“Practice loading your bike into and out of the back of your truck without a ramp.” – Cody Webb, on practicing for King of the Motos
Considering my choices in motorcycles, I’m unlikely to enter King of the Motos any time soon. My new Honda CRF250L Rally is a good bike, but far too heavy and underpowered to be magically hopping in and out of a pickup repeatedly; never mind doing so with my Buell Ulysses. But this lack of suitable equipment hasn’t stopped me from making the trek to Johnson Valley OHV area three years in a row now to take in the wonders its 96,000 acres have to offer. The riding alone is worth the drive, not to mention the surreal assortment of machinery that inhabits the lakebed during the Hammers Week.
King of the Motos kicks off Hammers Week. The brainchild of Jimmy Lewis and Dave Cole, KOM is an extreme-style enduro race that takes advantage of the variety of terrain the lakebed offers.
Dave Cole is also one of the two creators of King of the Hammers and the now-thriving Ultra4 racing series. The combination of rock crawling and high-speed desert racing the series offers is unparalleled in motorsports and continues to push the envelope of what’s possible with off-road vehicles.
Jimmy Lewis’s bio reads like a fantasy bucket list for almost any serious off-road rider. He has four gold medals earned in International Six Days enduros, he’s podiumed at the Dakar, won a Baja 1000, won a Dubai Rally, raced professionally for KTM, Kawasaki, Honda, and BMW, and even dabbled in moto-journalism for two magazines.
Putting these two minds together has resulted in one of the wildest, most difficult races in existence. With land rush starts, nearly impossible rock obstacles, GPS-only navigation, and high-speed desert racing, KOM brings new meaning to the way overused “extreme” label.
The extreme enduro, also known as “hard enduro,” is a fairly new discipline, only recently recognized by the AMA. Requiring a mixture of skills ranging from motocross to cross country, with a bit of trials on top, the events are sort of like expanded endurocross, and the culture seems to be focused on creating courses with such difficulty that very few riders can actually complete them.
Seriously. There was talk about 2017’s King of the Motos being “too easy” because most of the riders were able to finish.
King of the Motos 2018 was intended to be the most challenging enduro a rider could enter. Jimmy Lewis laid out the course while riding his personal bike (a 2014 KTM 200XC with a stock gas tank) to assure that it could be done unassisted. Jimmy’s skillset happens to be one of the best in the world, but he does make sure the route can be completed by someone.
Putting riders on a clock and requiring them to hit geofence checkpoints ratchets up the difficulty to a level not found in any other race. This focus on the checkpoints and navigation is what makes KOM so different from the typical enduro—the concept isn’t new, but adding the GPS to a rider’s already-taxed sensory inputs is certainly devious.
Most other navigation-based motorsports keep a navigator on board whose job is solely to read the GPS. Having been in that position, I have no idea how someone could ride a motorcycle in that terrain at speed and keep track of an even smaller screen. That is some serious talent.
Hammertown is the makeshift city that Ultra4 builds and tears down for each year’s event. It’s the start/finish line for the Ultra4 races, houses the race teams’ home pits, and allows the sponsors and vendors a place to set up the services they offer. There’s a large fire pit in the center of town that offers a place to socialize during lulls in racing, and a giant display to watch live feeds of the racing action if you don’t feel like trekking out to the various obstacles or trail-sides.
Hammertown draws its name from the Hammers, which are the trails dotting the landscape of Johnson Valley. There are two that tie for easiest to spectate: Backdoor and Chocolate Thunder. Backdoor is a severe waterfall/ditch combination which requires winching by all but the most serious rock crawling rigs. The height of the shelf varies with frequency of travel and amount of debris at the base, but it usually hangs around the six-foot mark. Beyond the waterfall, it offers an incredibly steep climb cut into a rock wall, littered with loose chunks of broken rock. Chocolate Thunder is a less steep, but still daunting hill climb that offers two paths up, neither having an advantage over the other. Trail guides say that a short wheelbase, 35” tires, locked differentials and low gears are required for passage. Horsepower helps because the last 100 feet is composed of loose sand, in case you get tired of climbing rocks.
The less-spectated trails are farther from Hammertown. They’re known as Aftershock, Jackhammer, Sledgehammer, Claw Hammer, Wrecking Ball, Resolution, Sunbonnet Pass, The Wall, The Notches, Boulderdash, Upper Big Johnson, Outer Limits, and Spooners. I can’t offer insight as to how to traverse all of these, but in general, you need more than a stock Wrangler Rubicon. For those of us on two wheels, the recommended equipment is a lightweight cross country bike.
For 2018, the racing was split up into three motos, but the second moto was only scored for pro riders. Like 2017, the first moto was a night race with a land rush start that funneled the 83 starting riders into a rock obstacle. (Check out the video at the end of this post.) In 2017 the start happened at Chocolate Thunder; this year the start happened at the aptly named Wrecking Ball.
