What a ride! I’ve had all sorts of adventures on two wheels, traveled all over North America and completed a wide variety of Iron Butt rides, but the Black Label Biker/Not Right Riders Rally is definitely one of my proudest certifications. Why? Because I am always telling people that a Saddlesore can be ridden on just about any bike and this event finally gave me the opportunity to prove it: The Not Right Riders certification requires 1000 miles (~1610km) in under 24 hours on a bike under 250cc. That’s right – entrants are limited to a displacement of less than1/5 that of my trusty FJR. But hold on just a hot minute! I’m still in Mexico, still on my Bandit 1200 sidecar rig, so how did I pull this off? That’s where Zontes Mexico comes in. Zontes offered me a chance to ride the rally on their brand new, not-yet-on-the-market U150 sport bike. That’s U150 as in 150cc, as in just ½ the size of just one single cylinder on the Bandit. Sounds like a party, right? Let’s do this!!
Because the bike wasn’t officially on the market as of rally time, and because of the shipping delays resulting from the pandemic, I wasn’t able to get my hands on my loaner ride until a week before The Big Day. Lucky for me, the bike required very little to be rally ready. Along with Marco Almaraz, president of Asphalt Rats Endurance Motorcycling and Iron Butt Association Mexico, I made the ride from Aguascalientes to Queretaro to retrieve the bike and found it already broken in, serviced and fitted with auxiliary lights. We were incredibly impressed with the dealership and the entire Zontes lineup, with Italian-inspired adventure, naked, sport, and scrambler-style mounts which seriously defy the norm in Chinese motorcycles. The fit and finish, attention to detail, and factory options are leaps and bounds beyond what one would find from the ubiquitous small-displacement bikes found in every department store across Mexico. I would have loved to pilot the T310 Adventure, especially after enjoying a rather spirited test ride, but alas, most of the lineup exceeds the 250cc maximum for the event.
So I have one week to get a borrowed 150cc motorcycle ready to knock out a Saddlesore. How… What… WHY?!?! Seriously, there is only so much I’m going to invest and only so much time to fine-tune, so I was pleased to find the U150 basically ready to rock. The factory gel seat was super plush, ergonomics amazingly comfortable for a 6’ rider, and with an easy 350km range on the stock tank I would have no trouble going the distance. The inverted forks were good, so a little adjustment to the shock preload was all that was needed for a maximally comfortable ride. Chassis tweaks completed, I needed to address ride functionality. The U150 has a built-in dual USB charger, so no wiring was necessary; I pulled my phone mount off the Bandit and slapped it right onto the new bike. The plastic tank wouldn’t work with my magnetic tank bag, but I’m not sure I would’ve wanted to cram that much stuff into the cockpit anyhow. Instead, I bought a small rubberized pencil pouch from the dollar store and zip tied it to my handlebars. This gave me enough space to store my spare Sena module with charging cable and a Ziploc bag full of cash to hand the toll-takers. I borrowed a tail bag and stocked it with the bare essentials: Tire plug kit and compressor, a few basic tools, InReach, spare cables and emergency back-up phone, a few snacks and a bottle of water, and some heavy-duty Ziplocs to hold my ride receipts and documentation. The weekend promised rain, cold, and heat so I made sure to leave room for any jettisoned clothing layers, and that’s pretty much where I called it good. No aux fuel, no hydration system, no GPS; Navigating with offline maps on my phone, hydrating out of a water bottle old-school style, and never underestimate the utility of good pockets on your riding gear when it comes to snacking on the go. A borrowed bike, some borrowed and repurposed gear, a few test rides, and we’re ready to roll.
