The season of rally riding has come to a close. It definitely had some lows and highs. There is always more to learn about rally riding. That is certainly part of the draw for me. I am constantly struck at how similar it is to riding traditional enduros. But there are many more interesting aspects too.
Of the three events I participated in, the Sonora Rally was the only would that could be called a race. As I talked about before, it was a tough event for me. Somehow none of the stars seemed to align and I never got on pace. I did not get enough testing done on the bike beforehand. Struggling with bike issues, I never got focused with my riding and ended up with a big get off.
Rally technology is constantly moving forward. Sonora was the closest to the true Dakar experience with the use of the Rally Comp. But the system also removes some of the technical aspects of rally navigation. I didn’t really care for that as much. The system beeps multiple times when a way point is reached. In this case the way points were often at 90 degree turns. So you could literally ride without looking at the nav equipment, just listen for the beeps and make the turn. The mileage is also corrected automatically at each way point.
I think the biggest lesson for me at Sonora is how much I thrive on technical navigation. The kind where it is a puzzle that constantly needs to be sorted. Like trying to find or follow a new piece of trail. You never quite know where the next turn is, or where it will take you. In the big open desert of Sonora, the opportunity for that kind of navigation doesn’t really exist. Speed and finding your way through dunes too big to ride is what that event is about. Granted, it may be the closest thing to a Dakar experience that we have, but it doesn’t hit the right notes for me.
The next event I will call the Wind River ride. It was pretty enjoyable. I rode my 2015 450xcw and frankly it was a much better choice. The EFI bike doesn’t move my soul, but when it comes to ease of riding, it is hard to beat. The bike is so effortless that I can give my full attention to the course and navigation. Great fuel range is also a plus for the long rally days.
I prepped two bikes and Gordon rode the other, 525exc. We rode the entire event together. So we were near the back, but he was able to complete the long mileage days. Some of the riding was quite technical. There was also a tremendous amount of very soft sand and silt. Some areas were scenic, but much of it was a nearly dead looking desert landscape.
For this event we used the Rally Blitz IPhone app for the first time. It provides odo, cap heading and waypoint “bubble”. It is a pretty cool use of technology and worked well. We had to add USB ports to keep the phones charged, but other than that it was quite simple. I literally just zip tied the phone to the handle bar pad. I still used the ICO Rallye Max G for primary odo and compass. It was amazing to see how accurate the phone was, nearly identical to the ICO.
Nearly half the riders are now using an IPad for road book. But I don’t know if that is for me. In some ways it is simpler. But I like marking up the paper road books. They are cumbersome but foolproof and easy to read.
Speaking of easy to read, I have to wear reader glasses now to see the road book properly. My solution is to wear my Arai XD-4 helmet with reader sunglasses. I probably look funny, but I can see pretty well that way. I flip the face shield down for fast riding or in dusty sections. It wouldn’t recommend it for a desert race, but for rally it seems to work pretty well.
That sounds like a good moniker for the final event I rode. It was by far the best riding and the most challenging navigation. Miles of obscure mountain terrain, it could easily be classed alongside the best of Baja. To me, the road book for this event is super logical. While it doesn’t always follow the cadence of others, it works. Every rally requires the rider to get in tune with the pace of the road book writer. In this case, it pays off well. There tends to be more information than in other books. While it may at times look complicated on paper, once on the ground it is quite accurate. It may be over descriptive to some, but for the average rider it is helpful.
I had a funny scenario happen on the first day. I was the 4th rider on the route in the afternoon, 3 tire tracks in front of me. Of course I am still navigating as I should, but I have those 3 tracks to help confirm the route. At one point I come upon 5 riders stopped in the road. They seem confused as to the direction. Clearly they are not supposed to be ahead of me on the route, they are lost.
As I know exactly where I am, I don’t even slow down to acknowledge them. Quinn Cody’s first rule of rally racing “never talk to anyone, they are likely as lost as you are and can just as easily lead you wrong”. In less than 1 Km, I make the next turn and my mileage and cap are right on the money (as well as the 3 tire tracks).
Later that night I am talking to one of the riders in the group. He explained to me how they had gotten off course and had to back track a couple of Km to get back on line. But he insists that I was a couple of Km off course where I encountered the group. I politely try to explain that I was on course and had arrived from a different direction, that had their group got back on track, they would have eventually arrived at the same location. But he insists that I was lost, I never could convince him otherwise. I still don’t quite know where the disconnect in our conversation was.
