Foolish youth celebrate Spain’s Fiesta of Saint Fermin (patron saint of fools) with the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona. Avid riders of behemoth dual-sport motorcycles celebrate their appreciation for overflowing adrenaline on the Big Dog Adventure Ride.
Dropping an $18,000 BMW R1200GS on rocks the size of basketballs, then laughing, sounds like a crazed experience. When a KTM 950 Adventure goes down next to the dropped Beemer, and both riders start howling like happy chimps, the situation moves into the category of foolishness. Toss into the carnage at 11,000 feet above sea level a stalled Kawasaki KLR650, a flopped BMW R80 G/S and a “Wolfman” on a Suzuki DR650 doing rooster tails around the foursome while digitally recording the memory, and you are likely riding in the Big Dog Adventure Ride.
Known as the “world’s highest, meanest motorcycle ride,” this annual August madness high in the Rocky Mountains draws a special breed. These riders thrive on testing themselves and their equipment over some of the toughest terrain in North America.
The event was born The Divide Ride, reflecting two days of riding back and forth across some of the highest passes along the Continental Divide, all off-road. It was an exclusive outing for favored customers of longtime sponsor BMW of Denver. The first entrants had such infectious fun they asked to invite fellow GS riders. In the following years their buddies were riding in from distant points like Canada, Florida, California, Washington and Vermont to join the high-altitude riding craziness.
Several elements surfaced as common among the participants. First, they loved the large-displacement Bavarian enduro models that could be ridden to Colorado. There they would take off saddlebags, windscreens and tankbags, then ride to and over mountain summits, sometimes exceeding 14,000 feet. Second, each enjoyed the camaraderie of spending quality riding time with other motorcyclists who shared their talent, riding techniques, haughty equipment appreciation and elevated hormonal levels. Third, entrants savored the challenge and colorful splendor of riding high Rocky Mountain passes like Mosquito, Black Bear, Red Cone and Imogene, names that humbled mediocre off-road riders and wilted the egos of pavement pounders. Fourth, most were experienced riders who seriously believed they could do on 500-600-pound motorcycles what ad agency art departments created with computers to promote sales. Finally, the participants realized the event was an annual gathering of fellow alpha riders, not a ride for followers or wannabe adventurers. As 10-time entrant Rainer Stammler says, “If you want somebody to chew your food for you, this isn’t your event.”
One year, when a GS rider became stranded while trying to ride across a treacherous snowfield, others parked their bikes and came to his rescue, dragging his BMW the rest of the way over the potential avalanche. Likened to the large Saint Bernard dogs of the Alps known to rescue skiers, event participants afterward became known as Big Dogs. Monikers followed like Little Dog, Bone Dog, Mad Dog, Lost Dog and Water Dog. Flying Dog earned his nickname by overcooking a high-speed gravel curve and sailing himself and his pristine R100GS into an occupied campsite 75 feet below. Thumb Dog broke a digit with a slow speed get-off on a paved curve, which he said was “really dumb.” Each year three routes are suggested.
The A ride takes riders over goat trails, through deep mud wallows, across cliff faces and up and down swollen streambeds. This option is recommended for riders “who knowingly do not acknowledge their limits.” For a kinder, gentler route, the B ride follows much of the A route, but supplants the danger of falling off a narrow rock path with high-speed gravel roads. For the global adventurer there is the Coca-Cola Ride, which is designed for motorcyclists with fully prepared round-the-world bikes to test their skill and gear over terrain similar to what they would find crossing the South American Andes.
Each morning riders depart in loosely organized groups, some opting for a 300-400-mile day while others choose to rock-hop the 100 miles to their next base camp (motel) for the night. Father-son teams and one brother team (68-71 years young) bond, but often transfer between routes each day to meet and socialize with other riders along the way. Since 75 percent of the entrants each year are veteran riders from earlier Big Dog rides, many know each other.
Who are these crazed riders? One is an endurance rally winner. Another is a physician who pays a replacement doctor $1,100 a day to attend to his patients while he crashes on basketball-size rocks riding over Engineer Pass. Others include an artist, advertising executive, motorcycle shop dealer/owner, ISDT qualifier, road racer, writer, real-estate executive, funeral-home director, engineer, airline pilot, adventurer, economist, magazine editor and two self-proclaimed wastrels.
As retired service representative Wolfgang Glaeser said when asked why he kept returning each year to hammer both his aging body and motorcycle, “I don’t know why I do it and enjoy it, and I don’t know why I’ll do it again.”
The Big Dog Adventure Ride has gained such fame that it has spawned copies around the world. A BMW Big Bird Ride has hatched in Japan, and there’s a Big Puppy Ride in the USA. South Africa opted to name their clone the BMW GS Challenge.
With sponsors like Bob’s BMW, KTM North America, Aerostich/Riderwearhouse, Wolfman, Happy Trails, Dual Star and other leaders in the adventure-motorcycling niche, the Big Dog Adventure Ride remains the premier event of its kind. Described as “neither motorcycle race nor rally, but an annual gathering of like-minded aficionados sharing a similar philosophy,” it continues to evolve. It is now open to all makes of large-displacement dual-sport adventure motorcycles. “Bring ’em on! We’ll use them for berms,” said the BMW Big Dogs.
As the dust settled over the Rocky Mountains after the 15th event in 2004, entrants rode bashed and scratched motorcycles thousands of miles home, some nursing broken body parts. While the event may not be a race or rally, it might be described as an organized adventure of motorcycling chaos, what one would expect when letting 40-50 squirrels out of a box in church on Sunday. It is a motorcycle ride St. Fermin could appreciate.
Think you have the “Ride Stuff?” Visit the Big Dog Adventure Ride Web site at horizonsunlimited.com/bigdog/. Afterward, if you still feel you would like to ask to join this adventure fraternity of ground-pounding two-wheel alpha dogs, scratch again before asking. Woof.
(This Rallies & Clubs article was published in the May 2005 issue of Rider magazine.)