We (me and the AREM/IBA Mexico staff) converged on Mexico City on Thursday, ready get the administrative side of the event staged, do some pre-ride interviews and generally enjoy this beautiful city for a few days. The area where we were staying reminds me a lot of West Hollywood: fun, quirky, lots of green space and generally safe with pretty much anything you could need available within short walking distance. We enjoyed a mouth-watering array of Brazilian, Argentinean, and of course plenty of Mexican food, while snubbing the Starbucks which are crammed in two-to-a-block here too. Life it too short for chain restaurants, I say! The planning and execution of this event was heavily molded by the pandemic, which makes the final product that much more impressive. To begin with there were actually three separate events taking place – vintage bikes, small displacement bikes, and standard modern bikes – all of which saw their original running dates rescheduled due to lockdowns. While motorcycle riding is an inherently socially distant affair, this still meant hundreds of bikers converging on Zontes Mexico City in the days before the rally with nearly as many expected at the finisher’s party. This was addressed by staggering check-ins, bike inspections and riders meetings across five days prior to the start of the rally. Riders who lived in Mexico City needed to come in several days before the event, with more distant riders checking in as they hit town. Even the press conference adhered to the 1.5m spacing, required masks, and kept attendees to a relative minimum. With a field approaching 300 riders, the pre-ride festivities turned out to be a beautifully choreographed affair.
It was 2am on rally day when all three groups of riders – Black Label Bikers, Vintage and Not Right Rider – staged in front of the Zontes dealership along Avenida de los Insurgentes, the road closed to all traffic except rally riders and the many dozens of supporters and spectators. Rarely outside of the Iron Butt Rally have I experienced an event with such a buzz of excitement, a scene all the more impressive when you consider how much work went into securing enough space for hundreds of participants and well-wishers to queue up while maintaining social distance. A good number of moto-journalists were also present representing some of Mexico’s best print and online magazines. Endurance riding is still fairly young in Mexico, having been introduced just over 10 years ago, so this style of event is particularly new and exciting in a country where the majority of motorcycles are more for utility than passion. I chatted with seasoned endurance riders, folks trying their hand at long distance for the very first time, and guys who were back for their second or third attempts to secure their Asphalt Rats membership. And before you judge too harshly about those repeated attempts, remember we’re talking about riders on old CB400s or new Cub 90s. Seriously hardcore riders who want to see their bike-of-choice go the distance just as much as they want that AREM four-digit number.
With traffic control generously provided by Mexico City’s finest, kickstands up hit at 3am. This is much earlier than the standard US rally, but I can’t think of a better time to be making my way across Mexico City. In all the ways CDMX reminds me of West Hollywood, crazy snarled traffic is right up there on the list. Think New York City, complete with double-decker highways, one-way streets, way too many vehicles and road signs which are often positioned not so much to let you know what intersection is coming up, but more to let you know that you just missed your turn. It is exciting and chaotic and I love it in the same way I love battling through Time Square, but I’m also perfectly happy to save that kind of battle for when I’m off the clock. At 3am sharp our Vintage riders led the charge, followed by myself and Rafa Murguia (both Zontes sponsored riders on 150s) heading up the Not Right Riders, and finally small-displacement record holder Matavacas on his relatively large-displacement Zontes 310 at the front of the Black Label Biker group. The applause, honking, cheering, camera flashes, police lights – phew, what a send-off!! I stuck with Rafa as we wound our way through the mostly deserted streets and out onto the highway, after which we struck out on our own. Each of the three ride categories had their own unique route with a few areas where our paths would intersect, but generally speaking it would be other small-displacement riders I’d be waving at for the rest of the day.
We hit our first toll demarcating the far outskirts of CDMX and the beginning of a steep climb into the surrounding mountains. It also happened to be the point at which the sky let loose, soaking the unprepared almost instantly on a winding, unforgiving highway. I’d anticipated the rain and was geared up accordingly, but I passed many riders huddling up under bridges and trees trying in vain to get their rain gear on before becoming utterly and irredeemably soaked. Even in the dark I could appreciate the thick blanket of pine trees packed tightly along the road, and my little 150 did an impressive job of maintaining speed even on a steep incline. For reference, the speed limit on the major highways was typically 110km/h, with the twisties set around 80-90km/h. With a running start and a tailwind on a downhill I could hit 135km/h, but even climbing hills the U150 had no problem maintaining in the 80-100km/h range. With some momentum, race tuck, and some active gear shifting, I had no problem staying with the flow of traffic or even passing slower traffic on the hills. Plenty of rain, plenty of race tuck, and plenty of mountainous roads later, I hit the first checkpoint just outside of Cuautla, Morelos.
