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Old November 20th, 2023, 11:43 PM   #1
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[] - BMW GS Trophy Qualifying Defies Expectations

Why do the GS Trophy Qualifying? Do it because you’re afraid. Do it because you’re out of shape. Do it because you’re too busy. Do it because it doesn’t fit into your life.

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Daniel Heggarty navigates the rocky section of the “Australian Terror” at the US Qualifiers of the BMW International GS Trophy. (James Holbrook/)I’m sitting at the starting line of the Australian Terror, my final challenge in two days of competition. There’s about 6 feet between my front wheel and a wall-like hill of South Carolina mud. It’s maybe only 10 feet tall, but steep. I’m riding a BMW R 1250 GS, a high-priced touring bike that most people don’t dare ride on anything rougher than a gravel driveway. There are those who say a 550-pound motorcycle with 136 hp has no place off-road. My mud-covered knobby tires say otherwise.

The hill rears up like a tidal wave in front of me. At its summit, which is no broader than the wheelbase of the bike, the course makes a hard right down a rutted slope, and then turns 180 degrees left into a field of boulders, before finally exiting through a tight, slippery turn that’s been chewed up and spit out by 70 other competitors. “Put the rest of it out of your mind,” I tell myself. “Make it to the top first.” The judges give me the go-ahead. I bounce on the seat to quell the nervous tension and calm my beating heart. Everything goes silent. I get on the pegs, apply just a bit of throttle, and I’m airborne before I can take a breath. My front wheel lofts in the air: higher and higher, until the sky is obscured by the bike’s front end. Out of the corner of my eye I can read “Trophy” written in big letters down its front beak.

The author discusses strategy during a team exercise on the first day of competition. (BMW Mottorad USA/)Afterward, my teammate, Daniel Heggarty, grabbed me by my heavily padded shoulders. “Time stood still,” he said. “You got so much hang time, I had time to look at you, look at the judges, then back at our teammates, and your wheel was still in the air! So epic.”

Back down to earth, I breathed a sigh of relief. I just completed the final challenge of the BMW International GS Trophy Qualifying, my first-ever two-wheeled competition.

Seventy-two hours earlier, I rode the GS 775 miles in a single day from my home in upstate New York to the BMW Performance Center in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to join 59 men and 12 women competing for a chance to represent Team USA in the 2024 Trophy Final in Namibia. While the Trophy Final will receive all the publicity, tantalizing adventure-dreamers with images of wild places and wide-open spaces, the qualifying event is arguably the true heart of the GS Trophy.

To earn a place in the finals, “qualifying” is what three men and two women will ultimately do, but it’s not what the event is. To more fully express the nature of the thing, perhaps it should be called the Trophy Nationals. It’s not merely a gateway to something bigger; it’s a marquee event. It’s the event competitors circle on their calendars two years in advance. For months, the anticipation keeps them up at night. They bleed vacation days to train for it. They miss family weddings to make it. They risk damage to their bikes, to their egos, and to their bodies. They treat it like it’s, well, the Nationals.

The BMW Performance Center hosted Qualifying. It’s a playground for adventure riders. (James Holbrook/)My own journey began two months ago, when I trained with Ben Phaup, the top finisher at the previous Qualifier. Two months wasn’t enough time to make me a contender for Team USA, but it was enough time to still be transformative.

When I arrived at check-in for the beginning of the competition, I was greeted by Heggarty, one of a dozen competitors who I’d met at the GS Trophy Prep course three weeks before. Quick-witted with a disarming smile and a class-clown attitude, he became a fast friend, so any jitters I had quickly vanished.

Soon, we met up with other prep course classmates: Melis Heerens, who works in industrial real estate investment in Hoboken, New Jersey, and his childhood best friend Ted DuPuis, an engineer at Garmin; Craig Johnson, owner of Wild Ass Seats; and Darren Wells, a retired motor officer, who I’d first met four years ago at a racetrack school at New Jersey Motorsports Park.

The Trophy Final is a team competition, so to encourage the team-player mindset, organizers divided the field into teams (we were still scored individually). To our surprise, Heggarty, Heerens, and I were put together, along with Chris Bronstorp, a brawny, steely-eyed Swede, who to everyone’s amusement was a doppelganger for BMW brand ambassador Shawn Thomas. We were Team Bravo.

All BMW owners are eligible to compete on a GS of any engine capacity, excluding models older than the R 1100 GS. The current R 1250 GS was the most common model, but this competitor’s BMW HP2 Enduro stole the show. (James Holbrook/)Over the course of two days, we tackled 20 different courses set up throughout the BMW Performance Center property. From on-road cone courses to steep hills, log crossings, staircases, and sand pits, the challenges covered every kind of natural and man-made terrain. The Trophy’s spiritual roots may be in the rally world, but these days its wheels revolve around the slippery logs and rock gardens of a trials course. OK, the challenges aren’t exactly Hard Enduro-level, but the GS isn’t exactly a 230-pound 300cc two-stroke either.

