB’s call on the way back from a pleasant week off the bike and away in the Alps – I love the French Alps, it’s my spiritual home. Also, me and the dog had a fabulous time smashing my favourite trails ‘Hors Saison’ on the e-bike. I’m not sure which of us had more fun, but whichever it was proper Man/Dog Of The World stuff, mountain biking in proper mountains with your dog/dad. And a proper dog too, the most noble of all hounds is the border collie. Mine is quite stupid compared to all of my previous collies, but he’s a happy little thicko and he mostly stayed upright. He was dubious of my line choice on occasion, and launched out of the top of some pretty steep berms to demonstrate that straight down was for heroes, but if we’re honest none of his choices really stuck so he accepted his place at the back. He reasserted himself on the climbs, where he made a few cheeky grabs at my ankles. So we’ll call it a draw.
The conversation re the Weston Beach Race went along the lines of RUST being offered the closest thing to a full factory dream ride that anyone who doesn’t live on a podium could hope for – a free entry, a spanking new Husqvarna to ride and a promise that you’d not even have to wash it. Just turn up, get dressed, throw a leg over and ride. I didn’t hesitate for a second – I’m in.
The more sensible folk at RUST had seemingly shirked the prospect. Weston has quite a reputation. Tough. Fast. Dangerous. Destroyer of bikes. Ruts that are swallowers of the weak and/or unlucky. A fabled xenolith (JB: a what? Look it up chaps) in the annual calendar – neither motocross nor enduro, and definitely not to be sniffed at. It has its own category on an ACU day licence for example. ‘Weston’.
Probably not to be agreed to on a whim. That said I’m free, keen and seemingly sufficiently relaxed post mountain biking with the dog that I don’t consider any of this to be relevant. I’m Dakar bound and hungry for bike time. It’s sand. Deserts are sand and, in all honesty, it’s not my bike so yeah, let’s have it…
THE DREAM (LAST MINUTE) TICKET
It’s essentially the dream ticket. I’m given the choice of either a 2020 Husqvarna TE250i or a TE300i – so either of the larger two-strokes if you’re not au fait with the letters on the latest generation of super tech Austrian family tree. Again, no hesitation, I’ll have the 300. I’ve got my own 2019 300 and I love it. I completed this year’s Romaniacs on it and it took everything the Carpathian Mountains threw at it, plus me throwing it at the same mountains more than twice, and it laughed at them. Both mine and its bodywork took a beating, but flesh wounds don’t count. We’d been there and prevailed, then had a beer at the finish.
I was pretty late to the Weston party, it was only a weekend or so away. As rider 975 there were literally only a handful of bikes behind me and 974 before me. My MX skillset is wildly mediocre anyway, but there’d be no danger of me worrying the top boys, the top 20 who get their own special start. Divas…
The start. The start is quite probably the most ungentlemanly undertaking that is possible to be achieved on a motorcycle. Having been somewhat blasé about accepting my free ride I did what has become a habit and hit the phone to chat to people I knew who’d done it. The general consensus was that my plan of staying out of trouble and simply using the event as bike time in the sand was mostly going to be impossible. The comments ranged from “the only race I’ve ever thrown a punch in” and “there’s nowhere to stay out of trouble, you’re going to hate it”. In summary, and agreement, just pin it and hope for the best. There were some even more colourful descriptions, which with hindsight were pretty much spot on, but you’ll have to ask me ‘out of print’ what they were!
Sorry, I deviated. The start. This is probably the daftest bit. I’d seen the videos of the 2km straight, what seems an impossible amount of sand/salt water spray and total blind carnage, of the ruts and the continuously relentless ‘dunes’ and it was those I sort of focused on before I’d ridden it for the first time. Now back to the start. Essentially, aside from those top 20 or so riders, the other 980 odd of you pile up like the 2P’s at the edge of those penny drop slots at the arcades up the road – the ones where they all get pushed up together by a moving plunger, only our plunger is some builders fencing, and we’re all pushing ourselves into it like possessed pennies trying to get back up to the slot. And then, without any real sensation of there being an actual start gun or a flag, the fences get pushed over and we’re all running at our bikes. 980 of us.
