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Desert 100

The 40+ year event is still going strong

At the end of March, the small town of Odessa, Washington will transform. Where there are quiet fields and empty roads, there will be masses of people and trail markers strategically placed through the desert for 100 miles. A new city will be built of motor-homes, trailers, trucks and vans. Thousands of people will descend upon the staging area in the middle of nowhere for one weekend and one eventthe world-famous Desert 100.

Starting in 1969, the Desert 100, once known as Mattawa, has been the most prestigious off-road motorcycle race of the year in the Northwest.

While a spectacular race, the Desert 100 is not just a race. It’s an entire weekend of activities, guaranteed to keep everyone entertained. The day before, riders have the option of participating in the Poker Run. The family poker run is a ride for the whole family and, if you can’t afford summer camp, the 50 mile fun ride is a crash course in overcoming obstacles and building self-esteem. The terrain can be tricky in sections, from loose and slippery down hills to rocky and rough up hills, serving as a perfect way to hone dirt bike skills no matter what the level. For some, a ¼ mile uphill rock garden is a team effort, and no one comes off the course without learning something or making new friends.

The Ironman Poker Run is designed for the more advanced rider and is much longer and harder than the Family Poker Run. Putting their endurance to the test over the 70-100 mile course, riders get a taste of what’s to come the next day. Without the pressure of competition, though, Ironmen and women get to truly enjoy the journey of a rider: perseverance, closeness to nature, and a feeling of accomplishment.

Dual sport riders also take part in the weekend events. The dual sport ride takes riders through Odessa and surrounding area to see the sights, including private property trails and the BLM Lakeview OHV area. Lunch at the local eatery is also on the tour and enough to turn any dirtbiker on to the perks of dual sporting.

Depending on how things go, Saturday’s events can leave riders beaming with joy or dismal in defeat. From flat tires to broken chains to broken bones, the Desert 100 is as exciting and rewarding as any adventure vacation. No matter what the experience earlier in the day, everyone has a story to share over a beer with their friends and family in the evening. On Saturday night, the lone beer garden plays host to the entire throng of people camped in the staging area. There is no better form of entertainment than to walk through the crowds of riders and spectators crying with laughter as they recount the day's stories.

But, unlike one might expect, the party doesn’t last all night. Whether they’ve come to ride or just watch, there is an unspoken respect and aura of seriousness that hovers over the staging area at Odessa the night before the race. People disappear, trailer lights go out and the entire area is eerily silent by 11pm so that racers can sleep well in preparation for the next day. If one happens to get up in the middle of the night, it’s quiet enough to only hear the hum of a generator and dark enough to only see the stars of the beautiful Eastern Washington night sky.

For many, the Desert 100 is a weekend of fun. For some, it is weeks of preparation for the bike and body, ending only with race day on Sunday. For serious racers, preparation begins the day after last year’s Desert 100. Taking notes from previous races, riders must modify their bikes for the desert terrain and spend hours testing and tweaking. The course through the desert is fast and rough, littered with rocks and roots that threaten to rip the handlebars from unsuspecting hands. Suspension set-up is critical and steering stabilizers are a staple for competitors. Positioning levers for perfect access is a science and choosing the right tire and tire pressure is an art. Competing in the toughest race in the Northwest is serious business.

When the sun comes up over Odessa on Sunday morning, riders are all out of time to prepare themselves and their bike for the Desert 100. It is time to race.

As early as 6am, people are up and out of their trailers and tents, warming up their engines and affixing race numbers to themselves and their bike plastics. Last-minute adjustments are made in haste with shaking hands. Racers are lucky if they can get a substantial breakfast in them amidst the butterflies in their stomachs. Fully and half-geared riders shift around nervously, trying to pay attention during the rider’s meeting at 9am. Some are just excited to get riding, but most are anxious, for there is no single moment more feared at the Desert 100 race than the start.

First time racers can think of nothing else as they parade down on their bikes to the starting line. As many as 1,000 riders have lined up, bar-to-bar, stretching ½ mile down the desert and all at once waiting for the canon to fire, signaling the start of the Desert 100. It is an experience a racer will never forget and a sight to behold for onlookers. Riders from all across and outside the country come to survive the experience and their friends and family and even the locals gather to watch them.

When the canon is finally heard, the Odessa desert rises up in a roaring fury. A tidal wave of dust instantly covers the area, erasing the racers and their bikes from viewer's sight. Survival is the best most can hope for in this first ten minutes of mayhem, but veterans of this race and the keenest competitors use the chaos to their advantage. A good bike starting position combined with expertly surfing through the sea of riders can mean the difference between coming out of the dust in the lead and getting stuck behind a bottleneck of riders, costing precious time.

The rest of the ride is like a dream. Whether they’ve come to compete seriously or just ride, dirtbikers can’t escape the out-of-body experience that is racing through the desert among a thousand others. Laser focus may cause some to only remember the highlights of the racea near miss, an actual crash or passing their rival. Anyone who happens to spot Elvis on his vintage bike during the race must surely question whether or not they are dreaming. Everything that happens between the starting line and the finish is a unique journey only the racer can know and something no one can predict.

There are a few universal truths about the Desert 100, though, and the one most revered by racers is the finish. Most people would agree that riding up onto the finishing platform, having tumbled through the course and finished, is the most amazing and rewarding feeling one can have. They’ve survived the hard work and battled through the course and to finish is pure victory. To many, there is no better feeling in the world.

Some might think that the best way to experience the Desert 100 is to gear up and dive into the race to test their character, experience the thrill and survive the trials. The feeling is certainly unrivaled.

There are some people, however, who feel the pay-off and success of the race not through racing themselves, but through hosting the event. They might know each other as "Stumpies" but everyone else knows them as members of the Stumpjumper Motorcycle Club, the group that has been hosting the Desert 100 race since 1969.

Founded in 1967, the Stumpjumper Motorcycle Club is a family oriented, off-road motorcycle club that is the largest driving force in the off-road motorcycle events in the Puget Sound area. Members of the club meet once a month and prepare all year for the Desert 100 event. The club elects a race chairman and co-chairman to serve a two-year term for the event. All other club members are required to volunteer at the event in order to maintain their membership. It may sound like a harsh requirement for the privilege of staying in the club, but members are motorcycle enthusiasts to the utmost and are happy to support the event. From printing flyers to sweep riding the race and poker runs, there is an astounding amount of work that goes into organizing the Desert 100. To put on an amazing event, it takes a knowledgeable race committee, organized club members, and a lot of help from sponsors. This year, sponsors have made it possible to have almost $20,000 in cash or contingency items to give away.

Why would someone enjoy volunteering at a race so much? Besides spending quality time with their friends and fellow club members as they prepare for the event by rolling handouts or riding with them to scout out the course layout, Stumpies love the atmosphere of the event and enjoy the feeling even more knowing they’ve made it possible. Those working at the gate get to meet every participant that comes through and see the look of excitement and anticipation on the faces of riders. Volunteers that hand out hotdogs and drinks at the halfway point during the poker runs get to meet the riders that are so grateful for a little food, and witness the unbridled joy of the kids getting to play outside with their families. Long-time members of the club are able to see how the event has changed over the years, how many more women sign up for the race each year and how the down-turned economy only puts a spotlight on the die-hard fans of the sport, who still show up to ride.

There is a place for everyone at the Desert 100racer, rider, volunteer and spectator, and each one is sure to have an experience they will always remember.

Margie Bashour/Winter 2012


For more information, videos and event dates, visit the Stump Jumpers website.


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