Or, “The weekend of joy and pain.”
Piggybacking on the second annual Mid-Atlantic Overland Festival, Touratech finally brought their adventure rally to the east coast. Based in McAlvey’s Fort, PA – between State College and Huntingdon – the rally promised some of the best public dirt roads in Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests. Todd and I signed up several months early and waited patiently for what would be our first camping trip of 2015.
I sorted through my camping gear and packed the Super Tenere a few days before departure. Thursday morning, I hit the PA Turnpike west, and met Todd at the Family Diner in Harrisburg, for a late breakfast. This being our first overnight trip of the year, the loaded weight of the big Tenere was unusually apparent as I leaned it onto the kickstand in the diner’s parking lot. After a hearty breakfast and a scenic highway run west on Rt 322, we hit the nicely-paved 2-lane roads leading to the McAlvey’s Fort area.
The entrance to the rally was not where I had put it in my GPS, based on the coordinates given on the rally’s website. I began to turn around at one point while searching, but then I spotted the two large Touratech flags looming over the access road, just another 1/4-mile down Route 26. We rolled down the dirt-and-gravel driveway to the check-in desk around the first turn, where we received our wristbands (one for the rider, one for the bike) and our rally packs (stickers, a plastic beer mug, some literature on Touratech and the Mid-Atlantic Overland Festival, and a carabiner with a nylon loop whose function would be revealed to us later). Implicit instructions were given on navigating the rest of the driveway to the camp/rally site – the “road” was just wide enough for one passenger car, so rally volunteers were serious about traffic control. Nobody rolls down the driveway until they get the “all clear” from the volunteers.
Once we were allowed to proceed, we followed the road to the camp site, where our friend Anthony was directing traffic into the two camp sites – motorcycles in the Touratech area, and four-wheelers in the Overland area. The camping area was a flat, wide-open field, with the Touratech tents at the far end, and the Overland vendors beyond that, up on top of the hill. We were among the early arrivals, so we had almost the entire field to choose from. We chose the lower tree-line to our left, near the exit path, and set up our tents. There is still something about camping – setting up my own shelter, with basic comforts – that makes me feel as liberated as riding the bike does. Maybe it’s as simple as a change of scenery and pace, but it felt good to have our campsite up early. Getting the extra weight off the bikes was a relief as well.
We met up with some friends I met through Chris, from The Pace Motorcycle Podcast, at one of his garage “tech days” last year, and the four of us rolled down to Huntingdon to scrounge up a few six-packs of beer and some ice. By the time we got back to camp and cracked our first beer, a gentleman made his way around the campgrounds announcing the riders’ meeting at 5pm,…”and bring the mug from your rally pack.” After a short briefing at the Touratech tent outlining the weekend’s events and general rules on the group rides, we had the local routes loaded into our GPS units by the Touratech staffers, and were treated to free beer, courtesy of Touratech. We were also informed that the velcro loop and carabiner device included in our rally pack was for hanging our beer mugs from our belt-loops. The jokes flew fast and furious about getting our money back (in beer) for the overpriced Touratech parts we had purchased. Several beers in, we were already declaring this the “best rally ever!”
Todd and I made a few more friends around the beer kegs – I am horrible at remembering names, but we swapped stories and joked for a few hours with “Lon Gisland” (a hilarious tall gentleman from Long Island, NY). Another guy we were talking with gave me the impression he was in law enforcement, so I asked “are you a statey (state trooper)?” He said he was recently retired, and I was immediately pounced on by our Long Island friend, “He said that ten minutes ago! Where were you?!” Our small group bonded and joked like we had been old friends for decades. We caught a few minutes of the nighttime presentation of someone’s around-the-world trip before declaring it boring and heading back to our respective camp sites for the night.
Waking up with only a slight hangover, Todd and I planned to jump on the “long intermediate” group ride. Touratech staffers used their public address system at their tent to announce to the entire camping area when it was time to gather out at the check-in area for each group ride. Our call came at 9:15 for a 9:30 departure. Even though they weren’t broken-in yet, I decided to wear my O’Neal Element motocross boots on this ride, instead of my softer street boots. My tool roll, tire repair kit, and a 1-quart military water bladder went in a small bag strapped to the pillion rack – cellphone, charger, snacks, and first aid kit went in the tank bag. By 9:30, we were at the check-in desk with our excessively large group being split into two. We left with the first half, led by Pedro on a BMW R1200GS with beautiful custom sky-blue racks and crash bars.