The author begins to round a corner in the “GS Garage,” which in this year’s Qualifying was on an off-cambered paved course. (BMW Motorrad USA/)To begin, my team headed to our first challenge, a police rodeo-style cone course.

“You start with 10 points, just like on every course,” the course judge told us. “You lose one point for dabbing, three points for hitting a cone, six for dropping the bike, and if you go off course, that’s an automatic disqualification.”

The three of us who attended the prep course faced similar challenges during our time and were brimming with confidence. Bronstorp looked at the course with a gaze that could intimidate a horde of charging vikings. We were going to crush this.

Jay Humphrey, another competitor who attended the final Trophy Prep course, rides up a flight of stairs and across a concrete culvert. (James Holbrook/)Instead, we all struggled. Above the sound of the GS’ engine, I could almost hear the scritch-scratch-scritch-scratch of the judge’s pen as it flew across his clipboard, swiftly docking me points for every error. It’d be a surprise if any of us finished with a single point.

“Just forget about it,” Bronstorp said to encourage us. “Full focus on the next challenge.”

“I took my mirrors off for a reason: I don’t look behind me,” Heggarty joked, bringing some levity to the situation.

A dropped GS is a common sight at Qualifying. (James Holbrook/)On to the next challenges. At “Everest,” a steep hill climb starting in a field of scree, the competitor ahead of us was still stranded halfway up the hill when we got there, affording us a moment to catch our breath while the course judges extracted his bike. Then, at “Spider Mountain,” we heard the loud crack of a cylinder head cover puncturing on a rock, and the groans of the fallen rider tumbling down the hill in a stream of spilled oil.

The nature of the competition had revealed itself.

After completing nine or ten challenges, my team sat down for lunch at the event tent and caught up with a number of other competitors. We were all having an absolute blast, but none of us were doing as well as we’d hoped. One can practice a skill a thousand times but when you mess up during qualifying, that’s it. There are no second chances.

“It’s fun because it’s a mental challenge,” Heggarty said. “You don’t get to warm up in a lot of life. You kind of just have to go for it sometimes.”

An inverted GS obscures its fallen rider. The hill is tricky enough to climb on its own, but when the objective is to weave between the cones on the way up, it gets especially difficult. Competitors nicknamed this challenge “Heartbreak Ridge.” (James Holbrook/)Melissa Ragsdale, a first-time competitor from Knoxville, Tennessee, added: “There’s a difference between being able to do something and mastering it. Mastering it means you can do it on demand. Being able to do it means maybe after x-number of times you get it once.”

“Things that seem like they’re easy to just do in your backyard, all of a sudden become that much harder,” said Ellen Gines, who operates Into the Horizon ADV Motorcycle Tours and Rentals with her husband, Lance, in Boise, Idaho. “For me, I practiced the GS Garage in my backyard with eight cones. And you come here and you go into the garage and there’s a whole line of cones with barriers between them. It’s not any different than what you practiced at home, but it looks different. And there’s a bunch of people watching you.”

Qualifying courses are designed to challenge even the best riders. They can threaten your self-belief. They can tear you down—even if you’ve worked hard on building your skills.

“We all have to work hard to get here,” Ragsdale said. “When I was here in June [for a Trophy Prep Course], I couldn’t do a 16-foot circle. That was June! It took me a month to figure that out on my own. No one was going to be able to teach me that. I had to go out into a field and throw the bike down, and throw the bike down, and throw the bike down, and watch the video of myself. I videotaped myself. I have a half a terabyte of video of myself.”

A competitor summiting the hill of the Australian Terror. (James Holbrook/)As we all grappled with our performances and commiserated over Gatorade and sandwiches, Dene Dawson, another first-time competitor, offered an observation: “I look at it like the Olympics,” he said. “You get to the finals of the 100-meter dash and you come in last, which means you’re still in the top 10 fastest people in the world.”

Dawson isn’t suggesting that competitors are elite athletes or the fastest riders in the country. His point is that out of thousands of GS owners, there were only 72 of them taking part in US Qualifying. From a numbers standpoint, it gives them a special distinction. Other than a couple outliers in their 20s, the average age of riders had to be around 50 years old, which makes Qualifying a pretty accurate representation of the GS demographic. While the GS Trophy may be a competition for the everyman, not everyone is willing to do it.

Competitors take a lot of pride in being willing to test the limits of their motorcycle’s capabilities. The GS is designed to be ridden off-road, but because it’s such a capable, versatile streetbike, most riders keep it on the pavement and never find out what they’re missing. In truth, you’ve got to be a bit mad to drop $25,000 on a motorcycle and then be willing to drop the thing off-road with regularity.

A competitor weaves between cones in the water. (James Holbrook/)Only two days earlier, I spent 15 hours in the saddle on my way down from New York—not something I would have wanted to do on a motorcycle that wasn’t such a well-appointed tourer. But all it took to transform the GS into a plus-sized dirt bike was to remove the mirrors and luggage, rotate the bars upward, and let some air out of the tires. That’s it. After riding it almost exclusively in dirt and gravel for the past months, I’d say not taking it off-road would feel like a waste.

