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By Matt Cuddy




Speaking from experience here. I was always kind-of fast, one of the faster riders in our circus of people who met every Sunday somewhere out in the high desert of California. I rode a ported-for top end 1987 CR500 Honda that was originally configured as a hillclimber. That meant someone ported the bejezus out of the motor, and the bike made major power. That, along with a 15/45 final drive gear ratio, made it a 100 mph dirt bike. It was intimidating.  After Noleen Racing rebuilt the cartridge forks, and re-built and re-valved the rear Showa, the bike handled like a dream, and I had no excuses. It was very intimidating, and you had to be careful with the loud handle (the throttle).

Around this same time, I had become a gym rat. Working out was part of my “plan of the day. “  I would spend a couple hours working on strength training on my upper body  and legs, while the next day was a three mile run on the track at my daughter’s high school.  I did this regimen for about 7 years, and according to my wife, it showed.

One thing I didn’t notice, however, was that the CR500 wasn’t that intimidating anymore, and I wasn’t getting tired either, even after a desert race with two seventy mile loops.  In fact, the mighty Honda could be held WFO in most cases across the open desert, like riding a fast 250. My riding buddies didn’t dig it that much, since I would have to wait for them to catch up, sometimes for fifteen minutes.  I could throw the 500 around like a mini-bike, and I was having the best riding time of my life.

Of course, riding a 20 year old CR500 WFO across the desert sometimes overtaxed the capabilities of the bike, and I would eat it big every once in a while. My buddies would finally catch up, to find me brushing the dirt out of my underwear, and straightening the forks with the old “grab the handlebars and stick the front wheel between your knees” routine.  Sometimes parts would exit the motorcycle, and I’d spend a few hours looking for a $100.00 silencer/spark arrester combo that had parted company with the bike.  But other than a bruise on my inner thighs from gripping the tank at the time of crashing, I was no worse for wear.

Now this, obviously, could be attributed to being in great shape, no beer before the ride, and a decent handling dirt bike. My riding buddies all went out and bought new KTM four strokes, but I could still smoke ‘em on my old ratty CR500. I swear, it was like riding an underpowered 125. I wanted MORE power. Something you don’t usually hear from Honda CR500 pilots.

That brings me to my next topic: CRASHING (at speed):  Being a desert rider most of my life, with a few Grand Prix and Motorcross events thrown in, I can usually read the desert terrain, and know when to slow down, and hold my clutch hand high in the air, signaling the people behind me, to be careful.

 Sure enough, a giant wash out not there last week end, or another barbed wire fence put up recently, could ruin your day, if not your life.  But what if you’re blasting along in high gear, and a 15 foot deep wash out appears out of nowhere, and you have about one nanosecond to figure out what to do?

You have a few choices:

#1: Lay the bike down, and slide down the embankment into the bottom of the wash out with the bike under you.  

#2: Gas it, bring up the front end up to a ridiculous angle, and plunge into the wash out, and hope for the best.

#3: Slam on the brakes, and at the same time lay the bike over on its side, and bail off.

I usually picked number two, and with luck and strength, most of the time I was able to slam into the opposite bank, and ride out of the gulley.

That shows you how looking way ahead, getting ready for the eventual impact of the situation, especially when there is snow on the ground, or it just rained, can save your bacon.

The next situation that can ruin your riding day: ROCKS.

A few years back, I was riding with a new group of people I met at work. They were a nice bunch, kind of slow, all riding XR400 Honda enduro bikes. Of course they had a couple of “Fast Guys” who had something to prove to the new rider, me. Both of them were on new CR500 Honda motocrossers, stock.

We were at Gorman, in some area where giant bike eating rocks lined the trail. Now I don’t like smashing myself or my bike on rocks, as they tend to be very hard and unforgiving, unlike pucker bushes. So I was in front (of course) tooling along in 4thgear, picking my way through the goat path at around 35-40 mph. being very careful not to allow myself to ride over my head, and smash my body against a giant boulder of some unknown mineral.  This, of course, gave one of the hot shoes of the group a chance to pass me, and show his buddies that I wasn’t all that fast. So “Joe” passes me on the right, and we were so close that his handlebar went under mine, and pulled my throttle cable tight, into a full throttle proposition, on a rocky one –bike-wide goat path, surrounded by giant boulders and sharp granite outcroppings.

After trying to save my bike and myself, I saw things were rapidly going bad, so I bailed off the bike, into a nice soft bush, devoid of any hidden rocks or poisonous snakes. My 500 followed me, and fell right on top, making a pucker-bush-human being-CR500 Sandwich.  The hot shoe who caused the whole crash slammed into a giant boulder, bent his forks and smashed his pipe, and bounced off several hard unyielding rocks, technically ending his riding day. Thank fully, he was wearing all his combat gear, and just suffered a few scrapes and bruises.

Be careful in rocks. No matter how big or small, they can hurt you bad, and destroy your bike.

Then we have long rock-filled sand washes, where, like an iceberg, just the tip of some giant rim-bending granite monster lurks just beneath the surface. The best way to deal with these is to hit them dead center, standing on the pegs, at a slower rate of speed. If you hit them off-center, the rock will deflect your front wheel in the direction of the angle, and throw you into an out of control situation, that might send you into a bigger mine field of loose or fixed rocks, where things can go bad, quickly.  And if you are going fast, and happen to hit a loose rock that throws you into a tank slapper, don’t tense up;  get your weight back over the rear wheel, and gas it, to straighten out the bike. I’d say that at least 75% of the time, gassing a dirt bike that’s out of shape works better than slamming on the binders. 

