Star letter: Desert days
By: Web Editor
I thought a long time before writing but I thought a few comments on desert racing and desert bikes should be appropriate if only for general entertainment. I would also like to give a SoCal view of desert racing, which differs somewhat from the English view.
First, to give some credibility to this missive: I’ve lived in SoCal my whole life and spent much of it riding the desert. I’m a mechanical engineer (different in the USA as opposed to England) and that probably accounts for my love of motorcycling, although I also enjoy riding them. I do understand the design aspects of single track vehicles.
My first dirt bike was a war surplus Royal Enfield 21in (we weren’t metric then), then I progressed to a couple of AJS and a BSA Catalina, before moving to the 15in class with a BSA C15. Realising that wasn’t a desert bike, I went through a couple of Greeves and then England went out of business. I stayed with two-strokes, with an occasional Husky or KTM four-stroke.
My first desert event was the 1957 Big Bear, on a 21in AJS. and last the 1994 Desert M/C Hare Scrambles (three 30 mile loops), on a 440 KTM. I enjoyed riding, though not very fast, and saw the changes come and go over a fairly long time.
Now, on to the ‘desert bike’ (or ‘desert sled’). A desert sled needs three qualities to win. First and most important is the rider. Second is handling. Finally a good motor helps.
As for the rider, there’s no magic. The usual reflexes, stamina and the urge to win. And at the end, the winners were going faster than when they started. I wasn’t to say the least. Mike Patrick rode a 750cc Atlas and won, and then switched to a 250cc Yamaha and still won. Tommy Brooks won overall on a DKW 125cc. You just had to keep going fast. And they had the will to win and quit riding when they quit winning. Or kept riding fast and got hurt. I just enjoyed riding and tried to stay out of danger’s way.
Next, handling. I’m not going to separate suspension, stability, geometry and weight, but a good desert bike has all of those in the correct amount. In the 1950s, AJS/Matchless had the suspension, weighed a lot less than the Harleys and were really stable. Then Triumph got a swingarm, got the top riders and became the top bike. As for weight, it’s a lot easier to ride a light bike fast for a long time than a heavy bike. But the Greeves was the best of the Brits, because you could hit anything and survive, it would go where you pointed it, was very stable and didn’t bounce around more than was necessary.
Bob Belt was the first 250cc rider to win a desert race overall and he did it on a Greeves. And we ran 19in front tyres not only to float on the sand (keeping the throttle on did the best job on that) but to spread the force when you hit a rock and to get some traction in the sand/gravel corners. Remember, the desert is dry, sandy and rocky. And as bike weight came down, we did go to the 21in wheel for better steering.
As for the engine; every racer likes a bike with more power. Also, in the 1950s and 60s the desert was a lot smoother than later, so you could go faster longer and use that horsepower. More horsepower? Just keep the throttle on longer.
The two-strokes became more powerful, they were lighter and they could handle. CZ and Greeves started passing Triumphs, Huskies, Yamahas and then Bultaco showed up and it was a new era. Which brings me to the BSA in your story. Remember, I owned a BSA Catalina and then changed to a BSA C15, since it was touted as a small BSA Catalina. I learned better and got a Greeves Challenger.
Now, in my club (San Gabriel Valley M/C) only one Victor type BSA came through. George Zuber rode that for a while and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t getting any results. He came to the conclusion that no matter how well the Victor was doing in England, it wasn’t a desert bike. He changed to a Yamaha 250 and results improved. Also, a double leading shoe front brake would mark any bike as a street bike, there isn’t much traction in the desert. The BSA Catalina was the best single in the desert, but the Victor didn’t replace it, for all the reasons given above.
I tried a Husky four-stroke in the 1980s and it proved I wasn’t 19 any more. On a rocky downhill, that extra 15lb was on the front wheel and it took some upper body muscle to steer the bike. I didn’t have that any more. So as far as the riders winning on the present day four-strokes, they are a lot stronger and durable than I ever was. And of course, they’re paid to ride that bike and they’ll win on whatever bike they’re given.
So, sad to say, the Victor wasn’t a desert bike, and the reason was that desert riding is a lot different than riding in (wet) England
Boris Dobrotin, Valley Center, California, USA
Responses to “Star letter: Desert days”
Current Issue: August 2015
Rare Beauty: Motoborgo V-Twin
Fast & Fun: Ducati MK3 Single
EVENTS: Bikeshed; Montlhery; Landsdowne round-up; ASI Motoshow
The Civilised Soldier: Army model with impeccable manners
PLUS: Velocettes on track; The Kreidler racer; Post-war Triumphs; Dutch Harley museum collection
• Next issue on sale: August 7, 2015