As Heerens joked: “A ship in the bay is safe, but that’s not what it’s made for.”

“I don’t want to sound like a brochure,” Heggarty added, “but the GS spirit is when the bike goes from being a jewel to a tool. Dirt bike racers get a new bike every season because they use it as a tool to hone their skills. We’re all into the GS because it’s a tool for us. How far can I go with this? What can I do with this?”

The GS is transformed as the way it’s used is transformed. In the process, the rider goes through a similar metamorphosis. I’ve been riding motorcycles for 27 years. In all that time, I’ve done it solely for the love of it. When I began to train for Qualifying, my riding became colored by an objective and tinged with an air of urgency. When I swung my leg over the motorcycle, it wasn’t just for fun; I rode in search of my more skillful future self. The process of disciplined training—of struggle and self-doubt, of pushing through and overcoming—flipped a switch in my brain. It gave me ambition.

Even the very best riders struggled at Qualifying. Here, Kirk Graydon, the top-placed men’s finisher, struggles during the final. Graydon made the most challenging courses look easy, but even he didn’t get everything right all the time. There’s hope for all of us. Ben Phaup, the previous Qualifying’s winner, acts as a course judge. (James Holbrook/)“For me, it’s a confidence builder,” Gines said. “I’m not a superconfident person, but doing this, I’m like: ‘I can do this.’ We ride almost every weekend with a group of 12 to 20 guys, and 80 percent are on GSs. Not one of them is here. But I am. These guys are so good and I can hang with them. This is the thing that I found that challenges me and keeps me interested…and interesting. This bike outweighs me by 400-something pounds and people ask me ‘what happens when you drop it?’ I say, ‘I pick it up!’”

Gines’ soft-spoken personality belies her fierce determination. This was her third Qualifying. “Last time, I didn’t perform as well as I expected to,” she said. “I came in second in the West Coast qualifier, which wasn’t good enough to put me through to the finals. I focused so much on the negatives and it took me a couple months until I was like, ‘I was the second finalist on the West Coast!’ That’s huge. How many people even have the guts to come out and do this?”

If Cycle World Executive Editor Justin Dawes hadn’t signed me up for this, I would never even have considered doing it. I’m not competitive by nature. I’m preoccupied by my young family. Training for and competing in Qualifying doesn’t fit in with the rest of my life. But Qualifying is so much more than a competition. As I discovered, the very reasons preventing me from doing it were the very reasons I had to do it. I wasn’t alone in that.

Jess Hofherr, the second-place finisher on the women’s team during the finals. Lighter-weight riders make the GS work for them using extreme-looking body position. (James Holbrook/)“It taught me that it’s OK to fail,” said John Boyd, another competitor who I met at the Trophy Prep course.

The 54-year-old from Kentucky competed after being prodded by his son, who noticed that his dad had lost his competitive spirit. Boyd’s fear of failure was standing in the way of putting himself out there. “I’m not a prideful person,” he said, “but I’m a prideful person when it comes to failure. Midday yesterday, I just thought, ‘I’m done.’ I hit rock bottom. It hit me: This is why I’m here. Now, I feel like I’m unleashed. That demon was slayed here. I’m ready to go do hare scrambles when I get home. Like, watch me crash.”

Halfway through day two, it was time for the semi-final round. The field of 60 men was whittled down to just 16; the field of women down to six. While I didn’t make the semi-finals, I was elated for my new friends who did: Heggarty, Wells, Johnson, and Gines. Heggarty and Wells then advanced to the finals. In the end, Heggarty, Team Bravo’s own, rode with his signature flair, milking the experience for all it was worth. Wells ultimately finished fourth; just one spot shy of making the finals.

Ricardo Rodriguez, lead instructor at the Performance Center, walks finalists through the course. For this portion of the final, riders must execute a trials stop, rest their foot on the cone, and remain motionless for three seconds. (James Holbrook/)At the end of the event, over a catered surf-and-turf dinner, I caught up with Jocelin Snow, the First Lady of Adventure Riding. Snow, who competed in the 2018 GS Trophy in Mongolia, put it all into perspective.

“The Qualifier isn’t necessarily about the endgame,” she said. “You’re going to come here and meet a lot of new people and make new friends. You’re going to find out what you’re made of. You’re going to dig deep. You’re going to find your grit. I didn’t see one rider—even the best of the best here—who didn’t struggle. You’ll find out: Are you a quitter? Are you a fighter? Are you resilient? I’m finding as I’m talking to people that they’re having individual triumphs. They’re proud of themselves because they gave it their all.”

I make it to the top of the hill. My team is still cheering and clapping. “That was spectacular, Seth,” I hear Ricardo Rodriguez, lead instructor at the Performance Center, say. I go through the rest of the course. I don’t make it look easy. But I do it. Me—the uncompetitive too-busy-dad with a thousand reasons not to. I shake my head in disbelief. “I shouldn’t even be here,” I tell myself. But my mud-covered knobby tires say otherwise.

Melis Heerens, the author, and Chris Bronstorp listen to a course judge explain an on-road cone course challenge. (BMW Motorrad USA /)
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