Is it strange that the Baja 1000 was first conquered by the 1962 Honda CL72, a 250cc twin scrambler? It wasn’t much of a dirt bike, but then again nothing built back then was. But Triumph racing legend Bud Ekins suggested riding the length of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula as a way for American Honda to showcase the reliability of its new CL72 scrambler, and so his brother Dave, and Billy Robertson Jr., “raced” the 952 miles from Tijuana to La Paz starting at midnight, March 22, 1962. Their time of 39 hours, 56 minutes, was a two-wheeled record primarily because there wasn’t one, but it was a grand feat, one that set the stage for what would eventually become the monster that is “The Thousand.”

Because purpose-built, off-road race bikes hadn’t been invented, scramblers were the bike of choice in the ’60s to tackle the worst a desert could throw at racers. Today, 450cc single-cylinder machines own the Baja peninsula, while larger-displacement modern scramblers have returned to the street and occasional doughnut in a dirt patch in recent years.

But now Triumph has taken a serious turn to dirt with its new Scrambler 1200 XE—an outsized scrambler with real dirt chops. And with it came a plan to prove its worth off-road. Fifty-six years after the first scrambler-y run down the peninsula on just 250cc, Triumph is making a run at the Baja 1000 with 1,200cc and an abundance of quality suspension travel—more than that of a KTM 1090 Adventure R, in fact.

Triumph ambassador and professional freestyler Ernie Vigil was tapped to race in the Ironman class, which means he would solo the entire race. Most Baja motorcycle efforts are multi-rider teams, especially those vying for victory. Even crazier, modifications to the 1200 XE would be made, but changes would be limited to emphasize the worth of Triumph’s basic package by its sheer ability to finish this grueling contest.

But only weeks before testing was scheduled to begin on the Scrambler 1200 XE, Vigil crashed hard on his 450cc training bike, breaking his ankle and ending his shot at the Baja 1000 before it began. Triumph stood by its rider and delayed racing the Scrambler until 2019, first running the less-extreme NORRA Mexican 1000, followed by an ironman attempt in the Baja 1000.

1200 XE Baja
Ample torque from the 1200cc parallel-twin makes lofting the front wheel of the 1200 XE Baja an easy part of a day’s ride on the peninsula. Stock suspension passed the test for Ernie Vigil’s planned solo of the Baja 1000 in 2019.Jeff Allen

What to do with a Triumph race bike put out to pasture for a year? Ride it ourselves in Baja, of course! We headed for Ejido Eréndira, about four hours south of Cycle World’s Southern California offices. Located on the Pacific Coast of Baja California, Mexico, Eréndira is a quiet fishing village and home to a racers hostel named Coyote Cal’s. From here we could easily jump onto the 2018 Baja 1000 race course and put the Scrambler to the test.

The list of mods to help this bike survive Baja is short, but significant. An extended skid plate has been fitted to protect the rear of the engine cases and oil filter. Accessory crash bars straight from the Triumph catalog give additional protection to the side cases, and the radiator is protected from punctures by a mesh screen and aluminum end-tank guards. Gone are the turn signals and license-plate bracket. In fact, all non-essential hardware was tossed in order to cut weight and decrease the chance of unneeded parts migrating from their installed positions as Vigil pounds seeming endless whoops. Even with the shedding of said hardware, the Baja Scrambler weighs 504 pounds wet.

I blasted north along the beach immediately at race pace...

Keyless ignitions are nice for streetbikes, but it’s just one more thing to go wrong in 1,000 miles of heated competition. Triumph removed the keyless and keyed ignition all together, replacing them with a switch tucked beneath the seat. Baja Designs is fashioning a headlight replacement with more lumens for the many nighttime hours that will be put on the bike, but it wasn’t ready for our Baja mission, so we made do with the stocker. Vigil will get a taller seat for an easier transition from sitting to standing, and the stock handlebars on tall risers were fitted with dirt bike-style grips.