With only one exception, all of the checkpoints were at gas stations; my stated fuel range of 350km is when I’m using the Sport mapping mode and riding fairly aggressively, and with the ability to extend that by another 50km or better when using Eco mode, there was only one stretch where I needed to source fuel outside of a checkpoint. The gas stations in Mexico are all staffed, with self-serve not even being an option; that is actually a good thing in terms of minimizing contact with frequently touched surfaces, and in my experience the attendants do a great job of wearing masks, wiping down surfaces, maintaining distance even if that means asking me to get off the bike, etc. The down side is that sometimes this can lead to a bit of a wait while waiting for a fill especially if the stations have limited staff during off-peak hours, but I was very lucky throughout the rally and my fuel stops did not create any significant delays. The rally was also designed to keep us primarily on toll roads; as in the States this can get a little pricy, but the tradeoff is well worth it. The toll roads are safe, well maintained, have roadside assistance patrols to help in the event of a breakdown, and have plentiful fuel and food options. It is amazing how rapidly the parallel free highways can pack on the hours, with marked and unmarked topes (giant speed humps) ready to launch the inattentive immediately into orbit, seemingly endless speed bumps, treacherous speed control devices that look like half cannon balls spread across the road, not to mention the potholes and frequent traffic lights… the free roads with their vibrant little communities are fun to explore off the clock, but I’ll happily spend a few bucks to keep a brisk pace when time is of the essence.
Checkpoint One was a gas-and-go, just requiring a picture of my odo along with my fuel receipt. Sunrise is pretty late down here at the moment – after 7am – so it was still dark by the time I wound my way out of the mountains and into Checkpoint Two at a Shell station in Puebla. This checkpoint was staffed by enthusiastic volunteers from Zontes Puebla, which was fun. They had snacks, drinks, and assistance available, although being so early in the rally I suspect few required much beyond their quick odo verification and signature. Then again, with the chilly rain finally beginning to subside, the siren call of hot coffee may have enticed a few riders in those wee hours before daylight. By dawn I had cleared the mountains and the rain, for the time being at least, and I enjoyed being dried and warmed to the backdrop of a truly stunning sunrise. I was in a lush green valley with the blanket of fog having burned off from the highway but still hugging the surrounding hills, making the shifting pallet of purples, reds, and oranges against the ebbing clouds a much welcomed reward for the night’s ride. It was mid-morning by the time I rolled into Checkpoint Three at Zontes Queretaro, giving me a fun opportunity to show the guys there the few modifications I’d made to the bike since taking delivery there just a week earlier. Since I had the benefit of having a mental map of the dealership, I decided this would be a good place to shed some layers without wasting a bunch of time. Not that my comfort requirements are exceedingly stringent, but when it comes to adding/removing pants layers (which requires removing boots and riding pants) it’s always a bonus to be able to do so in a known clean bathroom as opposed to balancing on top of your riding boots while trying to avoid touching the questionable gas station bathroom floor in your socks, all while juggling various base layers. That mission accomplished, I grabbed some water and a granola bar from the well-stocked snack bar, secured my odo witness signature, stayed still long enough for a couple pictures, then hit the highway.
