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Old 12-25-2015, 09:50 AM   #1
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Scramblers in the Rockies

“I had one that looked just like that in the ’60s,” said the elderly man in the denim jacket, an American flag patch stitched over his left breast. He’d walked up to us outside the clapboard general store in St. Elmo, Colorado, as Senior Editor Zack Courts and I sat sweaty and panting astride our mud-caked bikes. “I rode it everywhere. Even raced it a bit. We had hill climbs and scrambles, and I did it all on that Triumph.” The man’s first statement confirmed Hinckley’s success with the modern Scrambler’s appearance, and his latter assertion neatly framed the thesis for our all-terrain ride in the Rocky Mountains aboard two “modern retro” machines from Ducati and Triumph —bikes that aim to capture the look and spirit of an earlier, simpler time.

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The Ducati, fenderless and flinging mud.

Half a century before the advent of outsized ADV bikes and decades before the specialization and subsequent segmentation of the motorcycle marketplace, bikes came in pretty much one configuration. With only light modifications, riders used that one breed of bike for everything from touring to flat tracking to hare scrambles. And in the wake of any article featuring a complicated ADV bike, our older readers will write in to tell us just that, waxing nostalgic on the versatility and purity of their Sportsters or Triumph Tigers.

Zack and I assumed the old timers were exaggerating the capabilities of their Harleys , Triumphs, Nortons, BSAs, and Ducatis, but flipping through the pages of the Motorcyclist archives reveals black-and-white photos of men in open-face helmets, sleeves rolled up to reveal tensed forearms as they sail over jumps, through mud pits, and around obstacles during JFK-era hare-and-hounds scrambles.

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Celebrating atop 12,208-foot Hancock Pass.

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Sheet-metal screws improve grip in the wet.

“Hard as nails,” Zack murmured as he studied one photo of a rider 6 feet in the air, straight-legged and straining to keep his heavy British twin level for what was sure to be a rough landing. Other photos showing trailside engine repairs and riders as filthy as coal miners confirmed what the geezers had been saying all along: Adventure is where you find it, and guys were riding hard on and off road on the same bike well before the notion of a gelände/strasse machine entered BMW’s collective subconscious.

In honor of those old timers and as an experiment to see if a set of knobbies really is all that’s needed to make a basic bike a dual-sport, Zack and I headed to Gunnison, Colorado, to participate in the Bonnier Adventure Rally on the two closest things to vintage scramblers we could get without raiding the Barber Museum. We were staging a return to motorcycling’s roots to see if the scrambler spirit kept a steady beat in the heart of today’s machinery.

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The rally is a fun two-day competition where teams of riders score points based on the waypoints they ride to, with routes ranging from smooth blacktop to rubble-strewn trails at 12,000 feet. The parking lot of base camp was a veritable ADV encyclopedia, with shiny new big-bore adventure bikes parked alongside battered KLRs, KTM EXCs of every displacement, and GSs of every shape, size, and generation. As for us, we arrived with the two flag bearers of the modern-retro movement, Triumph’s Bonneville-based Scrambler and Ducati’s Icon Scrambler, one of four flavors of Scrambler available from Italy.

Both bikes look straight out of the ’60s, and by design so did our apparel. Zack and I wore open-face helmets, simple retro-styled gear, and sourced our backpacks from a local Army surplus store. As a result, there were plenty of raised eyebrows once it became apparent that we intended to compete on the Scramblers. Or maybe it was the fact that we were readying the bikes the night before the rally. While others were studying their maps, Zack was sinking sheet-metal screws into the Triumph’s rubber-clad footpegs for added traction while I was suspending the Ducati from a balcony in order to remove its wheels and install meaty Continental TKC 80 tires. How’s that for old-time gumption?

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Zack points to our next waypoint, Hancock Pass, from the top of Tomichi Pass.

Coming from draught-stricken California, the abundance of water—there are streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, and fast-moving rainclouds aplenty—and corresponding greenness in the Rockies is breathtaking. Just the lushness and the unspoiled views had our blood pumping, so the fact that we were going to spend the day riding had us feeling high. Or maybe it was just the thin air. We departed base camp armed with a map and a waypoint booklet, headed for a cluster of waypoints east of Gunnison. The Rally area covers about 2,500 square miles, so doing well is more about strategy than outright speed, and we figured we’d better determine what the bikes were capable of before we started plotting a route. The mix ahead looked appealing, with waypoint routes ranging from green circles (paved) to double-black diamonds (I’m pretty sure we’ll pass, thanks).