No staggered starts here. Try to imagine 83 riders lined up side by side, racing to enter a trail barely wide enough for a truck to pass.
Getting a front row seat for this melee was easy enough, but the scene was still overwhelming. The noise and dust envelope you, the lights from all the bikes shining through, creating a scene that would impress the most jaded Burning Man attendee.
Wrecking Ball has gaps that can swallow a 35” tire with ease. Navigating this trail on a motorcycle requires the ability to hop from rock to rock, turn the bike 90 degrees on the back tire, and even pick the bike up a three-foot shelf. Add darkness and the chaos of 83 riders vying for position, and you’ve got a scene that defies description. Once the riders made the climb and disappeared from view, I headed to the finish line at Chocolate Thunder.
I have ridden down Chocolate Thunder. It’s not a severe as Wrecking Ball, but it’s certainly one of the most difficult tasks I’ve accomplished on a motorcycle, with staggered two-foot drops, loose, rock-strewn landings, and unforgiving rock walls lining the path. Descending Chocolate Thunder gave me a whole new appreciation for what the racers face.
Similar to Wrecking Ball, there are four-foot boulders and three-foot gaps that required me to get off the bike and feather the clutch, walking beside it—not unlike loading it into a truck. Meanwhile, the racers descended the hill with relative ease, only to be greeted by a second up-and-down on the side of the mountain.
9 AM Sunday morning greeted the pro riders with an unforgettably difficult start to the Pro Race, leading to a five-mile sprint, only scored for the pro riders. The race start gave racers a five-foot run-up to a four-foot wall, and the waving of the flag led to some of the finest displays of riding I have ever seen. Watching the pro riders overcome the start wall with such ease was humbling indeed.
The rest of the Pro Race included a trip through Backdoor, which includes two six-foot-tall rock steps that stop all but the most serious rock crawling rigs in their tracks. The pros managed the climb, but no one made it look easy.
The Pro Race was only five miles long, but lasted around 30 minutes. Considering the talent involved, that speaks volumes about the difficulty.
The last moto was Sunday at 10 AM. This was the official Hard Enduro, consisting of 90 miles (two laps) for the amateur riders and 150 miles (three laps) for pros, through rock obstacles, sand dunes, dried lakebed, and all manner of dirt and dust.
If you read my story about the 2017 Hammers, you may remember the “moon dust” which makes up part of the laps. Moon dust is responsible for many scratches in the front fender and left side of Editor Surj’s CRF250L. It’s a fine gravel-like substance that builds up in the center and on the edges of roads, like loose chipseal. No matter the speed, it has the ability to grab the front wheel of a motorcycle and near-instantly twist it to the exact angle needed to throw the bike and rider on the ground. While not the most difficult terrain in the valley, moon dust made the biggest impression on me.
What if you’re not willing to haul ass across the lakebed, frantically checking a GPS screen? Funny you should ask that. This was my second year on the lakebed with a motorcycle during Hammers week, and arguably some of the best times I’ve had on two wheels. Last year I assisted in pre-running the course and scouting places for the race truck’s team to get photos; this year I spent much more of the week just riding and spectating.
I managed to avoid my usual “why am I on the ground?” experiences, but I did get to put my newly acquired Rally through its paces. The same variety of features and terrain that make Johnson Valley suitable for such a race can also be experienced with less intensity for those with more self-preservation instinct than I. The area is open year-round, but Hammers Week usually happens the first week in February—in case you want to mark your calendars for next year.
Beyond the riding, Hammertown itself is something any off-road enthusiast (two, three, or four wheels), should experience. Because the lakebed is a public OHV area, there is no official head count, but the estimated number of people attending the 2017 event was over 40,000. This year was even bigger, but I could not find any official estimates.
Even with that many spectators, Johnson Valley does not feel at all packed. The fact that it covers 96,000 acres may have something to do with that. You can hop on a bike and lose sight of civilization in 10 minutes of riding, but still be close enough to share your day’s adventures with fellow enthusiasts. I covered over 200 miles of dirt in the week, from sand dunes to rock trails to dry lakebed, and even a bit of mud.
The February weather was in the seventies and sunny. Tell me again why you weren’t there?
The extreme enduro seems to be here to stay, with sponsors like Red Bull, KTM, Husqvarna, Rockstar, Schampa, and an official AMA sanction. King of the Motos was not the first extreme enduro, but the race has grown in size and popularity, and this year’s 83 entries included 16 professionals. The race evolves every year, and the addition of the night start is something I imagine will make its way into other similar races.
King of the Motos stands apart as more than a race, but an immersive experience that rivals Burning Man in both size and camaraderie—and you don’t need a “lakebed name” to be part of this community.
Here’s a look at some of the night race madness at King of the Motos 2018