One of my riding buddies in the Volunteer Riders Club has been hounding me forever about how great the annual Land Between the Lakes dual-sport ride is, and how I had to go. "The trails are great! The camping's great!" Brian said year after year after year, so I finally decided to make the drive to LBL. Like so many other things in life, it took the stars getting in perfect alignment, and schedules being made well in advance, but I was able to pull off the rare Three-Day-Free weekend pass. In fact, we ended up having six guys from Knoxville make the trip, three of us for the first time.
This dual-sport ride is the oldest-running one in America. The event was started by local off-road enthusiast and racer Jesse Thomas in 1987, and from the very beginning it was a success.
"We had over 150 riders the first time out," Thomas says. "We originally wanted to do have an enduro or hare scrambles off road race, but they slammed the door on that idea pretty quick. At the time, TVA operated the property and they were firm about no racing of any kind. However, the day I went to talk to them about an event that wasn't a race, there was a letter on the man's desk suggesting that they close the hiking trails due to disrepair, and lack of volunteers to help maintain them. I proposed a "Trail Ride," not a race, and said that if they would permit it, we would clear the trails."
After hearing this, TVA gave Jesse a one-year trial run. "It took us a year to get all the paperwork submitted and approved, and after that we cleared trail, marked trail, and fixed bridges all over the place," he says. "That first event went so well, and they were so pleased, that they changed the rules to allow for ‘Special Events,' and that's how we got started."
The U. S Forest Service took over the operation of the Land Between the Lakes area in 2000, and thanks to Jesse Thomas and the K-T Riders' efforts, the event has been allowed to continue. "Lots of these trails wouldn't be cleared or maintained if it wasn't for this ride," Jesse says. In fact Jesse and the KT Riders have officially "adopted" 12 miles of single-track trail that they built just for this ride. When you turned onto the trail and you saw the sign that said it was adopted by the K-T Riders, or Jesse Thomas, you knew it was going to be sweeeet!
Part of the AMA/KTM National Dual Sport/Trail Ride Series, the LBL 200 is a true dual-sport ride that requires street legal, off-road capable bikes. This ride consists of paved back roads, gravel roads, and wonderful sections of single track/hiking trail. You could do all of the gravel and asphalt sections on your adventure bike, and maybe the single track, but you probably wouldn't want to. Every bike on this ride was a dirt-bike-based dual sport on DOT knobbies.
When you sign up for the ride you get an enduro style roll chart that gives you the directions. You really need a roll chart holder for your bike, or at least a friend with one. You also need to make sure that at least one person in your group has an odometer that works, preferably the same guy with the roll chart holder. If you've never seen a roll chart, the directions read like this: 1.5 LGR, 3.2 RWT, etc., etc. That translates to 1.5 miles, turn Left on Gravel Road, 3.2 miles, turn Right on Woods Trail. It's really pretty simple; you just have to pay attention, or do like me and just ride with someone who can.
Jesse did a great job laying out the route, so you never had too much asphalt or gravel in one stretch. You may run down five miles of gravel road, then turn off on six miles of trail, and pop out on three miles of asphalt. It was pretty much like this all day, so you always had a good variation. Let's be honest: the less asphalt the better.
The "trail" sections are what make this event. The Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area covers 170,000 acres between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley on the Tennessee-Kentucky State line, and the North South Hiking Trail runs the entire length of it.
For this event only, once a year, sections of the North-South trail are open to motorcycles. What you find is an incredible, gently rolling trail that passes through hardwood forest and alongside beautiful lakes and shoreline. You could see that this trail doesn't get nearly the use of say a hiking trail in the Great Smoky Mountains, and the bikes were basically being used to beat back the undergrowth in places. If you've ever hiked in the Smokies and thought to yourself, "This trail would be great on a dirt bike," this is as close as you'll ever come. Maybe we need to "volunteer" to "maintain" some trail in the Smokies once a year. Hmmm…..
The gravel roads on the other hand were just that, gravel roads. Sort of hard to make them sound too cool, other than they passed through some beautiful territory. Unfortunately for us it hadn't rained in the past 20 years at LBL, or at least it seemed that it hadn't, and the dust was pretty tough for those in the rear of the pack. We took turns riding in the back, but it really didn't matter. By the end of the day I believe I could have planted grass on my air-filter and it would taken root.
The ride was held over two days, the first day being 180 miles, the second day around 70. I don't know how many riders rode on Sunday, but after 180 miles on a KTM, I had all I wanted on Saturday. Of course, I had the legitimate excuse that I had to be back for work on Sunday, but it didn't matter, I still caught flack from the guys who stayed.
I was told that Sunday's ride was mostly roads, and not as much good trail, but it did feature a ferry trip across the lake that sounded really neat. That's something you don't get to do on your dirt bike very often, and I hate I missed it. That would have made a good picture.
This annual event is limited to 250 riders, and that's what it had this year. In anticipation of the attendance, a large section of the Piney Campground was reserved just for LBL 200 riders. It was wonderful seeing a really nice, lakeside campground that actually welcomed you coming in on your dirt bike. I thought to myself, "This is how it's suppose to be!"
It was a beautiful thing! I'll be back next year.
Russ Townsend has been riding on and off road motorcycles for over 25 years, and is currently secretary of the Volunteer Riders dirt-bike club.