After 15 minutes of carving the beautiful 2-lane roads north of McAlvey’s Fort – a wonderful ride in itself – we entered the woods. Pedro dismounted and walked down the line of riders, reminding us to turn off ABS and traction control. The Super Tenere’s traction control turns off easily enough, with a small button on the left side of the gauges, but the bike needs to be stationary. ABS is a different story – I’ve read that the Super Tenere needs to be up on the centerstand and run in 2nd gear for 30 seconds before the ABS is disabled. I had already been riding some dirt and gravel roads in Michaux State Forest with Todd, and found that the ABS on this bike is not at all intrusive, so long as I brake with the rear first. TCS off, ABS on, and off into the woods we went.
The first half hour was hard-packed dirt with some fine gravel in spots, but nothing really challenging. Some of the more experienced riders on DR650s were intentionally spinning their back wheels loose in corners and launching off some of the larger rocks in the road. After about half an hour of fun on the main roads, we took a short break at an intersection, before heading into some more technical sections.
At the end of our break, we were advised that we would be heading off the main road and up the side road to our right. The road looked to be about a 20-degree incline, strewn with fist-sized rocks – obviously to facilitate water runoff from the higher elevations while limiting erosion. Pedro announced that we would regroup at the top of the hill, to make sure everyone had made it. This announcement led me to believe that this was a short section, and possibly one of the more difficult sections we might encounter. I would be proven wrong on both counts.
Climbing the hill on the nearly-600-pound Tenere was a daunting task, with the loose rocks rolling freely under both wheels as I tried to climb over them. I recalled a section of an adventure-riding instructional video I had watched recently, which suggested aiming for the larger embedded rocks for traction, rather than the small loose ones that roll away under the weight of the bike. This tactic might have worked better, if the large rocks were embedded in the road. As it was, I just had to get used to the bike’s wheels shifting left and right a few inches when the rocks rolled out from under them. Standing up on the pegs, I found that my body weight was sufficient to finesse the big bike into staying upright, even at relatively low speeds. Momentum was my friend.
Not far over the hill, just past the rocky section, we came to our first large mud hole. Covering the entire width of the road, and maybe 15 feet long, there was no way around it. I tried to follow a line on the far right, where the water was relatively shallow. Halfway across, with no conscious throttle input, the rear wheel spun loose and the bike fishtailed sideways, dropping me in the dirt on the right side. Todd, who was directly in front of me, was quick to dismount his G650GS Sertao and come to my rescue. I was fine, and we lifted the Tenere quickly, in an attempt to clear the road for the rest of the group, but it didn’t want to move. Todd was pushing and pulling at the rear, while I was at the handlebars, when I noticed the front brake lever would not release fully. My first thought was that the bike would be stuck in the woods, unrideable. The bike wouldn’t budge in either direction.
My mind began troubleshooting, and I realized something was holding the brake lever, which in turn was keeping the front brakes clamped down tight. I let Todd know there was something wrong with the brake lever, but I couldn’t tell what, from where I was. He ran to the front of the bike and found that the BarkBuster spine had rotated down and was touching the back of the brake lever, preventing it from releasing fully. He struck the BarkBuster a few times with his fist to move it out of the way, causing a small cut on his hand. Once the bike was off to the side of the road, I was able to give Todd an adhesive bandage from my first aid kit, and the group was rolling again.
Just a few minutes – and another rocky section – later, we came across another, larger mud puddle. This time, to avoid wheelspin, I decided I would try using the traction control. While stopped and waiting for the riders in front of me to navigate the mud, I switched the TCS back on and studied the various paths riders were taking across. One rider had chosen a relatively deep rut on the left, and was able to put both feet down on either side to kind of paddle the bike through. When it was my turn, I decided to try that method.
I entered the puddle at a slight angle, and needed to strighten the bike out in order to stay in the middle of the rut I had chosen. I was sitting down on the seat, anticipating being able to touch ground on both sides, when I closed the throttle and tried to steer the bike with the front wheel. This caused the front wheel to dig into the mud and immediately tossed me to the left. I tried to step off and let the bike go down alone, but the momentum of being tossed off the seat sent me to the ground. Being low on the bike meant I didn’t get thrown clear, and the left-side engine casing landed directly on my ankle. My foot was pressed down flat into the mud while the rest of my body tried to twist onto my back. If not for the motocross boots, I think I could have easily torn some tendons loose from the twisting motion. Still, there was a very sharp pain on impact, and I was literally seeing stars for a few seconds. Other riders were quick to get the bike off my leg and move it away. Pedro and others attended to me quickly, getting my helmet off so I could breathe easier and helping me sit upright for a few minutes to assess the damage to my body. They had me raise and lower my leg and flex my ankle a little. All kinds of horrible thoughts ran through my head: Is my ankle broken? Can I get a ride out of here in a car? How will I get home? How long will I be out of work? My wife is gonna kill me!