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We take a brief break on a snowbank on our way up to Tincup Pass.

The bikes took to the TKC 80s nicely. Steering effort increased (more so on the Ducati with its Tonka-toy-size tires), but the Scramblers tracked true and felt planted as we pounded pavement out of Gunnison. We hit a few easy waypoints on the way to Pitkin (population 67) and then peeled off the pavement and onto graded forest roads, winding our way through tall pines and past shallow ponds filled with water so clear that the slender trout within looked as though they were suspended in air.

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Mufflers weren’t the type of pillion the Triumph’s seat was designed for.

At a fork in the road we headed uphill, and as soon as we did the terrain became rougher and rockier. The higher we climbed the more rubble and gravel replaced hard-pack dirt on the road, and we increased our following distance to allow for more elaborate lines and to avoid pelting each other with roost. The bikes felt remarkably balanced despite the loose and uneven surface, and the only concessions we made entailed slowing our pace and choosing our lines more carefully. The Scramblers were up for adventure, and we were totally impressed.

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We eventually punched through the tree line and crossed a narrow terrace built against the face of a shear cliff. Just beyond lay the Alpine Tunnel ruins, a black-diamond waypoint worth six points. In the 1890s the area was the site of a rail tunnel and various buildings. Now all that remains are some stone ruins and the restored telegraph station. We snapped a quick picture as proof of our visit (that’s how Rally staff confirm your waypoint claims) and then headed back down the mountain, surprised to have attained a black-diamond waypoint so easily. The Scramblers were doing great.

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Fording a flooded trail.

Encouraged, we aimed the bikes for Tomichi Pass and what would be the first of several double-black-diamond waypoints. The trails where chaotic, but we were having a blast. We skidded and skipped across rock gardens and splashed through mud puddles and creeks. At 10,000 feet the bikes were noticeably down on power and so were we. Just riding left us breathless, so when the Triumph trenched its rear tire in scree while skirting a dawdling 4x4, it was a painstakingly slow and tiresome process to extricate it. We finally reached the 11,979-foot pass around noon, snapped a pic, and then rewarded ourselves with a few moments of rest before setting off for Hancock Pass, visible due north across the green valley.

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No stands? No problem! We suspended the Ducati from a balcony in order to remove the wheels and install knobbies.

The trail up to Hancock was more of the same madness, except rougher, wetter, and slipperier. The rocks were relentless, and occasionally a big one would kiss a belly pan with a loud twang or a large hole or bump would collapse a fork against its stops with a sickening thud. Truth be told, Zack and I were riding nearly as quickly and almost as hard as we would have been on the latest KTM or BMW ADVs—and likely with less drama and certainly less fear of falling over. There’s definitely something to this simple-streetbike-as-dual-sport thing. Yes, the bikes kissed their bellies fairly often and steering lock was limited, but those low skid plates reside below low seats, making it easy to dab a foot, support a leaning bike, or skate a boot sole across moist hardpack as you flat track out of a sweeper.

Being short of saddle, both bikes also benefited from a low center of gravity, which made them surprisingly stable and much slower to fall over when your balance is off center on muddy, wet, or otherwise slippery terrain. All told, knobbies had transformed the Scramblers into two very competent and very fun off-road machines. The fact that we were passing Jeeps, UTVs, and other adventure riders along the way served as proof of the bikes’ off-road capabilities.

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Tucking tail and heading for home after being defeated by slick single-track.

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Selfie at the Alpine Tunnel ruins, our first black-diamond waypoint.

Admittedly, the terrain took its toll on the bikes. We stopped to tighten footpeg and muffler bolts regularly, and on the descent into St. Elmo the Triumph’s muffler suddenly dropped to the ground, transforming the bike into the loudest thing in the Rockies. The hanger had snapped at the weld. Strapping the hot, heavy muffler to the Triumph’s seat didn’t work, so we lashed it to my backpack and took turns shouldering the load. The day was slipping away, so we forewent lunch and forged on toward Tincup Pass, another double-black-diamond waypoint and easily the most difficult trail yet. True, we were getting tired and were definitely hungry, but the terrain was unreal: more than 10 miles of continuous rock garden composed of softball- and basketball-size stones. And to make things more interesting, north of the pass the rutted, rocky trail was pulling double duty as a culvert for the water that ran down from the hillsides, dripped from the escarpments, and seemed to well up from the soil itself. The final obstacle of the day was a 100-foot long, axle-deep water crossing where a lake had overflowed its banks and submerged the roadway.