Whether it’s excitement, last night’s beer or the general melee of the event I’ve no idea, but seemingly something has the effect of felling, without apparent reason, a good 10% (that’s 98) of the rioters, who simply fall over and get trampled. I’m moving up the numbers and I’ve not even got to my bike yet. I go on to survive the lads on the first rows, who’ve now got to their bikes and are instantly possessed to continue the body count by riding full bore at those of us remaining upright who are still trying to get to the rows behind them. I take shelter behind a man mountain who, in either a rare occurrence of sense – no one’s riding at this Goliath – or just luck, manages to deliver me unscathed to my bike. I ensure he knows I’m grateful. Rider 975 is away. And then I’m not. We’re now all re-queuing in the other direction, only this time on a bike. And here’s where it begins to happen.
STAY OUT OF TROUBLE
I’d told myself, as with most races, that I’m here as an engineer, husband and dogs’ dad, that also rides bikes a bit. I was going to keep out of trouble, ride safely – I’m only a couple of months away from Dakar here – and keep it upright. Stay away from the melee. I’d discussed this with mate Del on the way and he’d laughed, as usual, and dismissed this notion as impossible for me to achieve. Wait until you get your helmet on….
So we’re in this queue, pretty much everyone mercilessly revving the nuts off cold bikes (see engineer comment above…) and then I realise that it’s a bit stop-start. My fellow Westoners trying to force their way forward like we’re at a free bar with a limited supply. I track stand and nip into a gap, pause, then repeat. And again. And again. I’m moving up the numbers. Again.
I get hemmed in at a U-turn onto the promenade. We’re stopped. There are a few riders that have revved too hard, clearly got dizzy on the fumes and gone down on the tarmac. There’s a young lad – a toddler (not my area of expertise this) stood on the barrier immediately next to me with some ear defenders and a Lightning McQueen hat on, I’m a McQueen fan myself and I gesture at him to lean over and rev my bike. He looks to his mum for permission, gets it and proceeds to join in the pointless revving to the max. Future Husqvarna customer there – job done, and the bike’s run-in to boot. Golden. I’ve also doubled my fan club membership. That’s him and the dog.
I pick up a few more spots with clutch control, balance and some trials wile, all the while getting elbowed and rear-ended. And then – at last – we hit the beach. Again, I’d told myself I wasn’t going daft. This is YouTube phone video fodder – the poor guy trying to get him and his dead bike across the stream of riders, and the even unluckier lad who hits him full bore with his goggles covered in roost and salt spray. The totally mental first lap sprint to join a pile of bodies at the first big mound of sand. Not for you that, Keyworth. You’re not daft…
There’s been suggestion that the front sand tyre fitted by the techs at Husky would be a bit skittish in the hard packed long stretch, and that the bike would need clutching, or even killing at the midway point of the long straight*. And of course my own pre race self-preservation prep talk. Well, that was all irrelevant now, my helmet was well and truly on. We clear a little berm, the course breaks left and it’s open beach. I gave my new little mate all of the berries. All of them.
That Husky is a dream. In a second we’d snicked thru the box and we’re ripping. No one passed us on that straight. No one. For the whole race. The 300 is a rocket ship. Coupled to this, any sense of apprehension and my pep talk were in the distant past. Like a collie off a berm, we’re having it. Balls to YouTube – I’m tucked behind the little bar pad and we’re WFO, front tyre skittering and a two-stroke wailing away.
We’d walked the track, Del and I, and looked apprehensively at the ‘big’ step. A sort of triple step-up which the course designer had built specifically to sort the brave from the less bold. I’d figured by the time I got there it’d be total carnage, and that I’d play the sensible game of taking a look and seeing what was what on arrival. Race Craig had arrived tho. Amusingly, on arrival on a bike, with my race head on, I laughed off this little lump. Only a few months ago I’d banged up and down sand dunes 100 times this size and couldn’t believe I’d given it a second thought. We’re on it.