The ride from Queretaro to San Luis Potosi was fairly uneventful, but the ever-changing scenery kept the ride engaging. The San Luis Potosi checkpoint was also staffed, but I suspect this was an area where more than one of the event routes overlapped because they were really swamped. Not needing any snacks or supplies, I opted for a quick fuel up and pic of my receipt and odo pushing on. Checkpoint Five was situated in my home-away-from-home city of Aguascalientes. It’s fun to feel like I’m on home turf again and I was familiar with the Pemex station where I needed to stop, so I was able to make relatively quick work of this checkpoint as well. This was the only place where I had a bit of a wait for fuel, but the rally support crew manning the station did a great job of handling my paperwork quickly so I could get moving again. Being so tight on storage space I had considered leaving any unneeded clothing layers with the checkpoint crew and retrieving them after the rally, but at this point I had only removed my pants base layers and was still very comfortable with all of my top layers on. I was already more than halfway through the route at this point so rather than waste time removing layers preemptively just to potentially save myself some space later in the rally, I opted to push on.
Of course, that kind of decisive action is the magic formula for making the ambient temperature increase by about 20ºF and this day was no exception. By the time I hit Checkpoint Six in Guadalajara, I was hot enough that even unzipping all of my many vents still wasn’t enough to get the job done. The rally crew here was super enthusiastic as well, so it was a perfect opportunity for a quick break. The guys cleaned my visor & tempted me with a huge spread of sandwiches, fruit, snack bars and drinks. I quick pulled off 3 shirts and opted for a bag of nuts and bottle of water before grabbing my witness signature and setting my sights on the finish. Of course, that kind of decisive action is the magic formula for making the ambient temperature decrease by about 30 ºF. This was the longest stretch of the event without a checkpoint at nearly 550km, but in my mind that meant I was practically back in the barn. There was an optional Last Ditch Checkpoint option in this leg; the Not Right Riders route actually clocked in at roughly 1675km, giving us substantial buffer over the 1600km required for a Saddlesore, so this final checkpoint was put in place at the northern outskirts of Mexico City for the riders who had met the distance requirements but who would be at risk of missing the time cutoff by the time they made the slow slog across the city and into the finish line. I was making good time, on track to finish my ride in under 20 hours, so I opted to bypass the optional checkpoint and head straight back to Zontes Mexico City. I would once again be meandering through the mountains and into the (anticipated) relative warmth of the valley, except this time I had the benefit of daylight so I could truly enjoy the rolling hills and deep blue lakes dotting the landscape.
Up until this point, my many layers of clothing had been what I would consider darn near perfect. I’d been just slightly too cold at the very coldest and just slightly too hot at the very hottest, and if the Guadalajara checkpoint didn’t happen to be conveniently (inconveniently?) located at the very hottest point of the ride, I almost certainly would have just continued on without bothering to remove any top layers. Ah, woulda coulda shoulda, because the chill of the mountains gave way to the chill of the night, followed rapidly by more rain. HARD rain, a real frog strangler. Turns out that the anticipated warmth of the valley would never materialize, shoved aside by the leading edge of Tropical Storm Hanna. Already somewhat annoyed at my bad foresight and/or bad timing of my painfully recent layer removal, I stubbornly refused to stop to gear back up. I was SO close to this finish, after all! By the time it became evident that the rain would not be stopping any time soon, my jettisoned gear was already thoroughly soggy inside the tailbag, making stopping to add layers a moot point. I’d had a beautiful, flawless ride up until this point; even the early morning rain, having hit when I was fully geared up and prepared for the passing storm, hadn’t been enough to dampen my mood. But the last 100km just plain sucked. I hadn’t anticipated such an intense storm, the kind of driving rain where you can’t see through your visor but once you give in and open your visor, you can’t see for the stinging drops hammering directly into your eyeballs. I was ready to be done, dry and warm, and I spent that last 100km consoling myself with the knowledge that 100km = 60 miles, then 80km = 48 miles, and so on. Those silly little mind tricks that keep you focused on something other than just how darn much rainwater, when sufficiently determined, can force it’s way past your waterproof layers and collect in your waterproof boots. Since I had opted to bypass the optional checkpoint, my mapping program routed me on a more direct path – more direct, but a good chunk of it was off the toll road and therefore pocked with time vacuums, not the least of which were giant potholes disguised by standing water and those half-cannonball speed deterrent devices which become doubly treacherous with wet tires. My brain was already preparing for the ride to be finished, which just made the exercise that much more exhausting.
