A Letter from Travis Newbold
Words by Travis Newbold | Photography by Aaron Brimhall
As I pick up the tipped-over $150,000 motorcycle from the loose gravel, I am completely spent, gasping for air from my burning lungs and soaked in sweat from the prior 10 minutes and 14 seconds, having just crossed the finish line of the last real road race in North America.
This is the end of the story I am about to tell you. Actually, the end happened immediately after picking up the bike and unstrapping my helmet, when I told a newspaper reporter what I thought about the Pikes Peak International Race Committee. It was enough to ban me from further racing up America’s Mountain—ban me from the race up a mountain I grew up with and had spent the last eight years dedicated to, climbing its 156 corners faster than anyone in front of me.
As with many great motorcycle stories, this one begins with dirtbikes. Dirtbikes have been and probably will be the one thing that keeps me out of prison and on a somewhat straight and narrow, or at least a wholesome sweet and tacky twisting singletrack. When I was 10, my single mom bought me a used CR80 and I started racing local Colorado motocross races. I was straight-up C class all the way through high school. Later, the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Phoenix was as good a place as any for a college dropout with an empty box van and a love for fifth gear pinned wide open in the desert. This led me into a job throwing wrenches for my local dealership back home in the Colorado high country. A customer with some money wanted to experience Baja racing, so together we raced several times on the majestic Mexican peninsula.
As things often go in Baja, we met adversity, death, and broken-down race bikes. After an awkward 50-hour drive home from Cabo, we went our separate ways. I was left without money to race and a large speed freak of a hungry monkey on my back. The XR650R that I built with an unchecked credit card and had spent a lot of time on gave me a ferocious appetite for high-speed thrills. It only made sense to try my hand at racing my dirtbike at the mysterious and alluring Pikes Peak Hill Climb. I knew nothing of the race but pictures of dirtbikes pitched out sideways on a loamy gravel road that climbed up a steep mountain. “I got this handled,” I thought as I sent in my entry into “The Race to the Clouds.”
Ignorance can be bliss…or it can scare the living crap out of you like that one exploding monster at the Halloween haunted house, catching you off guard and making you scream like a little schoolgirl. My first day of practice on the hill was like that—and also a bit mixed with my first bad trip. Right before race week, I was informed by a local racer that the proper setup was 19-inch dirt-track racing tires, so I laced up an old rear rim with a bit of a Wang Chung flat spot to my front and shipped some Maxxis CD-5 dirt-track tires to the campground where I would spend my race week. I spooned them on the night before the first practice day.
Race week consisted of three practice days of the course broken into thirds, so the only time a start-to-finish run is made is the one made on race day. Oh, yeah—and on practice days the road had to be open to the public at 8 a.m., meaning we got up at 3:30 and started making runs at 5, just as the easterly sunlight started to radiate out across Kansas. I can vividly remember my first morning on the hill, rubbing sleepy dirt out of my eyes in the race pit as I heard what sounded like a dragon being tortured in a dark dungeon. I later found out it was a Yamaha Banshee on ’roids being wrung out on a dyno inside of a race hauler. Say what you will about quads, but the memory of the premix smoke and sonic waves echoing through the trees still brings me goose bumps.
That morning’s practice was the bottom-third section of the racecourse, and it was all pavement. My knobby mind could not grasp the fifth-gear flat-out foot-peg dragging. It was beyond terrifying. I was all ready to pack it in and go home after that. I realized the dangers of 100 mph mishaps into nothing but trees, boulders, and massive drop-offs. Luckily, that first night I met some old-timer motorcycle racers in the campground with twin-cylinder Yamaha vintage flat-trackers, big-twin Harley-Davidsons, and CR250R two-strokers. They said tomorrow was all dirt, no pavement, and I was about to find out what those dirt-track racing tires were all about. They then started to pass around an old coffee can containing some very potent booze and proceeded to do a rain dance. No joke. These petrol-head long-hairs beckoned the God of the Mountain for hero dirt.
