Three mud weary riders head for the desert looking for a respite – they find it as the motorcycle in Moab.
It’s a mid-June morning and the desert heat is already building. My KDX220 is running okay after some expensive carburetor work at the local motorcycle shop. It’s our last day in Moab, Utah, so my sons, John and George, and I decide to string together our favourite trails in the Sand Flats Recreation Area outside of town. We make this last ride a big one—so good, in fact, it almost puts an end to dirtbiking for me.
We start on the famous Slickrock Bike Trail just out of town. It’s a 10-mile loop through ancient sand dunes that have weathered and baked over the course of 150 million years into solid red rock formations. The traction is phenomenal over the knolls and ridges of this monolith high above the Colorado River valley. It ‘s mainly first- and second-gear terrain. You don’t stray from the painted white lines of the designated trail because cliffs and gorges are everywhere.
Riders began to motorcycle in Moab originally when they claimed Slickrock in 1969. Trucks, jeeps and buggies followed. Then came mountain bikes in the 1980s and with bicycle suspension Slickrock, along with an epic descent from a 10,000-foot high mountain range to the east called the Whole Enchilada, turned Moab into a mountain biking mecca.
Four-by-fours now have their own part of the sandstone playground while mountain bikers and dirtbikers can still share the main Slickrock Trail. Everyone seems to get along, but it does feel a bit strange to ride by bicycles.
We turn off the Slickrock Trail onto a 4×4 trail called Hell’s Revenge. You can’t lose this trail because the rock is covered with wide black tire tracks. This morning, only a couple jeeps and a buggy are slowly crawling up and down these knolls.
We come to a feature called the Tip-Over Challenge, an intimidating chute that narrows to near vertical wall at its apex before cresting. It has an easy workaround but George has a thing for hillclimbs on his torquey KTM 300. We scout the 65-foot trough. The sides are too steep to allow spotting, so either you make it or you don’t.
George charges toward the rock shooting a roostertail of sand behind him, shifts up, carries good speed into the bottom of the rock chute, blap blap, hop and he’s at the top. Without giving much thought to the consequences of failing, I go next, but halfway up I’m thrown off my line and have to ease off the throttle slightly. My 220cc engine starts coming off its powerband, but I don’t want to shift down and lose momentum before scaling the wall. So I feather the clutch and rev the engine. The front wheel lifts, but I manage to wheelie safely to the top. Adrenaline still coursing, the cameras come out. I video John’s climb, then George goes for seconds.
The sun is beating down on us now. Moab in the summer is a quiet, deserted place. The best months to be here are April, May and September, October. We carry plenty of water as we set out on Fins & Things, a double-track run of S-curves where you can powerslide from one high-banked sandy corner to the next. It takes you into the eastern edge of the Slickrock formation. We play here for a bit, then exit through a sagebrush and cactus desert landscape.
Fins & Things ends in a series of sandy whoops and turns onto the Porcupine Ridge trial, a cascade of shale ledges climbing to higher ground. We pass into cooler temperatures among dwarf trees to a spectacular cliff edge, maybe 3,000 feet above a flat desert floor and a distant panorama of hoodoos.
“I drank most of my water by the time we got here,” George says, bitterly recalling his experience two days earlier on rented mountain bikes. “If I’d taken this bailout and rode back to town on the road, I would have had a great day.”
But he didn’t. And he hated the next three hours of the world-famous Whole Enchilada trail under a punishing sun, dehydrated, angry and promising to never part with his KTM again, especially after watching a group of dirtbikers pass by us along the way like a wistful mirage.
If you are at all into mountain biking and you find yourself in Moab for whatever reason, you have to do the Whole Enchilada. Local bicycle shops rents bikes and will shuttle you and a half dozen other riders to a 10,000-foot mountain east of town. The day that we went, it was just my sons and I and a guy named Eric, who wisely decided to ride with us so he wouldn’t be alone.
Imagine a bone-dry, amazingly smooth sub-alpine trail zig-zagging through mountain shrubs for miles on end. That ‘s just the start of the Whole Enchilada. When we came to a gravel road crossing, we were treated to a parade of Cobra kit cars. It was surreal. They came out of nowhere—a dozen sportscars, guys in ball caps, wives or girlfriends wearing bonnets—and then they disappeared just as suddenly.
We ripped down a sandy fire road with dips and bumps that served as high-speed jumps. Another gravel road crossing, but no Cobras this time. And then the main course began, the long technical, flowing trail along a ridge, always descending so you never have to work too hard. There are a couple bailouts along the way. We stopped for water and talked about that bike ride, is the last of them. “I think this is where Eric [fell off his bike] the second time,” John recalls.
There are real consequences to riding the Whole Enchilada. Besides falls and bruises, there’s the potential to drop off the cliff the trail follows for many miles.
And then there’s the heat. It’s an endurance event and the heat got Eric that day, when the temperature climbed to 104F in the afternoon. He ran out of water and simple couldn’t continue, even though, by the time he collapsed, he was only 10 minutes from the paved road leading back to Moab. There was simply no reasoning with him. He climbed into the shade of a big rock and refused to continue.
My sons were far ahead of us and I wasn’t about to try dragging a 220-pound guy anywhere. So I gave Eric the last of my water and left him to die. Well, not really. I went to get help. At the road, I found someone with a phone and I told the bike shop to go rescue him.
Anyway, George hated the Whole Enchilada. He ran out of water but his rage sustained him to the end. John loved it. So did I. In fact, when I got back to Calgary, I sold my KDX 220 and eventually bought a full suspension 29ner mountain bike.
I did this partly because I never got my KDX to run properly. The transition between low and midrange power was messed up by the previous owner, who bored out the carb body, ported the cylinder, opened up the airbox and put on an aftermarket pipe. He knew better than the engineers who designed the bike, I guess. It made more power but, no matter what the jetting, it had a flat spot that took the fun out of technical riding.
“Why didn’t the guy just buy a faster bike?” John wondered.
“He probably did after he unloaded it on me,” I said.
The other reason I sold my dirtbike was because to motorcycle in Moab kind of spoiled dirtbiking for me. When we returned to Calgary, we went for a ride to McLean Creek, our usual stomping ground in the foothills of the Rockies. It was early in the season and there we were, yet again, slogging through mud, skirting bogs, crossing creeks, slipping and sliding all over the place. There was just no flow to it.
This was actually the very frustration that spurred the idea for Moab seven years earlier. I remember it clearly, coming to another impassible bog, saying to George, “I wish we could just ride instead of stopping all the time and hauling our dirtbikes over obstacles. You know, riding somewhere dry, like in a desert.”
Moab became that for us. But now it’s been two years that I ‘ve been without a dirtbike. Not to take anything from mountain biking, I’m starting to miss dirtbiking with my sons. So I’m checking online sales boards for KTMs and by spring I expect to make a little purchase. I think I can deal with the mud again. If not, there’s always motorcycle in Moab a day-and-half drive south.
Story and photos by Paul Stastny Canadian Biker Issue #318