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Returning to pavement felt like floating on a cloud compared to the constant abuse of the trails. A passing raincloud drenched our gear and stung our faces, but we paid it no mind, knowing our discomfort was nothing a meal and a few beers couldn’t fix. But then there was the realization that we still needed to source a fix for the Triumph’s mufflers. Thankfully, an employee from a local dealership, Sun Sports Unlimited, was on site for the evening festivities (which included a timed skills course and a tire-changing competition) and offered to have one of his techs weld the tab in the morning.

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A Sun Sports tech reattaches the Triumph’s mufflers.

Day two began with a trip across town to Sun Sports for a date with a Lincoln wire-feed welder. Once the Triumph’s muffler was reattached (with extra support via some bailing wire) we set our sights on a distant waypoint labeled “Insanely Difficult.” Having conquered some of the toughest stuff the Rally had to offer on day one, we agreed to forego chasing points in favor of finding out just how much the Scramblers were capable of.

I was tasked with navigating and unfortunately made a wrong turn that led us up a valley road just north of the route we wanted. A local rider saw us studying our map and offered to lead us to a trail that he said would take us over the ridge and get us back on course. “Beats backtracking,” Zack said. The truck trail passed through lush cow pasture carpeted in flowers before tapering down to single-track. The path then crossed a river and meandered up a grassy hillside before disappearing into a dense aspen forest. From a distance the trees’ thin, pale trunks resembled a white picket fence.

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This tipover might have mangled the Triumph’s mufflers. Thankfully, they were strapped safely to Zack’s back.

As the trees closed in the ruts got deeper and the soil became wetter and slipperier. Our tires quickly packed with mud, turning our wheels into heavy, tractionless chocolate donuts. The only relief was the occasional exposed rock that introduced a moment of traction, lurching us forward a few feet.

We were floundering. Two hours in we’d moved the bikes less than 3 miles up the hill, though Zack and I had likely walked twice that far, as we had to push, pull, and otherwise spot each other on the snot-slick trail. We were drenched in sweat and thoroughly exhausted. Staring at each other with bloodshot eyes, Zack said what I was thinking.

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Digging trenches and sucking wind at elevation.

“We’re not turning back.”

We kept at it, but when rain began to drum on the canopy overhead, our hearts sank. And then a rider on a featherweight two-stroke with proper motocross tires came down the trail, stopped, and chuckled to himself before asking us what the we were doing. He was impressed we’d made it this far (he admitted he’d come from the other side of the ridge so he could ride down this section of trail instead of up it) but informed us that we were still many miles from the summit and that things only got nastier toward the top. With rain now turning the trail into a soupy mess, we pulled on our trash-bag rain jackets, dragged the bikes around, and headed for home. We’d found the Scramblers’ limits, at least with us behind the bars. It was disappointing to turn back, but we couldn’t fault the machines. In fact, considering how much foot paddling we did and how many times we fell over, we surely made it farther on the low and stable Scramblers than we would have on taller, heavier ADV bikes.

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Progress was slow on the muddy single-track, even with assistance

Back at base camp, our mud-caked motorcycles were a source of amusement. The other rally riders were impressed with the waypoints we’d reached on the Scramblers, but nobody was more impressed with the bikes than Zack and I.

When we set out on this adventure I told the boss that we’d be riding primarily on groomed fire roads and perhaps picking our way along some gentle single-track. I wasn’t playing down our intentions; I simply assumed that the bikes’ limitations would restrict us to mundane off roading of the kind people in Subarus might do. Boy, was I wrong. We intended to find the bikes’ limits, but we didn’t expect the limits to be so distant! That being said, if you buy a Scrambler (from either manufacturer) with the intention of riding it off road on a regular basis, it’s going to get beat up. We finished the rally with dented and gouged belly pans, plenty of scratches, and even a creased rim. Just like the old days.

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Point a camera in any direction in the Rockies and you’ll get a fantastic picture. The scenery is stunning.

Zack and I didn’t amass many points in the rally, but that didn’t matter, and it wasn’t our main focus. We had a fantastic adventure that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives and in the process proved that the scrambler spirit is indeed alive and well.

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Tailing us throughout the Rockies was our fearless videographer, Spenser Robert , riding Kawasaki’s unkillable KLR 650. The big thumper hauled Spenser—plus two panniers and a backpack full of camera gear—all over the Rockies, and the model has been transporting adventurers to the farthest reaches of the planet since before young Spenser was born. Priced at $6,599, the KLR is one of the most affordable, functional, and durable dual-sports available. – Ari Henning

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