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Ripping Up the Dunes at Rally School

I just spent two tough days at the Jimmy Lewis Offroad Ranch in Pahrump, NV. The class is billed as a navigation class, with the goal of learning how to use the road book, odometer, and compass headings to navigate in a rally race.
For a novice off-road rider like me, its a lot to do at once. Just riding some of the terrain is pretty tricky without looking at the scrolling directions, adjusting the odometer, and trying to figure out how to use a new-to-me Garmin GPS that keeps shutting off at the worst possible moments. All while also trying to calibrate a very fancy German rally odometer.
The class focused on navigation, riding skills, race strategy (“racecraft” as we like to call it) and also motorcycle setup. That was just the start, though. More topics than I can recall came up, and were covered in the class as well. It was a lot to take in — one part technical riding and one part math class.
Rally School
A sharp guy once told me that “ya don’t know what ya don’t know”. This class confirmed that I know very little about the sport of Rally racing and the navigation that goes along with it. On the morning of the first day, we were presented with a chart of abbreviations — a secret language for reading the road book. They were like one part military acronym, one part Egyptian hieroglyphics. We spent that first day doing drills, learning to navigate by cap heading, and we rode a short road book section. Then more drills. Then it was back to ride a seven mile loop that we had ridden earlier. Here we were tasked to write our own road book. My road book was a joke in the end, but the exercise was genius. It forced me to make a total shift in perspective when it comes to looking at the trails.
With day one wrapped, we headed to dinner with our gang of Jimmy Lewis, Nate, Mike Shirley, Joe Bolton, Radek, and Mark Vanscourt. These guys are all race veterans with really interesting and diverse experience. We had top-level Dakar rider Jimmy Lewis. There was Mark and Joe, who both have Baja Score wins under their belt and have been offroad racing since the ’80s. There was Radek, who likes to solo the Baja 1000 on a KTM 990. You know, like you do. Mike is the man behind Rally Navigator — a piece of software that has become the go-to tool for making road books. Then there’s me. Any one of these guys has forgotten more about offroad riding than I’ve ever known. Just listening to them chat was a great reminder of how green I still am.
Day two was the time to ride. We rode an 80 mile section, navigating with the road book. It was great riding and learning the navigation aspects of racing — the hard way. At this point, my GPS was simply toast. Even the mount broke from me attempting to Fonzie-fix it. So with no compass, my dunes navigation section was out. With nowhere to actually go, I just rode the dunes for fun. That was intoxicating. The way the fresh sand feels, and riding over the spines of those dunes was indescribable.

By the the end of the day, we had the option of a 60 mile highway ride to the ranch, or a shorter trail ride led by Jimmy. I figured I’m here to learn more about off-road riding, so I’ll go that way. I later found out that I had missed Jimmy’s warning about this route: “The first 40 miles is off-piste and and not for the tired, or faint of heart. If that’s you take the highway.” Being some shade of both, had I heard this bit of preamble, I would have taken the highway. Yet in the end, I’m glad I didn’t. The ride was epic. It ranged over and through a massive dune field, and into a 20 mile wash that was totally untracked.
I was wearing an Icon Patrol suit that I’m testing for our adventure this summer. It’s awesome gear, but its made for street/dual sport, not super-athletic off-road riding. I almost melted in the wash it was so hot. Thankfully Mike shared his water with me, and we rocketed through the dunes and the wash with Jimmy leading the way. It was a blast.
I stopped at the first monster dune as I was not confident enough to just hit it. Jimmy came down, gave me some pointers and instructed me to follow right behind him. He said “I’m on the same bike. Follow right behind me, listen to my engine, and do exactly as I do.” I did, and I made it up and over. My massive due cherry was officially popped. It was scary, though. I couldn’t see what was on the other side, and if you stop as little as 3 feet short of the top, you have to go all the way back to the bottom. I quickly learned to hit the crest with just enough speed to get the front wheel over the dune but still be able to stop if the other side revealed a cliff. I had a couple scary moments, but I found a groove and that was very rewarding.
Johnny Goes to Rally School
We ended the day on some fast dirt roads and made it back to the ranch just before dark. It was good times, and I learned a lot. I now know enough to know that I’m not ready for the world rally scene, but I can still have fun with my pals and follow the navigation. That’s still valuable stuff. Jimmy and I were at dinner later, talking about my lack of skills and my starting to ride dirt as a middle aged guy. Jimmy said to me, “Johnny, your skills have a lot of room for improvement, but you have guts and enthusiasm. Most guys don’t have both.” I thought that was a great complement. This guy has the heart of a champion, so it meant a lot coming from him.
In just those two days of Rally School, I grew a ton as a rider. I know how to do things I didn’t before and even surprised myself. It’s just the start though. While I don’t really see a Dakar podium in my future, the more I learn, the bigger the world of riding and racing opens up for me. I’m on the way. I’ve got sand in my boots now and I like it.

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