Showa fork and Öhlins shocks
Airtime on a giant scramber? The 1200 XE’s long-travel Showa fork and Öhlins shocks are excellent for these kinds of antics.Jeff Allen

What didn’t need changing? The 1,200cc DOHC parallel-twin belts out a claimed 89 horsepower and 81 pound-feet of torque—making more of either was not on Vigil’s wish list. Plus, reliability is key to finishing a desert race, so why mess with the insides of a proven engine? On the outside, the stock baffles and catalyzer were removed from the high-mount, stainless-steel exhaust system for reduced weight and increased flow. The ECU was tuned to optimize fueling for freer breathing setup, which helped reduce running temperature. Finally, ABS and traction control were removed, and there is but one ride mode: full power. Simpler is better in Baja.

Surprisingly, suspension changes were nil. Vigil found the stock spring rates to his liking, and only made changes to the compression and rebound settings on the stock 47mm Showa fork and Öhlins piggyback shocks. And while the Scrambler will get more aggressive dirt-only tires with flat-proof mousse inserts on race day, we used Metzeler Karoo 3 tires for our outing.

Leaving Coyote Cal’s, the Baja Scrambler felt nearly identical to the stock Scrambler 1200 XE I had ridden just weeks before in Portugal. This is a good thing. I left Europe smitten with the new Scrambler, dreaming of how far I could push it in the dirt, if only I’d been allowed free reign on the press launch. Now I would find out.

The bars felt taller, but made standing more comfortable, and the exhaust note was crisp and deep, with a more serious tone. I blasted north along the beach immediately at race pace. It was too easy to go this fast on a such a large motorcycle, but my elbows were up and my head was over the bars in full-attack position. Confidence was high.

1200 XE
Want Baja sunsets and riding on the beach in your life? Ride the Triumph 1200 XE there.Jeff Allen

Then, throttling over a rise, the front tire deflected off a rock seemingly anchored to the center of the earth, inducing a nasty tank-slapper. It was enough to remind me that I was riding a quarter ton of British iron. It also told me that this thing needs a steering damper and some tuning to fit my riding style and skill.

Ample power and smooth sand
Our dating profile includes long rides on the beach. Ample power makes high speed on smooth sand an epic pursuit.Jeff Allen

After removing six clicks of compression from the fork and four from the shocks—both circuits were one click from fully closed—the Scrambler deflected less and followed the terrain with a more planted feel. The head shake popped up a few more during our Baja blast, but getting on the gas hard sorted it out every time. Still, a steering damper is a painful and tiring omission from the race-modification sheet.

Stock headlamp
Stock headlamp will be replaced for racing.Jeff Allen

On the fast, flowing dirt roads along the coast, Vigil’s racer is a rocket…Scratch that: fighter jet. Massive power-sliding arcs through the fast, open corners are oh-so-easy, and if the corner is tight, banging the plowed edge of the road makes for epic berm shots. No problem making time on these parts of the course.

But the smooth bits are few and far between in Baja. The peninsula is rocky, rutted, and just plain rough. Here, the Scrambler is real work. Line choice is crucial—dodge the big rocks, use the smaller ones as jumps to float over the nastier bits, always think light on your feet and tires. This is where races are won and lost. Five hundred pounds moving at 50 mph meeting an immovable object will taco a wheel, no matter how well built it is. Kinetic energy kills. And then there is that ever-present threat of head shake. Ernie, are you listening? This type of terrain will test your mental endurance as much as the physical.

Blasts along the beach and dry lakebeds are a chance to rest while the Scrambler can stretch its legs again, but silt beds and whoops appear. The speed is there. How fast do you dare? The Scrambler has improbable stability and bottoming resistance in the whoops, but it is crucial for your survival and well-being to remember the Triumph is not a 450 single. Attack at three-quarters the ferocity of a full-on race bike and the Scrambler feels light, nimble, and dare I say, flickable.

twin Öhlins shocks
We backed off compression damping on the twin Öhlins shocks.Jeff Allen

After a day ripping around on the Baja 1000 course, I was tired. Too tired to go on? Hardly. It was enough, however, to tell me all I needed to know about Triumph’s Baja Racer. This nearly stock Scrambler 1200 XE is capable of handling the rigors of racing in Baja, but it won’t be easy for Vigil. Conquering Baja is an entirely possible task if all goes right. He’ll need stamina, a clear head, and help from those ghosts of the original scramblers to make it to the finish. As for me, I’m headed back to the beach.