After a few minutes, I felt strong enough to try and stand. With a little help getting up, I was able to put weight on my left foot, but at the cost of some very sharp pain. I resisted the urge to take my boot off to assess the damage, assuming that the imminent swelling would prevent the boot from going back on. I looked at Pedro and rhetorically asked, “If I can put weight on it, it’s not broken, right?” The broken part was debatable, but I knew I stressed the tendons in my ankle enough that I should get back to camp and put ice on it as soon as possible. Not wanting to back-track through the last two mud puddles and down the rocky hill, possibly encountering the second half of our group head-on, I decided I would stay with the group until it was practical to break-off towards paved roads. After a total of 10-15 minutes recovering, I mounted the Tenere and started rolling, just in front of the rider running “sweep”.
I had hoped the worst was behind us, as we had been told the “intermediate” rides were relatively easy, and on roads no worse than the driveway into camp. We had already been over miles of rolling stones and through some sketchy mud puddles, leading me to believe the rest of the route would be smooth sailing. Instead, it was more rocks – some sections with deep criss-crossing ruts – and several more mud puddles. At the very next mud puddle, I signaled the “sweep” to pull up next to me, and told him that I was really spooked with going through big puddles now, as the last two attempts didn’t go well. He offered to ride the Tenere across for me. I wasn’t going to ask, but maybe he saw the question forming on my face. I was happy to limp through the mud rather than ride across it.
My fear of the mud crossings would lessen over the next two hours of riding. At the next puddle, I merely requested advice on the best line through and took that, staying up on the pegs, TCS off, steady throttle, looking way ahead, and using my body weight to compensate for the wheels shifting sideways on the mud at times. By the third or fourth crossing after my crash, I was no longer hesitating. It was much easier if I was close enough to the rider in front of me to see what line they took, and then follow suit. My determination to get out of the woods without crashing again made me learn new skills quickly.
The rocks got worse, as the terrain climbed and descended, with foot-deep ruts going every which way. Only watching the rider in front of me (on a more capable DR650) choose his line and dip in and out of the ruts kept me from making any serious mistakes. On one hill, I was trying to avoid a deep rut on the right by cutting to the left side of the road when a rock rolled sideways from under my front wheel and I felt the bike wanting to fall over to the left. At about a 45-degree angle to the ground, I dropped down and “dabbed” my left foot while twisting the throttle open. The big inline-twin lugged from 1200 rpms – GLUG-GLUG-GLUG-GLUG – and I was able to steer the front wheel in the direction of the fall and save myself from further bodily injury. Overall, I found that the bigger bikes are easier to ride faster, using momentum to compensate for the terrain trying to deflect the front wheel. Once the speed drops to a walking pace, the weight of the bike is a serious disadvantage to overcome.
About two hours after my ankle-biting spill, we took a break and realized we were within 2 miles of a paved road. By then, half of our group was either frustrated or exhausted from the technical sections, and agreed to head back to camp with us. Todd rode ahead while we were resting – and sorting out a leaky radiator on one rider’s 650GS – and found that the route to the paved road was relatively easy. Half the group left to finish the 100-mile ride, while the rest of us made our way to camp on paved roads, stopping for lunch (and a bag of ice) along the way. I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting at my campsite, beer in hand and ice on my swollen ankle. By 5pm, I was able to hobble down to the Touratech tent and sit in for some of the evening’s presentations.
Saturday morning came slowly, as I had a difficult time sleeping. My aching ankle and unseasonably chilly weather kept me from getting any real sleep. A few hours after sunrise, I was contemplating getting up and moving around when a loud whirring noise zipped past overhead, sounding like a giant dragonfly. I zipped open the door of my tent and the rainfly to get a peek at the sky through the trees. After another pass of the unidentified flying object overhead, I was able to spot it through the trees: a small one-man aircraft performing a barrel-roll over our main campsite. I found out later that it was a local pilot who decided to wake us up with some low-altitude acrobatics. Job well done, sir.
