By Justin Etheridge
Bemoaning your luck as you face another afternoon down at the same watering hole? Desert riding is only one of many weekend activities, but few will give you the same thrill as racing across the dunes.
Getting started|~||~||~|In the UAE, writers at CHARGED magazine often hear the same complaint: “There’s nothing to do at the weekends”. This comment usually emanates from an expat sitting in a hotel eating brunch on a Friday morning. Well, whilst these people were still in bed asleep attempting to recover from the previous evening, an ever-growing band of riders will have already ridden half way across the desert and back. In fact, they are probably seated at the very next table waiting for a hearty lunch. So who arranges these rides into the unknown? Who provides help in an emergency? The answer is no one and yet, at the same time, everyone. The rides originally started via word of mouth and were later coordinated by the Sandstorm Motorcycles shop in Dubai as an incentive to customers. But the number of riders has now grown to such an extent that the Friday rides have become an almost automatic event. Just turn up on a Friday morning or afternoon and the chances are that someone will be there looking for a riding partner. Most of the rides start from the patch of sand next to the Al Awir army camp and head out towards Fossil Rock, Big Red, or Sharjah. Each week the routes vary by popular vote, but regular riders will soon become familiar with landmarks and particular tracks. This can prove extremely useful when riders become separated from the main group. The addition of GPS to your bike, although not essential, will also prove beneficial for recording favourite routes or finding your way back to your car!Most riders trailer their bikes to the start point but, for those who don’t have one, a quick call around and some sweet-talking can usually find someone willing to pick you up on the way past. In fact, the only two essential items needed to join in, apart from a bike and helmet, are a Camel Pack and a mobile phone. The Camel Pack is a pouch that is worn on your back, containing water. A small pipe allows you to drink whilst on the move and is an absolute must if you want to survive the rigours of desert riding. By the way, a mobile is not much use for tracking down people in the desert if no one has your number!||**||Choosing a bike|~||~||~| New to riding? Just bought a bike twice the size of your last one? Don’t worry if you think you’re too slow or too inexperienced. Each week sees quite a mix of riders turning up, from UAE motocross champions and Desert Challenge veterans to slow plodders and complete beginners. Basically, if you can ride at a reasonable speed in a straight line and don’t mind the occasional face full of sand, you should be fine. Either way, most of the faster riders tend to wait at the end of each track for tailenders to catch up before carrying on. Also, there will always be someone of similar ability to ride with and plenty of good (and bad) advice to heed.As far as machinery is concerned, pretty much anything goes. Of course, over the past few years’, four stroke motocross bikes have confused potential buyers still further. It was once a simple choice between a lightweight 2-stroke bike, which required higher maintenance, or a heavy 4-stroke bike, which required far less care. Planning to tackle the UAE Desert Challenge for the first time? Then our advice is to buy a Honda XR400. If you have a bit of experience and fancy trying for a good finish, then a larger KTM or a Honda 650 will fit the bill. If you simply want to have some maintenance-free fun at the weekends then buy a Honda CRF450. If you don’t mind the occasional bit of spanner work, then a mid-size KTM or Yamaha YZ is for you. The current favourite of UAE riders is the excellent Honda CRF450. Light, very fast and reliable, it’s almost perfect for the local terrain. Unfortunately, it cannot be road registered as it comes without any lights as standard and the lack of an electric start is a disadvantage over larger KTMs.If you find that you need something bigger there are plenty of shops in Dubai willing to relieve you of your hard-earned cash. A Honda CR250 is great for leaping over dunes and tight twisty tracks, but once you get out onto the flat plains I’d much rather be sat on a comfortable 660 KTM. The smallest bikes used today are usually two stroke 250cc, although 125’s have been known to join in the fun. Quads of all sizes are fairly common too. Basically, ride whatever you have and see how you get on.||**||When and where|~||~||~| All of the main routes feature a great mix of terrain, so whatever you choose will almost certainly satisfy. What is far more important is reliability. No one will mind stopping to help if you have broken down in the desert, but if it is the fourth week running you won’t be the most popular person in the dunes.Unlike everything else in the UAE, the Friday rides continue right through the summer months. Of course, the start time tends to be earlier than normal, with some brave people leaving the army camp at around 6.00am in the height of summer. This not only leaves you the rest of the day to play with, but also saves you money by reducing the tendency to over do it on a Thursday night! As the heat subsides, the times become a little more bearable, with a choice of either morning or afternoon rides, leaving you unable to mumble those excuses about needing a lie in. The end of 2002 sees the start of the UAE Off Road Championships (OMC) and the Friday rides are the ideal training ground for these races. Nothing that you encounter during an OMC race will be any different to the terrain that you have already encountered on a weekend jaunt to Fossil Rock. Regular riders and those looking for a greater challenge will also find the rides an excellent introduction to tackling the formidable UAE Desert Challenge, which is held every year in November. In fact, as the event draws near many of the riders that have entered the race organise rides out to the Liwa dunes or similar terrain to gain some extra experience before the race.No matter how you approach it, off road riding will improve your road riding, increase your general fitness, introduce you to likeminded petrol heads, get you up on a Friday morning and give you something to boast about with your friends over a beverage or two. The bikes are not hugely expensive and if you can avoid the temptation to buy loads of extra goodies, it shouldn’t break the bank. By the way, if you can do this please tell us how… Whatever you choose to do with your Friday, don’t say there’s nothing to do at the weekends!||**||