This article was originally printed in our September 2018 issue of TransWorld Motocross.
Gluttons For Punishment
Alta Motors Takes On The Red Bull Erzberg Rodeo
By Mike Emery
There are certain motorcycle events that make you shake your head in disbelief and wonder how they even came to be--races that don't make sense to most mere mortals, yet still have countless willing competitors chomping at the bit to partake in the madness. Enter the Red Bull Erzberg Rodeo, which started in 1995 and runs all over and around an enormous active iron ore mine in Eisenerz, Austria, that shuts down only once per year for the legendary race.
Each year Erzberg plays host to around 2,000 riders that range from weekend warriors to the most skilled bike handlers in the world. Respect is earned, not given. If you're willing to enter and ride this stuff, you're already gnarlier than most, and only a select few even finish the race. Bluntly, this is a bucket-list event for any off-road enthusiast who loves to suffer. For the world's best, it's a badge of honor to finish, let alone win.
With that said, why would a small group of over-achieving Californians from Alta Motors travel halfway around the world to try their hand at this madness? Their answer was simple: "To make history, that's why." We shadowed them in their first attempt at taming the "Iron Giant" as they came face to face with the madness that is the Erzberg Rodeo.
But Seriously, You Sure?
Aside from the fact that the Erzberg Rodeo event is known to be the toughest motorcycle race in the world with few who finish, Alta Motors is a brand of motorcycle that is surprisingly not always met with open arms. Traditionalists across social media often bring up the loss of engine sound, and fear that Alta Motors is out to kill the fun with their silent electric-powered motorcycles. This, of course, is quite the opposite of their goal, and the group of two-wheel enthusiasts is just excited to keep the sport growing and offer their electric platform to expand into the future as they are for bikes of all variations. With that in mind, Alta's CTO and founder Derek Dorresteyn explained why the young brand was taking on one of the world's hardest races: "We're always chasing these sorts of ways to show the world what we're doing in its relevance. We thought the hardest off-road motorcycle race in the world would be a pretty good way to show that we have a capable machine."
It may be surprising to some, but the crew at Alta has actually had trouble finding places they can race their machine at the highest level due to pushback from promoters, sanctioning bodies and ultimately, conventional motorcycle manufacturers. "At the amateur level, the doors are mostly open, but we did get blocked from running at Loretta Lynn's this year," Dorresteyn said. "Generally, though, at an amateur AMA local regional series we are allowed to run motocross, hard enduro, or basically any of that stuff. But at the professional level we have less opportunities. I wish I could tell you the specific reasons why, but I think just in general the promoters, sanctioning bodies, and really the other manufacturers haven't caught up with what we're doing and where it should fit in. And there's fear that we'll do better than some of the other companies and that will disrupt things." So Erzberg it was, where they would put their pride on the line against factory KTMs and Husqvarna's EFI two-strokes along with the world's best riders from brands like Sherco, GasGas, and more.
Late last year, Alta's move to sign Gardnerville, Nevada's Ty Tremaine on as their first factory-backed Endurocross rider was a big deal for the brand. Flash-forward a half-year later, and even Ty himself was surprised to get a crack at a race as big as Erzberg. "My first thought when they asked was the same as anyone else, like, 'Holy crap. Yeah, let's go!' Then when it started becoming more and more real, it was like, 'All right, this is gonna be pretty gnarly!' And now we're here and it's beyond gnarly," Ty said as he sat wide-eyed looking at the Iron Giant while he ate his lunch. When asked what would make him happy leaving here, his answer was quick, "To leave here stoked, obviously it would be coming home healthy. But I think just starting the race, and if I'm not up front running with the leaders, I at least want to make it to a point where I feel like I accomplished something. I'm just trying to make it a goal to make it as far as I possibly can, and I would love to finish the race, but it's not easy! Last year nine guys finished, and over 2,000 started the race."
The second rider they signed on for Erzberg was the UK's Lyndon Poskitt, who is best known for his Races To Places series that took him all over the world on two wheels. At 39 years old, he had a laugh when we asked him to describe himself: "I guess I consider myself to be a jack of all trades, but not a master of any [laughs]. I like having fun, and I like new projects and challenges. I've ridden my motorcycle around the world, I've done rally racing on every continent--I love rally racing and travel as well. Having the opportunity to be here with Alta is a new challenge and new opportunity, and I'm super excited." Lyndon has raced Erzberg prior and was to serve as the helpful veteran to guide the team in the right direction while creating a buzz as a popular rider himself. Both Lyndon and Ty spent hours upon hours of testing in their respective corners of the world and dialed in their race bike setups just in time for the big event.