It was only about 10pm when I began reentry into CDMX, so traffic was much more snarled than it had been on our way out of town. It was a wild ride, with poorly marked interchanges on fairly congested high speed highways, made worse by blinding rain which did a great job of disguising small seas of standing water. Minus the rain, I think I would have enjoyed the chaos: High-dollar luxury cars going well over the limit, dodging rickety old pickup trucks carrying impressively precarious loads and going maybe half their speed; people who were clearly petrified to be in this situation, desperately holding their ground against the drivers who had no patience for those with such an unnecessary overabundance of caution; other competitors on bigger bikes barreling towards the goalpost, seemingly always just a few more turns away. At some point though, I ended up on a highway on which vehicles under 250cc were not allowed. Being soaked, freezing, and within 25km or so of the finish line, I didn’t even consider pulling over and trying to reroute myself onto a displacement-approved (but undoubtedly slower) path into Zontes; as such, it became even more crucial for me to keep my speed high enough to avoid drawing undue attention to myself. For a while I stationed myself in a line of The Petrified, cars going reasonably slow enough to allow me a decent line of sight and reaction distance without appearing as though I was the one setting such a low speed. I missed a couple interchanges, came frighteningly close to hitting huge pools of water at a high rate of speed, and sat for what seemed like a maliciously excessive amount of time at traffic lights which weren’t triggered by my little steed, but eventually I managed to make my way to Avenida de los Insurgentes where my adventure had started some 20 hours earlier.
I was the first of the 150s to finish the ride and the first of the Zontes sponsored riders to arrive, but all that mattered at that point was getting out of the weather. Coffee couldn’t come fast enough, but by this time there was really no sense in trying to shed wet layers or add dry ones. All I wanted to do was have my paperwork verified and head back to our hotel. Even on a small-displacement naked bike I’d been feeling great and wouldn’t have hesitated to push on well past the required 1,000 miles, but in those last couple hours I seriously missed my heated gear and the weather protection afforded by the giant windscreen of my FJR. None the less, I’d pulled it off: I am now officially a Not Right Rider. I kept that U150 rung up to within about 200rpm of redline for darn near 20 straight hours with nary a hiccup. Once I warmed back up, I felt great – I dare say I actually physically recovered from the event faster than the IBA crew, who were flogged for well over 24 hours straight from the last minute pre-ride preparations to the final confirmations that all riders were safe and accounted for.
Not everyone earned their Asphalt Rat number as they’d hoped, but there wasn’t a single accident and everyone ended their ride safely of their own accord. Some of the riders had so much fun with the party-like atmosphere of the checkpoints that the hours got away from them; others were defeated by the unexpectedly harsh weather, and still others found that in spite of their best efforts, their little (or big, or old) bikes just couldn’t quite go the distance. There were some great stories to come out of the event as well, stories from riders who refused to accept defeat: One rider came rolling in with a riding suit meticulously crafted from garbage bags and duct tape, giving the finish line crew a good laugh and a great display of ingenuity from a rider who was NOT too obstinate to stop (cough)me(cough). Another rider had his mini-apes with integrated risers snap mid-ride; undeterred, he somehow managed to safely navigate off the highway, eliminated the busted risers by reinstalling the handlebars upside down, and proceeded to successfully finish the rally with a ridiculously awesome tale to tell. Then there was one of the vintage bikes which had caught my eye at the starting line, sporting unfiltered velocity stacks where the airbox once had been. Not being particularly great at deflecting frog-strangler-levels of rain incursion, the poor guy had choked to a halt just inside Mexico City limits. As it happens, although time had appeared to be on his side he had wisely chosen to hit the Last Ditch Optional Checkpoint just outside Mexico City limits, meaning he had time to call in for some four-wheeled assistance. Having completed more than enough kilometers, he was able to load up and make it in to the finish line before the clock ran out. These are the types of adventures that remind me that no matter how hard your ride was, no matter how big of an accomplishment it was for me to do 1,675 kilometers on a bike with a piston significantly smaller than a coffee cup, chances are good that someone out there will wrap up a successful ride against far steeper odds, and with a much cooler story, than me.