From then on, I was hooked. Sliding decomposed granite pea gravel was the best thrill I had found. It led me to start racing flat track all around the country and making it on the podium six times at Pikes Peak. But the 11.46 miles of racecourse on the mountain once proclaimed by Zebulon Pike to be impossible to climb by any man was in a drastic period of change. We would start one at a time; no longer would we race five abreast and battle each other. The spectators were fenced into corrals; no longer would we brush our handlebar ends on them and no longer could I kick at GoPros left too close to my race line. Every year I returned to race and found more and more tarmac covering what was perfect grip-holding gravel. As racers do, I adapted and found myself lacing up some 17-inch rims. By that time I had tasted the lower steps of the podium, but not the top. I decided I would have to do more than just swap the wheels on my CRF450 that I used for off-road racing. I built a Pikes Peak special CRF450, all from junkyard salvage. Cut the motor mounts on a beat-to-swarf 450X frame and welded the motor mounts with an oxyacetylene torch to accept a Craigslist ’08 450R engine—an engine that I did some heavy breathing on, using everything I had learned about porting and flowing a head, beveling transmission gears, and polishing rotating mass. The junkyard-poverty-built bike put me on top of the podium the first time it raced the hill, in 2012, beating some of the world’s finest supermoto bikes. It earned me the 450cc class record and enough purse money to beckon me to do more than just make another Vegas-style beer run. I decided to pack up my tools and my dog and move to the city, where I would use the money to open up my own motorcycle service shop. I might add there was a rather special girl involved. As with all good stories involving dirtbikes, of course there is a girl involved. With just what most business owners consider pocket change, and the moral support of a good lady, Newbold’s Motorbike Shop was born.
After a few more years of threading the asphalt needle on my trusty 450 up the hill, I could see the tarmac writing on the wall. I needed a faster bike for the now completely paved course. I befriended Carl Sorenson at the first all-paved year. He was the chief of tech inspection for the local road-race series and also an instructor for new racers. I started racing an old SV650 at local closed-course short-circuit road races. With their safe, huge runouts and gravel traps, they are nothing like a real road race, where curbs, signposts, trees, rocks, and cliffs are mere inches away from the race line, just waiting to take your life. But I learned some about how to handle a purpose-built tarmac race bike. Carl was the best instructor and friend I could have asked for. On the hill we were almost always running identical times.
In the spring of 2015 I approached Denver-based motorcycle manufacturer Ronin Motorworks about competing in the hill climb aboard one of their bikes. A local company racing a local race with a local rider: it was a plan of awesomeness. Shit, I was used to racing on takeoff tires, and now I was to race a real factory bike. A small factory, but a real factory nonetheless. And the effort put into building the bike knocked my dirty socks clean off. The front brake alone was more expensive than any bike I had ever owned. The bike, based off of an EBR 1190, had something like 160 horsepower. The Ronin ripped, shit, and get! I was full of respect for how fast the beast was, but it caught me off guard in one practice session; I was a bit late on the brakes coming into a hairpin above tree line. I skidded sideways into an Armco guardrail and made some photographers dive for cover as I slid broadside to a brief halt. My inner motocrosser took over as I dumped the clutch, burmshotted the guardrail, and roosted out of the corner. I ended up making the third-fastest run of the morning.
The Thursday practice was the top section. It starts at what is called Devil’s Playground, named so because the lightning will dance from boulder to boulder. The top section is more beautiful and scenic than any road in Colorado, and that is saying something. It is also home to the Bottomless Pit corner, Boulder Park, and Olympic. Needless to say, it is not a place for a mishap. When punching the envelope, things can and do happen. What exactly happened, I don’t know. But what I do know is that near the summit during practice, my dear friend and mentor Hot Carl went off the edge. He lost his life doing something he loved. He also went off on a corner I was talking with him about minutes before I saw him launch away, grabbing gears and giving his Ducati the beans. He had just got done laughing at one of my corny jokes when I said, “Might as well.” He beat me to getting his helmet and gloves on. Away he went. At the summit, the word went out that #217 had gone off. Everyone quietly waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, an ambulance drove by…but slowly and without its lights on. Sitting atop that beautiful mountain that morning, I felt something inside me break. Something I had loved and given myself to had broken my heart.