The suspension was a bit soft to be fair – I’d not even set the sag, and despite the bravado starting to flow, I was having a crack at keeping it smooth and not hurting myself. More the latter than the former. I came in for my first pit as agreed at around the hour. There were some numbers… The principal being that I’d made up some positions. I was currently 273rd. We’ll quickly cover the other number – two – I was the second rider Del had fuelled – we’d jumped into the Colin Appleyard’s riders’ pit (Appleyards supplied my Husqvarna Factory rally bike and as an all round good bunch their riders were kind enough to let me tag Onto their pit set up at the very last minute). On my arrival into the pits, at the agreed spot and time, Del was donating my fuel to another Appleyards rider. Riding a KTM. In totally different kit. Now in his defence, after an hour of Weston it’s essentially a guess – everyone is covered top to toe and unidentifiable, but still, I slap him on the arse and he see’s the error of his ways. I’ll let you decide when I should cease the mickey taking for this. I’m going with ‘never’ in the meantime.
So despite efforts to talk myself into riding safe (slowly), and that not everyone could have fallen over, or were slower on the straight than my mega rapid 300, it seemed I’d found my groove (rut) and made up some positions. It was mostly a steady and considered approach that had prevailed. Now Del hadn’t informed me of my progress on arrival into the pits at the first hour, but I’d seen it myself on the board, and I’d believed my own hype. Time to push.
I’d seemingly been picking my way around the unfortunate, those stuck in a rut or halfway up the face of one of the big mounds. The guys that had gone out hard and gone pop and those whose bike had given up before them, but there was about an hour and a half to go. I’d started to really get stuck in.
And that’s when it started to unwind. Having seen myself at the highish 200s, inside the magical race helmet I’d imagined the glory of passing 800 riders and getting above 175th. I went hard.
Not the best plan.
By the time I’d arrived at the pits for the second stop, literally pushing, at just shy of 2hrs 15 I’d well and truly cooked the clutch. It stank. It was commented on by most of the pit crews as I skulked by. Small dogs covered their noses. Seagulls raised an eyebrow. On track at this point there were bikes abandoned up to their bars in ruts. Lost souls staring at their tanks and wondering why they even owned dirt bikes. It was total carnage. Sure enough the top riders were smashing through the whoops like they were in a 20-minute moto. 110% commitment, but I was off the bike and more than a bit embarrassed.
I’d had that 300 on song, we’d been taking liberties with my lines and attacking the soft, clear runs without bodies or bikes in them. There were other lines with ruts so deep that when you rode them, your inside boot was at bar height to keep it clear of the ground. I’d been hacking thru these and keeping my pace, safe in the knowledge that momentum was my friend, and the power of the 300 would see me through anything, optimum line or otherwise. We’d been on song. And then the song became a static one.
DNF’s are not for me. Fortunately the 300 is mega light and I’d pushed it back to the pits. Much easier to say or type than achieve. It entailed some serious humping and dumping through the ruts and, fair play to the marshals who got stuck in to help, up and over the last of the fortunately smaller jumps. Del and Team Appleyards took a quick look, I ran back to the Husky truck to see if they’d a spare clutch. Obviously they didn’t. I took a jog back to the pits, it was not good news and there was nothing to be done aside from a minor tweak to the spring position to give a tiny amount of drive. Only there was something I could do. I’d not finish in the pits.
It was a decent distance back round to the finish line, but I’d about 30 mins left of the race. If I could get back out there at least I’d get a finish. Not the one I wanted, but not a DNF. So that I did. With a bit of legging we got up to just about self propelled speed on the long straight and tried to stay as high as possible for the remainder of the lap, whilst pushing and manhandling the bike through stuff. There was almost full depth ruts through most of the jumps by now, so I could pick a pretty flat line to push/leg the bike through. On my arrival near the line there was a gaggle of riders waiting for the flag to come out. It was done.
I finished 486th in the end (9 laps completed) which given I’d spent the last hour faffing about wasn’t a bad result. I was pretty disappointed in myself for breaking someone else’s brand new bike; I’m about to head into the desert and destroying a clutch in under two hours doesn’t sit well with me. I did offer to wash the bike, but by the time I’d got to the dodgy hotel and back, the guys from Husqvarna had done it for me.
I’ll be taking a couple of spares clutches to the desert, then, just in case. And I’ll be back to Weston next year to finish the job.
*(given the two stroke oil in the TEi’s is injected as required, but it gets next to nothing at full revs, as it’s not really a normal requirement to be full chat for 2km)