What's the worst-case scenario for a small brand that is competing halfway around the world with the only four bikes that even exist in Europe? If you happened to guess theft, you'd be correct, and that's exactly what happened to Lyndon. As he was en route to the event, his Ford cargo van was broken into by what the cops described as very professional thieves. Lyndon spoke of the incident with a look of defeat in his eyes, "Yeah, basically they broke into my van and stole everything in four minutes. Everything. All the bikes, gear, generators, tools, clothes, spares, just everything went in four minutes. You can't describe the feeling when you open the van and it's empty. I was empty. Everything I had worked for in the past month for Alta was just gone. And it's been a hard month, just getting the bike where it is. When I had to make the call to Alta to tell the guys what had happened, it was just horrible, but we all decided the best thing to do was to just stay positive and try and pull this off using all that we still have."
With two bikes down, the team made the decision to plan on having both riders run in Erzberg's two-day Iron Road Prolog qualifying, then have Ty as their first pick to race and Lyndon as a backup rider incase Ty somehow got injured. This would allow for Alta to utilize the second Redshift's battery for the necessary mid-race battery swap, as Sunday's Hare Scramble final takes over two hours for the winner and another hour up to 10th place. Planning is a huge part of the race strategy, and the team was about the learn a whole lot more about it in the next few days.
How does an event like the Red Bull Erzberg Rodeo play host to almost 2,000 riders of all skill level and narrow it down to a 500-rider final on Sunday? The Iron Road Prolog is the answer, and in short is two full days of nonstop timed qualifying runs up to the top of the mountain. While most people think of the Erzberg Rodeo race as super-steep, technical and rocky hard enduro sections, the Prolog qualifying is far from that and probably more relatable to the famous Pike's Peak event. It's a 10-minute sprint to the top of the mine with speeds up to 80 mph and a great way to allow the event to be open to anyone to race. Go fast and you're in!
The hype around watching the Alta bikes take to the course was high, and in staging and throughout the event, people were constantly asking questions out of curiosity to the riders and team. Ty admitted he was nervous on day one as he sat in staging, but took off for his first run like a bat out of hell ready to motor himself and the team into a front-row position. Their 13/48 gearing choice was optimal for top speed, but the extra load it put on the motor as it climbed the various hills and top speed sections eventually caused the bike to reach thermal limiting. What's thermal limiting? A programmed setting to limit the power to the motor when operating temps get out of range. In short, Erzberg's might was immediately felt by the team and they went to the drawing board on gearing as they anxiously awaited their initial qualifying time.
Beyond thermal limiting, the biggest question from fans during the weekend was, "How is that battery going to last?" We chatted with Dorresteyn again and got his thoughts on it. "The range, or duration, that we get out of a pack's energy is completely dependent on how fast power is being used. Some folks go trail riding and get 50 to 60 miles, and we race professional motocross and get 25 minutes," Dorresteyn said. "That's starting to describe the challenge and the space in between there. Since we haven't done this and we don't have any data from the course, we don't really know how fast we're going to use energy on this track. In theory, we could finish it with one charge. We're really concerned that we won't, and all the hill climbs and the big elevation change will zap our battery a little sooner than planned. So we're planning to do a battery swap, and there will be a tactical decision made on the ground at the time where we do it."
The vast challenges of Erzberg sat awaiting them overnight, and on day two of the Prolog they attacked the course with 12/48 gearing and a fresh mindset. Ty took off and came back feeling much better about his second go at the mountain. Amazingly, when the final time results came in it was Ty's first run up the hill with bike issues that bested his second-day time, landing him 46th fastest out of the final 500 that would start on Sunday. This was a huge win for Alta, and a statement that they were here to compete, would be starting on the front row of competitors, and were gunning for a holeshot and one hell of a battle. As for final bike setup, it was up to the team to take one last look at all the data and to formulate a game plan for the final. Spirits were high, but not too high. They still had to race Erzberg.
Arriving at the Iron Giant on Sunday morning, you could feel the tension in the air. Since the entrants start the course at the very base of the mine, the race had an old historic Los Angeles Coliseum vibe to it as the competitors lined up deep in the valley. Helicopters swirled, announcers hyped the crowd, and the frenzy of fans lined every hillside in sight awaiting the show to begin. Down on the front row sat the Alta Motors Redshift EXR, making history as the first electric bike to qualify on the front row alongside all of the world's fastest hard enduro riders. Ty and his girlfriend were all smiles, but you could tell the nerves were there beneath it all.
Back at the pits the prep work was completed, the spare bike and parts were loaded into their van for a mobile change if needed, and the team along with their mechanics had a spot picked out about 10 miles into the course for a tactical battery swap. Ty had already practiced the battery exchange himself if he ended up in a spot where assistance wasn't possible, and the team had the swap time down to around five minutes total. They just needed Ty to make it, and at this point that was all they could hope for, as the rest was up to him and the cards at hand.