The final morning of practice was also used for timed qualifying to determine start position and, more importantly, to measure Johnsons. Every run saw a tight battle between the American Honda HRC–supported CBR1000R ridden by a legit former AMA pro, the factory-supported Victory RSD Project 156, the fast French veteran Bruno, and, surprisingly enough, yours truly. The Honda and I were at the top with less than a second separating us on every timed run we took. He left in front of me and I was sure I smelled blood. As I passed Rookie’s Corner, I saw the skid marks, and upon returning down after my run I could see the mangled CBR1000R hanging upside down in a tree—another reminder of the severe consequences of pushing a bit too hard. I was still coming to grips with what had happened 24 hours before this. I am still, to this day, coming to grips with what happened. Thankfully the rider was OK, but I still smelled blood. I knew he would have a backup bike ready, but I wanted to beat him. I wanted to win for Carl; I wanted to win for all of our friends, and to try to make some light of such horrific outcomes of something we choose willingly to do and expect our loved ones to stand by and watch. Most of all, I wanted to win for my own reasons that I can’t even begin to understand. Glory is precious, it is good to do what you do well, and life is short.
On race-day morning, I waited in staging, inching closer to the start line and mentally preparing to give the course my everything. Carl’s widow, Lacy, was there to send me off, standing with my newlywed wife. I hugged them both with all the vigor and sensitivity that I was about to grasp the Ronin with. We knew overheating on the completed race run was a potential issue for the Ronin, so we did not warm the engine up. As the flag man gave me the signal, I fired the bike up and locked my visor. More than ready, I engaged my launch. The bike sputtered and would not even lift the wheel. The pig was cold and its computer kept it in a limiter mode. I was ready to take every inch of the course as fast as I ever had and the up-until-then-flawless motorcycle was not even giving me half of the RPMs. I tried to hold every bit of speed through the corners, and then, in an instant, it woke up. Coming out of a fast corner, the back end snapped out hard. I corrected and was tossed out of my seat as the handlebars did a tank slapper. Somehow I ended up back in the seat and totally pumped on adrenaline. Go! Go! Go!
“It is time to shine,” I thought as I linked the corners together with everything I had. The tire grip was a lot less than it had been on early morning practice runs. I could feel the back end track out on the gas. On one big, tightening horseshoe corner, I felt the slide and knew I could possibly narrowly avoid running wide and off the road or embrace my inner dirtbiker. I straightened the bike up and throttled straight off the edge of the road, landing in a ditch littered with skull-sized rocks. I kept the throttle on and jumped back onto the tarmac without missing a beat. After the zigzagging switchback section known as The W’s, the bike did overheat, putting itself in limp mode. As I approached the Bottomless Pit, it cooled back down and gave me full power again. Go! Go! Go!
As I passed broken-down race bikes, I stood up on the pegs and caught air as I pinned the throttle through the subsiding bumpy road surface. As I passed Carl’s corner, I fought so hard to not give the throttle any slack with only three corners to go. The back end stepped out again, and again I saved it. I let my eyes take in the glimpse of the checkered flag like a trailer-park hobo takes in the last swig of hooch. I had gotten the bike to the summit.
After the finish line is the only remaining dirt on the mountain, so I grabbed a handful and pitched that bitch sideways. Immediately the steering lock was found and I had to finally let go of the grips as I flopped it over the high side right in front of the TV cameras, where reporters were interviewing the HRC Honda rider who ended up winning by a near 14 seconds over me. It had been an exhilarating eight years of competing on America’s Mountain. What shall I do next? Perhaps go race on the Isle of Man? How about going for some epic backcountry shralping on my trusty old dirtbike?