I had hesitated climbing out of my tent until I could assess the condition of my ankle. It was still swollen and a bit sore. I stretched it out a little, then made my way to my bike. Fumbling through the tank bag, I found the new first aid kit I had purchased from REI just a few days ago. Inside was ibuprofen for the pain, and a bandage wrap to get some compression on the swollen ankle. Once wrapped, it felt ten times better, although walking on the uneven ground was still quite painful. I found a large branch next to our campsite and was able to use it as a makeshift cane. I let Todd off the hook, and suggested he go ahead and enjoy one of the group rides – I wasn’t going to do much all day, especially ride, and I didn’t want him to miss out on any fun because I can’t get across a mud puddle without breaking something.
After Todd headed out to join the intermediate group ride for the day, I started puttering around camp, packing things into my bags. We had already discussed heading home Saturday night – partly because rain was predicted for Saturday night into Sunday, but mostly because Touratech had nothing significant planned for Sunday morning. By mid-morning, I had most of my gear packed, and ready to be put on the bike. I kept the tent up in case I wanted to take another nap later. By lunchtime, the swelling was down in my ankle and I was starving. I needed to know if I could ride home later, so I gently slipped on my riding gear – including my softer street boots – to ride into town for lunch. With a burger in my belly and the tank topped off, I rode past the beach at Whipple Dam before returning to camp. Todd arrived shortly after, and we finished packing our gear. Between the “slow races”, Kate Johnston’s presentation on her Iron Butt ride from Key West to Deadhorse and back, and the BBQ dinner we pre-paid for on Thursday, it was worth hanging around a few more hours.
We dragged our folding chairs over to the Touratech tent and set up behind some of our new friends. Kate entertained us with a fascinating retelling of her record-book ride from Key West, Florida to Deadhorse, Alaska and back – she is the first woman to complete that certified Iron Butt Association ride (the “Ultimate Coast to Coast to Coast”) riding solo. Highlights included a huge wolf along the road, taking a spill up on the Dalton Highway, and dealing with diabetes while on the road for several weeks. Shortly after Kate finished, we all relocated a few dozen meters to our left to watch the “slow race”, where riders tackled a horseshoe-shaped hillside course, each trying to be the last one to get back to the bottom. When only one competitor was left for the first round, the call went out for any other rider who wanted to compete. Todd – among others – heeded the call and returned with his Sertao. He easily took the first round, as his head-to-head competitor put his foot down within the first few seconds. In round 2, Todd put on a great show, riding the brakes on the way back down the hill, as his competitor struggled to keep his distance behind him. Todd lost, crossing the finish line first by a few seconds, and his competitor went on to win the next few rounds to take the Touratech trophy.
We scarfed down our BBQ brisket and ribs during the last few rounds of the slow race, then said our good-byes and loaded up the bikes. It was a quick and easy ride home on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, occasionally rotating my ankle to keep it from aching. I was home, showered, and in bed well before midnight.
When I awoke Sunday morning, the heel of my left foot was showing purple and red bruising, and the swelling was back. I had to admit it looked bad, so I promised my wife she could take me to the emergency room after lunch. The diagnosis would eventually be a fracture of the left ankle, with a small piece of my outer ankle bone chipped off. I was placed in a temporary fiberglass stirrup and heavy bandage, with instructions to see an orthopedic specialist ASAP. In hindsight, an “urgent care center” would have been cheaper under my insurance plan, I would have had a shorter wait, and I would have received the same exact care.
Two days later, my new orthopedic specialist – also a sports medicine specialist who used to work for the Cincinnati Reds, among other professional sports teams – put me in a removable boot. Apparently, the fractured bone chip was in a good place to heal back to the ankle bone, but I have to minimize movement in my ankle in order for it to heal properly and quickly. So, I’ll be in this boot for a few weeks, and hopefully my next exam will show that the bone is healing well enough to get back to normal.
All in all, we had a great time at the Touratech East rally. The routes were well-planned, even if Friday’s “intermediate” ride was actually the “expert” ride. We met – and rode with – some great people, and heard a few wonderful presentations. The skills competitions were fun and exciting. The BBQ dinner was tasty, and free beer is always appreciated. We will definitely put the 2nd annual Touratech East rally on our trip calendar. In the meantime, we still have the Touratech routes in our GPS, and since they are public roads, we can visit them anytime we want.