But that is all part of the fun of rally riding. It is a big mental challenge to juggle all the tasks of riding and navigating at the same time. Jimmy Lewis states that the mind can only process one thing at a time, hence the need to prioritize processes. But I think that the key to rally is that some aspects of both riding and navigating can be handled by the subconscious. Therefore the more you know, train and understand the process, the better your brain can make some functions semi-automatic.
When I mark up the road book, I use a different color for each change of direction; left, right, straight on. When scrolling to the next tulip my process is first to identify the color, then the mileage and finally to read my odometer mileage. That gives me distance and direction at the next turn or instruction.
There are a number of other possible things for me to note on any given tulip, but they are secondary to this first process. I don’t claim that this is the absolute best method, but it works well for me. I see riders doing all kinds of things with highlighters to their road books. I try to keep it simple and identify (highlight) things that have actual importance.
This leads me to my next point; concentration. For me, rally navigation is very much about getting in a zone. I much prefer to ride completely alone, with no distractions. This is the enduro racer in me coming out. But I am probably a minority in that respect. I see many riders grouped together and working off each other. I find it a distraction and it really slows me down, both in riding and navigating.
On the other hand, we are riding mostly for fun and you never quite know where that fun will come from. On Day two of the Sierra Escondida, I was the third rider off the line. It wasn’t long before the next rider behind caught me and we went back and forth for a while. We were headed into some mud hills, an area I had been through the previous year, and had got completely lost in. I had been following a rider and I think we turned the wrong direction together and never did see the correct line.
I would be more careful this year! At the exact moment of the critical turn, I could see that I had caught the rider in front and Andrew Short together. They had missed the turn I could see them heading over the hill in the wrong direction, one where there would be no good way out. I made the turn and was surprised how easy it was to get through the section I had lost nearly a half hour in the year before.
Now I am first rider on the course. About a half hour later Shorty catches back up to me. To my surprise he didn’t show any interest in going fast. The day before he had blitzed the route and was finished far before anyone else. It dawned on me that this is one of those rare moments; getting to ride alongside one of the heroes of moto and now rally. For a short distance we were riding bar to bar down a faint grass covered two track. It was quite a thrill.
We ended up with a larger group, taking turns leading and never going very fast. There were plenty of gates to open, so we would swap between leader and gate closer. Everyone was having a good time, a rare kind of moment for all of us. Frankly, I think everyone was a little shy about riding faster than Andrew and the numerous gates seemed to keep us all bunched up.
But at the same time it completely threw me out of any kind of pace and rhythm. While leading I took a wrong turn and lost touch with the group (they were smart enough not to follow). For the afternoon section I made sure to leave the lunch stop early to be on my own. Andrew was the only bike in front of me. I was able to get back on track, focus and really put together a solid stage to finish the day.
My pace wasn’t far off on Andrew for the afternoon. Not that that means anything, I just rode well. Andrew was the class of the field. There were a few other good riders and I was able to hold my own with them. It was great to be out and have couple of stages where I felt I was riding to my potential.
It rained overnight. The unique soil quickly became a quagmire. It was decided to not run the 3rd day. But a couple of us decided to just go out and ride to see the terrain. It was a mistake. In less than 10 miles the route became unpassable. The bikes were so caked that they could hardly move. I had already decided that we would bail at the first opportunity. But just a mile short of that spot, Gordon lost the clutch in the 525. We spent a good part of the day just getting the bike out. I had to go for parts and rebuild the Rekluse clutch on the trail.
Baja season is over, rally season is over. Time for a summer break, I have a garage full of bikes that need attention. But I have all summer to complete everything. Right now I am focused on getting the Bultaco back together for that adventure. Reminds me, I haven’t written about what we are going to do on the vintage bikes, so that will be next on the list to talk about.
The rally community is growing and it is great to see. But the realities of trying to create events are daunting. In some ways I see the most possibility for growth in Baja. There is quite a bit of terrain that has yet to be written down in a road book. It will take someone with an extensive amount of knowledge to do it and it may not be a profitable kind of rally, but there is plenty of great riding to see for the adventurous.