The world of dirt biking–or motocross–is vast and varied, and includes a cadre of 24 riders who last month embarked on an eight-day, 1,500-mile marathon journey from the U.S.-Mexico border to Land’s End at Cabo San Lucas, which is on the tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. It was not a race, but a test of will as they zigzagged across Baja California, enduring heat, cold, fear, fatigue, failure, camouflaged gunmen, jumping cactus, venomous snakes, secret trails, night riding, and ultimately, triumph. They call it the Rip to Cabo. Check out a photo gallery by Kevin Ward of what they encountered below.
Experience may be the most important element to a successful ride down the Baja peninsula. One of the leaders of this trip was 11-time Baja 1000 champion Johnny Campbell. Campbell (pictured here wheelie-ing down the beach on the first day) brings a wealth of Baja riding knowledge that provides a sense of calm over the entire group, not to mention a skill-set that can be used to tackle even the biggest off-road challenges. Just a few weeks after this ride was completed, the Johnny Campbell Racing (JCR/Honda) team won another Baja 1000 title when their sponsored riders, Colton Udall, David Kamo, and Timmy Weigand, were victorious in the Motocross Class at the 45th-annual running of the race.
Dangers of all shapes and sizes lurk around every corner on this ride. But in modern-day Baja there are new dangers to consider, specifically the menacing specter of Mexico’s power-grabbing drug cartels. Mere minutes before this photo was snapped, the group began an innocuous hill climb up a peak overlooking the ocean in northwestern Baja. As the helicopter pilot and cameraman rose to film the ascent, they encountered two well-camouflaged, paramilitary gunmen not happy to see the riders. They may or may not have been Mexican federales. The group was quickly alerted, reversed course, and did not stick around to find out.
Baja is full of majestic landscapes–mountains, beaches, oases–but ultimately, it’s a desert. A desert vast and daunting, filled with forests of cactus. Not least of which is the infamous Cholla cactus, otherwise known among Baja vets as “Jumping Cholla.” Comprised of fleshy segments covered in 2- to 3-inch-long spines easily separated from their main branches, even the slightest brush up against a Cholla can result in a painful encounter, hence their reputation for “jumping.” Many of the trails on this ride are lined with this particularly nasty plant.
Much of the ride is comprised of “singletrack” trails, essentially wandering footpaths originally forged by free-range cattle, wild horses, and burros. These single tracks are lovingly cobbled by dedicated Baja dirt-track builders, many of which required months of shoveling, shaping, rock removal, and cactus pruning to make it passable on dirt bikes. Some remain secret, their locations known only to their builders and close friends. Then they are given names like Window Rock Trail and the Baja Nomad Trail to be enjoyed by only the boldest dirt bikers. At times it can be a solitary existence, man and machine endeavoring to conquer the raw desert.
Central Baja is home to a vast network of creeks, streams, and rivers. Waters descend both east and west off the central mountain ranges that comprise the spine of the peninsula. And, contrary to common perception, there is plenty of water in Baja and dirt bikers know it all too well. Most of the peninsula’s riverbeds are covered with slimy, moss-covered rocks, which require finesse, verve, and technical bike control to navigate. Traversing slippery creeks and rivers on a dirt bike can be treacherous, a single slip-up might lead to broken bones and a mangled bike.
This little beauty, a rattlesnake estimated at 6 to 7 feet in length, was strung up alongside a road just outside the southwestern village of Todos Santos. Encounters like these serve as a harsh reminder to all what dangerous creatures live in the dense desert jungle mere steps off the path. Seasoned Baja riders admit that these snakes tend to strike at the second bike to pass them on the road, which can lead to disastrous, last-minute swerves on desolate Baja trails.
An eclectic roster of dirt bikers participated in this adventure. The laundry list of riders included firemen, world-record-holding distance jumpers (think Evel Knievel), car dealers, turbocharger builders, and even a former world champion pro surfer. Hawaiian Sunny Garcia (pictured here) may have won the pro surfing world championship back in 2000, but he’s no slouch on a dirt bike. He joined this year’s trip to honor a friend who passed away last year while participating in a similar Baja adventure ride. Garcia said the Rip to Cabo was by far the most difficult experience of his life, both physically and emotionally. The day after the crew arrived in Cabo he flew home to the North Shore of Oahu to train and compete in the prestigious Triple Crown of Surfing (a crown he’s captured a record six times), and within days of returning to Hawaii, Garcia won the HIC Pro surfing contest held at the legendary big-wave surf spot Sunset Beach.
The sheer raw beauty of Baja is overwhelming, but looks can be deceiving. On the day this photo was taken, riders passed through a biosphere reserve outside the town of Guerrero Negro that required a special government permit to access. Recent rains fed green grasses, rare flowers bloomed on drought-stricken trees and cactus, and the verdant desert thrived, making the trails tight and overgrown. However, when the riders reached these trails, they were running late, and although the sun was rapidly setting over the mountains, they still had two more hours of riding before they reached their destination for the night. This meant they would be riding in the dark, in an empty desert, relying on a just a single headlight, instinct, and audacity. But by the time they finished the entire journey, they looked back on this dangerous night and felt it was all worth it.
All photos are courtesy Kevin Ward/Rip to Cabo 2012 and are protected by copyright law; all rights reserved by Desert Assassins/General Tires