The vast majority of the riders were elated with the event whether they officially finished or not – I heard more than one guy raving about the scantily-clad ladies offering to clean their windshields or load them up with snacks, as well as the enthusiastic encouragement they needed to press on for just one more leg, then again to one more checkpoint beyond that. No matter how easy or beautiful your ride has been, that kind of lively interaction can be so amazingly invigorating, making you feel like a rock star rolling in after hours of being alone with your thoughts. This event brought a consistently high level of community support throughout the event, offering a fun, supportive environment from beginning to end. It was really amazing to see, something that I’ve never experienced on shorter rallies in the States, and I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to all of the many, many volunteers who did such an incredible job of staffing and stocking the checkpoints. I saw a lot of the behind-the-scenes work from the Iron Butt staff as well as being privy to the amount of juggling required by the Zontes staff in order to pull this off polished production while also providing a pandemic-safe atmosphere, so huge kudos to them as well for all of their hard work.
After a decent nights sleep, the banquet was held Sunday afternoon at the Arango Rider’s Room just a short distance away from Zontes. WOW! This would be an awesome place to spend ANY Sunday, but I can’t think of any place cooler to celebrate a great event like this. It’s a super cool little semi-open-air café and bar, tucked into a quirky corner of town right next to a motorcycle shop and including a tattoo parlor above the kitchen. Someday when (if) I grow up, I’d love to own a place just like this. Because of the size of the venue vs. this size of the crowd, the banquet was broken into two groups to maintain distancing. The Not Right Riders event was first, made extra exciting because this ride also earned the right to celebrate a new Iron Butt record, boasting both the largest number of small-displacement bikes to start a rally and the largest number to successfully finish. Way to go, little guys! The Black Label Bikers and Vintage groups were next, with certificates and amazingly cool swag handed out to all of the successful riders before the weekend wound to a close. I was sad to have to relinquish my U150 (I’d even tried to con my way into riding back to Zontes Queretero, but no dice as it is destined to live out it’s days on display in the Mexico City dealership) but it’s not all bad news: I will be riding a Zontes T310 Adventure in an upcoming 3,200km/48 hour rally! Woo hoo!
The IBA crew and I were enjoying CDMX so much that we decided to extend our stay by another day. IBA Mexico member Juan Gomez gave us a personal tour of some of the most impressive, interesting, and historic sites around the city, most of which were closed due to COVID-19 but many of which could still be enjoyed from afar through the cultural context and stories he shared. Left to my own devices I certainly would have chosen to avoid navigating through the legendary chaos of Mexico City, but I am so glad that circumstances gave me the chance to experience it first hand. It is beautiful, varied, both modern and historic, with far more to enjoy than I could possibly fit into a single long weekend. I will be looking forward to making a return trip for another rally in the very near future! And for those of you who are wondering what happened to Montessa in the midst of all the excitement, she and Elena La Loca held down the fort in Aguascalientes while we were gone. If Elena hadn’t been christened “La Loca” before spending five days alone with a wild, imaginative, rambunctious night owl of a five-year-old, she absolutely would have been by the time we got home. They had a fantastic time doing girl stuff together, and I dare say I got the less exhausting end of the arrangement by only having to spend 1,675km on a 150cc motorcycle.
Thanks for reading, and keep and eye on the Asphalt Rats website for information on upcoming rides. I know travel is a tough proposition for many right now, especially considering how many highly-anticipated events in the States have been forced to cancel, but trust me when I say that nothing is quite like rallying in Mexico! When circumstances allow, give it a try – with incredible people, scenery, food, culture, roads and more, you won’t be disappointed!