With the first ever Baja rally race under my belt, I have to say that it was a fantastic learning experience. Here are a few of my thoughts on the event and my race.
The Rally Concept
The event itself came off pretty well. It was a very ambitious dream of Scotty Bloom to put on a race like this. Baja is the home of some very historic races so the bar is set high for expectations. After seeing it come together, I think Baja and rally racing are uniquely suited to each other. Baja offers the perfect variety of terrain needed to make the route challenging and fun. This event just touched the very tip of the terrain Baja has to offer.
The rally format is a unique form of racing that nearly anyone can enjoy. I started well back and in the pack on day one. But I soon made a few passes and was able to ride in clean air for much of the event. There were long stretches of the course where I found myself completely alone. The mandatory lay over time at each fuel stop gave everyone a chance to take a quick break before tackling the next section. On day one we had a 30 minute stop and one long liaison section. On day two it was two short 5 minute stops and no liaison. Personally I liked the short lay over period. It was just enough to grab fuel, a drink and something to eat.
The first Baja Rally was a legit race with a strong group of competitors. As rally racing goes, I guess it was more of a sprint than endurance race, but there were still plenty of tired riders. With the next event expected to be either three or four days, there is plenty to look forward to
As I predicted, the 2006 KTM 525exc was nearly perfect for the event. It feels good to be able to say that in hindsight. I am glad of it too, it is much better than coming home with a broken bike and ego. The big motor and wide ratio transmission make it a joy to ride at anything from 10-80 miles an hour. Baja does not have too much of the kind of terrain that lets the larger rally bikes shine.
I probably had one of the older bikes there, but that did not really prove much of a problem. As it turned out, the fuel range requirement was much shorter than expected. I did not need the big 15 liter Safari tank. I wish I would have swapped for the smaller IMS tank on the spare bike for the second day.
I think the absolute perfect bike for the event would have been the 500xcw. The ten miles of beach sand late on day two was hard on the bikes. At high tide, there was no choice but to ride up high on the softest part of the beach. So anything smaller than a 450 would have been a struggle.
As for my 525, the frame is starting to show its mileage. In the rocky two track I could really feel the frame move around. I should have probably serviced the suspension beforehand also, but it was working well enough that I didn’t want to mess with anything. I had the forks apart on the spare bike and found the Teflon coating tearing off the bushings, no wonder it was feeling a little sticky. That was one of the reasons I chose the 525 over the 450xc.
Learn by doing, that is my motto. I guess it is mostly because I didn’t have any other choice. As it turns out, I have been learning to navigate rallies for years, I just didn’t know it. I found the basic process to be very similar to riding a traditional time keeper enduro. It is simple; check the mileage, read the road book (roll chart), follow the instruction, advance road book to next change, read mileage, adjust mileage and repeat.
Even the little details, like the navigation equipment and how to mark up the road book are very similar to what I use for enduros. So I took to the entire process very well. My biggest challenge the first day was deciphering all the symbols on the road book. By the second day I was picking it up quickly. The whole event was like an intensive two day rally school. I know there is still plenty to learn, but guess I am a quick study. Like enduro racing, I like the challenge of having to think and race at the same time. It usually gives me an edge on riders who might be faster
I won’t go into too much detail as to the actual equipment. We covered that in the bike build story. What I have to report back is that the package from Rally Management Services worked perfectly. I did not have any real glitches for the race. It seems like a simple enough task, but many riders had various issues with their equipment.
Rally winner Andy Grider lost the use of his odometer at the start of day two and had to rely on his GPS for mileage. But he could not adjust it to match the course mileage, a very critical part of rallying. Larry Roeseler had issues with his GPS both days, it failed to track his route landing him with big time penalties. My only issue was with the thumb switch for the road book. The aluminum mount that I made was too flimsy and moved under pressure when I pushed. But a few zip ties cured that problem.
I think the biggest challenge with the equipment is deciding when to keep it simple and when to make it bullet proof or have a redundant system. Many of the riders had a complete back up odometer and cable system. I mounted my ICO Checkmate as a backup, but did not use a second cable. I did carry a spare with me in the fender bag. I have not had many cable issues in years of enduro racing. Knowing how to route and protect it is the most important thing.
You might notice that I am wearing a new Arai XD4 adventure helmet for this race. I had a dilema when I started testing with the road book. I really needed to wear my reader glasses to be able to read everything quickly. I could not find a good set up with my goggles. But it worked fine in my street bike helmet. So I broke down a bought the new Arai. It worked quite well. There were a few dust issues, but not bad overall. Vey’s Powersports helped get me a smoking deal on it. I have wanted to try one of these for some time, and so far it seems very nice.
