It seemed simple enough. Take off in second gear and stand on the footpegs while leaning rearward to transfer your weight away from the front wheel.
Then all I had to do was look far ahead, keep a light grip on the handlebar and remember not to countersteer; doing so would likely induce a tankslapper.
But then how do I steer? Just like skiing, by transferring your weight on the footpegs – or so I was told. Oh yes, and try to maintain a speed of at least 60 km/h – and don’t chop the throttle; doing so will probably send you over the handlebar.
That advice, offered by one of our guides, Marchant Maasdorp, was instrumental in helping me survive the 30 km track of deep, beach-like sand that led the way to Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique.
“Mission Ponta,” as organisers dubbed it, was one of several special tests of the 2010 BMW GS Trophy. All the teams had to do was arrive there, and for having survived the sandy hell intact they would collect a mere five points per member.
Riding in sand is not my forté and this two hours of horror was just enough for me to get sand in my pants, boots, hair and formulate into a rough grinding paste between my gritted teeth.
It was the toughest riding I’d ever experienced. I fell about a half-dozen times, but I finally made it to Ponta do Ouro … and I wasn’t even eligible for the five points.
Welcome to the 2010 BMW GS Trophy.
FROM CHALLENGE TO TROPHY
The seven-day BMW GS Trophy is a biennial competition (the inaugural event was held in Tunisia in 2008) that pits BMW GS riders from around the world against each other in a test of riding skill, physical endurance, teamwork and camaraderie.
To qualify, riders must finish first in national GS Challenges held in their respective countries. Despite being open to non-professional riders only, these qualifying rounds are pretty hard, assuring that the skill level of Trophy contestants is advanced.
Canada has had three Challenges since 2009, two in Quebec and one in BC, the winners of which were Patrick Horan, 50, of Spruce Grove, Alberta, Brian Kiely, 42, of Cold Lake, Alberta, and Dominique Lemaire, 41, of Bromont, Quebec, making up Team Canada.
Ten teams from 14 nations (Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK and USA) took part in the 2010 edition of the GS Trophy — riding BMW supplied F800GSs — with three competitors and one journalist per team.
Acting as both Canadian media liaison for the event and teammate, my capacity within the team was limited, and I only took part as a scoring member in non-riding special tests (like a tractor pull and canoe race, among others).
The 1,900-plus kilometre loop headed east out of Johannesburg and included overnight stops in South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique, from where it turned west and headed back to Jo’burg.
The route traversed some of the most challenging and breathtakingly beautiful terrain I’ve ridden to date, and included sections of pavement riddled with bathtub-sized potholes, gravel roads, dirt tracks and sandy trails.
The first riding day was uneventful and we arrived at Country Trax Amersfoort where the team took part in the first special test.
It was a navigational challenge using the GPS, and although I couldn’t score in it I followed the team, giving me a chance to see the guys in action as they rode fast and hard looking for GPS waypoints.
They revealed rather quickly that they were indeed worthy candidates for Team Canada, being among the five teams to finish the special test within the one-hour cut-off.
On day two we crossed into Swaziland, and it was truly a border crossing to be experienced. We first had to go through a screening process that included producing personal documents, as well as documents for all of our valuables (cameras, radios, motorcycles, etc.) with descriptions, values and serial numbers recorded.
Two customs agents recorded motorcycle serial numbers, checked visas, rubber-stamped documents and took photos of those who hadn’t already secured their visas.
While all of this was going on (about 50 of us were in the queue), the customs head honcho (easily identifiable by the numerous decorations on his uniform), sat in the distance with his back to us playing computer games.
And I’m not talking while he was on his break; he stayed there for most of the two hours we were there. And that was just leaving South Africa.
Then about 100 metres past the South African exit gate we arrived at the Swaziland border where we had to endure a similar (but speedier) process to get in. I will never curse another US/Canada crossing.
It was on day three, after crossing into Mozambique, that we rode the sandy trail to Ponta do Ouro, and it proved to be a hard day for Team Canada. Brian had taken a pretty bad spill on a paved road, swerving the wrong way to avoid an oncoming car while making a pass and ending up in a ditch. He was badly bruised and twisted an ankle in the mishap.
But that was not to be all; during the numerous crashes that most everyone experienced along Mission Ponta, Dominique dislocated a shoulder and Patrick (who had suffered a similar crash to Brian the day before but escaped mostly unscathed) cracked a rib and twisted an ankle.
Despite all this Team Canada continued to ride and take part in the numerous special tests along the way, albeit in less than ideal form.
Fortunately, Dr. Axel Thiäner, the GS Trophy medic, had an ample supply of painkillers for everyone. “Axel’s drug store will be open after dinner,” he’d announce during the evening briefings, to everyone’s applause. A line of battered riders would then line up for Doctor Axel’s handouts.