Sand washes, to me, are some of the best riding you can have on a dirt bike, if you’re careful, and read the terrain for dangerous shit, like the iceberg rocks I just described. Hitting one of those at speed, sitting on the seat, can make you feel that your expensive, great handling dirt bike has just turned into an old 305 Honda Dreamcycle. On ice.

Rocky uphill and downhill trails are handled the same way, except you have gravity either working in your favor (downhill) or against you (uphill).  Sometimes, if the trail you are on is a single track, with rocks on one side, and a big drop off into an abyss on the other, it’s best to stop and access the situation before moving forward. One time, again at Gorman, a dinky little loose rock knocked my front wheel off center, to the outside of the trail, into the abyss. The bike and I tumbled end over end, and when the crashing ended, I found my helmet wedged between the front wheel, and the head pipe of my CR500, with premix (VP118 & Yamalube R at 32 to 1) dripping down the back of my neck. 

Had I stopped to look for loose rocks, and a better line, I would have saved a $100.00 silencer/spark arrester (that was bent at a ninety degree angle) and a three hour grunt fest,  getting a 260 pound bike back on the trail, some 30 feet up a 70 degree sandy, needle bush filled slope. My water bottle that was mounted on the cross brace of the handlebars was gone, and it was about 90 degrees in the shade.  Sometimes bopping along, having fun, you forget how far away you gone from camp, and when you eat it off a precipice, you realize right away what an idiot thing you just did. Especially when your water has disappeared down a gopher hole, or flipped through the air into a bear cave.

And even the safest looking places to go fast can be a death trap. Like a dry lake bed on a busy weekend.  Sure, the great expanse of a dry lake, with no one in sight can tempt even the most savvy dirt biker on Earth. All it takes is one toddler on a mini bike, while you are tucked in like a flat tracker, seeing how fast the old scoot can go, to ruin a nice afternoon, even your life. When I was learning how to ride, my Uncle Richard let me loose on El Mirage dry lake on his AT1MX. I could barely shift, much less make a panic stop, or a quick maneuver to save my bacon. Out of the corner of my left eye, I saw another kid on exactly the same bike, moving as if to intersect me, like a torpedo. Sure enough, in all that space that a dry lake has, I center-punched him  on the left side case, and we both went down. It took a good hour for us to start each others bike, and when I got back to camp, my Uncle said,  “Where the hell did you GO?”

I tried to explain, but was only able to babble some incoherent reply, since I was so shaken from the experience.  We were lucky that time. Just imagine throwing a landing Cessna 150 in the mix, or someone in a land speed record car. ‘Nuff said there.

Fire roads, with blind corners can have you meeting the business end of a speeding truck, dune buggy, or other motorcycle with dire results. Use common sense on these. Also on wide mountain trails, with blind corners, that one of those 4 wheeled beasts can fit on. Use care. Once, again with the guys from work, a speeding four-wheeler on a wide trail (with a straight down drop-off into a gully full of bushes) knocked four of my riding buddies, and their bikes into this bottomless abyss when the guy on the four- wheeler, lacking any common sense, hit the riders at about forty miles an hour head on.  Thankfully no one was hurt, but it took half a day getting the bikes back on the trail. Lucky for us, I was carrying a 40 foot length of nylon water ski rope in my back pack, and it made yanking the Honda 400’s out of the deep bush infested gully a lot easier, with the manpower we had at our disposal.  It could have been disaster time, with broken bones that required a helicopter ride to the hospital. Not cheap. The 4- wheeler (A Suzuki Quad Racer) was turned into a three wheeler, when one of the Honda 400’s removed  one if its front wheels.  It bounced into the ravine, never to be seen again.

A few words on my back pack: After suffering a no-water or bandage situation 30 miles from camp, in the stinking hot desert one too many times, I decided to get a small back pack, and stock it with a quart of water in a soft plastic bottle, some rope, bandages, iodine, rags and duct tape. This usually solved any problem involving a crashed rider. I added a tarp later as a sun shade, after one of our regulars (who crashed with alarming regularity) crashed, and got knocked silly in 110 degree heat. Lucky for him, we had water, but no sun protection. So a small tarp can fashion a nice sun shade, with the help of rope, and duct tape.  Being half knocked out in the hot sun can boil your brain, and cause you to go into heat stroke real quick. Be prepared.

In closing, common sense can save you an expensive ambulance ride, and even a trip to the morgue. When I was thirteen, I was pitting for my Uncle at the Hobo Enduro, held in Cal City area. The pits ran parallel to some railroad tracks that were taped off with yellow “warning, danger” tape, to keep riders from riding into the tracks, and getting hurt.

We had just gassed up my Uncle’s Bultaco on the first loop, when some kid on a yellow tanked Yamaha 90 Enduro went into a tank slapper, and headed right for a small mound of dirt that hid the railroad tracks on the other side. I started waving and shouting, tried to get his attention  not to try and jump that dirt mound, but he didn’t see me, and over he went.

A second later the Yamaha went silent, and there was no movement from the other side of the little mound of dirt. I ran over to the crash site, to find the kid dying from a broken neck.  I very carefully picked the Yamaha off the kid, and cradled him in my arms, holding his head from flopping down, trying to get him breathing again. He died in my arms.

Pretty heavy stuff for a 13 year old to figure out. That whole scene is burnt into my memory.  Never go bopping over a small mound of dirt, because that dirt came from somewhere, most likely dug out from a mine shaft, or in this case, railroad tracks. And unless you have scouted out the other side for big holes, rocks, abandoned Hudsons, or a mine shaft, avoid these at all costs.

And if you ride on the street, get off it. Too many cars with idiots behind the wheel are out there, and one has your number on it. All it takes is your luck to run out, and its wheelchair time. Believe me, I know.