The rider’s GPS units were used to track the rider’s route for scoring. In retrospect I would have run a second unit in my backpack, particularly as I have the Etrex20 that is small enough not to be a bother. The Garmin 62 was perfect for the dash mount. My home made mount worked fine.
There wasn’t really much to know about the F2R road book holder. With a little time I learned how to advance it the proper amount without having to look down. One quick hit of the button would move it to the next line.
Road Book Mark Up
It was entertaining to watch the different combinations of markers and markings that riders would use to highlight the road book directions. The basic idea is to use highlighters to help make it easier to distinguish between different types of directions and symbols that are used in the road book.
Personally, I felt that my method was the best. I have no rally experience, but I still know what is best, right? Here is how the color break down goes; blue = right turn, pink = left turn, green = continue same basic path, orange = danger, yellow = critical information. I put one colored line on the correct path on the tulip image. I also put the same color across the corresponding mileage. That way, when I look at the mileage, I can instantly know the course change that will be associated with it without having to also look at the tulip. In case you were wondering, “tulip” refers to the diagram showing the road and correct direction to proceed. The name comes from the rally of the same name, Tulpen Rally, of the 1950’s.
There is still a whole volume worth of information to learn about the French symbol designations. I found it expedient to put quick notes in English on the important or obscure references. Actually going through the process of translation and meanings was a good way to study the route.
I would have saved myself 20 minutes on day one if I could have learned and remembered what was coming ahead on the course. One simple reference, “cross under bridge in wash” would have told me the direction to go when I was at a complete loss as where to go next.
Just like riding an enduro, keeping up on the mileage is one of the most critical parts of navigation. There were a couple of new things to learn on the ICO Rally VR, versus the Checkmate. The wheel size needs to be calibrated, but the Rally runs in kilometers by default. To switch to miles requires a conversion of the wheel size. There is a chart on the ICO website to do this, but it is not explained very well in the instruction booklet. Second, the default is set to run in tenths, not hundredths of miles, so there is a quick set up change for that also.
It is very important to keep up with the posted course mileage. In a large intersection, it may be hard to determine exactly where the mileage point is, particularly when looking in 100ths. For this event there were many fence crossings that were all on the road book. As they represent a more finite location, I used them as my primary mileage references.
The first part of day one was over terrain that I was familiar with, even though I did not know exactly where we were going. The familiarity made it easy for me to get started on the navigation learning process. But it wasn’t long before we had to make some of the first “off track’ excursions and I was a little slow at figuring it out.
I had caught and passed Mark Vanscourt, but he soon caught back up as we wandered through the hills. I was able to let him lead for a bit while I figured out how to read the book. Later in the day I would have to follow him again as we found ourselves in a section where the road book lacked some important notes.
I kept trying to follow the route that we would normally ride in this area, but it was clearly wrong. This illustrates a good point. Of the four times that I got off track, three of those were because I thought I knew the direction because of my knowledge of the area. Only one time did I go wrong from an outright mistake in reading the book. Overall I would have to say that having local knowledge hurt me as much as helped out.
I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in 6th position at the end of day one. That would be my start spot for the second day. I got a good start and blazed through the first 25 miles quickly. At the first fuel stop I realized the two riders who started directly in front of me had no arrived yet, they had gone the wrong direction. Cameron Steel and I had come into the first gas together. I had caught him when he was trying to figure out some of the navigation.
He would gap me a bit after the gas. I was concerned about the wheel I was running. I had discovered two broken spokes at the start of the day. I did not think it would be a problem, but with the possibility of a good finish, I wanted to be on the safe side. Plus I had no expectation of catching any of the three riders still ahead; Quinn, Andy or Cameron.
I rode very conservatively for the rest of the day. There were some fast riders who made up lots of time behind me. Nino Rojas, Ned Suesse and Mike Johnson had really good times on the second day and put time on me. I was fortunate that my overall time let me finish in third place, the same spot that I crossed the finish line in.
The last mile of the race was down the sand dunes. It was pretty cool. Larry Roeseler said that was a real Dakar kind of moment, even if a short one. I was sort of plodding along, just assuming I was riding all alone. I was surprised to hear Ned Suesse right behind me as I crossed the finish line and he had Nino Rojas in tow with him.
There was much to learn in my first rally event. I am sure there will be far more to learn also. But it seems to suit me too. I guess you can say I am hooked on Rally racing. It might be time to build a new bike before the next one.