By now we had ridden with the Brits, the Germans and Team Alps, and as instructed we rode with the teams, as teams. On day four it was the Italians’ turn.
The Italians had their own agenda. Mimicking Raul Julia’s character Franco Bertollini in the film The Gumball Rally (“What’s-a behind me is not important”) they were the only team to pull the mirrors off their machines before the start of the Trophy.
Wait at a fork in the road for stragglers they did not, and if it weren’t for an attentive Patrick, whose keen eye caught a brief glimpse of a bike before it disappeared over a hill on a side road, we would have gotten lost the day we rode with them.
Although Trophy organisers suggested that day three would be the most difficult because of Mission Ponta, day four proved even harder. We began the day by backtracking through the deep sand for nine kilometres, though it had rained overnight and it was much easier to negotiate the compacted sand.
However, we also rode along a long and narrow sandy trail that had two deep tracks embedded in it by four-wheelers, making it extremely difficult to negotiate. You had little choice but choose a track to ride in, and the overgrown brush forced you to ride while leaning off the bike to one side to clear it.
Despite applying everything I’d learned about riding in sand the day before, I struggled to keep the bike going straight and upright. I’d often find myself riding several metres with the front wheel pointing nowhere near where I wanted to go, the tire sliding along the edges of the tire tracks.
A few riders gave up, hopping into trucks either because of exhaustion or injury.
As a reward for the nasty day, upon arrival at the Phinda game reserve everyone was treated to a safari, where we saw lions, hyenas, rhinos and a multitude of other wildlife that made us question our status on the food chain.
Our place was reaffirmed later that night when we feasted on roast warthog and stewed impala.
On day five we rode through Ghost Mountain, enjoying some of the most beautiful scenery and some of the best trails. The red sand trails were hard packed and rocky and easy to ride.
One of the day’s special tests was to swap wheels on two of our bikes. We all thought we’d nail this test, as there was an experienced mechanic on the team — me. Unfortunately, we fumbled trying to get one of the wheels back on, slightly bending one of the brake pad retainers and making it nearly impossible to hold the pads in place.
By the time we figured out the problem and reinstalled the second rear wheel, 30 minutes had elapsed, although a few other teams actually managed to do worse than we did.
The special tests, sometimes up to four a day, ranged from true riding challenges like towing a motorcycle over a difficult, four-kilometre stretch of dirt track that included a water crossing and a long, rocky uphill, to more light-hearted tests like throwing a spear at a target while riding, or rolling an oversized tractor wheel through a slalom course.
You’d think that between the sand, gravel, muddy sections that made the riding as slick as ice, and predatory mammals, the GS Trophy was challenging enough, but there was one more surprise in store for riders: lurkers.
Lurkers are what locals call rocks embedded in dirt roads that poke above the surface. These surreptitious obstacles combined with poor visibility due to dusty conditions on day six to wreak havoc on wheels and riders — I hit two of them consecutively and dented the rim enough to put a quarter-inch gap between the tire and the rim’s bead.
Lurkers also claimed one motorcycle. UK journalist Warren Pole hit a lurker at about 100 km/h which was sufficient to launch him into the air.
Fortunately he suffered only minor injuries to his right arm, though his machine was demolished. He continued to ride the last day on a spare bike.
Aside from damage incurred due to the harsh riding conditions, none of the bikes suffered any mechanical failures — and on a side note, the heavy-duty Metzeler inner tubes are now my off-road tubes of choice.
In roughly 80,000 combined kilometres split among 40 bikes, I saw only two punctures.
Some riders took the competition portion of the GS Trophy too seriously and were subsequently very disappointed when they didn’t get the results they were expecting, which sort of spoiled the adventure for them. I think they missed the point of the Trophy, which emphasized, above all, to have fun.
Despite their injuries, Dominique, Brian and Patrick attacked the special tests with fervour, often belting out the war cry “Go Canada!” as they proceeded.
Because of the team’s resilience and positive attitude, they were among the favourites with the international media that was present, and even gained the affection of other teams, some of which had adopted “Go Canada!” as their own war cry.
Team Canada fared very well in the special tests, especially the riding tests (the team didn’t fare as well in the non-riding tests, coincidentally the ones in which I took part…), clinching fourth place overall with 124 points, behind Team Nordic at 149, Team South Africa at 151, and winners of the 2010 GS Trophy, Team UK at 152.
No matter the ranking everyone agreed that there were no losers in the GS Trophy. BMW Motorrad offered average riders the opportunity to experience a motorcycling adventure like few others, and the corporate brass — many of whom were riding along — didn’t let the legal department dictate how challenging the event would be.
The riders have the awards — and the bruises — to show for it.
BMW filmed the whole event and have put it on X-Trax.tv for your viewing pleasure. It’s broken up into each day but be aware that the first day is the prep not a riding day so you may want to skip that one.