When the time finally came to unleash the front row of riders, a line of 50 riders wide kicked it off and shot into the first corner. Ty was unfortunately squeezed off and sat toward the back half of the pack as they climbed up the first hills. "The dust was gnarly. I got up the first hills good and from then on out it was literally like a full-blown moto-style sprint until you get to the forest," Tremaine said. Looking back, the start was a huge surprise to him. "I thought I had a good idea of what was going on, and I also was under the impression the whole time that it was a dead engine start. Come to find out on the line everybody was wide open and ready to go while I was waiting for everyone to shut their bikes off and that never happened. I actually kind of caught wind that KTM was a little upset knowing that my bike was going to be running and that's why they didn't shut the bikes off."
Start aside, Tremaine still remained optimistic during the first legs of the race as he made a lot of passes and ran with the top 20 riders through the beginning of the race. "Paul Bolton [seventh-place finisher this year] is a good friend of mine, and he came and stayed at my house for a couple weeks the last time Endurocross was at X Games," Tremaine said, mentioning the familiarity of his company during the first sections. "I learned a ton from him, and we did a lot of trail rides on Erzberg-style stuff in the mountains behind my house. So when I got in behind him during the race I was like, 'Sick, this is just like trail riding and I'm going to latch in and just follow him.' I followed him for a first good bit of the race, and it came easy because I wasn't questioning the fact that it was my first time and asking myself where I was going. It was more like, 'I'm behind Paul and he's done this a bunch of times. If I just trust that, it will be cool!' So I got in behind him and just did my deal until I hit some gnarly stuff and messed up a hill, then I was kind of on my own."
The now-waning battery charge was his next challenge, and he described their challenges before it finally died: "I knew it was going to be really close, and we underestimated how many hills it was going to be at the beginning. It was only a little less than 10 miles to get to the intended battery swap location, but the thing that we didn't account for is that it's literally all uphill." Ty went on, "You start the race and you're going wide open up shelves of the mine, then you're on mining roads, and then you're in the forest going from the bottom to the top. You're gaining so much elevation right off the bat, and they're not hill climbs where you can just chill like, 'Yeah, I'm going uphill.' It's like, eyeball it, and then point and shoot because you have to give it all you can to make it up. I think that's kind of where all the juice went and we messed up."
When Tremaine didn't make it to the battery swap location with the rest of the top 20 riders that he was running with, the team knew they were doomed. A phone call from Ty confirming that he had run out of battery and was also lost was the end of one hell of a journey to the Iron Giant for the Alta squad. Holding their heads high, and admitting an honest defeat, everyone reconvened at the bright yellow Alta Motors awnings deep in the pits. Chewed-up tires, battery drained, and covered in iron-ore dust, the faithful Redshift EXR and Ty did all they could do with the cards they were dealt. Meanwhile, at the front of the pack, Red Bull KTM's Jonny Walker and Rockstar Energy Racing Husqvarna's Graham Jarvis were in an epic battle over the top of the mountain. With troubles in the "Green Hell" section, Walker saw his lead stolen by Jarvis, and that's the way it would ultimately end. After over two hours in total race time, the veteran nabbed his 4th Erzberg victory in front of a cheering crowd of fanatics.
What does any crew of bold pioneers do after an honest attempt at going against all odds and finishing Erzberg in their first go? Crack some cold ones and smile while they all discussed what a wild ride it was. Tremaine sat wide-eyed as he described how much he learned, along with certain aspects that really surprised him: "I felt like I was ready for it, but the heat plays a huge part in it, and the sections you don't know about and aren't named play a huge part in it. Those sections kind of catch you off guard, and then the course markings are not really that good, and so you have to be paying attention the whole time. There's a lot more navigation involved than I thought. You would think with that many riders involved that it would be cut in stone exactly where to go, but you get out there and it's like, 'Geez, I really need to be paying attention!' But I'm proud of what we did. We went there as an unknown, and I feel like we left a good enough statement to where people are talking about the Alta rather than hating on it. All I have to say is that if you finish this race, you're a bad dude. We'll be back."
Dorresteyn was humbled as much or more than the rest of the entire crew. "I'm actually impressed at how incredibly hard this thing is. You really can't have a true respect for it until you see it either -at the base or at the top of some of these hill climbs," Dorresteyn said. "It's something else, really. Kudos to the riders that finished this event, and we're coming away with a really deep understanding of what it takes to be successful here. The bike proved itself to be super capable." As we stared at the giant in the distance, the question of "Why Erzberg" came up one last time. Are they really just gluttons for punishment? Dorresteyn's answer was as simple as it was honest: "This is kind of who Alta is. It's "Go big or go home." And sometimes we go home, but we always learn a lot of stuff and we always come back. All I have to say is that the next time we come here we are going to do a lot better, and our appetite for success at events like this is still very big." Well, then, the Iron Giant awaits you...
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