Five men and one woman competed in August of 2008 for a shot at the top three spots in BMW’s GS Trophy, a nine day skills test over mountains and through the deserts of Tunisia, North Africa. 2008 was the first year for this event, hosted by Germany. The GS Trophy pits teams from the United States against Japan, Italy, Spain and Germany in what amounts to the Camel Trophy of motorcycle competition. It also serves as a showcase for BMW’s new F800GS. I was fortunate to have been selected as one of “The Spartanburg Six.”
“I wonder what happened there?” Brienne Thomson asks, as we park our R1200GS’s underneath the trees lining the creek. “It looks like a crime scene.”
Kevan Harder, Jim Stoddard, Jason Adams, Brad Hendry and I are the finalists competing for a shot at the GS Trophy. This “element” is the final test for the “Spartanburg Six,” picked from about 100 original applicants for BMW’s GS Trophy competition. We are instructed to move two bikes as far along the marked “trail” as we can in an hour and a half.
Bill Conger, one of our three instructor/judges here at BMW’s Performance Center in Spartanburg, South Carolina clears up any misunderstanding immediately. “You will be taking two bikes through the creek bed. Do not leave the boundaries and all gear must go with you. If you break the bike, you lose.”
I think to myself, “Yea, and if you get caught under that beast, it is will definitely leave a mark.”
He must be kidding, we hope, as we peer over the edge of the abyss. The creek bed is dark and smells of rotten vegetation. With mossy boulders and large log crossings, It reminds me of a place where I hunted frogs as a child. Places I have since tried to avoid because of snakes, poison Ivy and the aforementioned unpleasantries of rotting vegetation. Plus the “entrance” is a six foot drop into foot deep slime. It looks a lot like Viet Nam, hopefully without the booby traps.
We have been following our judges around the 130 acre training facility since breakfast, moving en masse from one section to the next. Individual test elements were designed by Bill and his two buddies, Ray Helms and Jim Millard, as a proving ground for each applicant to demonstrate their bike handling skills. These three work for BMW North America as mild mannered instructors most days, but today they are goons, tasked to glean the best three from our troop of six to go on to Tunisia where they will compete against Germany, Japan, Italy and Spain.
A series of cone gates laid in a diabolically tightening pattern comprised the first test. The surface was flat, packed gravel. Our goal was to negotiate each gate without touching a cone or dabbing. Golf rules apply. Low score wins. Several riders scored a zero on at least one if not both passes, even though we all shook with pre- competition adrenaline. Looking ahead and planning our lines were critical components of successfully negotiating this section. Our confidence grew.
Next was a steep, rutted, muddy hill decent with a right turn at the bottom, then another immediate right, back up the slope. At the top we slowed to a near track stand, and then swooped left and back down again. After crossing a short section of deep gravel, we entered an offset gate arranged so that it forced us onto an off- camber, wet clay hump, the first of four increasingly deeper water filled dips…all as slippery as a greased igloo. This was a tricky section where several dabbed and Brienne took a spill at the exit.
After this, we were lead to the sand pit, a deep, rutted rectangle about the size of a basketball court. It had been raining and the sand was saturated with water standing in some of the deeper ruts. Cones had been set up to provide two slalom courses, one on either side of the pit. Multiple runs through the cones demonstrated the riders’ mastery of their bikes in this critical medium, an essential skill because some 40 percent of Tunisia is composed of the Sahara Desert. A sand race and buried bike extraction followed the cone weave.
Then we swapped bikes, exchanging our heavy R1200GS’s for much lighter and more nimble X Challenges. A motocross course had been laid out for us over snot slick, wet clay and a gravel jump. We were not allowed to see the course before entering. The objective was to negotiate the circuit as quickly as possible without falling or missing any of the cone gates…always the cone gates. We each got two passes at this and most did better the second time around. A few riders lost it on the slimy surface, however, proving that in a skills test, haste can make waste.
When we got our big GS’s back we were tested on a rock hill climb with cones laid in such a way as to force us to traverse the hillside several times on the way up. We entered through a water hole, ensuring that we did it all with wet tires. An easy decent lead us to a spiral, off camber, rocky incline, down another rock section where we made two “trials stops,” then through a very long, deep water trough. Our bikes looked like barges on the Erie Canal as our opposed cylinders progressed steadily through the “river,” pushing a bow wave that would have made the crew of the Queen Mary proud.
And now, here we sit, wondering exactly how we will negotiate this creek bed with two 500 pound GS’s. Ray, Jim and Bill give us instructions to work together as a team, scouting and improving our pathway as we move along. Jim Stoddard hops on the first bike while the rest of us do our best to arrest his decent into the abyss. Our efforts are as much ox like as human as we push, pull and cajole the GS’s over mossy boulders, through knee deep slime and between trees several inches narrower than the BMW’s opposing cylinders. Finally, we coax the bikes onto a log bridge improvised from a downed tree, Wet moss provides our “friction surface,” a play on words to be sure, as we perch Brianne in the drivers seat like Cleopatra entering the Palace of Caesar. Levity is where you find it when you’re stuck in a ditch. Sweat soaked and mud caked, we manage to fire both bikes through the exit in 25 minutes. We let out a few Rebel yells and some of us take off our shirts to wash out the muck. Unfortunately, our tormenters are not nearly as impressed as we are. After a brief huddle, they return and tell us that we will be going back through. This time we get three bikes and only three of us can touch any bike at a time. Each contestant must handle two bikes along the way. “Ladies and gentlemen, you have one minute to hit the woods!”
We scramble to gather our gear and comply. With the first experience behind us we do well, even with the reduced ox power. We are halfway through with the third bike when they call time and we are forced to quit. We extract the last bike through a short cut and head for a garden hose shower.
Later at dinner, the final three are announced. Jim Stoddard, Brad Hendry and Jason Adams will represent the United States in Tunisia. Brienne, Kevan and I are sad to be excluded, but the gavel has fallen. It was a close competition, but we are alternates for any member unable to make the trip. Had this been horse- shoes or hand- grenades, we might have made it. But in this contest, close doesn’t cut it. Our hearts are with our new friends now, men we have sweated shoulder to shoulder with hoping to achieve the same goal. I would love to have been among them, but this year it was not to be. Now it is up to the final three to show the World how it’s done.
The BMW GS Trophy competition ended just as the type was being set for the Spartanburg story. It appears that the Spartanburg trials worked as intended. Early reports declared that Team USA finished first with Spain and Germany tying for second place. Italy was third with Japan bringing up the rear. Only the United States and Italy finished with their teams intact. At least one team member each from Spain, Japan and Germany were unable to finish due to fatigue or injury. Jimmy Lewis, one of the three US journalists/team members reported that even the VIP’s who had volunteered to help ride bikes for their teams had become injured.
Congratulations to this year’s winners, Jason Adams, Brad Hendry and Jim Stoddard, and their fellow team members, journalists Jimmy Lewis, Ryan Dudek, and Jonathan Beck for a job well done. You have set the bar.